Your God is Too Big

Daniel Hans is a Presbyterian minister in the United States. In 1986 he and his wife Beth lost their three year old daughter Laura to cancer. Daniel and Beth watched in agony as their little girl faced nine hospitalisations and four separate operations in the last nine months of her life. Their hearts broke as they watched Laura die, and they struggled to make sense of what had happened.

In 1987 Daniel Hans released a book containing some of the sermons he preached throughout his daughter’s battle with cancer and in the period immediately after her death. One of them is titled: “Caution. Your God is Too Big.” Hans relates how he once surveyed his congregation, asking them about their disappointments with God. He asked them to share things they had hoped God would do but that God didn’t. People described times they had prayed for the life of a newborn child only to see it die, of the hope God would protect his people from violence only to hear of an elderly woman being stabbed on her way to church, prayed for rain for famine stricken Africa only to see starvation continue. To these disappointments Hans now added his own – he had hoped God would heal his baby girl, but her condition only grew worse.

Hans suggests that disappointments like these are the stuff of life, and that if we read the Scriptures we discover that alongside the stories of miracles and amazing feats by God we hear story after story of disappointment with God, of times God appears silent and inactive. He suggests that sometimes we remember only the miracle stories and so we develop too big a view of God – not that we can have too big a view of God’s greatness and power or too big  a view of God’s love and grace, but that we can have too big a view of God’s will. God’s action in our world is not always to perform the miraculous, but more often than not to walk through our suffering with us. Hans suggests that “A view of God that is too big is harmful both to believer and unbeliever. When our understanding of God is exaggerated, we declare that God will do things he does not intend to do, at least not regularly and in all situations.”

Source: Adapted from Daniel Hans, God on the Witness Stand (Baker, 1987)

The Voyage of Life

Hanging in the US National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is a series of four paintings by Thomas Cole. The series is called “The Voyage of Life”. Each painting depicts a stage of life: childhood, youth, manhood and old age.

The first painting is of childhood. It shows a mountain with a dark cave at its base and a river flowing out of the cave. A beautiful timber boat glides out of the cave into a world of lush vegetation, flowers in bloom and a peaceful, gentle surface on the water. Inside the boat is a laughing baby with a Guardian Spirit standing right behind. The painting shows childhood as a time of wonder and joy.

The second painting is called “youth”. We see the same boat now travelled further downstream. The baby has grown into a teenage boy. He stands in the rear, confidently steering the boat towards a majestic white castle off in the distance. The riverbanks are still lush and green and the Guardian Spirit stands on those banks, watching the young man boldly chart his course. The painting shows youth as a time of dreaming and absolute self confidence that nothing can hold me back.

When we look at the third painting the scene has changed dramatically. The youth has become a man, the river has become a raging torrent, and the sky has become dark and threatening. The castle of dreams is nowhere to be seen and the boat’s rudder has broken. Up ahead lie treacherous rocks, with white water crashing all around them. The man in the boat is caught up by forces he can’t control. With the rudder broken he cannot steer his boat. All he can do is look up to the sky and pray. Meanwhile the Guardian Spirit sits hidden in the clouds. Cole is picturing adulthood as a time when the joy and wonder of childhood have been tamed by the difficult and tragic experiences of life, when the confidence and boldness of youth have been swept away by the harsh realities of life.

The final painting is called “Old Age”. The battered and weathered boat has finally reached the ocean. The dark clouds remain but the water is still. The boat’s occupant is now an old man, and his gaze is fixed firmly on the clouds out there in front of him, clouds pierced by the glorious light of heaven, the light pierced by angels coming to and fro. For the first time in his life the man sees the Guardian Spirit that has accompanied him on his journey. It comes, takes him by the hand and prepares him for his journey into the heavens.

Source: Scott Higgins, based on the artwork

St Patrick

At the turn of the 5th century the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse. With it’s power crumbling, the coast of Britain was subject to attacks by violent Irish slave traders. In 401 a 16 year old boy named Patrick was taken in one of these raids. Stripped from the comforts of his home life and a future which would have included a classical education and career, Patrick was made the slave of an Irish chieftain and assigned the role of shepherd. The life of a shepherd-slave was miserable – isolated for months on end in mountains that were bitterly cold, in a land where he did not know the local languages, and experiencing times of severe hunger.

Such severe circumstances drove the young man to God. His grandfather had been a Christian priest, and Patrick turned to his family’s faith. He spent his bitter days in constant prayer. As he did, a deep love of God and a profound sense of God’s Spirit at work within him grew in the young man.

Six years after his kidnapping Patrick had a dream-vision. In his sleep he heard a voice say “Your hungers are rewarded: you are going home.” He sat up, startled, and the voice continued: “Look, your ship is ready.” Patrick got up and started walking. Two hundred miles later he came to the coast and saw a ship. No ship was about to give passage to a fugitive slave and the captain told the young man to move on. But Patrick knew this was his ship. He spent some time in prayer and before he had finished one of the sailors came after him with the message that he could sail with them.

