Three years old is a bit premature for a first existential crisis. My family was visiting Yaya and Grandpa, my wife’s parents, when my daughter spotted a picture of my wife from middle school. There was Danielle, sandwiched in between her two brothers, all of whom looked noticeably younger. They were really only children.
“Where was I?” said Eden.
This wasn’t going to end well. Jean Piaget wrote that children in this ‘preoperational stage’ of life are so egocentric that they have a difficult time perceiving a world that doesn’t contain them. Seems to me that some of us never quite make it out of that stage. I knew this and I still smiled as I walked right into the trap.
Well, you weren’t born yet,” one of us responded. I’m not sure whether it was my wife or me. It doesn’t matter. I do remember the way Eden’s head so slightly dropped and how the little wrinkles formed around her eyes as she squinted in confusion. Someone once asked Augustine the same question about God: “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?” Augustine replied, “He was preparing hell for people who pry into mysteries.” That’s as good an answer as any, but unfortunately it’s inappropriate for my three-year old daughter.
My wife, who was grasping at straws, said, “Well, you were with the stars.”
Look, it’s instinctive to try and protect kids from the harsher realities of life for as long as possible. We know it’s not right, but it’s not terribly wrong. Aren’t we all just star dust, anyway? Not really. It’s cliche and sentimental, but she’s a three-year old who can’t read. It didn't work. Unfortunately, this vague answer about being with the stars didn’t appease her. Why do three year olds insist on better answers than so many adults?
She said, “I was in the dark. Alone? I don’t want to be in the dark! I don’t want to be in the dark! I don’t want to be in the dark!”
So much for the soothing lull of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’
Here’s what’s worse: a couple weeks later I caught her drawing pictures of herself in the stars. I asked her how it felt to be with the stars. She said two words: “It’s sad.” This is a terrible and heart wrenching thing for a parent to observe. It was as if she was drawing a portrait of hell—an existence that’s only dark. A life that’s only isolation.
What should we have said?
Most Christians have no doctrine of pre-existence. There’s no rebirth, cyclic existence, or reincarnation. Origen of Alexandria (185—254 C.E.) gave us the most prominent Christian idea of pre-mortality. He taught that God created a limited number of rational beings (logikoi) outside of time, but they fell from their divine contemplation and took on flesh. Thus, here we are. It explains these troublesome bodies of ours. But the church named it a heresy at the Second Council of Constantinople.
If there is any pre-existence, it’s only very relative. Augustine makes a compelling case that the past returns to existence in the present through our memories and the future, through our expectations (Confessions XI.20). We can conjure up events and relationships in our memories, so that they return to existence—albeit imperfectly. In our expectations, we create that-which-is-not-yet in the present moment. And so our expectations create existence, not in a proleptic sense, but as anticipation and hope.
I like that thought—Eden and Pax have always been with me, maybe even existing before me. Eden was settled in the hearts of my parents who must have dreamed of children and grandchildren who were birthed out of their own particular memories and expectations. Until she then became an expectation in my own heart. I thought about these kids most of my life. Sure, I never dreamed of a precocious, blonde hair, and blue eyed live-wire. But I did hope for God to call someone into existence for me—boy or girl, brown eyed or blue eyed, biologically-mine or adopted-mine.
It’s not the same, is it, as true being?
There’s a better answer than this vague sense of existence, though Eden’s too young to grasp it. It’s this: you were created. We are given a beginning, just as there was an initial beginning to all things. It’s a miracle that there is something rather than not-something, even more miraculous that there is conscious life, and an even greater miracle that there is someone like Eden. Or maybe it’s not. God is self-determined and resolved to be Creator. Not out of compulsion, necessity, divine struggle, or a boundless will set to dominate. It’s only love—from the bottom to the top. God’s love couldn't be contained. Nor, could it be locked away in a warehouse. It spilled over into galaxies with stars and planets because God is God. And it keeps overflowing because no one's quite figured out how to make it stop.
It took four and a half billion years, but it finally spilled into you.
Creation is the word we use to name the world and our existence. And it's important. The first thing we can say about each other is that God has created us. We are, each of us, God’s love enfleshed and put in motion. It teaches us how to be human and gives shape to our lives. It instructs us how to be in relationship with every facet of the created order—whether the oceans or mountains, beluga whales or grasshoppers, the neighbor or the enemy. You are gift. And so are they. Never treat anyone, or be treated, as less.
