THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 53
In the playpen
I read somewhere recently the phrase that God is in the wound, not the bandage and I have been turning this over ever since. It is a most graphic and challenging statement. What does it mean? Does it open a door for us into a new way of looking at the wounds of life we all suffer?
Perhaps it resonated with me because I have been reading the Desert Fathers recently and they too adopt an approach, which challenges our easy assumptions. They were seekers after reality – part of the reason they went into the desert in the first place was because they felt that the church had become too worldly, too accommodating to worldly ideas and values. They thirsted for reality in their dealings with God. They wanted to serve him in reality and in truth. So they got away from ordinary life and sought that deeper relationship in the midst of the solitude of the desert.
Very often we feel that we are too contaminated by the world’s values, and that we would like to get away into silence and contemplation. Mostly, all we manage is a four-day retreat, or perhaps a holiday in some quiet spot.
But suppose we could find a way of dealing with all that happens to us day by day without feeling so oppressed? Suppose we could proof ourselves against the incursions of the world into our life and our faith? So that even the worst things happening to us did not throw us off balance. That would be very good. We might be of more use to others if we learned that secret. How could we do that? It is an open secret – it is not hidden away. Lets see what is involved.
Suppose you decide to go for a picnic. The City air, noise and crowds have got on your nerves and you want some lovely green fields and rural peace for a day. You pack the sandwiches and fruit, you get ready and, just before you leave the telephone rings. It is a friend in dire need. They are very low and they need a few minutes of the particular friendship and encouragement that you can give. You stand there talking, picnic basket at your feet, coat slung over a chair, helping her to deal with her crisis.
That dealt with, you set off – you shut and double lock the door and go into the garage. Then the car won’t start. At least it seems to be that way. You keep trying, saying to yourself, again, that you really must get a new battery. Then it starts with a splutter and you heave a sigh of relief. You drive into the road and through the High Street. While waiting at the traffic lights, a car bumps into the back of your car. You are not hurt, but it means getting out and exchanging details, because your bumper is going to need some attention. It takes five minutes, but it upsets you. It was so unexpected and there was nothing you could do about it. But now you are really on your way, and you escape the shops and the streets and are soon in the country. You turn down a side road leading to a lane you know and then you are able to pull into a field and get out of the car. The air probably isn’t any better than at home, but it feels different and it is restful to see all the green around and to know that you are in safe spot where no one will disturb you. Now you can really feel close to nature – close to God.
I believe that God is not only there in the peace of the field with you, but also in the telephone call, the sluggish engine start and the accident. He is also with you between these events. In fact he is with you all the time, through what we term both good and bad experiences. But of course we cannot see that at the time. The various experiences seem to be interruptions to our aim, and therefore hindrances. We want to get past them to reach where we want to be.
In fact I think it is really very important that we Christians begin to think like this all the time – to see God in all that happens to us and to understand that there is nothing more important than becoming conscious of him as we go through the day.
The reason it is so difficult for us to live like that is because we get so hooked on our goals and aims that we cannot see the larger picture. We cannot see our lives set in the midst of Gods purposes. We think he is like us, with tunnel vision on what he wants to do. But actually, above all, he is in the ‘being’ and not the ‘doing’. We need to recapture that sense of Gods abiding presence in all things, all people, and all circumstances.
Is that Christian? Most certainly it is. Again and again Jesus pointed people to the reality of the present moment. He told them to stop being so fixed in the future that they lost the present (Matt 6.25). He told them to simplify their lives – to look at the grass and the flowers and recognise God everywhere. (Matt 6.30) He told them to have done with fear and to enjoy life (Matt 10.29-32).
But, you say, how can I possibly believe that God is in everything when so many terrible things happen. Was God in the Twin Towers on September 11th? Is God in the Aids epidemic that is slowly and relentlessly gathering in intensity across the world? Is God in the terrorist’s bomb? How can one say that? What sort of God does that make him out to be? It is because we cannot reconcile those terrible happenings with the idea of a God truly in charge of everything that some people lose their faith.
There is a way of understanding how God can be in everything and yet still to be the God of love and compassion that Jesus showed us. Let me use another illustration.
