What I am learning is that the new normal is not that I no longer experience God, but that God is meeting me in new ways. The new normal is that I don’t need to hear people play guitar telling me to feel God’s love from a stage. I find God’s love in much less conspicuous places, from the stranger behind me who felt too awkward to shake my hand, to the silly doodles my kids were making on the church bulletin. The new normal is that I no longer find authority in celebrity pastors preaching at me, but I do find it listening to unheard voices of small bloggers and older people who aren’t social media savvy.
The new normal is that I hear the "Roman Road" gospel preached and find it dull and superficial, and yet feel overwhelming conviction in the cross lived out by people who forgive their enemies.
The new normal is that although God has not changed, I have changed. And like a parent who stops cooing in baby talk, God is starting to speak in new, fresh ways to me.
As a ten-year-old suburbanite, I saw a black dog stumble through the cul-de-sac without a collar and named him “The Devil.”
I remember a couple years later deciding I was wrong — that the devil was bearded, gendered, nocturnal, and afraid of my prayers.
I think about the devil differently now. I think less about bearded imps and more about the incarnations of evil I see around me: racist shootings, the disrespected bodies of women, dusty nukes.
The devil has evolved and morphed throughout Judeo-Christian history as well, going from absent, to messenger, to adversary, to the evil commander in an eschatological battle, to metaphor, to the Broadway sock puppet described in Stephanie Sandberg’s “Devils We Know” (Sojourners, July 2015). In many ways, the devil’s role in scripture is as changing and fascinating as the devil’s role in pop culture.
What’s it like to share your stories of loss to a room of hundreds? Wm. Paul Young (author of The Shack), Reba Riley (Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome), and Christian Piatt (PostChristian) are about to find out — and help others do the same. The three bestselling authors are launching a two-stop tour — "Where's God When..." — in Seattle and Portland on May 16 & 17, to help others hear, and share, their own stories of grief, heartbreak, and healing.
Sojourners sat down with the authors last week to talk loss, return to faith, and what it’s like to coordinate a tour focused on hard questions about God. Interview edited for length and clarity.
Being “right” is exhausting.
You know what I mean. A controversy blows up over social media and the faith must be defended. A conversation about church practices becomes a nitpicky theological debate. A news story catches our eye and we are filled with outrage and take to our laptops to be the first to comment.
I feel as though I live in a world in which I’m constantly tempted — and encouraged — to major in details and minutiae and miss the very real and beautiful and incomprehensible presence of God.
Which is why being “right” is exhausting.
I thought of this the other day while visiting a different church from the one in which I am a member. My first — and wrong — reaction was to tense up. It seemed that everything about church that I had tried to escape was on display. I’ve learned to pay attention to those reactions. I have found that whenever something bothers me and makes me speak in absolutes, it’s because there’s a part of my heart I want to hoard for myself instead of allowing God’s light to shine on it. I hate to admit it, but so much of my identity as a Christian is defined by what I’m not.
A friend mentioned that he likes my blogs dealing with love and compassion and other themes without getting into religion specifically. He said that the mention of God can make things uncomfortable.
My reaction: I know exactly where he’s coming from.
The word “God” has become such a loaded term. We’ve made it that way; God hasn’t done it. And the truth is, I’ve found myself shying away from using the word at times because I’m aware it’s an immediate turnoff to some people. They have the same sort of visceral reaction that we get when we see one of those political attack ads come onto our TV set.
We want to reach for the remote and change the channel.
One of the reasons I started writing blogs was to try to strip away some of the nonsense we’ve attached to the name. And there is so much nonsense. You know what I mean:
That God loves me more than you. God approves of me and those who are like me, but not you and those who are like you. God likes my religion and my way of life, but not yours. God is on my side in any disagreement. God approves of hatred and judgment and killing. God promotes crusades and inquisitions and holy wars.
So much …
As Western nations evacuate their citizens from West Africa’s growing Ebola outbreak, some Christian leaders have begun to speak of the virus as a curse from God.
On Friday, the World Health Organization declared the Ebola crisis ravaging the region an international health emergency. On the same day, Nigeria became the latest country in West Africa to declare the virus crisis a national emergency, the day after Spain evacuated a priest and a nun from Liberia to Madrid.
On Saturday, a Congolese nun died from Ebola in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, the AP reported.
The outbreak started in December in Guinea, but was not discovered until March. It has since killed more than 1,000 people in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.
