A Beggar God
For most people, one of the nagging questions about God is what in the world is God doing? Where is God in all of this that I see around me?
Sometimes I’m convinced that we have the answer to that that question all wrong.
I recall the hours and days following the tragedy of September 11, 2001. I was a first year seminarian and life stood still in those moments. There were prayer services and days of lament (how could this happen?), an increase in attendance in houses of worship, a seemingly collective and united turn towards the divine in order to make sense of what had happened. For just a moment, we all gathered together around a common need to grieve, to mourn, trying to understand what was happening. Children and adults, young and old, men and women, we all turned and gathered in common need and supplication.
These are the images that came to mind when I read the words from the prophet Joel:
Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing…Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children.
I’m not agreeing in any way that 9/11 was punishment from God. The actions that the prophet calls the people of Judah to are very reminiscent of what occurred here in the United States in the weeks following the fall of the World Trade Center. The question for us in the midst of the brokenness of New York, Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, and countless other places is “What is God doing?”
Immediately following our national tragedies, without fail some religious leader will put their foot in their mouth. Or rather I wish they would because what they say often is so hurtful. They boldly proclaim to know God’s heart, to have God’s ear, and to speak with God’s voice. Punishment, they say! See what you’ve done, see how God has responded. Repent!
The longer I live, the more I believe we have that all wrong. Sure the prophet calls for a collective and united turn towards the LORD their God, to come together, the aged and the children, even the infants. The tragedy that is on the horizon in the form of an advancing army is one that threatens everyone, and thus everyone should assemble before the LORD. And if I look for God in all of that, I think I find a God who is willing, reluctantly and brokenheartedly, to leave us to our own devices. Our own guilt, our own stain, our fallen, warring, hating nature.
And I reach the conclusion, “Don’t blame God. Own up to who we are.”
Joel calls for communal faith to be enacted, for the people to come together, to seek God’s presence as one assembly. John Wesley said, “There is no such thing as a solitary religion.” It is only together that true faith can be lived out.
So that’s where we seem to have it most wrong.
Too often Lenten observance becomes an individual thing: what am I going to give up for Lent? How is my heart before God this Lenten season?
Really? You and I, we’re going to do something for God? So you decide to give up chocolate or soft drinks. I’m not sure God cares at all about chocolate or coca cola. I once told my wife that I was going to give up chocolate for Lent. She said, “That’s stupid! You don’t even chocolate.”
But to restrict Lent to individual piety is to miss the words from the prophet Joel, that true repentance is something done together and perhaps even more significantly that repentance hinges on God and God’s response.
We are symbolically moving into a time of calamity and tragedy, where we remember the dark days of Jesus’ life and ministry as we move from the mount of Transfiguration this past Sunday to the mount of Calvary on Good Friday. We are entering the valley, beginning our journey towards the cross.
And theologically, what is occurring in this season is a result of our choices: our refusal to be redeemed, our refusal to treat each other with love and dignity, our inability to love God and each other fully and completely, our rejection of God’s Kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim in favor of our own fiefdoms.
Yet what we meant for evil, God used for good. The One we thought was destroyed through our violence was exalted in glory.
The day of the LORD is near, a “day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (2:2). The shadows of Lent are coming upon us, preparing us for the new light and life of Easter.
So call a fast! Assemble the people! Sanctify the congregation! Let us come together!
For Lent is here; may we weep for our brokenness as individuals and as communities. May we cry out for mercy, we who are loved but struggle to love in return. May we, in our ashes of mourning, repent and turn again to the God of our Salvation.
And in our weeping, mourning, and fasting, may we once again discover the God who loves us so, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Our beggar God, pleading with us to return.
Lent is not about what we will do, although actions of contrition and honest examination of our lives certainly can’t hurt.
Lent is what God is doing, how God is relentlessly pursuing us, hoping and planning for our return. Knowing that we have failed and will fail again, but that God will be faithful, even on God’s hands and knees. The irony is that while God doesn't need us but still wants us, we desperately need God but don't really want Him most of the time. He treasures us and anticipates our departure from this earth to be with Him-and we wonder, indifferently, how much we have to do for Him to get by.
Return to me, says the beggar God. Please, please…please.