Where was God When ______?

(originally posted 2/28/2021)

(tenor images)

The messiness of life has often challenged us to question what God is up to. If there even is a God. If you believe that God is up in the sky doling out rewards or punishments and you never received that promotion, perfect partner, or winning lottery ticket you begged him for, you may be very confused. If your words of wisdom for a friend who just received a terminal diagnosis are, “This must be God’s plan for you so suck it up buttercup”, then your understanding of God is likely skewed a bit….actually A LOT!

Many of us may be experiencing a significant crisis of faith and lack of understanding of just who this God is that we worship. At the core of the confusion may be the age-old question of where God is in the midst of all the tragedies and disasters we are witnessing. All of us have been affected, some more personally than others.

There are also those who seem impervious to human suffering, believing it only happens far away in third-world countries. I’m not sure how they’re able to deny the reality of so much despair and misery, but it would be necessary I suppose, if they want to keep it from affecting them, from reaching down into their very being and ripping their hearts out.

But we can’t avoid it when it’s up close and personal. That’s when we question why God isn’t fixing all of this when we diligently pray for him to intervene? What kind of God would just sit back and ignore all the pain and suffering? Do I even believe in him?

Is it possible to step back, take a deep breath, and start admitting that there are no words for, no answers for, the suffering? Can we stop putting God in a box we’ve created to comfortably define him? Can we allow him to be Mystery? And can that be okay?

You will not receive “answers” or certitudes from me because I gave up trying to figure him out a long time ago. I can now live with the possibility that life can sometimes just be a crap shoot. I wake up in the morning, not knowing what the day will bring. Will I get cancer or a call from a long-lost friend? Will I win a new car or get run over by one? Will the cop who catches me speeding be cheerful and forgiving or a poopyhead?  Is today my last day here? I have no idea.

Let’s recap all the terrible things that have happened in the past year and revisit the “where is God” question. (It’s very telling that I am reposting this on 2/25/23, two years later, and there is nothing in these statistics that could not apply today.)

The following list of the pile-on of disasters comes from the CDP Website: https://disasterphilanthropy.org/disaster/2021-winter-storms/.

  • Devastating Winter Storms: “Two back-to-back winter storms (unofficially named Uri and Viola) landed a one-two hit across the U.S. in mid-February 2021, affecting many southern states that are unaccustomed to cold temperatures, snow or ice. The storms left extensive power outages, boil water advisories, deaths and vehicular accidents across a multi-state area in their wake.”
  • COVID destroys lives: Feb. 11, 2021: The U.S. case total is 28,542,904 with 505,795 deaths and 18,707,002 recoveries. The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population but more than 25% of its COVID-19 cases with minorities suffering the most.
  • Racial injustice: Being killed by police is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for Black men and boys. Other people of color, including Latino men and boys, Black women and girls, and Native American men, women and children, also experience higher rates of death due to police violence than their white counterparts.
  • Devastating wildfires: The 2020 season was a record-setting one for the state of California and the United States as a whole. 
  • Atlantic hurricane season: At the conclusion of the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season – damage assessments for many storms came in at well over $1 billion. The total cost for the 2020 season was almost $47 billion. More than 430 people lost their lives.
  • Southern border humanitarian crisis: As of December 2020, the Southern Border Communities Coalition reports that 118 people have died since 2010, including several who died while in Customs and Border Protection custody….problems of overcrowding, lack of hygiene facilities and health care access, as well as food shortages. The conditions in camps for unaccompanied children have been reported as deplorable, lacking in food, health care, water, sanitation, hygiene, and other services. Children have died or become severely ill in these camps. There are currently more than 500 children separated from their families at the border, and those families cannot be found.

Of course, there’s more, and getting into the details of the pain and suffering would surely add to the stress, anger, and fear that causes so many of us to shake a fist at “heaven”; at a void, we may have once believed housed God. Some are asking, some demanding, that God show himself and answer for his lack of concern for us.

I want to introduce you to Kate Bowler. She wrote a book titled, “Everything Happens for a Reason; and other lies I believed” in 2018, when she was thirty-five-ish and diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. She was given two months to live. Know how she would respond to the question “where is God”? “When I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry. I felt loved.” She managed to get past stupid people saying stupid things and discovered God was revealed in the likes of all those who loved on her, quietly sat with her, and took care of day-to-day tasks in myriad ways.