After Eden drew the pictures of the stars I told her that she wasn’t actually with them. I told her something like this: ‘God was making you, but it takes a long time to make babies. Meemaw and Poppa had to love me and raise me. I had to grow up and go to school to meet mommy. Then, we could have you. But that whole time we were thinking about you. You were in our dreams. And in our prayers. We thought about what you would look like, the ways you would talk, and how you would grow. Now, you’re finally with us. God finally made you. God made you at the perfect time (kairos).’
And she replied, “Daddy, that’s ridiculous.”
It is ridiculous. And yet, that’s what makes her grace—a completely undeserved and beautiful gift.
‘We should do this more often because, like, people are happy,’ I overheard after our worship gathering the other week. It’s a shame that we don’t say it every week, or even most weeks, and that it’s a surprise when we walk out of worship muttering 'well, that wasn't as boring as usual.'
A couple of times a year ten of the local United Methodist Churches get together for joint worship. About half of each congregation shows up, but it’s enough to fill an entire sanctuary and leave the stragglers searching for parking. For others, it's a free Sunday off. I get it, because it’s tempting to wake up and smell that coffee and then remain in pajamas. Life is busy. You can get more done if you stay home. I’ve heard that voice before, too. The leaves will get raked, groceries bought, and you’ll still have time to catch the Panthers game.
And yet I have a lingering sense that half of our congregations missed out on something:
Methodists usually teach that church is a verb. You don’t go to church; you are the church—go, do, be. “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning,” says Emil Brunner. I think that’s right, but there’s still a sense for me that church is also the place where we intentionally participate in the God who is where we live and move and have our being. Worship is the center of our life together—an event where an ancient book of stories, myths, poems, and angry prophecies becomes a vessel for the risen Christ to walk among us, up and down the aisles. A meal of bread and wine reveals God’s presence among us as Christ is re-presented in a sacrament of thanksgiving and hope. God’s love is made visible in our peace—the hugs and laughter.
We are, first of all, a Sabbath people who worship a God who celebrated on the seventh day. And secondly, we are Easter people with lives built on a resurrection festival. And thirdly, a Pentecostal people of sprawling wild fires, violent winds, and a dove that hasn't found its way back to the cage.
Jesus’ life was festal even if it was also painful, ending in suffering and death. You’d often find him at a table sharing a meal or telling stories about wedding banquets and great dinner parties. That’s why it was fitting for Christian worship to begin as a celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Christians, at the beginning of our existence, weren’t uptight. We gathered on the first day of the week at daybreak, which is the day following the Jewish Sabbath, with bread and wine for koinonia, or fellowship, and song. The rationale is simple—when Christ’s presence is recognized among the gathered, the best response is to celebrate. And why not go hard? We are, after all, subjected to so much bad news the rest of the week that it's nice to have a day to let hope loose.
I must confess that the party template for worship isn’t appealing if you have mild social anxiety, especially when there’s not a bar to get a drink to make the small talk bearable. Parties can be uncomfortable. I assume there are others like me and that it is one reason why attendance drops when we gather with other congregations for shared worship. But God’s Spirit takes the place of alcohol by bringing us together and filling us with joy and communion. Why else would a group of sober friends, and oftentimes strangers, get together to hug, eat, and sing? If it gets real heated then hands are raised, except not to Journey, but to Charles Wesley. Surely, this Spirit explains why outside onlookers thought the early church was drunk on the day of Pentecost.
If we are a resurrection people then one thing is certain: we should throw better parties.
I happen to know that there are a few key ingredients for a good party: the first step is to think about who’s there, what they’re bringing, and the particular season for celebration. We call worship liturgy, or ‘the work of the people,’ because it’s something we join together to create in the Spirit in ‘full, active, and conscious participation.’ Like a potluck, the festival changes depending on who has created what or what has been brought to be tasted. The style of party—whether you have organs or guitars or hymns or Hillsong—won't matter as much as what gifts, attitudes, or needs are brought into the body. All of it is incorporated into a theme, or a season and focus, that gives shape to the time and more generally, our lives together.
Go ahead—plan the party, get the details hammered out, and then the people will take it and create an experience that you could have never foreseen or planned.
