Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why God Cannot be Found in a Mirror

Father Joseph Grizone retired from active parish ministry in 1981 due to health concerns.  He then embarked on a second career as an author and has written numerous books, but none are better known than his nine works in what is called the ‘Joshua series.’  Joshua is a fictional character whose simple lifestyle, wisdom about life, and views of religion endear him to many folks in the small town into which he moves.  He is, in reality, Jesus visiting our present day and age. 

Like the Jesus of old, Joshua is a woodworker whose magnificent carvings are the talk of the community.  They capture the attention of two members of the clergy and each visits Joshua to commission a sculpture for the church he serves.

The first minister is one Father Jeremy K. Darby, an obese, pompous Episcopal priest, whose gothic style parish sits prominently at the north end of the town square.  Its members are among the wealthiest people in the community.  Father Darby wears expensive suits and a Roman collar.  He is chauffeured around town in a slickly polished, finely tuned foreign sedan (by the way, did I mention that the book is fiction?).  He comes to Joshua’s unassuming shop and says, “I would like a figure of the great Apostle Peter, a man for whom I have always felt a certain affinity and the greatest affection.  He was the chosen leader of the Apostles and was established by Jesus as the foundation of the Church.  I envision him as a man of great proportions and equal dignity, not unlike myself, if I may be permitted to indulge in a little vanity.”

The other minister is the Pastor Osgood Rowland who shepherds the town’s Pentecostal Church.  His congregation is poor, black, and located just outside of the city limits.  Its members are without means and scattered over a wide area of the county.  They make a great effort just to gather each Sunday for worship.  As it turns out, Pastor Rowland also requests a carved a figure of Peter for the Pentecostal Church.

Joshua works long and hard on both sculptures, trying to capture in each something that will speak powerfully to the congregation for which it is intended.  The day arrives when the works are completed and, as chance would have, both ministers arrive at the same time to pick up their figures.

Next to Father Darby Joshua places a sculpture that depicts Peter on his knees.  His three-tiered tiara is lying disrespectfully in the dirt as he caresses the head of a dying beggar.  The Episcopal priest is both horrified and offended by the rendering which is not at all like the great Apostle whom he has come to know and love and on whose life he has patterned his own. 

Next to Pastor Rowland Joshua places a sculpture of Peter standing in a toga and stole.  His left hand firmly grasps a shepherd’s staff as his right gestures with great force and determination to direct where the gathered disciples are to go.  Its focus on strong authority represents everything about religion that Pentecostals dislike. 

Both men feel certain that Joshua has made a great mistake in that the carving each was given should have been intended for the other.  Father Darby and Pastor Rowland decide to trade figures and each returns to his church happy with a carving that is familiar and comfortable to him.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus, for the first time, tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem where he will be arrested, abused, and crucified.  Peter, who in last Sunday’s reading, confessed his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, just moments later in this reading protests that Jesus must never undergo these things.  Jesus’ response is sharp, pointed, and blunt, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Jesus will not succumb to the temptation to alter his mission to suit his own desire or the desires of others.  His statement to Peter is a warning to all of us not to worship that which is merely a projection of our own wishes.  It is a warning that Father Darby and Pastor Rowland do not heed.

There is a story about a man who learned of the existence of a wise old monk and set out on a pilgrimage to ask him a question.  Upon his arrival, the man knelt before the monk and said, “I have but one thing to ask of you: tell me this, who is God?”  The old monk sat in silence for several days pondering the question and then said, “Come with me.”  He took the man to an elaborately carved, ivory cabinet and instructed him to open it.  With trembling hands the man reached for the cabinet and opened its doors only to find another set of doors on the inside.  “Continue,” the monk implored.  Behind these doors was another set of doors, and then another, and another.  Eventually the man came to the final door.  It was made of plain, roughly hewn wood, without any decorative carving.  “Open this door,” said the monk, “and you will find the answer to your question.”  Steadying his hand, the man touched the door and gently, slowly pulled it open.  Inside was a small, round mirror.  The man who had come such a long way was now staring at an image of his own reflection.  “Behold your god,” said the monk.  “The god you seek is no different than the god you conceive in your own mind.”

The author of the 115th Psalm rails against those whose life work is the crafting of idols.  The psalmist says of ‘heathens’ that their idols are the works of human hands.  They have mouths, but cannot speak; eyes but cannot see; ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell, hands, but cannot feel; feet but cannot walk.  It is a mocking critique made by one whose God is in heaven and does “whatever He wills to do.”  The psalmist’s most brilliant observation is that idols bear a striking resemblance to their makers: “They make their idols like unto themselves”, the author states.

The oft quoted Congregational minister G. Campbell Morgan once said that the Jesus we want to see is not the Jesus we really need to see.  It is a sobering reminder that before we can know anything about the true and living God we have to acknowledge the concept we hold is largely a god of our own making.  I find it to true of the people I meet that the more vehemently they defend their understanding of God and what God would have us do the more likely that understanding is a projection of their own making.  It also seems to be that case that these people are more blind than others to this reality.  Grizone captures this truth brilliantly in his Darby and Rowland characters. 

It may seem odd to hear me say this, but I find that the more I pursue God the less I actually know about God.  It is one of the great paradoxes of the faith that certainty about God indicates distance while uncertainty is a sign of approaching.  It is only as our projections onto God – our self-made idols – are peeled away that we can even hope to begin to know God as God truly is… holy, shrouded in great glory and awesome mystery, yet somehow made flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Short of this, we are bound to move from idol to idol, trading one image or idea for another in a desperate attempt to find something that will speak definitively of the Great Eternal One.

Trading one image for another.  That is exactly what Father Darby and Pastor Rowland did.  Each chose a sculpture that reflected a life-long cherished belief about the Apostle Peter.  Interestingly, each found his figure had become mute.  It was as if each carving had lost its ability to communicate Peter’s cherished qualities.  It was Pastor Rowland who telephoned Father Darby to suggest they make another trade so that each would have the carving originally intended for him.  Father Darby’s chauffer drove him to the Rowland house to make the exchange.  When he arrived he was stunned to discover the poverty in which the Rowland family lived.  It dawned on him that a man so poor, yet so dedicated to faith, embodied something important about the Christian faith.  “Osgood,” he said, “I would be honored if you and your family would come to my home for supper this week.”  Pastor Rowland accepted the offer with great joy.

When Father Darby got back to the parish he placed the sculpture of the kneeling Peter in the place where the other had been.  Immediately it seemed to come alive and something about the dying beggar’s face caught Darby’s attention.  He moved closer to study it only to realize that the face was his own.  The thought of the great Apostle on his knees caring for him bothered Father Darby at first.  Surely it was beneath Peter to do such a thing.  But then tears welled up in his eyes as he began to realize that this was not beneath Peter’s dignity at all, rather it was a quality that made him great.  The self-projection of a pompous authority figure was forever smashed in an instant.  That night, in an act of humility, he donned the driver’s cap, opened the car door for his chauffer, sat behind the wheel, and drove him home.  It was the first time Peter’s life had informed his, not the other way around.

Today’s reading ends with an invitation, which is also one of Jesus’ most important teachings:  “If you want to become my follower you must deny yourself, pick up my cross, and follow me.  For if you love your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake you will find true life.”  It is as if Jesus is saying, “Do not make my life to be little more than a reflection of yours.  Your life is to be a reflection of mine.”