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Grandfather God

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When I saw God
He had a long, white beard
And He’d bring me gifts
At the end of the year
But the big one comes
In the by and by
From the Santa Claus
Up in the sky
—Kurt Kaiser, Tell It Like It Is

How do you see God?

Still from Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Monty Python tapped into our collective view of God as a grumpy old man in the sky.

I can tell you how Anglo-American culture has depicted him. He’s an old man who lives in the sky surrounded by clouds and shining light. A few apparently see him as a doting grandfather who lets them do whatever they want but who takes a prurient interest in their sex lives. This God has a touch of dementia and sleeps most of the day. He’s kindly and permissive but also passive and weak. He may cheer you on, but he won’t offer any real help beyond time-worn platitudes and old stories about people who never had to deal with all the stress you have to deal with—a mortgage and a gay child and getting the recycling out on time.

We’ve also had the wise-old-man God who is slightly amused by our difficulties. This God looks like Morgan Freeman and treats us with professionalism and excellent customer care. He dresses impeccably and just quietly knows everything. He’s not bad as gods go but still a grandfatherly sort.

More common I think is the grumpy old man who watches you with critical vigilance, waiting for you to slip up. You will often find this God in Christian churches where his sternness helps keep everyone in line. Oh, not that anyone explicitly says that God is an angry grandfather, but when you hear about God’s wrath at sin and the horrible punishments he meted out to his own people, the Jews, it’s not hard to draw your own conclusions. Fortunately, this God is only angry with unbelievers. Believers get a pass because Jesus took their punishment himself. Jesus shields them from God’s wrath.

Strangely enough, Jesus endorses none of these views of God. He taught his disciples not that God was an angry grandfather but that he was a loving father. What if instead of peevish old grump, we saw God as a father in his 30s with young children? What if we imagined him down on all fours giving horsey rides to his kids, then picking them up, tossing them in the air, and catching them? What if God is young and full of life and laughter? What if he delights in his children? What if he longs for his lost children so much that he makes every effort to find them as Jesus says he does in Luke 15? This is the father Jesus tells us about, a father who loves you and delights in you, not a stern taskmaster nor a cruel tyrant nor a nitpicking judge, but a loving, joy-filled, life-affirming father who wants for you all that is best—all the intimacy of a lover, of family and friends that you long for.

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God’s Top Ten List

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The Ten Commandments are widely regarded as the foundation of Western jurisprudence. But they are also regarded as hopelessly archaic and old-fashioned. Some of them (Don’t murder. Don’t steal.) seem like common sense rules for people living in any kind of community. Others (Don’t commit adultery. Don’t desire what belongs to your neighbor.) seem to run counter to modern sensibilities. Still others (Don’t misuse God’s name. Don’t work on the Sabbath.) just seem pointless now. I propose taking a look at the Ten Commandments structured as a top-ten list, which allows me to start with number 10 and end with number 1.

The Ten Commandments are sometimes called the Decalogue, literally ten words. They were originally given to people who were mostly shepherds and nomads, without much use for the sort of tomes that get passed into law by Congress nowadays. They had to be succinct and clear. Most of them can be thought of as a two-word prohibition. Here they are rendered as briefly as I can:

  1. No other gods
  2. No images
  3. No misusing God’s name
  4. No work on Sabbath
  5. Honor parents
  6. No murder
  7. No adultery
  8. No stealing
  9. No lying
  10. No coveting

Of course, there’s a good deal more to the Law than this. There are regulations for all kinds of things, some with no discernible relation to these ten. (What possible reason could God have for prohibiting wearing clothes made from two different materials? Lev 19:19). Yet a good deal of the Law seems to be exposition of these ten. You can almost here the objections people have: “Is it murder if I accidentally kill someone in a fight when I was only trying to seriously injure him?” “Is it stealing to take something I find abandoned in a field, even if it’s not mine?” As soon as someone makes a law, someone else will be right there trying to find a loophole, and the law will get a little longer and a little harder to understand but hopefully more just. There will be judges whose job it is to interpret the law and determine whether a particular loophole is in keeping with the intent of the law. And the judges decisions will become precedents and affect how the law is interpreted going forward.

In fact, it was just this sort of process that culminated in a law so fraught with traditions and human interpretations that it was no longer recognizable, and Jesus rejected it and sought to cut through the layers of interpretation to the spirit of the Law. So he tells his followers that hatred is the equivalent of murder, that looking at a woman with lust is the equivalent of adultery, that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. Again and again he confronts the religious leaders who were condemning the poor while excusing their own violations of the law on technicalities. So I’m not much interested in the traditional interpretations of the commandments. I would like to get at the spirit behind them.

Next time, I’ll start with number 10: No coveting.

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Lucky

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I would like to reclaim luck.

There is a notion prevalent among evangelicals that Christians should never attribute their good fortune or success to luck but only to God’s blessing. I suspect that many would attribute luck—good or bad—to the devil. By good luck he further ensnares those who are already his and prevents their escape. By bad luck he discourages the faithful and tempts them to desert the way of life.

The bible, however, presents a different view. Even the terrible misfortunes that befall Job, though designed and executed by the devil, are nevertheless permitted by God. His religious friends are convinced that Job is guilty of some great wickedness. They accuse him of robbing widows, enslaving orphans, or getting his fortune by murder and deceit. No one, their reasoning goes, is that unlucky. Job, too, looks for some overarching reason behind his misery. He wants to confront God with his own innocence and insists on his own integrity even if he must die for it. Neither Job nor the friends seem aware of the role Satan has played, and the author does not recur to it at the end of the narrative, as if the devil’s part is not really important. In the bible God takes responsibility for everything. His blessings result in peace, well-being, and happiness. His curses result in disaster and misery.

For me the distinction between being lucky and being blessed is one of emphasis. If I attribute my success to luck, then I am saying that it was not primarily my doing. I merely took advantage of advantageous opportunities. If I attribute my success to being blessed, then I am saying that it was God’s doing, not mine. I am merely the recipient of God’s beneficence. The context determines whether I want to emphasize God’s agency.

One potential problem with emphasizing God’s agency in blessing is the tacit assumption some people will make that God’s blessing has somehow to be deserved. If I claim to be blessed, I may appear to be claiming some kind of special status with God due to moral superiority or holiness. To avoid such an appearance, I might just say, “I was lucky.”

A look comparing how often the phrases “so lucky” and “so blessed” occur over the past 200 years shows that “so blessed” tended to predominate in the 19th century, but “so lucky” surpassed it around the beginning of the 20th century and has remained ascendant since.

Google NGram Viewer "so blessed" vs. "so lucky"
Google NGram Viewer “so blessed” vs. “so lucky”
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