It takes him two years but finally the young man arrives home to Britain. His overjoyed parents beg him not to ever leave them again. But one night Victorious, a man who he knew in Ireland, appears to him in a vision. Victorious holds a letter with the heading “The Voice of the Irish”. The young man then hears a voice of a multitude crying “We beg you to come and walk among us once more.”

Try as he might Patrick cannot put the Irish out of his mind. The visions keep coming until finally he gives in. He enrolls to be trained for the ministry and emerges some time later an ordained priest and bishop. And so a young bishop by the name of Patrick heads off to become the first known missionary to Ireland. His mission is astonishingly successful. The Irish rapidly embrace the Christian faith. By the time of his death Christianity has been established across Ireland, the Irish slave trade has ended, and murder and inter-tribal warfare have markedly decreased.

One of Patrick’s greatest achievements was the salvation of Western civilisation. After the “barbarians” overran the Roman Empire nearly all the great literary works were destroyed. Hundreds of years of learning literally went up in flames. But there was a place the Latin books were copied and preserved – in the monasteries established by Patrick throughout Ireland. When Europe emerged from its Dark Ages it was to the monasteries of Ireland that they turned to recover their learning.

 

Source: Reported in Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilisation (Hodder, 1995)

Spasms Of Grace

In 1999 acclaimed Scottish novelist A L Kennedy released a small book called On Bullfighting. Bullfighting is a “sport” which those living outside Spain have difficulty understanding. Yet for those who are reared on it bullfighting has an almost religious quality. Kennedy discovered that bullfighting has roots that extend way back into history, to ferocious bulls that were fought by gladiators back in the Coliseum of Julius Caesar. Her first bullfight was a terrible affair featuring amateur matadors engaging in little more than savage butchery. But when she watched the leading matadors of the day Kennedy saw another level, an intuitive understanding of the bull by the matador, a genuine engagement of human and beast.

In an interview Kennedy was asked what impression an unprepared person might gain from watching  a bullfight. Here’s her reply: “People have preconceptions—either that the audience will be full of blood-crazed Latin types engaged in some kind of orgiastic sacrifice, or the opposite cliché, that it will be fantastically beautiful and wonderfully choreographed, like a dance. Actually, there’s no bloodlust. And even with a very good matador and a very good bull, the nature of the thing is that it isn’t seamless and it can’t be entirely graceful. There will be spasms of grace. It’s a very odd, ramshackle thing. There are all kinds of strange pauses and clumsy bits, and patches of costume drama, and then patches of this very odd, sometimes beautiful communication.”

I like her description that there are “spasms of grace”. It seems an apt description for our experience of the world beyond the bullring. Just as there is much that is violent or painful or cruel in our world, just as there are odd, ramshackle things, somehow in the midst of such a world we still manage to see spasms of grace – moments of sheer goodness, beauty and generosity.

Source: Reported in interview with AL Kennedy, Atlantic Unbound 2001.

Soldier Crabs

If you ever find yourself standing on the sandbanks of a river after the tide has gone out you may have the opportunity to see soldier crabs. Soldier crabs look completely different to your run-of-the-mill river crab. Unlike most crabs which have a flat, oval shape, soldier crabs have a sky blue dome about the size of a 5 cent piece. Attached to the dome are long, spindly, cream coloured legs, which they use to lift their dome shaped body right off the sand.

But what gives soldier crabs their name is their tendency to march around in groups of tens and even hundreds. Often you’ll find them out of their holes in the sand, marching around in search of food, and with their close formation and blue shells, they look like an army. I assume this is how they got their name.

Now, if you do happen to see these soldier crabs and start walking over for a closer look you’ll discover something else about them. They have an amazing capacity to burrow down into the sand. In just moments they’ll be gone, leaving behind nothing but a little mound of sand which they have dug to create their burrow. And every time you get close this is what they’ll do. You’re too big, you overwhelm them, you could be a predator. In fact the only way you could get close to those soldier crabs would be to transform yourself into one of them.

This is a great image of how God has approached us. Should he approach us in his splendour and glory we would be overwhelmed, fearful, uncertain. So he chose to approach us in a way that made it easier for us. He became a human being – not a big, powerful and overwhelming human being, but an ordinary, everyday person – and lived among us.

Source: Scott Higgins.

Pascal's Coat

When the famous seventeenth century French scientist Blaise Pascal died in 1662 his servant found a small piece of parchment sewn into his coat. At the top of the paper Pascal had drawn a cross. Underneath the cross were these words.

In the year of the Lord 1654
Monday, November 23
From about half-past ten in the evening
until half-past twelve.

Fire

God of Abraham, God if Isaac, God of Jacob
Not of philosophers nor of the scholars.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy, Peace.
God of Jesus Christ,
My God and thy God.
“Thy God shall be my God.”
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God.
He is to be found only by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Greatness of the soul of man.
“Righteous Father, the world hath not know thee,
but I have know thee.”
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

Jesus Christ.
I have fallen away: I have fled from Him,
denied Him, crucified him.
May I not fall away forever.
We keep hold of him only by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on earth.
I will not forget Thy word. Amen.

