Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Explaining God by Dr. Thoms Lane Butts

Explaining God

When my grandson, T.L., was about 6 years old he had just finished a class in the Catholic Church preparing him for his First Communion. He was very proud of what he had learned about God and Jesus, and so were we all. T.L. had come with his parents and his little sister, Winslow, to spend the weekend. As we sat down for the first meal after their arrival, I looked around the table and asked who would like to say the blessing. T.L. quickly volunteered. His 5 year old sister spoke up in support of T.L. by saying: "My brother knows everything about God!" I asked T.L. if this were true. He said: "Grandfather, I know all about God. It is in a book I had to read, but I have lost the book." Guess who said the blessing! There was something strikingly symbolic about losing the book that explained everything about God. I thought of mentioning that "losing the book with all the answers" would be a problem all his life, but he was too young and too confident of what he knew to have his grandfather disturb that wonderful but temporary state of being. He would learn the truth soon enough.

It is 57 years now that I have been in the business of "explaining God"; embarrassingly often to people who were better acquainted with God than I. I used to be good at it! I was as confident of my complete knowledge of God as my six year old grandson. Now I have learned too much to have even the faintest shadow of an idea that I know very much at all about the Almighty. When I was young God was small enough to be encompassed in my descriptions. After all these years God has grown far beyond my feeble explanations.

Some days I reflect on what happened to the God of my youth, the God who was well within the range of my verbal skills. That nice comfortable God disappeared somewhere in the study of astronomy, physics, cosmology, and the Bible. When I learned that the earth was not the center of the cosmos, not the center of the "Milky Way," or even the solar system, God began to get bigger than my explanations. When I learned that our little solar system is in a remote corner of our unremarkable galaxy which is 100,000 light years across and contains a billion or more stars like the star we call the sun, and that the visible universe contains billions of galaxies like our own, and that even with the Hubble Telescope we have not yet found the edge of the universe, the God of my youth disappeared and there appeared a God too large to explain. This became a humbling experience for a person who is in the business of explaining God.

As a child I prayed to a God who was "good and great," but in adulthood I learned that this God who is indeed "good and great" is also subtle, elusive, and even strange. If I had read the Bible with greater care when I was young I might have suspected that God was different from (as in more than) what I thought. Isaiah 55:8-9 reminds us: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways says the Lord. For as high as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." Now I cannot speak of God quite completely. I can only point at Jesus and the universe, both of which are beyond my explanation, but they refer to an even larger reality that we call God.

I miss the God of my youth who was so easy to explain. I feel like Thomas Hood who in the last verse of "I Remember, I Remember" wrote:
I remember, I remember
The fir-trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ‘tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from Heaven
Than when I was a boy.

When I speak of God these days I have to qualify my explanations with: "There is more, much more." I realize most of you want someone to tell you everything about God. Sorry about that. Not now. Perhaps later, in another dimension, in "an older place than Eden and a taller town than Rome." "Now we see through a glass darkly," said an old friend a couple of thousand years ago.

AN ENCOURAGING WORD for September 6, 2007 - written by Dr. Thoms Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

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