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I was asked to address an adult Sunday morning Bible forum and speak on how my faith and my life intersect. My faith and my life don't "intersect", they are one and the same, so I thought it would be easy to make a few "off the cuff" remarks. The more I explored the topic the more I realized that much of what I believe about God, Jesus and the Bible would have been considered heresy by the church of my childhood. Growing up I was taught you either believed the way my church did or "to hell with you". There was not much latitude for salvation where "purity of doctrine" was tantamount. Well, my doctrine is no longer so pure.
Over the last 20 plus years of raising kids I have come to realize that all is not black and white - not even when it comes to theology ..... especially when it comes to theology. There is a great deal of "gray" and the Bible, contrary to what I was taught as a child, does not always yield a straight forward answer. The ones who have taught me the most about what God is really about are my children. What they have taught me will seem heretical to many, but I stand firm that my children have been true teachers. Here, then are the heresies, which I claim to be true. As with Luther I fervently claim, "Here I stand. I can do no other!"
Heresy # 1
My son James, a saintly teacher in his own right, was adopted at age 8 after years of abuse and neglect. Life has not been easy for him. Ethical decision making is a particular challenge and he is now in prison, serving a 16 year sentence for participating in the kidnapping of a man at knife point, robbing him, stealing his car and eluding the police. During high school he occasionally attended a church sponsored youth group which sponsored a variety of discussions. One evening the topic was the existence of hell. One by one the kids stood up and bore testimony that hell was indeed a real place and those who didn't follow Christ were doomed to go there. Scripture after scripture was brought forth as proof of God's willingness to eternally damn the faithless.
James took the floor to proclaim something quite different. While I was not there, what he said was substantiated by witnesses who shared his testimony with me. He said, "For years I have stolen, lied, and cheated - in this town, to my parents and at school. I have been in trouble with the police for as long as I can remember. I was placed in foster care for being out of control with my parents. I have spent time in jail. I have lived on the street when I didn't want to follow the rules at home. Every single time I left, my mom and dad welcomed me back home. They have continued to love me and be there for me even though I have hurt them and this county through all my illegal activities. There is nothing I have done, and no where that I have gone that has made them stop loving me. They have always been there for me, going with me to court, visiting me in jail, taking me to counseling. They have never withdrawn their love, support and presence from me. I cannot believe in hell because then it would mean that God loves me less then my mom and dad do and I know that is not true."
With James, I declare Heresy #1. There is no hell except for the one we create for ourselves here on earth. There is no eternal damnation. There is no place where God does not go with us, not in this life or the next. With Paul I bear witness that "Nothing can separate us from the love of God." Nothing.
Saint Robert, adopted at age 5 with severe Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, was doomed from conception to a life of muddled thinking common to those born with this particular form of irreversible, untreatable brain damage. He is in prison for three years for a series of minor and not-so-minor offenses which kept compounding. You ask him why he is there and he really doesn't have a clear answer.
For several years I talked to Paul about my desire for a gold band with 10 diamonds in it - one for each of our children. While I was India in January, I had one made. It was not until I got it on my finger that I realized something astounding. Every diamond was the same size. Each diamond was the same distance from my heart. There was no way to look at the ring and say this diamond represented Rebecca, our high school valedictorian and space scientist, and this diamond represented Robert, our brain damaged prison inmate. Just like the diamonds, each of our children are equally close to my heart and each shines just as brightly in my eyes. Rebecca is next to Robert is next to James is next to Matthew is next to Jonathan. As I was in India I realized God must view the world's people in much the same way. When looking at the diamonds which shine from the heart of God the Muslims are next to the Jews are next to the Christians are next to the Hindus. Gandhi is next to Hitler is next to Churchill is next to Stalin is next to Tutu.
All are brought to the throne of God. No one is turned away. Being able to love everyone unconditionally is what makes God God.