There’s a Spirit involved in our worship that can’t be predicted, but moves with the energy of our common life together. God isn’t coercive; God fills sanctuaries and hearts as we acknowledge the presence and make room. We show up with thanksgiving and the Spirit gives us a heart of celebration. But these parties aren’t only about being happy, either. We may arrive grieving a loss and the Spirit will come to us as Counselor. We only need come expecting to see God and each other, and God and each other we will find. Which is why this much is certain: if worship is another obligation or box to check off on our to-do list, then it will become a rote and dreadful thing to persevere. Visitors can sense this. The room is deflated, or what Marcus Borg calls ‘flat-tire’ worship, because all of the Spirit has been pushed out of the room. No one wants to go to a party that’s always a duty to fulfill.
On the other hand, a right experience of God bestows energy that we carry home with us and bring out into the world. Here’s why this is so crucial for us and the others around us: transformation rests on the shoulders of good parties. There’s better mission when there’s better worship. At the end of the service, the pastor stands up with open arms to give a benediction. It’s a blessing and also a rally cry to go back into a broken world that needs healing. Worship demands action. If saints aren’t being made more Christ-like, or if chains aren’t being broken and powers and principalities aren't vanquished, then it’s not a right experience of God. It’s just fairy tales and self-help, or worse—entertainment. The taste of the bread and wine must make us hungrier for real life, which is life as God intends in the kingdom of God. If we have an encounter that moves us and begins to shape our will, then we’re more likely to not just have church, but to do church.
To put it all more simply, bad parties don’t cut it.
We should bring better gifts, a bigger appetite, and an expectation that something good might happen—something we can’t risk missing. We owe it to God who has created a festal life and is inviting us into it. But we also owe it to our communities, especially if worship is a primary place that God changes our wills, sanctifies us, and makes us into the kind of people who transforms the world. Let’s not settle for routine when real goodness and truth might fall on our human hearts and then radiate out into the world.
When folks say, ‘something beautiful just happened,’ then pastors and other leaders of the church should listen. If it’s a better party to gather with the neighboring congregations, then why don’t we do it more often? After all, it’s beauty that will heal our broken world. Let us gather it to create another living performance of God’s drama of (re)creation.
Unless, of course, we think that there’s nothing to celebrate.
As a child and youth, I knew that there was a place to find God. God was in the passing of the peace, the well preached sermon, and bread and wine prepared for the malnourished. Unfortunately, the whole experience could be ruined with a couple of bad hymns. But give me a good dose of Mac Powell or Chris Tomlin and we’ll have church. What was clear was that there was a gap between God and the world and so we needed set apart spaces and hours for regular habits to conjure Emmanuel, or God with us. Worship was almost like a ouija board; God was present, but only because someone was manipulating the conditions.
This changed over time as I began to sense God’s presence equally outside of manicured experiences and in surprising places such as the stranger, the silence of an abandoned chapel, or the hollow moments that promise to be void of light. I shouldn’t be surprised; these are, after all, places God asks to be found.
Shortly after I took my first pastoral appointment I walked into a room to visit a woman who’s life was slipping away. Her rhythm of breathing escalated, just short bursts grabbing whatever air she could hold. Then, it slowed and her mouth hung open. We pushed a wet sponge in her mouth to keep it from drying out. And Jesus was with us, hanging on the cross as a sponge of wine was hoisted up to his mouth. It turns out that the God-forsaken places—the cancerous cells and the crucifixions and the hearts of the mourners—are also saturated with God’s presence. And the pain is taken into the life of the Triune God, as Jesus cries from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” so that all might be redeemed.
God is there, but God is also here. God is everywhere and in everything if we develop eyes to see. God is in every towering mountain and the Live Oak Trees draped in Spanish moss. God is also in apparent nothingness like the geographic area between Savannah and Atlanta, or what we call the armpit of South Georgia. And if this is true then God is just as present in the newborn baby as the intensive care unit or all of our acts of love that sustain each others' lives. We don’t have to look at the sky to find God, but look horizontally at the burning bushes— the people we meet and places we find ourselves situated.
There are times when I question this—notably when a truck comes roaring down the street, cuts me off, and proceeds to go slower than my original speed. But God is even there, though maybe buried deep under a mixture of insensitivity and ignorance. There’s no secret combination that has to be unlocked, no permission must be granted from an old white guy wearing a robe, or particular building that must be accessed. God is already present and no incantation will make it more true. It’s what Matthew Fox calls a form of spiritual democracy; we all have equal access to God. A Wesleyan might describe it with God’s prevenient grace, or God’s presence pervades every atom of the world drawing us deeper into God’s own being.
