When I was in high school, our senior high youth group were gathered together up in the youth room on a Sunday night. The group was planning an upcoming Youth Sunday. We were making decisions regarding scripture passages, hymns, and prayers to use. Then, the question was asked, “Who will do the sermon?”
Everyone avoided making eye contact with anyone.
Honestly, I had spent the bulk of the time avoiding eye contact. I was one of the youngest in the room. What did I have to contribute?
Then, from the other end of the table, one of the seniors spoke up and said, “I think Jason should do it.”
It was one of those moments where I was thrilled to be thought of, yet scared to death that they thought of me! I would accept and began working on the “sermon.” When I finished it, I gave it my youth leader to look over. She made some suggestions, among them, “Be careful not to put God in a box.”
I don’t remember what in my sermon she may had been referring to, nor do I have any idea what that sermon was about. But that statement – “Be careful not to put God in a box” – has resided in my memory ever since. A reminder to myself whenever I teach or preach that God is bigger than any comfortable, square box we may want to place (or keep) God.
In the United Methodist Church, General Conference is the body that meets every four years to make major decisions regarding the polity of the church. In addition to discussing the ordination process, approving a budget, and possible ways to restructure, there will be plenty of discussion about human sexuality. The most anticipated conversation to take place, with hundreds, if not thousands, of petitions related to this.
At a conference level meeting I attended, there were representatives from all sides of the human sexuality square. While conversation was civil, there were these awkward moments of throat clearing, eyes rolling, and heads shaking. While everyone in the room voiced that they wanted to have a respectful conversation, the body language of some communicated otherwise. There was this underlying sense that it was still “us vs. them.”
It was if we were putting, or keeping, God in a box.
When we put God in a box, we are limiting the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and more importantly, in our Church. God is bigger than any box we imperfect humans can create. When Jesus promised the arrival of the Holy Spirit, he said, “The Advocate (the helper), the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26)
As a people who follow the Risen Christ, we are nothing without the Holy Spirit. Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon write in their book The Holy Spirit:
Christians are people who dare to live in the power of the Holy Spirit, that is, live lives out of control, coming to God dependent, empty-handed, lives driven by and accountable to someone more interesting than ourselves.
When we place God in a box, we are keeping God where we are comfortable with God. More importantly, when this happens, we end up doing the things that we are comfortable with and not the hard stuff that the Holy Spirit may be nudging us to do.
We cannot leave God in a box.
This is perhaps my biggest fear and most earnest prayer for General Conference – that in all the deliberations, discussions, and debates, God is not put in a box and the Holy Spirit has room to breathe. I pray that every delegate in attendance allow the Holy Spirit to brood over the Church, to give birth to something new, and to be life-giving.