Month: April 2021

The God Box

The God Box

How we craft, protect, and abuse the space we create for God, theology, and others

Most of us have had some experience in constructing a box.  Whether we are folding a cardboard box along the preset guidelines or tacking together a flower box for the backyard using some leftover lumber, we know what it means to put a box together.  There is a bottom, four sides, and maybe a top.  Our attempt is to make it sturdy, secure, and able to hold a few things.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, all of us are in the process of constructing a God Box.  A God Box is how we attempt to contain our view of God, our theology, our experiences, and our thoughts about how God works in our world.  Knowing that we can never fully contain an almighty, infinitely complex, and loving God, we at least attempt to put arms around our idea of who He is, how He works, and what His plans are for our lives.  Into the box goes our “caught and taught” theology, our life experiences, our morality, our judgment, our world view, and our sense of righteousness.  It’s our personal theology, our personal interpretation, and our personal viewpoint on how things ought to be.

The materials that form our God Box have been swirling around us for most of our lives.  The Box is defined by the voices we heard while young, the preachers who offered their sermons, the teachers who taught us, and the families who raised us. It is further defined in real time by the social media that bombards us, the books we read, the co-workers who labor with us, the neighbors who opine with us, and the day-to-day experiences that shape who we are.  There are certainly similarities to our various boxes, or our images of God, but each box is also individualistic.  Though we would not say it out loud, most of us believe our box to the be the “right” box, the one with the most correct answers for all of life’s questions.  We like our boxes and feel a little threatened by the presence of other’s boxes which are not exactly like ours.

Let me tell you a little about my box.  I was raised as a Baptist in the Deep South.  The pieces that comprise my box first emerged in that context.  My box has a personal, loving Heavenly Father who listens to all my prayers and who forgives my sins.  He grants me salvation through a relationship with His son, Jesus Christ.  God calls me to love my neighbors, to be hospitable to a fault, to forgive, and to affirm the worth of all people.  Good box, right?  In my box is also a belief in heaven and hell.  I affirm the existence of angels.  I see the image of God in both male and female.  I think racism is wrong and the marginalization of any person because of economic status, skin tone, language, sex, place of origin, or ethnicity is also wrong.  The God in my box tells me to care for the widow and orphan and to welcome the stranger.  The God in my box tells me that worship is vital, Scripture is authoritative, and that prayer is an essential daily task.  My box contains an open Bible that hopefully lends itself to an open mind.

We construct our boxes well and defend them with tenacity.  But then something comes along that seeks to upset the balance of our box.  Is there room for a new thought?  Is the box forever closed?  Can we pivot on an issue or on a carefully guarded stance?  I see people’s boxes get broken open all the time.  I remember when people once argued that divorced persons were on the outskirts of grace and didn’t have much of a place in the life and work of the church.  I remember when women were second class members who couldn’t teach or preach.  I remember when a member of the gay community “came out” that it meant being “put out” of the church.  I recall a day when other denominations were to be avoided because of their heretical stances on some fine point of polity and practice.  Move the conversation forward.  Now we wonder if our box should hold space for Republicans or Democrats, anti-vaccers, or reluctant mask wearers.  Is there room for the Right to Life crowd or the Pro Choice folks?  Do we have room for other races, other languages, and other faiths in our box?  What do we do with those who still claim a faith but have rejected the church?  What do we do with those who can’t speak English, or those who have recently immigrated?  What do we do with people who claim Black Lives Matter or those who claim that such lives don’t?  Constantly our boxes are being challenged. 

Sometimes we look at another person’s box with a judgmental eye and suggest that their box is filled with the wrong stuff… the wrong thoughts… the wrong theology.  And what’s worse, is that we are so threatened by those who think differently, that we can’t wait to point fingers at them and tell them why their box is so poorly constructed.  (Just take a look at the way Christians spew vitriolic, hate-filled rhetoric on social media, believing that judging others is their birthright). And, sometimes we are so threatened by someone else’s viewpoint, that we seek to destroy their box and maybe even their lives.  A lot of really bad things have come about throughout history by those who insist on the supremacy of their box over all others.  What’s crazy is that we somehow believe that God himself would enjoy the box we have created for Him to inhabit more than He would any other box.

I must admit that this process of creating a God Box is a work in progress.  Along the way I have had to learn a few things… some new perspectives, some new insights, and maybe some new theology.  I find myself deconstructing my box and then building it all over again, only to know that something else will come along that will make me revisit the process time and again.  I’d like to think that my box is a little bigger than it used to be.  I want to believe that I have grown in someways and that my box has grown with me.  I would also like to think that my box is more tolerant, more accepting, and more loving as I grow older.  Like yours, my box has both condemnation and grace competing for precious space.  As I travel on, it is my hope that grace will become so abundant that condemnation and judgment will have no more room to dwell.

