Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bridging the Gulf

I grew up going to a mid-size Covenant church in central Connecticut. When I was in high school we built a new, very modern sanctuary, but before that we had a smaller one with real pews and a lectern off to the side and blue drapes over the windows that looked like they had been installed in the sixties. In back there was a place for a choir, although most Sundays the space was empty because the choir only sang once a month. To the left of the choir-people who sat on the same side as the pastor's lectern there was a little alcove, and I remember when I was very small I used to imagine that God lived in that alcove. I suspected that if I walked back there and went inside, suddenly I would be under a starry Bethlehem sky and the baby Jesus would be there, glowing in the moonlight while a serene Mary and Joseph admired him silently.

 I'm not sure if I really believed this, but I am sure I was a little afraid of that alcove. I've known kids who believed stranger things. A friend once told me about a child who announced to his father: Daddy, I invited Jesus into my heart. The father was pleased. That's wonderful son! Yes, the son replied, and I also invited Batman into my heart!

Unless you become like little children...

When I was little, my mother told me my middle name was Nathaniel. I told her her middle name was Nathaniel, too. She told me it wasn't. How could this be? Our last name was the same, so shouldn't our middle name be the same, too? I didn't understand.

Recently I went on a trip to Italy with some friends and their two-year old daughter, Angela. Long before the trip, my friends told Angela that they would be going to Italy. Weeks before it was time to leave, Angela started asking if she could go to Italy's house. When we finally did go to Italy, she was very disappointed when we arrived at the Milan airport. “This isn't Italy's house!” she whimpered. I'm pretty sure she thought Italy was a person – probably a sweet, matronly type with a cozy cottage nestled in some magic flowery hills on the other side of the world. The airport hardly met these expectations. Where was Grandma? Shouldn't there be cookies? When we finally took a bus to the Florence countryside, we went to a high place that looked down over the vineyards and Angela pointed to one particularly folksy-looking home and exclaimed, “There's Italy's house!” Sure enough, I said. There it is.

To this day, I still see a backwards G instead of a D in the Walt Disney logo. That G always made me so happy.

Children think a lot of silly things, but they don't seem very silly when you are a child and you are thinking them. They seem very rational then. The scary thing is, if God is real, His mind is far more superior to mine than mine is to Angela's or to the boy with Batman in his heart. Children sound silly to adults, but adults must sound just as silly to God. If God has a sense of humor – and I think He does (because we do and supposedly we are made in His image) - then He must laugh at us a lot. I bet he gets annoyed sometimes, too. Children have a way of being very funny and very frustrating at the same time.

Do animals have a sense of humor, or is that a privilege unique to humans? If dogs could talk, would they tell jokes? Maybe they would but it would just be a very primitive sense of humor, like that dog in Pixar's
Up - “Hey, I know a joke! A squirrel walks up to a tree and says, "I forgot to store acorns for the winter and now I am dead." Ha! It is funny because the squirrel gets dead.” Or maybe like Borat when he tries to prove he has a sense of humor with his chair joke: “There is a chair – the chair walk. With shoes. He walks on the street. The chair is walking!

But I digress. Is the gulf between God's mind and the rational, adult mind really so wide? The prophet Isaiah claimed to speak for God when he said, “
As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” To be honest, this is a hard thing for me to accept. Why, I wonder, would God choose to create humanity but then make it so difficult for us to comprehend Himself and the situation He's placed us in? Why make the gulf so wide?

The answer?
My ways are higher than your ways. My thoughts higher than your thoughts.

But why make my thoughts so much lower than yours, God? Surely you're exaggerating. Your middle name is Nathaniel, too – right, God? It must be, because that's what mine is.

Sometimes I wonder: if the gulf is really so wide, is it really worth saying anything about God at all? If God's ways are so far beyond human understanding, what's the point in trying to talk about who He is? He's incomprehensible, right? What can we really know about an incomprehensible thing other than the fact that it is incomprehensible?

Recently I heard a popular pastor talk about the importance of being humble when talking about God. He said, “
I'm like a piece of clay trying to explain to other pieces of clay what the potter is like.” I think he's right.

Some pieces of clay claim to know a lot about the mind of the Potter, though. They think they know exactly how the Potter determines which pieces of clay he keeps, how he shapes them, and which ones end up tossed in the fire. This little piece of clay has thoughts about all that, too – but they are held with some uncertainty. Some pieces of clay tell me that some pieces of clay are designed to go in the fire. This piece of clay finds that hard to accept. Other pieces of clay then remind this piece of clay that the clay has no right to complain to the Potter. Should the clay say to the Potter why did you make me this way? Of course not.
 I suppose I can't argue with that. I wonder, though, why the Potter fashioned so many pieces of clay to ask that very question.

Perhaps He wants us to ask so He can answer:
What right do you have to talk back to me? It sounds harsh. Maybe that's not the point, though. Maybe the answer is supposed to remind us of the truth – that we really don't have any rights at all unless some higher authority grants them to us. I believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Great. Now what if the guy next door doesn't? And what if he thinks his happiness is contingent on my pain? Who gets to keep their right?

I think the clay has rights but only because the Potter gives them. You can't talk back to the source of your rights; the foundation of your worth. Well, you
can, because the Potter has made it possible for you to do so. It's self-defeating in the long run, though.

But I have digressed again, trying to understand.

I took a systematic theology course through a Reformed seminary. I told them what they wanted to hear. They said we can never
comprehend God, but we can apprehend certain things about Him. In other words, yes, the gulf is wide. As high as the heavens are above the earth. But we can still say things that are true about God. We just can't understand everything about Him. The clay can know that the Potter is loving and just and true. The clay can understand some things. Not all things, but the clay can understand enough.

But what can the clay really understand? What falls under the realm of understanding and what doesn't? Can we apprehend successfully enough to write a good Systematic Theology textbook, or do those assume too much?

Questions. Questions. Questions.

I am reading a book right now by a pastor who teaches on the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. He tells story after story about the operation of the Holy Spirit in his life. In one story, he talks about a man in his church with a prophetic gift who sat and watched as he taught a kids' Sunday School class. The kids were asking questions – stuff like “
why did God make the devil?” and “why do bad things happen to good people?” Good questions. The pastor had trouble giving satisfying answers. After struggling for awhile, he asked the prophet if God has impressed anything on him. “That girl sitting over there,” he said, “was crying the other night. She knelt by her bed and asked God if God really loved her. She was crying because she found out her parents were getting a divorce and she thought it might be her fault. She told God she needed to know if He really loved her, but she never felt like she got a response.” The prophet went on to tell the girl that God really did love her and that what was happening was not her fault. The girl confirmed that the prophet was correct – she had prayed exactly that prayer, and her parents were getting a divorce.

The prophet didn't know the girl. The girl hadn't told anyone what she was going through. But God knew, and God revealed it to the prophet, who then gave a simple message to a hurting little girl:
he does love you, and it's not your fault.

The questions don't matter as much when things like that happen.

I would like to see things like that happen.

Maybe there is still an alcove where Jesus is waiting. 


  1. Ryan I think this is my favorite of your posts and some of your best writing. I like the way the elements all tie together!! Also, I should read more about all this.

  2. I wasn't the only one who the backwards G made happy!