Spying God in Unexpected Places

June 20, 1999

Summary

Spying God in Unexpected Places

Secular science and fundamentalist religion — they’ve been enemies for so long that it’s hard to imagine they could ever talk comfortably in the same room, but liberal Christianity has always been open to new discoveries on the basis that if the world is to make sense one kind of truth will not ultimate contradict another kind. So for such believers it was exciting rather than alarminwhen astronomers announced recently that they had found the first-ever solar system beyond our own. Three giant planets, far out in the Andromeda constellation, revolve around a star like our sun, and while the grouping is different in many ways from our own it convinces scientists that our Milky Way may be teeming with planetary systems. And when one remembers that this galaxy we belong to is only one of millions of other galaxies, it seems highly probable that millions of other solar systems exist, some of them with planets capable of sustaining forms of life. Scientists hope for even more exciting breakthroughs when NASA puts even more powerful instruments in space in about five years.
The Hubble telescope has already looked deeper into depths of the universe than had ever been possible before, with new information which appears to support the Big Bang theory of creation — an idea as mind-boggling as anything ever imagined in the various religions of this planet. I am fascinated by astronomy, and read everything I can get my hands on, but the Big Bang theory doesn’t get any easier. I study theology, so I know how many problems there are for highly intelligent people who try to understand how a “God” can be made to fit into this incredible universe, but the notion of a “God” almost begins to look easy compared with the physics of the Big Bang theory: that everything — earth and Sun, our local Milky Way galaxy and all the countless other galaxies — were once squeezed together in a volume of space no bigger than a pinhead.
The density of this mass, we are told, was unbelievable, the temperature of it enormous, until suddenly it was too much and an awesome exposion sent it flying through the infinity of space, expanding and cooling as it went, and the universe was born. Spectrometers that measure light waves indicate that this original matter is still expanding in all directions from its origin, but astronomers differ as to whether it will keep on doing that, or in some distant future will collapse back on itself to form the pin-point of unimaginable energy from which it came. If the idea of “God” seems mysterious, the mystery of our universe is more than a match for it.
Even so, much of the conflict between science and religion has grown out of reading the Bible literally. If we interpret the poets who wrote Genesis to mean that God created the world in six literal 24-hour days, or miss the play on words in which man (adam ) comes from adamah (the ground), and Eve’s name in Hebrew resembles the word for life (she is the “mother of all the living”) — if we read that as if it were journalism instead of poetry, then of course we will be at war with the logic of science. But to read parts of the Bible literally is as if we heard some poet say, “My love is a rose” and thought, “How odd that one should be infatuated with a plant!” When we are this literal-minded, we make nonsense of the very book we wish to save and we draw the battle lines that have separated piety and critical thought for centuries.
Read as poetry, the opening words ofGenesis , with the emergence of light and darkness, land and water, living creatures and the emergence of consciousness, leave plenty of room for harmony between the Bible and both the Big Bang theory of creation and the theory of life as a process of long, slow evolution. Read as poetry, the mythical sections of the Bible leave room to think of God, not as Something that sits out there majestically removed from life as we know it, but an always-present part of creation — as close, int he words of the Koran, as “the veins in our neck.” Which brings me to what, instead of astronomy, this sermon is really about: Spying God in unexpected places.
I have read the weekly issues of The Christian Century for a long time, and forgotten most of them, but one story touched such a deep nerve that to this day it sums up my approach to religion about as well as anything I know. A man by the name of Michael King wrote the story. A seminary student and part-time minister who in his need to buy groceries and pay the rent also worked as a roving repairman in a big city slum, this is how his story goes: Every Tuesday and Friday morning I report for work in South Phila-delphia where the offices and warehouse of the Home Repair Company are located. These are not my days to find God. I look for him only on Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, when I’m a seminary student and a minister. On Monday I neither look for God nor do home repairs; that’s my day off.
On this particularly, very ordinary Tuesday, I head for work ont he expressway, dodging potholes and drivers zipping in and out of lanes, and hoping my battered old Plymouth won’t stall and get me on the morning television traffic report….But I make it to my usual breakfast spot, McDonald’s. I hand over $l.37 for a sausage McMuffin without eggs and a large cup of coffee, and I carry my tray to the usual booth across from the bag lady who croaks to anyone close on Tuesday mornings about her assorted angels and demons. I read the Inquirer , drink my coffee, eat my sandwich, and tune in once in a while to the bag lady’s solitary conversa-tion. Sometimes she includces me in it, asking what I think about the CIA agent disguised as a cat who constantly stalks her through the city.
I leave the bag lady behind and find myself at the Home Repair Company office, dressed in jeans that threaten to split any minute, and in a jacket made stiff with spots of caulk and roof tar. My boss gives me a work order to fix a water-damaged bathroom ceiling in a slum apartment, loads me up with drywall, joint compound and joint tape, and then hands me a note which says that a certain tenant has called in to complain how a Home Repair worker walked on his bed while fixing the windows and left bootprints. I know who that was, so I try to look contrite and hurry off like a man who intends to lead a newsand reformed life.
