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Is God In or Out
July 23, 1989


Let me ask you a question. Empty your mind, concentrate, and remember the first thing that pops into your mind. We have just sung the hymn, "God Touched Me." Visualize now, when God touches you, where is God? Where is God located? Do you picture God within you or outside you? Let's take a show of hands.

I'm not sure what you pictured God to be like in that exercise, but I'm primarily interested this morning in discussing the location of God, the location of God in relation to you. Of course, God is everywhere, but everywhere means nowhere to many of us. Most of us humans need to conceptualize, to concretize, or we have difficulty grasping. It is too nebulous. God the spirit, God the creative source of all life, God the creative energy, God the life force within everyone and everything is difficult to conceptualize, difficult to picture, difficult to relate to. As humans we need images. We need pictures. And where we humans locate God is of significant importance to our faith and the way we live our lives.

By locating God, I mean where do you look to find God? Where do you look to relate to God? Traditionally and historically, God is located in or out, within you or outside you. The theological terms are immanence and transcendence. There have been debates for centuries. Is God primarily immanent--within us; or is God primarily transcendent--outside, above, beyond us?

As humans created by God, we all long to be in relationship with our Creator. We hunger and yearn for fellowship with God, but many of us don't know where to look. Many of the old places in which was God was found are not as promising anymore. The minister preached, "Reaching God is like dialing a number on a telephone. The telephone is your heart and you dial his name." An elderly lady interrupted, "Tell me, would that be long distance or a local call?" What has happened is that our images and understanding of the world have changed, and theology must keep up with the changing world views.

Traditionally, Christianity has located God outside us, emphasizing the transcendence of God, and the sinfulness and unworthiness of us "worms." For many people, God is located "up." We point up to heaven. People climb mountains to be closer to God. Churches and cemeteries were built on the highest hill in town or in the open country. Jerusalem is located in the mountains so there are many biblical passages urging worshipers to ascend the hill of the Lord, and come up to God. Church buildings, especially the cathedrals, point up to God with high ceilings, and when they can't afford too much building, they attach a spire or steeple to point up and out to God. Our sanctuary is built to emphasize the transcendence of God. We climb steps to reach the Communion table. Our eyes are drawn to the table, then to the cross, then up to God.

Science has taught us there is no "up." What's up now is down soon. I remember looking at slides of the sky made by an amateur astronomer preacher. He said that he believed heaven was located near the North star because there is a gap in the sky there. I discovered in my college astronomy class he didn't have a large enough telescope!

This past week we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the moon landing. In my memory, I can still see the TV picture of the foot touching the moon's surface. The entire nation watched with wonder that Sunday afternoon. Many folks wondered if the astronauts would see God out there in space. A few days ago on the radio, I heard an astronaut quoted. I'm sorry I didn't catch his name, but the astronaut was reported as saying, "Next time up, we should take a poet, priest and philosopher with us to help us understand what we are seeing out there." He's right. Science gives us the technology to go out there, but it takes more than a scientific understanding of life to see what is out there. God is there as well as here. "Those who have eyes to see, let them see," said Jesus.

There have been times in history when God was thought to be so far up and out that intermediaries had to be used in order to communicate with God. To reach God, angels were sent as messengers--as go-betweens--to intercede between God and people. At other times in history people have prayed to God through the mother of Jesus, or dead saints, or a priest.

The limitation of picturing God up and out is that it encourages us to feel that God is removed from us, to feel that God is not involved in our daily struggles and pains, that God wouldn't understand or doesn't have time to relate to us. It is also tempting to picture God way out there so we don't have to deal with him. Some try to live their lives with God as far removed as possible.

When God is pictured as being up and out there, prayer is defined as communication between people and God. Sometimes, however, the believer feels that God is so far away his/her prayers never leave the room.

It is tempting for worshipers in our sanctuary to feel removed from God. The congregation sits in rows out there, while the real action is supposedly taking place up here among us who are somehow closer to God. In some congregations there is hostility between the congregation and the preacher, choir, and organist, who, the congregation feels, think they are better, or at least holier, than the rest of the church.

