Friday, February 5, 2010

Life With God (So Far)

I’ve been thinking again lately about our use of the name “God” when referring to our spiritual experiences. The name is everywhere, from our national anthem to the American dollar bill. We are faced with it on street corners when we are approached by young men in black suits with name badges. We hear it used casually in conversation at the booth next to us in the coffee shop: “God-willing, I’ll be on a beach in Cuba by this time next week, or “So help me God, if I don’t hear back from so-and-so soon, I’ll…”

Recently someone close to me remarked to me that, despite my numerous writings on the subject, he “still didn’t really know what (I) believe about God.” While this particular piece of writing is not meant as a direct response, it should clarify my answer in many respects. But first, a look at what the name “God” meant for me in the past.

From as far back as I can remember, I adopted the beliefs that were taught to me in Sunday School and church. God was a literal person who lived in heaven, and He – always a “He”- ruled over the world. Before He could rule over the world, He had to create it and everything within it, which he did in six days time. If you would have asked me to draw a picture of God when I was a kid (firstly I am not gifted whatsoever in the drawing department,) I would have drawn you a picture of an old man with long grey hair and a long grey beard. He would have closely resembled Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, only older. This God knew everything there was to know. He had a plan that He made before time, and it was our job to seek to live in that plan and thus find favour with Him. God knew what job you’d have in the future, who you’d marry, how many kids you’d have, even the number of hairs that would be on your second cousin’s head.

I had little problem believing these things for many many years. Looking back on these beliefs though, there are some obvious questions. For instance, how do you reconcile the Bible’s six-day creation (on the 7th day God kicked back in his recliner and scarfed down cashews and a few bottles of Smirnoff Ice) to scientific findings that state the universe is millions of years old and developed over that time period? How do you reconcile the story of Adam and Eve with science that relates us to members of the animal kingdom? Furthermore, how do we ascribe a gender to God when we sense both masculine and feminine qualities during our spiritual experiences?

Perhaps the biggest one that has been asked by countless people throughout history is: “If God has a plan and knows what will happen, why does He let such awful things happen?” Even more problematic is the thought that God might cause these things to happen. (If you were to ask Pat Robertson, he would tell you that God does in fact send destruction as punishment – you only have to YouTube his comments on Haiti. On second thought, don’t. Especially if you’ve recently consumed, or are about to consume food.

Also, if God knows what is going to happen beforehand, do we really have choices and free will? Or are we just actors in a cosmic plan, with the lines of our lives already written? If so, what’s the point?

Whatever amount of concern these questions brought up, none of them were as big as two others that rose to the surface almost 10 years ago for me. The first was: “How could a loving God send people to Hell?” (My idea of Hell was a literal place somewhere below, filled with flames and a lake of fire.) The second question was: “Can only Christians be in relationship with God?” After a few years of stressing over these questions, I came to a personal conclusion that He doesn’t send people to Hell (which in time turned into “There is no such place,” though for a time, while sitting in Galaxy Cinemas watching the movie All About Steve a few months ago, I strongly reconsidered my beliefs). The answer to the second question became a loud and enthusiastic “No! Anyone can be in relationship with God, even if they are Muslims, or Jews, or Buddhists.”

So what does God look like for me now? After all, I seem to have jettisoned a lot of things that were central to my beliefs before, beliefs that can seemingly be backed up by verses in the Bible.
My first answer would be that just as each person on earth is unique from everyone else, so are our spiritual journeys. I think that there are many helpful things in the Bible, but I believe that it is a book written during a certain time, for certain people, and that it is about the authors experiences of God, not “God’s literal word handed down for all time.” I understand that this is a major point of contention for Christians who believe otherwise.

So where does that leave us? How do we find out about God or know what God wants? To me, this is akin to each person setting out on their own, reading different sources, talking to different people, and very importantly, listening to their own minds and hearts. But this can only be done if you have a degree of faith in yourself. Admittedly, I did not have faith in myself when I was younger, since all my faith, I believed, should be directed to God, who again I believed was a Person outside of myself. Furthermore, I believed that humankind was originally sinful because of the sins of Adam and Eve, and at our core, each of us was sinful and in need of redemption. This is where faith in Jesus came in, that God made a way for us to be acceptable to himself again. Still, no trust in myself.

But this had to change, and is important if we are to find a new or different meaning for the name or idea of God in our lives. It is a trust that at our very core, we are not sinful or dirty people who must make sure we “believe the right things” in order to be saved, but instead that we are wonderful, unique people who can trust in our hearts and minds.

