The Ambiguous Love of God

Have you ever imagined what it would be like, to be God? Not what you would do, but how it must feel? The question is far beyond me,  but I keep trying to imagine it so I can try to explain what I mean when I say “God”:

Every thought and feeling I have is part of my experience of what it is to be myself. Every day, if I am paying attention, I learn more of the bundle of psychological mess and contradiction that is me. This includes the understanding that I am myself while others are not, the ways I dissociate from my own actions and body, the ways I project my feelings and experiences on what happens around me, etc. I assume you also share that experience, of “watching oneself”. Or maybe you just think your thoughts and feel your feelings without a lot of introspection, which is precisely the point: we are different. What I imagine when I say “God” includes all perspectives, all consciousness: mine, yours, everyone’s. Feeling all the feelings, thinking all the thoughts. I do not picture God as an outsider who can be sympathetic to your experience but does not quite know it, but rather an insider, someone who really knows because they were there and they felt everything you felt, literally.

Imagine being able to fully experience both sides of a conversation: every feeling, unspoken thoughts, impressions, intents, thought processes or impulses behind every nuanced word and gesture. Imagine being on both sides of a kiss. On both sides of every kiss. Knowing, beyond words, the experience of living every life as part of your own. Do we even know where that stops? Include animal consciousness. What if everything is alive? What is it like to be the sun? The moon? The Earth? How does it feel to be one of the microbes inside your stomach, killed in mass by an antibiotic? God is born and God dies every day, yet God remains, being One who is greater than the sum of all parts.

I find this imagination exercise convulsive. I think of the word schizophrenia: “fractured voices”. Yet the voices are true, real, present, colorful. This is what I think of when I hear “we are God/the universe experiencing itself”. This is where my mind goes when I read “In Him we live and have our being”.

What would you feel, feeling everything? Knowing the fears, dreams, aspirations, anxieties, desires, disappointments, hopes, expectations, pride, guilt, love, courage, anger, sadness, joy and sorrow, of everyone? If you saw every point of contradiction, ignorance and misunderstanding, looking through others’ eyes into your selves? Would you try to avoid these feelings and thoughts, to blank them out and preserve your own sanity and sense of individuality? Would you love the voices that please you and hate the ones you dislike, wishing them to end, treating some as more “human” than the others? Would you cry at the weight of all pain, would you celebrate the ecstasy of all joy? Would you clear your mind and become unmoving, stoic, removed, or would you dance with rage and fury as Creator and Destroyer? I get exhausted of handling my own feelings sometimes, let alone everyone’s.

This fascinating thought is an essential part of mysticism: If we are united to the One, to God, and experience some sort of bliss, then God must also be united to all things and experience our not-so-blissful reality.

Christian traditions make this tangible in the way the Apostles and Evangelists wrote about Jesus of Nazareth. He was a subversive Jewish rabbi who taught God will lead a world revolution, telling us to celebrate the fact with feasts, starting with marginalized communities in a Jewish society under Roman imperial control. The authors of John spoke of him as the Life and Light of the whole world (cosmos), the Way, the Truth, the Logos (“word”, or “reason”, from which we have the word “logic”) which brought everything into existence, without which nothing could exist. The disciples wrote: “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it […]the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— […] that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” They believed Jesus when he said he was one with God, whom he called Father, turning their world upside down. They experienced something, which they saw and touched, and that was the best way they made sense of it.

Jesus taught us to call God affectionately, “Father”, as he did. He told his disciples the Father loved them just as the Father loved Jesus. He told them that in loving one another like Jesus loved them, they would be One with God, as he himself is One with the Father. I invite you to ponder for yourself, and wonder, about what that means and whether or not the Christian creeds and the inter-religious debates about the divinity or non-divinity of Jesus get the point of his teaching.

I understand Jesus to be inviting me, and you, to consciously and willingly participate in God by loving each other, the same way Jesus participates in God by loving his own neighbors.

God loves us. The same authors of the quote above, when explaining their experience, say “God is love”. Not “God is loving”, which would be an adjective like good, holy, righteous, etc, but an actual substantive, something essential. God also gets called Light, Truth, Life, and Logos, but these nouns do not quite give us a sense of personality, of intention, of emotion. Nothing we can quite relate to in our humanity. Love, however, is essential to us as relational, social beings.

