Drawn Into Relationship – Week 1

A path through the woods…. I cannot see where it will lead.
Holden Village, 2010
Psalm 10:1 “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”

On Sunday, February 10th, I led the first class at my church in a six-week series on the topic of my thesis. For those who could not attend but are interested in what we talked about… here you are!

We started by discussing the importance of the question “Who is God?” (also see my blog post here). This is an important question to consider; it impacts how we see and treat others, and ourselves. When I ask you to picture God, what words come to mind?

I wrote my thesis at a period in which I was having a crisis of faith. I could not understand how God could allow suffering, though I’m definitely not the first to ask this. My lament is an echo of the verse above from the psalms. Theodicy is a term that describes trying to reconcile an understanding of an all-present, all-knowing, all-loving God with the presence of suffering. It is a heavy question with no good or easy answer. Because of my doubts and frustration, I wanted to walk away from the church and my faith, but I was drawn back. This is why I titled my thesis “Drawn into Relationship.”

After a year’s leave of absence I returned to my studies. I was inspired to wrestle through my doubts by several theologians who went before me (some of their books are listed here).

Jewish writer Elie Wiesel and Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer experienced the holocaust in very personal ways. Both were sent to concentration camps, and Bonhoeffer was hung at Flossenbürg in 1945. For them, God is present, even in the midst of the horrors. God is with those who suffered and died, even though God didn’t rush in triumphantly to “save the day.” Bonhoeffer’s theology can be described by the category of “political theology”. (Just as there are different genres of literature, or areas of science, so it is with theology).

Liberation theology was sparked by political theology and the civil rights movements of the 60s. Liberation theology emerged in the catholic church in 1971 in Latin America out of the atrocities and extreme poverty present there. People of faith struggled with the question of “Where is God” in the midst of oppression, violence and suffering. The answer was “on the side of the poor.” God’s preferential option for the poor was traced throughout scripture and the numerous references towards giving to the poor, caring for the orphan and widow, etc. Jon Sobrino is one of the theologians I studied. He is a Jesuit working out of El Salvador. I can relate to his emphasis on orthopraxis (doing the right thing, caring for others, working for the kingdom of God) vs. orthodoxy (believing the correct doctrine). God doesn’t rush in to save the day and end poverty and oppression; that is our job.

Black theology emerged in the United States as a means of answering the question of “Where is God” in the midst of the experience of African-Americans. James H. Cone is an influential theologian who argued that God is with those in exile, with those who suffer, and will never abandon them. Using the biblical story of the exodus as a starting point, Cone (like Sobrino) looked at the question of God from the point of view of cultural context. How does being black in the United States, or being poor in El Salvador impact how one sees God? Where we are in life, our experiences, whether we are subject to oppressive systems, all impact our understanding of God and our role in the world.

Me? I am a straight white female with a graduate degree and a decent job. I cannot theologize from the point of view of the Peruvian farmer or the African-American inner-city youth. I cannot claim to have the same experience of church as my LGBT friends. Cone warns me not to identify too closely with those who are oppressed, for then we miss seeing our own privilege and responsibility to act. However, I can talk about God from the perspective of a woman who struggles with depression and anxiety, who tries to manage my doubts and is frustrated by injustice.

Informed by theologians such as Bonhoeffer, Sobrino and Cone, and from my own context, and yours, the trajectory of class for the next five weeks will be to look at the passion of Jesus (events leading to his death and resurrection) in the gospel of Luke. We will be trying to see what the Bible tells us about who God is in the midst of our own context, be it from a point of crisis or calm.

I chose to focus on the gospel of Luke because it is my favorite. I love the themes of hospitality, restoration, and wholeness. I enjoy the story of the promises of God starting with Israel, finding fulfillment in Jesus, and going out to the ends of the earth. I love the emphasis on Jesus reaching out to the lost and the least. Do you have a favorite gospel?

To get us warmed up in looking at what the Bible can tell us about who God is, we looked at two passages in Luke: the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 and the reading from the scroll in the temple in Luke 4:16-30. Do these verses speak to you? What do you hear in them? Do you have a favorite verse that helps you understand who God is?

God of us all, We do not and cannot know who you are fully. There is so much we may not understand about the world, especially the presence of suffering. Stick with us in our questions. Hear us when we shout our angry frustrations at you. Draw us back into relationship with you, if that is what we seek. Help us to stand with those who are oppressed and work for justice, even if we don’t all believe the same thing. Remind us that you love us all, no matter what. Thanks, and Amen.

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