Is God Involved?

One of the biggest questions any faith must address in their theology is to what extent God is involved in human affairs.  The answer can range from seeing God as distant and totally uninvolved (if not unapproachable); to heavily involved in every last detail of our lives.  None of the world’s major faiths have a single viewpoint on this issue.  Instead, we see a range communities within each of these great faiths with a broad range of views on the continuum between these two extremes.

The “distant” conception sees God as a distant, uninvolved deity.  In this view, humanity is often seen as an accidental or deliberate byproduct of creation, as rejected or cut off from God, or perhaps even forgotten by Her (or Him).  Adherents of this view usually believe it is up to humanity to somehow bridge the gap between us and God to achieve salvation.  For myself, I have difficulty with this view, since I believe God can (and does) have a personal relationship with us.  A distant and uninvolved God wouldn’t care about us one way or another, and our very existence would therefore be meaningless and futile.

A “Highly Involved God” is one where all pain, suffering and bad choices in this life are “fixed” because of God’s love for us.  While I believe God loves us, I have concerns with this point of view because it requires God to interfere in human affairs on an ongoing basis.  If God miraculously heals or favors me in some way, the cost is probably that someone else must suffer or be denied access to the benefits I am being given.  As a Rabbi once said: if I take a walk one day and see a fire engine racing by me towards smoke rising in the distance from where my house is, and I pray for God to let it not be my house that is burning, then am I, in effect, asking that someone else’s house be burned?  A God who interferes in human existence in such a way would not be respecting the gift of freedom of choice, which I believe lies at the heart of what makes us human, and is what makes us capable of having a true relationship with God.  If God does not permit us to suffer the consequences of our own choices, then we are no more than pets, or perhaps robots: playthings without a meaningful existence of our own.

The Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible makes this same argument: as a human, I am finite and limited in my understanding.  Therefore, I cannot know all the consequences of what I ask of God.   So, when God does not grace me with what I see as a favorable answer to what I am requesting, is that a bad thing?  I think not.  To me, it merely means that I do not know the full story, and that I am asking for something that is not in line with God’s perfect will for me and for all of Creation.  It is not a matter of “not having enough faith” or not being perfectly obedient to God’s will.  (In fact, I would argue, as did Paul, that no one can ever be perfectly obedient, and therefore none of us ever “deserves” God’s grace.)  But, let’s get back to the question of “Is God Involved?”

Is God involved?  Does God actually care for us as individuals?  Does God even notice that we exist?  For me, the answer is “Yes”

I believe that the primary reason for the historical existence of Christ is to demonstrate that God shared with us and walked with us, both fully human and fully divine.  God knows what it means to be happy, to be sad, to be hungry, to be satisfied, to love, and to grieve.  Through Christ, God has experienced all of these things, and so knows exactly what it means to be human.  Through doing this, God demonstrated that he (or she) cares for us as individuals: that each and every one of us matters to God.

Further, as Christ said in John 14:26, the “Comforter”, the Holy Spirit, is still with us.  I believe this is the same spirit that manifested itself as the “voice” that came to Elijah in the cave (I Kings 19:13).  I believe that the Holy Spirit is but one of the many avenues God uses to communicate with us, to help us learn for ourselves what God already knows is best for us.  Yet, God will never seek to shield us from the consequences of our choices.  If we make a bad choice, bad consequences will follow.  For me, the doctrine of “original sin” teaches us that we cannot help but make imperfect choices.  In other words, any choice we make will ultimately lead to negative consequences for someone, if not for ourselves.

So, the answer is Yes, God is involved: God is constantly talking to us, feeling what we feel, walking our walk.  But, it is up to us to choose to listen and to walk the path that God knows is best for us.  Yet, if we fail to do so, God remains with us, experiencing with us the pain and loss we’re experiencing.

I believe that God never gives up on us, and so I will never give up on the God I see as a very personal and very loving God.

 

Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

A Transformative Moment of Faith

A little girl was born in (if I remember right) October of 1992.  She was extremely premature, suffering from numerous life threatening medical problems.  In December, after numerous surgeries, she was sent home.  Yet, her microcephalic brain was not so easily repaired: it was 1/3rd the volume it should have been.  Her parents were told she would be a “vegetable for the rest of her life.”

That Sunday, her family brought her to church.  The Pastor called for members of the congregation to come forward and pray for the family and for the child’s healing.  I was one of those who did so.

She was such a frail little thing.  Her head was proportioned to her body as an adult’s would be, not the oversized head you expect to see in an infant.  She lay quietly as about a dozen of us crowded around, laid our hands on her and her family, and prayed for several minutes.

All of a sudden I felt a huge rush of energy pouring into and through me, and then found myself “speaking in tongues.”  I’d always dismissed this “gift of the spirit” as more likely a sign of self-delusion than a true miraculous event.  So, I was shocked, to say the least, to find it happening to me!  I returned to my pew, sweating and shaking; and had to completely rethink what had been a thoroughly intellectual and theologically liberal Protestant faith. I realized that relationships, especially my relationship with God, were much more than just logic.  Relationships require emotion, passion, and love.

Even though to this day I am still a [very] liberal Protestant Christian, this episode in my life was transformative, and made me realize that when it comes to faith, no one has all the answers, nor will we ever have all the answers: God can, and will, surprise us with something new and powerful when we least expect it.  I developed a profound and deep respect for the faith of others, as I now know that no matter where someone is “coming from,” their faith is of value not just for them, but also for others: if we are open to it, their faith can teach all of us something valuable about our own faith, and about the nature of God.

