A Word About God
￼In the beginning... was God and that’s all there was.
The Trinity is the idea that the God (who is unexplainable) is best explained as Father-Son-Holy Spirit. This is the way Presbyterians understand God. In order to find our purpose as a church, in order to answer the question of who cares, we begin with identifying who we are and whose we are. We belong to God, as our catechism teaches us, and therefore our purpose comes from God. Like a fine instrument, we were crafted not only as individuals but as a Presbyterian church for a purpose. As we begin to look for our voice we begin with an understanding of God and how we as a Presbyterian church are related to God. Then, and only then, can we answer questions about the voices heard from each of the parts of the Trinity and the parts of our church.
This chapter begins with confession. As a Presbyterian, I am aware that my starting point is always at confession. I believe God is ultimate goodness and when addressing God we too need to get “as good” as we can. We try and put ourselves on God’s level, realizing we will never truly get there. So we start with confessing what separates us from God. That is our theology of confession.
So I begin with confession. I must say that I have only now become very interested in theology. Yes, I know that’s probably a big surprise; Not! To be honest I don’t think I am very different from most pastors and church leaders. For many of us, immersed in the daily routine of busyness and chaos in the church, our theological questioning gets put away the day we box up all those books from seminary. But it shouldn’t be that way.
Theology is really just saying a word about God. It comes from a combination of two Greek words, theos which means God, and logos which means word or event. Thus when we discuss theology all we are doing is just talking about God and how God is working and visible in the world. It’s really that simple.
So my confession, as embarrassing as it might be to me, is that my interests have only,
in the past couple of years, been turned towards saying very much out loud about God. To be honest that’s very troubling to me... Especially as a pastor!
In seminary, of course I took theology and made my attempts at accomplishing its requirements. In fact, when I think back on those days, I took a full four semesters of theology. We studied the most known in Augustine and Calvin, and then perhaps the lesser known in Schleiermacher and Niebuhr. In our “saying a word about God,” we even took our cues from those known probably only to those in our own denomination in Leith and Guthrie.
But looking back I must confess I completed my coursework with just enough effort to get my degree. I never really engaged in the process. Perhaps it didn’t seem relevant to me at the time. Perhaps the material was so heavy it often was burdensome and difficult. What I do know is that I was not a big enthusiast.
The good news for me is that always on the other side of our theology of confession for Presbyterians is forgiveness, renewal, and gratitude. Once we have admitted the ways we fall short, we receive God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. We are renewed and given another chance, and are grateful for what we receive. And I am. I am even most grateful in this reality. Similar stories in scripture describing other such late bloomers of theological interests can be found. Take heart pastors and church leaders, again
we have not come up with some new dysfunction. We only continue to live as those before us have.
Take Moses for instance. Did you know that Moses is considered by many scholars as the inventor of monotheistic faith? It’s true. While Abraham maintains the title of father of the faith due to his seeding the descendants that would become not only Christians, but also Jews and Muslims; Moses was the one first called to lead others to follow only God. Moses was the one who would first ask the theological question, “God who are you?” And further, “Who am I in response to who you are?” So Moses was not only an inventor, he was also the first one to do much theology. But it didn’t happen right away.
It starts in the third chapter of Exodus. Moses is working his flock on the mountain called Horeb. And not only has he not expressed any interest whatsoever in theology up to this point in his life, he has not even expressed any interest in God at all. In fact, it is questionable whether or not Moses is even aware of God. When all of a sudden, he is made aware, very aware!
You remember the story. God calls Moses through the burning bush. Moses is just sort of hanging around, searching for a lost sheep (stay tuned for more on that story later from Jesus) on the mountain of Horeb. When all of a sudden, God gets his attention! The torch is literally lit for Moses. In an instant his journey as the world’s first theologian begins. Like any good theologian, Moses starts with a very profound question (notice he’s pretty good at this from the beginning) “When people ask me who you are, what should I tell them?”
￼"Where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet, we hear a
— Frederick Buechner
Wow! What a question! I wonder, as I think about what it means to be a person of faith, especially a disciple of Jesus Christ, if there is any more relevant question than that. As those sent out to make disciples of others, is there any better starting point? “When people ask me about God, who should I tell them sent me?” If we aren’t talking out loud, saying a word about God in this context, then we really are missing something very important.
