I saw a meme on Facebook the other day. It showed a map of the United States that tracked the outbreaks of Coronavirus in comparison to Sanctuary Cities. What was/is this meme trying to communicate? How does that message define one's understanding of God?
We speak about a God of love but often characterize God's actions by violence and judgment defined by our own bias. Due to our inner system of judgment, who is right and who is wrong, we categorize who to exclude. Those who we consider on the outside are rebuffed from God's care through our messaging.
I recently read a book, How God Changes Your Brain, which shared a Baylor study that found that 74% of Americans view God as authoritarian, distant, or critical. Only 23% saw God as benevolent.(1) In fact, 20% viewed God as aligned with a political party.(2) This analysis is a sad state of affairs and doesn't represent the God I have come to know through contemplative prayer.
Newberg continued to share through this study that research showed a person's view of God aligned with the way they understood and related to the world. For example, those who viewed God as authoritative (32%) also firmly believed that God punishes people. These same participants supported the death penalty.(3)
I believe this punitive understanding of God and the world correlates with our theology - the way we understand God, salvation, and why we are here. When we view God as violent and judgmental, casting those on the outside out, we can do so ourselves. When we look at the gospel accounts, the Jesus we read about doesn't cast out who the religious deem as outcasts. Jesus continually sees these outcasts and invites them back into community.
When we fight for black and white answers, we limit not only our own but others' experience of God as a God of love. We see this in the gospel accounts, and we see it today across our political and social landscape. But how do we move forward from here?
One of the gifts of Newberg's book is the description in his study on those who participated in spiritual contemplation. He tracked, through studying people with different doctrinal understandings, the changes in their brains as they followed their contemplative practices. They became more open to subtle experiences by strengthening the neural pathways that enhance social awareness and empathy. Also, he found that hard and destructive emotions were subdued.(4)
He continued to discover that those, Franciscan nuns, for example, who spent time contemplating God, became less self-focused and felt more of a union with God experience. This intimate experience opened them to greater compassion for themselves and others. They became more tolerant of those who were different from them, and this was validated as the researchers tracked the nuns' brain activity.
These findings are interesting and line up with what Paul tells us in 2nd Corinthians: to take our thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ. The problem with using this verse is defining what the "obedience of Christ" means. Often, Scriptural texts are understood within our own cultural bias and allow us to cast people out. We prove ourselves right in our preconceptions.
Some would say that this verse would be understood by what I rationally know, forcing myself to not think about harmful things and only thinking about "good" things. It comes down to behavior management. Others consider this text as an invitation to contemplative prayer, letting go of our thoughts, and being aware that we are in God's presence. Recognizing these two understandings show us the same thing - what we believe about God influences how we read Scripture. It can create an unbreakable cycle of condemnation.
Can we trust God to break into our judgmental understandings, this unbreakable cycle of condemnation? We can, and it usually comes through great suffering. It takes being in a place of disorientation to allow that process to begin. Currently, we are in that place globally. We are all experiencing it differently, but things are not how they once were.
Some people are blaming others and fighting for things to be normal again. We also see displays of kindness and collaboration taking root in our communities. Both are visible, sometimes in the same people, even ourselves. The breakdown happens when one side judges the other as being less godly or right. But what if the opposing sides worked together to form a solution instead of working against each other. Can we set down our entitlement or need to be right? Can we value and hear all sides?
According to Newberg's understanding, contemplation is a space that opens up that kind of space in us. So, how do we practice spiritual contemplation? One of my favorite ways is to walk in nature. I invite you to do so, given social distancing criteria, and spend time in Creation. I've written a previous blog on a practice, I have found helpful: http://www.boldlyloved.org/blog/among-the-trees
Then I will invite you along with myself to take notice, do my words and actions represent what I believe? Do my posts on social media speak about what I hold true? Or better yet, what do my postings, words, and actions say about what I hold true about God, myself, and others.
1 Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings From a Leading Neuroscientist, 1st ed, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009) 109.
2 Ibid., 107.
4 Ibid., 3, 14.
Have you ever been in a discussion or listening to a presentation where one word or phrase sends you down an unexpected direction? I suppose that the new direction in your mind could be considered helpful or maybe not so helpful, but your mind follows the path ahead.