What happened to that little girl?  We left the church soon after, when we moved out of state.  We visited that town again several years later and made a point of stopping by one afternoon to see this family. The little girl with a disproportionately small head was walking, talking, and in school.  She came up to me when asked by her parents to say hello to this red headed stranger that she did not remember, then laughed and ran back to play with her sisters.

I still get tears in my eyes thinking of that moment.

 

Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

God is Dead, God is Love

There’s been quite a bit of fuss over an nationwide ad campaign sponsored by some humanist groups who are determined to make us hear, in this the Christmas Season, that they believe God does not exist.

I agree with them.

These ads are reacting against a judgmental, limiting, inflexible god who’s main purpose seems to be to oppress humanity and destroy freedom.  I would have a hard time with such a god myself.  And so, I agree, the god they are reacting to does not exist.

The God I know is a god of relationship, a god of love.  Love transforms you.  Therefore, the god I know, a god of love, cannot be inflexible and unchanging.  Just as God’s love changes us, our love must change God.  My god is not a god of oppression, inflexible judgment or limitation.  My God is a god that would (and did) die for us; a God who wants to walk with us in the both the light and dark times of our lives.

So, my advice to those offended by these “God does not exist” advertisements is to agree with those who have such a viewpoint, then show your love to them, to those who seem to hate God.  What they hate is the pain inflicted on them in the name of a god that does not exist.  Let the love that God has placed in you show them that there is a different God, a real God, a God who loves them, too.  A god who gives us the freedom to love back, or to choose to not love at all. To love God is our choice, if it isn’t a choice, then God’s love would be meaningless.

 

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

The Unseen

When I lived in Belmont, MA I would often see an old man – big beard, thick graying hair (though going a little thin on the top) with a Mediterranean-looking complexion. He usually stood near the exit of the store: not saying anything, just standing there. His clothes were neat, but obviously old and worn. Yet, no one saw him. Yet, no one saw him: he was ignored as if he didn’t exist. His face, stoic as it was, always seemed to me to be filled with a hurt pride: doing what he had to do to survive, yet once having lived a life far better than the one he has now.

A few Sundays ago, at the beginning of Advent, I was asked to give the “Childrens’ Message” at my church – appropriate (or ironic, depending on how you look at it) since at the time, my son was due to be born any day.  I warned my fellow worship leaders that this might interfere with my being there — making it difficult for me to give the Childrens’ Message!  I said that if it happened, I would be invisible (even though everyone would know why), but that I would be “present in spirit”.

Yet, there is another kind of invisibility: the invisibility of those who are unseen.

When I lived in Belmont I would shop at the supermarket at Belmont Ave and Mt Auburn Road, not far from “Mt Auburn Cemetery” where so many notable Americans have been buried.  While shopping there, I would often see an old man – big beard, thick graying hair (though going a little thin on the top) with a Mediterranean-looking complexion.  He usually stood near the exit of the store: not saying anything, just standing there.  His clothes were neat, but obviously old and worn.  Yet, no one saw him: he was ignored as if he didn’t exist.   His face, stoic as it was, always seemed to me to be filled with a hurt pride: doing what he had to do to survive, yet once having lived a life far better than the one he has now.

Not many people think about it, but there is an abandoned railroad spur that runs behind that store: it starts as a branch off of the “Red Line” near Alewife, runs behind Fresh Pond Mall, through Fresh Pond Park, past many industrial buildings and Mt. Auburn Cemetery, before it dead ends at the Lexus dealership near the Arsenal in Watertown.  It is heavily overgrown, with at least four bridges where it passes under major roads.

Such an overgrown area in the middle of suburbia is a perfect hideaway for the homeless: trees, old buildings and overpasses provide excellent shelter.  Recycle and trash bins provide excellent foraging for cans and bottles to redeem at the supermarket.  (I often see the homeless in the area: pushing grocery carts piled-high with cans, bottles, and their worldly possessions, searching in our garbage cans anything that they can use or redeem.)

These are the real “invisible” people: living right alongside us, sometimes sleeping just a few yards from our bedroom windows, but we never see them, we never acknowledge them, we never engage with them.  — Just like that old man I saw so many times at the Shaws in Belmont.

In this Holiday season, we often talk about how Jesus, the babe is a gift from God to the world.  (…John 3:16!)  Yet, we often forget that this gift is to the world, not just us.  That world includes the homeless, the hungry, the poor.  Also, the gift wasn’t “stuff” rather, God gave of himself.

I’m reminded of another poor man I once knew – “Old George” – who had just enough money from his Social Security Check to pay his rent, and that was all.  He survived as so many of the poor in this area survive – scrounging tin cans and bottles so that he could buy food.  He was renowned for being verbally abusive and mean to people, but he changed.  The change came not because he got more money or was given more “stuff” but because someone I knew invited him to lunch.  She befriended him, and saw him as a person.  She gave of herself, her own time: showing him that he mattered, that he wasn’t just a forgotten and poor old man.

