The other evening at a dinner party we met a lovely Australian gal who spoke about her elderly mum’s recent move to a supportive living situation. She and her brother were helping with the move. Her brother was on about mum’s collection of “God-bothering” paraphernalia and what in the world to do with it all.
While we didn’t get a complete manifest of what was in the God-bothering category, I imagined things like crystals, healing oils, incense, bowls of one sort and another, gongs, packets of herbs, prisms, candles and books on how to use it all in order to “experience the divine.”
I found his expression “God-bothering” quite funny, and with a few more glasses of wine, all but hysterical. It seemed to me a wonderful Australian-ism for so much of human religiosity. All the ways, techniques, formulas, and methods we humans cook up for getting at God, for getting into some sacred ether, and for getting on God’s good side.
I was reminded of the clarifying response I got from the longtime and legendary editor at Eerdmans Publishing, Jon Potts, who schooled me on the nature of a religion of grace. I had written something in which I was trying to say how Christianity differed from other religions. Potts cut through the crap.
“Doesn’t it boil down to most religions being all the stuff we are supposed to do to get on God’s good side, or to show that we’re on God’s side? Christianity isn’t that. It is about the God, who in Christ Jesus, has taken our side. To all that (God-bothering) stuff God says, ‘Stop it. Stop it right this minute! I have taken your side and will never leave it.'”
A lot of what we have, in recent years, come to think of as “spirituality” is your basic “God-bothering.”
It’s how to channel the divine, how to get in touch with the infinite, to attain some contact with the beyond, to get to a “spiritual place,” or to become a more “spiritual” person. One may sympathize with the aspiration. It’s just that for Christians we don’t try to get away to somewhere to find God. God finds — indeed, “bothers” — us right here.
More often than not, God doesn’t show up when we finally ascend to some rarified heights of higher consciousness, but when we’re in the pits. Or if not in the pits, then just doing our own thing while doing our best to avoid the hound of heaven.
Nadia Bolz-Weber catches the difference when she writes about the pressure clergy feel to be especially holy or more spiritual than other people.
“So often in the church, being a pastor or ‘spiritual leader’ means being the example of ‘godly living.’ A pastor is supposed to be the person who is really good at this Christianity stuff — the person others can look to as an example of righteousness. But as much as being the person who is the best Christian, who ‘follows Jesus’ the most closely can feel a little seductive, it’s simply never been who I am or who my parishioners needed me to be. I’m not running after Jesus, Jesus is running my ass down.”
If there’s bothering going on, it’s coming from a God who keeps showing up in the wrong people, in unlikely places and in the midst of our foolishness and failures, more than our great achievements or earnest piety.
Of late the lectionary texts from the Old Testament have also been on about our human “God-bothering” and how wearisome God finds it.
In Micah 6, for instance, before we get to the famous part about, “doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God,” the people are deeply irritated that God hasn’t noticed all their God-bothering attempts to get on his good side.
“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” The anger at a God who refuses to be placated with all their God-bothering is palpable.
Same in the recent text from Isaiah 58 on the fast God requires. The people protest, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” To which God says, “Look, I’m sick of all your God-bothering religion. Try paying your workers fairly.”
God-bothering? It will wear you out. But this bothering God, the God who keeps breaking-in, showing up? This God will set you free.