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Which God do you serve?

In this Sunday sermon, I want to take on a challenging topic – challenging for me, personally, that is!

In recent days, I’ve posted about living in faith, rather than living in fear. When I am living in fear, I am focused on the external – what I might lose. When I am living in faith, the focus is internal, on my beingness and enoughness with Spirit.

Today’s lectionary readings come from Deuteronomy 30: 15-20 and Luke 14:25-33. And the question in both passages is very simple:

Which God do you serve?

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Defining God

So one of the books that I’m reading at the moment is “In Tune with the Infinite“, by Ralph Waldo Trine. I am loving this book! Hard to believe it was originally written some 115 years ago – it’s easy reading! But what I really love about the book is that he focuses on Oneness with God, every moment of each day. Life hasn’t always been this way: I haven’t always valued being present and being aware of Presence or oneness with God.

I am much more comfortable with the terms he uses to refer to God than with those of some other books, but my awareness of the names we use to refer to God are also a reflection of the image we have created of how and what God is.

Is God personal or simply a Presence?

I really struggle with identifying where I stand on this? Maybe because I think God is both! God is God (omnipotent & omnipotence; omniscient & omniscience; omnipresent & omnipresence): why must we put God in a box and a definition?

A bit of background:

I grew up in a fundamentalist (of course, we didn’t call ourselves that!) group, where Mum & Dad worked as missionaries. Now when I look at the “do’s” and “don’ts”, the corporal punishment expected to be given (i.e. my parents were looked down on if they didn’t punish), and the control over how everyone lived their lives, I wonder how close to being a “cult” we were. Thankfully, Mum & Dad got kicked out of the mission, although it was heartbreaking and earth-shattering at the time. It was all I knew. Then we moved back to New Zealand, where I discovered that we were Presbyterian.

How does a Presbyterian end up in a fundamentalist group? Trying to save the world! I have to hand that to Mum & Dad: they truly believed that they were doing God’s will and this was the best that they can be. And I will say this for them: every time I go back to Soloy or Tolè, they are remembered by everyone with great love and affection. They positively impacted people’s lives. And in some cases, literally saved lives (mum was an RN and midwife, so in the boondocks with no EMTs or hospitals, sometimes mum was everything). And dad was love. He loved these people with his heart. If I had just an ounce of the amount of love that dad has for the world, I would be a great person! Do I disagree with some of dad’s opinions? Yes. But I can agree to disagree with him!

By 17 I had “left” the church: blame it on the hormones, the rebellious years, starting University and living the student life. But, the explanation that I gave to myself – as does every self-righteous 17 year old – is that I was sick of the hypocrisy. And by hypocrisy I mean: you know I go out drinking on Friday & Saturday night, and you want me to come to church on Sunday morning and pretend to be a good Christian. I would much rather sleep in and sleep off the hangover!

Reality, which I came to face years later, is that I was mad at God, at Christians, at the mission (especially leadership), and at “organized religion”. I didn’t know enough then to be able to think through all of those things or actually verbalize it yet. So, it was much easier just to be a rebellious teenager that no longer wanted to go to church with my parents.

Forgiveness & moving on

At 21, in the midst of an existential crisis, my flatmate leant me a book she had just finished reading as she went through her separation & divorce that had really helped her: Louise Hay “You can heal your life“. I read it through once. And then I read it through a second time, and did all the assignments as it suggested. And my happy (well, actually, miserable at the time) little bubble finished bursting! I literally packed a weekend bag and my dog (you can’t cry if you don’t have a dog to hug!), borrowed a friend’s bach in Kaiaua (pronounced: Ky-ow-ah), and went off to say goodbye to my demons! I spent the better part of 3 days grieving and forgiving. Letting go. And coming to terms with “what do I believe now?”.

I realized that I blamed God for everything: everything that had been done by so-called Christians in God’s name was God’s fault! A child’s view? Perhaps. But also the consequence of the way I was brought up!

My broken heart and broken dreams and broken family all tumbled out. I came to terms with everything that I blamed Mum & Dad for: and came to an understanding of how they were also victims to some extent of what had happened. And I realized, as a young adult, that they were human. They had done the best they could with what they had and they knew. They were not perfect: they could have done things differently, but they didn’t know any different. They protected me to the best of their ability, they same way they looked after my sister and brother. And for all 3 of us, it hadn’t been enough. We were hurt and broken. But so were they! Life had dealt them a beating and they were lucky to still be standing! I’ll write about all of that another day!

