Third Sermon in The Shack Series

Acts 17:20-25
July 19, 2009
Verbs and Other Freedoms

Dear First Christian Church Arlington,

I have been with you for some time now, visiting with you, trying to get you to talk to me. You seem like a friendly bunch of people, but you are a little confusing to me. So much of your life seems to be lived peering into windows of artificial light and pictures. I see how you carry with you small devices into which you speak or type in small messages—to whom are you speaking when you speak into these talismans? Are you speaking to your ancestors long since past? Or are your gods small enough to fit in the palm of your hands? Are these prayers you pray as you withdraw from the people right before you and stand far away from them to offer your acts of devotion? Others of you have larger altars of lighted pictures. I see how you give them central places in your living spaces. What a strange power they have over you that they draw your attention away from even your own family. Are these your household idols? In the altar’s windows people emerge and talk, they seem to want to tell you what to think, what to want, what to say, what to buy. It seems that you follow these teachers religiously for I see you buy what they tell you to buy, and repeat to one another the things you’ve heard them say, and I assume you think as they teach you to think. You seem surrounded by the altars of so many gods and you seem to run yourselves into the ground trying to please them all. I have seen some of you with your hands bound to your altars. Something has trapped your hands so that you are driven to form words on the screens of your altars. What happens to all these words? Who receives these prayers?

My background is one that condemns all idols. They have no hearts nor do they grant freedom. I was raised to see objects as created things and not the creator. It seems to me that idols and objects of devotion keep you enslaved to rituals that do not renew your spirits. They seem to bring you fatigue and separate you from each other.

I went around the corner from your place of worship and there I encountered the thinkers of your university. I met some who seem to believe that human life exists because of a natural chance. They remind me of the Epicureans I’ve encountered in other places. They seem to believe that human happiness can be achieved through the escape from fear and the superstitions of religion. They discipline themselves so that they can live the ideal life of tranquility without being terrorized by pain or poverty, loss or attack. They see the “unfailing spring of happiness in friendship” (F. W. Beare, Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, E-J p. 123). They gather together in groups of friends and they join together in gardens and laugh with each other, eat with one another, support and encourage each other. They find within the lives they share with each other the fullest expression of happiness. Their gods seem to be faint pictures of happiness and tranquility, far off like fantasy tales. But, they do not believe in the possibility of a personal relationship with a god who talks with them. I have tried to speak to them about the one I have come to know in a personal way. But I don’t think they understand what I’m saying. Though they have asked me to talk more about it some other time.

There are some older members of the university community who are a bit more private. They invest almost all their time in the examination of facts. They seem guided by “hard rational principles and analytical observations and careful reasoning” (Wall, NIB, X, p. 244). They seem to see everything as containing the divine presence. They emphasize the importance of duty and measure duty by the fulfilling the assignments given to them and the assignments they give to others. They place a premium on virtue—on self-discipline and perseverance in creating intentional thinking and behavior. They seem to invest themselves in understanding, predicting and controlling the rules which govern the world and have divided this task up into areas of specialization—the physical world to the engineers, the social world to the government, economists and police; the bodies of people to medicine; and the aesthetic world to the arts. They seem to want a god who can also be completely understood, explained and controlled. I have tried to speak to them, also, about the one I have come to know in a personal way. But I don’t think they understand me either.

As I watch you, you also seem to be like them in many ways. Some of you invest a great deal of time and energy in being together, caring for each other and encouraging one another. You are to be commended for the community you share. Yet, even here God seems to some of you to be the portrait of ideal friendship and not actually your living, active friend. Others of you respond in more stoic fashion. You look for the clearest, most rational explanation. Your god seems to have a great mind but an absent heart. Here again, I commend you for your commitment to thought and to using the reason God has entrusted to you. But God is more than a theory. God invites us into relationship.

And so as I wander about among you who live there in Arlington it seems to me that you are indeed devoted to so many things. But if I may ask what receives your ultimate devotion? Superstitions and religiosity keep us captive through mindless rituals and paranoid fear. Technology seems to promise freedom but it has more certainly enslaved the bodies, hearts and minds of your generation. I fear that you do not realize just how captive you are to the altars of light, sound, and virtual emotions that you have created for yourselves. The world is bigger than your three inch cell-phone screen, or 14 inch computer screen or 50 inch television screen. Relationships with other people, though good and blessed, can be dangerous if they receive your ultimate devotion. The young people at the University may not have discovered this quite yet but surely many of you have—people will fail you at some point. Because we are human we will hurt each other in some of the most profound ways. The same is true for our ideas and our ideologies. Human minds are amazing creations but—like all things human—they are fallible, vulnerable to deception and error. Any intellectual system has its limits. Those limits enslave us if they receive our ultimate devotion.

