What (I think) I Know about God

When I started working on this essay I gave it the title “God,” and it then became “What I know about God,” which I quickly realized was not something I felt comfortable claiming (for many reasons), so I changed it to “What I think I Know about God.” (Which feels a lot better, and more honest!)

As it turns out, I don’t have all that many confident thoughts on God, and before I jump into them I want you to watch another video that serves as a disclaimer for my thoughts.

I don’t like framing things in a negative light, but I think that video does a nice job of covering who God is not, which allows me to turn my attention to who God is.

By the way, did you catch the contradiction in the song? (It’s starts with the line “God is not a man” but then the chorus includes the line “He loves everyone”) – using words to describe God is tricky!

I have two basic beliefs about God…

1) God is present  

2) God is love 

If you’d prefer a description of God with more words and some punctuation, here’s one I like from Frederick Buechner:

“God is the loving, creating, everlasting and renewing presence; deeply concerned with the well-being of the earth and all its creatures.”

I can’t tell you more than this about God with any certainty, but I can tell you what I believe – what I hope to be true – about God, and honestly, that’s as much as anyone can tell you…regardless of how many theological degrees they have, because the reality is we each possess a combination of beautiful experiences and troubling questions that lead us to our own unique understanding of God.

It’s very natural to want a deeper understanding of God, or even just to know for sure if God exists, but as Buechner says…

“It is impossible to prove or disprove that God exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about God as it is to prove or disprove that goodness exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about what is good…All-wise. All-powerful. All-loving. All-knowing. We bore to death both God and ourselves with our chatter. God cannot be expressed, only experienced.” (Buechner, Beyond Words)

Similar to how you don’t fall in love with someone simply because they possess a list of desirable qualities, when it comes to our beliefs about God, there also needs to be a connection…

Which explains why our understanding of God is shaped by our experiences.

One of my favorite seminary professors says “There’s no experiencing the world without an experience of God, because there’s no world apart from God.” (Terrance Fretheim)

I can’t talk about God without talking about my faith, because they’re intertwined.

I’ve had a good life so far; by the world’s standards my life has been great. I hope most of you can say the same about your life. Sadly, this isn’t true for everyone. We live in a world where many people have struggles in their daily life that we can’t even imagine.

The fact that I’ve had such a good life makes it easier for me to have a positive image of God. Quite simply, my faith is based on the beliefs that God is present and loving, and because my life has been fairly “easy” thus far, these beliefs haven’t been challenged much.

Many of you already know this, and the rest of you will learn it soon enough, but there are plenty of Christians willing to tell you exactly who God is, even down to the details of who God doesn’t love. Rob Bell mentioned a few examples of people like this in the video above. But in my opinion, you should be cautious of anyone who make claims that seem to limit God’s love, because I’m just not sure how those people could know what they think they know about God…ya know?!

To quote my seminary professor again, “The narrower our understanding of God is, the more vulnerable we are to being disappointed by God.” (Fretheim)

Throughout human history we’ve used metaphors to describe/understand God. We’ve talked about God as…

  • Father (protector)
  • Lawmaker and Judge (law enforcer)
  • Rock (strong foundation)

Some metaphors fit with (and enhance) our understanding of God, while others clash with (and disrupt) our image of God.

Embedded within many of the most common God metaphors is the assumption that God has a gender, nearly always male, representing the masculine view of God which has been the dominant understanding of God throughout history.

I have to confess that for much of my life I thought of God as a man, or at least referred to God as “He.” It’s probably something I picked up in church while listening to adults talk about God, and it wasn’t until college that I thought about it and realized it no longer made sense for me to think of God as a man. Not only because it seemed odd for the divine creator of all things to have man-parts, but also because I began to realize how harmful and unfair this belief is to women, since it creates a system where men are seen as being more like God, which obviously isn’t true (example: any guy, including myself).

But it’s hard to talk about God without using gendered pronouns, and metaphors can often be helpful. I’m thankful to be among a growing number of faithful people seeking to use “expansive language” when speaking about God, either balancing the use of masculine and feminine language to describe God, or going to great lengths to avoid using gendered pronouns at all, opting instead to use multiple versions of the name “God,” often several times in the same sentence, which can often lead to ridiculous statements like “God, in God’s loving nature, is reconciling all people to God’s self.” (Which is to say, God is in the business of loving people back to life – or at least back to lives worth living).

