Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Border Crossings and a God who Doesn’t Behave

The following is drawn from a message delivered in ESR Worship on September 21 by David Johns:

God doesn’t know how to behave. I find this annoying.
Think about it; if anyone should know how to act, how to ‘play by the rules,’ if anyone should know what our roles are and should be, it would be God. God has a parking space—and it’s a good one: Employee of the Month—the best we have to offer. We can see it from our window. It’s only natural to give God a space; in fact, it’s very generous of us.
We know how God is. So, God has a place…and each of us has his or her place. That’s order. That’s creation. That’s the way it should be. But God doesn’t know how to behave and only rarely parks in the right place. Some mornings we wake up to find the car parked in a drunken fit on the front lawn, skid marks on the pavement out front. God doesn’t know how to behave. What is God thinking?
God is the ultimate party-crasher, boundary-ignorer, class-division basher, dis-respecter of state-lines and national borders, picket-line crosser—the Lady Gaga and James Dean of Mt. Olympus. If God were actually “Our Father who art in heaven,” it wouldn’t be so bad. But God doesn’t stay in heaven, the celestial gated community where all polite and sensible gods belong. And about those boundaries: Carlos Monsivaís , a writer as important to unpacking and challenging the story of Mexico as Gore Vidal was in the United States, often spoke of his fascination with Mexico City’s many transvestites because they were, as he said, the truly courageous ones who visibly and shamelessly reversed the pattern of convention and expectation. 
Yeah. God is like that too… more in common with cross-dressers than with a cosmic CEO in polished shoes and a moneyed pedigree. Perhaps I’ve crossed a line. But…that is precisely the point. 

One of the things we do well as human beings is build walls and draw border lines. It’s not the only thing we do—thank God—but it’s something we do well. It would be so much better if we had stopped with scribbled circles on the crumpled paper from childhood, or if we had abandoned our fortress building when we packed away our blocks and our Legos. But it never stops there.
Humans draw lines that delineate space and then populate those spaces by assigning one group here and another one there. And what are some of the borders we map out? Physical and national ones—those are obvious. Me and you, of course—but more likely, “us and them.” One against one is not very threatening—it’s too human (if we spend too much time at this level we might grow to like each other, or at least see a flicker of the Divine Light). Us provides me the comfort of collaborators and them groups together a bunch of others and this feels more menacing. The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 finalized the colonization of Africa when European superpowers drew a hodgepodge of shapes and placed it over a map, dividing the continent into fifty illogically conceived countries. A half century after independence and the continent is still plagued by the fallout from this enormously disruptive border-ing.
Dividing lines often grow out of a desire to survive, to protect ourselves, to not be swallowed up by someone else and lose who it is that we are—the borders protect the boundaries of identity—I am me up to this point; you are you, but only within that space. These are geographies of self-protection. But these line-drawing programs go horribly wrong—why?— because they construct something that runs counter to what God is up to. In fact, it takes nearly all God’s time to tear down the walls and re-district the neighbourhoods we create.

In the churches we do a good job of confining God to tiny spaces—and confining other people to ideological corners—cramped cubby holes with a few scraps of bible and nowhere to draw a breath of fresh air. But God has a history of dressing up in clothes we don’t expect and showing up unannounced—like a cross-dressing player in a Shakespearean comedy. The Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff, reminds us that Jesus Christ is not only the Lord of little spaces, such as the heart, the soul, or the Church, but is Lord also of the cosmos, of enormous spaces.
But folks often prefer a predictable God, one of little spaces, one who respects the borders and the walls which we determine, who loves those whom we love and curses those whom we curse. There is a god who speaks for us! But it won’t be a living God. It won’t be the God-who-gets-around; it won’t be the one who leaves Mt Olympus to misbehave.
In a certain respect, the Jew and Gentile divide is an “easy one.” God pushed even further and crossed the ultimate inseparable divide in the incarnation. In becoming fully engaged in the human story, God through Christ shatters the border separating humanity and divinity. And if God can pull that off, then the boundaries that stand between us most certainly need to go. 

With her characteristic frankness, Annie Dillard writes:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.[1]

Screeching into the driveway three hours past curfew, engine overheated and new dents in the quarter panels, God shows up. …and we’re not sure what to do.
Once again, God has crossed a line, shattered a boundary, smashed through a wall. And, quite unexpectedly, those of us who have been kept apart by doctrine, race, sexuality, class, by land of birth, by political convictions, by the railroad tracks that divide Us from Them, suddenly are in the same room together…unexpectedly a border has been crossed and we are all staring at each other wondering what on earth to do.
Whatever could God be doing?

David Johns is a graduate of ESR and the School's Associate Professor of Theology.

[1]Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper Collins, 1982), 58-59.

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