(I had the opportunity to speak in chapel at George Fox University as part of Quaker Focus Week, on November 4, 2014)
Have you ever had a recurring nightmare?
I had one for years as a kid, and I hated it. Every time, I’d be walking on like this cobblestone pathway, nowhere else to go, forced to go from stone to stone. At some point, there would be this loud pop or gong, and I knew this was like the detonator. After the first time I had it, I knew what was going to happen. Everything was going to explode because I had set off the alarm. But I had to keep stepping forward, one stone at a time, usually with this maniacal laughter going on all around me…until the explosion and I would wake up. It was horrible!
That dream is the perfect representation of how I went through my “awake” life as a child. I was absolutely convinced that every step I took was an opportunity to mess up. I was so, so afraid of making mistakes, so afraid of the punishment or judgment that would come.It’s why I was seen as such a “good kid”– not so much because I always wanted to do the right thing, but because I was so afraid of what would happen if I did anything wrong.
This was a very anxious way to live life, let me tell you.
I got into high school, and one of the most important things in my life was playing baseball. I happened to get a coach, who, shall we say, was the perfect match for “developing” my anxious personality. I was a pretty good third baseman. My senior year, I made six errors in the entire season. The problem was, three of those six came in one inning. A game we were leading 1-0 turned into a 6-1 loss, and it was all on me. It was like the explosion in that dream, one ground ball at a time.
I was devastated. I remember sitting in the locker room after the game, my head in my hands, almost everybody else gone. My coach came over and put his hand on my shoulder. I looked up at him and said, “I don’t ever remember playing that bad.”
Here was his big chance. Here was the chance to encourage me, to maybe help me throw off the entire weight of a childhood of anxiety, help me reframe and see the world as an ok place where perfection wasn’t required, see the world as a human place where everybody sometimes messes up. My coach had the chance to turn my world around.
“You don’t remember ever playing that bad? Come on, remember your freshman year at David Douglas? You were awful! Throwing balls that hit the side of the building. That was terrible too.”
It’s like the world exploded all over again. This, then, was the world as I knew it–an unforgiving place that demanded perfection, and when I didn’t measure up, when I failed, it would all fall apart…and my past failures would be thrown back in my face.
And then this scary thought snuck in through the back door of my mind. What if this nightmare was really a picture of how I saw God?
So many things began clicking into place. It was like this sneaky little thought had taken over and completely re-arranged everything in my brain. That dream did fit what I was taught in Sunday School and in Christian schools through my elementary years. There was a prescribed path of stepping stones ahead of me, a path I was supposed to follow in my life, but I was going to mess it up. I was going to sin. And when I did that, God the just judge was there. Even if I wouldn’t let myself think it, at a feeling level sometimes I imagined God was laughing that menacing laugh and making me keep going on, waiting for the explosion of judgment to come.
Life with God was a life of fear, a life of not measuring up, a life of having my past thrown up in my face just as my coach had done in the locker room. This was what Sunday School and the bible and my personality had all contrived to teach me. Was it right? Did I have to hold on to it? Could I choose a different way to see the world, and still be faithful to God?
I’m much more aware now than I used to be that faithful followers of Jesus disagree on some things.
I remember how arrogant I used to be. I was convinced at the age of 17 that I knew exactly what “the” correct Christian belief was. We were going through a comparative religions unit in my high school humanities class, and after a week on Christianity’s beliefs, I stayed after class to straighten my teacher out.
I don’t remember exactly what I was all in a huff about, but I knew he wasn’t teaching Christianity right. And I actually said to this teacher with decades of experience, this teacher who at the time was one of only a few teachers in the state accredited to teach high school students for college credit…I said how can I trust you to teach me about Islam and Hinduism if I know you’re getting Christianity wrong?
What an idiot. So convinced that after two thousand years, I, 17 year old Gregg, had synthesized all the arguments of church councils and reformation and counter reformation and wars and multiplying denominations, I had figured out exactly what God intended! And Mr. Walker was teaching it wrong!
I’ve learned a lot since then. Seminary taught me that faithful followers of Jesus disagree about what is at the heart of the good news of God. That doesn’t have to freak us out! That can make this world alive with possibility!
God truly is beyond our comprehension. God wants to be known, and God gives us the freedom and the responsibility to wrestle with everything in us to find truth in a very complex world.
We are all theologians, whether we realize it or not.
Even people who don’t think God exists have made a determination about God, which is what a theologian does. The task for us is not to let what we think of God remain unexamined. I think the beautiful and challenging task before all of us is to make sense of this world which God has made, and figure out our place in it.
For a long time I hadn’t realized that maybe my recurring nightmare was how I viewed God. But it was affecting me, affecting how I saw myself, affecting how I was trying to live in the world. Even unexamined, our theologies affect us!
So my goal today is to ask you to think about, to examine, one major theological question: What is God’s purpose for creation? What is God up to, what does God want from us? Let’s begin tackling that by looking at some cathedrals.
I fell in love with cathedrals when we were in Europe last summer.
It was an unsettled love, I grant you, because every time I was in one I was conscious of the corruption in the church and the misuse of wealth it took to build them.
The beauty and the sheer weight of years, the realization of how many people had worshipped in these places just grabbed me. In St. Peter’s in Rome, it’s just huge.