Regardless of how basic or expansive your understanding of God is, it will eventually be challenged, since just as our positive experiences of life help to build and shape who we understand God to be in positive ways, difficult experiences can lead us to question if God cares about us or even exists.

We’re all living in the shadow of something painful and difficult. I’m not sure what it is for you, but about six years ago my sisters were both pregnant with their first children. You should have seen how excited everyone in my family was…my parents were about to become grandparents, my sisters were going through their first pregnancies together, my brothers-in-law were thrilled but also nervous, and I couldn’t have been more excited to become Uncle Andy!

While we were all at our cabin near the end of that summer my oldest sister told us she was having a boy and they were going to name him Emmanuel. The perfect name for a baby due on Christmas.

A few days after getting back from the cabin my sister went to the hospital because of stomach pain. She ended up having surgery for an intestinal problem, and not long after, while she was still recovering from surgery, she began going into labor because her body couldn’t take care of both her and the baby. She was only 20 weeks pregnant and there was nothing they could do to keep Emmanuel alive.

This was almost six years ago and we’ve had time to accept what happened, but if you’ve ever gone through something really difficult and disappointing you know that accepting it doesn’t make it any less painful.

When I think about my nephew, I remember his name (Emmanuel). I remember what it means (God with us), and it’s a reminder that God is with me. And this is no small thing, because it reminds me to acknowledge God’s presence when God feels most absent.

God was with my sister and her husband, and with me and the rest of my family during the most difficult moments of that painful experience. God’s presence doesn’t always feel like God’s love, and the belief that God was with us didn’t make things any easier, but it at least brought us some comfort, and that is what we most needed.

In the Jewish tradition, when someone dies the people closest to them show up at their home to mourn for seven days. They don’t try to talk or cheer them up, they simply come to be with them. It’s called “sitting shiva,” and in many ways, I think this is Emmanuel…it’s God pulling up a chair and sitting quietly with us during our most difficult days, not to take away the pain, but to remind us we’re not alone.

Fear and sadness are as much a part of having faith in God as peace and joy.

Think about how Jesus’ followers must have felt after he was crucified. They were probably freaking out, right?!

There’s a story in Luke’s gospel about a couple of disciples who are walking to the city of Emmaus just after Jesus died. They are so distracted by what has just happened that when a “stranger” joins them (spoiler alert: it’s Jesus), they somehow don’t recognize him. It’s actually not until they get to town and he sits down to have dinner with them and breaks bread Last-Supper-style that they finally figure out who it is.

Like those disciples, we can so easily get caught up in the tough stuff going on in our lives that we don’t even recognize that Jesus has been with us the whole time.

To confess that we believe God is present and loving is to have faith that God is with us, meeting us along the way, seeking to bring us hope and peace. In other words, God, in God’s loving nature, is reconciling all people to God’s self.

I pray that no matter what is going on in your life, you can find peace and comfort in the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples when he appeared to them after being resurrected: “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

And regardless of what you think or believe about God, may we trust that Paul’s blessing to the Romans is true, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

God loves you and God is always with you, and maybe that’s all we really need to know about God.

Amen.

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Looking Back: A Tribute to Friends

The first episode of Friends aired twenty years ago, which means it has somehow been ten years since the show ended. Ten years ago I was settling in to life after college and Friends was my favorite show. I wrote this brief essay after watching the final episode.

friends

“A Tribute to Friends” by Andy Jolivette (May 2004)

There has been a void in my life ever since the Friends finale last Thursday. Over the past 10 years I have shared so many great times with those six people. All the laughs I shared with Chandler and Joey during games of foosball. Playing dinosaurs with Ross (he always got to be the T-Rex). Cooking with Monica. Singing backup for Phoebe on “smelly cat.” And of course, the huge crush I always had on Rachel (in the end, it just wasn’t meant to be – congratulations, Ross!).

We met when I was in middle school, they were always there for me during high school, and they really helped me through college. Now that it’s over, I feel like I’ve lost part of my childhood and am forced to live my young adult years without six of my closest friends. I flip through the channels aimlessly searching for something to watch. Occasionally I’ll run across a Friends rerun, but it’s like seeing an ex-girlfriend before you’re over her…I’m just not ready to see them yet.

