Thursday, November 15, 2012

Voice of the Dollhouse God

It was "Listening to God," Class 2, and things moved into the garish pink zone on the weirdness scale. Thanksgiving and other obligations mean we won't be going back to the class, so it's time for summing up. The bottom line: I can't personally buy into the tiny, human-sized God the class has offered. But it has been very enlightening. Characterizing a God I can't believe in has helped me to start imagining a more astounding God that I could believe in.

The second class followed the same format as the first, beginning with singing. Couldn't help but recall the social psychology studies showing that activities performed in unison (think Marine boot-camp) subconsciously encourage people to form a cooperative group. Not to mention the endorphin-promotion from singing or the subtle suggestive influence of the lyrics: "I'm giving you my heart... I surrender all to you..." We had a few folks raising their opened hands.

This was followed by the sharing of "homework" -- to think about what God said to us during the week. Several people got up to describe how God had spoken to them, but no one described anything that had happened during the preceding week. One man said he'd once prayed to God for a job, and an hour later received a phone call, out of the blue, offering him a job he hadn't applied for. A woman discerned God's will in the fact that she had a smooth relocation to the UK from South Africa. "I prayed that if God didn't want us to move he would stop me," she said.

Another woman found comfort in her faith during her husband's cancer. Another testified she heard the voice of God in September, 1999, tell her to stop praying for her severely ill brother-in-law on October 1, when all would be well. That proved to be the date of his death. Rev Keith told us of a horrible abscessed tooth that had caused him great pain over a weekend when no dentist was available. "I asked the Lord to heal it." He did.

Then we were on to angels and other Signs. Rev Keith has never seen angels and was quite jealous that his son had seen one angel; his daughter-in-law saw TWO flying above his car. He recited a pile of Bible verses -- talking donkeys, burning bushes, and visions. "Our God can use any way to get our attention," Rev Keith said.

Rev Keith admitted he had not personally "heard the audible voice of God," but had received lots of messages from God. For example, a large dragonfly had flown through his house and into a bedroom THREE TIMES on the very day his grand-daughter showed him a picture of a dragonfly in her children's Bible notes book. A buzzard had appeared in Rev Keith's garden on two consecutive mornings, just before he relocated. As he was leaving the old place, he drove by buzzards perched on THREE CONSECUTIVE TELEPHONE POLES. As if that weren't enough, three buzzards again appeared when he was sworn in at his new church.

Dear Husband bravely raised his hand and said that at the Naval chaplaincy where he worked, he saw God revealed all the time in the lives of the young soldiers who came in to chat. DH said he worried that if people spent their time listening for the earth-shaking, jaw-dropping testimony-inspiring signs and wonders, they might well miss the amazing everyday reflections of God.

The duo of teachers were somewhat dismissive of DH's observation but gave us their own caveats. They reminded us again that as we start to listen for God, there are three possible voices we might hear: our own, God's, or The Enemy's. But not to worry, the Bible, and the Living Word (the Holy Spirit), would see us through. Later we were urged not to spend time trying to figure out good vs. evil, but just to accept that the Lord is with us. We shouldn't argue with the message. "If the Lord wants to tell you something, he'll go on. Relax and trust that the spirit will guide you." Rev Nigel also advised us to be judicious in repeating God experiences. "Repeat it over and over and it loses its power, really, REALLY. Don't tell these stories lightly, as it leads to disillusion."

(Somewhat snarky question in the proof-texting sort of way: Was this why Jesus told his followers to tell no one of the signs and wonders they'd observed? And, come to think of it, just why would our teachers be sharing, and encouraging us to share, stories of signs and wonders if Jesus himself advised against it? Especially after their own experience showed it saps the power from the stories and leads to disillusionment???)

Rev Nigel added that whilst he loved hearing people's stories, he was leery of testimony-escalation, where each story exceeds the last one in amazing signs. Audience members may feel let down if they haven't experienced such miracles. But he quickly reassured us, "If you haven't heard the Lord speak, you just haven't realized it." Near the end of the evening there was another step back: "We're not claiming the high ground, but rather say all are being confirmed into being the people God intends us to be, if we're integrous and authentic."