This is what’s most interesting to me about this whole story of Moses. He had already been living in the place where he would serve without even being aware that at some point he would serve. It is remarkable to me that Moses was raised in the palace of Pharaoh, experiencing that world and its culture without even knowing about God. He lives so much life before he is even called to Pharaoh’s house for theological purposes. Said more simply, Moses is present long before his presence makes any difference whatsoever. If this is true of Moses, one of the first in our faith, how much more can it be true for us?
How many of us are born interested in theology? Do you long to spend hours in a seminary library with treatises written by John Calvin or John Leith? Some people are and that’s fine. Without those dedicated to the study of theology, novices like me would have no one to turn to with questions that we can’t answer or problems we can’t solve.
But theology is not all that captivating for most of us. Our experience is much closer to that of Moses. Most of us don’t think very much about theology, about who God is, until it becomes relevant to our lives. We are just wandering herders of our busy lives until we see our burning bush. Then that day comes Wow! We begin to ask the question, “Who are you again God?” Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be...
As we begin to rediscover our voice in the Presbyterian Church, it is important to first confess. We must first admit to ourselves that we are not all that interested in God until God is interested in us. Our purpose comes from God’s purpose. Our call to serve is in answer to God’s desire for people to be served.
In the third chapter of Exodus, God begins with Moses by saying “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry... I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good land with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8, NRSV)
It is only when God gets interested in the people that Moses is commissioned to deliver them. It is only then that Moses becomes interested in God because God is interested not only in him but in his people. Up to this point, Moses was being prepared for his work, not even knowing what his work would be. The important thing is that God knew what his work would be. God knew Moses was the right person for this job, not because he knew anything about Him, but because God knew where he had been and what he had been doing.
As we begin to renew and rediscover our voice, it is important for us to know and to understand. How many people get caught behind their own lack of understanding about God and about faith? Are we just like Moses and hesitate from God’s purpose for life thinking we must know all there is to know about God before stepping out in faith? Remember how Moses first responds, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” “I don’t even know who you are?” Do we answer in the same way?
I have heard it a million times over the years, from people who answer the call to God’s purpose for their life with “I don’t know anything about that?” They even sometimes rationalize with the best and serious intentions, “How can I be called to be a Sunday school teacher when I don’t know all there is to know about the Bible?” Or “How can I be called as an elder when there are people more spiritually mature than I?”
But perhaps a person brings experience in education, or in working with children. Maybe they have lived in the palace of learning, and now are called to bring that “palace” experience to the church. God is interested in their life experience and how it might apply to serving the needs of God’s people just as Moses did so long ago. The reality is how we respond, or don’t respond to God’s call in our lives. That’s what makes the difference and not what we know at the beginning of our journey.
The question for us as a Presbyterian Church is how might our voice as our church change, if we understood that our calling and our voice comes not from our willingness to serve God, but from God’s willingness to use us and our experiences in whatever ways they are needed?
For many years our denomination has been wasting time, failing to voice anything very important to others as a collective church. We have this incredibly important witness for faith and practice in the overall Christian church. Yet we are the church that seems to want to spend all our days and our witness energy arguing over issues of theology and church doctrine within the walls of our faith. We use up all our theological ink in the service of our own agendas, and fail to realize that God might have something bigger and more important for us to do.
What would happen if, instead of so many of us being ashamed of our Presbyterianism, we embraced it as something important that God is doing in the world? What if we saw our recent history of passing time, like Moses in the palace, as the time when God was preparing us for something much bigger? Something we didn’t have any clue we would need to do. What if we have been clearing our throat for years, for the time when our voice would be most needed?
Some of you might say: “Wait a minute, I am proud to be Presbyterian! How could you say we are ashamed of our Presbyterianism?” Ashamed may be too strong a word. But our witness to genuine faith, with all the pride and conviction we have to offer, has not been all that strong in recent years. No group or theological side is to blame. It’s just reality. Now we must answer one key question before we can move on any further, “Are we proud of our heritage and our witness to faith as Presbyterians?”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.
