Glimpses of God
By the Rev. Lee
Massachusett, November 10, 1996
Exodus 33:7-11, 18-23 Seeing
God's face and back
Luke 12:22-31 Strive for God's kingdom
Divine Providence #187, 189 Seeing divine providence
Lord said to Moses, "While my glory passes by I will put you in a
cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed
by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my
face shall not be seen." (Exodus 33:22, 23)
shy? We can see his back, but not his face. We can get glimpses of God
passing by, but we cannot sit down for a face to face talk. Or can we?
The irony of this passage is that only a few verses before in the same
chapter, it speaks of Moses sitting in the tent of meeting, where the
Lord would speak to him "face to face, as one speaks to a
wrong with this picture? First God speaks to Moses face to face. Then
God covers Moses with his hand so that he will not see his face, since,
he says, "you cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and
live." (Gen. 33:20) This is the sort of passage that Bible-bashers
love to pounce upon. "Aha!" they say. "There is a
flat contradiction in the Bible, and it happens within a single
course, if we approach the Bible with a mind to make fun of it, we will
find things in it to make fun of. It is like our relationships with
people. Every single one of us has a few quirks and a few character
flaws that others could make fun of if they wished. Sometimes people do
make fun of us, and it can be an unpleasant experience--especially if we
are a bit uncomfortable with those things ourselves.
us have the common decency to overlook each other's rough edges most of
the time and look for the good in each other. When we do this, we
sometimes find that behind even the quirks and flaws themselves there
lies unexpected good in other people. We may turn away from someone with
a disfigured face, but if we find out it was from getting badly burned
while rescuing a child from a burning building, the person's damaged
facial features take on a deeper significance of inward beauty of
also true of the Bible. If we focus only on the literal inconsistencies,
we will miss the depths of meaning within. Those who hold the Bible in
contempt because of the passages in which it does not present a pretty
face are like those who reject people because of their outward looks
without first finding out about the person's inner character.
particular Bible passage speaks directly to our own experience of God.
We do not always feel God's presence in the same way. Sometimes the Lord
feels like a loving friend; at other times, like a hard taskmaster.
Sometimes we experience the Lord as gentle and mild; other times as bold
and powerful. Sometimes we seem to speak to God face to face, just as we
would talk to a friend. Other times we feel as if we can catch only the
barest glimpse of God as he passes by.
this contrast is the strongest when we compare our experience of God
while we are deep in prayer with the times we are going about our daily
tasks. Here in church, or during a quiet, solitary time of prayer, we
often have a sense that God is right with us, talking to us and helping
us with our issues. But when we are out there directly facing those
issues in the form of a tough problem at work, or a shaky relationship,
or some other hurdle that life throws in our way, we often seem to be
all on our own.
wonder at those times why God does not show himself to us clearly and
tell what we should do. Why does God seem so close when we are quietly
praying, but so distant when we have to deal with all the people and
things we pray about?
imagine Moses asking the same question of God. "Come on now,
God," he might say. "You and I talk face to face every day in
the tent of meeting. What is the big problem about showing me your face
when I am out there struggling over the rocks? Why do you have to cover
my eyes until you have already gone by? Why can't I see you when I
really need you?"
the Lord has not left us without enlightenment on these questions. In
our church we turn especially to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg to
gain insight on the tough life issues that are reflected in the Bible
stories. When it comes to the hard questions about our experience of
life here on earth, there is one book of Swedenborg's that we can turn
to again and again. That book is Divine Providence.
issues are all tackled in this book. Why does the Lord allow good people
to get sick and injured? Why does the Lord allow wars to happen? Why do
bad people often seem to get along better than good people? Why are so
many good and innocent people the victims of bad people? In Divine
Providence, Swedenborg looks at these questions and many others,
moving our thinking into new pathways that can lead to understanding.
While nothing can entirely take away the pain of our hard experiences,
if we can gain some sense of meaning in them, the rawest edges of our
feelings can be smoothed, and the sharpest pain can be softened.
how it is with our feelings that the Lord often seems not to be with us
at the times we need him most. To us, that is a real experience, no
matter how well we know the church's teaching that the Lord is always
with us, even when we are aware of it. The question still remains, why
doesn't the Lord make us aware of it?
reading from Divine Providence moves us toward an answer to this
question. First, it presents the same picture presented in our reading
from Exodus. We see the Lord's providence in our lives after it acts,
and not before, just as Moses saw God's back after he had passed by, but
not God's face as he was approaching.
adds a new dimension by saying that we see providence when we are in a
spiritual state but not when we are in a material state. This begins to
clarify why God seems more present to us in prayer than when we are
working through our daily tasks. When we are praying--if our prayers are
genuine, spiritual prayers--our minds and hearts are focused on God and
spirit. God can be more present in our awareness because we have focused
our awareness on the place where God is: within, on the spiritual level.
