“Infinity always gives me vertigo and fills me up with grace.”
In pondering MYSTERY we are always indebted to those who have gone before us.
What follows relies on the work of Brian McLaren and process theologian James Murray
A while back, I went to a lecture given by Brian McLaren. Brian McLaren is one of the leaders of what is being called the Emerging Church Movement, which is a movement that is trying to articulate a new kind of Christianity for the 21st century. McLaren told us a story about a friend of his named John who lives in South Africa.
John is a very wealthy successful Zulu who belongs to a Pentecostal church that preaches what is called the prosperity gospel. This is movement that insists that if you have enough faith God will see to it that you prosper and become very wealthy. Well John belongs to a very large Pentecostal church in South Africa that has tens of thousands of member. John is a very wealthy and successful businessman. And in John’s church if you are rich you gain entry to the inner circle of the pastor and you are called an Armor Bearer.
But after being involved as an Armor Bearer for many years John becomes disillusioned. John says, “I’m rich but a whole lot of other members of the church who are good faithful people are poor.” These folks have been doing everything the pastor has taught them to do and for some reason God just isn’t rewarding these poor folks with riches. The pastor keeps laying hands on them and they are not getting rich. It’s worked for me, but I just can’t figure out why it’s not working for them.” So John starts to have doubts about the prosperity gospel and he is deep in doubt.
A couple of years ago John comes to his friend Brian McLaren and he tells him that he has decided to put his faith to a test. John announces that he is going to read Richard Dawkins book the God Delusion. Now for those of you who haven’t heard or read about Richard Dawkins, he is an atheist who has written several books on the fact that God is dead or just an illusion and that people of the 21st century should just get over it. So, John says he’s going to put his faith to the test and read the God Delusion and put it all on the line. John says that, “If I become convinced by Richard Dawkins, I will give up my faith and become an atheist.”
So John starts reading, and he’s just going to put it all on the line. It’s sort of a good Pentecostal test. And John tells his friend, “Brian, I’m a good Pentecostal and I know how to hear the voice of the Lord. And one morning I was taking a shower and the Holy Spirit spoke to me. And the Spirit said, “This man Richard Dawkins speaks the truth.”
So John says to his friend, “Brian what do I do with this? I know the voice of God and God has told me that Richard Dawkins is speaking the truth.”
Well John is a good businessman and he doesn’t have much formal education, but he wants to figure this out. And he says to his friend, “Brian I just had to live with this terrible paradox in my mind. That God has told me that Dawkins is speaking the truth. And months went by and I was in turmoil about this.” And then he said, “It gradually began to dawn on me that the God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is the God that the missionaries brought to my people. And it was a white god and a colonial god and that god was used to justify putting all of my people in a position of subservience.” And he said that, “It gradually began to dawn on me that Richard Dawkins is killing a god who needs to be killed.” And he said, “The strangest thing happened after this, I found myself loving Jesus Christ more than ever. Because I realized that Jesus was trying to reveal another vision of God, a vision other than the God who kills and destroys and dominates and judges.”
In Jesus’ parable: “people never put new wine in an old wineskin. If they do, the new wine will burst the skin; the wine will spill out and the skin will be ruined. No, new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. People never want new wine after they’ve been drinking the old. They say, ‘We like the old better’.”
Jesus reveals a vision of a God who is beyond our tribal instincts and understandings; a vision of a God who is beyond our fears. And yet, all too often we prefer the old God better. We long for the supernatural being out there separate from the world who from time to time intervenes in the world; that old God who is out there and who can’t be known directly, but only believed in; that old God who sits waiting on a cloud for us to die so that he can judge us and forgive us and reward us. We like the old wine better than the new wine. And we have these old wine skins so we try putting the new wine that Jesus brings in those old skins, hoping that they will contain it. But the new wine burst the skins and pours out all over the place.
It’s the 21st century and nobody uses wine skins anymore. Why last year when we toured the vineyards of Niagara we learned that nobody’s using cork anymore. The best of the new wine comes to us in screw-top bottles. We’ve moved on and we’ve learned all sorts of things about creation, and that knowledge of creation has expanded our vision of God in ways our ancestors could never have imagined. It’s time to let the old vision of God die.
It’s time to open ourselves to what Christ has and is revealing to us about a vision of God that moves beyond our fears; a vision of God that is reflected in the cosmos as we are beginning to understand it; a vision of God that enhances our knowledge of God and calls forth a spirituality in us that sustains us in our daily living; a vision of God that helps us to experience God.