That was Pascal’s record of an intense two hour religious experience that he kept secret until his death. It was an  experience of God that gripped his soul and changed the course of his life. He stored his record of it in the lining of his coat, close to his heart. For eight years he took care to sew and unsew it every time he changed his coat.  It was a treasured experience, something he could return to again and again.

Similarly, we can take those experiences of God that we have – transforming moments – and hang onto them as gifts from God to energise and motivate our faith.

Adapted from RC Sproul Doubt and Assurance (Baker Books, 1993) and Charles Kummel, The Galileo Connection (IVP, 1986)

Christ is with Us

The great American civil rights leader Martin Luther King was a person with tremendous courage. He endured vilification, beatings, imprisonments, death threats, his house was firebombed, and as we all know, he eventually was assassinated.

So what kept him going? It was his strong sense of God’s call upon his life. King was just 26 years old when he was appointed leader of the civil rights campaign in Montgomery, Alabama. Apart from terrifying threats from the Ku Klux Klan, King was harassed by police. Arrested for driving 5 miles per hour over the speed limit he was given his first stint in jail. The night after his release he was at home when the phone rang. “Nigger”, said a menacing voice on the other end, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”

King was unnerved and very afraid – for himself, for his wife and for his little children. Shortly after the phone call he sat at his kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee. “And I sat at that table” he said, “thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me at any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife, who was over there asleep…And I got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore. I was weak…

And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I will never forget it…I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage…And it seemed to me at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’…I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone.. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”

Three nights later the menacing threat made in the phone call came true: a bomb exploded on the front verandah of the King home. Thankfully no one was hurt. But King was able to get through it: “My religious experience a few nights before had given me strength to face it.” Time and again throughout his ministry Martin Luther King returned to that experience to strengthen him as he faced terrible difficulties.

Is God Punishing Us?

In December 1985 the United States NBC TV News ran a week long feature on it’s evening news program. The advertising in the lead up showed a child praying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, what about the earthquake in Mexico City, the Japan Airline crash that killed 520 people, the AIDS epidemic, and the starvation in Africa?” The advertisement finished with this tag line: “Is God punishing us?”

Source: Advertisement reported in Daniel Hans, God on the Witness Stand (Baker, 1987),

I Sent You a Rowboat

A very religious man was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbour came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes you did my child” replied the Lord. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter. But you never got in.”

Source: unknown.

God’s Gone Fishing

Bishop Roger Herft, former Anglican bishop of Newcastle, NSW, Australia, tells of a Croatian refugee he met in mid 2001. This man had fled his war-torn country and arrived in Australia some years before. Since then his marriage had broken up and he lost custody of his children. To add to his agony 24 members of his family, including his 84 year old grandfather and four month old niece, had been killed during the most recent conflict in Croatia.

He said to Bishop Herft, “Where is God when it really matters? I’ll tell you where. God has got fed up with us. He has put up a board saying, ‘Gone Fishing’, and has left us to live in this bloody mess.”

Source: reported in Lake Macquarie News, 19/12/01.

How God is Like a Dolphin

One of the most loved of all the world’s animals is the dolphin. We perceive of dolphins as friendly, intelligent and beautiful sea creatures. But one of the lesser known facts about dolphins is why they have dark grey backs and silver bellies. The answer is stunning yet simple: camouflage. When the dolphin’s swimming on the surface the silver masks its shape against the surface of the water; it makes it difficult for that Great White shark swimming below the surface to spot it. And when the dolphin dives deep the dark grey masks it against the darker water. In fact the dolphin only has to dive A few metres and it disappears from view.

Go to an oceanarium that has dolphin shows and you’ll see the evidence for yourself. The crowd gathers to be amazed by these spectacular creatures. Everyone exhales with delight when the dolphins are spotted. Then they dive deep and we lose sight of them. And that’s what makes for the joy. Because all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a pair of dolphins burst through the surface of the water, leap high in the air and crash back down into the water. Then they dive deep and they’re gone again, and the crowd waits with a delirious sense of anticipation for the next appearance. We don’t know where it’s going to be or when it’s going to be and then bang, there are 3 dolphins dancing on their tails across the surface.

It’s magical. As I reflect upon that I wonder whether God is a lot like those dolphins. There are times when God is spectacularly present in our lives, leaping through the air like one of those dolphins. Maybe it’s walking in the forest and having an overwhelming sense that God is present; maybe it’s hearing for the first time that God loves you and knowing that you believe it; maybe it’s a dramatically answered prayer; maybe it’s a sense that God has provided you guidance for a difficult decision.

And there are times when God is like those dolphins when they dive, when all we can see are the deep waters of our lives. We fear the sharks and the stingers that lurk down there, worried that they will leap out and bite us – and sometimes they do. And we hope like crazy that the dolphins are down there too, that somewhere hidden in the depths, invisible to our sight God is there. We long for God to come crashing through, though we’re not quite sure just where it will be or when it will be or how it will be. And some of us wait for an awfully long time between appearances, sometimes almost a whole lifetime, but wait we do and we enjoy those moments when God does.

Source: Scott Higgins