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Killing God

His five-year-old daughter offered a prayer while burying a sparrow who died flying into a window pane. “Dear God, we have buried this little sparrow. Now you be good to it, or I’ll kill you.” When told by her mother she didn’t need to threaten God, she said, “I just wanted to be sure.”

John Fraser tells this story in a collection of essays entitled, Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen, to which I also contributed a chapter. Fascinated by the story, Henri wrote about it in his book, The Road to Daybreak.

I once buried a sparrow who died similarly, trying to fly into what appeared a welcoming space within glass walls of a campus chapel. I wrote about it in my book of prayers, Coming Out to God. It made me think of many who hit invisible barriers trying to enter our churches. Jesus once told his followers not to be afraid, that not one sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing.

What strikes me is that this prayer of a five-year-old is often the prayer of adults. Karen Armstrong says as much in her “Death of God?” chapter in her History of God. When we conceive an all-powerful God, then God is responsible for all that’s wrong with the world—in her word, “a monster.” And I have pastorally and personally witnessed those who suffer or those who suffer loss doubting God’s intentions or God’s existence. An omnipotent God who fails to care must be distrusted or killed.

I believe Christianity is conducive to this way of thinking, as it conceptualizes a God of compassion, willing to be vulnerable to the point of death—all out of love.

We often conceive of God as “the best” at everything. When you consider your “best friend,” do you think of someone who is powerful or someone who is loving? Just as we would classify a best friend as loving, so is our best God. It could be said that love is God’s power.

When we look for love, would we choose a lover who is dogmatic and demanding, or one who is trustworthy and welcoming? Even so with God, for biblically God’s love is steadfast and inclusive.

And when we consider our best leaders or pastors or teachers, do we think of someone who is controlling or one who is persuasive? Just so, our “best God” is persuasive, a good shepherd, one who stands at our door and knocks, one who wants to be invited in to commune with us, one we want to follow.

And lest God become thought of as just another thing or being as “best” implies, it’s better to think of God as the most: the most loving, the most welcoming, the most loyal, the most inclusive, the most persuasive. To borrow a word from comedian John Oliver, that’s the God with the “mostus.”

This line of thinking is how process theology “saved” God for me long before I went to seminary.

Armstrong observes, “Throughout history people have discarded a conception of God when it no longer works for them.” And later, “Those of us who have had a difficult time with religion in the past find it liberating to be rid of the God who terrorized our childhood.”

She suggests that often what “saves” God are poets, artists (of all kinds), visionaries, and mystics who glimpse something through the imagination, through their disciplines, and through silence, something that cannot be known so much as witnessed. In Care of the Soul Thomas Moore noted that imagination is perhaps our most underutilized spiritual gift. And Saint Ignatius, who gave us his Spiritual Exercises and founded the scholarly Jesuits, believed the spiritual life required imagination.

I would add that too many readers of the Bible refuse to see it as the work of poets, artists, visionaries, and mystics—not an objective record or rulebook—rather, one that invites our own imaginations to play and to pray as we discern God for a new generation.

One of the worst things that can happen to God, Armstrong suggests, is when “the more educated, sober, and responsible element” in a given faith discard religion altogether, instead of re-imagining God, because too many others prefer to worship the manmade* Golden Calf rather than the God hidden on the mountain, or in the sound of sheer silence, or in a newborn’s cry.

Armstrong recounts a story that echoes the accountability required by the five-year-old in my opening story. It is told that in Auschwitz, some Jews put God on trial for cruelty and betrayal. They found God guilty, worthy of death. A rabbi gave the verdict, and announced that now he would lead evening prayers.

The God who inspires human beings to be tenacious in the face of calamity is worthy of reimagining.

*The use of this non-inclusive term is intentional.
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