Transcript from “Remember the Light”

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***Text from a sermon delivery at Calvary Baptist Church (Washington, DC) on 11/13/2016.

Good morning, Calvary.

It’s good to be back.

I think that it’s especially important today that we welcome our neighbors. If this is your first time here, then welcome. I hope that during this service you find a moment of peace.

The last time that I was asked to preach, it was LGBT PRIDE, and the tragedy of the Orlando shootings had just taken place. Today, I am assigned the Sunday after one of the most contentious and negative Presidential elections in US history. Now, I am not saying that there is a causality between inviting me to preach and unwanted events, but the facts seem to speak for themselves… It’s ok to laugh a little. God can handle our joys and sorrows.

While I know that you came to hear guidance about the election and world events, I can only offer you reflection in the form of a story…

Late this past Summer, I took a hastily planned trip to Panama. Landing in the capitol city, my travel companion (Chelsea) and I had no clue what was in store for us. A few days into the trip, we were invited on an overnight hike up a volcano to capture a sunrise view of their most gorgeous valley.

We accepted the invitation with vigor, already beginning to imagine the story and pictures that we would be able to share from just such an unplanned adventure. #facebook

The evening of the hike did not go as planned, otherwise this story would be really boring.

My inaccurate setting of an alarm clock led to a frantic scramble to throw myself together to meet the bus to the base of the volcano just in time. Sweaty, heart-pacing rapidly, I attempted to calm my nerves by breathing deeply and preparing myself mentally for the beauty that was surely mine to behold come morning. About 20 minutes later we arrived at the base of what can only be described as nothing. Stepping out of the bus we were immediately met with darkness, stillness – a complete void. My eyes attempted to adjust, which was impossible as a flurry of flashlights began to light and dance around me. Chelsea took at quick selfie of us to mark the occasion, while chuckling at the fact that we had made it, and that we must be crazy.

Ready, set, go! Our pace was jovial yet firm. Having survived a few distance races in my past, I immediately set my mind to determining a timed pace – giving myself some grace as my last trip to the gym had been WELL prior to the beginning of the summer. I found a pace that suited me and marked my time confidently that all was well and right in the world. The course was appropriate for a night hike, shifting gravel, but even. We jaunted along chatting with our compatriots.

Our confidence and ease were folly, however. About 15 minutes into the hike, the path took a sharp turn for the worse. Even gravel gave way to a sudden incline covered in loose boulders. As if learning to walk as toddlers, we slowly edged from one stone to the next. Every step made uncomfortable sounds as each stone would shift upon being touched. Already tired, my focus shifted to renegotiating my pace, while navigating the now treacherous path. An hour later, I looked up and realized that I was the slowest member of the group, and, but for the distant sway of another hiker’s flashlight, I was by myself.

Unlike the many camping trips that dotted my life, hiking in the jungle was strange. One’s eyes never truly adjust exactly to the darkness of the jungle. My visual range was limited entirely to where my camping lantern flashlight shot its beam. The only other light made immediately available to me was the occasional peek of moon and stars that would poke through the canvass above my head. And, it was quiet, deadly quiet.  Normally, I relied heavily on sounds around me to gauge my location and access to others. In the wild this is very wise counsel.

But, the Panamanian jungle was different. It was silent. There were no birds or insects chirping. I heard no presence of water cascading nearby, and most fear-inducing, I could not hear the presence of my compatriots climbing the mountainside.

The thick of the brush and trees was staggering and oppressive. And, as the path seemed to narrow and turn, then widen and turn, then narrow and turn; I became increasingly aware that I was not secure. I called out to the void, “Chelsea!!!” …there was no echo. I paused, thinking that, maybe, my movement was preventing me from listening and hearing others. There was nothing.

My new, temporary religion became praying for God’s singular help in this moment, while soldiering onward and upward. I was convinced that at some point there would be a change in landscape, path quality, or access to others.

Hours past. The sweat that persistently caked all over my body began to feel like fresh ice packs pressed onto my wet skin as the temperature continually dropped. Worse, my legs and feet began to tingle with pain that was slowly creeping up my body. My mental state deteriorated from concern about making it to the top – to concern about making it through the whole endeavor.

