Have you ever seen the face of God? Has God ever come up to you and introduced himself as, say, George Burns, or Morgan Freeman? No?
Yet we say we believe in God. Believe in this Holy One whom we have never actually seen.
Like the old joke about the little boy who, when told by his mother to wash his hands in order to be safe from germs, went off to the sink muttering, “Germs and God…germs and God; that’s all I ever hear around here, and I’ve never seen either one of them.”
But isn’t that always in the back (if not the front) of our mind when we come to church each Sunday morning? The hope that something special will happen – maybe even something extraordinary – that will help us to know God better, maybe even catch a glimpse of glory as God passes by
My wife Diane worked for many years as Chaplain in various hospitals, and some pretty weird stuff can happen in that kind of a setting; where people are under great physical, and emotion duress, where so often the limits of one’s faith is sorely tested; maybe even put to the ultimate test.
I remember one day Diane came home from work (Fairview Hospital, in Cleveland, I believe it was) looking a bit awestruck.
“Tough day?” I asked her.
“Interesting day,” she said. “I almost ran into a friend of yours today,” she continued. “The nursing staff asked me to visit a patient this morning, an elderly lady who is very ill, in fact is not doing well at all, and whom the nurse told me was in an extremely agitated state today.
“So I went down to her room,” Diane said, “and as soon as I went inside this thin, rather haggard and very anxious woman immediately demanded, `Did you see him?’ “I kind of looked around,” Diane said, `See who?’
`Did you see God?’ this frail patient wanted to know. `He was just here. Standing in the doorway. You must have seen Him…He just left.’
“Well,” Diane went on with her story, “I couldn’t help myself,’ she said. “I stepped out into the hallway and looked up and down both sides, but, well, didn’t see anyone who, you know, looked like they might live up to that description; a couple of doctors who might like to apply for the position, but no one really, God-like.
“So,” Diane said, “I told her that I didn’t see anyone,” “But she was just so sure that God had paid her a visit. That God had just, mere minutes before I arrived, had stood right there in the doorway of her hospital room; and then just disappeared.”
“Can you imagine that?” concluded Diane. “What an extraordinary thing to have happen! How do you think you would feel if that had just happen to you?” she asked me. “What do you think your response would be? Reassurance? Peace? Comfort? Hope?
“Well, this poor woman felt none of those things? In fact it nearly scared her half to death. Because she was convinced that God had made a divine appearance just outside of her room as a sign that she was going to die soon.
“And then God abruptly left her alone, by herself. Well, this poor woman was just beside herself.”
When Diane was finished with her story, I asked, “Was this in the mental unit?”
“No,” she said.
“Stroke victim?” I offered.
“Then she must have been heavily medicated, right?”
“I don’t think so,” Diane said, and then added. “Why can’t you just accept that she might have actually seen God?”
“Because I’m Presbyterian,” I retorted. “I’m not geared that way.”
It wasn’t that I couldn’t consider the possibility that God could actually appear in person to someone; after all God is God, and as God, God can surely do anything God wants to do.
But, for me, an event like that raises more questions than assurances. Maybe it’s the relentless theologian inside me; that resists taking for granted any conclusions before all other possibilities are eliminated. I’ve seen too many abuses occur from religious leader types masquerading in shepherd’s clothing taking advantage of those who wanted to believe so badly that they were ready to believe anything they were told which affirmed their hopes.
There’s an old story that makes its way around the seminary circuit about a homiletics professor who urged his students to always have a very compelling sermon title. To drive home the point, he said, “You should have a sermon title that is so powerful that people who are passing by on a bus will see it on the front sign and be so struck by it that they’ll get off at the next stop and come back to worship. Can any of you think of a sermon title that would have that kind of punch?”
After a few moments of silence, a student in the back of the room raised his hand, “How about this one, professor: ‘Your Bus is On Fire.’”
And, while that’s just a made-up story, actually it’s not so farfetched.
