God in Search of Man

God in Search of ManMost of the time we feel like we do not have enough faith.  We think that if we had more faith God would do more for us.  I don’t think a lack of faith is our problem, though.  I think we have too much faith. We have faith that everything that we think about God is right.  We have faith that God will work when we aren’t willing to.  We believe that we do not have to seek God out because God will be God and there is nothing that we can do about it anyway.  We have entirely too much faith.  We need to assume that what we think about God is wrong.  We need to embrace doubt and bask in mystery.   Instead, we tend to pretend and not state the obvious.  We act like nothing is wrong and that we are perfectly sure about ourselves when it comes to God. 

Peter Rollins tells the story that, on a British military base in Northern Ireland, it was tradition for officers to go to the local pub and poke fun at the Irish.  One day, when a new battalion came in, one of the leaders said to the others, “Watch this.”  He took out a crumpled up five pound note and a shiny new one pound coin and sought out the drunkest of the Irishmen at the pub.  When he found him he asked him which of the two that he wanted – the old wrinkled bill or the shiny new coin.  The man took the coin, bit it, and put it in his pocket.  After he walked away the leaders said, “See?  These people are fools!  We can have fun with them all night and they never figure it out.”  And so the new personnel to the group began taking out their money and doing the same.  Meanwhile, a tourist was in the pub watching and couldn’t believe her eyes.  She watched Irishman after Irishman fall for the same obvious prank.  Finally, after the soldiers had left, she went up to one of the old men and said, “Could you really not figure out which was the better deal!?  It was so obvious!  Why did you keep taking the coins?”  To which the old man replied, “Of course we knew which was the better deal.  But the first time one of us would have taken the five pound note the idiots would have stopped the game.”

Sometimes it’s beneficial to just play along and play dumb.  The church is notorious for this.  God is right here, but yet God is everywhere.  God is completely in control, and yet somehow really bad things happen anyway.  God is three, but yet there is only one God.  God created everything as good and there is nothing that God didn’t create, but yet somehow there is evil in the world.  Any and all of these should get our stomach and knots and most likely do, but yet we act like they all make perfect sense.  What would be different if we actually engaged God instead of pretending that we already have a perfect understanding and that we’re perfectly ok with it?

I’m reading a book by Diana Butler Bass.  She is one of the foremost scholars on church history and she did a study of over 50 mainline protestant churches that were flourishing and wrote a book called Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith.  It’s an exceptionally interesting book and she narrows down the common denominators among these churches.  As you could imagine, social justice and doing acts of love and compassion was one of the top factors of these growing and flourishing churches.  Being welcoming and having a great sense of community as the title connotes was also vital.  After all, you can’t be a neighborhood church with out that.  These churches served the people right around them and became the go-to place for the local people.  But, there was something much more important, something so obvious that we often miss it.  That is, God.  That’s right.  We tend to view our society as a godless one with no interest in the Divine, but that’s not true.  Yes, it is true that many are not interested in the Christianity of Christendom or the traditional theology that we all learned in Sunday School.  But, they are all deeply interested in and on a search for the Divine. 

Mainline protestant churches tend to be more liberal and in so doing we get a bad rap for watering down the faith.  Indeed we do.  We focus on social justice (which is a good thing), but we tend to forego spirituality.  All of the churches in Diana’s study realized that God must be at the center of anything that the church does.  These churches had services that tended to be more contemplative in nature and they practiced spiritual disciplines regularly.  If we are to put God at the center, and as a church that’s what we must do, then we are going to have to intentionally and actively engage the God that called us to be the church – even if it hurts.

Jacob found out the hard way that God is not something to be studied from afar.  Jacob found out that in as much as we pursue God, God pursues us even more.  God is in search of humankind as much as we are in search of God.  We have this view that God is always in control and can do anything with us or without us, but that’s not necessarily true.  God came to Jacob when Jacob was scared to death.  His brother, whom Jacob thought was rightly upset with him, was moving toward him with an army of men.  Jacob was afraid that his family, himself, and all that he possessed was going to be slaughtered and he was scared for his life.  Jacob did cry out to God, but God came to Jacob and wrestled with him.  God is not an idea or a concept to be understood.  God is something to be experienced.  We have to engage God and wrestle with God, but we also have to realize that God seeks us out and initiates the wrestling.  God works through us and just like a fluid which is always seeking a space to fill, God is constantly in search of humans who are willing to be a conduit for God. 

