Where is God?

We sing because Isaac felt left out. Caleb practices piano, Eli the violin. I sit with Eli as he practices, pushing his fingers to their proper positions, helping him with rhythm, chastising him when he claims a sudden injury that prevents him from playing another note. Isaac hovers when I do this, alternately jumping off furniture, or bellowing a made-up song to accompany Eli’s squeaking strings, or hanging upside down from a nearby chair and asking when we will be finished.

None of our other children were like this, but he is like this. This is Isaac.

So he feels included, I have taken to giving Isaac his own music practice in the evenings. He stands in front of me, his hands in mine, and we sing “Jesus Loves Me.” His mother gave him a small notepad, and I put colorful stickers of musical notes in it, one for each week of practice.

It’s no secret that I get very little out of church lately. Recent sermons I’ve endured explain that this is my fault. The church reading groups ubiquitous in modern white evangelical America hold little more appeal, given my fondness for Frederick Buechner over Doug Wilson. There’s room in God’s kingdom for both, mind you, but I confess that there are times when I wonder if there is room for me. I am an alien when I walk into a Christian bookstore, and sickened when I listen to Christian radio, and often a stranger in my own church.

Please understand that I am content to live this way, though I understand it is likely an indication of some perversity in my soul. A good Christian is supposed to revel in a fellowship of believers, we men are to be iron sharpening iron, and so on. Though I rail against tribality in our culture, I am the most ferociously tribal of men, for my tribe is seven strong, and I find far more rest in a lazy breakfast with them than in most Sunday sermons.

But where, in a world that has lost its vision, will I find God, if not in sermons and tidy Calvinist pamphlets? Mother Teresa, we now know, called him the Absent One. I would be lying if I told you that I don’t instantly suspect the spiritual depth of anyone who claims never to have experienced the Saudade Deus, the God who is known by his absence. This is my arrogance born of suffering, that I imagine I can identify with the one who cried: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.

So where is God found? He finds us, of course, as he always has, from the beginning, and will to the end, because a parent seeks his children without ceasing. But listen close, and I will tell you where I saw him last. It was just yesterday evening, when Isaac placed his fresh-washed hands in my palms, his face strangely peace-filled, and sang to me in his warbly voice. Here is God, I thought. Do you want to find God? Then look up from your books and theologies, if you can bear it, for God is here.

Comments

  1. Michaele

    Consider this an extremely healthy response and rejoice in it (a little, and mourn the industries that spawn this state of affairs) – “I feel alien when I walk into a Christian bookstore, and sickened when I listen to Christian radio” Both profit seeking industries can be more than guilty of being for the glory of men than the glory of God, (give it the Jesus brand logo and make a living out of it while adding little of value to the lives of others.) Don’t beat yourself up on that account(but as I see it, you are not). To me, those industries most often represent the watering down of Christianity, when they aren’t promoting error in thinking and just plain mediocrity.

  2. Mike

    I suppose we’ve all been there. Church is God-ordained but man-made; thus, fraught with frailties. Perhaps you are going to the wrong one, not denominationally but geographically? πŸ™‚ No doubt my church’s ‘output’ is directly proportionate to my ‘input’.

    Nonetheless, your attendance at ‘church’ might be more for someone else than for you. Ask not what your church can do for you but what you can do for the poor, depressed soul who barely dragged himself there as well. Just a humble thought, my friend.

  3. Graham Chastney

    There are times when someone writes about what you are feeling.

    I have friends who say things like “I felt the arms of God” or “I knew His presence”. I don’t think I have every felt like that, and I certainly haven’t recently. I regulalrly feel out on a limb, an alien. Lonely in a busy land.

    God is often defined by His absence.

    I’m not complaining either, I’m just reflecting on my experiences.

    ASBO Jesus had a great cartoon on it recently: http://asbojesus.wordpress.com/2007/09/18/71/

    God Bless You…

  4. sjd

    This was written by Frederica Mathewes-Green this past week and I think it addresses some of what you are saying (everything below is hers):

    http://www.frederica.com/writings/men-and-church.html

    one of the things I noticed was that, what women might think of as constricting legalism (eg, you do the liturgy exactly this way, and icon looks like this), men think of as simple clarity. Men are willing to do hard things, but they want to be secure in knowing that they’re heading in the right direction, that their effort is constructive and fitting.

  5. PJ

    I wonder, sometimes, if God himself doesn’t get so sick of it, that he doesn’t show up at church either?

    As you say, we look so hard that we can’t see what’s right in front of us…

  6. Lauralee

    How I found this post I’m not sure. I am saddened that it is a reality for many that “Church” is just not doing it for them. But like someone said what am I doing for my Church.
    In my life as a “follower of Christ” there have been times that I “FELT” He wasn’t there. But really I knew HE hadn’t gone anywhere, only I had. When I feel this way it isn’t Church that finds Him for me, it isn’t friends or even my children. It’s His Word, His Love Letter to me. When He answers things in my heart that no one else knew about. How He woos me to Himself. I desire to know Him more, and seek Him out.
    A thought came to me last night, if He could give it all for my sake, why can’t I give it all for His.
    Galatians 2:20 says “It is no longer I that lives but Christ that lives in me, the life I live in the body I live by faith in the One who died and gave Himself up for me”
    I like your post:) I like honesty and profound thought. And you are right God is Here.
    PS
    I don’t have time for theologies, the best teachings we get is from livin’ it:)

  7. Stefani

    Thank you, truly, for this post. It has hit home in so many ways. I’m new to your writing, and very much looking forward to reading on!

