Regardless of religion, much of the world worships, believes in, or supposes a terrible deity. This “God” causes or permits death, destruction, disaster, droughts, disorders, disease, and damnation—and these are just the words that alliterate nicely. This “God” hates homosexuals, privileges males over females, has cursed certain races and religions and conditions, and does not tolerate differences.
Even atheists may harbor such thoughts when they think of the God they don’t believe in.
Most also imagine a highly regulatory God, one concerned with every detail of human life, including diet, clothing, dancing, worship, sex, feelings, thoughts, and what is read, watched, listened to, and talked about.
Religious fundamentalists accept more regulation from God than they would from the most benevolent of governments or institutions.
I don’t think God is in control of everything that happens. Nor do I think God gives a damn about much of what we worry about.
On several occasions on this blog, I have written of my favorite image of God, that of shepherd, whose rod wards off predators, whose staff leads us to green pastures beside still waters, whose familiar voice calls us by name, whose eyes search for us when we get lost, whose arms lift us up and carry us home.
These are the images conjured up by Psalm 23, which I often recite when I am anxious, confused, or simply in need of a good night’s sleep. It is what I recited to our dog Hobbes the morning she passed from our lives. It is part of an improvised “liturgy” the child narrator in one of my unpublished novels recites to remember his beloved friend who died after surgery.
There is a reason Psalm 23 has become a funeral card “cliché”: it comforts us. And this is why early Christians appropriated the then common cultural symbol of a Good Shepherd carrying a lamb to represent Jesus.
A friend, the wife of a pastor in New York City, once told me she thought of a depiction of this Good Shepherd in their sanctuary as too sentimental, until a person with AIDS explained how much strength he gained by gazing on it.
And the only vestige of its old sanctuary preserved in a modern church I served in Los Angeles was a stained glass representation of Jesus as The Good Shepherd. Given that congregation’s history of various ministries to the ‘60s counter-cultural “Flower Children,” ex-offenders, those in recovery, war protestors, the L.A. Free Clinic, those with developmental disabilities, LGBT people, the homeless, and sex workers, this church had put into practice what Jesus told his disciples: “I have other sheep, not of this fold. I must bring them also.”
Jesus and many who followed him resisted the regulatory nature of religion that often excluded “the least of these.”
Not what goes into a person is spiritually relevant, Jesus said, but what comes out of a person’s heart. Judge not, lest you be judged. Don’t worry about what you should eat or wear, but trust in God’s providence. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, even hardship. We have been set free, not for religious restrictions and observances, but for spiritual freedom.
Following the rules isn’t enough: go, sell what you have and give to the poor. Go the extra mile, give your cloak as well as your coat, instead of revenge turn the other cheek, forgive as you have been forgiven, be compassionate as God is compassionate.
Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us, preparing a table for us even in adversity and even in the midst of adversaries, anointing us with oil, overflowing our cups, blessing us with goodness and mercy all the days of our lives, as we dwell in God’s house always.
Related post: Beware of the God!
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