May 12, 2019
Some of you may have heard of Rob Bell. He’s this really hip young spiritual leader (by young, I mean younger than me) who took the church world by storm back in the early 2000s when he founded Mars Hill Church in Michigan that eventually grew to tens of thousands attending worship each Sunday morning.
Things were going well for Pastor Rob, his young church was growing like wildfire, his young family was enjoying the spoils of the success, and his influence in professional Christian circles was on the upward way. He was a new star and the model for other young preachers to follow, and his very fast rise to the tops of the evangelical preacher profession was something of magazine articles, television appearances and all sorts of attention.
If you’re not familiar with him, you may be sitting here right now just waiting for the fall. Most all of us have heard the stories of preachers like that who made it to the top only to be revealed as a fraud, or a conman who loses it all to moral failure.
If that is where your mind is going with this, you are partly right. Rob Bell did lose it all, well, at least he lost his church. But he lost it – actually, he’d say that he gave it away - to something higher and better than the “gospel” he’d been preaching and teaching.
Rob Bell had a moment… an ah-ha moment. It was a moment that left him with some brutally hard decisions that would eventually jeopardize all of that success and good fortune in the blink of an eye.
What does a young pastor who shepherds thousands and has been named one of the 50 most influential Christians in America do when he’s lost faith in his own message? He’s named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine! But he no longer believes his own words.
He’s come to the realization that at least some of what he has been teaching and preaching and writing about is a graceless, unloving, vindictive god who has to “enlarge Hell” to make room for all the sinners.
But he can’t do it anymore. Knowing it would likely cost him all he has worked so hard to build, Rob Bell begins to tell the truth of a God who goes to the ends of the earth to receive us and love us and hold us and cherish us just as we are, right where we are.
It was when he started saying scandalous things about a God who doesn’t hate Muslims, but actually loves them. A God who lives among the homeless, marches alongside the activist, and blesses the same-sex couple, it was when he started saying these things that he realized he must take that message outside of the church, even when it’s a congregation of thousands.
So he did.
It’s crazy that that kind of message would be considered so radical, but it wasn’t just the message that got Rob into trouble with all the Christian industry gate-keepers, it was the feet that he put under those words and the passion with which he preached that God loves all the people that his own religious culture did not.
Maybe some of that thinking started back in the early days of his ministry when Rob was a young, new pastor. It was back then when one Sunday morning while he was talking with parishioners after service that an older gentleman approached him and said, “Rob you need to go to AA.”
Rob said he was taken aback by the suggestion, and told the gentleman that he appreciated the concern, but he didn’t think it was necessary because he didn’t drink.
The man told Rob that it wasn’t about that. He said, “If you want to be a better pastor, go to some AA meetings and just listen.” Rob took his advice. And he was right.
Now I’m not encouraging anyone here to do that… to go to AA meetings just to snoop, but I can say that just like Rob did, I’ve learned a lot about who I am - who we are - by listening to the stories of others, and I’ll also say, like Rob, I’ve learned some of those lessons at AA meetings.
I’m proud of my husband. In about a month he will celebrate 7 years of sobriety. He has taught me so much about the struggles of alcoholism. He’s taught me some of the lessons he’s learned on his journey through that part of his life.
Something we like to do when we travel is attend AA meetings. We’ve been to meetings in places like Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Provincetown in Massachusetts.
Sometime back we were in New York and we decided to attend a midnight meeting that we’d found in Midtown Manhattan. We walked several blocks away from the bright lights of the safer-feeling areas, into an old tenant building, we rode the small elevator up a few floors and wound our way down a very narrow hallway, through a banged up door and into a small room full of people who looked nothing like me.
Truth is, no two people in that room resembled any of the others. The diversity was almost startling! I was one of two white men, and the other guy was much whiter and much older than I.
The stories in that room were inspiring, depressing and motivating.
We learned that the African American man who was in charge of this weekly late-night meeting slips out of his apartment in Queens after his grandmother goes to bed. He doesn’t want her to know he comes to these meetings. She doesn’t know he’s an alcoholic. But he knows that others count on these meetings as much as he does, so he makes the trip every Friday night from Queens to Manhattan and back.