  8. Paul A

    In the past, we listened to Christian radio all the time. Most of it I now find vacuous, so I either listen to Dennis Prager (http://www.pragerradio.com) – a Jewish man and great thinker – or classical music (is there anything else we could put on the radio to at once calm, inspire, and remind us of the supernatural?) or podcasts of non-vacuous Christian radio (http://www.str.org).

    You’re not alone, Tony. πŸ™‚

  9. Gary R Sweeten

    You are part of a growing group of men and women whose growth leaves them with few formal churchy places to meet God experientially. For several years my practice has been limited to xn leaders who have “hit the wall” and need to find ways to be refreshed. Clergy and laity both are doign so in record numbers with little relief.

    We have so few models for Seasoned Believers to keep growing. Parental preachers talk down to Passive Servants whose discontents are made into guilt and shame by looks of disbelief and subtle condemnation.

    So, I am starting something I have call, Seasoned Beleivers. Folks who have served faithfully for years but now there are few places where they find encounters that lift their souls. We are exploring ways to love, enjoy and serve God with family, marketplace and service.

  10. Stephen

    Tony, have you read anything by Anne Lamott? I blogged about her newest book, Grace (Eventually), when it came out back in March. Here’s one of my favorite passages, about going to church after having a bad week.

    Then I headed to church.
    And it was not good.
    The service was way long, and boring, and only three people had shown up for the choir, and the song they sang sucked. There was a disruptive baby who had about three hours of neck control but was already spoiling everything for the rest of us. I sat with a look of grim munificence, like so many of your better Christians, exuding mental toxins into the atmosphere. I decided that this church was deteriorating. I had come for a spiritual booster shot and instead got aggravation. I was going to leave, and never come back.
    Then something amazing happened. I would call it grace, but then, I’m easy. It was that deeper breath, or pause, or briefly cleaner glasses, that gives us a bit of freedom and relief.
    I remembered Sam at this church in his first months, making loud farting noises with his mouth, or sobbing uncontrollably about the state of things, and no one seemed to care or notice. This memory evoked patience in my anxious, complaining heart. The squalling baby and I tired ourselves out at about the same time. He fell asleep; I pinched the skin of my wrist, to bring myself back to my body.

    I realized I was going to get through this disappointing service, and anyway, you have to be somewhere: better here, where I have heard truth spoken so often, than, say, at the DMV, or home alone, orbiting my own mind. And it’s good to be out where others can see you, so you can’t be your ghastly, spoiled self. It forces you to act slightly more elegantly, and this improves your thoughts, and thereby the world.

  11. Lyn

    Have you read Madeleine L’Engel’s journal series? I’ve been reading them–currently reading The Irrational Season-I think you’d like what she said about church…

    We went sort of Anglican a year ago. I haven’t been bored since. ;0)

  12. Jane

    “There is, no doubt, a superficial sort of consolation and reassurance to be gained from sitting around telling how you feel about things. You generally find several others who feel the same way, or (what is even more reassuring and consoling) they feel worse than you do. But it is no way to come to the truth…Very often (nearly always, I’m afraid) when I come to church my feelings are uppermost in my mind. This is natural. We are human, we are “selves”, and it takes no effort at all to feel. But worship is not feeling. Worship is not experience. Worship is an act, and this takes discipline. We are to worship “in spirit and truth”. Never mind about feelings. We are to worship in spite of them.” — Elisabeth Elliot

    You tell us to “look up from our books and theologies” to find God. I am tired of this frame of mind. God is the First Theologian, and He chose to reveal Himself to us in a Book. This is where He is to be found. For the record, theology is not a horrible thing. It is simply the study of God. I don’t know why everyone is so afraid of it – sure, maybe some misuse it, but those that take the time to benefit from the saints that have gone before will find that most of the reformed theologians of our past knew God more intimately and extraordinarily than the great majority of Christians in American churches do today. Theology – the study of the great I AM – will change your life, your heart, and hopefully, your actions.

    I appreciate your honesty, and I enjoy your blog. However, it is possible to “stir up strife” in our efforts to be transparent. The church is not our idea, it’s God’s idea, and a public blog is no place to rail against your particular body. If there is a real problem, go to your session – otherwise, I think that your pastor and the One that appointed him would agree, it may be wiser to keep your critical thoughts to yourself.

  13. Tony

    Jane,
    The church was indeed God’s idea. I’m not sure that insipid hymns, soulless, uninspired sermonizing, and selective theological quotations, however, were what he had in mind. And since the father of the reformation felt obliged to nail his objections to the church door, I think I’m entitled to muse about my own here.

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