Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Is Your God a Puppeteer or a Novelist?

In his book A Grace Disguised (Zondervan 2005), Jerry Sittser uses two metaphors for God on pages 156-157: God as a puppeteer and God as a novelist. The puppeteer is an all-powerful God who predetermines our every move. We are passive victims of God’s whims; we have little freedom to choose. On the other hand, God as novelist is in overall control of the writing of the book, but as the story line develops, the characters change as their characters develop. Rather than being manipulated and controlled, they have a freedom to choose their own destinies.

In thinking about these two metaphors for God, I came up with a list to describe each one and their contrasting characteristics.

God as puppeteer
       God of much of Christianity, especially fundamentalism
       All-powerful God
       God of justice (fairness-we get what we deserve)
       God of sending Hebrews into exile
       Story of Job
       Causes fatalism (I’m stuck)
       God of creeds and “isms”
God as novelist
       God of Nouwen, Sittser, many other writers on spirituality
       All-loving God
       God of grace (mercy)
       Story of Prodigal Son
       God of allowing Hebrews a king
       Causes hope (I can change)
       God of mystery

My first claim is that the puppeteer metaphor is the one that most of us grow up with in our black-and-white Sunday school faith. Many stay stuck with this image of God. This stuck-ness results in rigid belief systems that produce fundamentalism. Most writers on Christian spirituality show us how to grow and mature in our faith by moving us more toward the novelist metaphor.

The puppeteer God is all-powerful while the novelist God is all-loving. I have written about this difference in a previous blog post: "God: Almighty or All-loving?"

The puppeteer God is a God of justice and righteousness. This God judges us for our faults; dishes out what we deserve—if we are good we get a reward, if we are bad, we get punishment (Deut. 28).  This God is the God who sent the Hebrews into exile for their disobedience. In contrast, the novelist God is a God of mercy. The best example of this is the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:32). This God loves and forgives no matter how egregious the straying and the sin.

The best biblical story that portrays God as a puppeteer is the story of Job. Job is seemingly at the mercy of the forces of good and evil, and Job is a mere marionette on a string being manipulated by God. The best biblical story to illustrate the God as novelist is the story of the Hebrews’ desire for a king (1 Samuel 8). This was not in God’s original plan; It was an outright rejection of God’s sovereignty. However, as the novel developed, and the people’s characters changed, God allowed for them to have a king.

The puppeteer God causes fatalism. “That’s life.” “It was or wasn’t God’s will.” We get stuck in the blame game with no way for movement out. On the other hand, the novelist God brings us hope. We can change, we are not stuck.

The puppeteer God is the one that has the followers develop creeds to believe in, doctrines to follow, and institutions to be preserved. The novelist God is mysterious, beyond rational explanation and characterization. This is the God that mystics through the ages and in all religions traditions have experienced.

Of course, as mentioned above, there is biblical evidence for both kinds of “Gods,” and the categories are probably not as neatly defined as I make them. Nevertheless, the lists can give us some food for thought in how we experience or view God.

During my crisis of faith, I became very cynical about the church, God and religion in general. I was stuck on the institutional God of creeds and “isms.” My faith was restored and my cynicism conquered by the mysterious God, mainly through the spiritual disciplines. I learned to “know” God rather than just to “believe” in God.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Needed Break and a Reminder

Every fall for the past 15 or more years, a group of men gather for 1-2 days somewhere in the mountains of the East for fun, fellowship and exercise in nature. At the beginning it was an all-day hike, later a day-long bike ride was added.

This year there were ten of us gathered at a camp ground on a Sunday evening outside Jim Thorpe, Pa. The huge campfire not only helped cook the evening meal, but provided the warmth necessary to be outdoors on this late October evening. It also formed the backdrop for guy talk; rarely do we deal with weighty subjects, we just catch up on each other’s lives and tell the standard jokes.

Indeed many of the jokes were repeats from previous years. Someone came up with the idea of numbering them so that all we would need to do each year is repeat the number and we could laugh without having to hear all the details. At our ages, however, few of us could remember the details let alone the number of the corresponding joke.

Monday morning saw us preparing for a 50-mile bike ride along the Lehigh Gorge State Park Trail; from Jim Thorpe to White Haven and back with lunch in White Haven. I hadn’t been riding much, so I decided that I only wanted to do about 30 miles. I ride a recumbent stationary bike regularly, and wasn’t worried about my legs and lungs, but other parts of the body—indeed my shoulders, pectoral muscles and elbows felt it the most. I drove my car to White Haven, then rode my bike toward my companions until I met them, turned around and rode with the pack until we arrived in White Haven for lunch.

What a lunch it was; 14 oz. hamburgers at a well-known greasy spoon diner. When we men are together, we tend to eat foods not allowed on our home table; at least not three times a day! One companion quipped, “that was a three-Lipitor breakfast.” He could have added, and lunch and dinner. But we had to load up for the upcoming bike ride.

14 Oz. Hamburger
The weather was perfect for the ride; cool enough to ride in comfort without sweating much, and warm enough not to freeze the extremities. The sunlight filtered through the remaining leaves on the trees, and I rode in and out of shadows depending on the location of the ridges skirting the Lehigh River. The leaves were a bit past their prime, but there were still some brilliant reds and yellows to delight the eyes from time to time.

