(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on April 12, 2015)
Whenever I consciously think about it, the huge variety of ways that the bible talks about God overwhelms me.
The spectrum goes from huge, cosmic God on one end…the God who creates everything, who parts seas, who comes in fire and earthquake, whom Isaiah sees “high and lifted up, with his train filling the temple”…huge and cosmic on one end, to close, personal and intimate on the other end of the spectrum: the God who walks with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening in the garden, who gives Moses his personal name, who sends an angel to feed Elijah in his depression and tell him to take a nap.
Psalm 139 is one place that holds the ends of the spectrum together in one place.
Right next to some close and intimate pictures of God are reminders of the cosmic, huge God.
Underlying the very purpose of this Psalm is the belief, the utter and complete confidence that God is a trustworthy judge. God will bring justice. Evil will not win forever.
We are a church community that has always emphasized that God can and does speak to everyone. In a very real sense, Psalm 139 describes our distinctiveness as a church. Because God knows us so intimately, we believe listening to God is the key to our lives being changed…in fact those are the two center lines of our vision statement–listening to Christ, changing in the Spirit.
You might even say this: the best way for the Spirit of God to change us into the people who we are meant to be, is to intentionally choose to open our lives up to God and listen.
This belief of ours is a bit of a minority position in American churches.
There is a lot of risk in saying the best way for people to change is by listening to Christ, a lot of risk in trusting that having God search our minds and hearts is the best way to bring transformation. Because we don’t always get it right!
A safer path is to be clear about beliefs, to define and tell others what is right. There’s less ambiguity there. A belief, or a creed as the church has called it…the act of defining parameters for our belief and our behavior…this is how most churches attempt to develop people whose behavior is in line with God’s desire.
Have you thought about how risky and rare our vision statement is? Can we really trust that a desire to listen to God, a willingness to be searched by God…can we really trust that is enough? That is one of the biggest tensions I’ve been wrestling with for the past couple of years.
The title I chose for the message today is “Questions vs. Creed”. It’s a shorthand way of getting at this struggle. Can questions and openness to God be enough to shape and guide us into living like Jesus? Or do we need statements and beliefs to clearly give us the boundaries?
What I like about Psalm 139 is that it starts very matter of fact.
Whether we are open to God searching us or not, we believe with the Psalmist that God has searched. God does know. Nothing is a surprise to God. We believe that God’s hugeness as our Creator means we can’t hide anything from God.
Psalm 139 starts by factually acknowledging that truth. By the time we get to the end, we see there is also an open invitation to God to “search me…and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
“Lead me in the way everlasting” is so key! Asking God to lead us is taking a step of participation and cooperation with God. It’s more than just an acknowledgement that some God “out there” knows everything about me. Inviting God to “lead me in the way” shows we are choosing to join in, to follow, to participate…to not resist or reject God’s direction.
Yesterday at the conference we got to host with Nathan and Richard Foster, Richard said something challenging. First he said, “Do you intend to sin?” Most of us thought no, of course not. Then he said, “Do you intend NOT to sin?” That was a little more uncomfortable, and then he made it worse: “Because if you don’t intend NOT to sin, you’re really intending to sin.”
The commitment to follow, the commitment to not resist what God asks for us…this is central.
Take a look at the whole of Psalm 139 again, would you?
What are some of the phrases that jump off the page at you? Maybe some of these are ones you’ve memorized and taken to heart. Would you shout out some of the amazing phrases in this Psalm? [ASK]
Scholars divide this psalm into four strophes or sections. Three of the four are beautiful and poetic and warm and encouraging. If you were familiar with Psalm 139 before today, my guess is it was because of something in the three beautiful and encouraging sections. But one of the sections is full of a desire for God to kill enemies, full of hatred for enemies.
What do we do with verses 19-22?
Many scholars believe the psalm was written by one of David’s descendants who was being unjustly accused. So first is the truth that “You’ve searched me, God”. You know me. you know I’m innocent. You’re with me everywhere. I’m putting my trust in you, I’m asking you to help, because you’ve been faithful to me since before my birth.
Therefore, God, do something about these wicked ones, these false accusers, these enemies of mine! They hate you, too, God. And I hate them. Search me; you know I’m ok. Keep me safe.
If that is the case…there is a tremendous irony here in this Psalm.
There is an inherent contradiction, and one of my favorite scholars, Walter Brueggemann, helped me see it.
Psalm 139 gives a beautiful account of the complete trust the Psalmist has that God knows all the truth of everyone’s motives, that God will bring justice. “I’m placing myself in your hands, God, because I know you are the ultimate judge of what is right!”
Do you see the contradiction?
“God, I trust you to judge…” but I’m absolutely sure I’ve got nothing offensive in me. I’m sure I’m innocent.
“God, I trust you to judge the wicked….” but I’m absolutely sure I’ve got it figured out that my enemies are your enemies, and I hate them and am ready for you to destroy them. The reality is, the Psalmist is the one sitting in the seat of judgment.
The ending of the Psalm is a beautiful aspiration that rings a little hollow coming right after the verses on killing my enemies.
“Search me, God, and know my heart…see if there is any offensive way in me…” I think that is right. I think that is what we should try to do. Yet coming as it does in context, this is a sobering reminder of how often we come to God with so many things already figured out, so many things we are already sure of.
This cry to God to look for any offensive way in me is dangerous! Right and good, but dangerous! I wonder if the Psalmist was ready to hear God’s Spirit say, “Actually, what I want to talk with you about is your belief that you know who is wicked, about how all you want me to do is destroy them. Actually, what I want to talk with you about is YOUR own actions that need changing.”
To honestly ask and invite God to examine us is very different from using God as our tool for killing our enemies and validating whatever we think. To honestly ask and invite God to examine us means letting God challenge our assumptions and beliefs.
Can you see the beauty and the power and the fear in this? Can you see how it might rock our world?
With all that in place, here’s the challenging part of what I want to say today.
It is just stating the obvious to say that we are living in polarized times. One of the big issues is how we think God wants human sexuality to be lived out, but there are so many more: how does following Jesus impact our beliefs and actions about alcohol and marijuana? How does following Jesus impact how we engage politically? How does following Jesus impact how we nurture our children? What are the “right” forms of worship when we gather on Sunday? Is force or violence an answer to the evil in our world?
If, as we say we believe, God is so intimately involved in our lives and willing to give us direction, then God has something to say about all of these important questions about how we live our lives. Yet we often don’t talk about them with each other, because we know we disagree.
If, as we say we believe, following Jesus affects how we should live day to day in the world…how does the church best help that obedient living to occur?
Most churches clearly define what the church believes, and then teach everyone to do it.
A positive part of this approach is that we can be guided and directed in some areas that we may never have even thought to ask God about. But there are downsides to this approach.
When the primary way we try to influence behavior of others is by stating beliefs, one danger is what we saw in Psalm 139. Our intentions may be right, but we may totally miss blind spots where we have made our own beliefs into things we think are God’s beliefs; we may miss where we make our enemies into God’s enemies. We may make the things we hate into things God hates.
Another danger with beginning by stating beliefs is that we effectively end up setting boundaries for who is in and who is out. This can take the place of something far more beautiful, challenging, and faithful. When we focus on the outer boundary of who’s in and out, we miss the power of calling each other to move toward the center, the center where Christ is. It’s the danger of the Pharisees, who followed the letter of the law down to even tithing one tenth of a leaf of mint, but who would dedicate their vast wealth to the synagogue in order to get out of caring for their aging parents.
People have described this difference as a “bounded set” and a “centered set”. Another way to say it in language of faith is, “I’m much more concerned about the direction we are all heading–toward Jesus–then figuring out how far away from Jesus is still ok.”
But perhaps my biggest critique of trying to change behavior by stating our beliefs comes from the mouths of three year olds.
When you tell a 3 year old “Don’t eat that cookie before dinner” or “Go brush your teeth” or “We can’t go to the park right now”…what is that three letter word we always get in response? WHY. Why??? They can ask it so often, can come up with so many possible exceptions or conditions, that almost always you get forced into an exasperated, “Because I said so!” response, whether you mean to or not.
Closely related to this is the fact that you can never think of a belief or boundary for every possible contingency for a kid. Just when you think you have covered every possible contingency, you’ll come home to find eggs broken on every one of the dining room chairs, with an innocent kid staring at you saying, “But you said don’t crack eggs on the floor. You never said I couldn’t crack eggs on a chair!”
If our primary means of trying to help others live faithfully to God is stating our beliefs, I believe it will eventually break down.
Human nature is simply slightly more sophisticated 3 year old nature. We’ll challenge beliefs by asking why. We’ll look for the loophole. We’ll find the exceptions. We’ll resist being told what to do and try to find how to get out of the belief.
And all of that pulls us away from what is the life-giving goal…trying to get as close as we can to Jesus. I think we best do that with asking the question: “God, will you search me? Will you examine me and lead me?”
Quakers have long believed that thoughtful questions, asked regularly, are the best way to move us toward that center of “how can I follow Jesus most faithfully?”
Where other churches focus on beliefs or creeds to set the boundaries and to unify, Quakers have said that a better approach is to ask pointed questions that force us to examine our beliefs and actions, and that invite God into our lives to lead.
I believe in this approach.
The longer I live, the less I see “stating beliefs” as being truly transformative to behavior, my own or others. It is in intentionally listening to Christ (sometimes through questions) and then experiencing the transforming power of God’s Holy Spirit which convicts, forgives, and changes me.
But at the same time, I’m bothered when I see people who just want to chuck all boundaries. Some just want to throw off the creeds and beliefs and give freedom to believe whatever you want to believe. That leads to just as much damage as the other way, because as experience shows, as Psalm 139 shows, we have blind spots. We don’t see accurately. We can be selfish and vindictive and presumptuous.
I want to challenge myself, and I want to challenge all of us not just to throw away beliefs and do what we think is best. We must embrace the central message of this Psalm, the central message of our church’s vision statement: we must invite God to search us, and we must be willing to cooperate with God and be led where God wants us to go.
The “freedom” to not be excluded by a boundary is actually the “freedom” to do a very difficult task.
The central task of following Jesus is to allow God to define and order my life, and it is so very hard. I resist when God’s searching pushes me to confess to someone that I was wrong. I resist when God’s searching of my heart pushes me to conviction and I realize something I have been doing is wrong. I resist when God’s searching pushes me to see the humanity in those I want to see as my enemy, and when God asks me to offer grace.
When I let God search me, when my goal and intent is to get as close to the center of God’s will as I can…the things that come up are harder to live out then some of the lists of rules! Where it used to be, “don’t hate other people”, now all of a sudden I find the Holy Spirit challenging me on my internal attitude of judgment toward someone else. And yet when I let God search me, challenge me, convict me, forgive me, and transform me…that is the way to life! That is what starts changing my character more toward the kind of person I want to be.
Yesterday Richard Foster also talked about how today our world is much more interested in vice than virtue. We so often see goodness and virtue as boring. But he reminded us the truth: virtue, goodness, living at the center of where God is leading instead of trying to find how I can stay just within the boundary…focusing and intentionally seeking virtue and goodness is what leads us to live a life that is worth living.
So when it is an either/or, I will advocate for a question over a creed or belief or a boundary.
But not so I can do whatever I want. Not because it’s easier. Not because I want freedom to define what is ok for me and “don’t you tell me what to do”.
I will advocate for questioning and listening and having God search me because I want to pursue virtue. Because I want to pursue God. Because I believe moving toward Jesus will be more rewarding and more challenging than checking off beliefs and right behaviors on somebody’s list.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll tackle what hopefully are day to day, practical issues. We’ll use questions, historically called queries, to push and guide and challenge and lead us toward the heart of God. We probably won’t set out all the boundaries and lock down all contingencies…because that’s impossible. But I’m hoping we can encourage and prod each other to have this deep, life-giving desire to find the heart of God, not just sort of get on the edge of the safety zone.
How does this all shake down?
Are you and I as the church willing to take the risk of not imposing on others our do’s and don’ts, our boundaries, our definitions and prescriptions for exactly what it looks like to walk with Jesus? Can we put our hope and trust in God’s ability to correct and transform the behavior of others? Are we willing to trust and challenge each other to pursue God without telling them exactly what that looks like?
And are you and I as individuals willing to use that freedom responsibly instead of as a way to become our own “gods” who decide what we want? Are we as individuals willing to do pursue God and be led “in the way everlasting”? Can we make it a practice to let God search our motives, to search the bible for direction, to obey God’s “stop” even when we don’t understand why? Will we abandon ourselves to run to God’s heart, rather than see how far away we can take our own road and still be “safe” and “in”?
It’s the difference between “Yes! They can’t tell me what to do!”…and “Wow. To find the best way for me to live, I need to open my life to God. I need to search and let God search me. I need to pursue God’s heart to live!”
May we choose to daily run to the center!