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Walking the Plank with God

Exodus 33.18-34.8, Romans 8.31-39

Moses asked to see God in all his glory. God granted his request but said that, unfortunately, it would be fatal to look upon his face. 'You will see my back,’ he promised, ‘[But] you will not see my face.’
Christians can sometimes be a bit condescending about this. Unlike Moses we do get to see God face to face, at least in the face of Jesus.
But there again, do we actually know what Jesus looked like? The Methodist  Prayer Handbook this year has the face of Jesus on the front cover, but it isn't just a picture of one face; instead it’s a composite of four very different faces of Jesus. He’s at once both familiar, with a face like ours, and impossible to know.
The Welsh poet R S Thomas, who was a priest in the Church of Wales, said that God is very difficult to see. ‘We never catch him at work,’ Thomas said. It's always as if he’s just left the room.
In the film 'Whistle Down the Wind’ some children walk to an isolated farm to see Jesus, who they've heard is staying there. Unfortunately, by the time they arrive the man who’s supposed to be Jesus has been taken away in a police car. 'You’ve just missed him,’ says another child, 'But he's coming back.’
That’s how R S Thomas felt about every experience of God. In the Bible we read about what God has done in the past, and where he was seen by other people, but it's not always so easy for us to see him now.  
God, Thomas said somewhat gloomily, ‘Is never known as anything but an absence... It is this great absence,’ he said, ‘That is like a presence, that compels me to address it without hope of a reply.’ Trying to meet with God in church was often, in his view, like ‘a room I enter from which someone has just gone, the vestibule for the arrival of someone who has not yet come.’
I suspect church sometimes feels a bit like that for all of us. We're waiting for God to come, we've prepared ourselves to welcome him, but it feels as if he's not yet arrived. And that's how it often seemed to the Revd Thomas.
In the days when churches had big Sunday Schools a lot of children would stop attending when they went to secondary school. If - later in life - they were asked why they’d lapsed, they would often answer that they’d outgrown religion. Having been fed a diet of improbable Bible stories they’d concluded that the whole thing was a fairytale. It was something childish that they’d put aside. But that’s because they never got beyond the foothills. They never started the difficult and demanding climb towards the cleft in the rock where we can safely hide as God passes by.
Frustratingly, R S Thomas found that the higher he climbed up the mountain, the nearer he came to that face-to-face experience, the more he learnt about God, and the closer he felt to God, the harder it was to be really sure he understood what God is like. 'The higher one ascends,’ Thomas said, 'The poorer the visibility becomes.’ It was a bit like leaving the valley in bright sunshine only to be enveloped in fog as he neared the summit. And that was Moses’ experience, too.
In many ways this mirrors ordinary life. The closer we come to really knowing about anything, the more detail about it starts to emerge, and the bigger the task of comprehending it becomes.
A bed bug is as small as an apple seed; we live alongside them without ever knowing they are there. But viewed up close through a microscope they suddenly become terrifying and wonderful to behold.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, if we looked down at an elephant from the top of a mountain it would seem like a child's toy that we might easily pick up between finger and thumb, but if we dared to get up close, even to a very docile elephant, it would seem dauntingly large. We mightn't - even if it wanted to be friendly - be able to stretch both our arms around one of its legs.
The more someone studies an enormous subject like God, the more impossible the task can seem. ‘I have no faith,’ said Thomas, 'That to put a name to a thing is [enough] to bring it before one. I am a seeker in time for that which is beyond time, that is everywhere and nowhere; ...yet always about to be.’
Going to meet God, said Thomas, is rather like walking the plank. Forget it's connection with piracy, he advised, because he wasn’t thinking of Long John Silver, or Pieces of Eight, or the Skull and Crossbones. He was thinking of walking the plank as being more like venturing out on a high diving board, only with ‘seventy thousand fathoms’ of clear blue water beneath us, 'and far out from the land.’ It would be a high adventure, the sort of experience that sets the pulse racing.
‘I have abandoned my theories,’ said Thomas, ‘The easier certainties of belief’ that we were taught in Sunday School, or even - in his case - in theological college; for ‘there are no handrails to grasp’ when you're walking the plank.
And yet that risky, slightly alarming side of seeking for God - like Moses hiding in the cleft in the rock s God passed by - was only part of Thomas’s experience. Sometimes he felt as though encountering God is akin to stepping out into a void, like the narrow causeway that was only visible to the eye of faith in the Indiana Jones film about the Holy Grail. But he also said there were other times when, in everyday life, it was the plain facts and natural happenings that sometimes seem to ‘conceal God’ and yet at other times ‘reveal him to us little by little.’
Sometimes, when things are going wrong, we wonder where God has got to and we long to feel him close to us. But instead we only sense his absence, like Jesus hanging on the cross and feeling dreadfully forsaken. But there are other times when God does seem to be helping us, and an awareness of his presence, and his care for us, breaks in even though trouble is swirling all around us.
And finally, there is prayer. R S Thomas was no stranger to prayer. As a priest he had to pray every morning and evening in church, whether other people came to join him or not. ‘There have been times,’ he said, ‘When, after long on my knees in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled from my mind, and I have looked in and seen the old questions lie folded and in a place by themselves, like the piled grave clothes of love’s risen body.’
In other words, there’d been times when, although he was alone, he felt the presence of the risen Jesus calmly and quietly responding to his concerns and putting them in their true perspective. ‘If [the risen Christ] is for us, who can be against us?’ said St Paul. ‘[God] ...did not withhold his son, but gave him up for all of us. [So] will he not with him also give us everything else?’ For nothing, Paul concluded, will ever ‘be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’


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