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Visiting Uncle George

Fr  Dennis Smith, January 22nd, 2012

“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand’."

“George was a family relative, much admired by Mum and Dad, who described his as very loving, a great friend of the family, very powerful and interested in all of us. Eventually we are taken to visit good old uncle George.” He lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. We cannot share our parents’ professed admiration for this jewel in the family.

At the end of the visit, Uncle George turns to address us. “Now, listen dear” he begins, looking very severe, “I want to see you here once a week, and if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.”

He then leads you down to the mansion’s basement. It’s dark and becomes hotter and hotter as we descend and we begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one. “Now look in there, dear,” he says.

We see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those who had failed to visit Uncle George or to behave in a way he approved. “And, if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go” says Uncle George .

As we go home, Mum leans over us and says, “And now don’t you just love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?” And we, loathing the monster, say, “Yes, I do,” because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace.”

What I’ve read to you is an extract from a book by the Jesuit Priest, Gerard Hughes, an “identikit” of God drawn from some of the many conversations he has had over the years as a university chaplain.

I’m sure our picture wouldn’t coincide in all respects with this, but it does show the difficulties and problems we face when we begin to think about God. Of course Fr Hughes presents this as a distorted and damaging picture, and his book is written to help people to grow to discover a more wholesome, creative idea of God: a vital task if we are to have a firm and lively faith.

I think it helps if we begin from the conviction that it is hard to speak about God, but of vital importance to our faith that we do so. The essential fact about God is that we do not know who or what he, she or it is.

That great medieval theologian of the church, Anselm, described God as “that Being of which nothing greater can be conceived”. The reality of God is indeed shrouded in mystery. This was accepted from the beginning and was especially important in Greek philosophical thought. God was so different from us that what he was could only described in contradictions.

We are mortal – therefore God is immortal. We are limited in our knowledge – therefore God is unlimited, or omniscient. We are created – therefore God is uncreated. And so on. God doesn’t suffer, is infinite. Everything we aren’t, God is.

This basic understanding of God has been challenged, especially in the last hundred years or so. This change has been most noticeable in discussions by theologians of the suffering or possibility of God. Traditionally it was felt that God couldn’t suffer, since that was a capacity confined to weak and imperfect humans. But a generation which lived through two world wars and saw the concentration camps could no longer live with a God who was above all this mass of raw human pain.

God, if he is the God of love and not some detached monster, MUST be involved, MUST be alongside his people, MUST be there, sharing the dereliction and the hopelessness. And verses from the gospels, especially the Passion Narratives, gained a new significance in Christian – and Jewish, thinking.

So we have come to understand that God is the incarnate God, the suffering God, the God – with – us, the the God we can place our trust and our love in. But it needs to be emphasised that God still inevitably remains different and distant from us, or to use the jargon phrase, “transcendent”. This thought is forced on us not only as we think philosophically but as we live. We know that our lives, and our world are inadequate and imperfect. We know that God cannot be a part of this damaged world, or limited to it. All that we instinctively believe about God would become meaningless if he was just a phenomenon of our world. He is other than us.

The only possible reaction to him is one of awe and worship, the response of the publican in the parable, who kept his distance and could only stammer out his repeated cry for mercy. We must begin with the ‘otherness’ of God, but we are led to realise that God is not only other, but other in relation to us. The incarnation, his coming on earth as the Christ means that he enters into a relationship with us, his people.

This relationship is a fact of our existence, we can do nothing to change it however determined we may be to rebel and reject. We are made by God, the distant transcendent creator, and we are redeemed by God, the God-Man, Jesus. It is this tension which is the place where we live our spiritual lives. It is the source of all our religious growth.

It’s an uncomfortable place to be. This discomfort arises from the requirement to change. God is calling us to become something else from what we are, to discover a wholeness and fullness which is the goal towards which we move. And change is painful. So knowledge of God, then, is not something thought but experienced. The key experiences have to be those in which unashamedly we find ourselves living in this uncomfortable tension.

What kind of experiences do I have in mind? First, there’s prayer – the expression of our relationship with God. Prayer isn’t a requirement to say certain set forms of words or to confidently set before God our immediate needs knowing that he will obligingly do what we want. Prayer is simply the state of consciously being before God It’s time set aside, time when we don’t try to achieve anything, time when we have to live with that most uncomfortable of conditions – silence. We force ourselves just to be there for God.

 St. John of the Cross taught that our prayer has little good effect as long as we are enjoying it or finding if fulfilling. If it brings us peace or reassurance then we are probably praying because of the enjoyment we get from it. But when we feel nothing enjoyable, get no pleasure, then we can no longer be praying because of the delights of the experience, that we start praying for God’s sake, not our own. This switch of emphasis from our selves to God is a mark of spiritual growth. It’s true prayer. So, as a result, God is sometimes spoken of as darkness, because in this experience there’s no room for the light of knowledge. We have true knowledge of God when we recognise that there’s no way that we can have true knowledge of God.

I think this is also why people sometimes testify that it’s through some of the most painful of human experiences that they come to a deeper faith. Bereavement, illness, loneliness, coping with long term disability in someone we love: these are sometimes experiences which bring God, because they are experiences which break the familiar patterns, and the human emptiness which results can be mysteriously filled and become a different kind of emptiness.

Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to say that there is a great emptiness at the heart of each one of us. An emptiness which was God-shaped and could only filled by God.

We are here in church today, surely, because there’s something in us that recognises this. We want God. Not human friendship, or beautiful music, or social activity, but simply God.

This does, I’m sure, sound harsh and uncompromising. A far cry perhaps from the warm, comforting “Father” of the preaching of Jesus. But if we stop to reflect, we realise that it’s the only way that the good news of the gospel can become the good news of God’s love. We begin to reach out to God because human love, human knowledge, and human hope are not sufficient and do not bring lasting or real peace.

Please don’t think that I’m criticising the pictures or ideas of what God is like which all of us build up.

There’s nothing wrong in imagining God to be an old man in a throne on the clouds, nor in speaking of him as the deepest level of our personality, or in any other way that makes sense to you. The mistake comes when we identify our picture of God, with God himself, and confuse imagination with reality.

Any picture of God is like a scientific hypothesis. We work out our explanation, then we use it until it’s no longer adequate. We find points where it ceases to explain the phenomena we observe and then we need to move on to another model. Meanwhile the God who is the final reality behind all of our thinking and imagining is always mystery.

It is a voice which beckons us forward and leads us on; sometimes moulding and shaping us painfully; sometimes he is touching us gently and caressing us, but never allowing us to rest content with our half-completed selves.

And now to that same mysterious God be ascribed as is most justly due, all honour, might dominion and power both now and for ever more.

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