The First Commandment, Pt. 2

The following is another excerpt from the second chapter of Ten Essential Words.

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It should be clear then, that Yahweh does not simply demand “no other gods” without going to great lengths to reveal himself to his people.  The personal name, Yahweh, invites us into a relationship with God.  The Garden of Eden reveals God’s original intention of what that relationship could look like.  The commandments, the laws of Moses, and moral codes of the Hebrew Scriptures set the bar of God’s righteous expectations for our conduct.  The Temple demonstrates the depth of worship that is worthy of God.  The prophets proclaim both God’s disappointment and forgiveness when we inevitably fall short of that bar of righteousness.  Jesus dramatically revealed the heart of God and the lengths God was willing to go to be in relationship with us.  So the First Commandment points us to God and invites us on a journey to discover who God is.  Three things can help guide that journey:

We can know God.  That sounds like such a simple statement, but it is both surprising and tragic how many of us live like we do not believe that statement – we live like functional agnostics.  Sure, we believe there is a god out there, but God is beyond our reach and does not have any real impact on the way we live our lives.  Rough estimates reveal this: that, though nine out of ten American adults believe that God exists, there is a growing disagreement about how God should be described.  Many who consider themselves to be Christian are unacquainted with the basic tenants of their faith.  Amidst the religious pluralism of our day, there is a growing resignation that we can really know anything for certain about God.  This is giving rise to two approaches to God.

The first approach is to simply accept this functional agnosticism.  God remains a vague life force somewhere out there, but there is no real hope that we can ever understand it.  Like the force in the Star Wars movies, God is a powerful energy in the universe, but no one really understands it and only a select few – the spiritual Jedi if you will – can ever really harness it.  But for the everyday person, God remains elusive and out of reach.  God has no real influence in our lives and at the end of the day, we hope we have stayed on God’s good side and hope there might be something beyond the grave.  It does not sound like an inspiring way to live, but truth be told, this is exactly how many do live.  The truth is, I live far too many days of my own life this way.

The second comes out of functional agnosticism, but is not satisfied with the hopelessness described above.  So a mix-and-match faith emerges.  Since God cannot really be known, the best of a variety of religious experiences are borrowed to tailor a spiritual expression that suits the individual’s needs.  What has emerged is the rise of designer religions, sometimes referred to as “pastiche spirituality”, that combines various beliefs and practices from different sources, even being a member of two or more distinct religions at the same time.  While this may sound initially appealing to our cultural mindset that so values choice, what we end up with is a god made after our own image.  What we have created is an idol, which is precisely what the Second Commandment (and the next chapter) cautions us against.

With the introduction, “My name is Yahweh”, God is calling us away from the elusiveness of a spiritual energy and the idolatry of a designer religion, and is calling us into a relationship with himself.  We are called to learn about God through the study of scripture.  We are invited to experience God through prayer and other spiritual practices.  We are encouraged to pay attention to creation and the world around us for more clues about who God is – after all God is the creator of the world around us.  Much of this involves some initiative on our part, which is probably why many people remain functional agnostics.  But this seeking initiative is also met with a promise: seek God and you will find God. Inquire about God, search God out, knock on doors, turn over stones!  God can be known to the one who wants to know him.  That is the journey we are invited to take.

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Death And All His Friends (Including Sketchy Theology)

About three weeks ago, my wife’s cousin suffered two heart attacks.  After spending about five days on a heart and lung machine, she passed away.  I was among some of the family members at her bedside when she died.  She was only 50 years old, in good health, and just beginning to enjoy her “grandma” years.  Out of respect for the still-grieving family, nothing I am about to write has anything to do with the family itself or the funeral, which celebrated her life in meaningful ways.

Everyone deals with death and dying in their own way.  Perhaps my way is to over-analyze the theology embedded in people’s comments and prayers during a stressful time.  But I remember a moment in the car when my wife was reading me a poem that someone had suggested be read at the funeral, that I got really angry at the belief system inherent in that poem.  I understand the poem (which, by the way, was not read at the funeral) was only meant to bring comfort to a grieving family.  But for me, it was the culmination of several well-meaning attempts to make sense of death that left me puzzled and frustrated.

A few that left me wondering:

  • “I guess when it is your appointed time, there is nothing you can do.”  Does each person really have an appointed time of death?  Maybe this is one interpretation of Hebrews 9:27, but I believe what is appointed is that we will all die one day, not that each of us has a fixed day of death predetermined somewhere in the future.  Yes, our days our numbered, but that simply means nobody will live forever.  This idea reflects a fatalism that bemoans, “however I live, whatever choices I make, my life (and death) is already determined.”  I don’t see this reflected in scripture.
  • “At least she is home now.”  My issue isn’t so much with the statement itself, but what many mean when they use it.  Inherent in this statement is the belief that we really aren’t supposed to be here on earth anyway, we are supposed to be in heaven; this world is just a throw-away.  But the more I read, the more I am convinced that heaven is a temporary realm until God’s kingdom is fully established here on earth.  Heaven and earth will then be one.  Yes, when we die we are at home with Jesus.  But our home is not ultimately away from this earth (if heaven is even away, in a spatial sense).  We will be home when God’s kingdom is fully established on earth.
  • “She isn’t really dead, she is only sleeping.”  Again, I understand the poetic license behind a comment like this, but while death is not the end, it is still very real.  This takes me way back to a church advertisement I once heard on the radio.  The commercial featured a widow at a funeral laughing and being positively engaging.  When someone asks her how she could be so strong at the death of her husband, she responds that because she is a Christian, everything is fine.  No need to mourn.  Is that how we are supposed to react to death?  Even Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus.

So what is it about death that brings out sketchy theology?  There is nothing like trying to make sense out of the senseless to make one pause and consider what is held to be true.  No doubt, some are simply grasping at anything that will bring comfort.  And I realize that not many would enjoy a good theological discussion in the moment of their grief.  But if the way of Jesus is the way of hope, why must we alter his words so badly to hold on to that sense of hope?

What are your thoughts?