And most importantly, I started to forgive myself!

Twenty years growing up in Christianity and I had to learn from Louise Hay what forgiveness and letting go meant! I’ve read somewhere that tears contain healing properties. I must have completely healed my body in those 3 days with all the tears I cried!

Who & what is God?

Having said that, after that weekend, I came away with a view of God as an impersonal entity that was not involved in the daily affairs of men. I was done with Christianity! God and I were good, insofar as I no longer blamed God for how I had reacted to everything that had happened to me over the past 20 years. Man-made situations were simply that: created by other men & women who had claimed to be acting on God’s behalf. And I was done with organised religion and others telling me what God had said and how to read and interpret the Bible.

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And so there I stood, happily: standing on my own two feet. Responsible for my life and the life I wanted to have. Not some rebellious teen that didn’t want to go to Church on Sunday morning because she wanted to sleep off last nights drinks, but someone who simply decided that God was “out there” and not “in my heart”. Religion was organized to control and manipulate us, but each person had to decide for themselves what they believed.

I was suddenly comfortable talking to Mum & Dad about God and beliefs and life in generally without feeling guilty that I was living differently from what they believed. I built a new relationship with Mum & Dad: one that to this day is amazing! They’ve done a great job of growing up.

And so, for the better part of the next 15 years, I was a happy agnostic. I am totally responsible for my life and being, and God may exist, but it has nothing to do with me personally.

Living as a happy agnostic

So, as a happy agnostic, at 23, I came back to Panama to say “goodbye” to the ghosts and ghouls of the past, to forgive and let go of any last vestiges that might be in my subconscious. The plan: spend 3 months on holiday in Panama and then move to the UK to go backpacking for a year while I decided to do with life. But free and clear of anything that I was still hanging on to, because I always felt in New Zealand that I was in the wrong place. Something was still hanging onto me that wouldn’t let me move forward with life.

Of course, life never quite goes as planned: twenty-one years later and I am still in Panama. It is still home!

When I stepped out of the airport doors (which was air conditioned), and I was struck by the hot, humid air, something inside said “Welcome home”. And so, in a second, I changed my mind. I am not going to stay 3 months, I’m going to get a job and stay for 2 years. That plan isn’t the one that happened either. I’m still here!

Living in a predominantly Catholic country, where I would venture to say that the vast majority are non-practicing, it’s easy to be agnostic. No one is worried here about what church you do or don’t go to; no one worries about your “salvation” or what you personally believe. There’s superstition, possibly more than your fair share. I adopted a black cat – so I was definitely a witch! And I let people believe it, if that was what they wanted to think. It’s just a cat! But if you want to assign my cat some supernatural powers, so be it.

And so it went for about 15 years.

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Choose life

C.S. Lewis said:

“There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “All right, then, have it your way”. ”

For those of us who have a hard time saying “Thy will be done” C.S. Lewis identifies:

We may be thinking about those verses in 1 Peter chapters 4 & 5 that say:  “Beloved, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering… but rejoice that you participate in the sufferings… so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.”  “… those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”   “and the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Chris, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself make you perfect, strong, firm and steadfast.”

C.S. Lewis goes on to say:

“If we let Him–…we can prevent Him, if we choose–He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less.”

cslewisOur 4 lectionary readings have a common theme: they demonstrate to us how simple and yet profound the choice presented in the Bible is.

1st Corinthians 3, verses 3 to 7:

You are still worldly.  For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly?  Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says “I follow Paul” and another “I follow Apollos” are you not mere human beings?  What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? … I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

We are not to get caught up this earthly life, or on whose teachings we follow, who is right or wrong.

Gandhi said:

“all religions are true … So we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu … But our innermost prayer should be (that) a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”

Spiritual maturity is being able to admit “God makes me grow” – not what I do. I am not “trying” to become a “child of God”: I already am a child of God. We have all been redeemed and bought with a price.  Our objective is not to win salvation; our objective is to become more Christ-like.  As my relationship with God evolves, I realise that salvation, sanctification and justification is about personal transformation.  I am not looking forward to eternal life when I die: eternal life began the day that I accepted God’s free gift of forgiveness.