As the friendship with him continued, he began to take the love and friendship he was receiving and “spread it around” to others.  The thing that changed him as a person is that he learned that someone cared.  So, in this Christmas season I ask myself: how am I showing that “I care” to those around me?  How will that old man at the Shaws Market in Belmont know that he matters to God, unless I show him – as Jesus taught us to do?

Next time I’m in that neighborhood, I’ll seek him out and say “Hi, my name’s Allen: what’s your name?”

I wonder if he’ll be hungry.

 

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Oh, THAT Prayer!

A Classmate gave a sermon in “Preaching Class” that made me realize how my current experience parallels that of Zachariah (the father of John the Baptist, in the Gospel of Luke) in some ways, and how thankful I am for the grace of God in my life.

In “preaching” class recently, a fellow student gave a message that was deeply moving and poignant.  The text was Luke 1, the story of Zachariah, father of John the Baptist.  She talked about how Zachariah had been chosen to burn incense on the altar in the Temple and pray.  Then, an angel appeared and said “your prayers are answered.”

Then she asked “which prayers were being answered?”  At the time, Zachariah was praying as part of a public ritual, he was not praying solely for himself.  He must have done a double-take, thinking “Oh, THAT prayer!” when the Angel said “Elizabeth will have a son” instead of saying something like “the Messiah is coming and Israel will be restored.”

Zachariah was old, as was his wife.  Would they have bothered talking about wanting a child to anyone, any more?  Was that long-unanswered prayer one that they only thought-about in the dark hours of the night, when sleep could not find them, when (as my classmate said) they stared at the empty spot in the corner where they had once hoped a cradle, someday, would be?

These are the types of prayers that we hide and bury down deep because we can no longer bear saying them out loud.  Was God answering a prayer that Zachariah had given up-on himself?

His response to Gabriel seems to indicate this was the case: “How will I know this for certain?”  At this point in the sermon, a whole train of thought hit me: All those unanswered prayers of my own broke upon me, and I completely lost track of the rest of her message.

All of us can identify with Zachariah’s “hidden prayers” all too well.  We have all spent many lonely nights, remembering those earnest prayers that never seem to have been answered.  And yet here, those hopes were answered in an unexpected way, at an unexpected time: Zachariah was completely unprepared for it.  What can his story teach us?

First, God’s timing is not ours.  Zachariah had given up on his hidden prayers being fulfilled.  There was no longer any reasonable expectation that they could be:  Zachariah certainly didn’t expect it, nor did I when my own such prayers were answered.

Second, that God’s means of fulfilling those hidden and buried prayers is not ours.  If someone, on July 9, 2005, had told me that my life would be anything like where I am today, I’d have (bitterly) laughed in their face: at the time I felt that all of my life’s prayers were beyond reach, any hope of attaining them gone forever.  Yet, a day later, my feet were firmly on the path to the life I have now.  Like Zachariah, the change was sudden, startling, and irrevocable.  For me, the path forward was not clear, nor was there any certainity to it, but I knew that the path forward could only be far better than where I had been.

Third, that attaining the fulfillment of those hidden prayers is not easy – even once the door opens.  There was a high cost, at least for me and Zachariah.  Yet, I don’t think either of us would think about paying it all over again if we had to.  For us, every step of that journey has been worth it.  In Zachariah’s case, it was the birth of a son.  For me, it has been a whole multitude of things, not the least of which is my wife, my new (and restored) family, and the opportunity to pursue the career that itself had been a hidden prayer for many years.

Finally, the journey is not done.  The need for God’s grace and presence didn’t end with Zachariah’s naming his son “John”.  Although we are not told the rest the story, I am certain that John’s walk towards becoming a Prophet was marked by unnumbered examples of God’s grace and guidance, and that his parents were on their knees frequently: thanking God and praying for their son.  In my own case, a similar journey is one of several that are just beginning for me.

Other “hidden prayers” remain in my own life, as in all of our lives.  For me, one unanswered prayer that I think about every day, if not several times a day,  is seeing the relationship with my daughter healed and restored: a hidden hurt that has become all the more poignant for me, now that her brother’s birth is imminent.  I pray that the gulf between us is somehow bridged, so that I can at least know that my constant prayers for her safety and happiness are being answered.

But, maybe those prayers aren’t as hidden and forgotten as we think: from Zachariah’s example, we know that those prayers are not hidden from God, and so that hope of their fulfillment never needs to die.  But, we can also be sure that God will fulfill them in a way and time of His own choosing, not ours.  So, I will also remember what Romans 8:6 teaches us: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”  If we focus on worldly means of achieving our prayers, as Zachariah and I did, those hopes will die.  But, by staying focused on the inner witness of God’s Love for us, we will have peace even when all worldly hope is gone.

 

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Amen!

Why No Fence? (The Prequel)

Further reflections on why and how the Bible seems to be saying that our ability to have a relationship with God is inextricably tied-to our mortality.

The musings below initiated the train of thought that led to the writing of my previous posting, the sermon entitled “Why No Fence?”.  So, I’ve posted this article to give some additional background on the sermon and it’s theological / philosophical perspective.  Also, I just recently learned that a dear friend of mine (that I’ve tried to contact several times over the last couple of years) passed away in June, 2007 – which makes this an appropriate time to reflect on this subject again.

Reading “George’s” “My Wife has Cancer Blog” (http://themywifehascancerblog.blogspot.com/) has been thought-provoking.  I often reflect on how cruel and heartless the world can be.  Yet, what is also true is that this world is filled with beauty, beauty which we often find in unexpected places, as George’s reflections show us.

