It is the eve of the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I want to focus on two instances where God is in the news.
One is the much-discussed (and now at least temporarily "suspended") plan of a church in Florida and a church in Kansas to burn a copy of the Qu'ran, apparently in protest over the planned Ground Zero mosque or maybe just as a general anti-Islam statement. This choice has been fully vetted and discussed in print and in cyberspace, and I am not going to add to that debate per se.
The second is the cover story of today's USA Today concerning actor Michael Douglas and his ongoing treatment for throat cancer. Saying that he has not really thought through mortality issues because he does not think he is dying, Douglas is quoted as saying "I haven't found God yet."
These two seemingly unrelated items strike a chord with me. On one hand, a church openly appeals to hatred as a tool to provide a message. On the other hand, the concept of God is a punch line. I believe that each has to do with the other.
So long as the church operates not as the Body of Christ but rather as just another human organization with very human ideals, it will focus on political goals and popular ends. The politics is not limited to any one direction, of course. For every right-wing church that wants to burn a book or picket a funeral, there is a left-wing church that wants to promote a coffee shop agenda of so-called tolerance that in fact amounts to anything goes.
It is not unforeseeable that in such a world, ideals of God are laughable to many. Why should God be a realistic concern of those whose primary public view of the alleged people of God is caricature?
The anniversary of 9/11 will provide opportunities for God to be in the news again. Some will blame the attacks on God (or praise God for "causing" the attacks). Others will use the opportunity to evaluate one or more of the leading religions of the world, all of which call on God - whether they use the name "Yahweh" or "Allah" or "Jehovah" or "Father."
I am not suggesting that all religions are the same, for they are not. I am not suggesting that all religions are equally acceptable, for they are not. I am not suggesting that Islam is as reasonable a way to approach God as is Christianity, for I do not believe that it is.
I am suggesting, however, that when people choose to act or speak the name of God, they do damage to that name when they act stupidly, unlovingly, counter-productively, or insanely. Blowing up buildings in the name of God is insane. Burning books (especially books that you have not read) in the name of God is, at least, counter-productive. It is not, however, the same as blowing up buildings, and the hyperbolic editorials that have suggested that it is are reaching for a story. Still, for the people who claim to be God's to disregard how their actions will affect the perception of God because they want to make a point seems to me to lead more and more people simply to disregard any serious consideration of God at all.
I have no idea about Michael Douglas' personal religious convictions, if he has any at all. But I do know that "finding God" in deathbeds and prison cells is a common joke.
I don't pretend that we Christians will be anything approaching perfect. We are going to make horrible mistakes that defame the God we represent - we often do. But to do so intentionally in the name of an end that is not even claimed to be a godly goal is beyond me.
If our Christian witness is to have any meaning at all, it has to mean that we are conscious of how our words and actions portray God to the world. When churches are embarrassed to say the name "Jesus Christ" out loud for fear of making someone uncomfortable, it is not surprising that people are not interested in Jesus. When churches are indistinguishable from shopping malls, it is not surprising that visitors act like customers, who expect to be "always right" and who will move on to the next location as trends change. When churches strive primarily to be culturally relevant, it is not surprising that they fail to have any permanent meaning to those who can find better music online and cooler pop culture references on "The Daily Show."
And when any so-called church makes the news for politics (much less hatred), it should be expected that the response will be a political one. God gets left in the dust, to be picked up by the quipsters who need material.