Is God Perfect or Not?

Galton's view of social structure in the UK
Galton’s view of social structure in the UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ever since I was young enough to hear and to understand, I have been told that God is perfect. God can do no wrong. God does not make mistakes. God is …omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient. The lessons of God’s perfection have been deeply engrained in my soul.

And yet, the more I listen to study phenomena like racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, and other “isms,” the more I wonder about my theology.  Is God perfect or do we have it all wrong?

I have been squirming with this question for a while, but when an Indian-American, Nina Davuluri, won the Miss America title a couple of weeks ago, the conversation over her being too dark gave me pause. There were some in America who were angry that she, being of Indian descent had won, but there were people who said that in India, she never could have won “because she is too dark.” Apparently, the quest to have light skin to white skin is an obsession in India, with young women participating in pageants taking medications to alter their skin color – i.e., to make it lighter. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/16/miss-america-nina-skin-color_n_3935348.html)

Historically, people have wanted to be white, in this country and in others. People have tried to pray their gayness away.  Being a female has been a hindrance and not a help, too often, in the workplace.  And yet, God made all of these …untouchables, …these undesirables. Could it be that God isn’t so perfect? Could it be that not only is it not true that God doesn’t make mistakes, but that God apparently has made a lot of mistakes?

If all of these groups of people – blacks, browns, women, gays, lesbians, females – are a problem, why in the world did God create them?

There is something extremely sad about any group of people trying to deny and change themselves to fit into image of a group of people who have decided who is worthy and acceptable and who is not. The European standard of beauty has been internalized by people all over the world. Little girls in Africa carry around white baby dolls, many of them.  Studies have been conducted that show that little children in this nation think that black and brown people are not pretty and not as intelligent as are white people. Homosexual people are presumed to be morally inferior to straight people.

What in the world was God thinking when He/She created people who were not white, Protestant  males?

In the eugenics movement, which came into being largely on the efforts of Charles Benedict Davenport in the 1890s, there was a quest to create the “perfect” person. That person was white, but not any old kind of white. To be desirable, one needed to have Nordic features – blonde hair, blue eyes. Dr. Davenport, who was a Harvard-trained biologist, influenced a lot of people, including one Francis Galton. It was Galton who coined the term “eugenics,” and he defined that as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.” (Eyes Right: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, . 213)

The eugenics movement was fascinating and troubling, all at once; the purpose of this article is not to go into it in-depth – but the point is that a whole cadre of very intelligent men (!!) constructed hypotheses which upheld and justified white supremacy …and their work was so titillating that the Nazis used it to justify and construct their own system of racism which resulted in the extermination of millions of Jews.

What, then? Did God mess up when God didn’t create everyone with Nordic features? Did God commission people to “improve upon” what God had created? If that’s the case, is God perfect? Can the notion of God’s perfection be trusted?

Years ago, I was chastised by a preacher whom I respected deeply because I would not say, and could not say, that only Christians would be saved. It was inconceivable to me that God would create a whole world full of different people who practiced different religions, and condemn them all to hell. That notion of God did not fit with my notion of a loving and inclusive God. Jesus was the Christian way, the Christian mediator, so to speak, between God and humans. Other religions had their mediators, but all of them, I argued, were valid. There was no way that God was that …small, that provincial, that…narrow-minded. The perfection of God did not mean to me that God intended for everyone to be the same. In fact, because of God’s omniscience, had that been what God had wanted, God would surely have done it!

I was eliminated from the ministerial student group after my talk with that pastor.

Stung and stunned, I asked God why He/She hadn’t intervened on my behalf. Like the psalmists demanding an answer, I asked God to speak up and tell me why He/She had let me be skewered as I defended the basic goodness of God and of God’s intentions.

Of course, God was silent.

But every now and then, the question of God’s perfection comes up. When babies are born deformed or sick, does that mean God was not and is not perfect? When people have addictive personalities, does that mean God is not perfect?  When little boys grow up to be serial killers, does that mean something happened in the womb that made that child’s brain program him into being a murderer? When a child gets a debilitating disease, like Michael Murphy Odone (“Lorenzo’s Oil), caused by a malfunctioning of his ability to metabolize fats, does that mean that God put a wrong gene in the wrong place when the child was growing in the womb?

