How To Know God (in exactly 1000 words)

We live under the illusion that we are separate from God. If we believe in God at all, we think we are “here” and God is “over there.” The truth is that we are part of God, and God is part of us. This is not to be confused with Hindu pantheism, which states that God literally IS the rocks, and the trees, and the animals. Christianity accepts that God is present IN all of these things, that he is one with them, but unlike pantheism, Christianity teaches that God has a personality — that God is, in some important sense, a personal being. We believe both in transcendence (God out there, beyond time and space) and in imminence (God inside, at the deepest levels and places). In other words, we believe that reality as we know it exists inside of God, but that God also moves out infinitely beyond it. This view is called panentheism.

People have different spiritual journeys, to be sure, but knowing God usually happens from one of two directions. First, a person can come to see, hear, and understand God in themselves. They can come to understand that God is not present only in their perfect places, but also in their broken places, to realize that God, in the words of Israel’s ancient shema, “Is One.”  As they increasingly sense and know the presence of God in these deep and formerly off-limits places in themselves, they will naturally begin to see God in parts of the world they never imagined God in — other cultures, races, sexual orientations, religions, governments, economies — and in other people and places they formerly despised.

[Not incidentally, this is the only basis from which it is even possible to obey Christ’s command to love our enemies.  Love actually has no enemies.  As long as you are conscious of yourself as loving someone you perceive as an “enemy,” this is not what Jesus intended, and your attempts, well-intentioned as they may be, will lead to continual frustration and failure.  Witness Jesus carrying his cross, and breathing prayers for the forgiveness of his murderers.  Jesus was only able to love them because although he might have been their enemy, they were not his enemies. That is what the command means, and the only thing it could mean. However, at some point you must begin, and so you begin by trying to love people you perceive as enemies (yes, with all the attendant frustration that produces, until you learn to let go). As you progress on the spiritual journey, your love will grow to where it includes those you formerly included as enemies. At this point you will no longer have any enemies (from your perspective), and you will be in full obedience.]

The other way a person can come to know God is to begin on the outside.  We can begin by looking long enough at the world around us that at last we can see God there.  When at last the picture begins to emerge, and we come to understand that God really is everywhere out there, then we can also come to believe that God truly is in all of the places inside of us — all those places we had previously kept closed to God, that we had incorrectly assumed were separating us from God.

As long as I believe that there are people and places and situations where God is not present in the outside world, I will also believe this is true about what is inside of me.  As long as I believe that there are places inside of me that God cannot or does not care to reach, I will think of other people (which other people? — always those who are different from me) as being beyond God, or as being people in whom God could not possibly be interested.  Usually we admit on some level that God loves everybody, but we assume that God’s love depends (partly or wholly) on fixing or getting rid of this or that bad quality, habit, or characteristic.

Let us put the matter to rest.  We do not need to change in order for God to love us.  Rather, God’s love is the thing that makes change possible.  If we attempt to change because we must, ought to, have to, or feel guilty about not changing, our attempts to change will be half-hearted at best, and we will find ourselves in the pattern most of us are in fact stuck in now.  Try then give up.  Try then give up.  Try then give up.  An endless cycle of attempts to be “better,” followed by eventual failures.  This leads to increasing exhaustion, frustration, burnout, brokenness, regret, and self-loathing.  It is a game we cannot win, and therefore would do well to stop playing immediately.  It is what the Apostle Paul referred to when he frequently wrote that we cannot ever find ourselves made right by following rules.  Rules are and will always be part of the problem, as rules are always imposed on us from something outside of ourselves and thus, even when we try to obey them, we can never fully embrace them.  We will either sense that rules are pressing us under their thumb and struggle to obey them, feeling miserable in our failures, or else — perhaps worse — we will succeed in obeying many of them.  The only result possible there is arrogance, pride in ourselves, and a sense of frustration and anger that other people are not doing as well as we are. Notice that in the first case, the frustration and anger is self-directed (inner), and in the second, it is others-directed (outer).

Which brings us nicely back to how we can come to know God either through seeing God as truly and deeply in the world around us, or through learning to see God truly and deeply in ourselves.  A breakthrough in one area will naturally produce a breakthrough in the other.

Goodbye to Moralism

“God made the animals to do each what it likes, without sin. But he made man to do more than what he likes; namely, to do what he ought.” — Charles Kingsley

I know a ton of people — perhaps most Christians — who would “Amen” this and think it captures something very profound. But if it does, it is profound falsehood. I do not disagree that doing what we ought is important. What I disagree with is specifically what Kingsley says, which is that we were created for that reason. We cannot get anywhere in the spiritual life if we start with sloppy theology like this.

We were made not to obey a moral code, but to live in love. Adam and Eve were created for fellowship with God. There is no mention of morality or purity because when we are living in right relationship to God, those things take care of themselves. They are good things, but we cannot find God simply by being moral. If we start with God’s love, we have a good chance of ending with it. If we start from a purity code, we can’t get to love from there.

“Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change. …we’ve been given an inferior message—that God loves me “when” I change (“moralism”). What that does is put it back on you. You’re back to “navel gazing” and you never succeed at that level. You are never holy enough, pure enough, refined enough, or loving enough. Whereas, when you fall into God’s mercy, when you fall into God’s great generosity, you find, seemingly from nowhere, this capacity to change. No one is more surprised than you are. You know it is a gift.” — Richard Rohr

We have to start somewhere. Why not start with God and God’s love, instead of with ourselves and our own efforts? If what we seek is God, then let us begin with God and trust that we cannot but end with God as well. Starting with ourselves can lead to nothing but increasing rigidity, moralism, and perfectionism, since you will necessarily end with magnified versions of whatever you start with. When we don’t think we’re good enough, we’ll live in constant guilt and self-deprecation. In the rare times we do think we’re good enough, we will be arrogant, prideful, and judgmental of others who are less perfect than we are. This is how beginning with morality actually leads to the opposite of spirituality.

There is no future along the path of religious moralism. Since it does not and cannot lead to God, why walk that path to begin with? The question, then, should not be, “How can I do better?” The question should be, “How can I experience the love of God and come to live in it?” That path will create truly moral people — the kind whose morality does not come attached to strings of perfectionism, judgmentalism, and pride.

The God of Kim Davis

Why Kim is not free to love

Kim Davis

image from gawker media

We used Newtonian physics to formulate the laws of nature. For hundreds of years, that is all there was. Objects could not be in two places at the same time. What goes up must come down. We understood these laws as defining reality itself and believed nature did not, and could not, work outside of them.

But Einstein’s theory of relativity changed all that, introducing physicists to the quantum world. Suddenly we began to discover that an entire universe existed that we had known nothing about, where the laws of nature that we believed to be immutable simply did not apply. The movement of one particle could affect the movement of another particle millions of miles away. Particles could disappear from one place and pop up again instantly in another place. Seriously. That’s what we have learned through the discipline of quantum physics.

And so what we in effect discovered was reality operating on two levels at once. But did quantum physics nullify Newtonian physics? In other words, did we have to throw the old physics out the window once we began to understand the rules of the new physics?

Of course not. Newtonian physics applies in all of the observable world. But quantum physics takes us into another world entirely, where the rules of Newtonian physics simply don’t apply. There are rules in quantum physics, but they’re very different from what we learned about the world through Newtonian physics.

The law of love as modeled and taught by Jesus is like quantum physics. It takes us into an entirely different universe, where our previous understandings of things, typical conceptions of morality and immorality, simply do not apply any more. This is obvious because one of the things Jesus did most often was show the Jewish leaders that their skillfully honed conceptions of God and love didn’t even come close to reaching far enough.

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Why I Need Your Grace

authenticity, vulnerability, and grace

We all need grace. I try to extend mine to everyone at all times. Here are some reasons why I need yours.

I’m a flawed person.

I am a flawed pastor, flawed teacher, flawed therapist, flawed husband and father. As charming and charismatic as I have learned to be when I’m “on stage” in some way (by which I mean simply being looked up to in one of my roles as pastor/teacher/therapist), I can be equally cold and aloof when the spotlight goes off.

It’s not because I don’t genuinely love people. I love you more than I can say and everything I say in all of my roles is 100% true.

It’s just that I’m tired.

I love people, but you wear me out sometimes.

It’s not your fault, it’s just my own limitation.

If you haven’t heard that from a leader before, it’s probably just because I’m the only one stupid enough to write it down.

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Evangelicals Support Torture — Isn’t That Weird?

supporting torture

Dick Cheney, Torture Apologist in Chief

Isn’t it weird that evangelicals support torture? Apparently the majority of people in the U.S. are fine with it, including the majority of evangelical Christians. I wanted to put the word “Christians” in quotes, like I just did, but I know some of these people and they are sincere, good people. That’s what deeply bothers me about this.

Is there any greater testament to the fact that Christianity has been taught horribly, catastrophically, unconscionably wrong in the U.S. than the fact that the majority of evangelicals, who serve the Lord of Peace that they will stand in candle-lit sanctuaries in a week and celebrate, have no problem with barbaric things being done to other people God loves? Isn’t it strange that if I claim Jesus was speaking metaphorically about hell, many evangelicals would question my theology, but the majority of evangelicals can outright ignore what Jesus plainly said about loving one’s enemies and not have a second thought?

This demonstrates how much faith has become about what a person claims to believe and not about whether they actually do what Jesus commanded. If you don’t “believe” the “correct” doctrine about hell, you’ll be called a heretic almost for sure, but ignore the clearest and most direct teachings of Jesus and you’ll be in good company with the majority of both believers and non-believers. Apparently being a heretic, believing something that may be wrong, is far worse than disobedience — blatantly ignoring what we are clearly told to do, and not even intending to do it.

I’m no Pollyanna. I realize the fact that God loves these people doesn’t make them safe. It doesn’t make them good. It certainly doesn’t not make them terrorists who want to kill us. But it does compel we who claim to follow Jesus to actually consider what it means to “love our enemies.”

If you can figure out a way to excuse yourself when it comes to this thing Jesus spoke most clearly about, why not just exempt yourself from the entire enterprise of being Christian? What in God’s name does it even mean, if you get to be just as barbaric, just as fearful, just as reactionary as everybody else?

If it’s going to be like this, I’m left to wonder, what did Jesus actually save you from?