The theological word we use for this kind of theology is panentheism, a word that carries a lot of baggage because of its varied iterations. The word literally means, “all-in-God” but we can also say, “God-in-all.” But it might be more apt to say that God isn’t an isolated being distant from our world who sometimes pulls up a pair of jeans and laces his boots to grace us with supernatural presence. That is, if we’re one of the lucky children who gets visitation hours.
Instead, I say with Paul that God is ‘where we live and move and have our being.’
Panentheism developed out of a response to ‘pantheism’ or the insight that “God is all” or “all is God,” which easily slips into a sentimental, new-age rumination about how God is every flower, drop of rain, every chirping bird. There must be a distinction between God and the world, as God must be more than what we see and experience. And most hope in something more than nature’s cycles of ‘death and resurrection.’ God is not nature, but God is in in nature.
Panentheism is nuanced, though some say it makes no iota of a difference; it’s all heresy. But to me it speaks to the conviction that God is here and God is still, in a sense, out there—transcendent and immanent, silent and as close as the breath in your lungs. This is God who is one-and-three in a dance of love. It’s an outworking of a God who is incarnation, or literally in the meat of our world setting up a tent. “Father,” Jesus prays before he leaves the earth, “May they be one in us.” He ascends and carries the scars born from his time on earth into the core of God’s own self. The Spirit blows into our hearts and, as Saint Francis says, ‘hides in a piece of bread’ and a sip of wine. When Paul tries to describe our existence as the people of God, he calls us ‘Christ’s Body’ and challenges us to remain ‘in Christ.’
If it’s true, then we’re more than merely images of God. God actually resides within us and us in God. Thomas Merton puts it like this: “And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” Now, that’s a bit generous—a candle is more fitting. Or for others, a matchstick that takes a half-dozen attempts to strike a flame. But no one is devoid of God. Not the Muslim who moved next door, the Latino who is looking for a better life, the political foe, or the addict who lies, steals, and destroys for one more hit. God’s image is planted in all of us, even if God withdraws to give us the freedom to choose to allow the flame to burn at varying degrees and temperatures.
Christianity, for me, has become chiefly about learning to see and discern the divine as I’m tasked with being a congregation’s chief optometrist. Some experiences need less interpretation. The deep oranges and pinks of a sunset that blend together like a water color speak of God’s creative beauty. The tables brimming with wine and overflowing with laughter speak of a God who is with us in eucharistic-thanksgiving-communion if we have sacramental awareness. But God is also more than puppies and blades of grass.
Richard Rohr tells this story handed down from the rabbis: a student asked the rabbi why no one saw God anymore, the rabbi answered, “Because nowadays no one is willing to stoop so low!” God is also emptied into the world’s worst hells, that there may be no place where God is absent. And if God is even there, then the church is called to be there, too. This is the God who is liberating, restoring, and filling the world with grace and presence. The particularity of this God gives us a particular hope, that at the end of all things, ‘God will be all in all.’
Until then we’re called to remain grafted to the vine, making our home in God as God makes His home in us. This is about practicing the disciplines that attune our attentions and reading the Scriptures that become our anchors. But also by God by recognizing God in the other and in the love that bridges the gaps between us.
And of course to remember God is there, but God is here because God is Trinity—Father, Son, Spirit, who is also Creator, Incarnate, and Breath.
*In response to a series of essays I read "How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere"
The other night I stumbled upon a tail-gate at the Grove Park Inn. It's not the first place I'd expect to find a group of burly men grabbing cans of Busch Light from a cooler. The Grove Park Inn is bougie—Presidents stay there. Retirees sit on balconies overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains drinking twenty dollar cocktails. But it turns out that Duke Power sent down a group of linemen from Indiana to help the state of North Carolina deal with the hurricane Florence aftermath and put them up for a few nights in the nicest place in Asheville. On this day, these ordinary, beer-drinking linemen from Indiana were the guests of honor.
The contours of belonging change when a hurricane is barreling through your state. Status disappears and suddenly we belong together—all of us—and not because we subscribe to a particular religion or political ideology or we have a specific race and socio-economic status. We belong together because we all have beating hearts—we are human beings created for community.
It’s unfortunate that we’re at our best only when we are most in danger.
The Church might learn something here, in the midst of the wrath from wind and water, about the ways we place parameters on belonging. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a table—and I suspect it to be one where a can of Busch Light is sitting next to a flute of champagne.
Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence notes how we've created two different frameworks for belonging: “believe-behave-belong” and “belong-behave-believe.” The Church has long operated with the former, or the assumption that one’s belonging in a Christian community only takes place after one’s beliefs and behaviors are in order. Churches place strict boundaries on what we must believe—whether that’s the Nicene-Chalcedonian Creeds or the Fundamentals or a ‘literal’ resurrection—and then you must set your behaviors in line with those beliefs. Get your head and heart straightened out, a pastor will put some water on you in the name of the Trinity, and you’re one of us.
Too often Christian orthodoxy often functions as nothing more than an ‘in-out’ boundary marker instead of the Church’s historic endeavor to share the best and most faithful kind of news of how God was in Christ restoring the world unto God. And part of the fracture in the Methodist Church today is a result of a framework that tells us we can belong to each other only when we believe and behave in uniformity.
This isn’t good news. There are profound cultural, experiential, and personal reasons for believing what we do and to demand a strict and unwavering belief in a set of propositions as a prerequisite for belonging is antithetical to Gospel. I’ve noted before that believing harder doesn’t work. After all, Jesus didn’t ask his followers to memorize propositions; he asked a clan of disciples to drop their nets and follow even though they would fail to fully grasp their Rabbi’s identity and significance. Still, somehow our intellect has become the chief signifier to our belonging.
We'd even do well to ask the question whether our actions are a better signifier of our identity than our beliefs. Soren Kierkegaard muddies the water when he asks whether a ‘believer’ who lives in ‘untruth’ is more truthful than an ‘idol worshipper’ who lives ‘in truth’. He writes this:
“If someone who lives in the midst of Christianity enters, with knowledge of the true idea of God, the house of God, the house of the true God, and prays, but prays in untruth, and if someone lives in an idolatrous land but prays with all the passion of infinity, although his eyes are resting upon the image of an idol—where, then, is there more truth? The one prays in truth to God although he is worshiping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshiping an idol.”
As followers of the way, we’re also to pay at least equal attention to our discipleship as our mental assent to dogma. And if that’s the case, there are plenty among us who talk a game that we don’t walk. What’s more faithful for a Jesus follower?
Tickle shares that a postmodern understanding of religious believing and Christian discipleship reverses the order. Let’s start with the assumption that we belong to one another and then we can brew our theologies together as we continue along the Way of following this crucified and risen Savior. But the only precondition to your acceptance into the family of God is God—God loves you and there’s nothing you can do, or should I say believe, to earn that. Grace is enough. This is true whether you believe in classical theism or the latest fashion. Your identity as God’s beloved is not dependent upon a belief in a particular metaphysic about Jesus’ divine and human atoms. God can even use our brothers and sisters who don’t believe in a literal resurrection to participate in God’s healing of the world.
Sure, belief matters. To speak otherwise is to ignore the schism and death suffered as a resistance to bad God-talk. Beliefs, especially those founded in the ancient creeds, give us our location, boundaries, and frameworks to profess our faith, begin building theologies, and state historically unhelpful ways to speak about God. We don’t get to reinvent the wheel and that’s incredibly liberating, even if we're still tasked with theologizing in our own historic situatedness. Still, doctrine functions formationally when it's at its best and not as the primary or most important determinant of your relation to God and the Church.
This is the good news: you are more than your beliefs.
We might garner something from our sacramental theology here, particularly baptism, because it joins us to a community. We baptize infants and not because of their intellect, but because God claims us before we are able to rationally comprehend and pronounce a creed. Belonging is always primary because we depend upon a community that promises to join us on our way toward our affirmation of faith. Children will grow and then start asking really hard questions about the Christian faith. Don't be scared of the questions; God's not. The great tradition and its commentators will be your friends as you develop your beliefs together. There’s a sense, as Anne Lamott quotes Ram Daas, that “we’re all just walking each other home."
Shall our churches be more exclusive than Jesus? Luke’s Gospel gives us this story: there was one Sabbath when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, or a place with people who likely believed all of the right things and tried to elbow their ways into the place of honor. During the meal Jesus told them a story, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. What I’m saying is, If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face." (The Message)
In God’s kingdom, we’ll surprised by who gets the spot of honor so we should never be too confident with our lines of demarcation. It’s often the outsider, the misfit, and the excluded who end up getting Jesus’ attention first. If the Grove Park Inn taught me anything that night its that we're all in desperate need of belonging and not only when a hurricane is colliding against the coast of our country.