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Questions God Asks Us

Posted by Ron George on August 8, 2017

Encountering the Prodigal Son, by James Janknegt

 

In a sense, seminary education is a weeding process. Think tares and wheat, except it’s not about letting them grow together until judgment day, also known as graduation. (Mt. 13.24-30) It’s more like the late Kathryn Baker Witty of Hamilton, Texas, who tore after crabgrass in her lawn like an avenging angel, with a hoe, one sprig at a time. Weeds be gone!

One of my seminary professors, in particular, was adept at instilling anxiety amid the would-be clergy at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in 1973. The late Rev. Dr. Robert Marsh Cooper exclaimed during one first-year orientation gathering, “God is going to scare you out of every hiding place you’ve ever had.” We’d better hope, he said, that it happens at seminary, because it’s too late if it happens in the mission field. (Wish I’d taken that bit of insight more seriously.)

Our Sunday school class is reading Trevor Hudson’s book, Questions God Asks Us, which looks and sounds like a simple little book of biblical piety, but don’t ever sell the Rev. Mr. Hudson short on the seriousness with which he poses issues of moral theology and spiritual formation. He’s been at this a long time, and a hallmark of his work is that it takes no prisoners, regardless of the state of one’s faith, from full-bore believer to disillusioned skeptic. Take Trevor Hudson seriously – or just give him an honest read – and something is going to come barreling out of the woodwork; moreover, it just might scare you out of your hiding place.

Hudson’s secret is that he asks the right questions.

Questions God Asks Us comprises 10 chapters, each named for questions that appear in Jewish and Christian holy scripture. The whole approach seems facile – and, yes, of course there’s an agenda. Why not? Hudson’s an evangelist, after all. Chapter 1 begins in the Garden of Eden – “ Where are you?” (See Genesis 3.1-13) Chapter 10 brings readers to the Fourth Gospel — “Do you understand what I have done for you?” (See John 13.1-20)

Hudson’s method is to riff on the questions and make the point personal. It’s not offensive, but it is a challenging approach.

Typically, Hudson asks pointed questions of his readers at the end of every chapter. Let’s begin with Chapter 1, p. 24.

Lamentation pour Haiti, by Tamara Natalie Madden

Where are you, at the moment, in your relationship journey with God?

At the moment, in my heart of hearts, I don’t have much of a relationship with God. Let’s use a metaphor to reply to Hudson’s metaphor: I’m in the wilderness, far from familiar structures of meaning, far from every way of knowing God that I’ve lived with since childhood. My wilderness is a livable but lonely place, and I wish there were God to keep me company in an otherwise hostile universe.

Wishing, though, is not enough; and, apparently, neither is the willingness to let myself be loved by God, which once was my teaching definition of faith. It sounds like a conundrum: I wish there were God, but I don’t believe there is; at least, not a supernatural being who created the heavens and the Earth. I appreciate the manifestations of religious belief in the world, but the essence of those beliefs – appeal to the supernatural – no longer moves me. Religion is a human artifact, not evidence of anything or anyone supernatural; and yet, I’m shaped by a religious tradition in such a way that I can’t escape completely. I am a Christian by default; or, as a friend remarked some weeks ago over dinner, I may be a reluctant Christian, one for whom belief in God is a stumbling block even though I admire and choose to follow Jesus, whatever that means. (And, I must admit, I have not ever done that very well.)

My wilderness comprises memories of a lifetime in the church, which I seem to have mistaken for something divine in this world, a manifestation of the presence of God in Christ. I could go on, but you get the idea. I’m unhappy about this turn of events in my life. I’d rather find myself deep within my former vocation, an ordained elder of the church – pastor, preacher, teacher, celebrant. If my life has been a journey of sorts, it has taken me away from the church and away from the concept of God. If God Herself actually were to call out, “Ron, where are you?” I want to believe I’d say, “Here I am, in the wilderness. Please bring me home.”