There is research that states that we can only understand or take in whatever we encounter through our current lens. This lens is defined by our current set of knowledge, including both conscious and unconscious understandings. We only know what we know, and new information comes through that filter.
I had an experience where I brought a quote to a gathering. It was from a mystic that spoke deeply to me about community and shared contemplation. It had words in the quote that at one time would have triggered my own feelings rooted in past religious understandings. In my current understanding, these words don’t cause that kind of reaction for me because I have redefined them. I’ve had to work through the implications of often viewed exclusionary terms through a different lens. For me, the phrase was open, free, and inclusive. I understood the words based on the author's mystical understanding of God as Love, which is evident in his other writings.
Others struggled with the words and reacted to the exclusion evident in the phraseology present in the quote. I had missed it, and they reacted to it. If we are only able to understand through our own lens, the acceptance or reaction to a phrase tells us much about the lens we currently use.
In an undergraduate class I teach, Christian Faith and Thought, I use a slide of the words kindergartners use for the Pledge of Allegiance. The young students use “Richard stands” instead of “Republic Stands” and “the library down the hall” for “liberty for all.” These familiar words make much more sense than the words they have never heard before. We only know what we know, and we understand through that lens.
One of the gifts of teaching this course is allowing students to discover the lens they use to understand the world without judgment of themselves or others in the room. As they begin to trust the space we create together; they begin to identify their own lens. Then they can allow others in the room to help them redefine it in some ways and to further define it in other ways.
This kind of understanding is the gift of noticing where we get triggered. It allows us to take notice and to look deeply into what is going on in us, just beneath the surface. This process requires letting go of judgments toward those who disagree with us. We can only let go of our judgments when we notice them without judging ourselves in the process. Those who disagree with us aren’t the enemy, and neither are we. The dissonance created by being triggered helps us to take notice of our lens and surface how we make meaning around what we hold to be true.
The gift of doing this in community is allowing others to help us notice what we aren't able to see ourselves. Maybe it is more significant than we have understood previously. Often, this gift happens as people who live in a place of privilege listen to others who are part of an oppressed people group in some way. When we listen to the other, we can hear the full story and begin to hold the space that our view is only one facet of the larger picture.
My experience offered an invitation to listen without becoming defensive, as others were triggered. I could discount their experience, or I could follow the invitation to notice and allow their understanding to further refine and define my own. It gives me a broader perspective of community and walking alongside others.
That said, some words trigger me due to my background. When I encounter those words, the invitation is to take notice and allow the fuller perspective of the community to refine and define my understandings. This process is the gift of doing this work in community. It is part of the contemplative life - living in the giving and receiving flow of the Love of God. It is a beautiful thing and flows from a small group of people, through the one meeting, and way beyond into all the world. That is living in the flow of goodness and Love.
We don’t often have opportunities for this kind of discussion in our current political climate. We tend to debate, deciding who is right and who is wrong, instead of a public discourse that allows all those involved to be transformed. This work can not be done in isolation. The invitation is to allow disagreements and let the one in front of you speak into your life and you into theirs.
I will be teaching a series through the Companioning Center this fall - Discovering Your Lens. We will travel through 6-week courses designed to take a look at what has shaped what we hold to be true about faith. The first session will look at how our faith has been shaped through history, and the following one will be what we hold true about Scripture and the impact of our beliefs. These 6-week courses will be an opportunity to share in community what we believe and allow the community to help us look at the implications of those beliefs as well as redefining them. It isn’t about changing someone else’s lens, but it offers an opportunity to learn from others who might not believe the same way we do. In the journey together, we can notice ourselves, our lens, and others as we are all transformed together.
Check out companioningcenter.org for more information in coming weeks.
We’ve often spoken about how we define God’s character. Our understanding of the Cross, why Jesus came to live among us, and why he died shapes our view of God. And thinking about this in the context of sacrifice and punishment distorts our understanding of a God who is for us. Let’s take a look at these two passages in Hebrews 10.
