When I was little, I remember playing the guessing game, “I spy.” If we were playing here, I might begin, “I spy, with my own eye, something beginning with …. H!” And then, you would begin to guess what it is I’m spying that begins with an “h.” “Hat?” No, not hat. “Hymnal?” you guess. No, not hymnal. And so we would proceed as you name as many things as you can think of and see until eventually, when there’s not much else left, and so you might guess, “handbell,” and you’d be right. By process of elimination, (by saying “not this, not this, not this and not this) you get to the thing of value, the thing pointed to, the desired thing. This is a little like Jim, the character from the BBC show “Vicar of Dibley” who finally gets around to things the long way by saying “no, no, no, no, no….yes!”
It’s not only in a game that we do that. It’s also a practice for life. Sometimes a vocation or a career choice is made only after trying a number of other things and one by one, checking them off a list. Sometimes finding the right kind of relationship takes that sort of process. And for some, and I find that I’m among them as I grow older and my faith changes and deepens, we draw closer to an understanding of who God is, only by first saying who God is not. While this may sound vaguely Buddhist, it is deeply Christian, following a long line of spiritual thought and practice. A 4th century spiritual teacher (Evagrius of Pontus) taught people to pray by saying, “Strive to render your mind deaf and dumb at the time of prayer, and then you will be able to pray.”
I find this way of negation, this “negative” approach to God helpful for various reasons. First, it can be helpful when our mind or our world is just too cluttered. I recently spoke with someone who, because of their upbringing in a violent family, spoke of his understanding of God as “polluted” by people who had claimed Christianity used religion as a battering ram. When one’s image or idea of God is like that, then it probably needs a process of negation. But secondly, I also find this “via negativa,” the negative way of approaching God as helpful whenever we feel cut off from God, when we feel like we’re in a desert place, or when we feel like we’re sinking. To realize that God is present in absence can be a powerful thing.
The scriptures today give us examples of God showing up where God is not.
In First Kings we hear about the prophet Elijah. Earlier in this chapter, Elijah has been preaching against Queen Jezebel and she has put out a death warrant on him. By the point of the story in today’s reading, Elijah is worn out. He’s tired, he’s afraid, and he doesn’t know what to do, so he comes to a cave, exhausted. Perhaps he’s running away. He spends the night until he’s interrupted by the Word of God—we’re not sure if this interruption is a dream or an angel or some other means of God. But Elijah answers and lets loose: He complains, “I’ve been zealous for the Lord,” he says, but “I alone am left, and they are seeking to take my life.” The Word of God then tells him to go and stand outside the cave. There, Elijah has this amazing experience of God—but not God. It’s as though God takes every image Elijah has God, every idea, every concept, and then bypasses it. God is not in great wind, splitting rocks open it’s so strong. God is not in the earthquake. God is not in the fire. Where God is, is in what some Bibles have translated a “still, small voice.” But even that term does not quite hold God. The New Revised Standard Version, from which we read in worship, translates God’s coming as “a sound of sheer silence.” This is sound that is not sound, but in this full silence, this unspoken Word, Elijah hears strength and encouragement and purpose from God. Elijah leaves the cave, changed, and empowered by the spirit of God.
God shows up strangely in our Gospel, as well. The story picks up where last week left off. After preaching and feeding the thousands, Jesus goes away to a quiet place to pray. He sends the disciples on ahead, to cross over the water in a boat. Jesus goes out over the water to meet them, the disciples are afraid, and Jesus has the interaction with Peter about faith and doubt.
I think we can look at this in at least two ways: the first is slightly cynical and suspicious of Jesus, as we notice that here he practically sets up the disciples. It’s like Jesus sends them straight into their deepest fears: to go out on the water and get scared. He knows them. He knows what will happen when they leave him and begin to doubt themselves, and doubt their experiences with him, and begin to doubt God. And yet, Jesus sends them on.
But another way to look at this is from a lighter perspective. I wonder if we don’t sometimes read scripture with far too serious an attitude. What if Jesus is basically playing a kind of hide and seek with the disciples? Of course, it’s no ordinary game of hide and seek—their lives depend on it. Their souls depend on it. But when Peter falls in the water and Jesus boosts him up and supports him, I can almost hear laughter in Jesus’ question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” It’s as thought Jesus says, “You might have thought you were alone, but I was here. You might have thought you were lost, but I’d find you soon enough. You might have thought you were sinking, but I’ve got you, now and forever.”
Belden Lane writes about the game of hide and seek as he learned something new from his children and. He says that he used to worry about his son, because his son couldn’t get the game right. Every time they would play, as soon as his son found a good hiding place, he would yell “ready!” Belden writes that, to his mind, this missed the whole point of the game: to hide well. But eventually, he realized that from his son’s perspective, HE was missing the whole point of the game. The whole fun of hide-and-seek is in being found! Lane quotes Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Dominican who said, “God is like a person who clears his throat while hiding and so gives himself away.” [Solace of Fierce Landscapes, p. 179] God becomes hidden in order to be found.
I don’t know where you all are on this hot, August morning. It may be that you have no patience for this God of “hide-and-seek.” It may be that the way of arriving at God by saying and seeing where God is not, doesn’t work for you, or doesn’t work for you at this point in your life. That’s fine. Christian spirituality has sometimes spoken of two great ways of approaching God—neither is independent, both are complimentary, but one way uses images to think of God, to pray to God, to approach God. God is parent. God is king. God is energy. God is Jesus.
But others do sometimes feel called into this holy game of hide and seek, in which God is not, so that God can be.
It’s hard to be alive and awake in our world and not have some fear. We fear the instability of the markets. We fear for our safety. We fear for our children’s future. We fear for our jobs. We fear for our health. On and on the list goes. But in the midst of these very real fears, at one level the scriptures today are about God whispering outside a cave and about God-in-Jesus walking on water. But at another level, the scriptures (as with the prayers and the whole tradition of our faith) remind us that God is closer to us than our own breath. God holds us. God sustains us. And God will never leave us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.