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“Mrs. Tipton the sick boy’s mother opened the door to Ling Tan, the new caregiver. “Oh dear” she said, “you don’t look very strong.” Ling knew that as a hospice worker she would have to lift the young man often. “Oh, very strong” she replied. She met Mike and felt an instant connection with the sixteen-year-old. Mike had Lymphoma, and had come home to die. As Ling set out her things they talked. “Where are you from?” the boy asked. “China” came Ling’s reply. “My family moved here to start over”. What she didn’t tell Mike is that only her mother and sister had survived the rest of her family who had died in a flash flood. Ling quickly fit into the routine. And Mike quickly grew to like her. Her innocence was refreshing to say the least. Much better than the dark fatalism of his parents or the doctors who didn’t want to admit that he was dying. For them, death was a defeat to be ashamed of. It made Mike ashamed to die. But Ling didn’t care. In fact, Ling believed that he would live. A miracle would happen.
“Maybe you live” she said. “Not likely” Mike replied “besides none of us gets out of this alive.” The joke was lost on Ling. “I read my Bible. God says he gives life to everyone.” “Ah, a theologian” laughed Michael. “Well, God giveth and God taketh away.” Ling smiled. “We see.”
“One day she noticed a large poster of scraggly old man with stand-up white hair sticking his tongue out above Mike’s bed. “Who is that?” she asked. “Einstein, he was a genius, you know E=MC2?” Ling nodded, she didn’t know. “Maybe, you’re a genius, look at all the books.” Mike was a brilliant young man, to be sure, making the loss of his life all the more poignant. “Smart perhaps” he said “but no genius.” As the weeks went on Ling took to reading her bible to Mike, oddly at his request. He particularly liked the part about Job shaking his fist at God. “That’s how I feel,” he said, tears streaming down his face. “God, it’s not fair”. “No, its not fair” said Ling, remembering her own family. “But go ahead, Mickey, get angry with God, God big, God not get angry back.” “Why do you believe in a God, Ling? What does this God look like?” Ling said “God give us life and a reason to live, my reason to take care of you right now. Don’t know why God lets us suffer and die. Don’t care. God is love, Mickey. Look, like you and me.”
“Mike thought about this for a long time. Weeks turned into months and the end finally came. Ling prayed and prayed for Mike to live but he died. She held his hand on the last day. “Don’t cry now, Ling. I feel that God, God’s a genius to have brought us together.”
“After the funeral, Ling went back to the house to collect her things. She opened the drapes wide revealing a beautiful spring day. “Another nice day Mickey, but not for you.” She sighed and looked around the room one last time. She saw the poster of Einstein over the bed. Before she closed the door she stuck out her tongue at him and smiled “Good-bye Mr. Genius.”
(Story adapted from God’s Goodness by Marjorie Kemper in The Atlantic, March 2002)
I open with this story by Marjorie Kemper to illustrate just how difficult it is to reconcile different understandings of God. Even the word God has some of you on edge. Let me say from the outset that I like the definition of God Forrest Church preached ‘ “God” is not even God’s name. God is our name for a power that is greater than all and yet present in each: the life force; the Holy; Being itself. Simply because others’ theological imagination may be mean and crimped doesn’t require us to suspend our own.”
Which idea of God is yours today? Amongst your neighbors here this morning are people who consider themselves conservatives, liberals, atheists, agnostics, theists, Christians, Buddhists, pagans, certain, serious, funny or just plain confused. A nun who works for a local home health care agency was out making her rounds when she ran out of gas. As luck would have it, there was a station just down the street. She walked to the station to borrow a can with enough gas to start the car and drive to the station for a fill up.
The attendant regretfully told her that the only can he owned had just been loaned out, but if she would care to wait he was sure it would be back shortly.
Since the nun was on the way to see a patient, she decided not to wait and walked back to her car. After looking through her car for something to carry to the station to fill with gas, she spotted a bedpan she was taking to the patient. Always resourceful, she carried it to the station, filled it with gasoline, and carried it back to her car.
