(Based in part on Rob Bell’s Nooma DVD Series)
Rob Bell begins an insightful analysis of God recounting a conversation he heard some years ago. Someone was telling about a dramatic moment in his life and summarized the event by saying with excitement and joy in his voice, “and then God showed up!” Bell was moved by this man’s testimony, but then a few moments later he had one of those “Wait—what?” moments. If God showed up, then prior to that moment was God somewhere else? And if God was somewhere else, and then God came here for that person at that moment, why didn’t God show up for all of those other people in all of those other moments who could have used some showing up by God?
Like Bell, as a pastor I’ve heard people say something like “and then God showed up” countless times. That statement makes me realize that for most people, the issue is not so much about who God is as where God is. The problem with that perspective, especially if it is the only conception of God they have, is that it raises a lot of troublesome question about when, where and why God chooses to act—and not act.
I don’t know why the Holocaust happened in which 6 million Jews died and when other Jews escaped or why this person died of cancer and another experienced a complete healing or why one family missed catching a plane only to discover that by missing that plane which crashed they survived while many other families perished or why my grandsons are healthy while Riley Hospital is filled with heart-breaking cases of child illness. I don’t know why. And neither do you. And neither does anyone else. And if someone tries to tell you why God decided to come here and act in one instance but not another, that person should not be trusted. I remember a heartbreaking conversation between Charles and Jonathon in an episode of Little House on the Prairie. A fire in an orphanage has taken the lives of Jonathon’s wife Alice and Charles’ grandson. Jonathon, having lost the love of his life and consumed by so much grief and anger, screams his question to Charles: “Why? Why did this happen?” Charles, in his own grief and tears, simply replied, “I don’t know, Jonathon. I don’t know. If I did know, I would be God. But I don’t know.” There is so much about this world and the suffering within it that I do not understand.
But I do know this: if the primary or only conception of God people are given at some point in their lives, and they are still living with it—this idea that God is somewhere else and may or may not come here from time to time to do God sorts of things—they are living with a truncated, stifling, limited, and dangerous faith.
There are several possibilities that could result from this kind of faith:
God can become an absentee lord. God only shows up under certain circumstances. Otherwise God is not around. And while God’s not around, life and the world can go on perfectly well (thank you!). God becomes, in essence, optional. And it’s a very small step from that perspective to one that says God may or may not exist.
This kind of faith can also lead to what I call Mighty Mouse Theology. Perhaps you remember or have heard of the “Mighty Mouse” cartoons in which, just in the nick of time, Mighty Mouse shows up with his signature song, “Here I come to save the day. That means that Mighty Mouse is on his way.” God becomes the heavenly equivalent of 911. God shows up when needed—sometimes. That’s the “Man Upstairs” conception of God. And one can be thankful for that kind of God (provided such a deity has shown up when you needed help), but day to day, in the here and now, there’s not much need for that kind of God. Like Mighty Mouse, God’s out of the picture until we’re in trouble and Mighty God shows up—if Mighty God shows up. And when God doesn’t show up and you have this kind of Mighty Mouse faith, then you can easily decide that there is no God. The Mighty Mouse God is the kind of God that has to keep on giving and keep on showing up when needed for people to have faith. And when that does not happen, trust in God comes to an end.
Or if you have Mighty Mouse theology and God has shown up for you but you see that God does not show up for others, you can either decide that you were so blessed because you deserved it and that’s why these other poor schmucks didn’t get their miracle. Or you can be plagued with the fear that God will show up only if you’re good, faithful, and hard at work at being a “good Christian.” But if you fail—if you slip up, the next time you need God, the Lord might not show up.
I remember an older college student giving his testimony. He said that for years he sensed that God was calling him to the ministry, but he resisted that call. Then his son became seriously ill, and the doctors told this man and his wife that their son would probably die. The man then promised God that if God healed his son, he would enter the ministry. The man clearly did not want to be a minister, but he felt compelled to fulfill his promise to God. He then said that he was absolutely sure that if he abandoned that promise and left the ministry, God would kill his son. No amount of persuading could ease this man into a more rational and compassionate perspective. All I could think of in that moment was that there will be a minister out there miserable with his vocation, a son who probably will be the brunt of his father’s anger and frustration, and church members who will be cursed by this man’s sick and tragic theology.