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll--
I have come to do your will, my God.’” (Hebrews 10:5-7)
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
“This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”
Then he adds:
“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”
And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary. (Hebrews 10:15-18)
The author of Hebrews writes that Christ stated God did not desire sacrifice. If sacrifice wasn’t desired, then why did Jesus die on the cross. Was it nonessential? I had always understood that Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins, my poor behavioral choices. That Jesus’ sacrifice appeased an angry Father who can’t look at me in my sin. In theological circles, this understanding is called penal substitution atonement theory. Historically, this hasn’t always been part of our understanding of God. But, it is the only understanding I was aware of for most of my Christian journey.
Verses 5-7 share something different. God did not desire sacrifice or an offering, and prepared a body for Christ, the incarnation. Why did Christ need a body if it wasn’t for sacrifice? What if the cross was nonessential with respect to what God needed for appeasement and punishment, but was more about what we needed to understand, what we needed to see?
One of my favorite pictures of God’s care for humanity comes from Genesis 3. If you recall the story, God is walking in the Garden. Adam and Eve are hiding because of the shame they feel due to eating the fruit. I’ve always understood this scene as God calling out the misbehaving children. Yet, what I understand now is God walking in the Garden, as was God’s habit, calling out to Adam and Eve. We know looking on that God knew exactly where Adam and Eve were hiding. Yet, God calls out, “Where are you?” Such an invitational approach shows God’s desire to be with humankind. God never shames them in the conversation that follows, but only offers the natural outflow of having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. God actually listens and clothes them before he removes them from the Garden, for their safety and benefit. If you read the whole passage, God curses the serpent and the ground but never Adam or Eve.
As we think about a God who desires to be with us--with humankind--let’s go back to the body that God made for Christ. We can tend to miss the incredible gift of the incarnation, God becoming human to live among us, to live like us. I wonder if the incarnation is a little like God habitually walking in the Garden desiring to be with us. In breaking into our world, God shows us a “new” way of experiencing a relationship, much like the “old” way: a place of continual knowing and being known between God and humankind.
What if “sin” is thinking we are separate from God instead of the behavioral choices that come from this place of separation? The Greek understanding of sin is “missing the mark,” which we have formed into a right and wrong moral code. This hasn’t been the understanding for all streams of Christianity through history. A Jewish understanding of sin is more about a break in relationship: hiding, in shame, from a behavioral choice. Like what we saw with Adam and Eve in the Garden.
In reality, we are truly loved without regard to anything we have or haven’t done, or even in how we define ourselves. We have a hard time receiving God’s unconditional love into, believing that it could be the reality. We, also, have a difficult time allowing God’s unconditional love to impact our view of those around us. We form layers of self-protection to keep ourselves and others from seeing who we really are. Spiritual writers call these layers our false self. It is who we think we need to be to be accepted or thought “right.” We hide our shame--that which defines who we think we really are underneath it all. Yet, in reality what we really are, underneath our shame, is our Imago Dei, the image of God in which we are formed.
Adam and Eve came out from hiding and God met them in their shame. God clothed them, and tended to what they needed. What if God did the same thing for humankind in breaking into our world through becoming fully human and fully divine? What if in that amazing act, God is calling out to us to tend to what we truly need?
I believe that this is true. Jesus’ death on the cross was nonessential for God to accept me and you, but was essential for us to understand God’s loving embrace. God knew that this is what we needed to fully understand God’s love. The lens of sacrifice and offering was never God’s lens, but it was and often is ours. Jesus was willing to experience great suffering at the hands of humankind so that we could “get it,” so we could let go of our trying to get it all “right” and certain.
God crossed the boundary of the other by becoming human, breaking into our world, so that we could let go of our perceptions of ourselves and others and allow ourselves to love and to be loved, to know and to be known. God invites us to join the dance. The invitation is to let go of our self-protective barriers, our false selves, how we think we need to be perceived, and allow ourselves to be known. God modeled this for us by letting go of God’s perceived right to be God, to become one with us. Can we follow the example of the cross and let go of our own perceptions of who we need to be and allow ourselves to be known and to know those around us?