To my delight and reprieve, Chelsea made great efforts to lag behind a handful of times to make sure that I was ok. She was also struggling with the same soul-crushing experience, but eventually her pace would bury mine and, again, I would be enveloped in the void.

When it became apparent that I had no chance of making it to the top, and having devoured my last snack and water rations, I finally just stopped, and sat down. I watched the last remnants of a thunder storm that had developed below me as it dissipated out to sea. Laser beams of daybreak began to shot through the clouds and straight into the side of the mountain. The brush around me came alive with waking flocks of birds and insects that swarmed around my cold, moist forehead. Pain reached my neck from my toes.

I began to cry…like ugly, gross, snotty crying.

Oddly, the tears felt freeing. I asked myself questions about what was really happening in my life. And somehow in the complete clarity of the moment, the answers came flooding in my mind, heart, and soul.

I dwelled on my responsibilities, my dreams, my family, my victories, and my failures. There was no way to avoid it, because there was no technology to distract me, and no other person to help process my emotions. Just tears and pain as I began to think about God.

In his book Suffering: A Test of Theological Method, Professor Arthur C. McGill attempts to give meaning to a scriptural understanding of suffering as gleaned through the interpretive lens of theology. McGill defines theology preliminarily as, “…disciplined and responsible thinking about God as revealed and worshiped in Jesus Christ.” (22)  He continues by clarifying in poetic terms that theology is diverse and inclusive for all Christians of varying levels of expertise. It does not matter whether one has graduated from seminary or is a Panamanian coffee grower. Ultimately, the measure of good theology is its openness to understanding God in new and challenging ways.

Living into this openness makes us aware of our existence in the darkness of our world. In McGill’s account, darkness breeds a need for power, power creates violence, and violence is the root of suffering.

We live in the darkness, and believe that God is our light.  And, because God is the Creator of all that we know, Christians are obligated to share what is revealed to us, which for some may be the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, but I think more relevant is that God, the parent, is love and that love is for everyone, even for “unbelievers”.[1] There is nowhere better for a Christian to demonstrate the love that is God, than in periods of intense suffering.

Right now, it feels like God has abandoned some of us into the darkness, we are seeing increasing and intense violence, and we are suffering. If you are LGBTQ+, a woman, a member of basically any non-white community, disabled, poor, middle class, the list goes on, then the words and beliefs of our new President, may feel personal, violent, or at minimum threatening to our freedom and equality.

No doubt, we have all heard the phrase, “God (or Jesus) only gives us what suffering we can handle.” It is a truly lovely sentiment. The idea that whatever one is experiencing at some unknowable point shall pass, and one will be stronger as a result.

Except, that is not always true. I look around this sanctuary, and I see and know a lot our pain as a community and some of us individually. I see many scarred and bent hearts that still throb with pain anytime we are reminded of that which we have lost. It is the oppression of the darkness. So, we might turn to God and call out into the void, “Mother/Father God, why am I forsaken? Where are you?”

Returning to my Panamanian adventure, once I had gained enough courage, I stood up and began my lonely trip down the mountain side. As I did, I began to dwell on the nature of God. What came flooding back to me in my vulnerability was surprising. I saw this vision of God that at once was both beautiful, but also challenging. I didn’t see God as this protector of my soul, but rather an interconnected presence – something both divine and apart from me, but also to which I was eternally linked.

When I presented this case to my professor and colleague Dr. Gregg Hunt, he challenged me to look into the theology of panentheism – or the idea that challenges our notion of God in the Trinity of God, Jesus, and Holy as something other than a singular, static individual.

My study presented me with many questions that I hope might give you some peace in this season of intense and unknowable change. See, I think that God is something other than the character that we have drawn, and in this mystery, we can ask and ascertain God’s design for humanity more holistically, if we give ourselves the freedom to examine our Creator.

What if we defined God in the wrong terms out of habit or tradition? In reconsidering the divine attributes of God we honor the paradoxical nature of God that sometimes we cannot understand in great moments of suffering.

