Good morning, friends. We’re continuing to think about “things we’re supposed to believe, but maybe shouldn’t.” I’ve been contemplating words lately. Some weeks, I think about people—my parents, my grandparents, my sons when they were little. Other weeks I think about places—where I’ve lived, where I’ve visited, places I would like to visit. When this pandemic is over, I want Joan and I to ride our motorcycle to Quebec City and sit in a sidewalk café wearing a beret listening to people speak French, acting like we belong. Maybe we’ll take Chris Gautier along to interpret, so we’ll know whether or not the Quebecians are talking about us. I’ll tell you one thing for sure, before the trip I’m going to learn whether Quebecians is a word.
But this week I’ve been thinking about words, and how some words used to mean a great deal to me, but no longer do. When I first became a pastor, I thought about the word salvation a lot. It was an important word to me for many years, until it occurred to me that if Adam and Even weren’t real people, then neither was their sin, which supposedly caused all men and women born after them to be damned, at least according to the church. But how can something that never happened done by two people who never existed, effect you and me?
Now instead of thinking about the word salvation, I think about words like growth, maturity, happiness, wholeness, and compassion, which I’m sure you’ll agree with me are helpful and hopeful words.
For the past several months I’ve been thinking about the word worship. Coincidentally, Bill Smith sent me a meme this week from a group called The Marginal Mennonites Society. It read, “Marginal Mennonites don’t participate in worship services, for the simple reason that we don’t believe in a God who has self-esteem issues.” Let me say that again. We don’t participate in worship services, for the simple reason that we don’t believe in a God who has self-esteem issues.
We Friends call what we’re doing right now meeting for worship. What do we mean by that? Most of us have been taught that the weekly worship of God is essential for our eternal well-being, that God is not only pleased by our worship, but requires it. Honestly, we’ve been told that so often that thinking otherwise is frightening. What if we don’t worship God, and it turns out God required it? These are the questions that keep progressive pastors awake at night. In that great book-of-all-knowledge, The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary, worship is defined as “honoring or showing reverence for a divine being or supernatural power: regarding with great or extravagant respect, honor, or devotion.”
Does God require extravagant respect, honor, or devotion? I’ve known people like that. In fact, it’s one of the signs of narcissistic personality disorder, whose symptoms include, an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a need for constant and excessive admiration, regular recognition of their superiority, and the expectation of unquestioning compliance. Is God like that? Is that why we gather each Sunday, to satisfy God’s ego? Does God look forward all week to Sunday morning when Christians around the world gather to sing his praises? Is that the highlight of God’s week?
What does it say of our ego, that we believe an infinite being wants our praise, that God is anxiously awaiting our slap on the back, our congratulations, that God breathlessly awaits our approval, that God is sitting nervously by the phone hoping we’ll call, hoping we’ll like him? Is that what God is like? God is starting to sound a lot like me every time I ever asked a girl to the prom. Please, pick me.
Many of our ancestors believed God was exactly like this. Not only needy, but petulant, ready to strike them down if proper homage and worship weren’t paid. So they sacrificed the best of their work, the best of their food, sometimes even the best of their children. Until God told the prophet Hosea, “You go tell people that I don’t want their sacrifices. All I want is mercy. Tell them I don’t care about burnt offerings, I just want to know and be known.”
God is not a narcissist. God is not sitting in heaven demanding our worship, our adulation, our accolades. God is not angry, so therefore does not need appeased, pacified, or soothed by our worship and adoration.
Someone once asked me if I believed God was a Being. I said, “Yes,” most emphatically, because I was afraid to say, “I’m not sure.” I know how these things work. Once you say, “I’m not sure,” then “I don’t think so,” is never far behind. So here we are. I don’t believe God is a Being. I believe God is the summation of all that is loving, true, and good. I believe as humanity improves, so does God. I believe God grows as we grow. I believe a good deed is the best worship, and a loving life is the finest religion.
This week, I watched the President’s pastor, Paula White, pray for angelic forces from Africa and South America to attack demonic strongholds in the United States voting against the president. Then she spoke in tongues, which ironically made more sense than anything she’d said all day. It was superstitious babble, promulgated by a charlatan, who wants to convince us God will make us rich if we send her our money. Our ancestors sacrificed their children. She, and those like her, have sacrificed their conscience and their minds. Their god is petty, vengeful, and capricious. It is a god I feel no compulsion to worship, no obligation to revere. If we were forced to choose between their god and atheism, atheism would be the moral choice.
When Friends gather to worship, it is not to pay homage to a god in desperate need of our approval and praise. God is not a narcissist. We gather to celebrate and consider our highest human values—growth, maturity, happiness, wholeness, and compassion. When we do that, we worship in spirit and in truth.