In a few of my previous blog posts, I wrote about current events through Brueggeman’s framework of the Psalms: Orientation, Disorientation, New Orientation. The first stage is a place of contentment with the status quo with an understanding that it will go on forevermore. Kind of like happily ever after…
The second stage is a place of lament, shifting sand, a dissonance that can shake us to our core. This is uncomfortable and not easy. It seems safer to protect ourselves from the difficulties of facing our emotions or the loss in our lives.
The last stage is a new orientation. This is a space of a bigger view of God. If we follow the invitation toward God through the dissonance involved in the state of Disorientation, we come to a new awareness of God. Often, it seems like a hard-won gift of freedom.
You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever.
We can see this movement through many Psalms. This last state is a place of praise for being met in the difficult spaces of life. However, once in this space of praise, this new awareness begins to feel like an old orientation, once again. For example, in Psalm 147 the praises begin to be more generally stated. This is when new awarenesses become another theological box that holds our expected happily ever after…
So what do we notice on this journey? I believe the invitation is to be aware and to take notice of what it is that flows through our days. To hold, without judgment, what we notice and what we feel about whatever we notice. This means to hold whatever we sense without assigning value - be it good or bad. What we sense, what we feel, what we notice, just is.
This doesn’t mean taking a passive stance to whatever we notice. Noticing isn’t passive. To refrain from judging what we notice, doesn’t feel natural. What it seems to take, is a decision to be gentle with ourselves.
Our tendency, at least mine, has been to fix what I discover in my own heart, what I notice. This comes from a place of deciding that whatever I find has to be fixed because I am not “enough” as I am. This is a place of shame - the definition of shame is to be “not enough.”
Let me explain - I love to play in the ceramics lab. The feeling of clay beneath my fingers is a place where I am invited to join the Creator in creating. For me, it is a healing and worshipful experience, more so than just about anything else. Through my time in the lab, I have made bowls for my grandchildren with their names on them and a heart traced on the bottom of the inside. My hope is that the heart will represent my love for them as they finish whatever is in their bowl.
My five-year-old granddaughter called me up the other day to let me know that her bowl was broken. She was crushed and I could tell she was afraid to tell me. It was something I had created for her with great love and it was ruined. Maybe I would be mad. Maybe I would shame her. Through many tears and with the encouragement of her mom, she told me what had happened.
Now, as a loving grandma, what would I do with this newly acquired information? For me the answer was simple. Mema, my grandmother name, would, of course make a new one. I couldn’t promise it by her birthday, but absolutely by Christmas!
What did my sweet granddaughter learn from this experience? Hopefully, she learned that Mema was safe and loved her, regardless. That I was for her, regardless of anything. I hope she grew to understand that she could share anything and not be rejected. To do this, she had to be vulnerable and share her truth. Her bowl was broken and she really wanted another one.
My granddaughter had to trust me enough. Maybe she had to trust her mom’s trust in me enough to tell me. She will be rewarded for that trust in just a little over a month. But it required trust.
That is the invitation. When we take what we notice to God, we trust God to meet us in our noticing without condemnation. This is a bigger view of God that allows us to believe that God is for us, regardless. This vulnerability with God allows God to heal our wounds based on the lies, fears, and doubts we hold as truth. Our tendency, at least mine, has been to hide in my shame and not trust. To judge what I notice and keep it hidden. This creates a barrier between God and me.
For me, noticing takes quiet and space. I have to learn the difference internally of when I am resistant or receptive toward God and others. When I notice that I am resistant, my practice has become to take what I notice to God to see God’s view. The gift has been to experience a God that is gentle and for me, regardless. When I experience a God that is harsh and judgmental, I’ve learned to understand that god is usually of my own making. The invitation is to let go of my barriers and trust God to be outside of my own expectations and judgments. This is a little like my granddaughter and her broken bowl. God is certainly for us!
Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.
Who is God? How do we define God? How do we define ourselves or the world in relation to God? Each of us has a theology, a belief about God’s existence, character, and view of humankind. Each and every one of us.