Recently, I’ve thought a lot about the implications of Eternal Life.  Something which YHWH denied us after Adam and Eve (meaning “we”) ate of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”.

To me, what Eternal Life means is that time no longer matters.  For someone who has Eternal Life, no day is any more, or less, valuable than any other.  Such people are (in essence) immortal: they have infinite time to complete unfinished business, correct mistakes, or finish their “to do” list.  So, what value would any day (or century) have?  Could love and beauty exist in a world without time?  Many writers have thought on this…

Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels” imagines an immortal race called the Struldbrugs.  But, they do not have eternal youth: their bodies eventually age to the point where every breath is torment – yet, they cannot die.  Immortality for a Struldbrug is a curse, not a gift.

In “Lord of The Rings”, J.R.R. Tolkien has a race with eternally youthful bodies: the elves.  Yet immortality is still a burden:  They are a people not quite in tune with the world, a “vision of the elder days living in the present”.  A people whose bodies do not age, but who have an inescapable sadness because they know that everything they build, everything they know, will eventually pass away – and they cannot stop it.  They are doomed to outlive everything they love.  They cannot escape from the past and live fully in the present.

Science Fiction author Robert H. Heinlein imagined immortality through technology.  In “Time Enough For Love” Lazarus Long is the oldest human: a man who is “rejuvenated” whenever old age afflicts him.  Yet, Lazarus tired of life.  Like the elves, Lazarus outlived everything he loved.  Heinlein also pointed out that our brains are not infinite: If we live long enough, like Lazarus, we run out of room for new memories.  Even if that weren’t a problem, our memories get cluttered and disorganized with age.  (Lazarus complains about hunting all morning for a book, only to realize he’d put it down a century ago.)  Through Lazarus we see that even with youthful bodies, our minds (and spirits) will still age.

Heinlein’s Lazarus had his mind “washed” of old memories to make room for new ones, but then asks what good is immortality when memory no longer links you with who you once where?  Immortality is a burden for Lazarus because he outlives his youth, and because of the broken connection between his present and his past.

Mortality makes time precious: every day is a gift that cannot be recaptured.  The flip side of this is that we cannot go back and make different choices when things don’t turn out as we hoped.  We cannot choose to avoid the pain that is the inevitable result of the choice to love (…hence the title of Heinlein’s book).

In the end, we need to ask ourselves  whether it is worth it: to live a life like that of Lazarus, or the elves, or the Struldbrugs, or the timeless existence Adam and Eve had before they ate of the fruit.

What I believe is that the choice to eat of the fruit is what allowed Adam and Eve to choose to have a relationship with God.  This fruit represents the choice to have choices – an essential first step.  It is the choice we must make if we do not want to remain in endless existence as a creature without choices.  That tree’s fruit was the “escape hatch” – the First Choice – that enabled us to have the Second Choice – of whether to Love God (or not).

So, while I am not eager to come to the end of my mortal existence, and know that the end will probably include pain and suffering, the tradeoff is that I have a life that is worth living.  A life where I can have a relationship with God.

Genesis says to me that God gave us mortality because God wants a relationship with us, and knows what is best for us.  So, I know that our mortality, and that of those we love, is a gift, part of God’s plan.  Just like time, if our relationships were never-ending, they would have no value to us: love would have no value to us.

This does not eliminate or even alleviate the pain and hardships of life, but knowing that mortality is necessary for love and life to have value, and that it is all part of God’s plan, gives me the strength I need to endure such things when they come, and the ability to appreciate and rejoice-in the beauty and love that are in this world.  Amen!

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Thoughts on Ecclesiastes, the Second Great Commandment, and Homosexuality

I lived in the mid 1980’s with a man who – unknown to me at the time – was gay.  “John” was a broken, hurting, hiding individual – filled with conflict and deeply buried anger over who he was vs. who his church and his family and society as a whole expected him to be.  His own sense of self and self-worth was so deeply hidden under layers of self-deception, self-loathing and fear that it never surfaced in the time I knew him.  Compulsive and self-destructive behaviors filled his life: a vicious circle of turmoil and pain that he could not escape.

Conservative Christians focus on the Old Testament’s condemnations of homosexuality, especially verses like Leviticus 18:22  – “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable (NIV).”  Yet, Leviticus also condemns the eating of shellfish as “detestable” (Lev 11:10).  So, should we stone to death everyone coming out of “Red Lobster”?

Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures condemn homosexuality to some extent.  Many argue this was because the ancient Jews lived in a world that had no room to care for (or even tolerate) people that we would have labelled as “unproductive members of society”, though the ancient Jews did not think in those terms (nor am I suggesting homosexuality falls into that category).  In that ancient time, homosexuality may have been seen as a behavior that was unproductive in terms of the critical need to sustain the culture through procreation.  It might also have been seen as an activity that threatened the status quo /or and gender roles within the culture.  Who knows?  Whatever the reasoning, it was seen as a threat to the community’s ability to survive in a world where the margin of survival was very thin.  Such threats therefore had to be dealt with firmly, if not harshly – since that same slim margin made less harsh punishments – such as prisons – impractical, if not impossible.