Like the real church sign I passed by last summer sitting in the front yard of Calvary Chapel Fellowship Evangelical Church in Wichita, Kansas:
“You’ve Got Questions. We’ve Got the Answers”
And I remember thinking, `It must be nice to have that kind of unconditional conviction about your own knowledge. To live in a protective bubble of absolute certitude about life.’
Well, I don’t know for certain, but I have done a great deal of reading on the matter and I do have a theory.[iii]
In a world that seems increasingly complex and confusing and uncertain and ambiguous a growing number of people are becoming more and more desperate for somebody to provide them with assurances in life.
And they’re willing to follow someone who claims to have those assurances: Even if it means suspending, at times, one’s own sense of reason; even if it means giving up (or keeping hidden) one’s private beliefs that contradict those claims.
But we Presbyterians just aren’t geared that way.
I was talking to someone the other day who had recently been to Boston, which is where Diane and I spent a few nights (and days) of our honeymoon. And we were comparing notes (not about honeymoons) about our experience in Boston.
And we were both struck by our visit to the historic Old North Church; the beauty of the architecture, and particularly the placement of the pulpit. Way back in the day, the preacher would ascend several steps to be elevated above the congregation, to whom he would then unequivocally dispense the absolute truth of the word of God to his depraved and ignorant parishioners. How do you think that would go over here?
We Presbyterians are among the most highly educated church-goers in the world. We don’t like someone else telling us what to think; we like to do our own thinking.
It makes me think about one Sunday morning at the church I served in Wichita, thirty minutes before worship one of the Sunday school teachers came into my study looking like a dear caught in the headlights.
“You’ve got to come down to my Sunday school room. I don’t know what to do. One of my kids keeps asking me questions that I can’t answer. You have come down right now!”
So, I followed this distraught Sunday school teacher back her classroom, whereupon I found a little blond ten-year-old girl standing in the middle of the room with her arms defiantly crossed. “Ok, go ahead,” said the teacher, “Go on and asked the pastor what you just asked me.”
Dutifully, the little girl looked straight at me and asked, “If I get to heaven and don’t like it there – will they let me leave.”
And I said, “Oh . . . honey, I think you’ll like it there.” (“That’s just what I said,” the Sunday school teacher whispered in my ear).
But this bright little girl, refusing to be patronized, shook her head, frowned at me and said, “That’s not my question. My question is, `If I get there and I don’t like it, will they let me leave.’”
So I tried a couple of other approaches – regarding how great heaven was going to be – without any better luck, and finally (while thinking to myself `If there’s anyone that they leave heaven, this child would probably be it.’), said to her, “I don’t know.”
Upon which the little girl nodded her head in triumph, having heard the answer she apparently was looking for. But then – and here’s the thing – that just opened the flood gates for this precocious little theologian to then ask me a dozen or so other questions, equally as perplexing.
And what I later realized was that this ten-year-old girl did not want the easy, pat answers she was presumably getting from her Sunday school teacher.
She wanted someone of relative authority to affirm the nagging ambiguities that were part of her life; her truth.
Now, her befuddled teacher was embarrassed by her own `ignorance’ and felt defeated by this little girl’s irresolvable spiritual angst.
But actually, I was rather encouraged by it.
Because, if we can help this little girl, and others like her, to develop sustaining faith in the face of – and over and against – the nagging ambiguities of life, then, I believe, we’ve been successful in preparing her to cope in a world which will ultimately defy all easy or pat answers.
Will Campbell is an irreverent Southern Baptist preacher, social activist, story-teller extraordinaire, prolific author; and, perhaps most notably, a good friend of the country singer Waylon Jennings. In fact, on one of Jennings famed bus tours, Campbell went along as the cook.
Waylon Jennings is not known for his excessive piety. Campbell remembers one night in the middle of that bus tour, asking him, “Waylon, what do you believe?” Jennings replied, “`Yeah.’ After a long silence, Campbell said, “Yeah? What’s that supposed to mean?’ Yet more silence, until Waylon said, “Uh huh.” Said Campbell, `That ended my prying into ole Waylon’s soul’”
Will Campbell later reflected, in his book Soul among Lions, “Today we are bombarded with a theology of certitude. I don’t find much biblical support for the stance of `God told me and I’m telling you, and if you don’t believe as I do, then you’re doomed,’ a sort of `my god can whip your god’ posture.
