This coming June, it will have been 5 years since my wife and I made the move from Louisiana to Baltimore, Maryland. In these 5 years, our family has grown from 2 to 5 (counting the cat) and we, like everyone, have experienced our share of joy and tragedy, of highs and lows, of loving our home and also of dreaming of someplace perhaps a bit more roomier, of loving this city and dreaming of a place maybe a little warmer in the winter. My wife followed me here to live many hours away from all family and friends to make a life in a new place while her husband was too busy working on the medical wards, and to raise two small children while her husband was often away on business trips or working late hours in the clinic. In June, as you may know, our time in Baltimore will have come to an end. We will be leaving to take a position in Birmingham, Alabama which will fortunately bring us closer to our biological family, but will unfortunately take us away from our “family” we have come to be a part of up here.
When you come to the end of a thing or a time period in life, it allows you the opportunity to be excited about the future…to look forward to the unknown, the possibilities, to what lies ahead. But just as importantly, it gives you the opportunity to look back and to reflect on what has happened during the time that is drawing to a close, to examine how those experiences have changed or shaped you (for better or worse), and to see how (and why) you have changed from the man or woman you were at the start of your life chapter, and compare it to the person you are today. Just as God’s Word is given to us in episodes, or chapters, our lives often come in chapters with a set beginning and a set end. When we finish reading a chapter in a book or a chapter of God’s word, we are called to stop before moving on to the next segment and reflect on what we have read, to understand why it was important, and why it was put there, and to use what we have learned in that chapter to better prepare us to understand the next chapter. My Baltimore chapter began with me being a recently graduated medical student with no actual doctoring experience who had never lived more than an hour and a half away from his hometown. It began with a new marriage, with 2 people striking off to live away from everything they have known and understanding that for a while, it would be just me, her, and God. My chapter closes with me having completed my residency and feeling like a bona fide “Doctor” albeit who still has a lot of learning to do. It closes with a marriage going strong at almost 6 years and a friendship that is stronger than ever. It closes with the joy and strain of being a parent of 2 awesome little girls. It closes with a wonderful group of brothers and sisters and friends from all countries, many from cultures and backgrounds that are in some ways so unlike my own, but yet so similar because it is Christ above all else that bonds us together. Most importantly, I believe that God has used this chapter to teach me something about Himself…which is that I didn’t know nearly as much about him as I thought I did.
God is unknowable, in the fullest sense of the word, by humans, because our minds are not made to comprehend all aspects of Him. We can see pieces of Him as He reveals Himself to us. But it requires community with other Christians, who may have God given insight into different aspects of God’s nature that we have, to grant us a more full (if not complete) understanding of God.
This precise issue is what the early Christians in Acts were experiencing. They were fresh out of their chapter as Jews looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, and even fresher out of the life chapter of experiencing Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. This last chapter was so unexpected and so life altering that it likely left these new Christians very confused about what to do next. Their entire faith had been founded upon strict observance of rules as set out in the Pentateuch in order to make themselves ready for Messiah’s coming. Rules they had been strictly observing for centuries. Their whole faith had been founded on the supposition that Israel was to be the chosen land and they would conquer the earth under the leadership of their Messiah. These things had come to pass, but not in the way that was expected. God had revealed Himself to be so much larger than their limited understanding of who they believed they as a nation were or who God was. Israel had been redefined. It was no longer the nation per se as had been established since Abraham. Israel was so much bigger, and was so much more inclusive than what they were likely comfortable with. The early Christian Jews find themselves inundated by outsiders, by unclean Gentiles, who want to know Christ, and who under the New Covenant, are part of the New Israel. Could the Jewish Christians call these Gentiles to observe the same laws of circumcision and dietary restrictions that were so important to them in the Old Covenant? Things were appearing to become much more complicated. They called a council to determine what should be done. It is undeniable that God spoke through them in that council and revealed more of His nature to them at that point. They come into this council with complicated and convoluted ideas of what is important to be considered a Christian. There was no doubt many disagreements as differing factions debated over what was essential for the Gentiles to adhere to in order to be considered Christ’s follower. Centuries of tradition and disagreements of interpretation had no doubt left them very scattered and confused and sharply contentious with one another.
