God is not on our side

We were on a mission to find Indian Food at one of our favorite restaurants and en route we were listening to NPR’s “Fresh Air.”  Terry Gross was interviewing Nick Paumgarten and we caught the conversation midstream.

Paumgarten was talking about on-line dating and observed that one of the random indicators he had found of potential marital bliss was whether or not a couple agreed on their like — or dislike — of horror films.  What about you, he asked Ms. Gross.

His host was diffident and responded, well, it depends on what you mean by horror films — classic or new, slasher movies or…

Woa! Paumgarten responded.  This is a binary thing.  You’re for them or against them.  If you want to qualify your view you’re not going to get dates.

That’s right.  And that’s precisely the problem with our society today.  That’s why we name-call, instead of discussing issues.  We brand and exile people who don’t agree with us.  Our news commentators and their guests talk over one another, scream, and shout.  Our politicians battle away at one another defending old positions and programs — and why none of them are capable of entertaining new ideas.  That’s also why, even in the church — if you want to get ahead, you are forced to choose a side.

For far too many people there is, quite simply, never any more than two choices available.  Left, right — up, down — black, white — yes, no.  Most of life doesn’t yield to that binary pattern, but we have imposed that pattern on it.

It won’t matter to everyone, but to those who care, it’s time to hear this and hear it clearly:

“God is not on your side.”

You meant “their” side, right?  No, I meant “your” side (And, by the way, God is not on my side, either.)

Let me elaborate (so that I avoid being binary!): In life, there are a handful of occasions when picking a side will likely put you on God’s side.  Cheating on your taxes, taking your neighbor’s life without provocation, abusing a child — under those circumstances it’s not hard to figure out where God stands.  But the problem is that most of those choices are pretty obvious and they almost never present themselves in real life.  The vast majority of life is not like that.

More importantly, from a spiritual point of view, when we conclude that we have done what God wants us to do by making those binary choices, the choice becomes an end in itself — a god of our own making.  And that’s why I think it’s time for us to hear, “God is not on your side.”

Every time Jesus was approached with a binary choice and asked —

tell me who to love and who to hate,

tell me who to forgive and how often to forgive them,

tell me who to serve, God or Caesar

— Jesus insisted on listening to God, instead of giving an answer.

Bob Lyon, a dear friend, mentor, and teacher, used to observe: Christians are meant to be a part of “the loyal opposition” — because God is “the loyal opposition.”  Everytime we want to draw a line, check off a box, or make a choice, God responds, “No, there’s more to hear — listen to me.”  And I think Bob was right.

As long as we reward binary behavior — make a choice, get a date — make a choice, get elected — make a choice, get a job — make a choice, find a welcome — the binary choices will look like the only thing possible.  They will also be all we have.

God is not on our side — yours or mine.  God doesn’t need a side.  We need to listen.  When we do, we will find fresh vision and insight — as well as new depth of community.  We will also find God, instead of our feeble binary interpretations of what God wants.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.