The other location traditional religion pictures for God is "in," within each person. In the lesson today from Colossians, 1:27, Paul wrote, "God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." "Christ in you" is speaking of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

The Greeks used the word "soul," and spoke of the "spark of divinity within each person." Philosophers speak of the "mind." Quakers speak of the "light of God" within each person. The Statement of Purpose of the Unity School of Christianity, which distributes the popular magazine, Daily Word, reads, "Unity believes that God is absolute good, everywhere present, within all persons, and is readily accessible to everyone." Religions that take the extreme position of picturing God "in" teach that each of us is spirit, and the body with its shortcomings, pains, illness, and even death, is illusion.

When you picture God within, prayer is meditation rather than communication with a transcendent God. The limitation of picturing God within each of us is that God may become very subjective. The temptation is to identify one's interests, desires, and conscience with God. As a result, it is tempting to lose sight of God as creator and judge. The heart of biblical faith is sometimes lost.

At the heart of the Bible's witness is covenant. God enters into covenant with us where God offers unconditional love that is never canceled. Our part of the covenant is to be faithful followers, to be God's people, belonging wholly to God. When God is located within us, the covenantal dimension is often lost. It is difficult to establish a covenant with something within you.

Also, when God is located within, there is a temptation to deny the body and, in the larger context, the world. Salvation becomes a very personal experience, and the social dimensions are forgotten. Except for the Quakers who have a very strong interest in saving the world, churches which locate God within are rarely concerned with social change, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, justice or peace.

Now, let me make myself perfectly clear! I hope you are not misunderstanding me. Of course, God is up, as well as down and around. Of course, God is transcendent. God is outside us, above and beyond. Not only in location but in purpose, goodness, and love, God is far beyond us. God transcends our limited experience.

And, of course, God is within us. Meditation is a very dynamic form of prayer as we get in touch with the indwelling Spirit of God, and as we listen to the voice of God within us. But, is God primarily in or up? Where you locate God is of critical importance to your understanding of God, your understanding of life, and your understanding of yourself.

May I suggest another location--an image which is very helpful to me, and, I believe, is more biblical than either in, out, or up. Yes, God is within us. Yes, God is transcendent, up and beyond us. But, may I suggest, and I encourage you to play with this image (let it roll around in your head as you live the next several days), that God's primary location is ahead of us. God is ahead of us, calling us to follow.

Can you see Jesus walking through the Galilean countryside, with the disciples behind him, talking as he walks, calling over his shoulder, "Come on, guys, follow me!"

Paul wrote in Philippians 3:12-14, "I press on...forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

God called Abraham to leave the old and seek the promised land.

God led Moses and the slaves from Egypt through the wilderness to the promised land, with the sign of the fire by night, and the cloud by day.

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, facing the future undaunted and unafraid.

The New Testament anticipates the day of God's victory, and the coming of the kingdom.

Jesus is ahead of us, calling, urging, "Come, follow me into the future." My mother is with us now. She is bedridden, growing weaker every day. As I watch her near the end of her life, I am comforted by picturing Jesus ahead of her, calling, "Come, follow me. I will lead you through death to the future, to heaven where there is no more pain, no more tears, only joy and peace." I see Jesus ahead of our church, calling us, "Come, follow me into the future. Be faithful. Do my work." I see Jesus ahead of us, calling us into the world, "Come, follow me into the future. I need to use your hands, your feet, your talents to help people, to bring justice and peace."

God tugs and pulls on us. You've felt the tug. God doesn't let us be satisfied with ourselves, for when we think we've finished, God opens up another whole arena of things to do. We've no time to feel lost, bewildered, confused, or useless.

God is ahead, calling us to grow; not to hibernate or stagnate.

God is ahead, calling us to struggle with ourselves and our world, not to escape into some peace of mind nirvana.

God is ahead, calling us to sing and dance, not to mope and feel sorry for ourselves.

God is ahead, calling us to follow, not telling him what to do for us.

God is ahead of us, calling, leading. That's where God primarily is. Let's get where the action is.

© 1989 Douglas I. Norris