Love is the something-more that makes God more than the ensemble of the universe, more than the Oneness of everything, not just a cosmic Thing or Power, but One who is Someone, a Relational Subject, who we can relate to, cooperate with or fight against, be friends or enemies of. On the two sides of a conversation, of a kiss, of sex. On the two sides of a disagreement, of an argument, of violence. The mother in pain giving birth, the stressed doctor assisting her, the newborn entering a confusion of light and sound. The old man dying, the wife holding his hand. The prisoner and the law enforcer. The torturer and the tortured. The murderer and the victim. The beggar and the one who ignores. The beggar and the one who refuses to ignore. The king, the peasant. The worker, the boss. The friend, the enemy. The trusting, the betrayer. All in All, God is deep, intimate, cosmic love.

I think adding love to this picture makes it even more convulsing, schizophrenic, maddening. I cannot make sense of God’s love when I think of all the good and all the evil and I try to put it together. Yet I am invited to believe God loves me, and I am told to love my neighbor even if my neighbor hates me, not just in word but in action. I cannot handle the universe: my neighbor is simpler. Simpler, but still complicated, still ambiguous, because love is always about people, and people are complicated.

Christ loved Peter, James, John. Christ also loved Mary Magdalene, and a nameless prostitute, and his own mother. Christ also loved Judas. Christ loved ambiguously, in Truth and in Grace.

This is not a love that says all sides are equal and makes no choice, making false equivalences without commitment. Christ, loving both sides, still picked one, and stood for it at the cost of his own life. Christ stood for compassion and against indifference, for a kingdom where the poor and homeless are welcome to every feast, and against a kingdom that rewards the greedy and the proud at the exclusion of the humble. Christ stood for the kind of truth where we are compassionate with each others’ moral failures, against the appearance of “truth” that allows for religious authorities to stone someone, as if they were not sinners themselves. Christ stood for a kingdom where both sins and debts are forgiven, where slaves are freed, against all condemnation and bondage. Christ stood for a kingdom where God can walk among us and feast with sinners, who can be one with God, against a kingdom that holds God at a distance, captive to dogmas, ready to crucify a heretic who dares to threaten the rules.

What does it mean to love like Christ? There are no easy answers in the New Testament. There is no prayer you can pray and be fine for the rest of your life, no ticket to heaven, no approved stamp. There is you, your neighbor, a mad God who loves both, decisions to make, and an invitation: love as I love, die as I died, live as I live. One day after the other.

 


About the author: Lucas Coque is a Brazilian theology student in Montreal, QC. He is an agnostic Christian existentialist who wishes to make progressive theology accessible.

Illustration: The Kiss of Judas, by Giotto di Bondone

The Sound of Jesus Clapping One Hand

This is a transcript of the sermon preached by Ashely Crouch during the evening service at Christ Church Cathedral, in Montreal, QC, on January 21st 2018.
The readings referenced are 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31 and Mark 1:16-20.

Imagine you are out getting groceries on a Saturday, and a man who you may or may not know approaches you and says “drop this grocery basket, and we will shop for people.” You immediately think “this is a great idea! I will do that!” Then, your roommate, standing next to you, also decides it is a good idea. So off the three of you go, leaving your roommate’s poor confused father in aisle five no longer sure how much pasta to buy or really what to do. This passage from Mark, written without much detail, gives us one of the simplest, slightly perplexing, and yet poignant passages in the Bible. Drop everything and follow Jesus on a mission. We have no time for meandering. But, of course.

Following Jesus in many parts of the Gospel is almost like following your favorite social media account. You get the exciting highlights of a life and a curated image of Christ. Historical biographers from Jesus’ era did not write biographies as we know them today, with ample detail into the most minute moments, interests, quirks and sometimes useless tidbits of personal information packed into a large volume. Instead they wrote the story that highlighted what they perceived to be the most important parts of the person’s life, and often they highlighted a message. Thus here we are left with a rather thin volume; four short Gospels and an array of letters on what Jesus did and what it means to follow him.