But I see that there in the center of your worship space you have a table set in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. Perhaps you know of whom I speak, or perhaps he is one who comes to you as “Unknown.” But I wish to make known to you what I know of the One present at this table. You see, I was once a prisoner to a system of hatred and antagonism. I believed that my way was absolutely right and that I possessed the truth. I had done everything right, I believed. I lived up to the exact standards of my philosophy. I was such a strong believer in my system that I participated in hurting those who disagreed with me. I sought them out and tormented them. Then one day I had an encounter with the Crucified and Risen One. I was confronted with the prison I had chosen to live inside. I saw the chains of self-righteousness that shackled my heart. I imagined that God could be controlled, God could fit in the palm of my hand. But all my attempts to control God, manipulate God, were confronted one day. The Crucified and Risen one blinded me physically in order to help me see how I had distorted what God was all about. The religiosity that I thought I controlled really controlled me.

The Crucified and Risen One, the One whose table is in your worship space, revealed to me the freedom he came to bring. Indeed, there is one of your own writers who has written about freedom in a remarkable way—William Paul Young, I believe. In his book The Shack he writes about a man named Mackenzie who encounters the Trinity in much the same way I encountered the Crucified and Risen one on a Road to Damascus. He has written, “The truth shall set you free and the Truth has a name . . . Everything is about him. And freedom is a process that happens inside a relationship with him. Then all the stuff you feel churnin’ around inside will start to work its way out.” And elsewhere he has written, “Life and living is in him and in no other. Religion is about having the right answers, and some of their answers are right. But God is about the process that takes you to the living answer and once you get to him, he will change you from the inside.” Throughout this remarkable story God time and again reminds Mackenzie that faith in the Crucified and Risen One is not about religion its about a relationship. In that relationship we have freedom. That living answer is the Crucified and Risen one who came to me and set me free. And even though I’ve been in physical jails, prisons, and chains since that time, I know that I am free because I can freely choose to love God, worship God, trust God and obey God. My life emerges from the freedom to choose God and my free choice to follow God gives me my freedom from everything else that might enslave me.

We have the freedom to accept the relationship and the freedom to reject the relationship. Only, what I have discovered the hard way is this—when we reject the relationship that’s offered to us we reject the freedom as well. For there’s a longing within us for God that we will try to fill with other things—relationships, technology, entertainment, and even religion itself. But all these other things—though good when in proper perspective—make lousy gods. Idolatry binds us to hopeless cycles. Idols are the things we create and then give our ultimate devotion. They are limited because we are limited and they come from us. Those limitations will enslave us if we let them.

The Crucified and Risen One points us away from giving created things our Ultimate Devotion and bids us make the Creator the end of our ultimate devotion. I once spoke at the Areopagean Philosophical Society in Athens and there I said it this way, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands—nor computers, televisions or cell phones. And he is not served by human hands as though he needed anything. God gives to everyone life and breath and everything else. God did this so that we would seek God and perhaps reach out for God and find God, though he is not far from each one of us. In God we live, and move, and have our being. In God we are set free from slavery and made heirs and children.” The Crucified and Risen One, the Living Answer, the One to whom your table belongs is Jesus Christ. Jesus is the truth and following his truth means finding your freedom.

Well, as you might imagine, my speech the Areopagean Philosophical Society didn’t go very well. I’m afraid that Jesus cannot be explained; He must be experienced. But the experience is more than worth it—it is the path and way to freedom. I hope you may experience it my friends at First Christian Church, Arlington, for you are freely loved and given freedom that you might love God freely. Greet one another in love for me.

Your Friend.

Second Sermon in The Shack Series

Exodus 34:5-8
A Piece of Pi

I feel a bit like the the announcer from the old Saturday morning Western the Lone Ranger: When we last saw our hero . . . In this case, “our hero” is Mac the main character in William Young’s novel The Shack. For the next few weeks, we are using The Shack as a helpful illustration of some biblical truths. When we last saw our hero, Mac, he had been invited back to the shack—the place of the worst event in his life, the abduction and murder of his youngest child three years prior to the start of the story. He’s been invited back by “Papa,” his wife’s name for God. And reluctantly he returns and discovers the Trinity waiting for him there. Over the course of the weekend, he has a remarkable encounter with Papa—God the father disguised as an African American woman, Saryu—the Holy Spirit in the appearance of an Indian woman, and Jesus Christ. Much of the story revolves around cooking and eating.

