Thinking Anew: God never gives up on us
“Wherever love is shared, experienced, seen in action, there is God.” Photograph: iStock
Some weeks ago, at the funeral service for a friend and colleague, a letter he had written was read to the congregation at his request.
Among other things, he gave an account of where he had got to in his faith journey as he came to terms with a terminal illness. He wrote: “When all true words, all the theories and all the documents are broken in pieces on the floor – the hound from heaven never lets go, and for a moment, a second, the curtain is drawn back, and through the glass darkly we understand, experience transcendence in the midst, the glory of God. As the years have gone by, I believe less but have more faith – a curious paradox but if this is a sign of spiritual progress, I am satisfied.”
The reference to the hound is explained by reference to Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven where God is likened to a hound in pursuit and never giving up. In other words, no matter how often we give up on God, question belief or struggle with faith, God persists and never gives up on us.
Thanks to DNA and other forensic markers, modern science tells us that we are uniquely knowable; faith tells us that we are uniquely known.
In a reflection on the Holy Trinity, the theme of tomorrow’s liturgy, Dean Herbert O’Driscoll discusses the limitations of the language we use to describe God. “The mysterious reality which Christians called the Holy Trinity is so complex and rich in meaning that it is impossible to explain with any one analogy. Perhaps that should not surprise us. After all, the teaching we called the Trinity is trying to describe God. We are bound to fail, but we try because we must. There is something in our humanity that wishes us to understand even though we know we never will.”
This unknowing does not mean we are out in the cold spiritually speaking. Behind the formal words of Trinitarian doctrine there is feeling, emotion, relationship even, evidenced by the language used: Father, Son, Spirit but those terms have limitations.
Take the image of God as Father – given by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer. Like all the words we use to describe God it does not capture the complete reality. To describe God as father is not to deny that God is mother too; both words clearly have their limitations. Those who have not had the privilege of a loving relationship with a parent, because of abuse perhaps, may have difficulties with any familial reference.
The most helpful words we have as to the nature of God are those found in the First Epistle of John where we are told not only that God loves us, but that God is love.
So wherever love is shared, experienced, seen in action, there is God.
This places God at the centre of so much of our everyday human lives: the couple holding hands, the mother nursing her baby, the carer giving all and never complaining, the teenager crying at his gran’s funeral.
As we struggle to come to terms with our limited knowledge of God, we find encouragement in tomorrow’s gospel reading where Jesus recognises his disciples have the same problem. “I still have many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now.” He goes on to say that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth – a warning to individuals and churches alike who think they know it all and are at the end of their spiritual journeys when they are nowhere nearly there.
Prof John Macquarrie, described as Anglicanism’s most distinguished systematic theologian of the second half of the 20th century, wrote: “To have faith is to meet the world with the conviction that in spite of all its ambiguities and downright evils, there can be discerned in it the reality of love and a ground of hope.”
Therein my friend found peace and was, in his own words, satisfied.