As she was pouring the gas into the tank of her car, two men walked by. One of them turned to the other and said: “Now that is what I call faith in God!”
An idea of possibility is a good way to start looking at God. God, the G word, dog spelled backwards, is loaded with previous imagery for all of us. I ask you to suspend, for a while, your prejudice about the word “God”, and travel with me. God finds its expression for all of us as an idea. The idea of God has changed radically in the last 5000 years and will change more. Does that mean God is changing? If God exists, is there anything that we can know about this Being?
The story of Ling and Mike brings together two polarities in any discussion on God. The first, from Ling’s perspective is that God exists but is mysterious, known only in Her actions through us as human agents. Ling’s God was good in that her faith gave her something tangible to rest life’s struggles within. For Mike and perhaps his family no good God would ever do this to such a brilliant young man. At best God doesn’t exist or if he does he must be capable of doing bad things to us. The scientific belief that if such a God exists – and there is not physical evidence of such a Being, a fact that bothered Einstein a great deal – then God must be, by nature, cruel and capricious to allow such suffering as the untimely death of a brilliant and talented sixteen year old boy. Where do we find God in all that? So is it God as evolution, Good God, Bad God, No God at all? Perhaps.
The idea of God has and still is evolving. Jack Miles, in his book entitled God: A Biography, said, that if we look at the Bible we see the character of God change, like the character of so many novels. God starts out mysterious enough, creating the universe in six days, but quickly turns petty and jealous. Blaming Adam and Eve for eating the apple of the knowledge of good and evil (which was a set-up). Proclaiming to Moses that there will be no other gods before Him (notice that he doesn’t claim he is the only god) and moving on to smite the Jews and the enemy in fairly equal amounts with carnage and murder. It’s a pretty brutal story. God is not a nice guy. And he has this habit of just changing his mind. Take the story of Job for instance. Job’s a nice enough guy. Rich but nice. Devoted to God, country and family. And on a bet with none other than Satan, God smites poor Job and leaves him on the ash-heap with a couple of useless friends, boils covering his body. Finally, he can’t take it anymore and shakes his fist at God and gives him a piece of his mind. Satan says “See, I told you I could make him snap” and God comes rumbling down in a whirlwind and tells Job he is nothing without God, how dare he get angry. Talk about blaming the victim!
But as history marches on God’s character tempers a bit. After Moses, God no longer holds conversations with his adherent’s just messages. Finally, he sends his emissary Jesus to set the world on its head and prepare the world for the end of time. Later, Muhammad, the prophet of Islam hears from God but this time, not through any direct or even human agent but from the angel Gabriel.
The march of science seems to have created even more distance between this God and us. Now we don’t even know if God is angry or loving because science tells us God must be very far away indeed. But is it God that is very far away or is it the old idea of God that has been pushed beyond the known universe? The biologist Michael Dowd makes the case that God has to be a part of the universe because the fact that we are all made of stardust makes all of it miraculous. God is super natural, god is in the facts of nature itself. Facts, says Dowd, especially scientific facts are God’s good news. Even when we die, we only return to the pool to be reborn again.
John Shelby Spong, the retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ and a long time critic of traditional Christianity argues that God is not distant and certainly not dead but theism is dead. Theism, Spong, argues is the old idea of God and something to be feared and understood as acting in history. The old ideas of God don’t work in our world because God isn’t OF our world. Science will never find God because God is not a physical manifestation of physical law but rather God or the idea of God has evolved into the Spirit of Life that inhabits all of us. It is possible that this God can intervene in personal affairs but most often does not for reasons that are on macrocosmic scale. Perhaps. I saw a New Yorker cartoon of the bearded smiling God looking down from heaven on miniature planet earth with tiny mushroom clouds exploding across the globe and proclaims “Awww” The caption reads “Everything is cuter when its small”. Perhaps God is to humanity as a dog is to a flea. One flea turns to the other amidst the forest of dog hair and says “You know I really am beginning to wonder if there really is a dog”. The biologist Kenneth Miller in his book Finding Darwin’s God believes in a God of a dimension and understanding that is beyond science. Evolution is not some master plan. Evolution simply happens. But the mechanism for evolution is life and life is the best manifestation for God that we can find.