Homosexuality in the early Christian era was apparently not condemned of itself.  But, it is clear that it was often an expression of power and dominance or lust, not of love.  The New Testament has much to say in its condemnation of the misuse of power and wealth in many different dimensions and venues of life at that time.  So, is homosexuality itself being condemned by Paul and others, or its use as to express dominance?

Progressive Christians therefore question whether laws against homosexuality have a place in the modern world, a world where the challenge is not that of making sure enough children are born to carry on the culture, but is one of having too many: leading to the destruction of resources critical to our survival as a species.  Yet, in throwing out some Biblical teachings as outmoded or irrelevant, we need to be very careful: it would be too easy to throw out everything we don’t like if we pursue such a path.

A friend of mine once encapsulated the issue by asking me this question: “If someone close to you said they were planning to marry someone of the same gender, what would you do?”  My natural inclination and Jesus’ “Second Great Commandment” (in Matthew 22:36, where he quotes Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) both tell me I should take the approach of love: accept them for who they are and wish them and their partner happiness in their life together.

Although homosexuality was only one of the factors contributing to his problems, if “John” had seen such love in his life, perhaps he would have had the inner peace he needed to build a meaningful and productive life for himself.  His inner torment and outward pain are evidence that we (as a society, as well as individually) failed to treat him as the Bible teaches us.

Another challenge is the teaching of “hate the sin but love the sinner” that many have adopted as their attitude towards homosexuality.  To me, this is hypocritical: if we criticize someone’s lifestyle or sexual orientation as a “sin,” how can we say that we “love” them unless we’re saying we accept them with a hidden agenda: that we want to change them into something they’re not?

We need to remember the conclusion to book of Ecclesiastes’ in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”  This verse has two messages relevant to this discussion:

First, we all have a duty to keep the commandments as best we can, realizing – as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes did – that we can never fully succeed.  Also, Jesus taught us to not judge one another, and it was for this very reason: we all do the best we can, and have no right, nor sufficient wisdom or knowledge, to judge others in God’s place.  Since I know that I am not perfect, and will never be so (in this life, anyway), this plus Jesus’ Second Great Commandment teaches me I need to accept my neighbor for who they are, someone just as imperfect as myself: both of us trying to make sense of the world in which we live, and our place in it.

Second, hidden sin is no different than visible sin: a hidden agenda is hurtful, as it requires you to be false to another – requiring the relationship to be built on a false foundation.  I am certain God will judge such behavior more harshly than homosexuality, which, in the modern context of being a behavior shared by two consenting adults, hurts no one.  (Some will question this statement, noting that the Christian Scripture’s Book of Romans makes clear that God judges all “sin” equally.  But, what I’m saying is that homosexuality is not necessarily a sin at all.)

In fact, since Jesus constantly taught about how we are called to love one another across gaps that others claim cannot be bridged, why would homosexuality be any different? If anything, it would seem that being brave and caring enough to love another in the face of the judgment of the world around you is right up Jesus’ alley.  Some will say “Jesus was not talking about sex!”  Hmmm, maybe.  But, do not forget that sex is but one component of the many facets of the deep and healthy and loving relationship that can exist between two people.  Why are we trying to separate one aspect of that type of relationship out as “wrong” when approving of all the others?  Especially since Jesus never spoke against homosexuality himself?

Therefore, I know that I am being consistent with the teachings and spirit of the Bible when I conclude that I am to be concerned only about whether someone is living a productive and balanced life; and what I should (or can) do to support them in that regard.  A person’s sexual orientation is an issue only if they are not at peace with it themselves, or if it harms others.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Muffin’s Love

Muffin is an example to me of how the Lord loves us: He finds us dirty, smelly, and unlovable; and accepts us into his home. He then patiently works to bind up our wounds, heal our hearts, and make us clean.

In 2000 my then-wife and daughter went to a SPCA animal shelter in nearby Lancaster County, PA and adopted a gray and black poodle that had been found and brought to the shelter nearly a month before. She appeared to have been a stray for quite a while. She had no name, so, after some discussion, my daughter named her “Muffin”. I must confess that I was a bit skeptical: Muffin was not a young dog. The veterinarians who looked at her thought she must be at least ten years old, perhaps older.

When we adopted her, she stank, she was weak, and her bones were painfully obvious to the touch underneath all of her very long and incredibly tangled hair. (Her hair was so tangled and matted that she didn’t like being touched over much of her body, especially her legs and underside. She was unable to wag her tail or move her rear legs due to the pain caused by the tangled hairs pulling on her skin. Feces were embedded in the mats of hair under her tail and between her rear legs as well.) To put it mildly, she was a weak, smelly, unlovable mess.

Despite it all, we loved her anyway: we immediately clipped off as much matted hair as Muffin would let us remove. She obviously liked the attention, stretching out and letting us work on her for several hours. we slowly worked through each mat of hair (and dulling a new pair of scissors in the process). She ate a huge amount of food that evening. Her teeth appeared to cause her pain, so we provided softer food for her.

We gave her a bath the next morning, which she relished. We spent a fair amount of time each day working away at the matted hair, slowly gaining her trust, and patiently working our way through the mats under her body, between her legs, and on her feet. Muffin ate good solid meals each day, and slept most of the time. She quickly put on weight, and her energy got better each day.