the time, though, we are more focused on material things. How to pay for
some unexpected expense; how to get the kids not to track mud into the
house; how to deal with a particularly difficult family member or
friend; how to do any of the jobs that take up our days. These involve
focusing most of our attention on the outside world. This means that for
the most part, our attention is not focused on God. Anything we don't
pay attention to tends to fade into the background--and God is no
another reason that we tend not to see God while things are happening in
our everyday lives. It gets back to the statement that we can see God's
back but not his face; that we can see divine providence after it
acts in our lives, but not before. In our reading from Divine
Providence, Swedenborg makes a brief statement, which he explains in
more detail elsewhere. He says that if we have been spiritually reformed
and accept what flows into us from heaven, "we do not wish to see
divine providence in the face--meaning before events happen--since we
fear that our own wishes would break into some part of its order and
Swedenborg uses the image of our body. When we are healthy, we are able
to make our bodies do such things as walk, talk, eat, pick things up,
and so on. While we are doing these things, we have no awareness at all
of the millions of tiny interactions that have to take place in our
bodies each second to accomplish even the simplest of tasks. We don't
think at all about the thousands of brain cells firing thousands of
neurons that cause thousands of individual muscle fibers to work
together in a synchronized way so that we can take a single step or even
lift a single finger. We eat food, but we are completely unconscious of
the complex process of digestion that begins right about the time we are
enjoying the taste of our food and sending it down to our stomachs.
millions and billions of events that must be perfectly coordinated for
our body to act are like the work of the Lord's providence in our lives.
The Lord does not just tend to our lives in a general way, giving it a
nudge here and there at certain points along our paths. No, the Lord
works very intimately on the smallest details of our everyday lives,
continually causing things to work together, right down to the slightest
and most fleeting thought or feeling that passes through our heads. God
does not only create the sun, moon and stars, but also clothes every
lily of the field and every single blade of grass in the field.
were to become aware of the working of divine providence in our lives
right now, it would be like trying to become aware of the firing every
neuron and the contracting of every muscle fiber in our bodies each time
we pick up the hymnal to sing a hymn. There would be such a huge torrent
of information that we would become completely paralyzed and would never
even make it to the first note. Worse than that, we would not be able to
take the collection!
say we were somehow able to take in all this information, and gradually
began to make patterns out of some of its workings. How long could we
resist tinkering with it? "Ah, I see what my body is doing,"
we might say. "Now if I adjust it a bit here and tweak it a bit
there, perhaps it will work a wee bit better..." We could not
remain passive observers for long. Soon we would be attempting to
micro-manage the way our bodies worked--sure that we could improve on
the natural flow of things.
we are not as good at managing nature as God is. By the time we had
finished tinkering, things would be worse, not better, than they were
before. We have enough to do just to treat our bodies better than we
often do so that we can stay healthy.
even more true when it comes to the flow of our spiritual lives. When we
are dealing with physical events, at least we have some amount of
experience to draw on when we attempt to adjust something. Even then, we
often foul things up, as our continuing problems with pollution,
disease, crime, and so on attest. We have even less experience in
spiritual affairs. If we were to become aware of the millions of ways
the Lord works in every detail of our spiritual life, and if we tried to
adjust God's work using our own rudimentary knowledge of spiritual
things, we would certainly foul things up much worse than we have with
our physical world. God puts his hand over our eyes as he approaches our
lives, not because he is shy, but because he wants to protect us from
our own troublesome meddling!
God does not leave us with no awareness of his presence. Once he has
worked in our lives, he does take his hand away, and we are able to see
divine providence in our lives as we look back over its events. It is
the classic case of 20/20 hindsight!
certainly been the case in my own life. If I had followed my own path
toward ministry, it would have gone like this: After I graduated high
school I would have gone to four years of college, four years of
theological school, and straight into the ministry. I would have been in
a parish in my mid-twenties. The only problem was, I was not ready for
ministry at that time in my life.
the Lord had told me that beforehand, I either would have become
discouraged and not bothered to do a lot of the preparation I did
do during those early years, or I would have ignored the Lord's message
and went right ahead on my mistaken track. Instead, the Lord broke it to
me gradually. I did go through the first two years of college that I had
planned. By the time those two years were over, I knew I was not ready.
I did not know what course my life would take. I did not know it would
be another ten years before I would again consciously head toward
ministry. During those ten years, I did not even expect to go
into the ministry. I just moved along in my life, trying to support
myself, getting married, and learning and growing from a lot of mistakes
in the process.
that at the time I didn't know where I was headed. But looking back on
those years, I can see the hand of the Lord very clearly working in my
life. I won't go into detail on exactly what the Lord was doing with me
at that time. If you want to hear more about that, you can read my
graduation address in the Convention issue of The Messenger. For
now, you do not need the details of my particular journey, because each
of us can look back at our own lives and see the Lord working there in
ways that we were entirely unaware of at the time.
thankful that I did not know everything the Lord was doing in my life.
If I had, I certainly would have tried to get in there and do the Lord
one better. Ten years from now, I expect I will say the same thing about
what is going on in my life right now.
We do not
need to see God working in our lives every moment of every day. It is
enough for us to recognize that God is working in our lives, and
to do our own part by following the Lord's teachings as well as we can.
If we do this, we will find glimpses of God scattered throughout the
events of our lives. Amen.
Prism (Colors of Love)
© Bruce DeBoer