March 24, 2017
Dear Hyde Park Family,
When I was an elementary student at a local Christian school, my classmates and I were all fearful of principal Jack Santhouse. He seemed at least 6-1/2 feet tall, with broad shoulders and sullen eyes, a square jaw, and a sharp nose. But what we were most afraid of was the large wooden paddle he displayed above the desk in his office. Naughty students would come back into class wiping away tears upon returning from his office, and sitting in their seats a little more gingerly than when they left.
But Mr. Santhouse was also the leader of our mandatory Friday morning chapel assembly. All the students would gather at 8:30 in the morning, our little restless bodies stifled motionless lest we get a stern glare from him or our teachers. He would stand up, front and center on the stage, and call us to the pledging of allegiance to both the American flag and the Christian flag. And then he would lead us in singing “New Life,” the school theme song. I can still remember the words and melody of the chorus to this day:
New Life in Christ abundant and free!
What glories shine, what joys are mine,
What wondrous blessings I see!
My past with its sin, the searching and strife,
Forever gone — There’s a bright new dawn!
For in Christ I have found new life.
And when we got to the words “bright new dawn,” Mr. Santhouse would hop up onto the balls of his feet, making his towering frame seem even more imposing.
I will admit that during my whole elementary school career, I never had a cross run-in with Mr. Santhouse. I was spared his use of the big wooden paddle, and, truth be told, I learned to like him very much. And I think he liked me. But in retrospect, I have come to see that he played an even more significant role in my faith formation than I could ever have acknowledged at the time.
For better or worse, Mr. Santhouse modeled for me my first image of God.
It wasn’t until college and seminary that I began to think about images of God beyond gender and ethnicity. I then realized that as a child, when I pictured God, I saw the face of Mr. Santhouse. As the principal of that Christian school, he was the embodiment of its ideals and the chief architect of its instruction. And as the central part of my chapel worship experience, he called us to worship, led us in singing, and gave language to my faith.
But he was also ready to punish me if I stepped out of line. And little did I know that it was that fear that motivated much of my Christian upbringing.
This Sunday, our worship series on the theories of atonement explores one of the most controversial of them all: Appeasement. It suggests that the work of Jesus on the cross quelled God’s wrath upon humanity, and saved us from a punishment that we deserved because of our sin.
It might be tempting to skip this Sunday, particularly if you feel like this kind of God is not only foreign to your theology, but repulsive to you. But I would suggest that all of us, especially in times of suffering or crisis, revert to the kinds of fears that make us question God’s nature and activity in our lives.
Have you ever wondered:
“Why is God causing this suffering to happen in my life?
“Is God mad at me because of what I’ve done?”
“Is God using this crisis to teach me a lesson?”
“What have I done to deserve this from God?”
No, we may not picture God as a stern, elderly white male, with wooden paddle in hand. And the idea of a God who is ready to strike at our disobedience may seem too far-fetched for us to believe. But I encourage you to come to worship this Sunday, to hear the words that all of us need to hear from time to time:
God is not mad at you.
Grace and Peace,
The Rev. Magrey deVega
Senior Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist