God is for us
I went to Austin Seminary to help teach an alumni event this past week. I attended the seminary, so going back is always wonderful. Bill McKibben writes that people often look at their college years as the happiest years of their life because of the intense community they experienced. I’d agree, except I lived through that intensity more at seminary than college. And, I would add that personally the nostalgia also has to do with the fact that I started reading Karl Barth.
Am I Barthian? No, not really. The truth is, I’ve never felt so closely aligned to a particular theologian to construct my thoughts in the likeness of that theologian. Because I’m Presbyterian, I’m considered to be a Calvinist, but I can deconstruct the Reformer right alongside most thinkers.
It’s just that I when first settled down to read Barth, I had to make sure that I had Kleenex close at hand. We went a bit out of order (according to Barth), and read about God the Creator first. The words clinched me, each time I read, “God is for us.” Four simple words that could fit on a bumper sticker. Yet they changed me.
I grew up in a strange stew of divine ideas. There was the God who was a judge, who would hold me up above the fires of hell like a vengeful boy would dangle a spider up to a candle flame. The heat scorched me as I imagined how easy it would be to make a mistake and spend an eternity in suffering.
Even as the back of my neck felt chafed by the hands of an angry God, I sang praise songs. I didn’t roll my eyes as I clapped. I didn’t have any speech ready about how simple the music sounded or how theologically shallow the words were. I was not a Mainliner at the time. I was a teenager, and I liked them. They were intensely personal, and made me feel that mystical union with God that I would read about later in the writings of Meister Eckhart or Marguerite Porete.
Then there was the God of prosperity gospel—the God of the economic boom who let me know that wealth was God’s blessing on a person. It was okay to want extravagant things, because luxury was a sign of God’s favor.
When I combined these popular ideas in my mind, I ended up with a lover God who would torture me with fire if I stepped out of line and bless me with diamonds if I obeyed. In other words, my ideas of God had a serious borderline personality disorder.
Then, I began to read that God is for us. I started to understand that God, who created the universe, was for us in creation. Barth wrote a lot of words, and the volumes stood in a long line of black binding on my shelf. But it was that small preposition that made me reach for the Kleenex. I began to play the four words like a skipping CD in my mind.
When I would succumb to anxiety, anger, addiction, or depression, I no longer imagined that God would punish me. Instead, God was for us, and so God hoped for my healing and wholeness. I began to walk and feel the support of the earth below me and the sustenance of the air around me.
When I couldn’t get my financial act together, and my salary didn’t come close to matching the student loans that I incurred, I no longer imagined it was because God was not blessing me. Instead, I began to see the sun setting each evening, and I became enraptured in the vibrant beauty. I became grateful for the lavish colors in the sky. And I knew that God our Creator was for us.
When I woke up each morning, and I stared at the blank page of my computer screen, and I don’t know exactly what to write. I thought about the article rejections that had piled up, all of the jobs that I didn’t get, and the academic programs that turned me away. My mind conjured up all the people who told me that I can’t write and I recalled the red ink that professors bled all over my papers when I did try to write. But somehow I moved beyond the clattering echoes, because I had that preposition.
Those three tiny letters had become a powerful force from the moment I opened those Dogmatics and I suddenly needed the box of tissues, because I realized for the first time in my intense spiritual life that God is for us. And I have been fed by the words ever since.