By peeling back the layers of the tradition of the Church, by unpacking the generations of theological doctrine, scholars are beginning to see a vision of God that Jesus spoke of. The new vision revealed to us in Christ, is one that reflects the reality that, “God is in the world and the world is in God and God is more than the world.” This is a vision of a relational God; a God who is intimate with the world.
We may long for the all-powerful King God, who with the stroke of his arm imposes his will upon the world, but who among us can be intimate with such a god. Is such an all-powerful God even capable of intimacy or would it be like you or I trying to caress an amoeba.
The ancient mystics found in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures the vision of God that Jesus lived and died to reveal. They found a vision of God with us, who is compassionate and directing, using our freedom and responsibility, and calling us to use these for the good of others as well as ourselves. A vision of God that emphasizes that, although God is always an important factor in what happens, God does not control history. God is in us and we are in God but we are also members one of another, and our lives are interwoven with the wider natural context of creation as well.
God’s power is relational power as opposed to unilateral power. Unilateral power is by nature coercive—imagine the old god, the cosmic moralist, and ruling like an absolute king. This image is of a God who gives, but does not receive; acts but does not listen; demands but does not compromise; this image of God makes spirituality difficult because it ignores our identities as God’s beloved creatures, it ignores our desires.
The vision of God that Christ reveals is of a God whose power is relational, a God who gives, but also receives, acts but also responds, has a vision but is open to change and transformation. Christ reveals an image of God who creates and gives freedom and creativity to creation. Freedom and creativity are intrinsic to each of us and relational power works to value that by offering a dream or aim to each of us. The future is created out of response and anticipation. The idea of relational power is dependent on diversity, actually welcomes diversity, and offers novelty to each nano second of experience.
Christ’s image of God affirms that God has a vision, appropriate to each moment of experience and, in the broadest sense, for the vast expanses of planetary and cosmic history. God is omnipresent, in all things so there are no God forsaken places. In each moment God presents the world with possibilities. God calls us into God’s dream of the future; a dream of peace and justice and peace for all God’s creation.
If we are in God then what we do matters. What we do and who we are impacts God. What we do can limit God, but can never defeat God. For in each moment the dream is revised and offered back to us. We can refuse but God does not stop, for there are some who listen and they will guide us. God leads us by persuasion and Christ empowers us by expanding our freedom to be what God is calling us to be, and the Spirit lives and breathes in with and through us.
All of creation is interconnected and intimately related to the Creator. This expansive vision of God cannot be stuffed into the old wine skins of the institution. New ways of worshipping, new ways of praying, new ways of understanding will move us beyond the old image of God which has soured and turned to vinegar in those old wine skins.
Images of God are but pale reflections of God. Worshipping images of God is a problem as old as time itself. Such worship has an ancient name. It’s called idolatry. We are called to worship God, not a pale reflection of God. So, our worship will always be incomplete for we peer through a glass darkly. So let us worship with humility, trusting Christ to show us the way. Let us worship together, mindful that our words and rituals will fail to capture the wonders and mystery of our God, but open to the possibility that together we might capture a glimpse of God or feel the touch of God, or hear the love of God, or recognize the gifts of God as we worship together.
Let us always be prepared to let an image of God die. For we are a people who claim the power of resurrection and we know that in death there is new life. God will come to us again and again, touching, caressing, nudging, persuading, cajoling, imploring, healing, soothing; sometimes shouting, sometimes whispering, often just embracing.
God will be who God will be. YAHWEH.
Our images of God will come and go, but God remains steadfast. The new wine that comes to us in the life of Christ brings us a foretaste of the feast to come; a taste that reminds us of our connectedness to God and to one another; a sacred connectedness.
So let our prayers open us to the reality of that connection. Let our deeds reflect the confidence that our freedom to act can change the world. Let us be about ushering in the reign of God that Jesus taught. A reign of justice and peace, where each one of God’s children is treasured as God’s beloved.
Let us live with confidence trusting that God is the source of our being.
Let us walk together trusting that God is the ground of our being.
Let us be all that we were created to be.
Jesus said over and over again, in words and in deeds: “Do not be afraid.”
So let us have the courage to drink the new wine that Christ offers and if it tastes a little strange to our palates, drink again, let the flavor move us to a new understanding, a new way of relating, a new way of being.
Let us open ourselves to the reflections of God that are all around us – open ourselves to the God who lives within us.