But when they stop, grow silent, stop talking and actually listen to what God, through Paul and Barnabas, is actually trying to tell them, things become much simpler. Instead of placing a man made yoke of impossibly convoluted expectations and traditions, they agree to boil it down to 2 things…have then Gentiles abstain from sexual immorality and do not eat what has been sacrificed to idols. So simple! There was no need to ask the Gentiles to achieve what the early Jews thought of as perfection because Christ has already obtained that perfection. All He called them to do was 2 simple things to show that they have been set apart by Christ. God had not changed, but the early Christians’ perception of who God was and is had changed radically…and simplified. Indeed, Christ in His ministry had already begun to simplify and boil down for our stubborn minds what is important. Remember in Matthew when He was asked “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Indeed when the Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost, God came in a way that was different than had ever been seen. He came as a tongue of fire…and He came enabling all men to speak the same language. While sin had broken apart, confused, and convoluted the human race at the Tower of Babel, the Spirit comes as a unifying body, simplifying Christian’s interactions with one another. The early church was small and about to face overwhelming oppression. God knew that they needed to be unified at that point and enflamed with the Spirit to make it through the times ahead, so that is how God appeared to them.
How often does our perception of God change as He reveals Himself to us at different chapters of our life? If God’s true nature is beyond our understanding, how could we dare to claim we have Him figured out? Sure, we are always trying to understand Him better as He relates Himself to us through His Word, but it is beyond arrogant to claim that one group of Christians has it right while others have it wrong. There is nothing that I believe is worse than when a church leader spends his time putting down other Christian’s ways of worshiping God. This one baptizes at birth; No that’s wrong, it must be at time of confession. Alcohol is a sin, no alcohol is permitted. Evolution is wrong, no creationism is ignorant. Mary was a saint, no Mary was a human. And on and on. When a non Christian sees a Christian on social media bashing another Christian for what he believes, is that showing Christ? How often do humans convolute and complicate when what Christ calls for is simple obedience. Love God and Love your neighbor. Is it important to try to know and understand God? Yes. Is it important to understand that although you like to sing hymns and dress in a tie to go to church, for others, they may worship God through dressing in sandals and singing praise and worship songs and that’s ok? Yes. God created us all very differently, with different needs, different talents, and different ways of worshiping God. If He wanted every Christian to be American Presbyterians, He would have created us all the same.
There is a book I read several years ago called “The Shack”. Some of you may have heard of it. It is a fictional story about a man, Mack, who has suffered the unimaginable tragedy of losing his little girl. He fights and rages with God and is eventually called to return to the shack in the woods where his little girl was murdered. He returns there in a most desperate state and sees God…but it is not what he expects. Jesus is a humble but rather average appearing fisherman, the Spirit is dressed as a gardener, and God the Father appears to him as an African-American woman. Listen to this passage from the book where Mack is talking to “Papa” as God is called in this book while she is making him breakfast (read passage from “The Shack”).
God appears to Mack the way He does because that is what Mack needs to see…not necessarily because that is what He wants to see. This vision of God is disconcerting and to my thoughts when I first read it…almost sacriligeous. God is male and mighty and powerful. Sure, but He is also female and tender and nurturing…when we need it. Elsewhere in the book it describes God as listening to music on the headphones while making breakfast. Mack assumes its gospel or hymns, or something, but it turns out to be funk music, which throws him off guard. God made all of creation. Why would He only like to hear a certain type of music? As long as it is sung to His glory, whether it is rap, country, or funk, or Gregorian chants, will He really discriminate? I don’t think so.
Our perception of God is changed by our experiences. It is easy to say that suicide is a sin and should be unapologetically condemned when you are talking about someone else’s situation. It becomes another conversation entirely when someone in your family commits suicide, as has happened to my family. Often when something life changing happens to us. It changes the way we see God and things that used to be black and white are no longer so clear.
Our perception of God is often a reflection of maturity. Why is it that the young often claimed to have it all figured out and the older and wiser people get…the less they admit to knowing about God. As our preconceptions are battered by reality through the years, most of the things we were so bombastic about in our earlier years become perhaps not so clear later in life. I admit I have a very long way to go in this arena.
Now this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have beliefs and principles and traditions. God has given us these as a mechanism of relating and communing with them. And it isn’t to say that we are free to interpret our version of God however we want. God has given us his Word and there is no mistake that certain core beliefs are required…to believe in Christ crucified and resurrected; to turn away from our sin; to live in obedience of Him and His Word not because we feel we have to, but because we want to. But when the traditions and worldviews and belief sets hinder us from communing with other Christians and with God…then we have lost our way.
During my time in Baltimore, I believe God has showed Himself to me in many ways. In the face of a cancer patient, in the faces of my daughters. And in the faces of you my brothers and sisters of all colors and cultures. Let us pray that God never stops revealing Himself to us in new ways, and that we would have the openness of mind to see Him in every form. Amen.