He needs to be there for the housewife who comes to try and stay ahead of her addictive personality, the Latino man sitting across from us, the Middle Eastern man who couldn’t stop weeping, the Asian guy who just stared at the floor, and the kid with all the tattoos.
The very professional man in the suit and tie sits next to a guy who looks and smells like he may have come in just to get off the streets.
There’s a man in a wheelchair, he’s a veteran and he has no legs. A very stylish and well put together woman with a heavy Eastern European accent tells us how she is “starting over again” after a wild night at a party a couple of weeks ago. She hadn’t had a drink in almost a year, until that night.
Sitting there, I wanted to feel sorry these people. But it occurred to me that these were courageous fighters who didn’t want and didn’t need sympathy or pity. They needed, and they deserved respect. By being there they had acknowledged something that many of us especially the more arrogant among us would do well to remember.
WE ARE NOT GOD.
Most of the time we do not look like God.
Probably more often than not, we don’t talk like God.
We don’t feel the way God does, react as God reacts, respond as God responds, think as God thinks, or love as God loves.
We are not capable of those things. Yet we often judge each other by that standard.
Did you notice it in the comments?
Over and over people shared that their frustration, the thing that blocks their faith more than anything else is not God, it’s humans. And the most honest of us will admit that it is not just any human…
When I asked friends to share the things that are the biggest obstacles to their faith, I invited them to share their thoughts with a comment, or if they preferred, in a private message. And boy, did they!!
What started as a little bit of research turned into some fairly heavy direct message counseling for some.
People shared their weariness with the condition of their world. Some vented about the selfishness they see in others. I heard a lot about the abuses of powerful religious influencers dominating the thinking and policymaking in our country. I can’t tell you how many times someone would share the pain that were still fighting from the strict narrow-mindedness that forced them out of their churches, their homes, and even their families.
I talked with people about their depression, their self-doubts, their disappointment in themselves. They talked about being frustrated with themselves because they weren’t able to live up to this ideal person.
We noticed it all over the reactions people left online.
People were certainly frustrated with what they’ve found in the church and religion.
That was probably the most common reaction.
But people were also disappointed in themselves.
“I am the biggest obstacle to my faith.”
“My biggest problems are with myself.”
Then there was this one…
“I cannot trust myself anymore, because the God I trusted and believed in all my life, the only God I know anything about, turns out to be mean and ugly and hateful.”
It sounds like this person is finished with trusting God, but the words reveal the issue is personal trust. Trusting oneself.
One of the most beautifully revealing things I discovered sitting in those AA meetings is that the person up front, the person who leads the meeting is an alcoholic. They are not less of an alcoholic than anyone else in that room. They are not leading the meeting because they are more qualified, but because they know someone has to. Their confidence is not in themselves, but in the role.
I’m guilty this morning of “cherry-picking” the scripture. I went way back in Exodus to find a verse that could make this talk seem more like a sermon. So, I found where God warns the Israelites to make sure to stay away from making other Gods. “You must have no other gods before me,” God said.
Other verses talk about setting up false idols to take the place of God.
If you’re like me, you’ve heard lots of sermons about making other things bigger or more important than God. I’ve heard a lot of preachers get fired up about people skipping church on Sunday to spend time on the lake or on the golf course. “You are putting these things before God!” they’d say. “You have made false idols of those things!” I say that the truth is they probably just needed a break from your preaching. J
But there is some good truth to these words in Exodus this morning. God was telling the Israelites that the God they have is sufficient. There is no need to put themselves in the position of being God.
Friend, as much as I want to stand here and tell you that you can do anything you set your mind to. As much as I want to be your cheerleader and motivator and to get a mention in your new book, I want you to know the truth. I want us to know the truth.
We will sometimes get it wrong. We will make the wrong judgement call, the wrong decision, we will make the wrong choice.
But we are not God.
We do not have to live up to the ideals of a god who knows more than know. We cannot love as God loves because we cannot see the inside of a person. But we can do our best to empathize and walk alongside, and most importantly, acknowledge that we are limited when it comes to having the perfect answer to every question and every situation.
That doesn’t change the fact that when I ask myself what is the biggest obstacle to my faith, the fingers are all pointing right back here. It’s me!
But it sure helps.
Exodus 20: 1-3 CEB
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods before me