Though the lectionary passages of the day are not always a perfect match for giving a sermon, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians adds depth to Mark’s short and sweet gospel. In Corinthians we encounter Paul writing paradoxically, years later, about what it means to follow Jesus. As Paul had been known as one of the most vocal objectors of Jesus before his conversion, and having lived a life that was entirely contrary to his post-Baptismal life, he is in a perfect position to describe the significance in what Jesus means when he asks us to drop everything and follow him. According to Paul, we must live in a dualistic manner to the life we had before, but we must also keep living that same life. Be as if you are not married, but still be married. Deal with the world as if you had no dealings with it, but keep dealing in this world because you still need to eat, sleep, and do important work. Paul here reminds me of the popular Zen koan asking what is the sound of one hand clapping. Only this has tremendous effect on the lives of the people around us, the institutions in place, and the planet on which we inhabit.

Another note of importance stringing these messages together is the audience to whom they are addressed. Jesus calls out to ordinary fishermen. Throughout the gospel he calls out to numerous other ordinary, and at times, even socially shunned people. Paul writes to the ordinary people of Corinth, who have come to believe in the message of this man named Jesus. These people were not the wealthiest or most powerful people in their society. Nor were they necessarily the most pious, wise, and holy. We can note this from the very well-known example of Judas’ betrayal. We note this because the people to whom Paul wrote were ordinary people with practical problems needing practical solutions. Jesus’ message was for anyone and everyone; and it was especially for the ordinary, outcast, or oppressed person. He had a message for the whole of a person: there is another way to see the world, and there is another way to act in the world. This is how we can transform ourselves and the world around us.

In both scriptures we are given a sense of urgency, a sense that we are called to take part in something much greater than ourselves. Over 2000 years later and the words still have the ability to leap off of the page, inspiring millions of people around the world into a transformation of thought and action. These men did not drop their nets to have a brief conversation before returning to their ordinary lives; they dropped their nets to embark upon a journey. They knew it would not be easy, but their belief in his message and his deeds led them to follow him. The people of Corinth wrote to Paul because they continued to live their ordinary lives in the world, years after the passing of Jesus, and they struggled to know how to be in the world but not of the world, quite like Jesus himself.

When we consciously choose to follow the example Jesus has laid out for us, we are choosing a journey that is not always easy, happy, or simple. Life is messy, we only need turn on the news to see that the injustices relevant in Jesus’ time are still relevant today. There is still poverty, corruption, inequality, violence and greed. At times it feels as if the injustices in the world are as eternal as God. But Jesus proclaims that these human struggles are not eternal: we inherited these problems but we do not have to accept them. Paul notes this in his letter to the Corinthians when he says that the present world is slipping away. When we shift our sights to the challenge and path of following Jesus’ example, we enter a new way of being in the world. Its present form slips away in light of new truths, new faith, and actions that move beyond the individual self. The perplexing statements Paul makes display an urgency similar to Jesus… drop your net, drop your worldly commitments, drop your sorrow; the present world is slipping away and you are being called to follow a new life.

If a baptism is a rebirth, then it should follow that the world you lived in, has, even if metaphorically, faded away. Though we think of the big moments when we are called to be brave, to help others, to give shelter, to make tough decisions, or to discern vocation, we skip over the fact that every facet, every tiny facet, of our lives should be different. In stories of many historical Christian heroes and saints, we hear about the big, incredible acts and miracles they achieved. Just like Mark, they waste little time describing the daily, mundane details of their lives. We are treated to a fast and moving narrative of the power of belief in the message of Jesus. We know that we should be toppling systems of oppression, helping the poor, and performing great acts of love in the name of Jesus. We most often think and speak about following Jesus in broad terms, as if we each have a way to follow him that will in turn come to describe our lives in a fast and moving narrative with a clear purpose. We think about becoming priests, doctors, scientists curing cancer, teachers of a new generation of children, or creating powerful and moving music. But following Jesus is a constant choice and a constant re-orientation to everything in our daily lives.

When Jesus commands us to follow him, he calls us to follow him in a capacity that is feasible and practical, even if at times difficult. Though his faith was strong and important, he was a man of action. Being made human, he shared our world so that he may show us the perfect example of how to be in the world but not of the world. Over 2000 years later, we are called to the same large and urgent matters, but we still have to eat, sleep, shower, clothe ourselves, go to work, get groceries, and do our laundry. Following Jesus is a mentality, part of the reason we take communion, and the reason we remember our baptism each Easter.

