So many people I know right now, most of whom I'm related to, are wading through murky waters of disillusionment with institutionalized church. And while I welcome this dialogue, even thrive on the potential that such disenchantment raises, I can't help but internally get a little panic-y and rant, "No! No! Don't be done with it! Don't give up." But then those who are ecclesially frustrated begin to relay a plethora of anecdotes that have taken place in the confines of the local church over years of service and ministry. Eventually the ignorance, frustration, and poor theology that is espoused in the stories only leaves me feeling a bit nauseated and fat, i.o.w., heavy hearted and sad right along with them. Dang! Why is that?! 

On a different, yet still related note, I listened to this fantastic podcast yesterday with my ole NPR buddy Krista interviewing a mother-turned-rabbi who was advising parents about the ways of inculcating spirituality in the life of their children. We are born with an innate awareness of a spirituality or mysticism that extends beyond ourselves and is part of the greater cosmos, the rabbi reports, that eventually prompts all/most young children to begin asking questions of their origin, along with reasons for pain and injustice in the world, tempered with more specific queries like 'who is God' and 'why should I believe in God.' (Not that any of that information is really all that new, just that I loved her response.) The rabbi says the point is not so much about answering our children's questions correctly, so much as it is about cultivating a vocabulary that promotes future dialogue about things spiritual and mystical. In a similar vain, I tend to agree with her when she espouses ways in which spirituality and a spiritual language is best developed and enhanced--not so much through our words or doctrine, but through our acts. (duh!) 

Even today in my philosophy class, we were discussing speech-act theory and how postmodern philosophers finally (almost) agree that language is performative. We don't know what a word means unless we understand the act that accompanies it. So, when I want to teach my children that injustice in the world is a problem, I hope that less then hearing me drone on ad infinitum about it, they will see me treating the homeless person with dignity, or we can together mourn over the loss of one of God's creatures when we see it on the side of the road, etc. 

And back to my initial point, is this one of the reasons so many of you are done with church in the modern sense of the word? Instead of having all of your doctrine well-articulated in a rational, uniform thought pattern (with words that have lost meanings), and instead of obeying the denominational "rules" about how one ought to conduct oneself in a given worship service or prayer meeting (with actions that are void of relevance), and instead of hounding members about their time availability and whether or not they are going to tithe 10%, why do our churches not embrace more radically the mystical elements of life with God? Why do we not less about indubitable faith propositions and more about intense questions of divine immanence and intervention, or how to live as community in American suburbia, and the list goes on? I, too, am tired of churches getting lost in the translation of what it means to be church. 

And as I debate denominational affiliation these days (more to come on that later), I find myself caught in the --dare I use the word 'trap'-- of going through the motions myself, of doing church the same old way. And for what, just to call myself "ordained," or is it because ordained pastoral ministry really is an authentic representation of church, i.e. family of God representing Christ to the world? hmmm. (Sorry if this sounds too cynical; I hope my message isn't hidden too far beneath it. I'm mostly just wondering.)

Immanent God, Intervening God: A Semantic Matter or Not?

I have been so hands-off of this topic for most of my seminary career; funny how it comes up in what is one of my last three classes before graduation this June--Anglo-American Postmodern Philosophy. (and yes! you read that correctly...I'm graduating in a few months!!) How does God speak? Does God speak? Is God a being who intervenes and if so, for what purposes? Or is our universe a modern, enlightened, rational, well-oiled machine that has been set in motion by a great Creator in the beginning and only left to its own workings and happenings so many billions of years later, i.e. today? 

I sort of imagine that last concept like one of those old fashioned toy tops where a kid yanks a string with force to send the top whirling across the table on its own volition and where it stops, nobody knows...not even God. The past few months, or years maybe, I have been moving progressively left in most of my theological suppositions. The ways in which I relate to God are more and more "liberal" as I wean myself off of tidy evangelism for a more hodgepodge of practical understandings of discipleship. But the movement of God in the world is one bit that I want to keep dusting off over and over so as to keep it pristine and easy.  

Thanks to liberals like Schleiermacher, I'm all about God being present in the Eucharist insofar as it is a gathering of God's children, as we all are created in God's image and  bearers of the Holy Spirit. I'm fine stopping there on this trajectory. A few stops too early on the theological tracks for my conservative brothers and sisters. What is more, I tend to veer away from the idea that God's miracles come to us in trite manifestations for our own edification. (I'm going to leave that vague for now as well.) Okay, so maybe it isn't as squeaky clean as I thought. In this way, God's presence traces back to the community for me. 

On the other hand (grab your dust cloth now), I cannot forsake the idea of a God who intervenes in our lives for the benefits of others who have yet to experience life in the kingdom of God. Isn't that what the incarnation was all about--God coming down so that we might have love | joy | peace? (There is a great Mennonite chorus we sing about this.)  I want to think that we are not on a conveyor belt like at the Toyota plant where everything is set in motion and cars are built whether or not the president of the company is present. God is not our CEO, and I am not an employee in the modern company pushing my way forward to grab a seat at the conference table in order to get a word in edgewise with the director. I regret that our modern liberalism has, in effect, worked us out of our own need for a present, immanent, redeeming God who still participates in the manifestations of what it means to be human and alive. Nor do I see God, however, as this little angel on my right shoulder arranging life so that my every want will be supplied. How consumerist is that?

So I had to write a brief reflection paper the other day on how this affects my prayer life. Do I pray for cures from disease? Cessation to genocide? Quick fixes and instant satisfaction? Isn't this a rebuttal against the ideas of free will and systemic evil? If God is going to immediately interrupt the transmission of AIDS, how does this not limit our response to God? (And won't skeptics like the Brites and other atheists ascribe it to modern science anyway?) Instead, would it not be more theologically astute/correct to ask for God to give grace and presence and peace to those suffering with AIDS while also asking for people who have resources to educate others about the prevention of AIDS to respond to a "call" to the need for this education? Like joining the Peace Corps?! Instead of praying for California voters to wake up and make gay rights legal over night, is it not more appropriate to ask God to interact in ways that awaken people to the need for more protests, education, and interaction with the issue so they can see up close and personal the bigotry that our current legal system promotes? I think the difference that I am trying to articulate is this:

Rather than God intervening in our world from the high heavens above (whatever the hell that means), God immanently exists from within all of us and from within all situations. In this way, (go ahead and lambaste me all you scientists) God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, calls us, provokes us, and leads us to ministerially (is that a word) respond and be present in the world in a way that benefits the good of the whole--not just ourselves (a.k.a. poor, pitiful, me--perhaps a syndrome to which only rich westerners are subject). Anyway, this makes sense for me right now. God gets to be bigger, albeit a bit more elusive, yet at the same time, still mystically present in the mundane of life while directing the whole of the cosmos for the blessing of all humankind. It is allowing me to pray on a personal level again because I do not have to be overly consumed with seeking the results of my prayers as they only pertain to me or my family or my situation in life. I can pray for my kids to get over their colds now so that they can be a blessing to the world in the ways that God created them to be, and free from the ways in which their colds were hindering this. In this way, it's not just about them leaving snot all over the cuff of their shirt and me being grossed out by it and wanting the laundry pile to stop being so insurmountable. I think God is more concerned with things other than my laundry, but I want to believe that God is totally concerned with whether or not my children are fully engaging in the world around them. 

Is this ridiculous? Am I just hanging on to this idea of God in the world so I can sleep better at night? Am I working too hard to keep the belief dust-free? Or do I need to let go of it completely like all those other liberals out there whom I so respect? Can someone please pass the Pledge? I need to get this idea dusted off.