Saint Rachel has found the love of her life. The person is everything I could ask for - intelligent, witty, hard working, caring. It was just hard to realize that, with seven sons, my first daughter-in-law was living with my daughter. All sorts of scripture can be thrown in their direction, that they are living in sin, they are outside the pale of God's love, they are an abomination, etc. I don't believe it, not for a minute. Kelly is a wonderful young woman and she and Rachel have created a wonderful life with each other. Their relationship is blessed by God. Their care and concern for each other, their commitment to each other, is way above and beyond what I have seen in many heterosexual relationships. God calls us to enter into loving relationships and I see Rachel and Kelly's relationship as one of them.
Saint Ruben and the many of the rest of our children daily demonstrate what is essential in a godly life. None of the kids who have grown up and moved out worship regularly. Nonetheless most of them live generous lives, filled with acts of kindness and generosity. When they were small Paul and I taught them to put a few of their pennies, nickels and dimes in the offering plate as it went by. Now that they are adults they are giving of themselves in ways beyond that. They have matured. If all they did was throw money in the plate like they did when they were children I wouldn't think much of their spiritual growth. They may not be in church on Sunday, but they are living Christ-like lives and I know they are near to the heart of God.
Saint Paul has taught me how relationships evolve and that if they are vibrant they grow and change. I am not the girl Paul married almost 30 years ago. And he is not the boy I married. We have grown and endured and have grown again. When we married I had just turned 20 and was, to all intents and purposes, spoiled. Growing up, my mother had a housekeeper and I did not find that cooking and cleaning chores fit in my definition of wedded bliss. Further, as part of the courtship ritual, Paul and I spent our time together eating out, going to the movies, skiing. Once we were married there was no room in the budget for nightly entertainment and I was bummed. Paul no longer doted on me. He came home in the evening and wanted to read the paper. I wanted to party. One night he came home to find me crying. Dutifully he asked me what was wrong and I broke down and sobbed, "If you loved me you would know what was wrong!" Being an engineer he could do nothing but roll his eyes at the insanity represented by such a statement. Obviously, I had a lot of growing up to do. The first step was taken when I called my mother in despair and proclaimed, "Mom, I'm coming home." There was a slight pause before my mother said, "Debby, you are home." Oh......I guess I better make this work then.
Thus began the evolution of our relationship. I had to learn to spend less money. He had to learn to be a little more loose. I had to learn to be patient. He had to learn to make decisions more spontaneously. The lessons were innumerable. So it goes with our relationship with God and God's relationship to us and to the world. God had to learn that the perfect creation needed numerous adjustments. People weren't cooperating with the divine plan so alternatives had to be devised. We had to learn that the ultimate will of God, which is to love, will prevail. In my life I have found myself on more than one occasion in the sanctuary at church arguing with God, working through a sticky issue, looking for a way to work out our differences of opinion. In the process I have discovered that God is not static. The way God might have solved a problem in 1000 BC is not the way it would have been solved in 1000 AD and certainly is not the way God might work through a problem now. When the chosen people of God were being burned in Hitler's ovens God did not lead them out with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God has changed the way he/she operates in the world.
The simplistic view of God as a bearded, white, portly male sitting on a throne worked for me when I was a small child, but it doesn't anymore. God is bigger than that, more than that, just like as an adult woman I am bigger and more than I was at six. God has changed, evolved over the eons to meet the demands of a changing and evolving world.
I look at my daughters and know they are made in the image of God as much as any of my sons are. They are called into a relationship with God that has nothing to do with male/female roles. If God ever was male, she no longer is. God transcends male and female gender designations.
There are two Christ's depicted in the New Testament. There is the Christ that is described by Paul and there is the Christ, whose actions are described in the gospels. Paul preaches exclusion, judgement, and rules. Christ preaches love, acceptance, understanding, human justice, needs of the poor, and equality of women. Paul wrote to confirm the social order of the time, slavery, status of women, obedience to the prevailing government. Christ modeled stepping out of the box, talking to women, seeking out the poor, challenging the world order. My heresy is that I often find myself rejecting the words of Paul as they do not stand up to the example of Christ.