Pot holes, broken-down Plymouth, bag ladies, sausage sandwiches and coffee, drywall, sour notes…..God is obviously not going to appear until tomorrow when I head to the seminary library to track him down so that I can stick him somewhere in my next sermon. God appears in miracles and prayers and heavy theological reflection, not in drywall dust…..I want to cut God off from dirty, smelly ordinary life and put him in majestic churches and sacred texts and ponderous music and rare moments of miracle and ecstasy. God will appear on Sunday in church, or on Wednesday afternoon in seminary class….but right now it’s Tuesday. No God in sight.
The soon-to-be “Reverend” King had read about Elijah , and how that old prophet went looking for God in dramatic events like storms and fires and earthquakes, only to find God in an unexpected place — in a gentle whisper, a still small voice. But it had not become part of him yet, this story that seems to say, Look for God in the quiet ordinary course of daily life. Fortunately, another book has recently become part of his subconsious — a book entitled, And the Trees Clapped their Hands , written by a woman named Virginia Owens who sees herself as a spy tracking down God within ordinary reality, finding the divine image shining even in the faces of a postman, a businessman, a cowboy or a waitress — faces she watches over her coffee at Wendy’s when they are unaware, she says, that “the wonder of the world is invading their bodies as they chew their french fries and swallow their ketchup,” but for her, she says, for a moment at least, “there is an extraordinary sweetness in these faces….Even should they not know and bless the life that is in them, or confess whose it is, it knows and blesses them. It winks at me slyly from their unsuspecting faces, bounds outside to the last shred of cloud, and slouches past the window again, disguised as the afternoon paperboy.”
But for our minister-in-training, it’s still Tuesday and he’s having a hard time finding God in a tenement kitchen where he tries to work while the owner watches suspiciously over his shoulder. close by. She is old and weird, Mr. King writes. She doesn’t smell good, and she lives with a dog who has scattered newspaper shreds and less pleasant items over the apartment. She notices a place where he has measured wrong and had to cut an extra seam. Did you do that wrong? Did you make a mistake? Stupid woman, messy dog, disgusting apartment, he thinks. No God around here.
Then, moved by some obscure impulse, perhaps his memory of Elijah and a more recent book, lhe takes a closer look. I look into the eyes framed by sad, wrinkled skin. I look at the dog wagging its decrepit tail. On the wall hangs a tacky crucifix. Beside the bed is a picture of someone apparently important to the woman. There is no wind, no fire, no earthquake. The sounds are very gentle. The voice is no more than a whisper. But if I can pay attention,I will sense that God is here: in the drywall, in my hammer, in her eyes, in the dog’s tail, and in those papers clumped across the floor. He is not trapped inside those article in the seminary library; he does not live only in regal splendor in the church where I preach on Sunday.
That’s all from Mr. King, but I have a postscript. In a certain parable Jesus rebuked some good church-going people by saying that when he was hungry and thirsty they gave him nothing to eat and drink, that when he was naked they had no spare clothes, that when he was a stranger they had no welcome to make him feel less lonely. The nice people open their eyes wide in hurt surprise: “When in this world did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or homeless, and did not do what we could for you?” And he explains, in what must be one of the most incredible statements in any sacred book in the world: When you fail the people you live with, you fail me. I am on the bus, in the office, in the bar, on the street, dwelling somewhere in every person you meet. When you almost smiled and said ‘Hello” until you noticed the old woman was a mess and not worth the time…..when you almost listened to the old man desperate for a moment of attention, until you ralize you were too busy….what you have to know is, that it was I whom you put aside for some better moment.
I’ll tell you a secret now, and make a confession as I do it. I was working away at this very sermon last week when the woman who cleans the house occasionally interrupted me, as she tends to do when Billie has escaped and the house is still except for the hum of my computer. She observed that the high wind had blown down part of my neighbor’s fence. I was struggling with a sentence. I did not want to have a conversation. So I grunted in hopes that she would go on about her business and let me go on about mine, which had something to do with God’s being in people’s loneliness and their need for a moment of companionship. The grunt didn’t work, and I was interrupted. “Billie said you went to a girl’s softball game at Wichita State. Who were they playing?”
I was in conflict. I didn’t want to be rude, but I didn’t want to answer and be drawn into a conversation that would throw me completely off track from what I was writing. And then, of course, in God’s gentle joke, the irony of it all dawned on me. There I was writing words to convince people on Sunday morning that God is in the most humdrum and boring human need, and totally missing the truth of it. So, having been dragged unwillingly into a moment of camaraderie, I managed just enough patience and decency to get up from word-processing for a few minutes and talk with someone who lives alone and can be painfully persistent about swapping a few words before she goes back to her lonely house for the rest of the week.
You’ve heard about “reluctant goodness?” Sometimes God turns up there, too…..unexpectedly.

May we see your face, O Lord, ine very face; hear your voice in every
sound; discover your grace in the most unlikely places…..until the
whole world becomes the church. Amen.

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