Is God dead?
I ask this as a legitimate question. The “clockmaker” theory of the universe suggests that a cosmic creator managed to initiate all of creation as we know it, set the rules of physics in place that has kept everything running for countless millenia without direct involvement. If we take the Bible at its word, as a literal book of truth or as a means of conveying the message of Christ with the best language available for the listener, there seems to be no question that God spoke directly to people, or at least in their presence. God was incredibly active and direct, and even nonbelievers could receive a personal message spoken directly by a prophet (often of doom and gloom, but not always).
So what happened to this communication? Well, some denominations still believe in it straight up. Some people still speak in tongues. Catholics pray to the saints and to Mary for intercession, in the belief that some aspect of these people still lives and can be communed with. Even the most reserved, the most uncomfortable when speaking about powers of the Spirit, the most subdued Lutheran still prays. They still mention that they can feel the Spirit moving, acting, speaking.
Mormons consider this critical. Read the Book of Mormon, they say, and pray for God to tell you it is true. Then they’ll come back and say “Did you pray?” And you might say “Yes.” And they might say “Did you feel the truth of the Book of Mormon revealed to you?” And then you might say something like “Well, not really.” And then they’ll say “Well, keep trying. Eventually it will come.” And they’ll keep prodding you to think, read, and pray, until you finally come around to their way of thinking, at which time they say, “Hallelujah! You see! The truth has been revealed!” And then you go get sized for holy underwear and they work you up the spiritual ladder until they think they can break to you the REALLY good news about how if you do everything God tells you to do, you can become a God, too, and rule divinely over your own planet just like God did before he was God when he was a puny mortal like you and me.
Me, I like to say, “Yes, I prayed about it, and Jesus told me, ‘Ugh. Those guys again? I get so sick of those guys.’ and then he cured my cancer just to prove he meant it.” And then I give them my best “I am absolutely not pulling your chain” expression as I wait for a response, which is usually totally worth waiting for.
I wanted to say, “But I digress,” but I really haven’t. I have yet to reconcile how two people, two churches, two religions, can state with great firmness of conviction that God has spoken to both and said completely different things. The only thing I’ve really decided for certain is that God and Jesus probably keep the intensity of their conversations with people on the down low because telling people that you saw your ficus catch on fire and tell you it was time to rise up, recommit to God, and reclaim the Sabbath by ordering businesses to refuse to force employees to work on Sunday by threatening that CEOs around the world will have their Jacuzzi water turn to blood is not so much the quickest way to start a spiritual revolution and more the quickest way to the electroshock treatment room as soon as somebody hears about it.
Christians believe in life after death, in some form.
Christians believe that Jesus lives and reigns, after his earthly death.
Christians believe that prayer is a form of communing with God and Jesus, and possibly others.
Christians believe that God “calls” them to service, sending guidance or a message.
So when I say that Jesus has spoken to me, and the Christians freak out, there’s a very serious problem brewing.
Like many Christians, I sense the presence of Jesus’ work in my life through subtle signs, answers to prayers, sermons and messages and Bible passages the reverberate with the very thing that had me distracted. When your car starts in the middle of winter after you left the headlights on for two hours, the religious see a minor miracle and the agnostic see mathematical probability and excellent electrical engineering. The truth may very well lie between the two. However, on a handful of occasions, I have been presented with a response so strong and so immediate that I think dismissing it would be a greater act of insanity than trying to make sense of it.
I’ve just been hit in the head with a bat. It’s a practice bat, with a foam core, which is probably why they think it’s ok to use it. It still hurts. So do the rocks. So do the punches in my back and the back of my head. I pray for God, who I barely believe in any more, to make it all go away. I feel myself being drawn out of my body, looking down on it from above. I can see the four of them still taunting me, but I cannot hear them any longer. There’s a sound like a waterfall, or a rushing wind, instead. And a voice that says, “There are none beneath you. Fear Me, and none other.” It took me a while to sort through that, which I did while watching myself walk home. One of them knows where we are as we get close, and he says: “Dude, that’s his house. Let’s head back.”