While recently reading the Gospel of Mark, I came across the passage in chapter 2 when Jesus first called Matthew into discipleship.  Matthew was a tax-collector, considered to be the worst of sinners in the eyes of the religious establishment.  Within a day or so, Jesus was discovered sharing a meal with other tax-collectors who were intrigued by His acceptance and teachings.  The “church crowd” questioned why Jesus would allow himself to eat with “those kinds of people.”  You see the problem.  Their God Box excluded such people and condemned those who didn’t share their viewpoint.  Like the teachers of the first century, sometimes our boxes hold the wrong attitudes and thoughts.

So maybe it’s time for all of us to take a close look at our God Box.  Maybe nothing needs to change.  But then again, maybe everything needs to change.

Jon R Roebuck

There’s a Bear in Left Field

Years ago I served as Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  It was a great experience for both me and my family.  Part of the joy of being there, was the opportunity to spend a lot of time enjoying the beauty of the Smokies and getting to know the local community.  One of my favorite activities in those days was coaching Little League Baseball.  Most of the games were played at a picturesque city park located within a stone’s throw of downtown Gatlinburg.   The park complex had a baseball field, a picnic pavilion, tennis courts, a playground, and even a babbling creek.  Our family has returned to that spot many times through the years to both gather the memories and to make new ones.

Just past the center field fence and down a small incline sits a large, green trash dumpster.  It almost never affects the play on the baseball field.  Almost never.  But as you might imagine, the dumpster is a favorite spot for the local black bears.  Usually they sneak their way into the park after dark, but then again, sometimes they appear in the middle of the 5thinning.  It happened on several occasions.  A large bear would lumber across left field, climb the fence and meander his/her way down to the dumpster.  When a bear appeared, we would call a “bear delay.”  All the players were pulled off the field until the bear moved on.  The first couple of times it happened, it was a bit unnerving.   But soon, the “bear delays” just became a part of life in Gatlinburg at the old ballpark.  The game would pause, the bear would disappear, and then the game would continue.

It has been my experience that sometimes big, scary things meander into our lives and we are left wondering if we will survive.  The interruptions may come in the form a health concern, a job loss, a grief experience, maybe even a world-wide pandemic.  When the interruptions come, we may want to run to the relative safety of our “dugouts” as we hope the life-storm will soon pass.  We hunker down, pray a little, and worry a lot.  We want things to get back to normal.  We want the worries to subside.  We long for the burden to lift.  We want the dawn to break and chase away the dark night.

Sometimes all we can do is wait things out.  We agonize and fret and pray for the day when the bear in left field becomes a memory and not a present-day worry.  But sometimes we can act proactively.  We can schedule that long, put off doctor’s visit.  We can wear masks and get a vaccine.  We can talk to a trusted friend.  We can come up with a plan and start down the list of tasks needed to move forward.

But here is what I find interesting.  The interruptions to our lives may be a surprise to us, but they are not a surprise to our Heavenly Father.  He is intimately acquainted with all our days.  He knows when we rise and when we rest.  He knows when we venture out and when we return home.  And not only does He know all about us, He cares about our well-being.  Because we are human, we will worry about the interruptions.  Because we are His, we are held safe and secure.  The problem we face is the age-old battle between God-dependency and self-sufficiency.  When we rely on ourselves to get through the interruptions, we fret, wring our hands, and crush ourselves with worry.  But when we place our trust in the One who loves us, we find a presence, a peace, and a provider.  The Scriptures declare, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

Please understand.  I am not trying to belittle our fears.  I am not trying to offer a flippant response to the haunting stress in our lives.  I am not even asking you to glibly adopt a “whatever is going to happen is going to happen” mentality.  But what I am suggesting is that we take some positive steps while the bear walks across left field.  We should take the right precautions.  We should listen to those who have more insight and knowledge than we do.  We should talk it out with people who love us and care for us.  And we should call on the One who has promised to be with us until the end of the age.

Bears will eventually meander away.  Dark storms will give way to brighter mornings.  Relationships will find their renewed footing.  Fears will dissipate.  If you are in the middle of a life interruption, see it as just that… an interruption and not a final ending to your story.  It will soon be time for the game to begin again.

During your bear delay, may you find strength in the company of both good friends and a good God.

– Jon R Roebuck