Let’s think about this.  We have all been broke at one time or another or had some other pressing issue that we were desperate about and cried out to God for help.  Imagine that the electricity is going to be shut off if we don’t pay the bill by tomorrow and we pray for a miracle.  Then, we check the mail and there is a check there for the amount we need.  Is that from God?  YES!  BUT, if the person who wrote the check and put it in your mailbox when prompted by God said, “No, I’m just imagining this feeling.  It’s not real.”  Or if they said, “Heck no.  Their bills aren’t my problem.  Why should I do anything about it?  They should work harder so that they don’t get into such a financial mess and it will teach them a lesson” then NOTHING WOULD HAPPEN!  God needs us to wrestle back and to experience God and then to act.  Jacob got his hip put out of socket and we should expect some pain along the way, too, but in the end we will be blessed immensely. 

When the angel of God told Jacob to let him go, Jacob refused and said “Not until you bless me.”  That is what we need to do.  We will have difficult times.  We will have things about God that bother us to the core of our being.  We will have questions that trouble us greatly.  Instead of ignoring them and pretending like everything is ok, we need to embrace them.  We need to hold them even when it hurts and refuse to let go until we are blessed by them because I promise that we will be.  Then, after seeing the face of God, just like Jacob we need to go act.  You can’t encounter God and then not feel moved to action.

This is what Jesus taught the disciples and the people who were fed at the feeding of the 5000.  The disciples wanted Jesus to send everyone home because it was getting late.  Jesus had plenty of reason to pack it in.  He was tired and extremely sad because he had just heard that his cousin and friend, John the Baptist, had been beheaded.  But instead, he set an example.  He told the disciples you feed them.  In the Greek, the “you” is already implied, so it was unnecessary to say it.  For emphasis, though, just to make it clear Jesus said you give them food.  They didn’t have much, but God was able to take that little bit and turn it into enough to feed all of the people there so that none went hungry.  We experience (not understand) God, then we act, then we watch the miracle unfold.

What Jesus did was not a bandaid.  This experience was about a lot more than food.  He didn’t just provide for people in that moment of need and this is something important that we need to learn from.  After our encounter with God,  after we have wrestled with God and even had God engage us, we cannot merely give food to someone who is hungry or drink to someone who is thirsty.  We have to address the systemic problems that lead to the cause of such situations.  We have to be willing to be conduits for God to teach that such things do not need to exist.  Jesus taught those people on the lakeshore that day that, if they would just share and not be selfish, that none would go hungry.  He didn’t just give them food.  He changed their mindset.  Having their eyes opened like that to realize the cause of their malaise must have been painful.  It never feels good to realize that we’re wrong or to undergo a huge change of mindset.  But, even though it hurt, when they did agree to be molded by God, they were blessed immensely. 

Wrestle with God.  Let God wrestle with you.  But even though it hurts, don’t let go until you’re blessed.

3 Responses to “God in Search of Man”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    This is powerful, and I appreciated your sermon very much last week, but I struggle with two aspects:

    1. I already feel blessed, more than I could have ever hoped for in 10 lifetimes, and I don’t feel as though I wrestled with God; and

    2. For every prayer answered in the hypothetical electric bill check miraculously arriving on time in the mail, there are seemingly 10 (100?) so-called unanswered prayers.

    Please forgive the “Doubting Thomas” in me, but taking the above two struggles in reverse order:

    2. Over the years I have similarly struggled with the oft spoken “God must have been looking out for me” sole survivor in an otherwise fatal crash context, and wondered rhetorically as to why God wasn’t looking out for the others too. Though a personal optimist, theologically I tend to gaze through a skeptic’s lens, which has led me to the “logical” conclusion that it cuts both ways.

    1. I don’t feel that blessings can be wrestled from God; my sense is that they are bestowed, seemingly in an arbitrary, almost haphazard, scattered-shot fashion. Why is one born into abject poverty, with seemingly no way out — while another, half-way around the world, to abundance. Human living conditions the world over are too extreme for my feeble mind to get past the pessimistic notion that blessings are often not much more than luck: good or bad, better or worse, richer or poorer, etc.

    But I do take great comfort in your invitation to embrace our doubt, and in that struggle, if the wrestling can be internal, then may the match continue, as I’m out about to pin myself again…or is it vice versa…???!!!

    • Thanks for engaging this. The whole “blessing” thing is never an easy topic. I, too, used to struggle with the whole check-in-the-mail, sole survivor on the airplane theology. The reason that I don’t struggle with it so much anymore isn’t because I have accepted it, but because I have done away with the theology that allows such events. I believe in chance and numerous possibilities and outcomes for every situation. Each action has a reaction. Each cause has an effect. These things lead to some people being poor and others being rich, some planes falling from the sky and some reaching their destination safely.