I know that many people, including me, need to be reminded that “it’s just a show,” but why have those characters found such a special place in so many people’s hearts? The cast has literally been on every talk show since last Thursday, and there probably has not been this many products available based on a TV show since Saved by the Bell (I know I got a smile from some of you on that reference). So just what is it about those six coffee-drinking New Yorkers that made watching Friends the thing to do at 7:00 pm on Thursdays for the past 10 years?

My mom gave me the official commemorative coffee table book Friends…’til the end, which includes exit interviews from all six cast members. In the book, Matthew Perry (Chandler) shares something that he had heard that expresses many people’s feelings about the show. “Watching Friends is like having a really great grilled cheese sandwich,” he said. “It’s a classic, it’s comforting, and it’s always going to be there for you.”

When I got sick as a kid and had to stay home from school my dad would stay home and take care of me. He would always give me 7up and make me grilled cheese sandwiches cut diagonally, because as he said, “that’s the only way to eat a grilled cheese sandwich.” To this day, I have never eaten a grilled cheese sandwich unless it was cut diagonally.  I knew my dad (and those great grilled cheese sandwiches) would be there for me if I got sick. What a comforting thing for a little boy to know.

Whether or not you liked Friends is irrelevant, but I think we all long for “classic, comforting, always there for you” things in our lives.

The Risk (and Adventure) of Incarnation: an advent sermon

This is adapted from a message I gave at Jacob’s Well in Minneapolis (December of 2012)

I think one of the reasons I love this time of year so much is because Christmas has a way of making me feel like a kid again. I wonder if it has this effect on you as well.

Just think about all the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that are connected in your memory with this part of December. Music, food, movies, decorations, lights!, pictures, candles, and traditions that go back to before many of us were even born.

My earliest memory of Christmas is when I was two years old. My parents had been separated for a little while and my sister and I lived with my mom in an apartment while my dad lived in our house, but on Christmas Eve that year we moved back in with my dad and became a family again.

Isn’t that a great story? And to make it even better, it’s probably my earliest memory of anything, so it’s no wonder why it’s been the story I’ve told people for years when they ask me why I love Christmas so much.

Here’s the thing about that story, it’s not entirely true.

I didn’t make it up and I haven’t (knowingly) been lying to people when I tell it, but until just recently that’s how I remembered it happening. Let me explain. I was looking through old photo albums recently and I found a picture from the apartment where my sister and I had lived with my mom. There was a date written on the back of the photo, it was from March of that year, which is after Christmas, and after I thought we had already moved back in to the house with my dad.

As you might expect, the story of my parents’ separation is not something we talk about much (if ever) in my family, and I’m very happy to share that my parents are still together today, but as I looked at that old picture and thought about the implications of it having been taken after Christmas I knew that I had to ask my mom about it, even though it meant risking the existence of my earliest and most cherished memory. Before even asking her I had come to terms with the likely reality of it not being true, which is what my conversation with her confirmed. As it turns out, my memory was mistaken (not so much wrong). She told me that we did indeed celebrate Christmas together in our house that year but we didn’t move back in until about three months later.

It’s often more comfortable to remember things the way we wish they had happened.

It’s also easier to think about things from the same perspective we’ve always thought about them from, which is usually our perspective.

I do this with Christmas, not just my memories of this time of year, but the story of Mary and Joseph, the angels, shepherds and wise men and of course baby Jesus as well.

For so long I’ve been reading the Christmas story from only my perspective, but only recently did I recognize that it’s difficult to be affected – let alone changed – by a story you’ve heard before, especially if you’ve heard it many many times and know how it ends.

Advent is a season of preparing and waiting.

Waiting has never been a popular activity, especially when everything new seems to promise us the ability to do things faster (which is the equivalent of waiting less).

We live in world that, as one of my favorite lines from Shawshank Redemption puts it, has gone at “got itself in a big damn hurry,” which leads to Advent being the season that simply tides us over until Christmas, like the salad they bring out before your entrée at a steakhouse. It may be healthy, but it’s not really what we want.

