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 Night Before Hanukkah

6a7bca5666cef1994e746fae893b779aThere’s nothing like the smell of hot apple cider on the stove, warmed up and waiting to go down smooth. The chill in the air contained to the outdoors, while frost coats the glass on the windows, straight from out of a Norman Rockwell painting. My fuzzy pajamas on all day long because there’s nothing else to do, so why not be comfortable? Lazy December days are the absolute best, especially when there’s something to look forward to on the horizon. Or a few somethings.

I am not Jewish, nor have I ever been. I want to put that out there straightaway so you’re not confused while reading this. But tonight I am rustling up my electric menorah, my four dreidels, my imitation chocolate gelt, and my imaginary Mensch On the Bench (why should the Elf have all the fun?) because tomorrow starts the eight crazy nights that constitute the least of the major Jewish holidays — Hanukkah.

While Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah have the fancy traditions, the pomp and circumstance, Hanukkah checks in as the “cool” holiday because it coincides pretty closely most times with the Christian idea of Christmas. It’s the reason so many say Happy Holidays now instead of Merry Christmas this time of year, so it has some cache. And more and more stores are stocking Hanukkah merchandise (good luck trying to find a pair of white pants for Yom Kippur, fellas).

There’s just something about Hanukkah that’s easy, that’s laid back like this time of year is anyway, something that helps it mesh perfectly with the idea of lazy, comfortable winter. The traditions are still there, but unlike Yom Kippur it’s not about giving up things, but instead about embracing miracles and celebrating the supernatural. It’s not often that we get a chance to celebrate the supernatural, to really focus on the Almighty’s gifts to us and to our ancestors.

hanukkahAnd unlike Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah is an ongoing celebration, for eight crazy nights, with so much that happens within its framework that it’s easy to think it will go on forever. Every single year, on the eighth night, I always think about how short it really felt, about how much I want it to keep going. Because, unlike the other high holy holidays, it’s a playful event, a chance to let our hair down and be ourselves while feeling the spirit at the same time.

Lexi likes to light the candles with me, to say the prayer that starts off each night. This year I’m going to teach her the ancient Hebrew words so that she can start to feel just how ancient these traditions are, how deep their roots. That’s what I love the most about Hanukkah — its accessibility. Lex has been following the tradition with me for five years now, and we both look forward to this time of year for more than just Christmas. I love that I have in my child a kindred spirit who has embraced the traditions as I have.

So tomorrow it begins again, the shamash, and the eight nights, and the celebration of the oil, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Sam

Love Them Like Jesus

“Loveless and cold, with your last breath you saved my soul. You smiled at me like Jesus to a child.” (Jesus to a Child) ~George Michael

black-jesusI remember a story about Jesus taking out his aggression on the moneylenders who were turning the temple of God into a marketplace. He supposedly overturned tables and used harsh language in running them out of the place in disgrace. It was a life lesson I’m sure many of them never forgot, or it was a blip on the radar of their lives that was over almost before it even began. I reckon it was the former. I imagine Jesus could be quite domineering when he wished.

There’s another parable about a woman with an issue of blood who only wanted to touch Jesus as he passed through the crowd. She was only able to get her fingertips on the hem of his garment, but she was instantly healed. The story showed that even if Jesus wasn’t paying attention the power still emanated off of him in waves, saving those who had purity of heart and righteous wishes.

These stories of Jesus are contradictory on the surface, but they go hand in hand to explain the character of the man known as the Son of God. He wasn’t some hellion who used his brawn to force people out of someplace for kicks. He was instead a man who had strong beliefs and the will of God backing him up, a holy terror when something of this world incensed him. This same man was superhuman, but only used his power when it was to right a wrong. Sounds like some guy.

If Jesus was indeed God made flesh and bone, then he was the perfect mix of power and mercy. Unlike the God of the Old Testament, the so-called “King of the Jews” was a gentle giant who used stories as lessons to hopefully help those around him, and through the Bible, to help those for generations to come. If God was the stern father who destroyed the world with a flood, Jesus was the wandering son who had more wisdom than people could see at the time.

love-like-jesus1

That’s usually how it works, right? People are blind at the time, but later their vision is 20/20, hindsight conquering all blind spots they previously had. Jesus was like that. After he was put to death, was resurrected, and returned to heaven, after the earthly access to him was gone, that’s when people began to study him, to observe his teachings, and to properly revere him. And others like him have suffered similar fates throughout the years, never honored until it’s too late.

But for Jesus it was never about accolades, if his teachings are to be believed. It was always about love. Love makes the world go ’round, doesn’t it? It’s not this romantic love that is so popular these days, though. It is the love for our fellow man (and woman), that he espoused so long ago, and that still remains a missing piece for so many of us today. The love of Jesus was perfect in its all-encompassing ability to bring everyone in. Yes, even those moneylenders who he chased out of the temple, he inspired to bring love back with them when they returned for services, not for business.