Is God perfect or not? Are people of color, Jews, gays and Lesbians….mistakes?  If we are to listen to the chatter of people who are always putting a group of people down because of who they are, we might begin to question God’s creative genius, mightn’t we?

A candid observation …

 

 

Moses, Crazy Faith, and Waiting for God

I wrote this book called Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives. In it, I lift some characters from the Bible and from life and

 

Crossing of the red sea
Crossing of the red sea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

talk about the incredible, crazy faith they had to have had in order to do what they did.

 

What I have come to realize, however, is that crazy faith, or having crazy faith, does not mean one does not feel fear or anxiety as he or she waits and works for God to “show up.” I have come to recognize something that I have dubbed “the Red Sea moment” that all bouts of crazy faith must have.

 

This “Red Sea moment” is, of course, about Moses. The Bible is good about telling stories without getting into the “meat,” or the human factor …of being human as one waits for divine intervention. Moses has been told by God to lead the Israelites  to The Promised Land. What should have been 11 days, two weeks at most, turned out to take 40 years. No doubt when they finally reached the Red Sea (or, more correctly, the Sea of Reeds), they were all ready to get on with their lives.

 

That desire would have been shared by Moses, maybe even more so, since he had been leading the people for so long!  Moses had been roped into the job of leading the Israelites through the wilderness by God, and he had relied on the voice and direction of God throughout the journey, albeit he acted in frustration and not faith when he hit a rock that God told him to merely speak to, a breach in faith that cost Moses getting into the Promised Land.

 

So, maybe Moses thought about what his frustration and doubt had wrought for him as concerns that rock as he now stood on the bank of the Red Sea. Can’t you see him? Standing there. holding a rod over the vast body of water, because God told him the waters would part?  There he stood, as the Israelites, murmured against him …and as the Egyptians got closer and closer. Moses and the others could hear the hoofs of the soldiers’ horses, and might have been able to feel the earth vibrate and tremble as “the enemy” made its way to the exact place where Moses and the Israelites stood.

 

But stand there he did. With the rod in his hand, holding it out “over the water,” which would only have been over the edge of the sea, ebbing and flowing onto the land. How crazy is that?  Moses most assuredly had doubts and fears….but he chose to believe that God would do what God had said He would do. And God …did.

 

That’s a wonderful story …but the point is that before there was the parting of the Sea there was probably a trembling of Moses’ very soul. Where was God? And when was God coming?  His disobedience and frustration, which led him to hit a rock that God had merely told him to speak to, convinced him that God was 1) present, even when we don’t know it, 2) unimpressed with disobedience based on doubt, and 3) eager to show His/Her children that He was in fact, God.

 

The Red Sea moment had to have been terrifying for Moses.

 

Our “Red Sea” moments are terrifying to us as well. When we stand on the bank of a “sea” or on the edge of a “precipice,” needing God and believing God will come to us because God sees where we are standing and knows the situation we are in. when we can hear the “hoofs of the horses” getting closer and closer to us, we are being allowed to feel what Moses most probably felt.

 

The key is to “stand our ground” while we wait for God. That is hard and that is scary …but that is what God would require, if the Bible is to be believed.

 

The edge of the Red Sea, waiting in faith for God to “part the water”  in our lives so that we can get to another place, perhaps THE place God has put in place for us, is not a comfortable place to be. We may even look at it as a test to see if we have faith or just give lip service to the same. Crazy faith means having stilled voices but enlarged spirits that are making room for God to do a new thing.

 

Moses, in spite of feeling terror for sure, and worry about what the Israelites were thinking about him and what they would say if the Egyptians got there before the waters parted. Hr might have been seen mouthing  quiet prayers as he waited for God.

 

Many people have waited, like Moses, swallowing their fear and trying, working, to regurgitate their faith. Such regurgitation of faith has its own rewards.

