Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 • Psalm 66:1-12 • 2 Timothy 2:8-15 • Luke 17:11-19
Our understanding of God is growing, I think. We may be learning that God is more poetry than logic. God is more doing than being. God is less theology, less theo-logic and more theopoetics.
I wonder if that fits with your own understanding.
Of course even the idea of theology is the idea of the word—theo-logy: logos—the Word that in the gospel of John is the root of life. The Word in the beginning. The Word among us. We can print words on a page, display them on a screen, speak them in concise arguments, but they are ethereal, they are immaterial, they are nothing, Go ahead, try to grab onto one of my words as it leaves my mouth. And yet, they are everything. They are the beginning of our engagement with the material world. They are a way to reach out and touch what we experience.
Words matter—just ask a politician! Words create—or destroy—worlds as they shape our understanding, as they shape our perception. And our perception is a construction of the world —a way to understand and engage what we experience.
Think of it this way: What if we were to say that God does not so much “exist,” but that God calls—God as a doing more than a being. God as an event more than a thing. This is the insight of a professor of religion at Indiana University named John Caputo. He imagines it this way: “God calls upon us, like an unwelcome interruption, a quiet but insistent solicitation.”
Poesis—poetry—is an action word, a verb that means to make or do. It is an event. It’s the “do” that inhabits the words from Corinthians we bring to the table—whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, do this in memory of me--poesis, speak it into being, embody it in your own lives and actions, see what the God who feeds and loves can do.
We are a little uncertain of poetry—perhaps the engineers and technicians among us especially, although it is always dangerous to generalize, isn’t it? No matter who you are, though, I don’t blame you! We can sometimes be more comfortable with what we can see and hear and measure. But there is room for both ways of engaging the world.
This is where Jeremiah comes into view. Seek the welfare of the city. Our action, our engagement, our involvement in the complex mess that we often see society to be—especially in the rhetorically charged politics on the eve of an election—make one thing or they make another. Matter is matter is matter. But our experience of it, the spirit of it, depends on the spirit within us. It can shift in an instant, it can tip in a moment. Our world can change in the blink of an eye or a spark of the imagination.
I think we are wise to begin to understand that this is God. God does not so much exist as God does, God calls.[i] God isn’t so much a being in the way we usually think about it, but a doing, not a thing, but an insistence. Think about that for a moment—God as action, God as event, God as the inner spirit that bends the universe toward justice and bends our hearts toward love. God as force, power, movement, inspiration.
Now, you engineers should be able to handle that, right? It’s not something you can necessarily see, but you can measure it. You can mark it. You can see what it does, how it effects, what it leaves behind. That’s poesis—make or do this reality, this way of being, this form of relationships “in remembrance of me.” That’s God at work and at play.
If you had the opportunity to watch the TED Talk we posted by Isaac Lidsky for today’s Aftertalk, you might recall his insight on this idea that reality is poetry; it is what we make of it.
Lidsky begins by talking about sight which matters for him because he became blind as a teenager: “What you see impacts how you feel,” he says, “and the way you feel can literally change what you see.” He continues by looking to the science:
Numerous studies demonstrate this. If you are asked to estimate the walking speed of a man in a video, for example, your answer will be different if you're told to think about cheetahs or turtles. A hill appears steeper if you've just exercised, and a landmark appears farther away if you're wearing a heavy backpack… You create your own reality, and you believe it.[ii]
And reality isn’t just a product of what we see, or better how we see and what we notice. Lidsky suggests we create our own realities in other ways too. He uses fear as an example:
Your fears distort your reality. Under the warped logic of fear, anything is better than the uncertain. Fear fills the void at all costs, passing off what you dread for what you know, offering up the worst in place of the ambiguous, substituting assumption for reason. Psychologists have a great term for it: awfulizing.[iii]
Don’t you love that? There are times when life feels so fragile. And it gets to us. Fear takes hold. It affects our mood and our stamina. It saps our strength and adds an edge to our interactions. It takes a toll on our families.
But then there’s this story in Jeremiah where the worst has already happened. Israel is a ruin. Jerusalem is smoldering. A people who have lost everything find themselves at sea in a foreign land. And the word of this weeping prophet who never seems happy is surprisingly hopeful: Seek the welfare of the city. Start your families. Live where you are planted and see what God can do. Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Make a life where you are, because there is a life to be had and it is tied up with your neighbor. I am the God of past, present, and future, a doing God, a calling God, a saving God.
That’s what the Samaritan discovers as he goes back to thank Jesus. It is his faith that makes him well. And what I mean is this: The ten lepers are cured of their disease, but only this one is made well. Only this one is saved, according to the story.
Happiness, you see, is an inside job.
Richard Rohr says, “We live in a society that places great importance upon external signs of success. We have to assure ourselves and others that we are valuable and important—because we … doubt that we are!” We’re so busy “one-upping” others, but it is a winner-take-all society, so most of us end up losing. It becomes almost impossible to hold onto a sense of self-worth when dignity is something that must be earned or acquired. “This is the paradox of materialism,” Rohr says. “The more we project our soul’s longing onto things, the more things disappoint us. Happiness is an inside job. When we expect to find happiness outside of ourselves, we are always disappointed.”[iv]
But we are more than material. We are spirit and God’s spirit is in us calling, insisting, seeking, shifting our understanding as a result of what we do. Seek the welfare of the city. Make thanksgiving a practice, a regular part of your day—however you can best do it! Journal about it. Tell someone. Give thanks for a friendship as you build a fence. Make note of grain patterns in the wood as you craft something beautiful with your hands.
Give yourself to the perhaps—not to what is, as if it always has been and always will be, but to what might be, what is possible, what this holy insistence draws us inevitably toward. Give yourself to the city. Give yourself to thanksgiving. Give yourself to a world that is known not for the barriers we erect, but for the bonds of relationships we build. Give yourself to the idea that that stranger you somehow keep noticing may be more like you than different, a potential friend a gift not a threat. And see where that takes you. Give yourself to the welfare of the city. Build a home, build a neighborhood, build a life that makes room for others and for everyone.
Your faith, it makes you well.
[i] See John D. Caputo. The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion). Indiana University Press, 2013.
[ii] See Isaac Lidsky: “What reality are you creating for yourself” TEDSummit, Filmed June 2016. Retrieved at https://www.ted.com/talks/isaac_lidsky_what_reality_are_you_creating_for_yourself/transcript?language=en#t-346453.
[iv] Richard Rohr Meditation: “Enoughness and Contentment.” October 3, 2016.
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