Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Instruction Manual from God

Funerals are never something someone looks forward to going to. We try our best to proclaim them a celebration of someones life, but it's never really much of a festive atmosphere. People are grieving a loss, and it's always a tough time. You don't show up expecting a party--you go because you want to honor a life that touched you, or support a family in mourning.

And so it was with the funeral I attended last week. I very much wanted to support my friend who's father had passed; but I'd be lying if I said I really wanted to be there. Besides it being a sad occasion, it was held at the church that I had left years back; the church I spent over half my life attending, and the one my husband still works at. Awkward.

I know most of the awkwardness comes only from how I'm perceiving things; and I've been working really hard at trying to see things in a new light. I've been praying a lot for God to help me believe I'm not the enemy of the fundamentalist...nor is the fundamentalist my enemy. We are apprehending the Bible differently, that's all. I don't have to put my defenses up. I can leave my judgmental thoughts at the door, and enter any church as just another human who is trying to figure it out.

And it worked! I walked in feeling no anxiety, sat by an old friend who still attends, (and I'm pretty sure believes I've gone off the deep end) as well as had a real connection with her that was free of any animosity. So far so good; I was hopeful to get through it without incident.

Near the end the pastor concluded with, "It is at these times we are faced with the reality of death. We know where (name of deceased) is because of what he believed. Do you know where you will go when that time comes? I know (name of deceased) would want me to take this opportunity to"... and then it was game over for me.

I'm not writing this post to clobber the pastor. I know his heart; he is a deeply compassionate and loving man. But what he stood up there and preached was horrible in my opinion; and wrong. Of course, when it comes to matters of faith, nobody can prove what's right and what's wrong. But when anyone is trying to scare people into heaven, and using the Bible as their authority; then I can't help but take issue with it. This is just my way of sorting out those way of processing my frustration.

So, back to where the pastor was opening up an invitation for people to be saved. ("saved" meaning knowing where your going to go when you die--which is not what I think the Bible really means by saved at all, but I'll address that a little more later) And how do people have this assurance? By believing the correct things, like the deceased person did. But I guarantee you nobody really thinks that way. Who would ever say Hitler went straight to heaven because he believed the correct doctrine about Jesus? Wouldn't you even say that because Hitler believed so strongly the doctrine that God will torture anyone eternally who doesn't believe in Jesus, he had no problem at all putting to death millions of Jews who clearly would be going to hell anyway?

It became evident the pastor didn't think just believing the right things is what saves you either, when he held up the Bible declaring it the "instruction manual written by God" that you had to follow. This means obeying the rules, of course, because the Bible is full of them. "There are things you may not want to give up"...he explained. I wonder what things he was referring to...drinking, smoking, gambling?  I'm sure the homosexual man who was there (I recognized him from PFLAG--he just married his partner; a very sweet couple) assumed it meant giving up having sex with his spouse. I'm pretty sure he's going to stay "unsaved".

We know what instructions Jesus gave the "rich young ruler". He told him if he wanted to "inherit eternal life" (actually, "life age-during" is the correct translation; but let's not go there right now) he needed to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. This is when everyone switches to, "oh, we can't be saved by works. It's only by grace." So, your telling me the gay man can be saved and still be gay? Well...there is that verse that says, "No one who is immoral or worships idols or is unfaithful in marriage or is a pervert or behaves like a homosexual  will share in God’s kingdom. Neither will any thief or greedy person or drunkard or anyone who curses and cheats others." So, sounds like he's going to hell after all...along with the drunkard. (does it count if it's just on the weekends?) But wait, in the same chapter it says, "All things are lawful to me, but all things are not profitable". Then there's that bit in Romans that says that love is all that the law demands. Are you confused yet? Is the instruction book not clear enough for you? 

Alright, let's just skip to the "most important verse in the Bible" (the pastor's quote) to see if we can make some sense of this. "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, if not through me". To the fundamentalist, this means only Christians go to heaven. (too bad so sad Buddhists, but clearly, our way is the only way) And how does Jesus take us to the Father? Well, he sacrificed himself to appease God's wrath so we can be forgiven. If we believe that, then we are in. (because "coming to the Father" means going to heaven when we die, right? Because that's when we'll finally "see" him...I wonder if he has a beard?) But let's look at what Jesus says next. "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?" Then he said if they really believed this, they would be doing the same works as Jesus--if fact, even greater works, "because I am going to the Father". When was the last time you saw someone call a dead person out of their grave? Maybe this is because none of us have been "taken to the Father" yet. Just a thought.

