The God Box

“You are not upset that we have different boxes. You are upset because my box does not match yours.” ~Rob Lester

MovingBoxToo often we place God in a box, whether it’s a box of our own making or one belonging to someone else that we’ve co-opted for our own designs. We lift up the flaps, place Him in, and think things will be fine from then on because He’s there. We’ve defined Him by placing Him firmly in our own concept of where He should be, of where we think He fits, and we leave Him in there.

And the craziest part of it all is that we don’t realize we’re doing it. You know what I’ve realized, though, after all this time? I see now that the whole time I was growing up I did just the same thing. I placed God inside that box, and it has a name: organized religion.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) (The Bible)

It is this grace that is the key, not anything else. By placing God inside a box it means we believe we can decide what happens. It means we think our works will mark us for salvation. Organized religion the world around is based on this assumption. If we do good works then God will reward us. And each one is different, yet the same. Christians say that God will reward those who have been faithful. Hindus say we need to be dedicated to ceremonies and rituals for a gift from a God in the afterlife. Muslims believe in a God who gives us what we deserve based on our deeds.

In this way too many organized religions place God in this box. It’s understandable, too, because we like definitions. We as human beings like to be able to visualize and define everything. Instead of taking it all in faith, instead of simply accepting that undeserving grace, we look for validation from others, then we translate that validation into a blessing we believe we will get from whatever our version of God happens to be.

“Did man emerge from non-being through his own devices? Was he his own creator? Did mankind create the heavens and earth? Certainly they do not know God.” (52:35-36) (The Qu’ran)

This idea that mankind can know what’s best for mankind is ridiculed by the Qu’ran. This passage is another way of saying God knows best, that we must trust in God, and yet the beliefs espoused by the religion itself shows a God who does not accept all. It is once again not an idea of grace and an all-encompassing acceptance. The only way to know this God is to follow the teachings of the prophet and of the holy book itself. It is simply another way of placing God in this box.

For some people this is the only way for them to be able to understand God, by placing Him in this box, by placing limitations upon a being who is above even the idea of limiting. Even by just saying Him we place restrictions on a being we cannot ever truly contain. Nor should we be trying to contain Him, trying to bend our will and actions to this idea of a God that organized religion imposes on us. For a time it’s necessary, even instructive, to see God through a childlike lens, through that rudimentary belief system, but as we grow in Him we can see more the individual nature of the relationship that has no limitations. Because He has no limitations.

Then we battle over it, as if one religion is better than any other, as if God esteems one more than he esteems all the rest. We are of the “one faith,” the “one church,” the “essential elementary understanding,” and everything else we do to place labels of differentiation and judgment on everything and on everyone, including ourselves.

“What religion needs today is not more flying with God, or leaping with God, or jumping up and down with God, or going into spasms and convulsions and epileptic fits with God. What religion needs today is more walking with God.” ~Milo H. Gates

This idea of walking with God is one espoused by many organized religions, or at least they pay lip service to it. They agree that we all need to walk with God, but they don’t make it a personal walk. Just saying that our walk with God needs to take place alongside others (who are on their own personal walks) undermines the strength of that statement.

I remember when my youngest was in kindergarten, and one of the comments from the teacher was that Madeline was good at “parallel play,” which means playing alongside other kids without playing with them. She said it like it was the worst thing in the world, but it was peaceful. Madeline was doing what she wanted instead of destroying what the kid next to her was doing. I was good with that. It’s how I feel about the idea of having to be with others, to share the “walk” with others. It’s unnecessary, and it can be detrimental. We are all on our own journeys with God, personal journeys that could be disrupted by thinking ours needs to be just like someone else’s.

People often ask me why I don’t go to church now, especially those who I grew up with in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. They ask me what’s going on with my personal relationship with God because they fear for me. They’re worried that my lack of fellowship with “true believers” will be detrimental to my soul salvation. And to them I say they should focus on themselves, on their own personal relationship with God, that instead of putting Him in a box, they should actually walk with Him, free of those boxes. Allow for His grace, for His mercy, and for His overwhelming acceptance to help you see that it’s not about organized religion.

It’s about you and Him. That’s all it’s ever been about.

Sam

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The Southwest Philly / Adventist Dichotomy

“Where I grew up there weren’t many trees. Where there was we’d tear them down and use them on our enemies.” ~Peace On Earth, U2

ghettophillyI grew up in 2 different places: the chaos of Southwest Philadelphia, and the insular bubble of the Adventist church. While these distinct places warred with each other for possession of my eternal soul, they still somehow existed in beautiful tandem with each other. I went to a small Adventist school in a good part of Philly, so most of my days were spent isolated from the drugs, violence, and strong language rated R-ness of my own neighborhood. But then I would come home and the switch was flipped.

