What good is a cold, distant and useless God?

Caution: Spoilers Ahead

The most recent film from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan is based on a folktale in which the devil roams the earth in order to collect the souls of sinners unsaved.  The movie, “Devil,” is a thriller about five individuals  (one of whom is the devil incarnate) stuck on an elevator.

As each person meets his or her doom, the lights in the elevator flickers out briefly.  (Spoiler alert!)  When the lights return, chaos ensues amongst the small group as each one accuses the other of being the killer.  The movie unfolds until there are two left standing, and the sole survivor is spared only because he takes responsibility for his misdeeds.

The movie is one of many that explores the universal battle between good and evil in human society.   For this particular caper, as in others, the devil is present within the plot and interacts with the protagonists.   Whenever I watch these horror flicks, I am always left wondering: Where is God?

Ever notice that these films usually portray demons as near and present dangers while God remains aloof or missing from the story entirely?  People end up saving themselves.  Even when they do get religious, as in the movie “Stigmata” for instance, it is because of human initiative, not because of a direct intervention from a very present God.

When I watched “Devil” several weeks ago, this little puzzle bothered me.  What bothered me even more, however, was the realization that we do not treat God any differently in real life than do the movies.  We often live our lives as if God is distant and detached, merely a Clockmaker that sets things in motion only to let humans muddle along.

And like these movies, humans rely on their own power in order to bring about salvation.  No wonder we have a crippled economy, countless broken families, and a high rate of depression.  We think we can figure this all out on our own and escape the snare of the real Satan (not a movie stereotype) who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

If we go on long enough without relying on God in all aspects of our life, we threaten to forget God altogether.  God becomes an after-thought.

One way to get out of this rut is to transform how we talk about salvation.  For many years, I heard that when a person “accepts Christ as their Lord and Savior,” they are “saved.”  I believe this to be true; but for many people, their salvation stops there.  For many, the acceptance of Christ is a one-time event rather than a beginning of a life-changing journey.

Consider that our acceptance of Christ–our conversion–is like a wedding vow.  When we get married, we have a special event in which we exchange vows with our beloved, but the relationship and the true love that follows takes a lifetime to cultivate.

Truth is, our relationship to God is like a marriage, and we recommit to making God an intimate part of our life on a daily basis.  There may be times when we feel distant from God and there are times when we feel close to God, but in all things our marriage to God is something that keeps us connected.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul encourages readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:12b-13, NRSV).  A Christian who works out salvation is one who truly believes that God is present–a God incarnate and living in the power and person of the Risen Christ.

Grandparents are indispensable gifts from God

Some of my greatest childhood memories include the times when my parents allowed me to sleep over my grandmother’s house (the finished basement of my childhood home). Although it was only a few hours at a time for “Gram,” it helped shape my perspective on the important role of grandparents.

My Little Saint

Whenever I spent the night, Gram and I did a special evening ritual.    We feasted on rarities that I got only when I visited her: corn flakes in milk and a glass of seltzer water, both a big deal to a five-year old who got to stay up so late.

Instead of going to bed (like we were supposed to), we sat out on the stoop to catch lightening bugs.  Then it was ice cream and TV time with the likes of Archie Bunker and George Jefferson.

In hindsight, Gram’s gestures of kindness seem quaint, but her time with me instilled the belief that grandparents are God’s gifts of grace and mercy to all the children of the earth.

And, for me, Gram was most certainly God’s mercy in the flesh.  There was nothing I could do to anger her, and it seemed impossible to annoy her.  If I pitched a fit, she gave me chewing gum.  If I was unreasonable, she offered me a meatball.

She lived up to her name, Santina, which roughly translates into little saint. She embodied unconditional love when she offered her many hugs, kisses, and (if you caught her on a pension payday) pennies.

Don’t get me wrong, Gram had her scruples.  She taught me how to play poker.  She cursed often (usually at my uncle–her son–and at baffled game-show contestants).    She warred with her next-door neighbor.  She distrusted people not of Italian descent.

But in the eyes of a child, she was as perfect as the saints pictured in the little icons hanging from her bedroom mirror.  She was as colorful as the rosary beads on her nightstand.