But, am I allowing God to work in me or holding Him back?  Do I love myself and God enough to become a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as I cannot now imagine? Or am I caught up in this world?

In my adventure of getting to know the omnipotent, omniscient, ever-present God, Deuteronomy 30: verses 15 to 20 sheds light on my relationship with God.  Deuteronomy means “the second giving of the law.” In this Book, Moses repeats the law of God for those who will cross the Jordan into the Promised Land.

If you recall, before going up Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments, Moses challenged the Children of Israel with the basic rules. Exodus 23:25 “Worship the Lord your God and His blessing will be on your food and water.  I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land.  I will give a full life span.”  And so, in Exodus 24: 3: “they responded with one voice, “Everything the Lord has said, we will do.

A couple of days later, while Moses is up on Mount Sinai getting the 10 Commandments, these same people ask Aaron to make them the golden calf.  Who here can honestly say they’ve never done this? “Everything the Lord has said, we will do” except for the “no other gods”, or whatever your favourite exception is.  We promise God one thing, and days later have completely failed.

So, here we have Moses, in Deuteronomy 30, repeating the law of God to the new generation; he offers them a choice:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.  For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commands, decrees and laws… This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, that you and your children may live, and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to Him.  For the Lord is your life…

This passage is about my relationship with God, not about material prosperity. No magic formula for worldly success.  Nor was this was some “altar call”.  This was a call to surrender, each new morning, to Him.  “Choose life” refers to loving God, hearing Him, walking in His ways, keeping His torah, holding fast to Him and not going astray (each morning, each moment of each day).  It’s a radical difference – a life-style choice.

Psalms 119, verses 1 to 8 remind us.

1-     Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord.

2-    Blessed are they who keep His statutes and seek Him with all their heart.

3-    They do nothing wrong; they walk in His ways.

4-   You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed.

5-    Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!

6-    Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands.

7-    I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws.

8-    I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.

Even David, a man after God’s own heart, admits that he is NOT perfect in obeying God’s decrees.  He feels put to shame when he considers God’s commands.  “I’d love to say I am obeying fully, but I’m messing up”.  If we are truly honest with ourselves, obeying God’s Word is challenging.  It’s a very high standard!  The Bible is the mirror in which we see our own inadequacies.

David admits he’s still learning God’s law, and finishes with “I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.”  Don’t give up on me God; I’m going to keep on trying.  We know David had some serious slip-ups in keeping God’s commandments.

He coveted his neighbour’s wife.

He committed murder.

So, how is it that he’s the man after God’s own heart? Well, firstly, although he obviously went through a period of rebellion (more than just a couple of months… maybe more than a year). He was far, far from God.  Yet, when Nathan confronts him, he repents.  There is true remorse, grief and shame.  There is a certain tenderness that comes with this repentance.  Surrender.

We see it again in Peter, who rejecting Christ 3 times, realises his rejection and rebellion, and goes out weeping bitterly.  Somehow, having reached the bottom, Peter was able to put aside his pride, accept Jesus’ forgiveness: was able to bow down and surrender.

Sai Baba said:

“Give up all bad qualities in you, banish the ego and develop the spirit of surrender.”

As a child of God, in our walk to become more Christ-like, we have to understand the importance of the spirit of surrender to God:  “Choosing life.”

Jesus makes it clear, in the sermon on the mount, that it’s not about legalistic fulfilment of the law.

It’s not enough just to know the law.  Last week we read: “let your righteousness surpass that of the Pharisees”.  Pharisees followed the letter of the law; even added a few for good measure. What have we humans done with God’s law?

Let’s see:

The Law of Moses established that we should fulfil our oaths:  Human interpretation says: “if I don’t make an oath, I don’t exactly have to tell the truth”.

Likewise, with respect to divorce:  what was “objectionable” enough about a woman to warrant divorce?  There were different views between various rabbinic schools:

One said:  A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.

Another said: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written: Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.

And yet another: Even if he found another fairer than she, for it is written (and this translation is a little more liberal than “because he had found in her indecency in anything), And it shall be if she find no favour in his eyes.”