Bowler speaks from her experience and from “great works of Christian theology”. She said, “The sense of God’s presence will go. There will be no lasting proof that God exists. When the feelings recede…they will leave an imprint. I would somehow be marked by the presence of an unbidden God. It is not proof of anything….It was simply a gift. Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.

You may not recognize God because everywhere you turn he’s disguised as someone who looks like your grandmother or brother or that kid down the street who raked your leaves last year when you broke your leg and refused any money – remember? That was God.

He’s been right here all along:

  • From owners turning their stores into warming centers, to a mystery man handing out $20 bills to shoppers in Houston.
  • Houston resident Max Bozeman II, who was diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic, knew first-hand the importance of asking for help in difficult times. After posting to Instagram saying he would give out $100 to ten people who needed the money for groceries, he received a deluge of messages. He ended up handing out 70 gifts of $100 each and says he’s prepared to part with as much as $10,000.
  • In Elgin, Texas, Monica Nava, owner of the Chemn Cafe, put in a big order just before the storm hit. Rather than see perishable items go to waste, she boxed them up with shelf-stable goods into care packages. She gave the packages to in-need members of the community.
  • In San Antonio, one Good Samaritan at the Martini Ranch bar put on a free grill complete with lobster bisque for anyone in need of a meal.
  • Another Houston hero is Jim McIngvale, better known locally as Mattress Mack. McIngvale opened two of his furniture stores to be used as warming centers. “Anybody who needs it—whether they’re homeless, whether they lost power, whether it’s just wanting to come in and get something to eat.
  • Texas Nurse and Mom Stays Behind to Help Neighbors: I Had to ‘Make Sure They Were Still Alive’ “It made me very aware that we had to stay to help,” she added. “There were opportunities for us to leave, and it just wasn’t an option anymore.”

God spottings of kids going beyond caring to “being” Christ in a hurting world:

  • Haley Bridges, 17, of Appleton, Wisconsin, knew her friend and fellow Chick-fil-A employee, Hokule’a Taniguchi, 19, was commuting to work in the Wisconsin winter by bicycle. So when she learned she had won a car at a company Christmas party raffle in December, she knew exactly who she wanted to gift it to. (Got that?! A 17-year-old gave a car away!)
  • A 10-year-old boy decided to thank the front-line heroes battling the relentless coronavirus pandemic by clearing snow off their cars outside a Rhode Island hospital this week.
  • Eight-year-old Cavanaugh Bell lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “I spread positivity to inspire others to change the world. Because the pandemic left so many in need, I decided to make care packs to help elderly people in my community.” Cavanaugh initially created his care packages for elderly people in his neighborhood using his own savings from birthday and Christmas money. As word spread and donations grew, he and his mom opened a food pantry called Love is Greater than COVID-19.
  • Madison, Wisconsin — Morgan Marsh McGlone started a virtual lemonade stand last spring to raise money for a local food charity that lets people pay what they can.

Pope Francis asks: “Will we bend down to touch and heal the wounds of others? Will we bend down and help another to get up? This is today’s challenge, and we should not be afraid to face it.”

Remember the story of the stupidly rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel? (Luke 16:19-31) We often think the story is about how the rich man refused to help Lazarus and was likely annoyed by Lazarus’ presence in his front yard. But, it is more likely he didn’t even notice Lazarus. His life’s obsessions were himself, his image, and his “stuff”.

Jesus warned us about our attitude toward the poor in Matthew’s gospel: When we find ourselves having to ask, “But, when did we do that? I don’t remember doing that!” Jesus responds, “Whatever you did or didn’t do for the least of these – you did or didn’t do for me”.

So, where is God? He’s as close as your mirror. You will only “see” God when you are doing something to relieve the suffering of others, when you are his hands and feet.

Lord, help me to be “more like you and less like me”! (Beautiful song by Zach Williams – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkYL1b7MCEw&list=RDfkYL1b7MCEw&start_radio=1

A huge challenge I know, but I also know this is what gives us the the greatest joy!