The chapter entitled “A Piece of Pi” begins that way. Mac was convinced to stay and begins his weekend with the Trinity by finding Papa cooking the Shack’s kitchen which has been converted and decorated by the presence of the divine. “God,” Mac called rather timidly and feeling more than a little foolish,” “I’m in the kitchen, Mackenzie, just follow my voice.” He discovers Papa listening to interesting music which she describes, “West Coast Juice. Group called Diatribe and an album that isn’t even out yet called Heart Trip. Actually, these kids haven’t been born yet.” She describes the music as “Eurasian funk and blues with a message and a great beat.” Mac responds by saying that the music doesn’t sound very religious and that he would have imagined God listening to George Beverly Shea or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—churchy music. Papa responds, “You don’t have to be lookin’ out for me. I listen to everying—and not just the music itself, but the hearts behind it.” Then Papa responds with one of the singature lines from the book, “I’m especially fond of those boys.” As the story unfolds, the reader discovers that Papa is especially fond of a number of people.

It’s a beautiful way to describe the love of God. We talk so much about “the love of God” that I think sometimes the phrase looses it’s meaning. People can speak of the Love of God and still retain images of God that are harsh, unforgiving, bitter, and sadistic. To think of a God who is “especially fond” of you and me and indeed all those whom God has created expresses something more elegant about the tenderness, affection and desire God has toward us.

Our scripture reading from Exodus this morning may also need a “When we last saw our hero.” While Moses was on Sinai, the Israelites whom God had delivered from slavery in Egypt made a Golden Calf and worshiped it. In Anger, Moses broke the tablets of law that the Lord had given him. But in compassion for his people Moses returned to God and pleaded for forgiveness. God led them away from Sinai but continued to communicate with Moses in the tent of meeting, the Tabernacle. Chapter 33 says that God used to speak with Moses as one speaks to a friend (vs. 10). In this time of communion with God, Moses asked to see the Lord’s face. God gently refused for no one can see God, he said, and live. But he allowed Moses to see his back. And as the Lord passed before him, God proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.” Some regard that closing statement as evidence of God’s essential judgmentalism. But notice the comparison that God’s graciousness and forgiveness extends to a thousand generations and judgment lasts three or four generations. The emphasis is that God prefers love to judgment a thousand to four.

The point of this brief statement is that the basic nature of God is love. Old Testament scholar refers to the declaration in Exodus 34:6-7 as perhaps the closest thing the Old Testament has to a creed—a statement about the nature of God that is repeated throughout the faith life of the Old Testament people. By my count, reference is made back to these words at least thirteen times throughout the Old Testament [Numbers 14:17-19; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 85:10-13; Psalm 86:5, 19; Psalm 103:8; Psalm 145:8, Isaiah 54:9-10; Jeremiah 32:18; Lamentations 3:18-24; Hosea 2:19-20; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1;3]. Sometimes, the emphasis is indeed on God’s capacity for judgment however, most often it is a reference to God’s graciousness and love. For those of you who find The Shack a little too touchy feely, or artsy fartsy, or undefined. I would recommend a book edited by Evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock entitled The Openness of God. The Open View of God espoused by this group of writers is deeply committed to biblical authority but offers a challenge to traditional understandings of God. The “traditional” image of God that they challenge is the image of God as one who controls everything and that already knows the outcome of every decision and that is unfeeling and unchanged by the actions of God’s people. This image of God, they painstakingly explain, emerges not so much from the biblical witness about God but more so from Greek philosophical influence on God. It is a Greek cosmology that assumes that for God to be “all-powerful” God must also be unemotional and unchanging and unchangeable.