Let us consider, maybe, our God is a God of:

  1. Holy love—vs. pure transcendence. God’s holiness—God’s supreme otherness does not isolate God from creation, but rather expresses itself in love for and involvement in creation. At the same time, God’s love isn’t a soft love, but costly and demanding.
  2. Dynamic constancy—vs. immutability. Rather than say that God isn’t subject to change, it is truer to say that God is constant, steadfast, and faithful even as God does new and unexpected things consistent with God’s divine purpose.
  3. Unconquerable passion—vs. impassibility. Rather than say that God is invulnerable to suffering, it is truer to the gospel to say that God is a God of passion who enters freely and fully into the suffering of the world, taking that suffering into Godself and thus conquering it (prophetically in Christ, and fully in our hope for a second coming).
  4. Liberating power—vs. omnipotence. God’s power is not oppressive, domineering power, but empowering power that promotes human freedom, inviting trust-filled, covenantal response. God’s “power unto salvation” is the disarming power of self-giving love by which we are freed for God, not freed for ourselves.
  5. Inexhaustible wisdom—vs. omniscience. What ultimately matters isn’t that God “knows everything” (God as the ultimate Google). The idea of God’s inexhaustible wisdom has to do with the infinitely practical nature of God’s knowledge, understanding, discernment, and judgment and the action that flows from them. It also accounts for God’s capacity to respond to all that occurs in the course of human history. God is the “master of plan B.”
  6. Unconstrained presence—vs. omnipresence. God operates under no necessity to be present everywhere, always, and in all things. This would approximate universalism. To speak of God’s unconstrained presence is to affirm that the freedom with which God is present wherever, whenever, and however God chooses (1 Sam. 5:21; Jn. 3:8).
  7. Grace-filled goodness—vs. perfection. The quintessential nature of God’s righteousness isn’t seen in the infinite distance between the Creator’s perfection and creaturely imperfection; it is seen in the mercy by which God makes goodness possible in us (Jer. 31:33; Phil. 1:6; 2:12-13)
  8. Triune oneness—vs. simplicity. Reflection on the triune nature of God in the history of salvation, necessitates that the idea of God as Pure Essence give way to a sense of the interpenetration of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in an eternal community of self-giving oneness and love. [2]

These descriptions of God don’t sound like a divine being measuring out an allotment of suffering to match our capacity to survive it. I think that it is challenging to consider these ideas, but I am not entirely convinced that God lives within us, as much as I am convinced that God is everything. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we might have made an idol out of creating and cleaving to an idea of God as something functional for humankind alone. Label it as Post-Modernity, or hubris, or tradition, but I don’t see a God in scripture who is ever transfixed on each of our individual human experiences, as much as I see a divine Creator who has formed us in God’s image and now expects us to treat each other and this world with compassionate humanity.

Don’t worry, I still believe that we worship and follow a personal God who does care about our existence. It just captivates my imagination to recognize that we are all part of God’s divine creation, and there is nothing that we have to do, or create, or control, or even choose to be granted that right. God is everything, so that we don’t have to be anything.

It is a gift that we have to offer others, too. To be free to know that suffering will always be part of our lives, but that suffering never prevents us from being exactly who God wants us to be – created, loved, and connected. It’s a miracle, rare throughout human history, and it’s open to everyone, not just a certain race, nation, or people – or even strictly to believers like us who strive to understand a divine and complex God.

As we move forward a revised nation in an era of suffering, fragmentation, hatred, and moral failure. I think that it is imperative that we dwell ever more on the nature of God. This means that we should aspire to re-center our community in the heart of God – not situating ourselves at the center of God’s creation, rather orienting ourselves toward the pursuit of truth, service, and sacrifice which can only be resurrected in us when we love one another, love the stranger, love the unbeliever, and love those we may think deplorable.

Help us God! Help us God! Help us God! We need your light!

[1] Arthur C. McGill, Suffering A Test of Theological Method (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006), 33.

[2] Taken from notes provided by Dr. Gregg Hunt of Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

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