God SO Loves – Me for Sure – Everyone Else is Iffy

(originally posted 9/14/20)

This post was a huge, profound, thought-provoking undertaking for me. That’s why it’s so long. Sorry.

I should begin with this disclaimer: What you are about to read is based on my opinions. I will admit that no religious publication – NOT ONE – has contacted me for a quote or a book deal. But that does not change my convictions which have evolved over years of studying the works of many respected Christian leaders, authors, and theologians like Richard Rohr, John Shelby Spong, John Phillip Newell, Marcus Borg, Diana Butler Bass, and Dr. Seuss, just to name a few. 

Polls abound that document the mass exodus from the Intuitional Church. I’m among those numbers. As I grew spiritually, I realized that, in good conscience, I could not continue to “show up” for participation in a broken, hypocritical church that left me empty and wanting, a church refusing to let go of the remnants of a sinking ship. Going down with that ship are many of its leaders clinging to imagined power, and pew sitters content with the status quo because of the false belief that it rewards adherence to their religious obligations that require nothing of them. Holding out for the rapture, I suppose.

This process has required me to open my heart and mind to possibilities beyond religious orthodoxy or “rules” that often made me uncomfortable in my own skin. I have grown to understand the folly of my long-held beliefs that you are going to hell and I am not, and other ridiculous “truths” of faith. You’re welcome. Now, you may very well be headed for hell, but you need to take that up with God.

So, let’s start here: Do you know how Christianity began or why there are only four gospels in the Bible? Many studies have revealed that there were more than four gospels at the beginning of Christianity, like the Gospel of Thomas. Who decided on the four? Was it God? Or maybe a group of Jesus’ followers started a Jesus Fan Club: #jesusrocks and wanted to develop a list of requirements for membership.

Stephen J. Patterson tells us, “The study of Christian origins during the last fifty years has revealed much more variety than our forebears ever thought possible. How did it happen that the many versions of Christianity that existed in the beginning, were eventually overshadowed by the one version we know as Christianity today?”

What was so important about the Matthew, Mark, Luke & John gospels that the others were discarded? Hint: They are called “synoptic” gospels, which means all four of them rocked the same message the church could offer on a continuous loop to the illiterate masses of the day: Get in line or get snatched by the powers of hell! Your choice.

According to Wilfred Cantwell Smith, religion “systemized ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorized, organized, objectified, and divided people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, ‘us’ versus ‘them”. Smith explains the stark difference between our understanding of religion and religio is that religio describes “a particular way of seeing and feeling the world. The archaic meaning of religio was that awe that men felt in the presence of the uncanny dreadful power of the unknown….it is something within men’s hearts.”

When was the last time “religion” rendered you awestruck? Exactly. Do we even care about any of this in the midst of Covid, the loss of jobs, despair, and the civil unrest we see in the news daily? I believe that’s precisely why we should care (the point of this post).

Anyway, let’s take a peek at just one of the rejected gospels: The Gospel of Thomas. Because why not, right out of the gate, bring up something contrary to everything we Christians have been taught! In it, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by looking outward….Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.’” In other words, God’s kingdom is not located in heaven, and the only way to “get there” is to believe in the church’s theology of heaven and hell. Thomas is telling us that the kingdom of God is right here, within our very being.

“So, wait, Linda…you’re saying you don’t believe in heaven and hell? Good luck with that on Judgment Day, standing there all exposed, surrounded by your big huge piles of sin and regret! You’ll be singing a different tune then! You’ll be like, ‘Sorry, Lord, I didn’t mean it! How about a redo? You’re good at redo’s, right? I take back every hateful word and thought I ever uttered!!!‘ And God would be like:

Hold on. I never said I didn’t believe in heaven and hell. Actually, that’s one of my core beliefs, right up there with – I know I am a beloved trainwreck, peevish with a little touch of psycho mixed with an occasional love-the-world moment. However, my belief in heaven and hell is in the context of relationships. (More on this later)

Anyway, back to Thomas. Elaine Pagels (Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas) tells us, “The Gospel of Thomas also suggests that Jesus is aware of, and criticizing the views of the Kingdom of God as a time or a place that appear in the other gospels But the Kingdom of God is within you. It’s hard to describe. But the Kingdom of God is something that you can enter when you attain gnosis, which means knowledge. But it doesn’t mean intellectual knowledge. So this gnosis is self-knowledge. It’s a question of knowing who you really are…knowing yourself at a deep level.”