If we are baptized, and if, as he asks of us here, we have chosen to repent and choose to live as we have never lived before, then each thought, each moment, and each act is to be an affirmation of that faith. Sometimes we see our impact on others and the world when we do tangible things like volunteer at a soup kitchen or tutor a struggling student, but we never know how our most minute actions, interactions and choices may be profoundly impacting the world around us, or indeed, even ourselves. Our daily choices and thoughts shape our character, and in turn this shapes our life’s path.

Can we live each moment presently? Can we live each moment conscientiously? Can we find beauty and gratitude in the most minute details and moments? Can we stop before we speak and think about our chosen words? Can we pause before our quick trip to the grocery store and remember a reusable bag? Can we stop when we make judgements or assumptions about groups of people and challenge those beliefs? Can we slow down and observe the small ways in which we can be of service throughout our day? We cannot be perfectly mindful and perfectly of service all the time, but we are called to try, to do our best.

We are not Jesus, we are not perfect, and that is why Christians throughout the centuries have given confession, or prayed forgiveness, and why as Christians we continue to read the Bible and study its messages throughout our lives. We need those daily reminders, daily renewal, and daily opportunities to continue that journey.

Nor are we called to be Jesus; we are called to follow his way. We cannot, individually, bring about peace on earth, save the environment, eradicate poverty and hunger, eliminate racism, sexism, classism, or any of the seemingly endless –isms that affect our social sphere. Yet, when we each individually live our daily lives as if the present world is slipping away and we become centered on Jesus’ path, those small thoughts, moments and actions add up.

Many monastics live in a monastery because it is easier to focus on living a righteous life where there are less distractions. Our great challenge as lay people, and as ordinary people, is continuing to follow Jesus each day in an increasingly fast-paced world filled with distractions and competing worldly needs that seem never-ending. But just like the fishermen that dropped their nets, and just like the people of Corinth, if we believe in the message of Jesus, we can let passages like these be our guide. Instead of rushing through tasks and our day to find time for prayer or focus, we can discover the path of Christ in each moment and every act of our day. We, too, can watch the present world slip away a little bit more each day as we learn how to live in Paul’s paradox of dealing with the world as if we had no dealings in it. In order to “fish for people” as Christ says, we must first look within and see that our own nets have been dropped and grow ever more present and conscious to the continuing call of a life inspired by Christ.

Amen.

The Author: Ashely Crouch is a Canadian queer Christian feminist. She works as an interfaith facilitator at the Concordia Multi-faith & Spirituality Centre. Ashely holds undergraduate and masters degrees in Religious Studies, and comes from an interfaith background.

Lament for our Mother

I was too young when the divorce happened.

Mother and Father loved each other,

People say I got my mom’s body and my dad’s spirit.

 

Once upon a time we celebrated them.

Our old houses and temples, buried in Canaanite deserts, still tell the history:

Walls full of pictures and inscriptions cherishing our Parents’ love: The Fertility Goddess and the Lord of the Mountain. Earth and Heaven, Asherah and El.

Ashtoreth and Yaweh.

I don’t know why they fought, nor why he threw all her stuff out of his house.

I mean, isn’t everything their house?

All I know is my Brothers and Sisters insist that our Father is the one who provides everything.

They say we should just forget Mother.

That our Parent is One, only One.

 

To my brothers, Mother is either a silent servant

Who does Father’s will,

Or a whoring serpent

who bites his Son’s heel.

 

Oh Mother, Mother, Mother,

We feed from your breast while we taint your seas.

Oh Mother, Mother, Mother,

We haven’t seen Father in two thousand years. But my brothers and sisters worship him. Yes, only him. To him all power and honor and glory, to him who will redeem us from you, he who will come and burn you, destroy you, to create a new you, in which there won’t be you, but only Him.

You who gestate us, you who are ever one with us, that we may be one with him.

Oh Father, our jealous Father,

Thou who art in Heaven,

Have mercy.

 

Yet, maybe…

 

It just might be,

My brothers and sisters are wrong.

If Father and Mother divorced, how can they both be

Dancing, Together

In me?

 


Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash