Hello, blog friends! I was graciously invited by Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, DC to be today’s speaker of the hour. I presented a sermon about the “where-ness” of God, and I recorded it so that those who were not in attendance would be able to hear it. There are a few moments when some crackling and movement can be heard in the audio file. That’s because I had to place my recorder on the small surface along with my sermon notes. The occasional crackling noise came from turning the pages. I hope it’s not too distracting. Oh, and also– I cried. But the congregation was wonderful and patient with me. I am grateful to them for their love and hospitality. I hope you enjoy hearing this, and I especially hope you’ll share it with your friends and loved ones.
I am glad to be here this morning– not only because I happen to love your congregation—but most especially because your invitation came at a time when I had closed a personal season of thinking through today’s topic. In the months prior to your invitation, I had been scribbling in my personal journal and rereading sections of old books and thinking, (and at times even getting tired of thinking)—all about the apprehension many progressive Christians feel when it comes to answering questions about the nature of God—and specifically about the location of God.
It’s not necessary to travel far to observe the suffering of humankind, especially if you live in a place like Washington, DC. On a cold night like last night, there were people with no warm place to go, and so they slept outside. There are news headlines about people harming others and harming themselves. There are ongoing wars and incurable illnesses. We live in a world where clean drinking water is not available in many parts of the world, and lately—in West Virginia… We see corruption and hatred, even in unlikely places at times. It’s no wonder people ask: If your loving God is indeed real, WHERE is this God?
I find that among my Christian friends, there is a great sense of compassion for the suffering of the world, but there is some resistance to discussing God’s presence in suffering. There seems to be some desire to avoid speaking in concrete terms about where God is, and for a good reason.
I think this apprehension surrounding the question of “Where God Is” exists because we’ve seen previous “answers” abused too often by religious people. Dr. Paul Knitter said it well in his book titled Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian when he wrote:
“Religious language is not only a necessary means by which a community gathers to articulate what holds it together and what it stands for. Religious language can also be used as an instrument of power by which some people seek to control other people…” He writes that our use of language has yielded a long list of “one and onlies”—including the one and only God, the one and only son of god and the one and only path to salvation. In that way, he writes, “My truth becomes opposed to or even destructive of your truth,” … Pgs. 58-59
So Paul Knitter is saying that our language about God, with some help from religious fundamentalism, has led to harm and division. And similarly, questions like “WHERE is God?” have led many to the unfortunate conclusion that God is with one peaceful group, but not with another. God is in one church, but not another. God is in one religion, but not another. God is in one race or culture, but not another. God is in one marriage, but not another. God is in one gender expression, but not another.
And so the great limitation with exploring the “where is God” question is that previous attempts have led to harmful, divisive conclusions.
It was because of all of this (—because of the challenge with language causing division and the challenge with finding adequate words—) that I had become someone who really didn’t want to talk about the nature of God—and I especially didn’t want to talk about where God is when things aren’t “okay”.
I didn’t want to do what I had seen before: I didn’t want to reduce the divine to a bumper sticker that says, “Everything happens for a reason,”… “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” or “God helps those who help themselves.”And I certainly didn’t want to ever say, “They’re suffering because God is not where they are.”
I had maintained my strong aversion to the “Where is God” question until halfway through seminary, while taking a course in interfaith dialogue, it occurred to me that while there are legitimate worries to be had about the irresponsible use of language concerning God, there is also a thirst in our world– a strong abiding desire– to hear people say words about the Divine that are life-giving and peaceful. I knew that I wanted to say something about God that would offer healing to people who had grown weary of harmful faith perspectives. And I knew that the “Where” question was one that I would eventually have to face head-on at some point in my journey.
And so, I began to FOCUS ON THE POTENTIAL FOR PEACEFUL, life-giving language about God, and I BEGAN TO think about the “Where” question. “Where is God?” I would wonder all the time…
Now, I have heard a lot of answers to the “Where” question and nearly all of them have satisfied me at some point in my life. In my childhood, I had accepted that God lived in Heaven—that was the “where”. I accepted this, probably because all of the pictures of “God” I’d ever seen had involved clouds and (like) a gate to heaven and a podium. Based on these pictures, I knew that both God and heaven were protected by this gate. At the gate, there’s always someone standing behind the podium with an enormous book, sort of like a maître’dee, making sure the person desiring to enter the gate has a reservation. In my mind, either God lived in heaven, or God lived in a really awesome restaurant. Both of those possibilities—heaven and the restaurant— were ok with me.
