One bible story I remember learning about as a child in Sunday School is the Tower of Babel. Perhaps I remember this story because of the funny-sounding word for what we hear when someone doesn’t stop talking. If so, I may have missed how closely this word can fit my own propensity to keep talking long after the people around me quit listening.
But as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate this story in a totally different light.
I’m guessing most of you are familiar with this story But just in case I’ll summarize by saying that the people living on earth were at one time all very much alike. They spoke the same language, used the same slang terms, dressed similarly, and so on. You get the point. Can you spell B-O-R-I-N-G? It was like a meg-church with no small groups.
Their boredom finally reached a point that they decided to start a massive building project. First, the plan was to build a tower that reached heaven. Then, perhaps they planned an insurrection and takeover. This way, they could make sure that everyone in heaven was like them. Sound familiar?
Regardless, God had a different plan. The tower was destroyed by God before it was finished, and the people scattered. Instead of the same language, multiple languages emerged. Instead of one way to dress, people started going to someplace other than the Gap to buy their clothes. You get the point. Instead of one large group that looked, talked, and thought alike, they became many different groups.
Can you spell D-I-V-E-R-S-I-T-Y?
Of course, there were consequences. There are always consequences.
If you aren’t familiar with this story, you may not realize that I embellished the story of Babel quite a lot. I even made some of it up. Nevertheless, it’s a good story, and my version may be closer to the truth than the way others tell it — or not. But I take comfort in knowing that the technical details of the story aren’t the point.
Part of what it means to be human is filling in the blanks when trying to make meaning out of vagueness. And we have little choice but to fill in the blanks with whatever insights we’ve gathered from other sources. So when detail is missing, we make the rest up often without realizing that it’s happening.
This is how our vision works all the time. Our eyes miss a lot of detail because our eyes have a lot of blind spots. So our brain fills in the missing pieces for us based on past experience. As a result, we see a partially accurate and somewhat inaccurate version of what actually exists.
We go through a similar process when we describe God. What we don’t know about God we make up. Including persons who don’t believe there is a God. They don’t know for sure, so they make up a story to convince themselves that how they see the universe is the real thing. This means that other versions of the story are less valid for them.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that:
Spirituality is the active pursuit of the God you didn’t make up. My view of God is my own creation, made from bits and pieces of received or perceived knowledge about divine reality that I hope or fear are true. Love God in the person standing right in front of you, or forget the whole thing, because if you cannot do that, then you are just going to keep making shit up. The one who does not look, think, or act like the rest of us may offer us our best chance at seeing past our own reflections in the mirror to the God we did not make up. 1
The simple answer for Christians is that we turn to Jesus Christ to fill in the blanks. But the simple answer has a lot of blank-filling that’s needed to complete the picture. The Bible contains all that we need to know for salvation. Not just what we need to know for eternal life but also what we need to know to live abundantly right now.
And a lot of us stop there and claim we know all the answers. But ask anyone what they know about God and you’re going to learn more about the person than you learn about God.
This is because our spiritual eyes are very much like our physical eyes. We still fill in the blanks to create the version of Jesus that most agrees with what we choose to believe. Some of us tune in to the “Fox News” version, while others look to sources with less bias. Meanwhile, we miss the other side of each story which brings us back full circle to Babel.
My all-time favorite story from scripture may be the most demanding of all. I suspect that it is common for us to wonder if there really is a day of reckoning. Death presents such a finality to all that we know. Yet, who doesn’t hope for something beyond that moment when our life is over? But will there be a day of reckoning?
Whenever you did this for one of the least important… you did it for me!
Jesus filled in some blanks for us about a final judgment on several occasions using stories to illustrate what to expect. For example, in Matthew’s telling of one story, Jesus uses livestock as a stand-in for people. The very name “live-stock” infers being alive. So I don’t mind Jesus comparing me to an animal, depending on which animal He chooses.
At the end of our life here, according to Jesus, there will be a sorting out. The sorting will be like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Jesus must have liked sheep but may have gotten butted by a goat at some point. Because in this story, it far better to be a sheep.
One fascinating point in this story is that neither the sheep nor the goats knew that they were sheep or goats. Perhaps it’s like a fish that doesn’t realize that it lives in water, but there are birds overhead that live in the sky. Until the day they become fish food.
The deciding factor for whether I am a sheep or goat, according to Jesus, is determined by how we respond to persons in peril. But in His telling, Jesus uses a very subtle test. He says to the sheep that when you saw me thirsty, hungry, naked, a stranger, in prison, or sick, you didn’t just ignore me. Instead, you treated me with dignity, offered hospitality, or sometimes you took action to help relieve my suffering.
The confusion comes from the lack of recognition that any of us, sheep or goats, actually recall seeing Jesus in peril. The gut-punch comes when Jesus says that whenever we take action to help the most vulnerable among us, we’re actually doing something for and to Jesus. When we see a person in peril, we should see the very God who determines our fate. But we must look closely to see God.
This, my friends, is the God that we didn’t makeup. This is the God who created diversity among us to be a unique image of our Creator. A tapestry of souls, each with our very own customized, blanks-filled version of the God we hope exists.
This week is the final episode of our series we called Holy Envy. Join us each Sunday as we navigate life’s challenges using the Word of God as our guidepost. And recognizing that none of us have a monopoly on knowing the mind of God. So we’re better when we work together.
In this month’s series we looked for God in the faith of others. In doing so, we expect to experience holy envy from time to time. We anticipate once in a while wondering whether the water might be a bit sweeter coming out of our neighbor’s well.
Plan to join us next month for Part one of our new series, Better together. Between now and Thanksgiving we will be hearing from several women found in the Old Testament and their contemporary versions we can actually see and hear from. Bring a friend with you.
We have a new button on the homepage of our website – Click here to watch. This button takes you to a viewer to allow you to join live or watch later in the week. We’re also live on our newly launched YouTube channel. You can find these links along with more information about us on our website at FlintAsbury.org.
A reminder that we publish this newsletter that we call the Circuit Rider each week. You can request this publication by email. Send a request to connect@FlintAsbury.org or let us know when you send a message through our website. We post an archive of past editions on our website under the tab, Connect – choose Newsletters.
1 Much of the content of this series is based on Barbara BrownTaylor’s book: Barbara Brown Taylor. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. Harper One, 2019.