She was a sweet dog. She had obviously been well cared-for at one point. It appears that she was once in a home where she had been trained, and was allowed to sleep on her master’s (or mistress’s) bed, she begged to be allowed to get up on our bed the first time she saw it, and tried to jump-up, though her hind legs were too weak to do so. She was obviously much loved by her previous owner: she loved to be cuddled, and had no fear of people (which we thought might be a problem, given that many dogs in pounds come from neglective or abusive environments). We often wondered how she came to be a stray, and if her former owner missed her.

At first, Muffin always stayed near us as we moved about the house, and loved to be cuddled. Her presence in our family had a very positive impact on our lives. We loved her, and she obviously loved us, and returned that love. We, and especially my daughter, poured love into her from the minute they first met at the pound.

Through her whole life with us, she was a happy, joyful dog, but was definitely a tough old lady when she needed to be. In 2001 she developed into some major health problems including a severe infection of her oil glands, and so we took her to the vet: my daughter assisted in the operating room while Muffin was put under general anesthetic to have the infected area cleaned and some abscessed teeth removed. Despite her great age at the time, Muffin came through with flying colors, and I’m sure my daughter’s hard work and love had a lot to do with her successful recovery.

As another dog (Cappuccino) and then cats (starting with Misty) came into the home, and despite fading eyesight and arthritic legs, Muffin remained the queen of the roost: she was definitely the dominant personality. She lived with us until the summer of 2004: but then began to rapidly lose weight, was incontinent, and was growing significantly weaker every day. When it was clear the end was near, and rather than allow her to suffer, we put her to sleep. I held her in my arms and cried while the doctor gave her the injection. We buried her in the backyard of the townhouse we lived in at the time in Woodbridge, VA.

Muffin is an example to me of how the Lord loves us: He finds us dirty, smelly, and unlovable; and accepts us into his home. He then patiently works to bind up our wounds, heal our hearts, and make us clean. While healing us, He never does more than we can handle at one time, and He loves us unconditionally, no matter what condition we are in, or where we’ve been, or what we’ve done. All He wants us to do is return His love.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Which is More Important: Social Justice or Faith?

Yet, in pursuing Social Justice, it is easy to fall into a trap, the same trap that Karl Barth resoundingly destroyed in his famous book “The Epistle to the Romans”: the trap of thinking that the pursuit of Social Justice has anything to do with achieving salvation, that our status as believers in God and our work to spread Christ’s message while performing good works makes us any more worthy than anyone else in God’s eyes. It doesn’t.

Historically, many African Americans disdained Paul’s Epistles in the Christian Bible because slave owners often selectively presented his writings to their illiterate slaves, quoting him out of context: crassly using religion to control their slaves.  Yet, most Theologians, including African American Theologians, would agree that Paul was committed-to a gospel of radical equality. Even so, some fault Paul for diluting his message in favor of expediency: for his retreating from his ideal of radical equality in the face of the dominant culture’s values. It is true that Paul allowed short term concerns to take precedence over the primary goals of his ministry and preaching. What some have overlooked is why he did so.

Some say that Paul lacked courage in his convictions; that the liberating ethics inherent in his theology are often set aside in favor of practical considerations. Yet, Paul clearly did not back down in the face of threats, even physical attack. If anything, he was more likely to confront such challenges head on. We have numerous examples of this, such as in Lyca where Paul went back into the city after being stoned (Acts 14:19-20); in Phillipi, where Paul and Silas revealed their Roman Citizenship only after being beaten and jailed (Acts 16:11-40); in Ephesus, where Paul had to be restrained by his followers from going into a murderously hostile crowd (Acts 19:30); in Jerusalem, where he addresses and re-incites a mob that had tried to kill him only a few moments before (Acts 21:31-22:29) and finally his imprisonment and eventual execution.

Paul was 100% devoted to his mission, which was to spread the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection by every conceivable means, driven to redeem as many people as possible before the Day of Judgment came. He had a sense of urgency: derived from his Apocalyptic Theology, which stated that the day of Christ’s return was imminent.

Paul was very clear that Christians must “hold firmly to the message I preached to you … that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day” (I Corinthians 15:2-4). Earlier in the same epistle he says “I … become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (I Corinthians 9:20-22). Finally, he said in Galatians that the Gospel proclaimed to him was a direct revelation from Christ (Galatians 1:11), and that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Christ (Galatians 2:16).

Clearly we see that, to Paul, the Gospel was more important than any earthly consideration. He was certain that securing a place in the Kingdom to come was far more important than any worldly goal. He was as flexible and approachable as he needed to be, even to the point of death, if it meant enabling a few more to be saved for Christ.

Therefore, it is no surprise that Paul, despite preaching a Gospel of radical equality of all humanity before Christ, had no problem with making accommodations so that a community of believers could survive within the oppressive and highly stratified culture surrounding them. What mattered to him was whether their faith was strong and pure.

Slavery was an inescapable fact of life in Paul’s time: it was a violation of his message that all are equal before the Lord. Yet, it was an issue of this world, not the next. Paul was not focused on trying to make the world better for its own sake, since he felt Christ’s return would soon reshape the world anyway; and since Christ’s return was soon, Paul was intent on reaching as many people for the Gospel as possible beforehand.

Being a slave is evil and wrong, and Paul certainly encouraged slaves to gain their freedom if they could (I Corinthians 7:21); but whether one is a slave (or not) is irrelevant to a person’s worth in the eyes of God. Paul would not have made any aspect of the issue of social justice central to his ministry since he would have seen any achievement in that area as, at best, a victory with only limited value in the face of Christ’s imminent return. Making it central to his ministry would have been a distraction from what he saw as his primary mission, which was to recruit as many into the Kingdom of God as possible in the short time left.

