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“Ogres are like onions, they have layers.” –Shrek
Last week I watched the Nightline special on PBS “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.” As the people interviewed shared their views on God and faith (all had lost loved ones on 9/11), I started to reflect back–not on where I was on 9/11 as I have many times when the images are rebroadcast, but instead, I reflected back on how my faith has changed over the years.
9/11 was not a pivotal crisis of faith for me, but I was beginning my final year of seminary and 9/11 occurred at the time of deep change in my faith life. I was already letting go of the idea of God being at work at every detail in our lives–I was letting go of the idea that God had some great master plan and that everything that happened was part of it. I’m glad I was already there, because 9/11 would have shattered that plan. And for some who were interviewed, that was exactly what happened. God, to them, became distant, unreachable, and uncaring of what happened in the world.
The layers first began to peel in my youth: I no longer believed in God like Santa Claus–I no longer prayed for little things that I wanted but I started praying for “the bigger picture”–I prayed for world peace every night. I prayed for my family. I prayed for my friends. And for the most part, my prayers were answered–my world ran fairly smoothly despite some hard things happening in my family life. My faith was just growing, maturing.
The real peeling began in college. I didn’t fit in with many of my college Christian friends who were more conservative than me; I fit in more with my socially conscious friends that wanted to help change the world who weren’t very religious, if at all. But it was my Introduction to Sociology class my junior year that really started the thought process that tradition and history needed to be questioned: who was writing the tradition and history of my faith? What was the social context of both tradition and Scripture when they were written/created? I began to question not only traditional gender roles in the church (I had long known I was called to ministry; that wasn’t the issue, but there was a lot of pressure by “friends” in church life to consider children and youth ministry instead of pastoral ministry), but I also questioned the maleness of God. I began to see that gender was a construct of society, and that our terms for God were human-created. I started to question all of tradition, and when I lived in England, I did not attend church except for the first Sunday I was there. I took a much-needed sabbatical from church. I visited lots of churches, sat in the pews, lit candles and took pictures–and I prayed–but I did not attend services. When I returned to the US, sat in my home church and took communion again with my church family–it was a homecoming. But while in England I stopped referring to God as He (I do sometimes now, but rarely).
The next layer of peeling started in my first year of seminary. While I had questioned tradition and even Scripture, I had not questioned my personal, close relationship with God through Jesus. I prayed to God daily; I read the Bible devotionally daily. I trusted that God was closer to me than anyone in my life and that God was aware of every decision I needed to make and had a right path for me to go. As I applied to seminary I did come to the realization that there was more than one right choice, that God did leave many decisions up to us that had more than one positive outcome. I trusted God to open doors and to lead the way.
In that first year of seminary, as I read historical criticism, feminist critique, womanist theology and liberation theology perspectives; as I studied Greek and read Walter Brueggemann and befriended (and worshiped with) Unitarian Universalists; the layers came off like bandaids ripped open. Was Jesus unique? Was what Jesus taught any different than what other great teachers in other traditions had taught? And what about those Bible passages I had memorized in my youth and clung to fiercely–were they constructs of society?
And so a final layer (so I think) began to peel away–the layer that God was omnipotent and in control of everything. That idea that “God has a plan,” that I had been told over and over again and believed so deeply. Where is God’s plan when genocide takes place in Rwanda and Burundi? Where is God’s plan in the mass rape-killings in Kosovo? And, finally, as my last year of seminary was just beginning, where is God’s plan when nineteen people can kill almost 3000? Where is God’s plan when planes are crashed into towers?
9/11 didn’t cause a change in faith–it was another event that confirmed for me that the plan I believed God had didn’t exist.
But God still has a plan.
One of those verses I still cling to is John 10:10b: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” THIS is God’s plan: life and life abundantly.
I have drawn away from the idea of God having God’s finger on buttons that control everything. I have drawn away from the idea of God having any sort of detailed plan about any of our lives. God is not a CEO or a financial planner or even an engineer. Maybe God is an architect, but I’m not even that certain.
God is Life. God is Love. God’s plan is for life and life abundantly. And I do believe that our work on earth, when we work towards life abundantly for all, does seem to be blessed more than living for ourselves and our own gain.
I still think of God personally through relationship with Jesus Christ. I still pray. I still like to talk to God like I used to as a child–thinking of God as one of my imaginary friends, but not. I like to talk to God like I would talk to the person closest to me. Deep, honest, and raw–I want to be authentic with God more than anyone else.
I still use the language of my youth, such as “God opens doors.” I still believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior. When others around me have balked at the idea that they are bad people in need of redemption, I still recognize my own sin, my own times when I am not authentic, when I put my own desires for gain forward, and for that, I do need a Savior. In thinking of God, I don’t use the term plan so much, but I do believe that when we work towards the goodwill of others, doing our part to bring life and life abundantly to this world, sharing God’s love with others–this is part of the deep, deep plan of the universe, and God will open doors, and bless us, when we do this work. I doubt it is scripted out. But there is a blessing that comes when we do God’s work, and we feel it, and we know it in our heart–this, and maybe only this, is God’s plan.
God is not an ogre, but our faith life just might be. When we have thick layers, we tend to bash around and clumsily hurt others and cause harm because we can’t see beyond our layers of right-ness. When we peel back our layers, our inner honesty begins to shine. Our authentic self is not an ugly gross image, but rather, exactly who we are as God created us to be. But we have to peel back the layers to find it–and find authentic relationship with God and others.