Monday, May 23, 2011

"Show us the Father"

The Apostle Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

There is a universal longing to know the One who is Holy and Other. It cuts across culture and time. Every week there is a headline that in one form or another touches on the human desire to encounter God. This week the renowned Oxford physicist Stephen Hawking made news by proclaiming heaven is a fairy tale and mathematics explains how creation came to be without the aid of a creator. At the other end of the spectrum a radio host garnered lots of attention by predicting the rapture would take place yesterday. Both of these in one just week.

12,000 years ago, human civilization began to take shape at a Turkish site known as Göbekli Tepe. Built some 7,000 years before the pyramids, it is the oldest know worship space ever discovered and the earliest known sign of an organized community. The ancient stone ruins bear witness to the human quest to search for the divine. In one form or another, the plea and the prayer “Show us the Father” has been uttered and offered for a long, long time.

Before we even begin to wonder “Who is God?” we might want to ask if the answer will matter. Many people will tell you they believe in God, but the real question is not the existence of God, but the importance of God. How does God make a difference in your life? How should it? I have never been to the South Pole and yet I believe it exists. Still, that geographical assertion makes little difference in my daily life. I don’t remember much about the Pythagorean Theorem, only that it is an abstract statement which does not really affect my daily life either. To believe that God exists in the way you believe in the South Pole or in the reality of an equation is not a religious stance. A god who exists but does not matter, who does not make a difference in the way you experience life, might as well not exist. As important as it is to know who God is and what God is like, that pursuit will be meaningless if, as we get closer to the answer, we are not fundamentally changed but what we are discovering.

So that is one question… if you see God will it make any difference. Here is another… can you see a God who looks any different than you? The 18th century French political commentator and part-time meteorologist Baron de Montesquieu said that if triangles had a god, it would have three sides. He was speaking of the human tendency toward graven images with the self being the model for the figure.

There is a story about a man who wanted to see God so he traveled the world searching for enlightenment. Eventually he was directed to a remote location in the Himalayas where a wise mystic was said to live. Upon meeting the holy man, the searcher told him of his dreams. “I can show you God if you follow me,” the mystic assured him. The searcher was led into a beautifully decorated chamber where an elaborately carved chest was prominently displayed. “Open the door of the chest,” the mystic instructed, “and you will see God.” The man opened the door only to find behind it another door. The mystic implored him to open that one. Again, there was another door. “Keep going,” he was told. Again, a door and then another and another. Finally he came to a small, simple, roughly hewn door that appeared to be at the center of the chest. “Open this door and you will see your God.” With great trepidation, the searcher opened the door, and there before him was a mirror with the image of his own face reflecting back at him. The mystic’s great insight was to highlight the human proclivity to conceive of God as being in our own spiritual, emotional, psychological, and even physical likeness. Triangles need to remember that God is not limited to three sides.

That is something we don’t and probably can’t understand when we are younger. Seven-year-old Kristi Pflanz said this about her notion of God:

"God makes people’s lives better. He made my dad be the pushover because he buys me more toys than my mom. But sometimes God’s sort of not nice because one time He made this machine where you try to set it to grab the stuffed animal. He didn’t give us any luck on that, and we spent four dollars... in quarters... And we didn’t get any stuffed animals."

William James, in his classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience, writes of “once-born” and “twice-born” people. The once-born are those who sail through life without ever experiencing something that shatters or complicates their faith. Yes, they have problems, but they never go through a time when they say, “The religion I was raised in is a lie; that’s simply not how the world works.” Their understanding of God when they are older is not much different from their view of God when they were children. They think of God as being a benign heavenly parent who keeps the world neat and orderly for them.

For James, twice-born people are those who lose their faith and then regain it as a new faith very different from the one they lost. Instead of seeing the world as flooded with sunshine (as the once-borns always do), they see a world where the sun struggles to come out after the storm, yet still manages to reappear. Theirs is a less cheerful, less confident, more realistic outlook. God is no longer the parent who keeps them safe and dry. God’s presence enables them to keep going in a stormy and dangerous world. From experience they learn to worship God, not because God makes the path smooth, but because God grants grace and determination to keep walking even when the path is rocky. God’s promise is not that they will be kept from stumbling, but that God’s hand will be there to help them get up again, no matter how often they fall. From the school of hard knocks, twice born people have learned that what is stretched out before us is as full of kindness as threat, as sensible as it is mystifying, as good as it was bad, and yet, through thick and thin, God is with us.

I think Archbishop Desmond Tutu would number himself with the twice-born:

"When I was young, I thought of God as a grandfatherly figure, which made God very accessible. Now, inside me is an almost imageless conception, a dark light, or a light darkness.

I am one who has a faith that is reasonably stable. There have been [difficult] moments. When I saw the awful things that police did to students at the University of Fort Hare, nearly 20 years ago, I broke down in a Eucharist service. I am not a pacifist, like Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. I couldn’t stand by and see someone throw children into a gas chamber. How could God allow that? How could He make obviously evil people succeed against children?

Ultimately, all you can say is that God does not occupy an Olympian fortress, remote from us. He has this deep, deep solidarity with us. God became a human being, a baby. God was hungry. God was tired. God suffered and died. God is there with us."

The Christian faith asserts a bold, audacious claim. To the degree that the infinite Being who created all existence can be known by finite, limited creatures, to the degree that very light of very light can be contained in the flesh, we have seen the Father in the Son. There is no way to know God more deeply, to understand God more accurately, to see God more clearly than in the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. We don’t want to demean automatically other religions because many of them have discerned from creation and the natural order of things significant truths about God and the way life is to be. But only God can make God’s self known completely and this God has done to fullest of our ability to comprehend through the Son.

In today’s Gospel reading, the Apostle Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” You can almost feel the frustration in Jesus’ reply, “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” It took Philip and the rest of the Apostles a long time to understand fully the implications of this but in time it dawned on them as it continues to dawn on us.

There is a story of a little girl who attended a Sunday School regularly. One day her teacher provided the class with paper and crayons and encouraged the children to draw whatever they wanted. Well, the girl dove into the project with such gusto the teacher had to ask her what she was coloring. “I am drawing a picture of God,” she said with great confidence. The teacher, not wanting to discourage an artist, but not wanting to encourage a heretic, replied gently, “But don’t you know no one has ever seen God. No one knows what God looks like.” Unphased and without missing a beat, the little girl looked up and proclaimed, “Well, they’ll sure know what God looks like once I’m finished!”

“Look at me,” Jesus says to Philip. “Look at me, and not at yourself. Look past your childish notions with new, realistic eyes. Look in a way open to being changed by what you see. Look at me and you will see the Father.”