I think if we can see being "saved" as being transformed in the same way Jesus was transformed, things will start making a little more sense. How does this happen? Through the grace of God...which I'm not going to even pretend I comprehend. But I'm hanging on to the hope that someday I will see it not only myself; but eventually we will see all things being made new. Along the way, I'm trying to follow the "Spirit of truth" that Jesus promised to send. "But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you." And I will keep reading the Bible, because I think it's the most beautifully disturbing, spiritual, mystical, confusing, conflicting mystery of a book I've ever read. Instruction manual though? I think not.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pondering the Starfish

I started this blog as a way to nail down and give explanation to how my spiritual beliefs had changed. I wanted to make clear to myself and anyone who asked why and how this happened...although, only one person ever did ask. I promised myself I was not going to let that bother me--why should it? The best part about how I now saw things is that I was no longer responsible for other people's faith. But the truth is, it did bother me. A lot. I wanted everyone to have the amazing, stronger faith I now had...if I could just get them to see that God's will is stronger than man's, and His will is to save us all. Everything's going to be alright--we can trust it! Though the more time goes by, the more I have to ask I really have this faith?

To think I could nail down faith, or give explanation to it, is probably a pretty good indicator of the level of my arrogance. But what is arrogance really, except a defense against our own fear. To have to so staunchly defend against criticism of our beliefs seems only to shed light on our lack of faith, doesn't it? And I don't say that to give myself (or anyone) a big guilt trip about not having enough faith...that kind of guilt is blessedly one of the things I've been able to let go of. (for the most part) But the ironic thing is, the less guilty I feel, the more confused I get. It's as if the guilt gave my life meaning, and without it, I feel lost.

What is it about guilt (or trying to avoid it) that makes it such an amazing motivator? I spent my life trying to be set free from my shame, (with very little results) but at least it gave me something to do. As I was running away from guilt, what was I running towards? Praise? I don't know if it's fair to say that. Worth? I think that's closer to the truth. How can you possibly have value if you haven't accomplished anything? So the more I tried to accomplish something, the more I felt as if I wasn't accomplishing anything, the more guilty I felt, the more I told myself I needed to try harder...and round and round it went.

Stepping off the merry-go-round felt great at first. Though, truth be told, I am missing the feeling of movement; circles or not. What the hell am I supposed to be doing? This is not just a selfish need to appease my guilt, though surely some of that remains. But is there not in my heart a very real desire to help alleviate suffering in the world? And this need exists in people of all faiths, as well as in people with no faith. In fact, I often see it the strongest in the non-religious...maybe because they don't think it's fair that people should suffer so.

I want to believe there is meaning in suffering. I've seen it...I know it can be true. But it rings hallow at times...when the suffering you see is so horrific all you can feel is sick. At church once (a long time ago) I heard an allegory to try to inspire you to do good. Here it is:
One morning an elderly man was walking on a nearly deserted beach. He came upon a boy surrounded by thousands and thousands of starfish. As eagerly as he could, the youngster was picking them up and throwing them back into the ocean.
Puzzled, the older man looked at the young boy and asked, "Little boy, what are you doing?"
The youth responded without looking up, "I'm trying to save these starfish, sir."
The old man chuckled aloud, and queried, "Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?"
Holding a starfish in his hand, the boy turned to the man and, gently tossing the starfish into the water, said, "It will make a difference to that one!"

Am I the only one who wants to weep instead of feeling inspired? Are we really supposed to feel good because we've done our good little deed instead of feeling complete despair and anguish when looking at the thousands we can't help? REALLY? 

I know, I know...what good is it to sit in anguish and not at least try to help? I get it. But trying to sort out a God who is supposedly in control and yet allows all that pain...well, there is no sorting it out. I still try, because I can't help myself...or maybe it's God who is sorting himself out in me; I don't know. I'm not going to worry about how anyone else sorts it out...if staying true to a religion is how someone hangs onto hope, at least they are hanging on. No longer do I want to find fault in someone's faith, and especially will I never criticize someone who has none. It's less painful to see no meaning in the endless shore of death than to try and trust a God that is incapable of fixing it. As for me, I'm inclined to think that death itself is part of the solution, even as ugly as it seems to us. And when I look at the trees and the flowers and the seasons, I can see that death never has the last word. 

When I was looking up the starfish story above, I came across the Wikipedia page on it. The story is actually derived from a 16 page essay called "The Star Thrower" which was published in 1969 in "The Unexpected Universe". Since then the story has changed quite a lot, and I think much of the meaning as well. I think it's fitting to end here with some quotes from it to ponder.