And so Jesus explains that the true meaning of the law is to honour God, not just with your actions, but also with your thoughts, your motives and your attitudes.  What does it mean to “Choose Life”? Even Gandhi taught:

Before the throne of the Almighty, man will be judged not by his acts, but by his intentions.  For God alone reads our hearts.

These rules from the Sermon on the Mount are deeper and more personal than the laws of any country.  It delves deep into the innermost part of man, where only God sees.

We may think that our “thought life” is our own, hidden from others.  We indulge in “my thoughts” –save a little space, some room, for us to live in our little indulgences.  This hypocrisy of a secret thought life! – One way on the inside and another on the outside – This deep corruption and confusion is not “choosing life”.

We see another example of this when Jesus rebukes us for holding onto our anger, rather than choosing the higher way.   What do I choose to do with my anger?  Do I deal with it?  Buddhist teachings warn:

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; while holding it, you’re getting burned.”

Jesus says there is no real point in priding myself on the fact that I have never actually killed someone. Why? Well, because unresolved anger leads us to sin: saying “Raca” (empty head) or “you fool” (moron) – My angry, thoughtless words KILL my relationships, chipping away at the trust and love.

Jesus values our earthly relationships – important enough that he says we should leave worshipping God and go and make things right with our neighbour or brother.  We are to actively seek reconciliation.

True happiness and fulfilment comes from putting our relationship with God right and then our relationships with all of those around us.

Sai Baba says:  “Once we surrender our mind to GOD completely, HE will take care of us in every way.”

How do I really put into practice, in all aspects of my life, the grace that I have received, living a life of righteousness and holiness before God?  How do I “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God”?  I “know” (head knowledge) it means to desire Him above all else: He demands first place in my life.  No half-hearted or part-time love: “just Sunday mornings.”

Much like Christ says in the gospels to the young rich ruler:  No one is good except one–God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not give false testimony,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and mother.’”  The young ruler said to him, “Teacher, I have observed all these things from my youth.”
Jesus looking at him loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen “choices” in the Bible.  Genesis: starts with the exercise of free will.  We can choose to eat the forbidden fruit or not – our eyes will be opened: but… will we like what we see?

Augustine said:

“When people choose to withdraw far from a fire, the fire continues to give warmth, but they grow cold.  When people choose to withdraw far from light, the light continues to be bright in itself but they are in darkness.  This is also the case when people withdraw from God.”

God doesn’t want me to pick and choose when I will love him, or under what conditions.  I am to Love God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my strength.

I’m happy to be a Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet lapping up all the teachings.  I enthralled by His teachings.  But that’s not enough: how do I let go of earthly things, daily struggles, and become a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as I cannot now imagine?

If I loved God, really, truly, loved HIM, I wouldn’t have any problem keeping His commandments; I would have complete faith in Him and His Word, put absolute trust in Him.  I’d allow Him to guide me, not snatch the reigns back when things get tough.  I would surrender all and trust Him, be filled with His light, and let it shine through me into the lives of others around me.

We know (head knowledge) that “things” cannot give us life – they don’t satisfy the inner longing of our soul.  No harm in trying, right? And so, like the rich young ruler, we distance ourselves from God, putting our trust in our “security”.

True righteousness is more than just legal or external obedience.  It’s not about seeing how much I can “get away with” and still be considered “righteous”.  Wrong-doing arises because of the mind.  But if my mind is transformed, wrong-doing has no place to live.  God’s righteousness is concerned with His “shalom” – well-being, peace and harmony.  This is His righteousness: a peaceful, life-giving relationship with God.  I want, this day, to choose life.

And so, as C.S. Lewis said:

“He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly … His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less.”

And so, I repeat:

So, as you walk out of here today, which of the 2 types of people do you choose to be?

Those that say to God: “I choose to surrender and banish my ego. I trust you to do the best for me and to give me the strength I need for whatever You have in store, however painful the growth process may be. I want to become more Christ-like. Thy will be done.

Or those to whom our Father in heaven, with great sadness in His heart says, like as to the rich young ruler, “All right then, have it your way”.

Remember: When we lose God, it’s not God who gets lost.