Is God calling to me through Trevor Hudson’s book? I don’t believe so, but I wish it were so. That’s not compelling, but in answer to the question, it’s where I am – or where I seem to be. Am I just in a hiding place? Do I need to be scared out of it? Well, that’s something I’d like to talk over with Bob Cooper, but he died in 2014.

How do you sometimes hide from God and from those around you?

Perhaps I’m hiding from God by not believing there is a supernatural being who created the universe and who loves me as a son. I’ve been over and over this question so many times in my life that I’ve concluded I must be just wishy-washy about God. Call it Charlie Brown theology. (It’s what Lucy always said about the sad-sack star of Charles Schulz’s famous comic strip.) So, in terms of the question, maybe I do hide from God “sometimes” and sometimes not. There’s a long story attached to this, but the part that really made a difference came when I was in seminary.

Adam and Eve Hiding from God in the Garden, artist unknown

I took the matter to my faculty adviser, the late Rev. Dr. James E. Griffiss (d. 2003), who taught systematic theology. I’m not interested in God as some sort of eternal divine hum at the center of things, I said. “Ground of All Being” doesn’t get there for me. Even “Being Itself” seems way apart from the God Jesus believed in – his “Father in Heaven.” It’s not making sense to me, I said. None of it. I’d best pack up and head back to Texas.

Don’t be hasty, Dr. Griffiss said. Stay with it. This happens to everyone. God is best encountered in the chapel and in the community of faith, not the classroom. Doubt is evidence of faith, he said. Don’t give up yet; in fact, don’t give up at all. Yes, it’s disappointing to find out in seminary that the God you thought you knew is not just “the man upstairs.”

My desire to be ordained outweighed my intellectual difficulties with the concept of God. Dr. Griffiss knew I was smart enough to learn the language of the Christian theological tradition even though I might have doubts about the overarching reality it describes – or tries to make sense of in light of philosophical and scientific development. (Science, by the way, truly erodes Christian doctrinal assumptions. Making peace with science simply leads to a kind of agnosticism that, finally, turns out to be duplicitous. It leads to saying the creeds with one’s fingers crossed. Atheism is an option at any point along the way – but then you’re left in the wilderness; at least, I am.)

So, am I hiding from God by professing not to believe in any traditional sense that there is a supernatural god who loves me, and that Jesus is that god in the flesh, showing us how to be human? I can see why Christian believers would see it that way, and I’m sure I have friends who see it that way and who care about me and the quandary I’ve created for myself. Isn’t that always the way? My feet have numerous holes in them from my having taken careful aim and pulled the trigger.

A friend in a reading group said something recently that rang so true, it was as though I’d never heard it before. Unconditional love, she said, is not about how I want to be loved but about how someone else wants to love me. (God, for example.) I want to be loved because I’m handsome, tall, white, male, smart, ordained, well behaved or whatever. Someone else, who authentically loves me, wants me just the way I am, warts and all; in fact, where God’s concerned, perhaps because of my warts.

In my case, it may be all the stinking thinking I do that keeps others away; or, in Hudson’s terms, lets me hide from others who try to love me just the way I am. (Therapists for years have critiqued my intellectualizing. It’s not the same as being an intellectual, which I’m not. It’s the pretense of intellectually approaching theological issues that gets me into trouble.)

Labyrinth: Journey to the center of one’s self in the presence of God

Maybe intellectualizing is the way I hide from God and other people. Maybe that’s the wilderness I’ve created for myself. Then, again, maybe not. This is not something I can figure out by myself, which is why I need and want to be in community. For now, anyway, the reading group I meet with each Thursday is that meaningful group, and I feel like a meaningful member of it. According to sociologist Peter Berger, that’s all we ever really want or need. Well, at least it’s a place to begin to be a whole person. Once upon a time, the meaningful group of which I wanted to be a meaningful member was the Episcopal Church. That’s over, it seems. Now what? It’s a question I’ve been asking for at least eight years. Perhaps Hudson is inviting me to stop asking the question and start listening to questions God has for me.

OK. I’m listening.

When did you first become aware of God’s personal love for you?