I know that there are many people in this world who do not have the same experiences with grandparents as I; but in general, I find that grandparents give all of who they are to their loved ones.   These are God-in-the-flesh folks who spoil their grandchildren in season and out, and are stubborn about it too.

I had one such grandmother visit me in my church office the other day.  She is a parishioner, so when she was leaving I mentioned that I hoped to see her at worship.  Without missing a beat, she replied, “Yeah, maybe, but as a grandmother I’m always on call.”

Some pastors would scoff at this and give speeches about spending time with God on Sunday mornings.   I would much rather this grandmother spend time with her grandchildren than deny them such loving care during a time of need.

Why go to the church to hear about the Gospel when you can be the Gospel–God’s good news–to someone who is learning what good news is in the first place?

Recently Gram turned 90, and I had the privilege of celebrating her birthday with her while visiting New York.

She has dementia so her physical motor skills, memory, and speech are impaired.  Her hugs and kisses no longer come in abundance.  She does not say much, and her laughter is not as boisterous.  She still curses, but mostly at nurses instead of clueless game show contestants.

But even in her wheelchair, with her head tilted slightly askew, she represents the absolute grace and abundant love that God has for all of us–almost like God incarnate–and who loves like Christ loves.

As a pastor, many people ask me if I ever see or hear God.  My answer, though offered tongue-in-cheek, is always the same:  I have, and her name is Gram.

Christ the King Sunday is Worth Celebrating

As one who loves liturgy, I am excited that tomorrow is Christ the King Sunday.  It is a time to celebrate God’s reign, the incarnation and lordship of Jesus.  It is so holy, I can’t help but to sing: “All hail the power of Jesus’ name…bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all!”

One of the texts for Christ the King Sunday is Revelation 1:4-8, in which John, the exiled author, envisioned “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”  This expresses the simple, eternal truth that God is God and humanity is not.  There is only one ruler of all the earth; humans are mere characters in the larger drama of God’s unfolding history.  The irony is that in this history the powerful are made weak and the weak are made strong.

Consider the Exodus story.  Murderous and cowardly Moses told the mighty Pharaoh to let God’s people—those powerless slave people—go.  Predictably, Pharaoh asked which god Moses represented, for Pharaoh’s universe was one in which many gods existed.  Even Pharaoh was a god!  Moses simply spoke the truth: Pharaoh was not in charge; he was a no-god.

In the gospels, a peasant from Nazareth confronted the most powerful empire in his day.  By parable and miracle, Jesus humbled both the Jewish and Roman aristocracy by reminding them that, in spite of all of their authority, God was still in charge.  Jesus’ treasonous kingdom message was what ultimately got him killed, but Jesus’ resurrection only proved that God was God and Rome was not.

Our nation has a predisposition towards liberty.  When King George III fastened his grip on thirteen colonies so long ago, a band of brave patriots cried, “Give me liberty or give me death.” We are still skeptical of kings and kingdoms, and we do not like lords telling us what to do.

We have been without a king for so long, we forget what it’s like to have one.   A lord is antithetical to liberty, so trying to celebrate Christ the King Sunday is like trying to speak a foreign language—we call Christ lord but we can’t remember precisely what that means.

We fail to understand that when we call Christ King, it means that he is lord over every aspect of who we are and what we do.  In Christ Jesus we gain true liberty because he frees us from our lust for power and our endless selfish wants.

Calling Christ Lord also gives us a divine responsibility.  In Revelation John wrote that Jesus “made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.”  We are royal priests who have a unique role and who are attentive to the will of the King.  Priests also remind those who try to usurp the King that they are not in charge.  It takes courage to speak truth to power, even if it rubs against popular politics.

We are also heralds who declare that Jesus will reclaim all of creation for himself one day.  This season two movies, “2012” and “The Road,” will address end-of-the-world themes.  Myth and popcorn can make people have the false sense that an apocalypse is something of mere fiction; Revelation shocks us with the reality that there will be an end and that Christ will usher in a new heaven and earth.

Christ the King Sunday is an important day, a time to stop trying to do things our way instead of God’s way.  “Come, Thou Almighty King, help us Thy name to sing, help us to praise:  Father, all glorious, o’er all victorious, come and reign over us, Ancient of Days!”