Monday, 16 July 2007

Search for the Invisible God

" faint the whisper we hear of him! Who then can understand the thunder of his power?" (Job 26:14)

If God really wanted to be found, why didn't he draw a better map? Why does he hide in clouds and parables? Why does he speak to us in his "still, small voice" when Isaiah and Job assure us he can "thunder", while Ezekiel and John describe the sound of his voice as "rushing waters"? Why doesn't he just lay it out all plainly? Do we have a hope of hearing his gentle whisper amid the cacaphony of an Information Society?

It is unfortunate htat our "fast food culture" extends its reach to ideas. Never has such an array of information been available to us. On the other hand, never has there been so much to sort through, to analyse before we come to a reasoned decision. A veritable buffet of data, complete with various perspectives and opinions, is open to us at any hour of the day. What can the postmodern citizen do except throw up her hands in despair and resort to the random or to personal whims? Even those of us who call ourselves "seekers" like our ideas pre-chewed and presented to us with bullets, via Powerpoint if possible. The possibilities are simply too overwhelming. In fact, one who says he "knows" anything must be considered a near fool, since it would be impossible to draw conclusions from more data than could ever be analysed.

We have an invisible God who refuses to conform to the parameters of any measurable data set, and on top of it all, speaks in a bare whisper. Are we to be blamed if we don't believe in him?

How does one recognize God? The Jewish people of Jesus' day puzzled over this question. They were waiting anxiously for a messiah who would deliver them from their oppressors. Instead, along came a carpenter from Nazareth (of all places!) who spent time with the wrong people; forgave a woman plainly caught breaking God's law; and spoke of God as his father.

'Then they asked him, "Where is your father?" "You do not know me or my Father," Jesus replied. "If you knew me, you would know my Father also." (John 8:19)

Those who looked for the messiah, basing what they looked for on what they knew of God, recognized his Son. Those who looked for the messiah as they hoped he would be were blinded by their expectations.

The disciples, too, were confused at Jesus' approach. "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" they asked.

Jesus explained that God's secrets are not heard by the ear nor known in the intellect alone.

For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.' (Matthew 13:15)

The problem wasn't their ears or their eyes or their I.Q., it was their HEART. They were looking for the wrong things. They had become hard. They didn't long for what God was, therefore they couldn't appreciate it though Yahweh himself came and lived among them. Is this our problem?

Oh, I'm not advocating letting go of ears or intellect. God gave them both to be used. But be careful of what your heart longs for. It blinded the scribes, despite their education. It blinded the priests, despite their religious experience.

If you long to know God, you can't begin with a leap into what you don't know (even if you like to call it "faith").
Don't search for a supernatural being (for there are many such beings).
Search for what YOU know of Light, Love, Truth, wherever and however you have gained knowledge of those three. Surely those who looked for such things in Jesus' day recognized him when they saw him, while the scribes and studied theologians argued among themselves about whether or not it was lawful for Jesus to be healing on the Sabbath!

Please don't think I'm saying everyone who doesn't know God this second has a "heart problem" (we all have sin!). Sometimes God hides himself from us when we become too satisfied with too little of him. Sometimes he empties out our little store of "God moments", scattering them in the dust of doubt, in order to give us a deep and abiding experience of him.

Oh, give up on the "God" you have constructed in your mind! Call yourself an atheist or an agnostic if you must. But seek Love with your last blink, your last synapse, your last breath!

Thursday, 5 July 2007

On God, Love, and Darfur

Can a thinking person truly believe God to be both good and omnipotent without ignoring the existence of the kinds of atrocities now taking place in Darfur? Can we face that fact that a God powerful enough to speak worlds into existence is not doing anything to relieve the intense suffering so many humans are experiencing? Can we tell people with a straight face that such a God cares?

I once participated in a program called BaFa BaFa. BaFa BaFa is an exercise whose goal is to promote cross-cultural awareness and understanding. The participants are divided into two groups. In separate rooms, each group is given a goal and a list of rules. Both groups have pieces of coloured paper with numbers on them. Group A's goal is to get "sets" of the numbered papers. They may signify the numbers they want by calling out that number of syllables, using the first letters of their first and last names paired with any vowel. In this way, they are able to trade with other participants. The Group A member with the most sets of numbered papers wins. Group B is told that their goal is to protect one of their members, who has been selected and placed inside a circle. I forget the details (I was in Group A), but I think that men are not allowed to approach women in Group B - to do so is a sign of disrespect. Or something like that. Group B's members are protectors. They may interact with others, but they must act together to forcibly remove those who break the rules.