This can be a bit confusing so let me try to illustrate this with a story. When I was a younger man I had rejected God for the fierce rationalism of philosophy. I had no use for a God that would allow me to hurt as much as I did or to see children starving as they were and still are. And yet, something was missing in my life. My anger at the essential injustice of the world only made my spiritual outlook bleaker. When I met Bill I was not in a good place. Bill, an older sage, and all of us need such guides on our own heroic journeys, took me under his wing.
One night I was ranting and raving about how unfair it is and how I couldn’t believe in a God that let this happen. He smiled at me and said “then why are you even considering God as part of the problem?” Over the next two years, Bill taught me a new kind of God. Not the old, literal, all-powerful God of the Bible, but a God that found expression in acts of love and kindness. He told me:
“People always try to make their God in the image of what they want God to be. For the ancient Jews it was the God of the mountain, for the Hindus, the many gods and goddesses of the forest, for the Christians, a humble and lost soul who died a horrible death. For the Muslims, a God who is as immense as the endless sky of the Arabian desert. God could be all those things John, but what really matters is not what God is but what God does. You can’t know God or even if God exists. All you can know is that love changes the world. Companionship helps the hurting. And that people and events come together to change the world for the better even when we do great harm to each other. God is in us and around us, despite our evil impulses. God lives on regardless.”
It was a moving night, the first in a series of revelations. For me God was not dead, just the old idea of God was dead. I went on to find something new. It took me a long time. I liked the God that Jesus spoke of. The kind of God Jesus spoke of the Daddy, Abba, of his Jewish homeland, was loving but absolute. “Verily, I tell thee, the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” means just that; give up all your wealth to the poor and follow God in love. That was a tall order.
Now I believe in a God who has evolved beyond being an actor in history to an actor though us. We are the agents, the hands, the minds, and the possibilities of God’s power. This understanding is known as Process Theology. This is why I see no problem with being both a humanist and a believer in God. We are God. I can’t tell you what God wants of us other than to believe that we are being drawn to a higher purpose.
This has been what sustains me in our search for truth and meaning. What has sustained us through difficult times has been an understanding that we are about something bigger here than any one of us. As enchanted agonistics we are looking for meaning but in service to welcoming others. It is not about us. WE are the means to the end. The end is preparing a place where we can grow into the Beloved Community of Love. Where we can evolve in our understanding, not just as individuals but as a community to feel and know that we are part of something really big. All of us together, we are God; good, bad and indifferent. God in the sense that life has meaning, that we can bring comfort to the suffering and that we can change the world for the better furthering the evolution of humanity from a brutish, petty, tribal race to a loving, accepting and searching race of beings. We really are the people we have been waiting for. Can you hear me on this?
God, or our idea of the Ultimate is intertwined with us as living creatures. As Forrest Church wrote just before he died of cancer: “Whenever we give our hearts in love, the burden of our vulnerability grows. We risk being rebuffed or embarrassed or inadequate. Beyond these things, we risk the enormous pain of loss. When those we love die, a part of us dies with them. When those we love are sick, in body or spirit, we too feel the pain. All of this is worth it. Especially the pain. If we insulate our hearts from suffering, we shall only subdue the very thing that makes life worth living. We cannot protect ourselves from loss. We can only protect ourselves from the death of love, we are left only with the aching hollow of regret, that haunting emptiness where love might have been.” (From Love and Death)
There is an ultimate love calling us to sacrifice to the greater good. Regardless of our fears, our pains, or our worries. WE are part of something really big here. We are part of that by whatever name we call Love and for me that is God. Amen.