What does God mean to me now? To me it means focusing on the “big tent values,” such as kindness, compassion, and most importantly, love. I think that while researching and debating and talking about theology can be helpful, it can also be tiresome. Again, we can too often go outside of ourselves for answers about life and God, and we do not take the time to stop and listen to what our own hearts and minds are telling us. And inside our hearts and minds is where, I believe we will find God. God to me is no longer a Person in the sky with long grey hair and a long grey beard. Rather, on my journey along the way, God has increasingly become more and more personal.

During my time at Bible college, my primary view of God was of a loving father who cared deeply for all of us, his children. This view wasn’t hard to adopt, as it permeates throughout the Bible. Perhaps the most moving illustration of this is found in the book of Luke in the parable of the prodigal son. In this story, a son leaves home, unhappy and ungrateful. After wasting all of his inheritance and hitting the rocks, he makes his way home. To his surprise, his father is already eagerly waiting for him. He embraces his son, places a ring on his finger and holds a feast in his honour. This story is so beautiful and has doubtlessly helped scores of people in their spiritual life. There were also other sources I drew upon that emphasized God’s love for us, as a father would love a child. Brennan Manning’s book “The Ragamuffin Gospel” was instrumental for me at the time, as was the music of Rich Mullins. His song “Growing Young” was, and still is, one of my favourites. It contains the lyrics:

”And everybody used to tell me big boys don't cry. Well I've been around enough to know that that was the lie, that held back the tears in the eyes of a thousand prodigal sons. Well we are children no more we have sinned and grown old, and our Father still waits and He watches down the road. To see the crying boys come running back to His arms, and be growing young.”

This view of God was very helpful to me at that time in my life, and I can understand how it can still be very helpful for many people. There are a couple of drawbacks though. Having a lifelong view of God as Parent still leaves us as children. And I could be wrong, but isn’t every parent’s wish to see their children grow up into mature men and women? Secondly, the view that we are all prodigal children can lead us to continually believe that we are innately flawed or sinful. Even though we see God as a continually loving and steady Father, it can still leaveus with the view that we are steady and continual sinners. This isn’t a healthy view in my opinion.

So what about today? How do I view God?

My first thought is that it is perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know” when asked questions such as this. It is okay to not have all the answers. In fact, having an answer for everything can, as we used to say back in youth group, put “God in a box,” neat and controlled. We can do this and attempt to have an answer for every question because we like certainty in life. We like waking up and having our bacon and eggs and coffee. We like knowing what will be expected of us at our workplace. We check The Weather Network because we like knowing what it will be like outside today. And on it goes. But in many ways, I think God is a Mystery, and that is perfectly fine.

Considering this great mystery, there are however two views of God that I have today.

The first view is another image, and that is of God as Lover. This is an image also found in the Bible, particularly in the Song of Solomon, which contains verses like: “Upon my bed at night I sought him who my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. ‘I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.’ (3:1-2)” Here God is viewed as the bridegroom with his church being the bride. I think this view of God can be more helpful or accurate than the view of God as Parent. Just as we are warmed throughout the day by thoughts of a human lover, so we can be warmed and encouraged by thoughts of the Divine Lover as well. But again, I am unsure whether or not this image describes my relationship with the divine either. All I know is that there is presence within me throughout the day, an inner voice affirming to me, “You are good. You are loved. It’s ok.” These inner words are worth far more than I can describe. They spring up form the deepest part of me, within my heart.

And they are all that matter some days. They are the fuel. Everything else, particularly trying to describe the exact nature of God and our relationship to God, is often fruitless. So today, it does not concern me that I hold all of the “correct beliefs.”

Let’s go back to the image of God as Lover for a moment. If we are indeed lovers with God, then I think we may be more intimately close to God than we realize. We are as young lovers who never ever leave the bedchambers. We are in continual intercourse with God.

But we may be even closer than that. Perhaps, just perhaps, each of us that is born into the world is God being born into the world in human form, curious to see, to hear, to touch. This doesn’t allow room for a view of ourselves as innately flawed or sinful, but it views humankind as nothing less than an expression of God.

In conclusion, I’d like to return to what I wrote a couple of paragraphs back. The specifics about God do not interest me much at all anymore, or if I have the “correct beliefs.” All that matters, and what sustains me is that Inner Voice inside that says, “You are Loved.” I firmly believe that this voice is available to all people, no matter their creed, colour, or gender.

Perhaps you have heard that voice too.