The trail
Riding in a pack is lots of fun with conversation and jockeying for position. It also helps the length of the ride to seem shorter. However, on this occasion, I was glad to be riding alone. I took in every sensation: the sounds of the river, the water falls passing over rocks, the wind rustling the leaves of the trees making various whistling sounds, the pounding of my heart and the sharp sensation of my lungs filling with cold air. I was at one with nature. I was at peace with the universe. I experienced the presence of God.

My two-day experience was a wonderful break from my normal routines. I experienced community through male bonding; I experienced a rare oneness with nature; I happily abandoned some of the strictures of my normal rhythm and rule. I experienced mellowness of heart; a topic about which I am writing a book and that I do not enjoy often enough. Oh, and I didn’t check my email for 36 hours.

As wonderful as the time away from my regular routine was, it was only good because it wasn’t normal. We need such breaks to keep us healthy both physically and spiritually, but we also need to find ways to have small retreats and breaks every day during our more regular routines. That’s the challenge of developing a healthy lifestyle—and a mellow heart. 

A waterfall behind me

Saturday, October 12, 2013

God: Almighty or All-loving?

Recent reading for an upper-level Spanish class, the author contrasted an all-loving God with an almighty one. I did a straw poll of my 14 students on which best describes their perception of God. Thirteen responded with all-loving, while only one said almighty.

What a contrast from the perception of God with which I grew up, and I suspect many of my contemporaries. Fueled by an authoritarian father and a strict church discipline, I imagined an almighty God sitting on his throne watching my every move. Any misstep and he would zap me, if not immediately, surely at the final judgment. The resulting guilt was exploited by regular revival meetings leading me down the sawdust trail many times as a pre-teen and a teenager.

Henri Nouwen grew up in a similar environment (without the revivals) and openly wrote about his search for acceptance and love from God. Over and over again in his writings and sermons he repeats the mantra, “You are beloved of God.” His books have sold millions. After the Bible, both Protestant and Catholic pastors consult Nouwen above any other writer. Apparently Nouwen’s message has gotten through to this generation of students.

How did this happen? When I was growing up, I never heard the words “I love you” from my parents. Even though many of their actions showed me their love, it was never stated. In bringing up our children, my generation went the other way. I love you here, I love you there, and I love you everywhere. In fact I heard the story of a young adult child who said to their parent, “Ok, I know you love me, but you say it so often that it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”  

Have all-loving parents turned our perception of God into an all-loving one? Does this explain the “anything goes” attitude so prevalent in our society even among Christians? God loves me, like the Prodigal son, so no matter what I do, God will still love me. This is a subject for another time.

One could ask whether Nouwen’s books will have as much appeal to this generation as they did to mine. Interestingly, I think they will. Not only did Nouwen write about his struggle with feeling loved, he also wrote about feeling inadequate in spite of having taught at Harvard, Yale and Notre Dame and being a highly successful writer.

While this generation has heard the message of all-encompassing love from their parents and perceive an all-loving God, their society tells them that they are inadequate. Through advertising, they are told that they are not pretty enough, they are not talented enough, they are not athletic enough, they need the latest in every new form of technology, and that they are not successful enough in their careers. Social media shows them how everyone else in the world is doing so well while I am wallowing in self pity. They are forced to compare themselves constantly with their peers. So I think Nouwen’s books will speak to this generation as well.

However, the question stills remains, is God almighty or all-loving? I think God is both. We need a sense of a being beyond ourselves that has not only created the universe, but has also set up universal laws that when disobeyed cause problems. Within these immutable laws, there is a sense of right and wrong. God is just. On the other hand, God is all-loving. God extends unlimited grace if we acknowledge our need of it. God is both almighty and all-loving. God is both just and merciful.

What is your perception of God on the almighty to all-loving continuum? 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

On the Back Patio

Every morning I spend about 30 minutes on our back patio, no matter what the weather. It has become a sanctuary for communing with nature and my soul. It has not only been a personal sanctuary, but my wife Esther and I have used this space more in the past year than at any time since we had it built nearly 20 years ago. It has become our favorite place for spending evenings reading and talking, eating meals together, or just hanging out from early spring to late fall.

Esther has worked on making this sanctuary a garden of delights. Swiss window boxes bursting with the colors of red geraniums and unnamed white counterparts, pots with hanging ferns and ivy crawling up some lattice work grace the brick and concrete mason work.

For about 35 years I spent my mornings either jogging or walking, but age and arthritis caught up with my knees. For 13 of those years my walks included a dog, and for three of them a paper route. My walks not only helped me commune with nature, but also helped me learn to know my neighborhood. Along with some walking meditatively, I also positioned myself as part of a larger community. Rain, sleet and snow, hurricane force winds and extreme hot and cold couldn’t prevent me from seeing the changes and routines of my neighbors.

Now I sit alone, looking out across a back yard to a full moon playing tag with the cumulus clouds while slowly disappearing under the western horizon. My presence doesn’t seem to bother my neighbors’ three sleeping dogs. But let a cat walk between us and they quickly rise to their purpose in the universe. My physical body may not receive the benefit of necessary exercise, but by soul has often been filled with harmony with the rest of myself and the cosmos.

While walking and jogging my meditations were too often interrupted by distractions; some wanted and others not. Sitting, on the other hand, allows time for true solitude and stillness. Sitting, especially when surrounded by the beauty of the coming and going of the seasons, allows my soul to catch up with the rest of me.