I imagine if Jesus were alive today he would speak of imperfect love as the standard. That means recognizing the imperfect nature of our love, but doing the best we can regardless. Because while everyone is not worthy of love, neither are we, and he loves us anyway. That’s the glory of love like Jesus’ love, and even if we can’t match it, we can certainly emulate it, and he can do the rest.

You know, if you believe in things like that.

Sam

Noah’s Ark

noahs-arkThey came two by two, and seven by seven. No one led them, but they came anyway. Strike that. They were led by God’s invisible hand. Something like that anyway. The animals came in evens if they were unclean, and odds if they were clean. Whatever that means. Okay, I’m starting to lose the thread, but the end result is still undeniable. The Ark was the world’s first zoo, and Noah was its first zookeeper.

Perhaps I need to brush up on my Bible knowledge. I used to know it all cold. I could separate my Methuselahs from my Melchizedeks in the blink of an eye, and still have something left over for a study of Samuel vs. Joseph. Growing up as a preacher’s kid in a highly religious household did that to me, made me some kind of a Bible freak, and while I didn’t like it, it was still somehow something I took pride in. Hmmm. I heard it too.

Anyway, today my family went to an amusement park that used to have an attraction called “Noah’s Ark.” They took it down in 1989 and scattered the animals that used to belong to it around the park in other destinations, leaving a plaque behind with a picture of the former attraction and some words to the effect that it was taken down in 1989 and its animals scattered around the park.

Lexi asked me what Noah’s Ark was all about, and I’m usually the one to ask. At least I used to be. But I couldn’t even recall if the two by two were clean animals, what “clean” even meant, and how many people were on the Ark. I knew it was all Noah’s family, and everyone else who was on earth at the time drowned in the flood. I knew it was something about faith, and the faithless, and a cleansing. It’s always about a cleansing.

And a lot of rain. That’s where it began, and ended, as a matter of fact, with a lot of rain. Which is pretty much all that I think Lexi heard of my rambling story of faith, the faithless, and cleansing. Just a lot of rain. Which is okay. Because it also rained today. It’s called a frame of reference. Kids are good at that.

Sam

Low-Hanging Fruit

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I was in a cult. Well, sort of. In 1995 I was in a period of transition, in myriad ways. I wasn’t going to school but I still spent the majority of my time on campus, playing the student. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I only knew I didn’t want to end up drifting. And yet, that’s exactly what I did in 1995 — I drifted. So I was ripe for picking, and two gentlemen in bow ties did exactly that — they picked me.

I guess I was low-hanging fruit, truth be told. I had just divorced myself from the only religion I had ever known, and it was not amicable. I was confused when it came to any kind of god right then as I sat there behind the circulation desk in the campus library, waiting to check out books.

“Have you met Jesus?” the one guy asked me. They were both smiling like jack-o-lanterns, wide and kind of disconcerting, but their eyes told me they spoke some kind of truth. That’s the thing about cults. Their eyes drag you in. Do the research. That’s the first thing people who have escaped from cults say about their captors.

“Have you met Jesus?” he asked me that first time, and I didn’t know what to say. Theoretically I could have said yes, I guess, although the Jesus I thought I knew wasn’t the same Jesus he was asking me about. I could tell that right away. So then my answer would have been no, but that didn’t seem entirely truthful either.

IMG_2577“Is he that new kid from Cambodia?” I said instead. Comedy is my defense mechanism. But they weren’t deterred from their mission. They were obviously missionaries, and their smiles didn’t slip in the least. They also did not laugh, though.

“Jesus is our Lord and Savior,” the one guy said, and the other one nodded frantically like he was on speed. In retrospect, that should have been my first clue. He slipped me a card with his name on one side and a number on the side opposite. It said Jesus is the Way above his name, which was Wayne. Wayne, the cultist, the cultivator, the cult man.

“You should totally join us on Sunday at church,” the second one chimed in with a shrill voice that could probably cut glass. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”

I was tempted to tell him that I’ve seen everything he could possibly throw at me, but I was worried his head would pop off like a defective bobble head doll if I was so bold.

“Church is church,” I told him instead, and his smile slipped for a second before returning brighter than ever.

“Just come with us on Sunday, and you’ll experience the difference,” the first guy said. “Give me your number and we’ll call you before we come pick you up.”

I gave him my number. To this day I’m still not quite sure why. I guess now I know why pretty girls sometimes give douchebags their number. Sometimes our brains just ooze out our heads, and guys like this take advantage, with their plastic smiles and their bow tied innocence. So I gave him my number, and he promised they would pick me up on that Sunday. He promised me that my mind would be blown.

religion-is-never-the-problem-its-the-people-who-use-it-to-gain-power-quote-1And it was. I got into their car on Sunday morning and we pulled up to an elementary school. The parking lot was full of cars of all makes and models, packed to the gills like my trunk when I’m headed down South. Inside was no different. That elementary school gym was full of singing, and shouting, and proselytizing from every single corner. It was definitely like no other church service I’d ever been to, even aside from it being in an elementary school gym.