Alrighty then, so why didn’t Thomas and other gospels make the cut? Is it because the Church wanted to control God and charge admission to heaven?! That is very likely considering what we know about Irenaeus. Irenaeus of Lyon was a second-century bishop and an unapologetic antagonist toward Gnosticism that had crept into “his” church, corrupting “his” people. The following is from an article in Christianity Today: 

FOUR GOSPELS, NO MORE, NO LESS: Irenaeus’s work went a long way toward establishing the notions of Christian orthodoxy and heresy. He said, “It is not possible gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are.” (He used some nonsensical formula to “prove” it.) Christianity was a religion of beliefs. Those who wandered from those beliefs were punished. Those who refused to accept them, like Jews, were persecuted.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, some scholars of the Bible began to wonder about the biblical gospels themselves. This was the Age of Reason. Did Christianity have anything to offer modern people whose capacity to reason and think critically would not permit them to believe the unbelievable?

I’m not sure. Even the researchers of “belief” admit that many people won’t tell the truth when surveyed about their faith. But we can still address the fact that there seem to be many “professed” Christians that adhere to the orthodoxy of their particular faith tradition without a second thought.

Gandhi believed, “Christianity became disfigured when it went to the West. It became the religion of kings.”

Do we wonder how God is seen as a distant and punitive judge, not a loving Father? Marcus Borg tells us Jesus was brutally crucified by the powers that be for defying Roman authority. His death was not God’s plan to atone for our sins. What kind of God could we even believe in that would do such a monstrous thing? This is a God who “loves” a special few of us with conditions? Great. Sign me up.

This God, this distant up in the sky God, looks down on us with obvious frustration and shakes his head, “No, I’m not coming down there. You people are messed up! Besides, I’m in that high-risk category for Covid, you know, with my age and all. But, I’m rootin’ for ya’!”

What does “belief” mean anyway? If I say I’m a Believer, does that require anything of me? Not really. That’s a huge stretch from its original meaning. Borg explains, “To believe in God does not mean believing that a set of statements about God are true, but to belove God. For a majority of American Protestants and some Catholics (believing in the rules) is what saves us. Or is it beloving God as known in Jesus that saves us by transforming us?” If being transformed has some inherent, unrelenting appeal to you, it can get really dangerous because beloving God comes with a caveat: It requires change at the deepest level of our being.

John Phillip Newell has observed, “The walls of Christianity are collapsing. It had become isolated from the other great religions of the world, ossified in its dogmas, paralyzed in the trappings of infallibility. What is the new thing trying to emerge from deep within us and from deep within the collective soul of Christianity?”

Is Christianity as a set of rules and infallible truths dying? That seems to be so, even though many church leaders appear to happily whistle past the graveyard regardless of the deafening echo of emptying churches and the statistics that can’t be denied.

Bede Griffiths calls our current state the “fossilization of Western Christianity”, leaving a vast expanse of emptiness in its place. We are a country that is broken, a people struggling for meaning. A truth that has become more and more apparent during these trying times. So many people feel lost and afraid with no sense of hope for our future. We are barraged daily with violence and hate from all sides.

But, dear ones, take a deep breath! This is not the end of the story because God does have the last word. He does have the power to heal our individual and collective brokenness if we would just allow him into our hearts. That’s where our faith ethos can bring forth and empower the essence of our very being and create change.

It seems we are now on the precipice of a conversion experience like we have never seen before. The time for change is now, but we must know what that change looks like. We have to be able to name “Truth”. It is not the “truth” that we have been spoon-fed by the church, but the “Truth” of an omnipotent, loving, merciful, compassionate God who longs for us to recognize our belovedness as his blessed and broken sons and daughters.

God longs for us to recognize Jesus as his beacon of light guiding our way in the darkness. And he longs for us to rejoice in the certainty that all are welcome at his table of plenty. All. Of. Us. No matter if we are of the same faith, a different faith, or no faith at all. This is not a private club. God wants you to know who and Whose you are. He wants you to claim your birthright and help others do the same.