In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.
"It's still alive," I ventured.
"Yes," he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sunk in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.
..."There are not many who come this far," I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. "Do you collect?"
"Only like this," he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. "And only for the living." He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water. "The stars," he said, "throw well. One can help them."
..."I do not collect," I said uncomfortably, the wind beating at my garments. "Neither the living nor the dead. I gave it up a long time ago. Death is the only successful collector."
  (Later, after some thoughts on our relationships to other animals and to the universe, the narrator says.. )
"On a point of land, I found the star thrower...I spoke once briefly. "I understand," I said. "Call me another thrower." Only then I allowed myself to think, He is not alone any longer. After us, there will be others...We were part of the rainbow...Perhaps far outward on the rim of space a genuine star was similarly seized and flung...For a moment, we cast on an infinite beach together beside an unknown hurler of suns... We had lost our way, I thought, but we had kept, some of us, the memory of the perfect circle of compassion from life to death and back to life again - the completion of the rainbow of existence"

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Wrath of God

Is there anything more terrifying than the wrath of God? When I read the Bible as a child, it seemed to me God was angry and disappointed most the time. I'm certainly not the only one who saw it that way. Once, when a group of my Christian friends were sitting around talking about the old testament and the judgements therein, one person in the group finally ended the discussion with: "I don't understand the judgements of God. I'm just thankful Jesus took my punishment for me so now I don't have to worry about it". This troubles me. I want to understand God...I want to trust God and see his judgments as fair and good. Now that I no longer believe that the wrath of God will last forever, I can take a deeper look at how the Bible describes it, and see if something else comes to light other than disgust at humanity.

"Who knoweth the power of Thine anger? And according to Thy fear -- Thy wrath?
To number our days aright let [us] know, And we bring the heart to wisdom.
 Turn back, O Jehovah, till when? And repent concerning Thy servants.
 Satisfy us at morn [with] Thy kindness, And we sing and rejoice all our days.
Cause us to rejoice according to the days Wherein Thou hast afflicted us, The years we have seen evil."

Here we have an example of the wisdom of fearing God. But there's more to it than just being afraid that if you disobey your going to get it, don't you think? It's an understanding of God's power (the anger IS power) and this understanding bringing wisdom. (Fearing God is the BEGINNING of wisdom; not the end. Perfect love casts out all fear, right?) I love how there is a plea to God to repent (meaning "change your mind about us God!") and to give balance to the suffering. ("Let us see rejoicing ACCORDING to the days we were afflicted.") This seems a pretty bold request if the idea is supposed to be "be afraid of God, because sin makes Him super mad, and really all we deserve is eternal suffering."

 I make man more rare than fine gold, And a common man than pure gold of Ophir.
 Therefore the heavens I cause to tremble, And the earth doth shake from its place, In the wrath of Jehovah of Hosts, And in a day of the heat of his anger.

I think the "therefore" is very significant here. What's the reason for the wrath and the day of heat and anger? "I make man more rare than fine gold." Pretty great news, if you ask me.

In overflowing wrath I hid my face [for] a moment from thee, And in kindness age-during I have loved thee, Said thy Redeemer -- Jehovah!
For, the waters of Noah [is] this to Me, In that I have sworn -- the waters of Noah Do not pass again over the earth -- So I have sworn, Wrath is not upon thee, Nor rebuke against thee.
For the mountains depart, and the hills remove, And My kindness from thee departeth not, And the covenant of My peace removeth not, Said hath thy loving one -- Jehovah.

Wrath for a moment...kindness age-during. Pretty straight forward; well, except for the age-during part. What the heck is "age-during" supposed to mean? It seems this is a discussion about what is going on at that time--during that age, and what this group of people are suffering during this span of history. "I have loved you through all of it" is maybe a clearer way to understand it.

Therefore, thus said the Lord Jehovah: Because of your all becoming dross, Therefore, lo, I am gathering you unto the midst of Jerusalem, A gathering of silver, and brass, and iron, and lead, and tin, Unto the midst of a furnace -- to blow on it fire, to melt it, So do I gather in Mine anger and in My fury, And I have let rest, and have melted you.  And I have heaped you up, And blown on you in the fire of My wrath, And ye have been melted in its midst.
As the melting of silver in the midst of a furnace, So are ye melted in its midst, And ye have known that I, Jehovah, I have poured out My fury upon you.'

God is taking full responsibility for what His people are suffering. Do you think this fury is hateful? Is He just so disgusted, He just can't deal anymore? Or is this wrath and fury purposeful...even redemptive?

he who is believing in the Son, hath life age-during; and he who is not believing the Son, shall not see life, but the wrath of God doth remain upon him.'