I remember standing in front of what seemed like just one tiny little alcove, but in reality would have almost filled this whole platform. I remember thinking as I took in all the frescoes and statues that this one alcove was probably the lifework, the spiritual offering of some artist long ago.
All through each of the cathedrals, artists were using all their creative skill to tell the story of God. They were teaching people, most of whom couldn’t read and before the printing press didn’t HAVE a bible to read, they were teaching people who God is and what their place in the world was.
That gave some redemption to the corruption of the church and the abuse of wealth and people that it took to create these cathedrals. There’s no denying that for some who worked on them, it was a beautiful love offering of worship to God, to create a place and a venue for worship. It’s hard not to be awestruck when you’re standing in a building over 800 years old, like Notre Dame in Paris. The buildings are amazing!
And then it happened.
I don’t remember which cathedral we were in. It might have been Sacre-Coeur, the church of the Sacred Heart in Paris. We were walking around it as tourists, drinking in the building again, just as we had done at several other cathedrals. I noticed that over in the corner, there were a couple of dozen people gathered together, and they were worshipping. They were singing.
The buildings are great, but they aren’t the goal. Art, and communicating the gospel story creatively, and buildings…they are all a means to an end…not a goal or end in themselves.
Listening to people worshipping in that cathedral, I realized the true goal, the true end, that God is moving toward…and which we are invited to join in bringing about. I remembered Paul’s words in the book of Ephesians, and I realized that these verses offered a different picture of God than my nightmare. Quakers are among many in God’s church who take this positive picture of what God is doing in the world as central.
God’s mission is written in black and white in Ephesians chapter 1. God’s purpose is to create a community, not buildings; God is making us into the body of Christ, who will worship God forever. God’s purpose is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” Turn in your bibles with me to Ephesians chapter 1, and let me read what God has already done for us, and what God is doing, what direction God is taking all of creation.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will– to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment–to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:3-10, TNIV)
Ephesians 1:10 leaped off the page for me about a decade ago.
This is the goal of the end of time, the goal of all that God is doing. Through what Jesus has accomplished, God is on the move. God’s deep love, “lavished” on us, is bringing all things in all of creation into unity under Christ! Taking this as the goal, we can construct a picture of God that is faithful to the bible, radically different than my nightmare, and motivating in a way that shame and judgment never have been for me.
It’s an inclusive picture that makes sense of the radical acceptance and grace of Jesus that we see in the gospels. It makes sense of Peter and Paul welcoming Gentiles into the church. It makes sense of John 3:17, that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.
It makes sense of 2 Peter 3:9, which says that God is “patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
I’ve chosen to make this vision from Ephesians one of my foundational pieces for what God is doing, for God’s purpose. Basically, I’m choosing to reject the picture of God that was in my unconscious, the God waiting to punish like in my nightmare.
Now, not everybody agrees with me. There are other verses that different Jesus-followers make foundational. Take a look at this picture.
This is above the door at Notre Dame in Paris. For centuries, as people walk into worship there, they have another guiding metaphor in their face, that of Christ at the judgment seat. Jesus is in the center here; the people that are selected for the line on the left move toward Christ and become more and more angelic; the ones that go to the line on the right go away from Christ and become more and more like gargoyles and devils the farther they get down the line.
There are people in the church today who have this as their guiding metaphor, the guiding purpose of what God is doing in the world. God is judging. Or God is rescuing from a world that is headed for destruction.
There’s a fundamental difference here, and it is important for us to wrestle with it, examine it. Ephesians 1:10 has God’s purpose as moving toward unity. The other purpose, the one seen in this sculpture above the door, is ultimately a purpose of separation.
Here’s how I work through this…others obviously work through it differently.
I don’t throw out the biblical pictures of judgment. But I see them subservient to the ultimate intent and plan and purpose of God. God’s desire is for all things to come to unity “under”, or in right relationship, with Jesus. If a person rejects that relationship or authority, separation does come. But God’s ultimate plan and purpose and desire is to bring unity, not separation.
I mentioned the church of the Sacred Heart, where I saw the small group of people worshiping and it changed my perspective. Look at the dominating image of that church.
Jesus, arms wide open, sacred heart huge and visible, drawing all of us in!
For me this affects so much. If God’s purpose is unity, love is the dominant force! The body of Christ brings people in; the body of Christ loves; the body of Christ allows God to transform. If people reject that love, there are consequences to it. But the judgment work and the consequences are Christ’s work alone. Our work is love.
I believe that in the body of Christ, there is always room!
Without ignoring or throwing out judgment, I believe it should not be the metaphor that drives the church, or the face that we should give to the world. I believe this arms wide-open Jesus is the face we should give and model to the world.
We are introducing people to Jesus! We are worshipping Jesus! We are ones who have taken to heart the truth of Ephesians 1:7: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.”
We can be a community whose purpose is to join God’s purpose. It’s only God who will do it, “when the times reach their fulfillment.” But we aim for what God is aiming for, unity… “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”
Jesus, as we worship you, give us your love…your hope…your open embrace. And may we live and sacrifice in such a way that there will always be an ever-growing community here in Newberg and around the world who worship you and join your mission!