 

A candid observation …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ritual vs Reponsibility

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997)...
Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997); at a pro-life meeting in 1986 in Bonn, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
see filename
see filename (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is something beautiful and mesmerizing about ritual, such as that we are seeing as the Roman Catholic cardinals who have processed into the Sistine Chapel, ready to begin the concave that will result in the election of a new pope.

The garb of the cardinals, their slow procession, the haunting Gregorian chants being sung, the swell of organ music…could make one settle into a spirit of piety – which I imagine people do – and actually feel closer to God for a few moments.

But ritual has its drawbacks. While many have argued that we need it, it seems not beyond the pale to believe that too many of us get seduced by ritual, leaving the work of “the church” in the dust.

We too often want to “feel holy,” but are unable and/or unwilling to “do holy,” meaning, “do” the acts and the work which bring those who are suffering into a relationship with God and a new relationship with their world.

Holy rituals, it seems, ought to inspire holy action.  The music, the prayers, the smell of candles and incense, and, finally, the taking of the Holy Eucharist, are not in place just to make humans feel good, or at least that should not be the case. All of the aforementioned ought to make humans “do” good, and “good,” for the purposes of this essay, is helping those who cannot help themselves.

My guess is that everyone reads the Bible with different eyes. Reading is as much a cultural experience as it is a scholarly venture, but when I read the first chapter of Isaiah, where Yahweh says through his prophet Isaiah: “Hear the word of the Lord…The multitude of your sacrifices, what are they to me? I have more than enough of burnt offering…Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me!…learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow,”  what seems perfectly clear to me is most probably interpreted differently by one who is from a different culture.

The old rituals are as beautiful as they are old…but they were never meant to be ends in and of themselves. What rituals, in fact, what organized religion have largely done, is boxed people into structures, bound by rules and bylaws and budget issues, leaving the “oppressed,” the “fatherless,”  and the “widow” to pretty much fend for themselves.

Someone asked me the other day, “Why, when churches,especially Catholic churches, have so much money are there so many homeless, hungry people?  Does God care about people for real?” Well, it was too loaded a question for me to answer on the spot, but that person is not the first who has asked such a question. What we forget, though, even those of us who ask those questions, is that “the church” is not a building, filled with beautiful, music-bolstered ritual, but is, rather, “we the people.” The world gets better, gets more just and right in the eyes of God by people who understand that very basic distinction and who combine faith and works.

It is easy to be cynical when we see so much suffering in the world, leading us to doubt God, or God’s presence, but the problem isn’t God. According to all I have read, God did not create nor does God require, all the ritual with which we involve ourselves. All we are required to do is “do” the work of God while we are yet alive.

Participating in ritual, though, is more fun, less time-consuming …and, well, spiritually seductive.

Discussion on this always leads to a cultural “fight” over what and who God is, and what God requires. Many will say that Jesus, sent by God, was a socialist, or at least believed in social justice as it is taught today. Others identify that same Jesus as a hard-core capitalist, come pointing to the Parable of the Talents, found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There are the cultural “eyes” mentioned before. It is quite frustrating to both sides that the other side does not or will not “get it.”

There are so many people caught up in wretched lives, there because of a variety of reasons, but many of them for reasons over which they had little control. Like the poor in Calcutta, where Mother Teresa began her great work, there are “Calcutta” situations everywhere, and remarkably few willing to go and “live amongst” them by offering the deepest and most complete service they can. Too time-consuming. Too distasteful

So, it’s just easier to settle into a Sunday worship experience, and a little heavy ritual from time to time doesn’t hurt. It reminds us of the mysterious tremendum of God. We would rather think about that than “do holy” and minister to people who , far away from ritual, are hurting and lost. The doors of the amazing Sistine Chapel have just been closed; the work of finding a new pope has officially begun. The high ritual has ended…and the world is not changed.

A candid observation …

 

On the Notion of a Sleeping God

A young minister who had been a pastor for about 10 years sat in front of me, tears in her eyes.