Of course, when the groups were brought together, confusion ensued. Group A quickly learned how easily Group B's members were parted with their numbered papers. Group B members enjoyed interacting with Group A but were constantly on guard. Group A members seemed either ignorant or uncaring in relation to the rules. Group A members who inadvertantly stepped inside the sacred circle became belligerent when they were suddenly removed and prevented from trading coloured papers. Even Group A members who tried to learn from their team member's mistakes and avoid the circle found themselves removed for inappropriately approaching their counterparts in Group B. It was surprising how quickly the situation escalated.

BaFa BaFa was a great illustration of what happens when we fail to understand priorities that are different from our own. One of the biggest problems in dealing with God is understanding that his economy doesn't work on the same basis as ours. It did once, but sin has altered what we see as important.

The value of a life, or anything else, in God's economy, is completely centred in Love. A successful life is not marked by happiness, but by love.

Humans do value love, but we generally see it as secondary - a support - to happiness. That is why the horrors of Darfur cannot be reconciled, in our minds, with a loving and all-powerful God. Love is valuable to us because of the happiness it brings, but happiness itself is everything. We may trade one kind of happiness for another kind (ie the happiness of wealth for the happiness of health or family love), but we almost cannot imagine anything being worth the sacrifice of happiness.

God can. And so he chose to let go of his control over our happiness so that we might have the ability to choose and give love. He doesn't sit back in the La-z-boy when Darfur makes the news and say "gee, that's too bad" - he chose suffering himself in order to offer us the choice that allows us to love. When people choose selfishness or hatred, we end up with situations like the one in BaFa BaFa, and in more extreme cases, like the one in Darfur. Since we don't operate in a bubble, we have the power to take away the happiness of others by our choices.
But no one can take away our choice to love. Not even the God who gave it to us. We may choose by our "wants", but he may never take or offer the lesser at the cost of the greater. And the greatest of all is Love.

One of my favorite films is Roberto Benigni's 1997 film Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful). Benigni plays Guido, a gregarious Jewish Italian charmer who loves to laugh and enjoys his life to the full, until he is interned with his young son in a Nazi concentration camp. His main goal becomes protecting his son from the horrors of the camp, which he does by pretending that it is an elaborate game whose prize the boy longs for: an army tank. Guido's love for his son forces him to smile and laugh even after days of back-breaking labour. He seems amazingly able to set aside his own feelings for the sake of his son.

Such love is truly what makes life beautiful, and the film reveals that Guido's life, destroyed among the hatred and the horrors of the holocaust, is more lovely and more valuable than mine, wasted amid the freedoms and comforts of 21st century North America. Having given all, he is something far better than I am. Vita e Bella says that I needn't pity Guido or others like him who have chosen love and to love. Rather, I am to be pitied for the selfishness that robs my life of its beauty.

God stands by. He allows people to suffer because he protects the choice of each one - to love. We may refuse. But those who choose love will find themselves at the feet of a God who is Love. They may suffer. They may lose their lives. But such lives are not wasted, as we may someday find ours to be. They are beautiful. They are valuable.

Once chosen, God is not standing by any longer. He is able to choose for those who allow him.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

Wow! says the Christian, eager for blessing. He begins counting what God will give him. Of course, he'll tithe, and God will be appropriately grateful - grateful enough to bless him even more...

Sorry. What we call "good" and what God calls "good" are different things - remember? To us, "good" is happiness. We like to skip the difficult, boring parts and get right to the juicy bits; the reward. That's why our society sees love as a side dish and sexual gratification as the main entree. God serves it the other way around. To God, happiness is a byproduct of Love, but never a goal in itself. Sometimes it is only through suffering that we may receive what is good from God's hand - but when we allow God to choose for us, our suffering is never the result of another person's choice. It has been weighed, measured, and chosen by the One who chose suffering for himself.

God loves the people of Darfur and the Sudan and Rwanda. He longs to give them what he longs to give us - something far, far lovelier than happiness. He longs to give them himself. Love. And they may be hungrier for the main course, since, unlike us, they've been denied the opportunity to gorge themselves on side dishes.

The soul who chooses love may be beaten, tortured, and tormented. She may be violated and imprisoned. She may be robbed even of life itself. But she will have, in spite of her pains, what only one who has experienced both may tell us is far better. No sword may separate her from that Father and Mother and Friend who alone knows the deep things of the human heart. No lock may bar her from that unfettered freedom that love alone imparts to the sou. l No violation may rend from her the sacred self that belongs to God alone. She is at no one's mercy, for God himself counts the drops of blood that may be spilled from her body. She may bleed, but it will be as God bled. She will love as God loves. She will fly free.

Cry for the people of Darfur. What is in your power to offer as relief for their suffering, hold not back. But cry for yourself, if you don't know Love.