Tips for increasing hearing of God's voice included: Asking God to speak to you; expecting God to speak to you; writing down remembered dreams; praying with other people; praying to God to protect the space you are in from the Devil; tuning out your own problems; limiting your own talking; listening to beautiful music; listening to silence; fasting; journaling anything you think God has said;  and persevering.
What I hear from Revs Nigel and Keith is a version of God who, despite being the Almighty Creator, is still in a donnybrook with the Devil for the chance to manipulate us humans to play the role he has planned for us. If you're having trouble hearing this type of God--they recommend typical procedures (paragraph above) that psychiatrists would probably agree tend to encourage a change (at least to some extent and in the direction you are fervently seeking).

I still really don't understand the difference between "God Speaking To Us" and ordinary good ideas, insight, inspiration, keen observation, sense of well-being, psychological phenomena, etc. Maybe I just haven't been one of the ones chosen to hear the voice of Keith and Nigel's God. Maybe I haven't been listening right. Maybe not believing in that version of God makes it impossible.

Be it my blessing or my curse, and with thanks to discussions with DH, the only kind of God I can start to imagine is a Creator far beyond human imagining. More wonderful than a God who runs his Earth and its inhabitants like an elaborate dollhouse, I would see a God who made the Ultimate Awesome: Creation that keeps on creating through cosmic and atomic forces (increasingly understood by physics); geologic processes; evolution; human discovery, growth, societal change...  Made in His image, we humans have choices each day as to how we will play our creative role in life, for better or worse. We can choose what and how we will create; what words and sounds and patterns we'll notice, and what significance we'll attach to them. He gave us amazing brains that can discover, remember, learn, and convey information to others.

I do believe there are destructive forces and evil in the world--some that are part of creation (perhaps even necessary for the universe and life to exist) and some that stem from human choices and actions. I believe that all humans are born with "the human propensity to fuck things up"(HPtFtu as Francis Spofford says). But we also have help with that -- the lives of Jesus and others that can inspire us to better ways to live through love; the sense of a comforting, all-knowing, all-loving God; and the ordinary human love of friends and family, for example.

This God-Beyond-Imagining might well infuse every bit of the world. Between the Ultimate Awesome of creation and our neurons that perceive it, there is no end of "messages" we could be getting from God every minute, every place we look, every sound we hear, every breath we take. The only question is which messages, which signs, which instincts, which input we're going to take in, which we're going to ignore, and what significance we attach to them. This is the pallet from which we create our lives.

The sheer size and complexity of a Creation filled with ongoing creating and change means that it is  statistically likely that astonishing, odds-defying things -- seeming miracles -- will happen all the time. These become one's Testimony -- or just stories you dine out on. The unlikely events are fascinating -- our brains are evolved to detect patterns, strive to find meaning, and latch on to rewarding discoveries and thoughts. Sociobiologists say that pattern-recognition, making predictions and discoveries is part of humankind's evolutionary inheritance. This has informed and shaped our behavior since the dawn of history, fostering reproductive fitness (i.e. leaving more grandchildren) and survival. Amazing observations, inspiration, and "messages" are out there for everyone, everywhere, always, no matter what their beliefs in God or His powers of speech. They might be "of God" but probably not in the sense that he directly arranged them for you personally.

I don't think any particular caveats are needed for tuning in to a world full of potentially wonderful, every-day thoughts,  observations, and encounters that each of us use to create the opus that is our lives. No one is favored and anyone could be afflicted or blessed with an odds-defying event. Even without factoring in sharpening of skills to encourage detection of happy findings, by sheer force of statistics alone, some people will have disproportionate luck or misfortune. I suppose retelling your "miracle" might make it seem a little less amazing each time but that's just the way human minds desensitize -- the first bite of cupcake is always the tastiest. (I wonder if this is the reason our repertoire of amazing stories has a propensity for turning into fish-tales. Does the prize catch get bigger with each re-telling to compensate for desensitization?)

I see the opportunity for dishonesty, manipulation of others, a conceited sense of "chosen-ness,"  as well as the disillusionment Keith mentioned, when messages, signs, wonders, etc. are attributed directly to the Creator. If, instead, we appreciate the awesome but attribute it to everyday functioning of Creation -- including humans, and our own senses and brains -- we may avoid potentially harmful side-effects, yet still enjoy the best things about "Listening to God."

As Freud probably didn't say, sometimes three dragonflies in the bedroom are just three dragonflies in the bedroom -- amazing, wonderful, likely to make you pay attention to dragonflies -- but no more and no less a "message from God" than every other human observation.
Bonus quote that just popped up on FaceBook, proving that when you're tuned in to looking for certain things, you're going to find them -- as if by magic or the work of God's hand, but more likely just because that's what your brain is locked into:
People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. All is a miracle. -- Thich Nhat Hanh

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