“I just don’t know if I believe anymore,” she said.

“Believe what?” I asked.

“In God…and in the goodness of God.” Her tears began to fall freely, and then she began to sob. Her shoulders shook violently and the sobs came from a deep place, like from the pit of her very soul.

After a while, her sobbing slowed down, her shoulders relaxed, but she looked at me with such pain in her eyes that I looked away. It hurt me to see that much pain in one who, I knew, had come into ministry with such high expectations and such joy.

“I can’t do this,” she said, finally. “Why would God put me in a place where I can’t do what God has called me to do?”

I  didn’t answer right away. From where I sat, she had done a lot. She had overcome barriers. She had ignored being slighted by male ministers in the city where she worked, and just plowed ahead, forging paths for women who would come after her. She had embraced the poor, encouraged her flock to take care of “the least of these,” and her faith had been an example to, well, to me. And yet, here she sat.

As I listened to her, I remember having had a conversation with another pastor, this one a male, who asked me to read a book, Your Pastor is an Endangered Species. This colleague expressed the exasperation that pastors normally feel from dealing with the stuff they don’t teach you in seminary. My colleague said, “You have to really have a call from God to do this, or you won’t last.”  I knew what he was talking about.

But this young woman before me was expressing emotional pain the likes of which I had not seen in a while. She felt like a failure. She was unsure of what she was doing “wrong.” She could not seem to find her “place” in her role as pastor. What she did know was that she entered loving God and wanting to serve God in this way, but now she wasn’t so sure she had heard God right. And…she wasn’t sure she believed in God anymore.

She was expressing through her sobs what Benedict XVI expressed this week as he talked about his papacy, the feeling that sometimes, God sleeps through the crises that come with our attempts to serve.

“I cannot pray like I used to,” she said, her tears multiplying. “It seems like God doesn’t hear, or doesn’t care.” I reminded her that many in the Bible felt like that, too, as a way of reminding her that what she was feeling was not unique or different. That was no consolation, however. Something had happened that had crushed her to her soul.

It occurred to me as I listened to her that, as a pastor, you have to understand that there will be plenty of valley times, where you don’t feel like you’re doing anything right or that God or the people whom you serve care…and you have to be willing  to stand through that very lonely time, absorb the loneliness, and wait for God to bring the comfort that only God can bring.

My young friend, however, was in a different place. She was burned up and burned out.  She said she felt like her very faith had been scrubbed out of her soul.  She was always a loner, but now had isolated herself even more. I felt like I was looking at a younger version of myself.

“I am going to quit,” she said finally. “I cannot do this anymore. I love God, but I cannot do this anymore.”  Her sobbing resumed.

I didn’t want to tell her that Jesus had felt her kind of frustration, too. Somehow, I knew that wasn’t going to fly. In her state of mind, she would have dismissed that as religious rhetoric and not at all realistic. Jesus was the son of God, for goodness’ sake. So, I kept my Jesus thought to myself.

But I wanted to help her know that she was not alone, that all pastors feel or have felt what she was feeling. I wanted to let her know that churches sometimes are not kind to pastors, but that God really did know and God did care. Knowing that is all you have sometimes. But she wouldn’t have been able to hear it.

After a while, her sobbing stopped and she just sat before me. I waited for her to speak, and after what seemed forever, she finally did.

“I loved my people,” she said, “but they threw me under the bus. I cannot …and I will not …do this anymore.”

I didn’t press her. Whatever it was that happened, she didn’t offer to tell me and I knew not to ask. The wound was still too new. I just asked her to be still for a moment, to pray, and fast, and wait to hear from God.

I wish seminaries would offer courses in dealing with the people of God, and courses in helping would-be pastors identify their personality traits, including strengths and weaknesses, so that they could go into church situations a little more emotionally prepared and armed.  Learning to do Biblical exegesis is good, learning Hebrew and Greek is good, but nothing prepares you for the people/relationship angle of being a pastor. And truthfully, some pastors are good at it, but I would surmise that a whole lot more are not so good.