“People are having different misconceptions that this is [a curse] from God,” said Bishop Sumoward Harris, now retired from the Lutheran Church in Liberia. “This is depending on how they are interpreting the Bible. But I don’t think God is angry and is issuing a punishment.”
In Liberia, more than 100 Christian leaders meeting in early August declared that God was angry and Ebola a plague.
I was privileged to attend the ordination of a friend recently. For the first time, Michelle got to say the blessing over the bread, to break the bread and to give it to all of us with her hands.
Many tears, much joy.
As she handed me a small piece of the bigger loaf, I was reminded of how we, like the communion bread, are in the hands of others for so much of our lives. And how religion can be a thing of so much good or so much pain, depending upon whose hands it is in.
In the right hands, it’s a pathway to the divine. In the wrong hands …
It’s important that we always differentiate between religion and God. The two are distinct. God is always much bigger than any and all of our religions.
I am waiting for the music to return — the sonorous graces of laughter and kitchen clinking, of bird call on the hillside.
I am waiting for the music to return — the precarious arrangement of hope and memory that uplifts and guides.
I am waiting for the music to return — the band, the orchestra, the seisiún, the jam, the people who make and craft sound.
Instead, I am stranded in an eschatological posture like pause on my mp3 player. The Wifi Spirit does not respond and even if I could connect, the playlist I have randomized is sore lacking. I miss the people who make these sounds. I miss their voices.
If Christians stopped bickering about church, presenting sex as a first-order concern, telling other people how to lead their lives, and lending our name to minor-league politicians, what would we have to say?
We need to figure that out, because we are wearing out our welcome as tax-avoiding, sex-obsessed moral scolds and amateur politicians.
In fact, I think we are getting tired of ourselves. Who wants to devote life and loyalty to a religion that debates trifles and bullies the outsider?
So what would we say and do? No one thing, of course, because we are an extraordinarily diverse assembly of believers. But I think there are a few common words we would say.
It seems like violence will never end. Portland. Seattle. Las Vegas. Isla Vista. Almost every day in Chicago. Not to mention Iraq, Boko Haram, the conflict in Ukraine, and the continued war in Afghanistan.
The Huffington Post just reported that “If it’s a school week in America, odds are there will be a shooting.” Since the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012, the United States has averaged 1.37 school shootings per week.
And our culture is divided on how best to respond. One side declares we need to increase gun regulations. The other side insists we need more guns. The two sides are locked in a bitter political rivalry, using terms like “rights” and “responsibilities” and neither side will budge. One side will win the political battle concerning gun rights, but I fear that no matter who wins the battle it will only perpetuate the war.
I’m feeling despair, and from my Facebook feed, I know many others are feeling the same way. After all, this is so much bigger than guns; it’s about a culture of violence. But please, don’t fall into despair. We have too much work to do.
Two weeks ago in Soma, Turkey, a coal mine explosion left 301 people dead. It was the country’s worst mining disaster, but it wasn’t the first — and it wasn’t the last, as multiple fatal accidents have happened in the two weeks since. The last time a mining disaster caught the world’s attention, we watched and waited and prayed during the rescue operation for the miners in Chile.
In Turkey, people protested in the streets of Soma — protested against Soma Mining for letting this happen, against their government for loopholes in safety rules. In response, the police issued a ban on protests and locked the city down. The ruling political party proudly announces that it has inspected that mine 11 times in the past 5 years; Soma Mining denies negligence. And the families of 301 persons mourn their losses.
This isn’t a faraway problem. In the United States, we don’t do as much traditional mining as we used to — instead, we do mountaintop removal. This has a human cost, too, in more insidious ways. The people living in Appalachia have higher rates of respiratory illness, cancer, kidney diseases, skin ailments, and more. And the landscape, which has the fingerprints of God in it, is being blown apart.
Psalm 95:4-5 says:
“In [God’s] hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are [God’s] also. The sea is [God’s], for [God] made it, and the dry land, which [God’s] hands have formed.”
Christianity is full of labels.
Does caring about the environment make me a Liberal Christian?
Does opposing to the death penalty make me a Leftist Christian?
Does believing that women can preach make me a Christian Feminist?
Does believing in anti-violence make me a Christian Pacifist?
Does taking an anti-war stance make me an Anabaptist Christian?
