For theists, to believe in God is to believe in a God who actively participates in human history. God's involvement can be assumed.
In the beginning, Scripture tells this story: God is near. A Spirit Hovering on the surface of the depths A voice Speaking into darkness A hand Crafting earthlings' flesh and bones A breath On the face of humanity. Scripture describes God's nearness with the language of utmost intimacy in the beginning.
Then, slowly, distancing begins.
The sound of God's footsteps compels the earthlings to hide. Evasion. Concealment. Distancing.
Nearness comes to mean something new. Floodwaters destroy the created order, and with it, earthlings. But God places his bow in the clouds, as if to say, “Never again will I use it to hunt and kill what my hands have made.” And still, God is near.
God's nearness confuses the tongues of those conspiring to ascend to the heights. God's nearness is a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, confirming God's pledge to Abram. God's nearness is a promise to Sarai's slave girl: “Your offspring will be innumerable.”
God's nearness hears the cry of an enslaved people. God's nearness burns but does not consume a desert shrub. God's nearness sanctifies the dirt.
Then, again, distancing.
God's nearness brings frogs, lice, blood...death. God's nearness carves out dry canyons through seas. God's nearness thunders from the mountains.
And nearness is now no longer God's footsteps, it is fleeting glances at God's backside It is mandates etched in stone on Sinai No longer the voice in Eden that says, “Where are you?”
And God said: “I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end will be...” (Deuteronomy 32:20a).
Theophanies diminish. Prophets utter God's words on God's behalf, and then God is altogether silent. At the time of exile, at the close of the Tanakh, God no longer can be seen. Or heard. Cyrus, the great Persian king, reprises the role of liberator of God's people. The one who saves. Initiative for God's purposes has shifted from God to human actors, and there are no more theophanies. For centuries, God remains silent, until A divine word again cuts into darkness. A word made flesh. It dwells among us.
God is near. Touching blind eyes with sight Feeding hordes of people with a sack lunch Calming storms and human turmoil with a glance
It has the feel of the time in the beginning when God's presence meant utmost intimacy... God is near, But once again, distancing follows.
There comes a day when Jesus disappears, as literally as God's presence ever did Taken up into the clouds. Gone. But Jesus' absence was predicated upon the coming of God's spirit. And theophanies continue.
When tongues are confused, God's continuing nearness provides linguistic clarity at Pentecost. When the air in the room is stagnant, God's gale force nearness blows in When disease has the upper hand, God's healing nearness still makes invalids rise up and walk!
And yet, distancing continues.
Imprisonments become commonplace—sometimes God intervenes More often, not. Increasingly, human actors take the reigns of the divine plan, and God, increasingly, is silent. Theophanies decrease, and then Seem to cease altogether.
And once again, silence settles over the world.
It's that silence that most struck me during my two years in Thailand. While living in Bangkok, serving as a high school Bible teacher and school chaplain, I knew an Aussie—Wayne Blee. Wayne taught third grade and loved his students. They loved him in return. Wayne was in his mid fifties, and estranged from his family in Australia. Wayne never knew whether he could fully embrace the claims of theism—the claims of God's active involvement in the world. He was open to the possibility of God's nearness, but couldn't be certain. Especially after he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer.
For agonizingly long stretches of time, Wayne took leave of his students to receive chemotherapy at one of Bangkok's best hospitals. Meanwhile, I asked the school to pray. I prayed too, not merely because I was the school chaplain and it was my job, but because I believed in God's nearness, and that God intervenes.
I sent out messages to people on my email list, confessing my faith that God's will is that none should perish, including from cancer. I asked my contacts to pray as well.
I shared my belief that God would act, because it was God's nature to act—to right wrongs and to heal. That was God's fundamental characteristic, I believed. And so I prayed.
I knew deep down that whatever happened would be pivotal in shaping my understanding of God.
Before seeing his sixtieth birthday, cancer claimed Wayne Blee, and God's silence was heavy.
I remain a theist, most days, but my belief in a present, active God has metamorphosed. The change has come largely as a result, not of the heaviness of God's silence, but because of that same silence's golden edges. And because of Scripture.
After all, it is Scripture that insists, “The poor will always be with you, but I will not.” It is Scripture that declares, “What you do for the least of my siblings, you do for me.” It is Scripture that states, “You will be my witnesses, first in Jerusalem, then in Judea, and then in all the world.” It is Scripture that demands, “Feed my sheep.”
God's gradual disappearance from the terrestrial stage brings a heavy, golden silence—a silence that creates space for earthlings to enact God's purposes, a silence that makes room for human initiative and creativity.
Tracing the trajectory of the scriptural narrative, it almost seems that God's gradual withdrawal is a deliberate act of empowerment, an invitation to earthlings to assume their original mandate to have dominion, to protect and to serve.
It almost seems as though it was never God's intent to unilaterally determine the course of human history, but rather, that it was God's intent that humanity would partner with God.
Silence still haunts me, but in those moments when its weight feels overwhelming, I am reminded of Jesus' words:
“But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send the Counselor to you.”
“And behold, I am with you always (even in the silences), until the very end of the age.”
“Feed my sheep.”
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2354