The Persistent God

The Persistent God

September 16, 2013
Stina Pope

Look at the beginning of our Psalm for the day (Psalm 14), where it says: “Fools say in their hearts, there is no God.” When I was reading through the lessons for this morning, that sentence jumped out at me, and I remembered being a freshman in college in a “science class for non-science majors” taught by a wonderful biologist. On that day, she was explaining how DNA and RNA worked. We were in a classroom that had blackboards on three sides of the front part of the room. She started on one side, and then when she had filled up that section of the blackboard, she moved to the next. When she finally got to the end of the last blackboard, and the end of her lecture, she quietly said, “and some people think that all happened by accident.”

I remember looking at her in surprise. It was a wonderful witness, done totally appropriately, by someone whose credentials were impeccable, at a time when the God is Dead movement was starting up in earnest. Of course, when we look at the Psalm, we see that the God is Dead movement has been with us for a long time, and just as long, there have been people who say, “Really!?!” To those people who say there is no God, I want to know what this god is like that they don’t believe in, because I probably don’t believe in him either.

I will propose that what gets lost is not God, but our faith in God. God is there, with or without our believing that God exists. Our believing that something exists or does not exist does not have much to do with its reality – except in its relationship to us. What do I mean by that? If I do not believe something exists, then it does not exist for me. This is important, a critical distinction. There are two parts to reality, the part I believe and the part that simply exists apart from my belief. So if I believe there is no such thing as a white monkey, or yak butter, that does not prevent the possibility that there might be such a thing – it simply does not exist for me. A friend of mine recently told me that there was no such thing as coconut oil. My telling her that there certainly was did not convince her, I had to go get a jar of the stuff.

It’s not that difficult when you are dealing with sensory data, but even so, it can be challenging. Many people do not believe that you can bend a spoon with your mind, and therefore, spoon-bending with the mind is not real – for them. I remember listening to an old woman who was watching the black and white TV recording of Neil Armstrong on the moon. We were saying things about how wonderful it all was, and finally she snorted, and said that we were crazy to believe what we saw on TV. She was quite convinced that it was just a movie, quite possibly made up by the government to justify spending a lot of money on trying to do it. She was old enough to remember the radio recording of War of the Worlds where people heard about aliens landing in New Jersey, and scores of people simply got into their cars and drove to get out of the city while they still could. It took a rather massive PR effort to convince people that it had been a story and not reality.

All I am trying to say with this is that the maker of the universe does not depend on my believing for existence, and does not disappear with my not believing. What does change is whether I have something that provides me with a touchstone, or not. In other words, whether I believe in God or not has nothing to do with God, and everything to do with me and my willingness to believe in something bigger than myself. When we look at 12 Step programs, we see that belief in a higher power is seen as a necessary component, because it re-orders the person’s universe. It puts God at the center, instead of me.

So on to other things that can get lost, somewhat like our faith in God.

We have parallel stories here, one is a man’s story about the lost sheep, the other is a woman’s story about the lost coin. 1-lost-coinWe’ve noted before that Jesus was rather amazing in his awareness of women. The story of the coin could have been told with a man at the center, looking for a coin he lost in the house, equally plausible, and, in fact, this story of a man searching for a small coin in the house was told by another rabbi, somewhat contemporary (see Kenneth Bailey for details). But a man losing a small coin was emotionally nothing like a woman losing a part of her dowry, it was more like a man losing a sheep – a significant part of his wealth, and then some.

In both stories, the thing that was lost is passive. When a sheep gets lost, it simply lays down and will not move. The shepherd must pick it up and carry it back to safety. A coin is obviously passive.

This is not really the story of the lost sheep or the lost coin. It is the story of the persistent God. Here we need to take a look back at Jeremiah, and the really fearsome picture of God that we see there. This picture of God is not the only one, but it is a familiar one. This is the God of vengeance, the God who does not repent of the evil he intends, and this picture is terrifying.

But here’s an interesting question: If this is the picture of God, then doesn’t the work of the Pharisees make sense? If God is a wrathful God, watching to see what you are doing and punishing you when you do wrong, does it not make sense to work hard, very hard, to do the “right” thing? That’s the issue that Jesus faults them with, trying to do the “right” thing, fulfilling the letter of the law but forgetting about the spirit of the law. But if this image of God is the one they are working with, then what they are doing makes sense. Compare this with the image that Jesus proposes, and, by the way, this image is not new to Jesus, it is also in the Hebrew Scriptures, lest we get into the “Old Testament wrathful God” but “New Testament loving God” dichotomy – that’s just wrong. Jesus has sidestepped this image that Jeremiah shows us, and says no, the God of Hosea is a loving God, the God of Isaiah is a loving God, who keeps coming after us like a shepherd The-Lost-Sheepwho does not stop until every last sheep is accounted for, no matter how stupid the sheep is. This God is like a woman who searches her house for her coin, and then admits this to her friends, and then invites them to celebrate with her. 3-lost-coin

So here is the question for us to ponder this week: What kind of God is out there for you? What is the reality of your God? What image of God drives what you do – because, whether we acknowledge it or not, our image of God has a lot to do with how we live.

I’ve talked before about a wonderful book called Good Goats, based on the story about the separation between the sheep and the goats. The sheep are the good people and the goats are the bad people, and on the face of it, it seems like a very simply story. God says it’s time to divide up the people, all of the sheep come over here and all of the goats go over there to that bad place. But there are no perfectly good people – even very, very good people are not perfect, and even very, very bad people seem to have done a few good things in their lives. The conclusion of the book is that we are all good goats, and God loves us all.

Why does this make a difference? Because we tend to turn into the image of God that we hold. You have seen this, I think. People who hold a judgmental image of God are quite sure that God will judge the bad people as bad, which allows them to also hold a judgmental attitude toward those “bad” people. People who hold a loving image of God are quite sure that God will love all of us, because all of us are not perfect and in need of love. Because of that, then we have a mandate, a command, to love those other people who are also not perfect and also in need of love. If we believe in a God who never stops looking for that stupid sheep, then we believe that God never will stop looking for us, and will never stop looking for everyone else who is lost, and we are all lost, and we are all found. At least, that is what I believe.

When my children were small, I got a surprise one day about how this kind of basic belief changes things. We had enrolled our kids in a school that held cooperation instead of competition as its basic operating principle. We thought this was a very good idea. One day I was trying to get Jeremy to finish his homework, and I tried to use peer pressure as a reason that he should do it, so that he would do better than his classmates. He looked at me and said it didn’t matter what his classmates did, what mattered was what he did. The basic operating principle that I had been raised on had been changed, and therefore how he thought and acted was different.

What do you believe? Beliefs matter. If you believe that there won’t be enough, then you will hoard things, just in case. If you believe there will be enough, you can choose to be generous. If you don’t believe there will be enough, you cannot choose to be generous. It is not possible. So this belief changes the way we act.

Do you believe God really love everyone? Even if they go off and get lost and take a lot of time and energy to get found? If God loves like that, what does that mean? More particularly, what does that mean for us – because if God loves everyone, then God loves us! Sometimes I think we say “oh yes, God loves everyone, everyone else. God could not possibly love me because I have done this terrible unforgivable thing. But it goes one way or the other, not both. If God loves us, no matter what, then we don’t have to worry about trying to be “good” any more. We simply have to allow ourselves to feel God’s love. What would that mean to you?