      Some people are beset with unfortunate circumstances, but choose to make lemonade out of lemons. This, I think, is a large aspect of wrestling and not letting go until we are blessed. It is not a matter of coercing God to go one way or the other (because I do not see God is an intelligent personage who makes intentional decisions) but rather embracing our situation so tightly that we create a positive outcome.

      So, in sum, on your points: 1. I agree that blessings can’t be wrestled with God, but I wouldn’t say that they are bestowed either. I think (and this is just my humble opinion) that sometimes they are merely a matter of chance, but most of the time circumstances are the culmination of choices and environmental conditions – simple cause and effect, as it were. 2. I, too, would struggle with a God who chooses who will live and who will die. Instead, I choose to see God as being akin to a river that is constantly flowing toward that which is good. There are numerous possibilities that would lead to good outcomes, but it is up to us to make conscious decisions as to which we will choose. Everything else, I would opine, is mere chance.

      • John Lovestrand Says:

        I like that, all of that. A river runs through it, indeed. An ever-flowing current of positive energy; metaphorically compelling, and perhaps even spiritually existing — in an ethereal network of connections that the human mind can imagine, if not detect. But the human heart can feel it, and the eternal soul can embrace it, be buoyed by it.

        You engaged the congregation last Sunday as to the meaning or definition of faith. I was comforted by your suggestion that its been there all the while, and that perhaps my journey (struggle) to tap it fully — to embrace it — remains internal. That then got me to thinking of this (Jacob like) wrestling imagery, and that perhaps therein lies my own internal wrestling match (journey, process, quest).

        Until that day when the proverbial clouds part and the (Jake from the Blues Brothers!) “DO YOU SEE THE LIGHT?!” epiphany, I remain inspired by the faith I see demonstrated by us for one another. Genuine care for our fellow human beings, brothers and sisters.

        I saw it last Sunday, as a brother invited a congregation to lay hands on a sister, with reticence in his voice but love in his heart. And as a pastor welled with tears but gathered the emotional composure to lead others in prayer for that young lady.

        And I thought, in the related context of last week’s (“signs”) sermon… THIS is the SIGN!

        I felt in my heart, THIS is the SIGN; there need be no other “signs”. There was an outpouring of love and concern, that was organic and genuine and spontaneous, and what other sign “from God” could follow that? It’s not in the outcome (whether a job materialized at the last minute, vital and necessary as it was in a real world, practical sense), it’s in the hope and the prayer and the sentiment and the concern and the care and … the love, the outpouring of love.

        It reminded me of when I begged my father to go in for rehab treatment in the summer of 1998, and we went round and round for a couple hours — with me alternating between beseeching and threatening. And then I heard him mutter under his breadth: “I’ve been prayin’…” .

        I seized upon that utterance, as though I were speaking (or understanding) in tongues, and I quizzed him, forcefully:

        “Praying to WHOM, exactly?!”

        “Whaddya’ mean, to God of course!” he shot back.

        “And has God answered your prayers?” I asked, with real anger, laced with hope and riddled with fear.

        “What? I dunno…” his voice trailed off, unsure, head bowed.

        “THIS is the answer, Dad!” I exclaimed. “This is it. You have your son begging and pleading and cajoling for the last 2 hours, to drive you to rehab today, right now. God acts through us, humans here on Earth, and I’m here, right in front of you!”

        That cracked the ice, and I saw it in his eyes; it hit home. I got through.

        I told my Mom afterward that it was the most passionate plea of my life, and likely would remain so forever more. I felt a presence within me, a spirit, maybe several spirits — maybe his parents / my grandparents, whom we both loved so.

        I drove him to rehab right afterward, and he shared with me (first time ever) that he was afraid, and I wept, and told him how courageous he was to share with me, and how courageous to walk through those doors and voluntarily commit himself to 30 day detox treatment.

        He came out 30 days later, hooked up with AA, found his way back to Church, got saved at Willow Creek, and (yes, praise be to God) 16 years later has been sober, with nary a slip.

        There are no small miracles.

        When I think of divinity, when I think of God, I think of moments like these, real experiences. Jon for Sarah, me for my Dad, you for all of us. Inspired moments, from the heart, unrehearsed, authentic, soul-searching, soul-finding, life affirming.

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