This chapter begins with my confession. Perhaps it’s also time for all of us to confess something as a church. Might we confess that for too long we haven’t really been all that interested in what God might be doing with us as Presbyterians? Haven’t many of us been more interested in our ideas about the church splitting our witness with debate and argument? Are the rest of us just simply going through the motions waiting to see who comes out on top? Who has the voice of moving forward as a church?
What really makes us Presbyterian is our polity and not our universal belief in one theological position. Theology is crucial. But as Presbyterians, we discuss theology for diversity and understanding and not uniformity. We are all called from different “palaces” and so it should not surprise us that our theological witness might sometimes vary. It is, however, our polity that makes us Presbyterian more than any one idea about theology.
How do I know? Go to any church, any Presbytery, any committee meeting or Presbyterian woman’s gathering. They are all amazingly similar. The voices and the issues might change from time to time, but the way things are done with order and clarity are mostly the same.
There is a new movement afoot in the church of Jesus Christ, and even in our Presbyterian Church. It is called the emergent movement and by definition it contains far too many characteristics to define the concept. But one key characteristic it holds is that the members of the emergent movement want to see the same passion and conviction of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters in Christ without their seemingly rigid and unyielding theology. Men and women, especially the young, are interested in a church that declares it’s belief in Jesus Christ with confidence and enthusiasm. Clearly, they are not interested in a church that is going through the motions.
God has been preparing us to embrace our Presbyterian Church in a larger way for generations. Our time is now. Having been raised up in faith with hundreds of years of theology and polity, it is our time to bring our witness to faith to the larger community of Christians with passion and enthusiasm. In a time when many Presbyterians are wondering about the relevancy of our denomination, we must see again the “burning bush” of God’s work in our world and respond to it with purpose and conviction.
Simply said, we have work to do. I believe our work is to rebuild and restore an effective and genuine witness to our Lord Jesus Christ. A witness that takes advantage of the theological greats in our tradition who have given us a faith unlike any other.
What people want today are genuine ways to disagree theologically and stay together as friends. In fact, it’s what the whole world needs.
Might the torch be lit for us as a people and as a Presbyterian Church? Might we accept that we are an integral part of what God is doing in the world?
God calls us for a voice of purpose before we are even aware it is our time to be called. Our time has come at a time when our denomination has been diminishing with numbers and influence. I imagine Moses too must have been surprised when as a fugitive on the run living in hiding in Midian, he too heard God’s call to something great.
As Presbyterians, we illustrate this very reality each and every time an infant is baptized in one of our churches. We maintain infant baptism as a common practice precisely because of the theology behind it. We do it because of what it communicates about God and about God’s way in the world. When we celebrate infant baptism, we declare that God is interested in this child before the child is capable of understanding God. He comes to each one of us and expresses his desire to help us, before we are capable of knowing we are interested in helping Him. It is a foundational principle for nearly all of us. It is the basis of our membership and perhaps an even greater image for finding our voice in our Presbyterian Church.
If you are hearing this call to genuine ministry in our church right now, and aren’t sure whether or not you should answer that call, know this. Even if you haven’t been interested in declaring anything about God up to this point, know that God has been interested in you. Know that you don’t have to have all the answers in order to find your voice in your life and in our church. As Presbyterians those two things are the same.
When you discover your voice, you will become deeply involved in whatever your purpose might be, perhaps more deeply than in anything else you have ever done. You will be connected to God’s desire for the world, not just your desire to be involved in it.
This chapter ends the same way it began, with confession. I am discovering a new passion for theology in my life. For the first time, I am so deeply interested in talking about God. What’s more, I can’t get enough of hearing others talk about God too. My voice has become theology, even though I have much to learn. My torch has been re-lit and I have found my voice. It’s what I have been called to be as a pastor, the one each week who gets the chance to say a word about God.
May we together discover our voice, for our lives and for our Presbyterian Church. God is interested in us and interested in the world. Now it is our time to answer our call and be interested in God. May our torch be lit, and like Moses, may we Presbyterians return to the “palaces” of our lives with a desire to say a word about God.