Thursday, March 27, 2008

Where We End and God Begins

At the end of Holy Week I read an article at by Ann Bauer entitled “God Talked to Me Today.” How could I resist this lead-in: “I was an agnostic who never took my family to church. And then, my son starting hearing the voice of God”?

Her son Andrew is autistic. Bauer said that one day when Andrew was eleven he said, "When God talked to me earlier today, before I went to school..." After some prompting and waiting, she was finally able to get Andrew to tell her what God had said. “He said ‘no,’” her son said. When she asked him “No what?” he replied, “Just no. Because I knew the rest of what he meant.”

I don’t know much about autism. Bauer explained that

Classic autism is a disorder of divisions. There is no sense of "I" and "you" as being whole and separate in the world. Either that, or there is a lack of understanding that "I" and "you" are even of the same species, any more similar to each other than, say, a human being and a walrus. I've never understood exactly which it is.

With therapy, Andrew had become able to differentiate himself from others. But, Bauer said,

Then this God thing cropped up -- an echo, I decided, of all the old problems. Whereas Andrew had learned to differentiate his thoughts from mine or his teacher's, he didn't seem to understand where he ended and God began, or which of the two was speaking to the other.

“He didn’t seem to understand where he ended and God began”—what a fascinating thought.

Now, so far as I can judge such things, I’m not an agnostic; in fact, I think I’m a fairly orthodox Christian. So, lest anyone misunderstand, let me say very clearly that I recognize the existence of a clear distinction between God and humanity. That’s a pretty easy one—if God is much like we are, if he is much like I am—then “Oh no” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Still, is there not a sense in which God sometimes comes to us in and through other people? The incarnation is the most drastic and important example of that fact—God “was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” God came in human form in order to reveal God’s self to us human beings. Again, orthodox Christian that I am, I recognize the uniqueness of the Christ event. Still, do we not find Christ in other people? Does not God show himself through the other?

And, given God’s way of which the New Testament so often speaks, the way of making his strength made known in human weakness and his grace made known in human brokenness, does it not stand to reason that we may catch a glimpse of God in the frailty and brokenness and weakness of another?

In his book Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning tells the following story.

I will never forget the witness of an Episcopal priest named Tom Minifie…. He spotted a high-profile couple sitting in the last pew with their one-year-old Down’s syndrome child. It was clear from the parents’ demeanor that the little one embarrassed them. They hid in the rear of the church, perhaps planning a hasty exit once the worship service had concluded.

On their way out the door, Tom intercepted them and said, “Come into my office.” Once seated, Tom took the Down’s baby in his arms and rocked him gently. Looking into the baby’s face, he began to sob. “Do you have any idea of the gift that God has given you in this child?” he asked.

Sensing confusion and even concern in the parents, he explained his reaction: “Two years ago my three-year-old daughter, Sylvia, died with Down’s syndrome. We have four other children, so we know the blessing that kids can be. Yet the most precious gift we’ve ever received in our entire lives has been Sylvia. In her uninhibited expression of affection, she revealed to us the face of God as no other human being ever has. Did you know that several Native American tribes attribute divinity to Down’s children because in their utter simplicity they’re a transparent window into the Great Spirit? Treasure this child, for he will lead you into the heart of God.”
(pp. 10-11)

“He didn’t seem to understand where he ended and God began.”

“This child…will lead you into the heart of God.”

My goodness.

Maybe there is a sense in which we should not try to see where other people end and God begins. Maybe we should look for the ways in which people in their humanness, in their brokenness, and in their frailty show us who and how God is.

Maybe there is something in this of which the church needs to be reminded. After all, Jesus said to those “sheep” in Matthew 25 whom he credited with feeding him when he was hungry, housing him when he was homeless, and visiting when he was sick, “Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me” (The Message). Maybe the church needs to be reminded that in being open to and loving and serving those who are wounded—and in a way that is all of us, isn’t it—we are being open to and loving and serving Christ himself.

It all raises some interesting and troubling questions: to what extent are many of our churches really being open to God and really serving Christ by serving “the least of these”? To what extent are we really being Christian?

In her book Broken We Kneel, Diana Butler Bass recounted the pilgrimage that led her to begin worshiping at the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington, D.C. She had become disillusioned at her previous church because of, among other things, the civil religion that was practiced there. She wrote,

Not long ago, I preached on a Sunday morning at Epiphany. I arrived early—before the end of the eight o’clock service, the service geared toward the homeless. As I walked into the church, a woman was talking loudly to her invisible friend; several men were sleeping on back pews; and some people were standing and singing a hymn. About two hundred people were at that Eucharist—they were an amazing cross section of humanity for a church! It was unruly, disorderly, and utterly hospitable. And holy. Indeed, a church member, who first came to the church when she was homeless, once commented to me, “Epiphany is the first church I ever visited that treated me like a human being. Nobody looked at me as if I was going to steal something.” I thought of Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew (25:35), “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (pp. 121-122)

Doesn’t that sound more like church than much of what passes for church? Doesn’t that sound more like Christianity than much of what passes for Christianity? Do we not meet Christ in those who are broken? Must we not accept and love and serve and learn from them?

Now, I don’t mean to paint all brokenness with the same broad brush. Autism, Down’s syndrome, homelessness, and mental illness are all different realities. But brokenness is a common thread that runs through all of those realities.

We are all broken. Perhaps one of the reasons that so many of us Christians don’t feel any closer to God than we do is that we have not been open to the Christ who is present in the brokenness of others and thus we are not open to the Christ who is present in our own brokenness.

Where, really, do the broken and vulnerable and weak and hurting and poor end and God begin?

Where, really, do our loving hearts and helping hands end and God begin?

Surely God is present where brokenness and love meet.

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