Where does this leave us in today’s world? Certainly, now that experience has taught us that Christ is unlikely to return any time soon, social justice issues should no longer be set aside in favor of winning over souls to Christ.

Yet, in pursuing Social Justice, it is easy to fall into a trap, the same trap that Karl Barth resoundingly destroyed in his famous book “The Epistle to the Romans”: the trap of thinking that the pursuit of Social Justice has anything to do with achieving salvation, that our status as believers in God and our work to spread Christ’s message while performing good works makes us any more worthy than anyone else in God’s eyes.   It doesn’t.

We no longer feel the urgency to “spread the Gospel” that Paul felt. It is also certainly true in this day and age that “spreading the Gospel” does not mean what it meant to Paul. Yet, Paul and I share a conviction, one he shares with us in his Epistle to the Romans, which is that none of us can achieve salvation through our own efforts, but only through Faith in God.

God’s infinite nature cannot be comprehended by the human mind. Therefore, and as I’ve said before, I find that I cannot condemn or dismiss the value of other faiths: they each have value in helping us to better understand God. Yet, even so, what matters first and foremost is that we have faith in God. I am convinced, based on what Paul and both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and traditions teach us, is that how we chose to express and act on our Faith is between us and God. These great Faiths, and others, teach us how to live as creatures of God, but the starting point always is, and always will be, our Faith in God.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Reflections on “The Prioress’s Tale”

Let’s not make the mistake of turning those beautiful, rich colors and patterns we are a part-of into a jumble of pastels or shades of grey.

1280px-Cliffords_Tower_York_UK
Clifford’s Tower in York, England

I recently saw “The Prioress’s Tale,” an Operetta written by Delvyn Case as a retelling of Chaucer’s famous story.  The story as presented by Case describes a cultural clash between the Jewish and Christian residents of a medieval community.  While watching this tale unfold, I was struck by several thoughts…

First, I remembered an episode from my journeys as a student in England in 1983: One day, on a whim, I visited a tower built on a high mound just outside the walls of the city of York.  Now known as Clifford’s Tower, it stands on the site of a massacre that occurred in March 1190, when most of the Jews in York took refuge there, seeking to escape the riots that had erupted against many “outsider” groups as “Crusade Fever” swept through Western Europe.

I read a description at the site of what was found after the riots had ended: the tower’s courtyard was littered with corpses.  Surrounded and without hope of escape, the families had lain down together in the courtyard.  The fathers then killed their own children and wives before setting fire to the fortress and committing suicide beside the bodies of their loved ones; a very Masada-like scene.  Those who survived were later massacred by the mob that surrounded the burning tower.

I reflected that many of my ancestors came from Northern England.  Therefore, it is possible, if not likely, that some of my own forebears were in that mob.  Yet, my family does not preserve any stories of that time or those events.  (Similarly, whites in the south are often unaware of the brutality their ancestors inflicted upon African American slaves.)  History likes to remember and celebrate the times when we were brave or victorious; but tends to forget the times when we were cruel, avaricious, or oppressive.

Second, I was struck by how everyone in the Operetta was seeking to do the best they could, despite the fear, loss and pain they were experiencing.  They realized their actions were wrong only after the fact, when it was too late to repair the damage.

We have all been in situations where our own actions, undertaken with what we thought were the best of motives, have resulted in harm to others.  So, we must avoid being cocky about being more “enlightened” than those who came before us.  I’m reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 23:30-32: “And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have participated with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ By saying this you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your ancestors!”

Finally, in the mid 1990’s, I was a member of a church whose membership was mostly African American.  One Sunday, I was the target of a shocking act of racial prejudice.  After listening to me recount this a few days later, a friend of mine from the church said “…what that teenage girl did was wrong, but you need to understand, you’re white: if you experience discrimination, you can always walk out the door and never have to deal with it again.”  She paused and then added: “I can never leave my skin.”

The two lead characters in this production were in exactly the same positions as “that teenage girl” and me: she lashed out in fear and anger because of what I represented to her, not because of what I’d done.  I learned from this that I may never fully understand what it means to be the target of discrimination.  I can empathize, I can work to promote understanding, but I am limited in what I can achieve because I am not a member (at least, not yet) of a group that experiences such things every day.

Does this mean I should ignore that discrimination and prejudice exist?  No. Should I wallow in guilt and remorse because of my own past actions, or those of my ancestors?  No.  Should I try and remold myself so that I will never offend or oppress another person in such ways?  No!

I’ve come to believe, as a speaker said after the performance, that we need to respect and celebrate our differences.  Our differences make the world a place of vibrant colors.  Let’s not make the mistake of turning those beautiful, rich colors and patterns we are a part-of into a jumble of pastels or shades of grey.

Text is copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Thoughts on Job

God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan…

One message of the Hebrew Bible’s book of Job is that God’s view of what our best interests are is based on His perspective, which is universal and all-encompassing; unlike our perspective, which is inherently limited and focused on our personal needs.