There was a drug den at the end of my block. Everyone knew it was there but we all simply kept our distance on our way to the 7-Eleven on the other corner. We would play tag in the water from the fire hydrant in the summer while strange types went in and out of the dilapidated house (that has since been torn down). And it didn’t seem odd at all, as if every kid had a drug den at the end of their block, as if Narnia were real after all.

But Narnia wasn’t real, except when my mother read it to me at night, and the closest I ever got to that kind of magic was at church every Saturday. Even though the Adventist church we went to was in North Philly it might as well have been in Shangri-La because of how shut off it was from the world. When I passed through those doors it was like time stopped and I was transported back to the world of those 1950s’ television shows, when everyone was safe, and when everywhere was your backyard.

churchaisleThings weren’t real on Saturdays, when god reigned from on high in the form of black men behind a pulpit shouting olden words to adoring crowds who knew they could do no wrong. It was the epitome of a caste system where everyone within those doors was sanctified, a la Henry VIII, by virtue of being there, and by validating the system itself. Which of course meant that everyone outside in the cold was doomed to the depths of hell itself. It was Judgement Day wrapped up in rhetoric and a supposed missionary message that was less than sincere.

It was far away, both theoretically and geographically, from the drug den on my block, but both places shared the ideology that life was to be shut off from experience. And no more was that evident than in how I was expected to react to these two realities of life. While I was supposed to ignore the drug den, to pretend that it didn’t exist and that those who occupied the space were invisible, it was necessary in church to pretend that we were the chosen ones, that others should look to us as examples, that we were all going to heaven just by nature of being there every Saturday.

And while neither way of looking at the world was healthy, I took it all in and spit it back out just like they taught me. I was the dutiful robot who spent most of his formative years pretending that things were the way the adults around me said they were. I was the boy who saw the cracks in “perfection” and was supposed to gloss over them because everyone else did. But I didn’t. I just pushed it down, and I mulled it over deep inside, and I recognized that the crack addicts were people too, that they were worthy of being seen just as I was. I mulled it over deep inside, and I realized the church goers weren’t pillars of divinity.

I realized that no matter where we come from there are elements that draw us all together as human beings, and that the more we embrace those elements the less we judge. And the less we judge the more likely we are to understand where we come from, where we truly come from, is the sum of all those places rolled into one, that the story we have to tell is more than just form but content as well.

Sam

Growing Up Seventh-Day Adventist: Questioning

faith-does-not-eliminate-questions-but-faith-knows-where-to-take-them-589980I guess we all go through our lives thinking that others know what we’ve gone through, assuming that our experiences are tacked up on our faces like so many notices on a board, or at least we don’t really think about where others come from so we assume the same when it comes to them. Regardless, the time comes when we get close enough to another person that we feel the need to explain, when all the questions come, the excitement of getting to know another person’s history.

When I first met the woman who would become my wife I remember the first question was, “What exactly is Seventh-Day Adventism?” and I had a hard time answering it past the obvious “We went to church on the seventh day instead of the first.” Then I really took the time to think about it, something I realized I had never truly done before, and the answers weren’t coming easily. It made me think of that quote I’ve often used on others: “Always question everything because the answers might surprise you.” So I dug deep and I told her Seventh-Day Adventism is the belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ, in the faith that God never changed his holy day, in the confirmation of the miracle of immaculate conception, and in the promise that God will come again to save us from ourselves.

Of course that seemed like a pat answer, like one I had rehearsed more than once, like propaganda from God-fearing folk to explain Him to the unwashed masses, and it felt like mud coming from my mouth. But it was the answer, for better or for worse, because it was what I had heard time and again while going to church, the “party line,” if you would. So when I thought about it, really thought deeply, it was all I could come up with, which was a sad commentary not just on my upbringing in the church, but also on my lack of understanding and depth of something I was supposed to be expert at.

It wasn’t about others from the outside asking questions. It should have always been about me asking questions from within, so I wasn’t merely going through the motions. But I had been going through the motions, toeing the “party line,” and understanding exactly nothing. I realized I needed to do some research, some real research, not just going to the SDA website or simply listening to the pastor preach it from the pulpit. It had to be real to me so that I could make it real to someone else who hadn’t been there with me from the start, who hadn’t gone to Sabbath School, and church every Saturday, and Vespers every Saturday night, and Vacation Bible School every summer. So I went back to the beginning, for me anyway — my mother.

Say what I would about my mother, I could never deny her complete devotion to the church, but I had never asked her any of the questions that I should have growing up, back when I was blindly following the religion by rote and not by faith. When I went to visit her one time while I was back in Philadelphia we had the talk we probably should have had when I was younger, and I asked her pretty much every question I never knew the real answers to, the ones that were most difficult because they were most essential. You have to understand, it physically pained me to admit that I didn’t know, to let anyone else know that what I had in the church had been built on shaky ground, not on a true understanding of my faith.