We love Christmas for so many reasons, but how much deeper might we appreciate it if we actually prepare ourselves and take time to think about what it means (both for us personally and for the world where we live)? Might we journey through Advent, lingering in this season of anticipation, perhaps feeling a bit like a pregnant woman nearing her due date, filled with excitement but also wanting to just have the baby already!?

The Christmas story has become about so many things but primarily it’s the celebration of a birth, and through that birth, God entering the world to be with us. The theological term for this is “incarnation,” which comes from the beginning of John’s gospel, which says, “the word became flesh and dwelled among us.”

Those words sound pretty, but how does the incarnation change us? How does Christmas – not just the holiday but also the reality of God coming to earth – grow our hearts?

To begin responding to these questions, I’d like to introduce you to someone named Parker Palmer. (Watch this video but then come back to read the rest)

God took a huge risk by entering our world. From the beginning, Jesus was God. Fully human while still remaining fully God, which means God entered this world just like you and I did, as a baby.

Christmas was God going all in, taking an irreversible step toward us without a guarantee that things would work out. Life, as we all know, is an adventure, and God entered into that adventure with us. This is a loving and sacrificial action!

Becoming human was a risk for God but it was the only way forward, so if God is love, then the most personal way for God to express this was to become love, by entering our world and embodying the very nature of love…as a baby.

Babies are perhaps the most sacred form of life. Babies are adored (practically worshipped) because they represent the pure hope and possibility of a life just waiting to be lived. When we look into the eyes of a child we catch a glimpse of all their potential.

It is because of the potential we see in children that we are so sad, angry and confused when we hear about school shootings and priests abusing children.

But that’s why each year the story of a baby being born in a manger is a gift, because it reminds us that we too can be born into a life and into a world of new possibilities. As Parker Palmer suggested, Christmas invites us to embody what is most important to us…

Think about Christmas from Mary and Joseph’s perspectives as they found themselves in the middle of something they never would have imagined, it must have felt incredibly risky for each of them to trust God.

  • Risks for Mary: an angel tells her she’s pregnant and that it’s God’s kid. She then has to tell her boyfriend, hoping he’ll stick around and help raise the kid.
  • Risks for Joseph: his girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant even though they haven’t “been together.” She says it’s God’s kid and he chooses to believe her (rather than assume she cheated on him). They get engaged and later set off on a long trip by donkey (when she’s still pregnant and ready to give birth at any moment).

You can probably say a few things about the connection between adventure and risks in your own life as well, but the reality is:

Everybody wants to live an adventure but few people are willing to take risks.

It’s like the saying: “everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.”

You can’t have one without the other.

Adventures are always full of risks; it’s the main ingredient. If you were to find a recipe for adventure it would list a bunch of different kinds of risks and then tell you to put them all in a bowl, add water and stir.

Yet because of our fear of taking risks, many of us are stirring bowls of water wondering why nothing cool has happened yet.

Did you realize the root word of “adventure” is actually “advent”? So there’s this connection between our waiting and preparing for Christ’s birth and the adventure we’re on as people trying to follow Jesus.

There’s a scene in John’s gospel when Jesus tells us he came so that we can have life in all its fullness, which is to say, he was born so we can be ourselves.

No one can be you except you. God has uniquely created you. You possess gifts and abilities that no one else has, and the amazing thing is, you probably don’t even realize it because they come so natural to you.

My friend Dave has a cool way of explaining this by suggesting that if you said to a fish, “hey, you’re a really good swimmer!” the fish would probably respond by asking, “what’s swimming?”

So, as another Christmas brings back memories from Christmases past, may it also draw us into the stable with all the characters from that old story, to remember –perhaps for the first time – that just as God took the risk of becoming human, we too might take a risk and accept God’s love for who we are, for our faith and even for our doubts; and amidst all the risks of doing this, that we might hold on to the promise of the angel who told Mary, “the Lord is with you…do not be afraid” (or as another translation says, “you have nothing to fear, God has a surprise for you.”)

God, thank you for Advent, a time for us to prepare our hearts and our homes for Christmas, a time when we also must wait. In our waiting for your son’s birth, help us remember that what happened in the stable was not a gift exchange but simply a gift given. Give us the faith and courage to believe we deserve this gift and live the adventure of being who you created us to be. We thank you for your son, and it’s in his name that we pray.