In contrast, they say that “power” is not the biblical witness as the foremost attribute of God. They write, “The view of God and his relation to the world presented in this book . . . expresses two basic convictions: love is the most important quality we attribute to God and love is more than care and commitment; it involves being sensitive and responsive as well. These convictions lead the contributors to this book to think of god’s relation to the world in dynamic rather than static terms.” (The Openness of God, p. 15). The love of God leaves God open to influence God’s creatures but also to be influenced by us. In contrast to seeing history and the future as the unfolding of a divinely predetermined script, “History” they declare, “is the combined result of what God and his creatures decide to do.” The open view of God appeals to me for a number of reasons. It is not “liberal theology” which doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers other people. Liberal theologians have much to teach all of us if we will set aside the biases that labels generate for us. But, I am personally too bound to biblical authority to place myself within that camp of theologians. The open view of God is written by others who regard scripture as the ultimate authority for faith and practice. But staying with that framework, they also regard much of what we have inherited as not a truly biblical image of God but rather the influence of surrounding culture. The world only thinks in terms of power over—the Supreme Being must be one with Superior power. Within the Kingdom of God, we think in terms of ultimate love where the Supreme being Superior power. This reassessment of our image for God has profound implications for how we practice our faith and understand faith.

Pi or π is a symbol for the number 3.14159. and is a ration of a circles circumference to is radius—hence Circumference = pi times radius square. OR πr2. But the “A Piece of Pi” is a play on words. Pi is one of the most important mathematical concepts. But Pie is one of the most important culinary concepts. Without PIE there’d by no Pecan Pie, Apple Pie, Coconut Cream Pie, and no quiche. The play on words is a reference to attempts to explain the doctrine of the Trinity in terms of mathematics or geometry or chemistry. The doctrine of the Trinity is Christian theology’s attempt to understand God as both one and three—there is one God that is the central belief of Christian faith as a faith that belongs to the streams of monotheistic religion. Yet, we speak of God as manifested in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. We have tried over the years to explain this in terms of chemistry—Water can be solid ice, gaseous steam, and liquid—one substance in three forms. St. Patrick was famous for using a clover to explain the doctrine of the trinity. But ultimately all the analogies drawn from chemistry or geometry begin to break down. They may explain the “how” of a Trinitarian conception but they do not explain the why.

The why is understood best in terms of Love. Before God created us to be loved, God had a love within God’s self. As Mac asks God, “What difference does it make that there are three of you, and you are all one God. Did I say that right?”
“Right enough.” She grinned, “Mackenzie, it makes all the difference in the world. We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father, and worker. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of three is fully and entirely one. If I were simply One God and only One Person, then you would find yourself in this Creation without something wonderful, without something essential even. And I would be utterly other than I am” Mack asks, “And we would be without . . . .?”
“Love” Papa responds.
“Unless I had an object to love—or more accurately, a someone to love—if I did not have such a relationship within myslef, then I would not be capable of love at all. You would have a god who could not love. Or maybe worse, you would have a god who, when he chose, could only love as a limitation of his nature. That kind of god could not possibly act without love, and that would be a disaster. And that, is surely not me” (p. 102).

Young narrates here an Augustinian understanding of the Trinity. Augustine spoke of God the Father as the Lover, God the Son as the Loved, and God the Spirit as the Love that Spirit as the Love that is shared between them. By creating the world through the Son, God creates the world in love. And by sending the Son to the World, God enfolds us in God’s love. The Doctrine of the Trinity is not Christian divine chemistry or geometry. It is Christianity’s way of singing the old, old song, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and faithfulness.”

First Sermon in “Messages from the Shack”

About a year ago, I posted a few critical posts about William P. Young’s book The Shack. I said then how much I really appreciated the book but needed to get some ideas out before being more constructive. Well, here is the first of four sermons I preached this month as a way of addressing the book in more constructive fashion.

Voice of a Nova
Isaiah 55:6-9; Exodus 20:1-7

This week, I have been at Niners Camp. I was keynoting. Keynoting is when you’re the preacher for the week. But preacher has a bad connotation so we call it keynoting. At this camp, I spoke twice a day. That’s roughly equivalent to 10 sermons in one week. Needless to say, I borrow pretty generously from sermons I preached here and yes, our youth did call me on those. During one of the keynotes, I asked the niners to write down words associated with, descriptions of and names for God. Then I talked about how our words associated with, descriptions of and names for God fall into two big categories—BIG WORDS, NAMES, AND DESCRIPTIONS for God and NEAR WORDS, NAMES and DESCRITIONS for God. In academic theology, we would call “Big” words for God “Transcendent.” They are words like Almighty God, omniscient, omnipotent, Lord. Near words for God we would call “immanent.” These are words like “Father,” “Love,” and “Sustainer.” So, they had their list of words and I asked them to write a “B” beside all their “big/transcendent” words and and “N” beside their “near/immanent” words.