Later, when I began to attend church, my pastor once said in a sermon that God was “up there,” directly above the world and that the ascension of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark proved it. And this made sense to me for most of my life, until Bishop John Shelby Spong pointed out in one of his books that if this were true, then Jesus has not yet left our galaxy because it would take him longer than 2000 years to exit the atmosphere. I began to realize, the answer was a bit more complex than maybe I had been led to believe.
The question began to hit closer to home when my mother, after her stroke, gathered the wind in her lungs and the limited language she could muster in order to ask: “Where is God?” I think maybe it was that conversation that made this question an obsession and drove me to read and think more about it than I ever had.
And, I lived with this question – the “WHERE” question, uncomfortably for a long time. The prospect of an all-knowing and compassionate God choosing to be somewhere else, waiting to be beckoned, when so many people need God to be much closer, and frankly far more concerned than that began to really challenge my ability to believe in the God-out-there.
And on one evening during that time of tension, I remember lying in bed thinking of my mother and her despair, and praying… “God, go to her in whatever way you can.”
And in a moment that I cannot describe to you, a sense of peace fell over me and I thought about my father who isn’t a religious man. I thought about my dad who has never read any Bible and who I don’t know to be a particularly prayerful person. I thought about the way he gets up every morning at 3:00 a.m. and goes to work at 4:00. He lifts luggage all day until his body is tired, and then he leaves work after his 10-hour day and goes directly to the hospital where he sits, often for hours next to my mother. I thought of the number of times she’s been unable to respond to him because of the level of infection traveling through her system, or because she’s had another stroke. I thought of the way that she’s often unable to remember who my father is, and yet my father just sits there with her, providing the patient ministry of his own presence and love.
And that night, I thought of my grandmother who, despite the fragile nature of her own health, has been known to drive two hours one-way just to hold my mother’s hand in the hospital. And I thought about the church members, my mothers’ friends, who are so devoted to her… and still visit her even though she can’t remember them or communicate effectively with them. I thought about her sisters, and all the people who love her so much… and even the hospital personnel, many of whom think of her like a mother and have become her friend.
I thought of all the people who have showed up in a powerful and amazing way to LOVE her, and then I realized… That’s where God is. God isn’t in some remote space waiting for me to beckon him on my mother’s behalf. God isn’t in one group of people and not in another. God is not exclusively in my peace philosophy, or exclusively in my love philosophy, or exclusively in one holy book and not another. God is everywhere… And the potential to experience God’s compassion is everywhere, all the time… But this potential—this beautiful God expression— is always trapped in each one of us.
There is an ancient Christian text—it’s in your program—and this text records the voice of God saying:
I am you, and you are I
And in whatever you place you are, I am there
And I am sown in everything
And in whatever place you wish,
You may gather me
But when you gather me, you gather yourself
–Gospel of Eve in Epiphanius, Against Heresies 26.3.1
Our second text this morning reads:
Now God said to Abraham,
“GO from your country…
To a land that I will show you…
The presumption for many seems to be that Abraham walked and walked until God showed him a holy place. However, the Hebrew word for GO is “lech lecha,” which literally means “walk toward yourself”. God desired to say, “Abraham, you ARE the holy place.”
God sent Abraham on a search, not for a new land necessarily—but for the place in himself where he would find the strength to become whatever it was God needed him to be. I have become convinced that once Abraham found this, he probably could have stopped anywhere.
The “where” question—Where is God?— is essentially a search… But it is a search that may not be necessary—at least not in the way that we’ve traditionally undertaken it. We as Christians tell people two things that don’t make sense. First, we tell them that they should somehow seek God. And second we tell them that God is everywhere. I would argue that while it is good to seek a lifestyle pleasing to a loving God, we need not search far for the Divine. God is everywhere. The Apostle Paul knew this when he wrote that some people “would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’…”
Along similar lines, there is a parable of someone who asked a wise man “Please help me find God.” The wise man said “I cannot help you find God for the same reason that I cannot help a fish find the ocean.”
God is everywhere, and god is always permeating and saturating everything including us.
And so, any search for God should inevitably lead us to all of the good, and all of the creativity, and all of the compassion and the desire for justice that exists inside ourselves. I believe when we endeavor to speak of God, we don’t need to restrain ourselves when it comes to the “where” question. We don’t need restraint. We need mobilization. We need to overcome fear. We need to point to our own hearts and to our own minds and speak to the empowerment that God has granted us. Our prayers must change from “God, please come from there to here” to “God, I’m glad you’re here with us and that you have empowered us to change the world.”
May your search for God lead you to your capacity for compassion and to the compassion found in others. God bless you.