Tell me about the God you don’t believe in…

In his Diocesan Convention address last November, Bishop Lee invited congregations who felt they could to invite some “unchurched” folks to meet and have coffee with one of us bishops during our Sunday visitations. The idea was to hear from the actual people we are not reaching some of the reasons why? It’s easy for us church goers to “guess” at why our congregations are declining. It’s quite another to hear it straight from those who have either left our ranks or who have never been attracted to church in the first place.
Not every congregation has taken us up on the challenge, but quite a number have and we’ve learned something interesting things. First of all, some non-church-goers have been hurt by the church in some way in their past. Maybe they grew up in a very judgmental, hellfire and brimstone kind of church and felt rejected. Some are Roman Catholics who were refused communion after they re-married after divorce contrary to their church’s teaching.
Some have just drifted away because of the busy-ness and stressed out nature of their lives. They just don’t find the time for church, and some have been away so long they feel awkward now coming back. A number of folks just can’t get their heads around what they perceive to be the beliefs and doctrines of the church, and they say they’d feel like hypocrites standing in the midst of folks who seem to believe, say, the Nicene Creed when these people quite obviously don’t! And, again, they’re afraid they would be judged by us if their true beliefs, or lack of beliefs, were found out.
Of this number, some are just out and out atheists. They really don’t believe in God and wonder why some of the rest of us do. Well, we took great pains not to judge any of these good folks. They had honored us by even agreeing to come and have a conversation with us! And we weren’t there to convert them. We were there to learn from them. Privately though, I always wonder – of this last group, the self-professed “atheists” – just what kind of God they “don’t believe in!” In other contexts, I’ve often said to such people, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in…because I probably don’t believe in that God either.”
I say this because, I think often people have rejected their childhood image of “an old man with a white beard who lives above sky” or the angry, judgmental God who delights in nothing more than casting unbelievers into the fires of hell for all eternity. Some of these folks have never allowed their understanding of God to “grow up” right alongside the other areas of their knowledge which keep expanding with every year. No wonder they can’t square their Sunday school image of God with the post-modern world of the 21st century!
I ran across a beautiful quote this week from a friend of mine named Steven Charleston. Steven is a Native American of the Choctaw Tribe and lives in Oklahoma. But he is also a bishop of The Episcopal Church, has been a seminary professor and dean, and he now writes a daily Facebook post on prayer, spirituality, and the Christian life. This is what he wrote:
The same power that set the sun aflame as though it were a candle, the same power that spun the Milky Way like a pinwheel, the same power that sprinkled the confetti stars across the distant heavens, that very power holds you safe under the shelter of its eternal care. The universe is not unconscious, creation is not unaware, all that was and is and ever will be resides in the mind and purpose of a presence beyond our comprehension or control. That presence is the source of life, of love, of intricate beauty and serenity sublime. That presence is with you today and will be with you forever. (June 17, 2015)
That’s the kind of expansive view of God I would just love the opportunity to introduce some of our unchurched friends to. Because I think our God is bigger than whatever truncated image they have felt it necessary to reject. Yet, that “same power” Bishop Charleston writes about is the one which emboldened the young David to take on Goliath in our First Lesson today. Our God is the same power the disciples of Mark’s Gospel saw in Jesus because of the stilling of the storm. And our God is the source of that same power which sustained Paul through “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings” and all the rest of it…as he witnesses to the Christians in Corinth in our Epistle this morning.
It’s the same God. But we must find ways to talk about the Holy One in language different from what our grandparents, our parents, and even many of us grew up with. I hope we can find ways to do that. I hope we can find ways to do it before it’s too late, too late for the church…or at least the church as we experience it today. At the very least, I hope you will join Bishop Lee and me in trying to listen to people you may know – people at work, in your neighborhood, people in your own family – who may be struggling to square the image of God they think we believe in with the world as they actually experience it.
Don’t judge them. Listen to them. And then, after you have listened long and deeply, maybe you can find a way to share with them – ever so gently that we welcome seekers in this church (at least I hope and pray that you would welcome such people at St. Columba’s!). Try to help them see that you don’t have to “have it all together” to be an Episcopalian. If you did, probably none of us would be here! The church, at its best, is a school of love; not a museum of saints. Hear again words describing the kind of God at least I hope you would be inviting them to encounter:
The same power that set the sun aflame as though it were a candle, the same power that spun the Milky Way like a pinwheel, the same power that sprinkled the confetti stars across the distant heavens, that very power holds you safe under the shelter of its eternal care. The universe is not unconscious, creation is not unaware, all that was and is and ever will be resides in the mind and purpose of a presence beyond our comprehension or control. That presence is the source of life, of love, of intricate beauty and serenity sublime. That presence is with you today and will be with you forever.

3 Responses to “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in…”

  1. muhiri Says:

    Finaly, someone with the right answer to the now clich’e question. Does God exist

  2. Chris Highland Says:

    I find this hopeful, if not entirely convincing. Great to hear some “unchurched” were invited in. Yet, if sincerely asked, some of us might say we just don’t find the overemphasis on supernaturalism and the otherworldly helpful any longer. I should know. I’m a former Christian Minister (currently a member of The Clergy Project). I might also add that it seems religious groups continue an exclusivity that I see as distractive and even destructive for our modern age.

    I am quite aware and appreciative of the good things that good people of faith are doing in our communities. I simply feel that human beings need to work together to solve our problems, rather than continue the divisions based on believers/non-believers.

    Good be with you.

  3. branchl77 Says:

    The reason I emerged is because of sanctuary. I grew up in an era of cowboy movies. I expect a sense of holy ground where there is no judgement, no guns, no politics, no hierarchy. I want the kingdom on earth, equality for all humans. So instead of complaining I have emerged to focused on being a disciple of Jesus. It is nobody’s fault. But I can’t do what I did the last 50 years and expect a different result.

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