The Pendulum Effect

“Come aboard this rocking ship for a most memorable voyage.”

Oh, it was remarkable all right.

I’m still remarking about it after 40 years.

Those were the words, painted on a sign that greeted our family before we climbed on board The Dragon Swing at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. It was the first (and last) ride of the day for my youngest son and me. Seated in a long, narrow, boat-like vessel with a dragon’s head and tail was like riding on the pendulum of a large clock.

Dathan and I share a susceptibility to motion sickness. The older I get the more easily I can experience motion sickness. A recent Peanuts cartoon in the local newspaper described me. Peppermint Patty is talking to Charlie Brown at the gate of an amusement park. Charlie is seated on the ground with a pathetic look on his face as Patty obsreves, “Some kids even get sick on the merry-go-round but you’re the only one I know who gets sick going through the turnstile.”I was aware about my battle with motion sickness but, for whatever reason, we chose that day to walk on the wild side. I started repenting less than one minute into the ride. As the dragon rose higher and higher, it began to swing wider and wider. Taking a seat in the dragon’s belly had been sheer folly. Somehow, we held ourselves together through the ride. When the reptile finally slithered to a complete stop Dathan and I—both red-haired and fair skinned—were even whiter than usual. The rest of the day at the amusement park was not amusing. Pie-lover that I am, I couldn’t even be tempted with a bite of the famous Knott’s Berry pie.

It strikes me that sometimes the church resembles that long-ago Dragon Swing. (Hopefully, without the nausea.) Like a pendulum we tend to swing from one extreme to another, emphasizing a biblical truth such as God’s holiness and justice in one generation only to swing the other way focusing almost exclusively on His grace and mercy.

That is the focus of my forthcoming book: Fear and Wonder: Celebrating the Kindness and Severity of Our God. (Working title.)

Each of us must face two vital questions in this life: Is there a God? If so, what is God like? The book doesn’t spend much time with the first question, since I’m writing to people who already believe in Him. Great books by men and women with brilliant minds have addressed God’s existence down through the years. One that I can particularly recommend is Tim Keller’s The Reason for God.

The question of God’s existence ought to affect every area of our lives. If there is no Deity—no God or gods—then why be good or kind or loving? Just be strong and rule your own personal micro kingdom. If there is no God, then there could be no heaven or hell or final judgment. No right or wrong, and no ultimate accountability. So why not eat, drink and grab for all the gusto this world has to offer…no matter who gets hurt into the process. Let the most fit survive. Forget about the vulnerable.

But God’s existence is a game changer, isn’t it?

We are created beings, not simply the latest edition on an evolutionary calendar. Knowing this, we have a very strong and viable reason to be good. We want to please our Creator. And beyond that, we know there is life after we gasp for a final breath on earth. There is a judgment with eternal consequences. If we have been created in God’s image, every life has value, whether it is hidden in a mother’s womb or abandoned and forgotten in the back hallway of a nursing home.

Assuming God exists (and when I consider the evidence I don’t have the faith to deny it), the question about what is God like becomes vital. That is the central point in Fear and Wonder. God, of course, is out-of-this-world indescribable. Mighty and mysterious as He certainly is, how can we ever hope to figure Him out?

I can’t.

And neither can you.

I am a blind man stumbling through a field of landmines searching for something or Someone who may just happen to be somewhere out there in this vast universe. Sounds like Vladmir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.

Left to ourselves we will create a god in our own image, since that is all we know. And let me assure you, a god just-like-me would be pathetic being indeed. Such a god would be weak and unpredictable at best and cruel and malevolent at worst. Such a deity isn’t worthy of our notice, let alone our worship and devotion.

Next week, here on the Front Porch Swing I want to consider the challenge of “figuring out” this amazing Person we call God.

Oh, yes, back to the Dragon Swing. The God I heard about as a child was holy and fearfully righteous. A Cosmic Cop. The threat of His anger and wrath brought me to my knees as a child. Not in wonder but out of overwhelming fear. That’s quite a contrast to the God I read about or hear presented by church leaders and television preachers today.

Has the pendulum swung so far toward God’s kindness and mercy and grace at the expense of His severity and holiness?

Let’s talk about that.