No Lightning Bolts

There are many images of God that are beautiful, healing and life-giving. God as a loving Father with open arms (Luke 15:11-32); God as a mother-hen gathering her chicks protectively under her wings (Matthew 23:37). Likewise there are many that can be harmful and destructive, especially for the life of faith. How aware are we of our images of God, how they have shaped us, how they continue to shape us? I firmly believe that awareness of how we imagine God is important. So much of our thought processes-the way we see ourselves in the world, how we interact with others, how we look at the world-are shaped by how we imagine God.

When I first began as a pastor, I'd often get into conversations with people about life, about God and their connection or not to a church. Over and over again I'd hear something like this: "Pastor, lightning might strike if I stepped foot in the church." In my mind I would often think, "But God's not like that." Yet I kept hearing this over and over again. As I got to know people's stories, it seemed to me that what so many people were carrying was shame connected to their image of who God was. People would begin to tell me about their families, growing up, the difficult times they'd had. The difficulties were often attributed to a "God" who was angry with them about something. They supposed they had disappointed God in some way, that God was looking down on them just waiting for them to mess up. I call this image the "Lightning Bolt God." God as angry, jealous and vindictive-lightning bolt in hand, waiting to sling down retribution.

I get why so many people carry this image around with them-I used to, too. But then I encountered different stories in scripture-stories like the forgiving father welcoming his wayward son home with a party. Right before Jesus tells this story we hear why he tells the story (Luke 15:1-2). The Pharisees (think uppity church-folk who think their job is to keep everyone in line) were standing around Jesus, upset that he was hanging around with all the "wrong" people. Doesn't Jesus know who "those" people are? I can just hear them "tsk-tsking." Perhaps they are so afraid of a lightning-bolt God, so they want to make everyone follow the rules. When they can't do that, they separate themselves from "those" people and, at best, disregard them. At worst, they hold them in contempt and blame them for all of society's problems.

But Jesus does something so different-so counter-cultural. He hangs out with them, learns their stories, loves them, shares life with them, eats and drinks with them. And he tells the Pharisees a story about God's grace (so like Jesus). It's like a father who welcomes home a son who threw away his inheritance. There are no lightning bolts-only open arms and a huge welcoming celebration.


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