Those people end up feeling more than the people with good people and administrative skills that “God is sleeping” sometimes.  News commentators kept emphasizing that Benedict was a scholar, not an administrator.  He was a “good man,” but a “bad pope,” someone else wrote.  So, in the office of Pope, Benedict must have felt, must have carried, what my friend was explaining to me…and what I myself felt about me being a pastor as well: that we were/are good people, but not so good at the pastor/pope thing.

My friend resigned from her church. She went back to school to pursue other career options. When I see her, she seems freer, happy, relieved. I would imagine the pope feels that way, too. I don’t know where she is in her struggle to believe in God.

Me? I am realizing anew that though it seems sometimes that God is sleeping, God is never absent.

A candid observation…

What Does the Bible Say, Really?

There are some things we just don’t think about.

Susan Thistlewaite, Chicago Theological Seminary professor, author and scholar, gives some sobering information in her latest book, Occupy the Bible. She says that we ought to read the Bible from the perspective of the homeless, the hungry, the economically stressed.

It was from their perspective that Jesus formed his ministry, she says …and the Bible says.

In a workshop she gave, she said, “Student debt is approaching one trillion dollars. That’s more than credit card debt and if the trend continues, in a few years, student debt will be higher than the national debt. We need to read the Bible from that perspective.”

Students are stressed out and depressed. They have gone to school and gotten degrees, only to find that they are not able to get work, or enough money to pay their student loans.”Students are stressed out and depressed,” Thistlewaite said. “Some are committing suicide.”

There are a lot of reasons for the economic state of this nation, but greed is a big one, posits Thistlewaite. Greed has led banks and other financial institutions, including those which dole out student loans, to go haywire, thinking not about the people who are getting the loans they are giving out but instead by the profit they will make off people who are really trying to make an honest living.

Jesus was a revolutionary, primarily because he challenged the Roman government. He didn’t get into trouble because he taught people to love; he got in trouble because he challenged the status quo. He got into trouble because he taught people that the kingdom in which they should seek comfort was the heavenly kingdom, where there was fairness and equality amongst people,  not the earthly kingdom, headed by the Romans, which led people into economic despair and support economic inequality.

“Theology begins where pain is,” says Thistlewaite. And clearly, there is pain amongst the people who are working and still cannot make ends meet. That group includes students, but also the so-called “working poor,” who, in spite of working sometimes two and three jobs, are still struggling to keep their heads above water. The economic state of our nation is slowly wiping out the middle class, and, observes Thistlewaite, there can be no democracy without a middle class.

Our economic dilemma is made all the worse as the issue is argued using the Bible as justification for both liberal and conservative positions. Thistlewaite says that “the Right thinks the Bible supports free market capitalism.” The Left, conversely, uses the Bible to support an economy which supports equal distribution of wealth. Parables, like found in the Book of Matthew 25:14-30, where a wealthy landowner gave three different “slaves” (translated from the Greek “doulos”) rewarded the two who multiplied money given to them, and cast out the one who hid the money given to him, invite two different interpretations, one from the Left, one from the Right. Who, in that parable and others, is doing the will of God, asks Thistlewaite.

One Bible. Two desperately different interpretations …and the odd men out are the struggling, working poor.

We don’t want to think about the state of our economy or what God really demands. It is totally inconceivable to me that anyone would think that God supports poverty or the abject and real suffering that is endured by the working poor, just as it is inconceivable to me that a good God would support racism or sexism or militarism. I grew up believing that a good God wanted all people to be taken care of, that God wanted economic and social justice for all people. Is that naive?

Neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the New Testament, naiveté notwithstanding, seem to support misery, with a very few people being very comfortable at the expense of many poor people suffering. People got into big trouble with God in the Bible for not being hospitable, not taking care of widows and the poor. God didn’t change, did He/She?

There are some things we don’t want to think about it, but we need to. Bottom line, there’s too much suffering caused by economic distress, in this, the wealthiest nation in the world.

A candid observation …

Visit Thistlewaite’s website at http://www.occupythebible.org