I was dragged to the front of the giant room and introduced to the cult’s leader, a charismatic man named David. David, if it was possible, was even more smiley than the two I had met in the library, a man in the mold of so many dictators who snowed so many people for so long, you know, like Bill Clinton. I was immediately put off by him, but I smiled back. Because that’s what you do when you’re in a cult. Well, sort of.

Wayne told me about baptism in the car on the way back to my house. They were already pushing for it. They said I made a good first impression, and I was proud in spite of myself. They liked me. They really really liked me! I was going to be the next big thing in that cult. Who was I to stop momentum like that. So I signed up for Bible class, even though I already knew the Bible backwards and forwards. I let them rope me into giving up my Tuesday and Thursday nights to sit in a room with others who were looking forward to baptism. It was all very shady, but I signed up, and I did it.

It all came to a head, though, three days before I was to be lowered into that watery grave. I expressed concerns for the first time, about the cult, about its leader, and about what I was about to do. I realized there was no going back from it, that I would be adopted into the cult forever, that there was no escape. I panicked. I mean, I had a full scale panic attack the size of which was huge even for my standards. Wayne said it was normal as he patted me on the back, but I saw his real emotion in the back of his eyes.

Because more people meant more money…

Because for him it was all about the numbers. The reason the parking lot was packed was because these “missionaries” went out and dragged huge numbers of people out. They lassoed them in like cowboys hogtying cattle, and they didn’t let them slip away. Because more people meant more money being funneled along to the leaders, which meant more converts who could then be missionaries too, and lead others to the cult and it’s cultish ways. What a dynamic system.

And I wanted out. Wayne was panicking, and I wanted out. I told him I wasn’t going to be baptized. I told him I didn’t want to go through with it, not in that kind of rush. He said all the right things, but he was agitated. For the first time I saw a simmering anger in him that didn’t bode well for the so-called religion or anything it stood for. I told David on that final Bible study session that I wasn’t going to do it, not right then, that I needed more time.

He washed his hands of me. When he grew tired of trying to convince me that baptism was for me, he washed his hands of me. Not then. He said all the right things, just like Wayne had, but after that night I was persona non grata. It was like they lost my number, and when I saw those two around campus from then on they pretended they didn’t even know me. That’s when I finally exhaled. Because somehow I had escaped the clutches of the cult by being brutally honest.

Who would have thought?

Sam

“Oh My God.”

why_me_god“Oh my god,” she said, and to her it meant absolutely nothing. It was a placeholder, another way of saying “What?” in that sarcastic tone I know she means when she pretends to be innocent. But she knows what she’s doing and saying. She knows that I’m not pleased when I put my hands on my hips and say, “It has nothing to do with god.” Then she looks at me like I’ve grown a second head, rolls her eyes, and says, “You know what I meant.” And while I do, I don’t at the same time.

I wasn’t allowed to say “God” when I was growing up, because it was taking the Lord’s name in vain. There’s some scripture about it, about not taking the Lord’s name in vain, that there will be serious consequences, or something like that. And I took it seriously, but sometimes I got into saying “Geez,” and “Gosh,” and even “Golly.” But we all know what each one of those affectations really means, right? They’re just another way for saying God, and just another way to take the Lord’s name in vain.

But it never stopped me from saying it. It just stopped me from saying it in the presence of my mother. To this day I don’t think my mother has ever heard me swear, and to my mother the G-word was even worse to say than the F-word, at least that’s the way it seemed at the time. Then I grew up, and it was all around me, so it lost its cache. Everyone said “Oh my god,” and “Geez,” and “Gosh,” so I stopped saying all of them. Instead I began using the F-word, but never around my children. I’d like to try and keep them innocent for just a little while longer (he says, while writing about it on his blog).

Now it’s all come full circle, because my oldest is saying it… all the time. Every time I turn around she’s saying it again. It’s become her mantra, as if it’s the last phrase on earth and she’s using it up because she’s worried that it too will disappear forever any second. I’ve tried to explain to her like my mother explained to me, that we shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, but she asked me, “Who’s the Lord?” That’s when it hit me that I’m not my mother. I don’t have some kind of solid faith that keeps me grounded, or chained, whichever verb you prefer. What I have is a personal connection with some form of a god that hasn’t been introduced to my children.

So I don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to the phrase, because we don’t have any religious rules to follow in this house. It makes me realize, this grand battle, that we do need to start explaining to our children what our faith entails, and that it’s real even though we don’t go to church, that faith isn’t organized religion for us but that it can be for them. It’s time to start discussing those difficult subjects, because Alexa’s obviously ready, if just in the question she asked me as a response to my chastisement.

“Oh my god,” she told me when she got home from school today and dropped her bookbag down on the floor like it had been cutting into her shoulders. And I began to scold her, but I stopped myself instead, for a change. Because it’s not taking the Lord’s name in vain if she doesn’t even know who He is to her, and for her. There’s no frame of reference, so no wonder she is so miffed when I just say it’s wrong. It’s time for us both to work through the idea of religion together, under the shining lights of the Menorah.

Sam

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