On Oct. 14, 1995, I walked the labyrinth for the first time at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Corpus Christi. It was made of cloth and had been brought by the Rev. Lauren Artress from Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, Calif. There’s a long story here, but in answer to the question, I felt then what I had only thought for most of my life to that point: God in Christ Jesus – God showing us how to be human – is loving me right here and right now; and, it totally blissed me out. My life changed, and anyone who knew me then – me-before and me-after – knows this is true. Well, my behavior changed, anyway. Also my outlook. The message at the center of the labyrinth was that I had nothing to fear: “You don’t have to be afraid, anymore,” to be precise. And, don’t forget, it was perfect love – God’s love in Christi Jesus – that did cast out my fear. (See I John 4.7-21.)

Almost immediately, my wife, Mary, and I put that to the test: She would move to College Station to pursue a doctorate. I would remain in Corpus Christi to help support the project financially. We would sell our house and live apart for the duration. Pre-labyrinth Ron would have fled, scared to death of this project. Post-labyrinth Ron said, “Absolutely. Let’s do it.” So, we did, and we have been fortunate – blessed, if you will – and, best of all, our relationship has deepened. More and more, we two have become one flesh.

So, what happened to that personal relationship with God? Long story, but the short version is that I became disillusioned with the church, and when I found myself without the community of faith, I found myself in the wilderness. Again, perhaps, I made a hasty, bad decision; and, because of my flawed character – my self-absorbed ego, for starters – I am wishy-washy about God. And not for the first time.

If God is Love and that’s all there is to it, then I have no problem “believing in” God, which is not the same as believing God exists. I can feel love. I can taste love. I can give and receive love. Does that mean there is a God in heaven, somewhere out there, “watching over us,” to whom we pray (for no good reason, because he knows our needs before we ask), eternal, unchangeable, etc.? I don’t know, so I guess that makes me agnostic about Christianity’s traditional theological talking points. I do know it’s improbable that such a god exists, but this reluctant Christian can’t imagine his life without love; or, Love, if you will. If God is in that, somehow, OK. I’m in. I’ll say the creeds with my fingers crossed.

Mary and Ron, Thanksgiving 2011: Two becoming one

Who has made God’s love real for you? How did he or she do this?

God’s love became real for me, in a sense, from a most unlikely source: Mary, my wife, a lapsed Roman Catholic and convert to The Episcopal Church, whose problems with the concept of God began in catechism class when she was a precocious child growing up in Port Arthur, Texas. I could go on and on about this, but suffice to say that Mary’s love – which wasn’t unconditional, by the way, but had to be tough in the beginning – saved me from a fate I’d rather not imagine.

Mary’s love manifested as acceptance, patience, kindness, humility – you know, all that stuff we read about in the Bible. She loved me as I was – broken, even though just how broken she didn’t know. (No one would have blamed her for fleeing my broken self; and, frankly, she might have. Thank God – ironically – she didn’t.) What I didn’t know about myself until I began living with Mary was that I really didn’t know much about giving or returning love. Almost nothing, in fact. That’s changed, at least I hope so. It’s taken too long, of course, but there’s no changing the past. Forgive the cliché, but I’m still a work in progress as most of us are. It’s good to have company on this – uh, journey.

There are others I could name who have made God’s love real for me, even though I don’t really believe there is a God in heaven. They do, and they transmit love in a way that seems qualitatively different from the way love is usually transmitted in our materialistic culture. Some are unlikely, people I might not have liked very much at all except for their animated, authentic, religious faith manifested as love in relationship. Some are old friends, some new; and, I may be wrong about every one of them – no one knows the human heart but God alone, if God there be – but I don’t think so.

OK. That’s Trevor Hudson’s four questions at the end of Chapter 1 of Questions God Asks Us. Thanks to him for this exercise, which I commend to anyone who’s gotten this far in a wordy post.

Sometimes, when you start writing about things, the Earth moves. Things shift around. Stuff starts coming out that you don’t expect.

Like today.

Ironically, Deo gratias.

 

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