And then it occurs to me. All this time I despised my bullies but also let them get away with everything because I considered them as less than human. Animals, really. As in maybe someone should put them down like one. But the way they peel off when we get in viewing distance of my house tells me that they are aware that they could get in trouble, or that my Dad or older brother might come out of the house and give them hell. And I know that they know what they’re doing is wrong, but don’t care. That’s when I decide to talk about it with my parents for once, and call the police. All this was prodded not by God telling me that these people weren’t better than me, but that they weren’t lower than me.
We are all equal.
Feeling hurt and betrayed by a girl I thought I loved and my older self’s best friend who hadn’t died, I tried to walk home three miles through the knee-deep residue from the heaviest storm of the winter. It was close to midnight January 1, 1996, the evening after the New Year. It was below freezing and I had only a T-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes on. I’d stormed off in such a huff I’d left all my winter garments on the coat hook near where the two of them were on the floor. There were no footprints anywhere I looked. The plows had not been out. There were no tracks in the road, no cars anywhere. The whole world felt empty. My hands were starting to go numb when I passed Assisi Heights, home of the Sisters of Saint Francis in Rochester. The place looked like a palace atop a hill all lit up in the dark and quiet. So I screamed at it, at God, “Looks like it’s just you and me out here. You got anything to say now?”
At the end of the street there was a cross street light. It was red. I waited for the WALK light to blink on, even though I hadn’t seen a single soul walking or driving since I’d left and could have just walked across. When the light changed to allow me passage, I heard a voice say “WAIT.” A warning, almost like it wasn’t safe to cross or important that I didn’t. Despite being cold and shivering, I conceded to probably losing a toe and waited for another cycle of the lights. When the light changed back again to green, and the WALK light beckoned, I heard it again. “WAIT” More like a parent tried to convince a child to be patient just a little while longer.
The light turned red again. I decided I was just going to walk across the street now. I impulsively “looked both way” to see that now there was a car slowly crawling up the street, the only one on the road, pulling up out of nowhere. The odds of Jason Ruona, a friend from high school who’d been unflappable in his desire to be a servant of God in a public school, being in the car just at that time and just at that place were low. I have since pegged it at approximately 187,000:1. But it was, and he saw me, and he gave me a ride to Perkins to drink coffee until feeling returned to my hands. He listened, he witnessed, he prayed for me, and he paid for my coffee and gave me a ride home. If this story seems familiar to my fellow congregants at Grace, it’s because I’ve shared it before. It was the turning point on a path back to Jesus.
If we are open to God’s voice, he can send us where we’re needed, or speak to us where we are.
I’ve been writing long enough to know when something comes from me and when it doesn’t. I do the thing where I put my “characters” on “stage” in my mind and let them do their thing while I write it and refine it. Like other writers, I have been genuinely surprised when my characters do something unexpected or pull me in a way I hadn’t intended, but I always recognize it as coming from my subconscious and my instincts and my knowledge and experience with story telling. But sometimes things leap, fully formed, out of my skull, and I know they’re not really all that much from me. One was a parable that came to me when I was at the Synod gathering last year. Me Facebook friends have probably read it, or can find it in my Notes. Another was that song I did when Kirsten was born. It had actually come to me after EMILY was born, but I didn’t have the guts to sing it, because I wasn’t sure how to play it. I’m the pianist equivalent of a “hunt and peck” typist. So we did “Borning Cry” like everyone else does. And I remembered it when Mira was born, and I thought maybe now! Because now the line about “faces of my girls” makes more sense than it did when it appeared in my head when Emily was born. But I chickened out again and didn’t do it. I think we sang “Welcome to the Wonder” instead. And then Kirsten was born, and was this complete and total and marvelous accident that we had not planned for when we thought maybe we’d be done having kids, and that voice was all “NOW OR NEVER!” So I did. I sang it for all three of them, and I told them it was for all three of them. And Emily loves it and cries whenever she hears it because she says it makes her feel so loved that she can’t hold it all inside her head.