Amen.

Same Love

If you’re like me, you heard “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and assumed their music is fun but lacks any serious message. Well, think again. Here’s to hoping their popularity doesn’t just lead to increased sales at Goodwill but also raises the level of good will we share with each other.

Thumbs | an essay on technology and purpose

Thumbs are important to humans. Sorry, let me try that sentence again: opposable thumbs are very important to anyone lucky enough to have them, especially humans.

Just think about everything our species has accomplished throughout history, how many of those things would have been possible if we couldn’t hold onto things with our hands?

Even the word “opposable” has value in our culture, especially with two distinct groups; a) 16-20 year olds looking to impress others by using a “big word” they assume will make them sound smart and b) writers of animated films of the talking-animal variety looking for an easy laugh.

In recent years, smartphones have given thumbs an important new purpose; typing, an activity previously reserved for the other 8 fingers. [1]

Think about this for a second: the only role your thumbs play while typing on a keyboard is to press the spacebar. Just the spacebar. And although it would take a little getting used to, there’s a good chance your index fingers could handle the task if you somehow lost both thumbs.

Today, thanks to iPads and other tablets, fingers again play a prominent role in the production of words, even when using a computer isn’t an option.

I was convinced I didn’t want an iPad because it seemed like a device that simply filled the narrow technology gap between my MacBook and iPhone. I finally took the bite earlier this month when Apple announced the new iPad, with it’s stunning new display and a few other bells and whistles I still can’t explain. Now I have the whole family. I enjoy it, but it’s just a toy.

As much as I “love” technology I have come to realize that ultimately, no gadget can help me live a more fulfilling life. Sure, the newest Apple product will always make communicating with friends and family more convenient and entertaining [2] but the telephone has been around since the turn of the century and systems for communicating by text have been in place since long before email and other forms of electronic messaging were created.

If mobile phones, email and (dare I say it) the internet had never come into existence, we would still be okay. Daily life would be a lot different but the basic realities of what it means to be a human in relation to other humans and the rest of the created world would all pretty much be the same.

We would still need to eat, sleep, drink water and go to the bathroom. We would want to spend time with – and find ourselves attracted to – some people more than others, and no matter how hard we tried to fight it, we would occasionally have to “work” so we could provide for our own basic needs and possibly the needs of others as well. And, we would all still try to make meaning of things, even if we didn’t talk about it with anyone else.

Despite all that we have in common, various groups of people throughout history have too often been treated like thumbs. Constrained into an existence of being undervalued and forgotten, cast aside and overlooked, yet possessing great gifts and abilities if only they were given a chance to share them and fully be themselves.

Sadly, still today many people have experienced the debilitating affects of discrimination because of something as simple as their race, gender or sexual orientation. [3]

If for any reason you have allowed yourself to become like a thumb, falling for the lie that you don’t have anything to offer or perhaps convincing yourself there aren’t enough opportunities for you to contribute something of importance in the world, here is the good and challenging news…you aren’t a finger at all.

You’re a unique individual, created by God and possessing wonderful gifts to be shared with the world, and share them you must because cheesy as this may sound, the only chance the world has of reaching the full potential of beauty God created it to have is if you share your uniqueness. Please don’t deprive the world of your special blend of beauty.


[1] or is it just “fingers”? (I still don’t know if we have 10 fingers or 8 fingers and 2 thumbs.)

[2] Like when talking to my mom, a recent convert to Apple products, and I struggled my way through an explanation on how to use the FaceTime app so I could see what she was seeing on the screen of her MacBook Air to help her change some of the settings…that was a funny and frustrating conversation!

[3] This is a shame, and there’s a specific finger you may feel like using to show these people how you feel about their intolerance, but don’t do it, not even if you wrongly assumed I was talking about your thumb and had begun considering the possibilities of something good coming from a thumb-wrestling session with some close-minded haters.

Find your voice. Make a noise.

I love this song and video by Katie Herzig, especially its vocational invitation: find your voice and make a noise. In other words, discover the unique message embedded on your heart (the one you know others need to hear), and then – whether through music, writing, visual art or simply in conversation – release it into the world so the same freeing and life-giving power it has blessed you with can be experienced by others. Amen?