That’s what it comes down to, she told me by way of an answer to my biggest question, the understanding that even though it’s a religion it’s at its base about the individual, not the collective. Seventh-Day Adventism, according to her, is a connection of individuals who believe in God, who believe that he will come again in glory, but who also believe that their individual connection with that God is paramount above all else. It’s not about the song and dance, and no one else need know where you stand, because God knows, and that’s all that matters. It’s not about being demonstrative, even though many Christians believe that “works” are most important. It’s about the questions and the answers, and not from you to others, but from you to God. Wow, that blew my mind, to think that the whole time I thought it had been about appearances when it should have been the exact opposite.

And I knew I had to start living what I preached, that I had to question everything, whatever I built my foundations on first and foremost though, because building on shaky ground is never a quality proposition, and not understanding where you come from and what makes you YOU is inexcusable.

Sam

Growing Up Seventh-Day Adventist Archive

Growing Up Seventh-Day Adventist: Unequally Yoked

opposites-attract“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”2 Corinthians 6:14 (English Standard Version)

Growing up Seventh-Day Adventist, it was only natural to wonder about the nature of male/female relationships. Everybody growing up wonders about that, but for the SDA it was almost like sacred territory. We saw couples at church, but we were only privy to their public relationship with the Lord, not to their private relationship with each other. But you know how kids are. We talked, and it was pretty easy to place the couples we saw into three categories:

  1. The Ones Who Were Genuinely Happy
  2. The Ones Who Were Pretending
  3. The Ones Who Weren’t Even Pretending

The ones who weren’t even pretending were the ones who we never even saw together. Either the wife would bring the kids to church, the husband would bring the kids to church, or they would both be there, but never in the same place at the same time. These couples tended to be middle-aged with young children. The ones who were pretending could always be seen together, but they were never actually found communicating with each other. And those who were genuinely happy had a seamless nature to how they went about their business while at the same time tending to each other. Those couples were usually smiling, and had an ease to them that we could tell the other couples obviously envied.

But one thing that was hardly ever in question was that each couple we saw at church were in fact baptized Seventh-Day Adventists. While there may have been degrees of faith, the faith itself was never in doubt. Apparently this isn’t so clear-cut in some other religions, but I didn’t know anything about that then. I assumed that everyone who was married was “equally yoked,” meaning that they were of the same religion. I also assumed back then that when I grew up I, too, would marry a Seventh-Day Adventist and raise Seventh-Day Adventist children together with her. That assumption would prove false. Continue reading “Growing Up Seventh-Day Adventist: Unequally Yoked”

Reunion

Check the acid-wash jeans.

My 20 – year high school reunion is next month and I have been reliving some of the highs and lows of the experience. Hard to believe that it has been 20 years since high school. Some days I can almost convince myself I’m still a gangly 15-year-old with acne and a distinct lack of facial hair. Now the facial hair I do have has quite a bit of gray scattered throughout, so when I look in the mirror I can believe it’s been 20 years.

I went back after 15 years, when I was searching for some kind of anchor or foothold I had been missing back then. And I did reconnect with several people I knew, but it was transitory. It wasn’t solid. But this is 20 years. Everyone will be there, and I am at once both elated and frightened over that.

Everyone remembers high school differently. Some recall only the good parts, the “best years of my life” that is often bandied about by middle-aged people who need to relive their glory years, the metaphorical heyday. While others remember the bullying and tears.  Still others reflect on how invisible they felt even in the midst of so many others. I was in this latter group.

Don’t get me wrong. I had a small network of people I would have called friends for lack of a better term, and they were separated into black, white, and other. Not by me, but by them. My black friends were courtesy of my skin color and my sister. My white friends were because we shared the nerd trait. And the others played table tennis with me. Back then those were the lines, but perhaps looking back they were only in my head. Continue reading “Reunion”

Growing Up Seventh-Day Adventist: Going Home

“There is no past. Only present. And future.” -Theodicus

There’s a saying that you can never go home again, and I believe wholeheartedly in it. Not that you can’t go back to the physical place, but that you can’t go back to how you used to fit into that space. That’s important for a world of reasons, but the biggest one is that there is something to be said for nostalgia, once that distance has been forged, that connects us back to that time period, and to who we were at the time.

So many people have memories of their childhoods, be they good or bad, that they come back to in one way or another. For me that childhood was a solid mix of the good and the bad. But whichever sentiment clouds my memories, it’s safe to say that every single one of those thoughts involves my religious upbringing. In fact, just today I was singing “Jesus Loves Me” while at work, and I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I was on the second verse.

My mother used to always ask me to go to church with her every single time I went back to Philadelphia for a visit. I could hear it in her voice, too, that emotion that said I was doing a horrible thing saying no, but there was also that feeling of sadness. And I knew that she wasn’t just asking me to go to church. She was wondering where she went wrong, that I would so fully abandon the church that pretty much raised me nearly as much as she herself did.

But what I wanted to tell her was that it was never her, that she hadn’t done anything wrong. Continue reading “Growing Up Seventh-Day Adventist: Going Home”

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