Finding Our Way Back to God

I’m telling you it’ll be just like this in heaven: there’ll be more celebrating over one sinner who has a change of heart than over ninety-nine virtuous people who have no need to change their hearts.

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
(Luke 15: 7, 21b – 23, NRSV)

During our last meeting in the prison, one man shared that he believed that sin separated us from God. His sense was that when someone did something wrong he or she needed to do something to return to God’s favor. While I believe God never leaves anyone, we sometimes need to find our way back to God.

Another man shared that the assigned reading had conveyed to him that God would forgive him for what he’d done. He hadn’t known that God would forgive him. He had believed “an eye for an eye,” that what he’d done to someone else should be done to him. Finding out that God would forgive him was allowing him to consider forgiving himself.

I believe that part of the reason why the men I pray with have committed crimes is because someone mistreated them as children. Like them, whether we have committed a crime or not, most of us need to forgive our parents. I don’t think many natural parents care for their children as they should. I don’t think it’s intentional. I believe it’s because they didn’t have what we needed and so couldn’t give it to us.

Given our experience of material reality, many of us are afraid to trust our supernatural parent. Trusting God is particularly challenging for those of us who have been neglected, abused and/or cast out. If our conscious experience has been shaped by harmful rather than beneficial relationships, we have a more difficult time believing that the creator of all reality, material and otherwise, is truly loving.

Perhaps this is why there is so much celebration in heaven when a person who has lived foolishly or has hurt others returns to God. That person has likely had to dig into the depths of their conscious experience and then go beyond it. They have had to risk re-living the shame and rejection experienced during their childhood to trust that there is another possibility, a chance to live in God’s eternal house. Through their diligence, this courageous person breaks the chain of violence, the chain of trauma and neglect, and comes to learn that spiritual reality is real and that hope is rightfully grounded in faith.

I believe that this One, the God that Jesus called Abba, loves us, especially those of us who received less care than we needed. This is the God I choose. This God waits for, calls for and is most joyous about our return.

The Church is Inside

The church is where God is. I believe this is part of what George Fox meant when he said:

The mighty day of the Lord is coming, the voice of Christ is crying, and God that made the world, dwelleth nor in temples made with hands, neither is he worshipped in the Steeplehouses which are made with mens hands, and you think to worship him there; but God is a Spirit, and must be worshipped in spirit and in truth; and he hath given to every one a measure of his spirit to profit withall; in the spirit is God worshipped, the Father of spirits; (To all the PEOPLE Who meet in the STEEPLE-HOUSES IN ENGLAND, And elsewhere.)

anglican churchBy saying this, George Fox was trying to correct a common misconception. His point was that tradition had led people to believe that they needed to go to a particular place to find and worship God. He wanted people to know that God was be found in the inward aspect of reality – in spirit and in truth!

God is everywhere, as spirit and truth are everywhere. The challenge is to allow ourselves to be open to spirit and truth! Our ability to worship God is not dependent on making it to a meetinghouse or any other place on Sunday but is dependent upon our ability to participate with Spirit in truth.

I believe that the future of the church depends on our ability to go where God is. The future of the Religious Society of Friends does not depend upon the number of children who grow up in our Meetings but upon our ability to be open to and to discern spirit and truth!

Spirit has guided me to facilitate a prayer group in a prison, so I believe that is where God is and where I am called to help build up the church.

I read the following scripture at the beginning of our first Centering Prayer group session:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. (Ephesians 2:19-20)

Riverside_NaveAs I read this passage, a hush fell over the room, silence descended as it does when Friends enter into worship. Spirit gathered and stayed with us and was busy at work among us building a dwelling-place for God.

The church is where God is. In the case of our group, church is inside, inside a prison, where Spirit has come to rest and has opened the possibility for truth to become more fully known.

Ignorance vs. Malice

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’  (John 8: 2-12, NRSV)

Between 2000 and 2004, I worked as a senior consultant for Mercer Human Resource Consulting. One of our clients was Option One Mortgage Company (OOMC). We had been hired to conduct their employee survey. The survey helped OOMC measure and track employee satisfaction and engagement. In addition, we conducted statistical analyses to help them know what to do to retain their employees.

ForeclosureOne day in 2010, not too long after the height of the financial crisis, I realized that I had participated in that debacle. The financial crisis had been precipitated by the housing crisis and OOMC had been one of the mortgage companies selling risky home loans and foreclosing on people who couldn’t pay. I had assisted OOMC through my work as a consultant.

I didn’t have any intention of hurting anyone. I was ignorant. I was just doing my job. However, unwittingly, I had been participating in systemic injustice. I had inadvertently helped a mortgage company take advantage of consumers and precipitate global recession. While without intent, I had participated in unintentional evil.

Malice is intentional evil. Some of the prisoners that I met with this past week have probably committed malicious crimes. They have most likely killed another person, stolen what was not theirs, and/or intentional harmed themselves or others. While some of their actions were not planned, others may have been.

This past Thursday, in our discussion, we wrestled with how we can be sure God is real or trustworthy given the extent of evil in the world. I got the sense that some of the men had come to prison, albeit indirectly, because they weren’t sure that God was real or that God loved them. Some of them shared that when they were children they had experienced the untimely death of a family member. Others conveyed that they had grown up in poverty. Due to these types of events, they may be more likely to think that they don’t need to follow the rules because there isn’t a God that is going to hold them accountable or because they don’t feel that God cares about them.

As I reflected this past week, I came to wonder which is greater, unintentional evil, the evil that grows out of ignorance, or intentional evil, the evil comes out of malice. My sense is that more harm comes out of unintentional evil, the injustice that arises out of living in a broken world.

I believe that this reality requires us to be willing to allow God to examine our hearts and to purify us from those things that keep us from knowing God’s love. When we know we are loved of God, we are less inclined to do things like work for large corporations, where impersonal cultures keep people from understanding the impact of their work on other people, and to commit criminal acts.

The scripture text above suggests to me that we need to be deeply circumspect before deciding that we are justified in hurting people who have engaged in immoral or illegal acts. We have all participated in evil. We would do well to examine our own lives and attempt to discover first if we are without sin, without separation from God and God’s love.