God in the Clouds, or Clouded to God in Our Midst?
May 12, 2002
Easter 7 John 17:1-11
A wise person once dared to suggest to me: 'Live your life as if there is no God!' That's right. You heard it correctly. From one Anglican Priest to another... Live your life as if there is no God! Rid yourself of all past assumptions of God; live as if there is no deity watching, ready to bring wrath on you. Live as if there is no 'hell', no guilt, no supernatural puppeteer-God pulling your strings or the strings of history. Live your life without the manipulation of the Bible hanging over you. Live as if there is no interventionist God!
I was later to discover that my sage was in fact quoting the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who uttered these words from his prison cell, incarcerated for his opposition to Nazism. I was also to discover that another theologian, Paul Tillich, had suggested putting a moratorium on the word God for 100 years until we had put meaning on what we meant by 'God'.
When I was willing to enter this journey privately I was surprised at the results. I began to recreate a God who made sense to me and found this God in surprising places. I found a God who is not necessarily in conflict with science and technology; a God who is willing to change with the times, because the times could even be good. I revisioned a God who is in my quietest thoughts and way beyond my imagination in the sounds and movements of life.
I posed a series of questions about life and meaning: What if it is true that the world began 5 billion years ago and not 6000? What if human experience as we know it is neither the first nor the last style of existence? What if it is true that the Bible was written by human beings deeply prejudiced by the prevailing world views of their day? What if some of these teachings offer little to our post structuralist issues and crises? What if the events surrounding Jesus life and death were the interpretations of a group desperate to put meaning on their frightened existence? What if? What if God is not external, supernatural and interventionist in nature?
I now refuse to accept the ancient manipulation that I either believe the supernatural interpretations of first century events or I don't. Rather I see it as quite possible to be unmoved by the magic, yet hugely moved by the power I see in lives which are connected. I refuse to bow to a God created by another age, and opt rather for the God of the third millennium.
A family lived in a small village with two young boys who were always up to mischief. If there was ever trouble in town, fingers were pointed in their direction. So their parents spoke to the local Vicar who arranged to speak with the boys. They were left at the office of the Vicar who first called the younger boy in. He sat the 8 year old down and asked him calmly - Where is God? and Have you been talking to God lately? The boy sat in silence so the Priest asked again- Where is God? And have you been talking to him? The boy still gave no answer, so the Vicar raised his voice and shook his finger in the face of the boy - Where is God? at which point the boy raced for the door, grabbed his brother and dragged him home. The older brother asked him anxiously - What happened? The younger brother replied- We're in big trouble this time. God is missing and they think we did it!
Today I want to pose the question - 'where is God?' and I want to explore how it is that this question might be explored without a finger being shaken in our faces. Let me frame the question for you another way - Is God in the clouds or are we clouded to the God in our midst?Or in more detail - Is God a remote, untouchable, force to be reckoned with, or is God no further away than our touch and sight, the spirit of compassion and inclusiveness?Or finally, is God both these opposites, held together in some kind of tension, both a mysterious and remote force and an ever-attainable experience? If this is the solution, is faith then about living with the inconsistencies?
Lest you think that I am merely having fun with words and ideas, allow me to hint at some of my life experience which has led me to this point. The first is the very nature of the place I came from, where these were for the most part private explorations. I found very few people interested in taking this journey with me and felt vaguely under threat for asking the questions. It was in fact this perceived threat which sparked for me the realisation that a God who was under threat of being destroyed by my questions was not a God worth pursuing.
The second experience was walking alongside a loved one in a long battle with chronic illness. This sparked for me a crisis of Faith - Faith which could no longer believe in an Almighty God. God either lacked compassion or lacked power. Either way my framework had to change. Let me tell you that story another day.
The third was a relationship crisis which sparked for me anxiety about searching for ideals in a far away place. God as an ideal had to be attainable or revisioned. Let me take you to that place another day.
My hope is that, by even hinting at some of these life lessons, and some of you will know what I am talking about, you will understand that this is not just a rational exercise. This is the very practical stuff of life and meaning.
We at St Matthew's are a diverse group. Some of us hang on dearly to an Almighty God who is able to transform our lives because this God is separate and somehow removed from the harsh realities of life. Some of us have taken the sort of revisioning process I have described as my journey. Some of us hold to a belief in God who is both and either and more and less and neither depending on our stage and experience of life.
One of my hopes this morning is that you might see the thinking behind some of the changes to hymn words I have made since being here. It has very little to do with political correctness, and it has little to do with an interest in change for change's sake. It has everything to do with being offended by an ancient view of God that has neither worked in my life, and more seriously has wreaked havoc in its manipulation and guilt.
My problem is that many of the hymns of the church focus on this older view of God. The opening hymn this morning captured much of what I find difficult. Let me take you through my reactions to the hymn, with apologies to those who particularly like it. It teaches that the Almighty is found in a temple, reigns over creation, protects from harm all those he befriends, ordains the course of history and there is a little Protestant work ethic in there for good measure.
Overall my problem is that it urges us to look elsewhere for power in life when it may be that this power is found in our own hearts and in the support of those around us. God is predominantly a remote controlling force, rather than a personal, sensory and human experience. It also teaches of an exclusive God, who chooses to befriend some and not others.
Add to this the obsession of some hymn writers with the blood of the lamb, the darkness of all that is earthly, and the attainment of a higher experience when we die … - the message for me is unaffirming of life and humanity and history. This, for me, is completely inconsistent with the divine affirmation of all that is in creation.
Of course there is room for the older lyrics. There must be space also for new concepts and images. My conclusion is that we have to keep striving to be accepting of each other's views of God, which ultimately will mean, in worship living with inconsistency. It will mean a little give and take. It will mean singing hymns that make little sense to some, and the changing of some words which will seem sacrilegious to others. And it will mean a search for hymns that capture some elements of our life together without sacrificing musical and poetic quality.
Music is hugely important to us here at St Matthews. It is central to our 10 am Eucharist, and, as I have discovered over the past month, is pivotal to many parishioners as an outlet and an expression of faith. I have also discovered that music is capable of wrenching us apart as a group. That has surprised me. Yet this has made more sense when I placed music in the context of our image of God. If we are all willing to give and take a little we will get it right.
Let me finish with a quote which, for me, captures the essence of what music is all about in worship. It may offer also a comment on the God in our midst; "Music is only music because of the space between the notes. Without those spaces between the notes there would only be noise."
May we enjoy the rest and refreshment of some space between the notes as we meet together, and find even a hint of God in those spaces: God may exist in the clouds, yet don't be clouded to the God in our midst.