We all go through “dark tunnels” from time to time. It’s an unavoidable part of life. In my case, the estrangement from my daughter has been the most heart wrenching.  A separation that I still do not fully understand why or how it happened, and one so complete that I have had no significant knowledge of anything that has been happening in her life for almost four years.  In any such experience, we have an immediate desire to have the situation resolved.  Unfortunately, Job teaches us that God does not think that way.

One thing I’ve learned from this experience is that when these things happen, God always seems to open up new doors for us as a result of it. If the relationship between my daughter and I had not been destroyed, I would still be sacrificing my own needs and life goals in the face of my desire to be the perfect Dad – as I’d been doing since she was born. In fact, I would have been working at it harder than ever.   It was only through losing her that I slowed down enough to realize there were big holes in my own life, and eventually learn what I needed to do to fill them. Because of this I found my wife, who I firmly believe is truly the perfect life companion for me, and also because of this I am now going back to school. None of this would have happened if my daughter was still in the picture, and I would never have worked on what I needed to fulfill my own potential as a person or to pursue my goals and dreams.

Does this mean that I’m glad my daughter is estranged from me? No. But, I’ve come to see that God is using the situation to help me grow and become a better, happier person than I would otherwise have been. If He is doing this for me, then I can be certain he is doing the same for her: He is not worrying about how our relationship was twisted and destroyed.  To God, what matters most is that we each acheive His plan for each of our lives within the context of His Great Plan for all.  This enables me to forgive and forget the fear, misconceptions and perhaps even lies that led to our separation, and enables me to hope that someday she will be able to share in the joy, peace and happiness that is in my life now.  But, even if she never does, he will take care of her, too – just as He has done for me.

Job’s message for me is that God is looking out for our interests, but is doing so in the context of the best interests for all of His Creation, and in the long term.  That is not a terribly comforting thought when you’re in the middle of gutwrenching crisis.  On the other hand, I’d rather have a God that does that, than one that caters to my own personal, immediate needs – or to the personal, immediate needs of others.  God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan, as does my daughter.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

The Languages of the Eternal

Our Faith is a language: the language we use to explain and explore our relationship with the Eternal.

What’s both wonderful and  annoying about being a Divinity Student is that you are always thinking: thinking about the next paper, this morning’s lecture, conversations in the cafeteria, email exchanges with friends, etc.  It is a constant learning experience, both inside the classroom, and outside.

You are (or at least I am) always ruminating upon the implications of the things we are learning.  I am always seeking to tie my latest revelations into that tapestry that is the sum of what I’ve learned to date in the long and rather meandering path I’ve taken through life.  I also love to write and to discuss these thoughts with others. So, voila, time for a blog.

My viewpoint from a pastoral / theological point of view is this: that our faith is for each of us like a language.  It is a language that helps us explore and express our relationship with the eternal.  Everyone has such a language, whether we are a Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Atheist, Shamanist or we (as our Australian Aboriginal cousins do) walk in the Dreaming.

Our Faith is a language: the language we use to explain and explore our relationship with the Eternal.  A major interest of mine has always been to learn more about our own “eternal language” and those of others.

The “eternal language” I use to explore my own relationship with the eternal, with God if you will, is Christianity.  That I am a Christian is in large part due to the confluence of my origins as a child born and raised in the Reformed Protestant tradition, my deep familial roots in New England, my education, and the choices I’ve made in life up to this point.  Christianity works for me.  I am familiar with it.  It is part of the “cultural wallpaper” of my life, and I find that the concepts it embraces and expresses are excellent and familiar tools as I explore and learn more about my relationship with God.  This does not mean that I feel Christianity is the right “eternal language” for everyone, or even anyone, else.

When meeting speakers of languages like German, Spanish, Tagalog or Warlpiri, we do not condemn such people for not speaking English.  (At least, I do not!)  We (hopefully) recognize that their language is an integral part of who they are, how they view the world, and how they relate to the culture in which they were born and (probably) still live.  Their language helps define who they are and their place in this everyday world we both share.

Similarly, one’s faith defines one’s understanding of who we are and where we stand in relationship to the issues of eternity.  Faith answers questions like “Why are we here?” and “Where do we go when we die?”  Faith is the language we use to explore the eternal world, it also shapes our view of that eternal world, shapes our relationship with it, and is how we communicate our views on such issues when talking with others about them.

Therefore, every Faith has value.  Every one provides a viewpoint on issues of eternity – a viewpoint that can be a new perspective that helps us more fully understand both our own faith and how we relate to eternity.  So, I am always looking to learn about the faiths of others, so that I can more fully appreciate where they stand, and because I find that learning more about their faiths enriches my understanding and appreciation of my own.

Our faiths are the sum of the millenias-old legacy of thought and belief that has been passed down to us.  What I find both interesting and distressing about this is how so many of us (including myself) are often ignorant of that legacy.  In that ignorance, we often do not think-through the implications of what we believe, whether the reasons for a particular belief we have has relevance any more, or how our beliefs impact, or are viewed-by, others.

My goal in this blog is to explore Faith both in the general and in the particular: exploring my own views on Christianity and how it relates to my day to day experiences in this world, and reaching across the boundaries to explore the faiths of others.  I also hope to help both myself (and you) better understand other faiths and how their understanding of the eternal can shed light on our own understanding.

This blog is therefore an exploration and a learning experience.  I am glad that you have taken the time to journey on at least part of this path with me, hope you’ll share your own thoughts as we go along.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).