Our view of God matters. It seems to shape everything we do. It is the basis for how we relate to people, God, and even ourselves. If we view God as harsh, we can tend to either reject God or treat others and ourselves harshly. The same goes for other character traits we assign to God. Doctrine, life experiences, family of origin, all shape our understanding. What do you hold true about God? How does that shape the way you treat yourself and interact with those around you?
Usually, an experience of great pain, loss, or love bring us to a place to recognize what we believe. Some of it is probably beneath our awareness. It can feel like shifting sand beneath our feet. This is where our beliefs about God, our theology, and our experience of God, do not match up. We can notice it in many contexts; often, within relationships, emotions, reactions, even our reluctance to engage.
Recognizing this dissonance offers an invitation for God to expand our view. A picture that has been helpful for me is a box representing our view of God. We all have this theological box and it seems God enters into our box and gently expands it. God is bigger than we can fully comprehend and seems to gently bring us to a deeper understanding. This expansion may be gentle but sometimes can be quite painful; yet, offers a bigger view of God.
It takes a quietness in our own minds to notice these places of dissonance. Learning to be quiet enough to notice this discomfort in our lives, takes practice. For me, it has been through quieting my own mind through contemplative prayer. This has opened my ability to pay attention and notice. It doesn’t seem to be during my prayer as much as it is in the rest of my life.
Through the last few years, I have worked through a place of deep loss in my life. I discovered I believed that everything, both good and bad, came directly from God. This view of God made it difficult to fully trust God.
My pattern was striving forward and making my own way in the world. I didn’t understand how to rest in God. As I worked and pushed through life, I protected myself from anything that could come at me with self-imposed barriers. I worked hard to provide for myself, falsely thinking I could protect myself from tragedy or heartache. These barriers pushed out God’s love as well as the love of those around me. Even in this perceived place of self-protection, the sand shifted and I felt like I lost all I had built up for myself.
Imagine believing in a God who blesses us with good things and punishes us with bad things, dependent on our behavior or lessons to be learned. This perception of God brings us to having to earn love and safety. I had previously believed God loved me. Yet, I found it didn’t seem to impact my life or heart in tangible ways. This was something I knew to be true, rationally, but I hadn’t allowed myself to experience it as reality. So, I remained unchanged and kept the world divided into those who were “good” and those who were “bad.”
In this experience of loss, I couldn’t hold this view any longer. You see, I didn’t do anything so wrong, as to deserve what happened. We tend to think in a cause and effect understanding. If something bad happens, we feel the need to define it by behavior. I suppose that it makes us feel like we have a bit of control over things. This loss didn’t make sense in my old way of thinking. So who is God? What is love? How does any of this make sense?
These are good questions and offered the space for my journey of transformation during this time. I came to realize I was unable to provide or more importantly, to protect myself. The shifting sand experience, which brought my own efforts to a halt, revealed to me a God whose depth of love reached down to embrace my very existence, the core of who I am.
As I have learned to recognize the dissonance in my own heart and bring those discoveries for God’s view through contemplative prayer practices, God has met me with gentleness and grace. This gentleness and grace often takes my breath away because it seems to be beyond my own expectations. Learning to treat myself with the same gentleness and grace, as counter-cultural as that is, has been a gift and a process.
The gift was not the shifting sand situation. The gift was being invited to experience a loving God through noticing the dissonance. Painful things do happen in our lives and how we define those is shaped by the lens we use for our image of God. Embracing my pain and realizing my inability to control the things around me, offered a place to discover a God I had never really experientially known deeply.
It can feel very disloyal to leave the god we created. The gift is discovering the God who created us. Along the journey, we begin to realize this God, we are coming to know, has actually been with us the whole time. (1)
This is the gift of transformation, learning more about ourselves and God. As we become more aware of who we are and more aware of who God is, we grow more deeply in both. We can let go of our desire for control and our barriers of self-protection, knowing we are loved and belong. It is a beautiful gift and the journey of transformation is lifelong, as we begin to rest in God and to surrender to our own belovedness.
(1) Jeff VanVonderen, Dale Ryan, and Juanita Ryan, Soul Repair: Rebuilding Your Spiritual Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 115-122.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!