Is this saying that anyone who doesn't believe in Jesus is going to eternal hell? I don't see that. What does it mean to see life during this age? And what does it mean to have the wrath of God remain on you?
but, according to thy hardness and impenitent heart, thou dost treasure up to thyself wrath, in a day of wrath and of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who shall render to each according to his works; to those, indeed, who in continuance of a good work, do seek glory, and honour, and incorruptibility -- life age-during; and to those contentious, and disobedient, indeed, to the truth, and obeying the unrighteousness -- indignation and wrath

Here is an assurance of fairness of judgement..."render to each according to his works". Do you think the indignation and wrath to those who are disobedient (this is addressing believers) will last forever? Or do you think there is power and love inside the wrath that will result in making man as pure as gold?

and God doth commend His own love to us, that, in our being still sinners, Christ did die for us;
much more, then, having been declared righteous now in his blood, we shall be saved through him from the wrath; for if, being enemies, we have been reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved in his life.

First, Christ dying for us (not instead of us--big difference) while we are still sinners is declaring God's love that is unconditional. (all of our sin does not stop it) Because of this, we have been reconciled to God (meaning we stop running from God in fear because we think He's just out to get us)...NOT God being reconciled to us. (as in, "now God can forgive and accept us because Jesus took all of God's wrath for us") Now that WE are reconciled (we are trusting that God is love) the saving (transformation/completion into perfection) can start. I really don't think this wrath is eternal anger and rejection. In the light of all that we have just read, it seems to simply be discipline that has the purpose of refinement. Once you are "saved" (perfected) then wrath is no longer needed. If being "saved" is simply "being forgiven", then why does it keep saying that we SHALL be saved?

giving back to no one evil for evil; providing right things before all men.
If possible -- so far as in you -- with all men being in peace;
not avenging yourselves, beloved, but give place to the wrath, for it hath been written, `Vengeance [is] Mine, I will recompense again, saith the Lord;' if, then, thine enemy doth hunger, feed him; if he doth thirst, give him drink; for this doing, coals of fire thou shalt heap upon his head;
Be not overcome by the evil, but overcome, in the good, the evil.

Are we to love our enemies with only the hope that someday God is really going to let them have it? Or are we to trust God with giving a fair judgement because he loves our enemies as much as us? Maybe God is asking us not to be vengeful because our vengeance has no love. 

So then, my brethren beloved, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger,
for the wrath of a man the righteousness of God doth not work

God's wrath works's does not. If you think you understand God's wrath towards "sinners" because they piss you off had better reconsider.  
among whom also we all did walk once in the desires of our flesh, doing the wishes of the flesh and of the thoughts, and were by nature children of wrath

"By nature children of wrath"...does this mean God was pissed off at us from birth? Or does is mean "by nature" we (all of us) start off doing the wishes of the flesh, and suffer the consequences of that. (wrath) If this is how we all start off, (whether we want to or not) who do we think we are condemning our brother? (which seems to always be Paul's ultimate point)

As many as I love, I do convict and chasten; be zealous, then, and reform

Again, we can trust that with God, love and discipline go hand in hand. I think this is true for ALL his creation. Do you have to be a Christian in order to receive loving discipline? Does God love us because we decided to love Him--or is it the other way around? Does that love and purposeful discipline change just because our physical bodies have died?

he also shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, that hath been mingled unmixed in the cup of His anger, and he shall be tormented in fire and brimstone before the holy messengers, and before the Lamb,and the smoke of their torment doth go up to ages of ages

Here we are at Revelations; when supposedly God finally gives all those rotten sinners what they have coming. I want to point out that this torment is happening "before" the holy messengers and the Lamb "to ages and ages". (or maybe, through the ages?) The Young's Literal translation (which this is) is considered the most accurate. (other translations use "forever and ever" instead of "to ages of ages", which is inaccurate. That is not just my opinion--it's a fact) Do you really think Jesus and the angels are going to FOREVER stand and watch people being tormented? Also, look at the very first verse in Revelations:

"The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place."

Do you think it's possible that Revelations is talking about what has been going on throughout the ages in the spiritual realm, not the physical?

And I saw another sign in the heaven, great and wonderful, seven messengers having the seven last plagues, because in these was completed the wrath of God

Well, if the previous wrath that is served in the wine torments people forever, how is it then that the wrath of God is "completed"?

and the nations of the saved in its light shall walk, and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it, and its gates shall not at all be shut by day...Happy are those doing His commands that the authority shall be theirs unto the tree of the life, and by the gates they may enter into the city; and without [outside] are the dogs, and the sorcerers, and the whoremongers, and the murderers, and the idolaters, and every one who is loving and is doing a lie.

First of all, I'm not sure what a "whoremonger" is, but it doesn't seem they are burning in the lake of fire. (where they appeared to be last time we saw them...the scripture above is just a few verses from the end) These whoremongers are simply wandering around outside the 'gate'...which is never closed. It seems a strange way to end things...unless of course this really isn't the end of things, but a new beginning of things. (Maybe the spiritual manifesting itself in the physical in a completely new way?) I really don't know, but I think we need to strongly consider that Revelations has been grossly misunderstood...along with the wrath of God.