Reading the Bible from the comfort of my couch, I find myself pointing fingers at individuals like Elijah. I can throw them under the bus for missing the point. It's easy for me to see how they got it all wrong. I'm amazed how apparent the presence of God can be one minute and the very next minute they sink deep into despair with this "woe is me" attitude — all the while thinking God has abandoned them.
But, as an onlooker, I have the privilege of seeing the whole story. I'm not living in the moment waiting for things to unfold. The Bible has extended to me the privilege of seeing the big picture, which makes it easy to see that while God is sometimes found on the mountain, or in those big cinematic experiences — conquering prophets, healing the sick, reviving the dead, conquering death — other times he is found in the valley, or in that still, small voice.
But then again, I have to wonder if I'm really any different? Don't I have the same struggles today? How often do I get caught up in the circumstances and lose sight of the big picture? I have some big mountain top experience — the money comes through, the deal works out, I got the job, my fear and anxiety dissipate, the mission trip is life changing, the sermon was exactly what I needed to hear — and, it never fails, the next minute I feel as though God has abandoned me. Doubts surface about whether or not God really has my best interest at heart. I wonder if he can even use someone as broken as me.
What causes such a drastic change?
After wrestling with this a little more, I came to a disheartening conclusion — I have a tendency to seek an experience instead of God.
Sometimes it's hard to blame people for rejecting God, because many Christians present a God that is ugly, cruel, unfair, and utterly horrific. Thus, when people avoid Christianity, they're actually shunning their ugly perception of it.
When you hear people talk about God, what type of God are you imagining? When you speak of God, what type of God are you communicating?
Unfortunately, society's obsession with success, politics, business, security, wealth, and comfort has hijacked the way we see and interpret God — even Christians are guilty of this.
It's easy to manipulate God to fit our own agendas, to use religion to rationalize our actions, to wield spirituality as a weapon, and manipulate theology to rationalize our sins.
The seasonal items aisle in the grocery store is a work in progress. Stuffed bunnies are being replaced by garden gnomes. Cans of sunscreen will soon inhabit the shelves that displayed egg-coloring kits a few days ago.
Easter is over.
Well, not completely. Boxes of purple and yellow Peeps are stacked on clearance tables in the middle of the aisle. Chocolate rabbits are available for half-price.
And tombs are being emptied.
Editor's Note: This post is adapted from a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Nixon.
Some of us have stood at a tomb, faced an open grave, scattered the ashes of one beloved. We know what it’s like to be confronted with the stark reality of death and the flood of conflicting emotions that comes with it. I’ve stood at different sites at Dry Creek Cemetery in Boise, Idaho, and the Veteran’s Cemetery next to it, to bury my father, my brother, my nephew, my step-father and-step sister, my brother-in-law, not to mention my beloved piano teacher, and a dear high school friend. Not so long ago I stood by the open grave of Patrice Heath as her casket was lowered into the ground. We prayed and wept and celebrated her life, but it is not an easy thing, under any circumstances, to lay a loved one to rest.
The ancient story of Lazarus being raised from the dead in John 11:1-45 is just such a situation. It’s also another occasion to encounter Jesus in his divinity and his humanity. It’s a long, complicated story. You have heard it read. I will not attempt to unpack it all.
Andrew Bird is one of my favorite musicians. I love the way he makes a one-man band, looping over his own violin playing, singing, whistling, and stomping to create beautiful songs. No two live performances are the same. And once, when I saw him in D.C., he played a new song that was still being written — one that had come from his heart, but he hadn’t yet finished and didn’t think it had an end.
He told us he wrote the song during the BP oil spill, often called “Deepwater Horizon,” that happened in the Gulf of Mexico. During that disaster, over 200 million gallons of crude oil spewed into the Gulf for days on end from a hole nobody could plug, and the whole country watched it happening live.
This year, some have given up Facebook for Lent. Others joined the “National Day of Unplugging” on March 7-8, putting away their phones, tablets, and laptops for a 24-hour digital Sabbath designed to slow people down in an increasingly hectic world.
According to the National Day of Unplugging website, people unplugged in order to dance, sleep, write, play, reflect, relax, reset, tune in, chill out, stay sane, and be more connected.
But wait a second — be more connected? That seems odd, since the promise of social media is that it will strengthen connections. Facebook links us instantly to hundreds of friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors. Twitter enables us to follow people and collect followers of our own. LinkedIn links us to colleagues through an enormous professional network.
Social media seems to be all about connections. But its links have serious limitations.