If we want to know who God is, one important place to go is to look at who God has been. Much like we think back on our childhood and reflect on our sibling relationships and how our parents treated us. Looking back is an important window at understanding who we are now.
Of all the choices we have to make about the character of God, this seems to be the easiest. Emphasis on the seems.
Because we can all agree on our history, right?
And yet, this era of intense debate and disagreement isn’t all bad. Our skepticism of institutions and expertise has given us a new opportunity to examine our history. And to make more compelling arguments.
Most of all, this time in which deconstruction is something close to normal, many of us feel like we are waking up from a lifelong dream. Or we have friends and neighbors asking the same questions out loud we’ve kept to ourselves for decades.
Questions which festered and ate at our souls, but now, out in the open, are bringing health and wholeness to our lives in ways we haven’t known before.
And ultimately, this pursuit will reveal a healthier God.
What parts of history are important?
In making choices about who we believe God is, we are attempting to pursue understanding and relationship. But who are we seeking? We have made choices of who we think that is. We’ve decided what we think God wants. Now let’s look at what God’s action in the world tell us. What are the touchstones for understanding?
Here are ten stories which help me see God’s activity in the world throughout our history. They aren’t the only stories. But these are the stories which shaped our faith the most. How might you tell these stories?
1. The Back Story
Told like an origin story, the calling of Abraham and the rise of the Patriarchs is both foundational and mythic in scope. It is big, bold, and broad. But the message throughout is the faithfulness of God, through Abraham’s Yes Man persona and Jacob’s Trickster. Captured in the book of Genesis, our faith’s Back Story captures God’s faithfulness better than any other.
2. The Origin Story
The true origin story is the Exodus: when God liberates the Hebrew people from exile in Egypt. It is a story of faithfulness and freedom, as the people struggle with the freedom God has given them. And God remains with them in a physical form, watching, protecting, guiding, and supporting them in the wilderness.
3. The Leadership Story
In the midst of the Origin Story, God gives the people guidance on how to build a new kind of society. One which would support everyone. A society that would restrict our impulses to hurt each other while embracing the ideals of love, commitment, and forgiveness.
Well, the people pretty well sucked at that. So they asked for leaders to tell them what to do. And God resisted. The blessed community is better. But they pushed and pushed, so God gave them Judges. That worked for awhile, but they wanted an authoritarian dictator to keep up with the Joneses. So God gave them kings.
4. The Exile Story
Over the course of nearly 5 centuries the people had just 1 great king. They had a couple decent kings, but on the whole, the kings were a disaster. The kingdom, unified under David, split and were soon destroyed.
The Babylonians sacked the remaining kingdom, Judah, and took half of the people into Exile.
But, it is in Exile that the people discover a new relationship with God. Of a God present with them in the Exile, not just at the one, truly holy place. They wrote new and collated old scriptures. New inspiration came from the midst of tragedy. And ultimately, new liberation.
5. The Messiah Story
Five centuries later, a new liberation story. A man named Jesus walks, heals, teaches, and works wonders in the midst of the Hebrew people. His followers come to see him as more than a prophet or a divine teacher or a new king, but as The King, the new David.
6. The Negotiation Story
Jesus’s life, teaching, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension have given generations much to wrestle with. His nature, goals, and how he fits into the grand cosmic arc.
But the hard work of mutual respect for difference falls away as a unity (or is it uniformity?) in understanding is sought. And centuries of Jesus Wars follow. What began as an attempt to name God’s work in Jesus became a muddle of tyranny and infighting. And yet glimpses of heartfelt negotiation are visible.
7. The Mystical Story
In the midst of the Negotiation Story is also the collapse of the Roman Empire and the devolving relationships between people in general. While the world’s bishops divide the faith in the Jesus Wars, the monastics and mystics save it. They build communities and share sacred revelation. God speaks through art and poetry and holy worship in outposts and small communities. In these spaces, lasting expressions of faith develop and mature.
8. The Divorce Story
In 1054 the church splits in half. The final straw is Rome’s self-declared authority over the church. Here we see echoes of the Leadership Story return as many want a singular person to just tell them what to do and think. But not all. Not even most.
The split remains. But as we examine the doctrinal arguments of the East and the West, a different picture emerges. One less of conflict and more like a fuller expression of God revealed in two flavors rather than in one.
9. The Splintering Story
The Great Reformation divided the church into its present denominationalism. Today we have thousands of different expressions of Christianity. Each gives the sense that whenever two Christians disagree about an idea, the best approach is to have two churches. Then each can worship in their own silo.
But there is something deeper in this story than the division. And it’s tied to the cultural events of the time.
In the Enlightenment, new discoveries about the world changed the landscape of understanding. The printing press put copies of Scripture into the average person’s hands for the first time. And the dramatic rise in literacy and personal incomes led to a liberalizing effect of culture and faith. People had new autonomy. And the faith began to resemble that revolution.
10. The Emerging Story
The Splintering Story of the Great Reformation ushered in unprecedented personal experience with faith. It put Scripture, prayer, and teaching into people’s homes and ushered in the rise of solo-faith and the personal Jesus.
It also changed the foundational story. A story of a whole people’s liberation became personal liberation. Christianity in Western culture was increasingly dominated by singular liberty.
In the Emerging Story, we’re seeing the rise of communities built from the wreckage of individual destruction. We’re seeing the crossing of denominational lines to build a more decent and merciful society. And even faithful people breaking the bounds of Christian community to effect positive growth and health of the people.
What I see in these 10 stories are
- Marks of human and divine connection.
- The challenge of our constant pursuit of what God really wants.
- The human attraction to power and control.
- A God who continues to be faithful in ways which are entirely undeserved.
- The active liberation of a people from oppression.
- And a God who gives us, not the blessing of freedom, but the challenge of freedom.
And I choose to see a way forward in greater connection, hope, and a widened sense of God’s work in the world.
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This is from a series on Choices. Check out more choices we’re invited to make!