You place your young child in a playpen. He has just learned how to walk and he is into everything, so you place him in his playpen with some wooden bricks and a stiff-paged picture book, while you get on with something else.
You don’t mind if he stands up or squats on the carpet in the playpen. He can play with his bricks – he can even try to throw them if he wants. He has freedom to move about, make a noise, and investigate his surroundings. But he is safe in there. It is a ‘closed system’.
Now the child does not realise that it has been accident-proofed. He thinks – insofar as he thinks at all – that he can do what he wants. He can sit down or shuffle around or even pull himself up by the sides of the playpen. He can shake the sides of the playpen – a grand game if it gets Mummy’s attention! He can do a lot of things. What he cannot do is get outside the playpen. He is in a closed system and everything has been made safe.
So with us. God has placed us on this tiny speck of matter floating in a vast cosmos. He has set boundaries and limits. We can push those limits – shake the sides of the playpen – and sometimes, when we climb out and explore, we simply find ourselves in a larger playpen! Different limitations, but still in a closed system. For example, at the beginning of civilisation we were restricted to moving about by the use of our legs. Then we invented the wheel and tamed horses and rode around. Then we invented cars and then aeroplanes. Now we have ventured into space travel, although so far we cannot go any great distance. No doubt we shall find fresh ways of climbing over the sides of the playpen in the centuries to come. Who knows what fresh worlds we will conquer! But – according to the Christian - we shall still be within a closed system with boundaries and limitations, set up by God. We have been created like that. Our curiosity is part of our make up but our Creator remains in charge. He knows just how far he will allow us our freedom. We are in a closed system.
But why? What possible purpose could a Creator have in going to all this trouble? Maybe, just as the young child cannot possibly understand all that is in his mothers mind in having the playpen to put him in, maybe neither can we even begin to understand the mind of God, except where he reveals it to us. Maybe, for earth-walking humans, there will always be mystery about the purposes of God.
God constructed our playpen with just enough uncertainty about everything – even the very existence of a Creator – to create the ideal conditions for the exercise of faith. The complications of six and a half billion people on earth at the same time, the existence of pain and suffering, the significance of a man like Jesus, the whole human experience in all its breadth and diversity – all these are part of the ground conditions of life. In the face of them we can choose to believe in God or we can refuse to believe. We can choose to believe that Jesus was who he said he was, or we can dismiss him as a first century Jewish religious man. We can vilify God because of all the suffering and pain and inequality in the world, or we can accept that life has a purpose and that behind everything there is a loving God.
If the child in the playpen suddenly trips over the bricks and hurts himself he will experience pain. But everything has been arranged by the mother so that no fundamental damage will be done. He may hurt himself – but he will survive.
So, too, in our world – everything has been arranged that the vital choice – whether to trust in God or goodness or whatever we want to call it – is open to each person, whatever happens. Cancer may intervene, but the choice of believing or not is still there. We have problems understanding some of the circumstances of life and death, but we still have the choice of believing or not. We can choose to believe that there is a God in charge, or we can deny his very existence.
If we take this thought to its logical conclusion we then realise that everything that happens, every circumstance, every person we meet, every action is God-ordained. Not necessarily ordained in a planned and purposeful way – but planned in the permissive and ‘closed system’ sense. We are in God’s playpen, and the parameters are set. We can therefore accept that whatever happens in our day-to-day living comes to us from God. It has been passed as ‘safe’ and ‘in line with his purposes’. Otherwise he would not have let it happen. Whatever happens in the playpen is allowed for in God’s scheme of things.
In this article I have suggested that we need to recognise God’s presence and involvement in every aspect of our daily life, not just when we feel like addressing him. I have also suggested that the Cosmos, being Gods creation, is subject to Gods laws and conditions and therefore we may take it that nothing – not even the things that most trouble us, like pain, suffering and inequality – is outside what God has permitted to happen for us. Everything that happens is, in one sense, within God’s plan for us.
This led us on to consideration of what that purpose is, and I suggested that it must be that we are invited to exercise our uniquely human capacity to make moral and spiritual choices. Having the power of choice must be the focus of why we are here. Trusting in God, and having faith in God are the purpose of our existence. When we follow our hearts and make that step of faith, we experience a most wonderful intimacy with our Creator. This now needs exploring – but it will have to await the next article.