In our scripture reading from Isaiah this morning, we have both the Big God and Near God portrayed. This section of Isaiah is often called “Deutero-Isaiah.” The whole book of Isaiah has sixty-six chapters just like the Bible has sixty-six books. And there’s a definite shift between chapter 39 and chapter 40 just as there is a break between the first thirty-nine books of the Bible—called the Old Testament and the later 27 books of the Bible called the New Testament. In the first part of Isaiah, the work addresses those whose future looks bleak because they are on the verge of the Babylonian captivity and dealing with the moral-political crises that preceded the deportation caused by the Babylonians. But much time separates the address of Isaiah chapters 1-39 and the address of Isaiah 40-66. These later chapters address those who are already “captives” in Babylon and seeks to give them hope, reassurance of God’s love, and a call to repentance as their way forward and out of captivity. One of the themes emphasized in Deutero-Isaiah is the theme of the word of God which is understood not so much as a written word of God but rather God’s intention lived out in the might deeds of God. This is the theme in Isaiah 55 where Isaiah declares the word of the Lord is like rain that comes down from heaven and brings life. The word will accomplish what God intends for the word to accomplish.

The big God, whose word formed the world and whose word delivered the people. This big God will draw near and forgive. This big God will draw near and be found. “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;” God will abundantly pardon. Pardoning is something God does to draw near to us but abundantly pardoning is what a a Big and Near God does. Yet this near God remains the God whose thoughts are not our thoughts, whose ways are not our ways, who is as beyond us as the utter reaches of the universe are beyond us. So the youth were writing these descriptions of God and labeling their words “B” or big or “N” for near. And as they were doing this, one of the youth blurted out, “What if all my words are “Big” words for God. Hopefully, I suggested to her that she borrow some “near” words for God from a neighbor. Our language for God needs both “big” images for God. If we have only “near” images for God we run the risk for forgetting God’s authority and our need to obey. God’s might and our need to revere. If we have only “big” images for God we run the risk of neglecting God’s love which is his ultimate description and we may not come close to God to reach for God and find God which is why God created us in the first place. Only a near God can hear you cry in captivity in your Babylonian captivity. Only a big God can do anything about it.

Yet so often, our language for God gets bogged down in our favorite words and images for God. We develop patterns and habits and speak of the Lord in redundant terminology. Habits of speech reflect habits of the mind. Change some of your speech habits and you change the way you think about something. I believe this, by the way, about other things if you will intentionally seek out new language describe things with which you think you are already familiar, you will find new insights and new knowledge in the process. Your family, or your finances, or your career, or your artwork, or your music or whatever see what happens. How do you see your children differently if you speak of them as your grandchildren’s parents? How do you see your friends differently if you speak of them in terms of someone’s son or daughter. Change the habits of your language and you will change the habits of your thoughts.

That may or may not be helpful to you in relation to those other areas of your life. But rethinking the habits of our mind is essential in relation to God. We read Exodus 20:1-7, the first three commandments in the Ten Commandments. These four commandments deal with how we understand God, speak of God, relate to God. They could be summed up like this: Don’t treat God’s authority, God’s name or God’s image as YOUR property. They belong to God and God alone. This includes the way God is understood in your own mind. It includes the way that God is spoken of in your own speech—even within your mind, even within your speech, the words you use for God the thoughts you have about God belong to God. And the God proclaimed in the Ten Commandments says you don’t get to settle on one image for me—an idol, a limited set of descriptions, a small-sighted vocabulary—and say, “that’s it, I’ve got a complete handle on God.” Stretching our images and understanding of God is not just for young people. It is an act of obedience to the God who delivered us and who has declare I will not allow you to narrow my scope. My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts.

This Sunday, we begin a sermon series entitled “Messages from The Shack.” The Shack is a book by William Paul Young. The author himself has six grown children. His wife repeatedly urged him to write down his theology for his kids. He didn’t quite know how to do it. He is not a professional theologian or even a paid minister. He is a man who was hurt very deeply and painfully as a child. He is a man who hurt someone very deeply and painfully as an adult. He’s a man who has been forgiven by the one he hurt and has learned to forgive those who hurt him. And so rather than try to explain all that in complex academic theological language. Young decided to write a story about a man who has five children. His main character is a man named Mac and unlike Young whose pain and mistakes were stretched out over decades. Mac’s pain is compressed into a few years. While on a camping trip out in the wilderness, Mac’s youngest child, Missy, is abducted and after a lengthy search she is presumed dead. Young’s own pain and sin do not revolve around an abduction so there are many things about the sorrow of loosing a child that Young’s novel does not address nor really understand. But it does a wonderful job addressing issues of rebuilding ones life in the face of evil done to and evil done by a human.

