Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Outdoor God

I prayed at the opening ceremony of the Sandwich Fair today. It is the 100th anniversary of this traditional country fair in New Hampshire. The early morning ceremony was held at a flagpole on a windswept hill. As I write these words, I still feel the chill of the brisk breeze on my face.  The flag was raised, the anthem was sung, the pledge was made, and a prayer was offered.

I like public prayers. It is the closest I come these days to open-air preaching. I had the opportunity to do some real outdoor preaching this summer. I proclaimed the gospel from a rocky pulpit that had been regularly used for outdoor services two hundred years ago. I can’t wait to do it again.

There was a time in this country when it was common to hear a preacher voice words to, and about God, in the open air. Circuit riders and traveling evangelists would hold camp meetings and tent revivals that would go on for days or weeks. Street preachers would take their stand on the town common and draw a crowd. Now you need a permit.

I was baptized by immersion at an outdoor service at the mouth of a river that opened into the Atlantic. The parson preached a short sermon to gawking sunbathers and swimmers, and then ceremonially dunked me into the cold water. Maybe that is the reason for my nostalgia.

The days of outdoor worship are mostly gone – except for carefully orchestrated and ticketed stadium affairs. In my last parish I insisted on having at least one outdoor worship service each year, but that is all I could muster the support for.

Nowadays God is kept safely within thermostat-controlled boxes. The God preached in these comfortable structures is comfortable as well – a designer deity accommodated to the tastes of those who prefer padded pews.

The God preached these days is a tame divinity – tolerant and accepting, gentle and mild, multi-cultural and ecumenical. He is nothing like the fearsome jealous Jehovah of biblical times. The Father God of Jesus had rough edges. Christ’s parables were not comfortable Aesopic fables.

But the rough-hewn gospel is gone, replaced by a message of self-esteem and family values. The contemporary God of both liberal and evangelical Christianity is definitely an indoor deity.

No wonder the churches are emptying! The God of Churchianity is boring. Where is the excitement and danger? The Bible is an extreme book. The pages are filled with real people living sinfully and confronting a holy God. The Bible is scary and exciting, confusing and awesome (in the original sense of that word.)

The Hebraic God of the Bible is an outdoor God. He is a God of the desert and the wilderness. He is the God of fiery mountain and the parting sea, thunder and smoke. Moses never preached indoors. Jesus was kicked out of the synagogues and took to preaching on mountainsides and from boats.

The Scriptural God could not stand closed places. He scolded David for wanting to confine him to a temple. Likewise the theological descriptions of God in the Bible are wild and unpredictable. He is not a God of systematic theology, much less politically correct ideology.

He cannot be packaged and marketed. He is the God of nomads, pilgrims and prophets. Now we have settled pastors with $100 haircuts preaching on multi-million dollar campuses. What would John the Baptist think?
Photo is sunrise at Mount Sinai

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