We have wasted far too much time scratching around in the dirt, eking out a mundane existence when we were meant to soar, thrive, and be the light of Christ to a hurting world which is the essence of our very existence.

Diana Butler Bass quotes David Korten from his book, The Great Turning, “The Great Turning is an awakening – a movement to reorient human culture toward connectedness, economic quality, democracy, creation, and spirituality. The Great Turning awakens us to becoming ‘fully human’”.

Bass says, “The Great Turning is less of a turn toward something completely new and unknown; it is more of a Great Returning to an ancient understanding, of finding a forgotten path of wonder and awe through the wilderness of human chaos and change.” She believes that “many people in the West have been reaching toward religio – only they call it ‘spirituality’.

Is it reasonable to assume that those who have left the church have done so because it leaves them empty of purpose and void of a fulfillment they know intuitively as their deepest longing? I can only speak to that question within the context of my own story.

By the Church’s definition, I would have been labeled a heathen most of my life until my wretched soul was “saved” at the time of my baptism into the Catholic Church forty years ago. But, upon closer inspection, my heathenness was merely whitewashed for appearance’s sake, with pictures, and the celebratory luncheon that followed. You could say I was probably more heathenly after rising up for those baptismal waters, all full of my newfound piety.  

John Eldredge tells us, “Christianity is not an invitation to become a moral person….when transformation comes, it is always the aftereffect of something else, something at the level of our hearts. Christianity begins with an invitation to desire.”

Paul Coutinho, SJ – excerpts from his book, How Big Is Your God? “The Eastern understanding of truth is an experience. In the East, experience that affects life is true. Truth is that which touches one’s heart and changes one’s life. In the Yahwistic tradition, God never forgets we are weak, imperfect and sinful. This God is intimate. If you don’t experience the Divine inside you, you won’t find God anywhere. Each one of us is an unrepeatable revelation of the One from whom all things have come.”

Gandhi said that “if Christians had actually done what Jesus taught us to do – namely, love our enemy – the world would long ago have been transformed. He challenged us to turn our creed back into deed.”

Luke 10:27 in The Message, He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.” How powerful and scary is that? What would it mean to our world now if we loved like that!? That is what God has deeply, fervently longed for since the beginning of humanity. But we have mostly failed him except for a few shining lights in the darkness, a few God moments, which is the Divine trying to get our attention in an otherwise ordinary existence. God hides in plain sight. He is ever present to us in myriad ways, but we’re too afraid or busy or indifferent to notice.

Remember when the churches were closed because of Covid, and we got to go to “church” in our pajamas? Well, guess what? In Genesis 28:16, Jacob is all tucked in bed when he has this revelation, an AHA moment if you will, “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I did not know it.” Today’s translation might be something like: “Holy Moly, Batman! God is everywhere! Not just in the church building at 9:00 on Sunday morning!” If that fact didn’t just cause you a bit of trembling and a whole lot of angst, you might need to get your pulse checked.

During this critical juncture in our history, you may feel overwhelmed and frightened. You may have bought into the belief that we are beyond hope. But, that is a lie. There have been countless positive and hopeful examples of those who refuse to give up on themselves and others the world has rejected.

Those who can rightly see God, who lives and moves and has his being in our midst, will lead the way to a “rebooting,” if you will, a movement back to God’s creation story of love. The indifference to God, injustice toward our fellowman and the environment are in-our-face truths that have played out on T.V. and social media for months now. How can we go back to business as usual?

Heaven and hell can be best understood right here in this place of uncertainty and ambiguity. It’s time to choose. We have created and are living our own heaven or hell right here. They are both manifest in our relationships, first with God and then with each other. If we push God away, that is our hell. If we choose God over all the worldly lies and temptations, that is our heaven.

We are in a very exciting place where we have an opportunity to be a part of the change God longs for. It’s time, and we are uniquely prepared, whether we know it or not, to step into the void, to reimagine, and then participate in God’s plan of renewal for a broken world. We are called to love and serve, to be Christ to others. Now is our time. Let’s do this!

“Let us not become weary in doing good” Galatians 6:9

And, lastly, what you have been waiting for with bated breath. Here’s my life in two phases.

My life before God’s intervention:

But, then God grabbed onto the worst of me until I gave up my stubborn will. Just in the nick of time, I might add!