But there is another way of seeing/understanding/ experiencing God. This way says that God is with us right here, right now if we wake up and see the world as it truly is. We’ve all had experiences of what is called transcendence. Transcendence refers to something that is but at the same time something more than it is. It can be an adrenaline-inducing moment like I remember when I first saw the ocean as a preschooler. Or when I would stand outside on a cold winter night and look up at the stars. Or when my daughter would curl her tiny fingers around my finger when she was an infant. Or when I’ve been with good friends and we’ve enjoyed a wonderful meal and feasted on one another’s sharing, laughter, and love.
It can also be at those times which are heart-wrenching—when someone shares with us their struggles, their pain, their fears, their utter sense of loss. At such times a conversation becomes something more than just a conversation and we become overwhelmed by depth and intensity. That moment is crammed full of significance as our hearts connect with theirs on a deep and profound level. On such occasions—during the highs and lows—you heart whispers in your inner ear, “This matters–this is important–slow down–pay attention. This is one Kodak moment worth capturing in our heart.” When we try to describe such moments, we use words like transcendent/out of this world/heavy/sublime. It was a meal but more than a meal. It was conversation but more than a conversation. It was an ocean but more than an ocean.
During such times you were there, fully present, taking in every dimension of the experience, and yet at some deep level you were lifted far beyond that experience. We feel this transcendence when we look at a great work of art or listen to music which moves our souls. Yes, such music is in one sense just notes on a page—sounds that can be explained by physics—vibrations that bounce off the eardrum and are interpreted by our brains. Yes, scientists can explain music—but they can’t explain or even understand what I feel when I hear Il Divo sing “The Impossible Dream” or Paul Potts sing “Nessum Dorma” or when I listen to “Bach’s Air on a G String” or Albinoni’s “Adagio.”
Researchers can describe in minute detail the chemical makeup of chocolate, but they can’t explain what I taste when that chocolate melts in my mouth. I know a rainbow is just light filtering through rain drops, but its beauty takes my breath away. An anatomy professor can tell you everything there is to know about your lips as far as structure and function are concerned, but can he understand the kiss you share with the love of your life? All this points to an experience of transcendence. Moments and experiences which are near and far, close and distant, right here and yet somewhere else, this thing and yet something far more all at the same time. All these experiences which are ours and which we can hold and see and hear and feel have a compelling way of leading us beyond them, as if they were a window or door into another room–perhaps even into another dimension!
The Bible has a way of talking about these experiences, those moments when we are aware that there’s more going on here—when an object or gesture or word or event is what it is and yet points beyond itself—because, you see, the people of ancient Israel believed that everything that is exists because of an explosive, expansive, surprising, creative energy that surges through all things, holding everything together and giving the universe its life and depth and fullness. They called this cosmic electricity/this awesome power/this divine energy the ruach of God.
They believed this divine ruach flows from God because the whole earth is God’s, all of it infused with ruach, crammed with restless creative energy, full of unquenchable life force and unending divine vitality, undergirded and electrified by the God who continually renews the face of the earth. For those ancient Hebrews, the world was about all of this life and vitality and creativity and stars and rocks and loving and bread and wine and tears having a single, common, creative, sustaining source–a source they called God who powers and energizes and sustains it all. And that all includes us.
They saw this ruach to be as wide as the universe and powerful enough to animate and sustain even the stars and at the same time as intimate and personal as the breath you just took and the breath you’re about to take.
This ruach is the Hebrew word we often translate as “spirit.” But it also means “wind” and “breath.” Every time a Hebrew took a breath, he/she could be aware of God’s presence/God’s Spirit animating their lives. With every breath they felt God as the source of their life/of all life/of all creation. So where was God? Where is God? Closer than even your breath—in every bird that sings—in every whale that surfaces and splashes in the ocean—in every flower that blooms—in every tear that falls—in every dream we treasure—in every cell of our bodies.
You see, the problem with the Mighty Mouse theology is not that it has too much faith. The problem is that it doesn’t have enough. Its God is too small, too limited, and too distant to everyday life. But when we experience, see, feel, and hear that God is with us, we are blessed by the gift of a transcendence which enriches life here and now—and such moments make the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame dance, and the dead come to life.