Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Let God Grow

You shall make for yourselves no idols and erect no carved images or pillars, and you shall not place figured stones in your land, to worship at them; for I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 26.1)

Changing God

Listening to his podcast about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, I was bowled over when Shane Hipps, of Mars Hill Bible Church, offered this passing observation:

In the Bible itself, we have the story of a God Who begins with a narrower covenant and then constantly helps [us] widen and expand and evolve and unfold that covenant until it’s bigger and wider and wider and wider, and includes more and more and more people.

The message’s central theme, of course, is inclusion. Citing manifold laws and precedents that God overturns when sending Philip to the Ethiopian, Pastor Hipps makes an airtight case that radical inclusion is God’s will. This isn’t a new idea at Straight-Friendly; from the first post, it’s been the blog’s driving belief. What seized my attention was the premise that God’s story portrays a Creator perpetually revising the covenant with humanity, widening its reach so no one is excluded, a God Who keeps getting bigger and more open-minded, and One Who implicitly expects us to keep pace. While mulling this over, I recalled a similar thought my own pastor expressed recently. Our relationship with God is two-way, she said, “mutual and reciprocated and a joint venture.” In this context, she described a dynamic that “might be a little out-there for some of us to consider”: as we are changed, we are also changing God.

For many, belief in a persistently changing God constitutes heresy. The very idea is too terrifying to contemplate. And we have to ask why that frightens so many of us. Why must God be locked in position—frozen in time—so that every decision and move God makes in Scripture is regarded as final and irreversible? It seems our need for a changeless God is born of desire for God to live the way we live: routinely, predictably, safely. Yet saddling God with the past ultimately limits divine abilities we hope in and rely on—power to create and recreate, to renew and act anew, to interrupt inevitabilities and rewrite our stories, to respond fearlessly to our concerns. As we are changed, we are also changing God. As we obtain wholeness, our understanding and expectations of God expand. It’s a joint venture that won’t succeed if we don’t keep pace with God, or permit God to keep pace with us. We simply cannot grow if we don’t let God grow.

A Rebellious God

Suppose we take a fresh look at the terms of God’s covenant, initially laid out in the Ten Commandments. The first three clauses define how we should regard God: “place no gods before Me” (Exodus 20.3); “make no idols” (v4-6); “do not misuse My name” (v7). We conflate these edicts to mean, “I alone am God, and no other god is worthy of worship.” While that’s the gist of it, it’s not the whole. If it were, the first law would suffice. The interdictions against idolatry and misuse of God’s name are called out to reinforce our awareness that we can’t approach God like other gods because God is fundamentally not like them. The ban on images is meant to prevent God from becoming an idol—a static being whose traits and abilities are carved in stone. The misuse of God’s name is restricted to avoid limiting God to certain roles, realms, and responsibilities. God is the God of all, a living, evolving Entity that refuses to serve our purposes, but instead invites us to serve God’s purpose.

The covenant’s revolutionary nature is so staggering it baffles the Israelites. Even as God is dictating its terms on Mt. Sinai, they’re molding a fixed idea of God at the foot of the hill. It’s impossible for us to conceive their befuddlement when God breaks the mold. God won’t sit still long enough to be sculpted, propped on an altar, hung on a wall, or enshrined in a temple. This is a rebellious God Who ultimately refuses to be nailed down with such ferocity that Death itself comes off its hinges. The idea of a fluid, growing God intent on changing us, and changing with us, is so foreign to Israel that, like us, it keeps trying to bring God into conformity with what it imagines a god should be. That’s why God repeats the anti-idolatry edict again and again. In Leviticus, the worship manual for God’s people, we read, “You shall make for yourselves no idols and erect no carved images or pillars, and you shall not place figured stones in your land, to worship at them; for I am the LORD your God.” (26.1) It’s not only about Baal and other pagan deities. It’s about God, too. “Don’t carve Me in stone,” God says. “I am the LORD your God.”

The Sameness Burden

So what are we saying? Is it possible that belief in a changeless God can lapse into idolatry? Absolutely—if it inhibits God’s growth and movement in our lives. Who God is doesn’t change. But how God works, what God thinks, and the way God moves are constantly in flux. We see this spelled out in Lamentations 3.22-23. “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end,” it says. Now watch this, “They are new every morning.” God’s love doesn’t change. How God loves us, however, is new every day, because we’re new every day. The writer ties a bow on the idea of a steadfast God Who is full of surprises by declaring, “Great is Your faithfulness.” Faithfulness—constancy, engagement, and presence—is the marker of a growing Creator, Who’s worshiped and trusted. Sameness—predictability, rigidity, and intimidation—is symptomatic of a stunted God, Who’s idolized and feared. God-with-Us grows alongside us, keeping pace with us and expecting us to keep pace with God; God-with-or-without-Us does not. Every morning brings the new mercy of letting God grow, as well as a fresh opportunity to grow with God.

We’re one week from the start of a new Lenten journey that leads us into a desert of discovery, where we seek new insight and experience with this God Who won’t sit still. Millions of believers will travel with us—some of them open to surprises and new mercies sprinkled across 40 mornings, others trudging along, doing the same old thing and looking for the same old God. The latter group views the desert as a place without beauty, where little besides monotony and routine flourish. But if we enter this season determined to let God grow, new life will spring up at every turn, as God gets bigger and God’s covenant expands and God’s presence becomes more vividly known in our lives. In Isaiah 43.18-19 God tells us, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” As we prepare to enter Lent’s wilderness, let’s relieve God of the sameness burden—the former things, the same-old same-old. Let’s heighten our awareness of new things springing forth. Let’s ready our hearts and minds to let God grow.

O God, we confess to burdening You with sameness that stymies Your growth in our lives and the world around us. We’ve placed our need for predictability, routine, and safety above Your desire to grow. Teach us to prize Your faithfulness. Enable us to see newness with each morning. Give us courage to let You grow at will, to welcome changes in You as we are changed. Amen.

We simply cannot grow if we don’t allow God to grow.

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