Three years after the abduction and death, Mac is invited back to the scene of the abduction, a place in the wilderness that looks like a Shack—hence the name the Shack. The “invitation” is strange and cryptic and unsettling. It comes in the mail during a Montana snow storm when no mail was being delivered. It comes from one “Papa” which is the name that Mac’s wife Nan uses to describe God. After deep inner-turmoil, fears that he might be being set up by Missy’s murderer, and some soul-searching, Mac decides to accept the invitation. When he arrives there, he encounters the Trinity. Papa—God the father, appears to him as a larger African American woman with a deep laugh, a healing hug, a hug tenderness, and scars on her hands and feet. God the son is what you might expect—Jesus Christ wearing Jeans and a flannel shirt. The Holy Spirit appears as one Saryu. She appears as a woman from India. And the name she goes by is Saryu which is a word from one of the languages spoken in India that means the wind. It is the sort of wind that catches you by surprise and refreshes you. One of the hurdles that readers have to get past in reading The Shack and receiving it is that it presents images for God that most of us have not pondered before. But in one important scene, Young helpfully narrates that these are only the images of God that Mac needed at the time. They are, in truth, the images Young needed in his moment of need. They are not meant to hardened and formed into absolutes any more than any other image for God should be used as an absolute image for God.

Papa explains to Mac that given his own tortured, tormented relationship to his father had God the Father come tom Mac as a masculine Father image, Mac would not have been able to accept God and relate to God. Indeed, Mac came from an abusive relationship with his father. One he ran away from when he was just fourteen years old. The healing for Macs heart and spirit needed to begin with a new way of thinking about God a new way of understanding and responding to God. Books like the The Shack are invitations for us to rethink our understanding of God. They are opportunities for us to consider the images, and language for God.

In this church, from time to time, the discussion has been had about our over-dependence on “Father” as a name for God—particularly in our prayers. We who pray in public for the whole congregation have a responsibility not only to consider our language but the language that we use as a whole people. When we rely to heavily on a limited number of descriptions for God we unintentionally limit the congregation’s perception of God. The repeated description of God as “Father” is deeply painful for some who have difficult relationships or pasts with their father. It is problematic because Father is a masculine term and God is both masculine and feminine. In the opening chapter of Genesis the book explains, that God created us in God’s own image—male and female. God’s own image Genesis 1:26 explains, is both male and female. Our language needs to expand to make room for the breadth of God. I want to try to stress this point. On July 4th, when we have been celebrating our Nations freedom and Independence. It is easy for us to get sidetracked by this conversation and think it has something to do with politics or pushing a theological agenda. It is not for me something that is born out of political correctness. It is for me a deeply personal journey and understanding. The reason I try to avoid referring to God as “He” is not because I’m worried about offending people. The fact is I know quite well that my efforts not to refer to God as “He” offend people. I’m not trying to offend but I know that it’s uncomfortable for people. But my own journey grew—painfully and fitfully but fruitfully—when I changed the language I use to describe God. We use “he” “she” and “it” to describe things that belong to this world and that God as one who created all the “hes” “shes” and “its.” But God God’s self is not created. Creation does not contain the creator; the creator contains creation. And so I tried to convert my language to reflect the radical otherness, the bigness, the not bound by creation-ness of God by shifting my language for God.

Now, I just told you that this was not political so it may be odd for me to conclude with a reference to our founding political document. But, I believe the constitution of the United States is one of the truly great documents in human history. Rarely, if ever, has human history seen a situation where a people won their independence through war and did not subsequently dissolve into violence. Because of the steadfast, humble, and wise actions of our nations founders, the United States stands as a rare exception to the human tendency. Similarly, when governments organize themselves they tend to want to accumulate as much power for themselves. But when our constitution was formed, the final words were words that limited the government’s power—it’s that miraculous portion of the Constitution called The Bill of Rights. The first of which says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The freedom of religion—the first right guaranteed; freedom of speech and writing, and assembly, and protest. They belong together. The framers themselves understood the connection between how we practice our faith and how we speak. How we relate to God and how we gather with others. They protected all of that in what might generally be described as the Freedom of the Mind, the Freedom of the Spirit. The Constitution expresses our collective desire to protect a Freedom that emerges from God’s own character—God has given us freedom to think and speak in flexible ways because God God’s self is flexible and expansive. Ever willing to draw near to us but never willing to be contained by us. Amen.