Any biblical scholar can read the Bible and by picking out selected texts can point out the errors of my beliefs. I believe the entire practice of "proof texting" misrepresents the word of God. The scriptures need to be taken as a whole cloth - not dismantled into little snippets of words here or there to prove the point of an argument. The 20th century media equivalent of proof texting is "sound bites", in which a technical wizard takes a sentence from an entire speech and quotes it on the evening news as if it represents the whole. The speaker's intent can be completely misconstrued by the application of such a process. So, too, can the Bible be picked apart to make it say what this person or that person wants it to say. Rarely do I hear people pointing out the example of Christ. Often I hear the judgemental words of Paul quoted as if they were representative of all of scripture. Verses can be found which condemn homosexuality. Verses can be found which proclaim that nothing separates us from the love of God. Verses can be quoted which describe the unchangeable nature of God. Passages where someone argues with God and prevails would prove otherwise. Whenever I see a sign advertising a church as "Bible believing" I know immediately I would avoid such a place as I don't believe in the Bible. I believe in the God that the Bible reveals.
Reading the story of Jonah and the whale I don't have to get caught up in the historical accuracy of the data presented. It is irrelevant whether or not Jonah even existed, much less whether he did the Geppeto trick as animated by Disney for three days. Was it factual? Unlikely. Was it true? Definitely. The truth is that God sends messengers to us to point out the error of our ways and it is our job to repent. Did Christ turn water into wine? I don't know. The historicity of the event is irrelevant. That doesn't change the truth that God comes to us in surprising ways to show us how to live abundantly. Christmas, Job, Noah.....factual? Unlikely. Truthful? Definitely.
Each story points out the essential - that God is an evolving, ever changing force for truth, human justice, and love. While the Gutenberg press has been hailed as one of the inventions which allowed humanity to leap forward there is the possibility that it also stopped the development of the story of God. By concretizing and setting in stone the Bible as it existed in the 1600's the quiet evolution of scripture as stories handed down from generation to generation, each adapting them to the needs of the time, halted. The bible then became The Bible, considered to be complete in and of itself. My heresy is that I don't believe that. I believe there are numerous holy writings and by reading widely, "sacred" works, that reveals the love of God for the world, can be found.
While in graduate school to get my master's degree in social work I read this story, called The Fence.
There was a little boy with a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, to hammer a nail in the back fence. The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Then it gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally, the day came when the boy didn't lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and let him to the fence. He said, "You have done well, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won't matter how many you say I'm sorry, the wound is still there."
That is a clever story and delivers a great message. However, if I were to take this simplistic little tale and say that by reading it I knew enough to get a master's degree in social work I would be sadly mistaken. Stories like this are only the tip of the ice berg. Jesus grows up. He doesn't stay in the manger. Reading the stories of the Bible and then saying you understand God is like that. Understanding God takes more than reading a few stories. It takes study, it takes reading of critical texts, it takes discussion, it takes thought, it takes being open to spiritual guidance through prayer and meditation. It takes growing up and leaving the angels, wise men, shepherds and stars of the manger and exploring the commitment, pain and sacrificial work that Christ carried out during his life.
The wonderful thing about God is that God loves us without all that work. The work just makes it easier to love and appreciate God more in return. We have a richer, deeper relationship when we make the effort to understand.
What all this means is that I'm pretty sure I do not fall anywhere near the theology of mainstream Lutheranism. I probably would not be considered Lutheran, even though I worship with a Lutheran congregation. There is also the possibility that I am not even Christian by the prevailing definition. However, I am firmly convinced that God and I are in a wonderful, glorious relationship that we both enjoy immensely......and my children were the impetus to seek out a different truth then what had been taught me as a child.
Does God love and accept me regardless of what I consider to be "truth"? For sure. Other people have found other truths about God, still others have not bothered looking, yet together we all approach the holy throne and receive the blessings from the outstretched hand of God.
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