From Abraham, going out in faith not knowing where he was being sent, to Jesus on the cross beseeching the Father for a better way, there was always more inquiring faith that conceited certainty. It occurs to me that the troubadour’s [Waylon Jenning’s] response that late night might have been the most profound affirmation of faith I had ever heard.” (pp. 8 -9)
In an article she wrote for The Christian Century, Barbara Brown Taylor referred to a theologian who lived 500 years ago by the name of Nicolas of Cusa, whose primary contribution to theology was the notion he called, “Learned Ignorance.”
Nicolas of Cusa wrote, “God is the unknown infinite who dwells in light inaccessible and so God’s greatest gift to us is `to know that we do not know.’ “Nothing more perfect comes to a person,” he said.
Barbara Brown Taylor concludes, “In Nicolas’s scheme, the dumbest people in the world are those who think they know. Their certainty about what is true not only pits them against each other, it also prevents them from learning anything new. That is truly dangerous knowledge. They do not know that they do not know and their unlearned ignorance keeps them in the dark about most of the things that matter…To know that you do not know is the beginning of wisdom.” (The Christian Century, June 1, 2001)
One of the people who inspired me early on as a preacher was dear Dr. Robert Myers, pastor of my sister’s UCC church. Bob’s father was a Fundamentalist/Evangelical preacher, who rightly so, saw great potential in his son for ministry. So Bob, at a very young age, began preaching at his father’s revival meetings, astounding those who listened.
Bob’s father raised him with a rod in one hand and the bible in the other. As Bob got older he, understandably, rebelled against his father’s – theological and emotional – strictures and subsequently, as a young man, found his own voice in the pulpit; one which expressed the hope of the Gospel message even in the face of life’s ambiguity. Bob had abandoned the cotton-candy answers of his boyhood, as he struggled — and continued to struggle throughout his life – with his own angst over life’s ambiguities.
Never being one to settle for easy answers myself, I was profoundly inspired by Bob’s authentic attitude and his open-hearted approach.
For the first six months of my preaching career (being both inexperienced and scared to death) I tried very hard to emulate Dr. Myers. After six months, one of the patriarchs of the church took me aside after a worship service to say, “Tom, we’ve heard what you don’t know. Now tell us what you do know.”
And I remember thinking at that point, `Yeah . . . Uh huh.’
Now, thirty years later, I still think Dr. Myers had it right.
I set out to be a man of letters; a man of knowledge. Today – one bachelors’ and two post-graduate degrees later – I’ve discover that what Socrates said is true: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
And, if I dare say so myself, I find that which I don’t know infinitely more intriguing than what I think I do know.
Great men have ever wondered about apprehending the mysteries of an `invisible’ God. Perched upon volumes of knowledge, they were brought no closer. In the fourth century B.C., Plato, discoursing on some of the unsolvable mysteries of the universe, exclaimed, “Oh, that there might come forth a word from God to make all things clear!”
And, about four hundred years after Plato’s death, “The Word was made flesh and dwelled among us.” (John 1:14)
In my estimation, the thing Moses – almost inadvertently – got most right that day on the mountain is found in his opening line, “You tell me to lead up this people without letting me know whom you will send with them, even though you have said to me, “I know you by name, and, what is more, you have found favor with me.”
It was never about what Moses did or did not know.
It was about Who knew Moses.
So, today, here’s what I can tell you with absolute certainty: that God is God and we are not. And that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and vice versa. And that God – immortal, invisible, hid from our eyes – came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ to let us know what God is like as much as humanly possible; and, more importantly, with the message that God knows us and, yet still, holds us in divine favor.
Because, ultimately, the most important thing I’ve learned over the years is that, it’s not what you know. It’s Who knows you.
[iii] Pew Research Center: Religion & Public Life, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, Demographic Study, May 12, 2015.