God can put words in our mouths.
I had hated him, and tried to forget about him, and had been pretty successful up until he died. Of natural causes, if you can call being struck down by an undiagnosed medical problem at the age of 35 natural. He was the first one from that larger-than-I’m-proud-of group I wished would get hit by a semi truck back in high school to actually die, and all it made me was a little sad. Because I could tell he was loved and that those people would miss him. I saw the picture of him in the obituary, and he didn’t even look like I remembered. And why should he? That person I remembered was long gone, locked into an unassailable framework of time. I tried to bend the fact to my benefit. It’s all in the past, I told myself. They’re gone. They can’t hurt you anymore. That place is gone, the period of your life is gone.
It seemed hollow, an empty victory if it was even a victory at all. But then that now familiar voice said “And their victim no longer exists.”
And suddenly it just seemed so obvious. Even as those people I’d feared and hated no longer existed in that form I’d crystallized and reinforced in my memory, so too was that young child, that young boy, that much younger man that I had been. None of them were around any more. And after that, thinking about the past became more like watching a television show through a screen. It could still evoke the same deep feelings that a story might through its moments of heartbreak and loss, but there was a detachment now. It was like the millions of tiny needles that had regularly punctured away at my chest, my stomach, and the backs of my eyes had been reduced to a mildly irritating rash.
It would be nice to say that this was the moment where I shut the door on that pain forever, but of course we know that it isn’t true. However, with those weighty words hovering around me — “Their victim no longer exists” — I have a mantra that helps me breath easier, to get through the day, to celebrate who I am right now. It’s not a healing I could have reached solely on my own, I feel certain.
So many of the solutions to the things we pray for requires letting God transform us first.
Because of the bullying I went through in school, I felt a very close kinship with people who were or might be gay. It was one of the things I was most teased about because I liked music, art, and poetry and didn’t want to play sports. Because I was logical or emotional and not physical; I preferred philosophical debate to violence. If “nerd” was the number one epithet that was lobbed at me, “faggot” had to have been second. The only thing I had in my own defense was to remind myself that I wasn’t gay, and that they were mistaken.
But what if I had been?
It was sobering and depressing, this idea of someone who might be so much like myself but not have the escape of at least possessing the predominant form of sexual attraction. It seemed like such a small thing to judge by, but so completely encompassing as a label. And it was so, so misinformed in its prejudice. One classmate regularly wished that the school would “screen for gayness” so that he didn’t have to worry about being jumped and raped in the gym showers. I responded that he seemed to have a very high opinion of his own attractiveness.
It became a subject I could never shake, and my own ignorance didn’t help. Even me, with my
learned knowledge and wisdom information gleaned from magazines on the table at the psychiatrist’s office every week, found myself taken aback as people began coming out to me and around me. “Didn’t they used to date so and so?” I’d say to myself. “They seemed hetero enough back then….” I had completely misjudged the lengths to which troubled souls will go to don the uniform of approved conformity. I’m pretty sure that until I was nearly out of college I likely handled every new coming out with the completely unhelpful response of “Are you sure?” As if painting a giant bulls-eye on their back was something they were doing on a lark.
As is my way, I came at it from every angle: biological, chemical, cultural, sociological, psychological, even epidemiological. I put off spiritual until the very end, in which case, having determined that homosexuality posed no innate risk to social stability (goes right up there with testing to see if candy contributes to obesity, doesn’t it?), I sought to determine how I felt about the prospect of gay marriage. And not just gay marriage as a social contract with state provisions that provide economic and legal protections akin to “traditional” marriage, but marriage with a religious component.
So I prayed about it. And I got that same voice I’d heard so many times before standing in front of me saying, “You know if my parents had wanted to get married today, they couldn’t? Times are different now. Protect the helpless. Bless the love.”
It’s true, you know. Very few places would hand out a marriage license to a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl. And yet being the earthly parents of Jesus has done very little to set the tone for governmental laws of marriage based on Biblical precedent.
If the answer you get is the answer you expect, it might not be God.
So here we are, many weeks after I posted on Facebook that it had been a long time since I had been this far from walking away from Christianity. And I’m finally getting around to explaining why. But first, let’s recap a few things:
-I believe in a life after death.
-I believe that people in that place or state after death can connect with us.
-I believe that Jesus was real, and that he can connect with us.
-I believe that Jesus has connected with me.
-I believe that Jesus’ messages to be have been unmistakeable.
These things are not a far stretch from what Christians purport to believe. But with that shared belief in mind, there are some critical differences that put me at odds with large portions of this body we call the Church:
-I believe that gay marriage should be legal, and can be blessed by God
-I believe that women can be Pastors
Most philosophical/theological smackdowns often come around to that one koan-like question: “Can God make a rock so heavy that He himself can not lift it?” To a straightforward binary way of thinking, either of a Yes/No answer would demonstrate a limitation of God. But this question is a non-starter to me, because the answer for me is “Yes, until it becomes No.” For an omnipotent God, willing and doing are one and the same. No limit exists outside of His own power, and choosing for something not to be is the same as it not being able to be done. But all that is needed to change that state if for God to change His mind.
The heaviest weight in existence is sin. And sin weighs people down and keeps them from God, and in the Old Testament the only way for people to become right with God again was to follow very specific, detailed, and perhaps even extravagant means of atonement. And without those actions and sacrifices required to atone, the weight of sin would not and could not be lifted.
But Jesus changed all that. He became the sacrifice, the Lamb, that could put everyone right with God without having to have the prerequisite number of sheep, goats, and doves cut and burned. God took that immoveable, weighty burden and lifted it, because He loves us, and he chose to. And all we have to do is choose to accept it.
So to me, gay marriage and female pastorhood is like that rock. As a rational, Biblical argument I tend to argue the belief that “what [God] has made clean, you must not call unclean.” No matter how one interprets the Bible, how rigidly or flexibly, I think it needs to be asked: If God calls a woman to become a Pastor, who are we to stand in her way? If God calls two adults to love and cherish each other to the end of their days and form a loving and even God-fearing family, who are we to condemn it?
Of course, this whole thing hinges on one point, and it is a point that the more orthodox members of religion are quick to point out, the idea that “Well, God never really said that. He wouldn’t say that.” And to that, all I can say is, “my experiences say otherwise.” And then they promise to pray for me and that the demonic shroud that clouds my thinking will be torn away and that I will stop deceiving His sheep and listening to the Devil who’s clearly behind all this.
That’s when I start looking for my walking shoes. Because these experiences I’ve had, these callings from God and the paths I believe He has led me to, are not one voice among many. They are ONE VOICE. If the God my detractors believe in, who holds their beliefs as sacrosanct and mine as abominable, then I have never heard that God speak to me. Never. Not once. And so if it is the case that all I’m hearing is some aspect of my disassociative personality, or it’s the devil, or it’s a demon, or it’s a mischievous spirit, then I need to get out of the Christian religion altogether, because that God who doesn’t seem to be my God must apparently be silent. His are not the familiar hands I feel behind my answered prayers.
Similarly, if the God that tells me one thing is also demanding that these other Christians outlaw homosexuality as much as possible and fight to inseparably fuse Biblical law and secular, governmental law, then perhaps God’s conflicting personality disorder is the real danger here, and I’d better bail out before we all Bible bang ourselves out of existence.
I haven’t walked, I should add. God has a plan for me at Grace, and a plan for Grace, and I’m very excited about where we are going as a church and as a congregation. I feel this very strongly. I have stayed because that voice, that God I’ve rambled on about in this enormous post wants me very much to be there, because God sent Tammy Dahlvang to bring a message with God in it to our church, in which I could hear God calling us to reconcile, and not tear down, and at a time I most needed to hear it. And so while I don’t have all the answers to all the questions I’ve pondered in five or six entries of spiritual hand-wringing, I know that it’s ok. God will give them to me when I’m ready, and probably when it will catch me most off-guard.
Because God’s cool like that.