It’s not hard to see why we call God Father or Mother. In most of the Bible stories, though, it’s more like “Da-a-d!” or “Mo-o-m!” That would be us, the rebellious kids, pushing back at laws or situations we think are so unfair! We honestly can’t believe that our parent could know so little, that he or she just doesn’t understand, pushing the envelope of what our parent–in this case, God–will tolerate.
Listen again to this exchange between Moses and God, after the people of Israel have danced around the golden calf they made Aaron craft for them to give them something to do, something to focus on, while Moses was up on the top of Mt. Sinai with God. God is still so angry with the people that he tells Moses they should just leave, go on to the land which God has promised to them, but God will not go among them, for fear that he just might consume them. Time for a parental “time-out” to cool down and decide what is an appropriate punishment or consequence for their relentless unfaithfulness. “You go,” God tells Moses.
12-13 Moses said to God, “Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’ If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility.”
14 God said, “My presence will go with you. I’ll see the journey to the end.”
15-16 Moses said, “If your presence doesn’t take the lead here, call this trip off right now. How else will it be known that you’re with me in this, with me and your people? Are you traveling with us or not? How else will we know that we’re special, I and your people, among all other people on this planet Earth?”
17 God said to Moses: “All right. Just as you say; this also I will do, for I know you well and you are special to me. I know you by name.”
18 Moses said, “Please. Let me see your Glory.” [The Message]
So cheeky! Pushing all the way up until that last request–”Let me see your Glory.” I imagine a pause here in the conversation. That’s the last thing Moses says in this conversation. He has gone right up to the line and has no idea what he’s really asking. “Let me see your Glory.” God replies in what I imagine to be a change in tone of voice, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim my name–I am who I am. And I will be gracious to whomever I will be gracious and show mercy to whomever I will show mercy. BUT, you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
Just so you know.
Like watching a total solar eclipse without the proper protective eye gear, no one can see the face of God without being blinded at best. Jacob’s wrestling with the angel of God threw his hip out of joint and left him with a limp for the rest of his life. “No one shall see me and live.”
Words like “glory” get thrown around carelessly in our culture–”No guts, no glory!” we say. We elbow others out of the way to make sure we’re getting our fair share of the glory. It’s something to seek after, an unquestioned good, and so wouldn’t God’s glory just be even more, even better? We have no idea.
“While my glory passes by,” God says to Moses, “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.” It’s such a human image of God, with hands and face and back, which in itself tells you how limited our imagination is when it comes to the Holy One–”eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor human imagination envisioned what you have prepared for those who love you,” Paul writes. The mystics who have had visions or dreams grasp for words to describe their experience–”there appeared one like a human being…” “It was an overwhelming sense of…what shall I call it? Peace? Well-being? Not even that….Oneness, perhaps….”
It’s like the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant, each one touching a different part of the beast and claiming to know what it is like–”It’s like a thick rope,” said the one with his hands on the trunk. “No, it’s like a fan,” said the one holding an ear. “It’s like a thick tree trunk,” insisted the one touching the leg. “It’s a wall,” said the one touching the side. “It like a snake,” the one holding the tail said. “No, no, it’s hard and sharp, like a spear,” said the one grasping a tusk.
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor human imagination envisioned…” the whole of God, the glory of God. Everything we can imagine is too small. For any one religion to claim to have the whole truth and nothing but the truth about God is hubris at its height. “No one can see God’s face and live.”
But a glimpse of God’s glory? That, sometimes, we are able to see. “After I have passed by, then I will take away my hand,” God tells Moses, “and you shall see my back…” or, what that phrase also means is, “You will see where I have just been”–trailing streams of glory, as they say. Sometimes we see or experience where God’s glory has been… we may have that sense or experience when we look out on a mountain range, or across a valley, seemingly “on fire” in the autumn or painted with a wild paintbrush–God’s glory has passed over this. Sometimes you look back into a room where a sacred conversation has taken place, or where people have come together to sing praises or laments, to comfort and support one another, and as you close the door, you have the sense, “God has been here.” When the teachers gathered in our sanctuary during the strike several years ago, a number of them noted that the place seemed to be soaked in peace and prayer. “You shall see my back….”
Of course, God is everywhere, within me and around me, as the Joyful Path affirms, but rarely are we so attentive, so mindful, so awake, that we catch a glimpse of God’s glory as it’s passing by. Sometimes it’s only later on, when we reflect upon our day, when we write in our gratitude journal at night, that we realize, “Oh, yes, that was a holy moment… or, that was so beautiful, so touching, surely God was radiating out from there.”
“The glory of God is the human being fully alive,” Bishop Ireneaus wrote back in the 3rd c. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of God’s glory in the face or the actions of another human being. Certainly that’s what those who encountered Jesus experienced, even after his death, and so they described their experience with him as having encountered God.
I find it interesting and important that God chooses to put Moses in the cleft of a rock for him to experience God’s glory passing by. The cleft–the cleaving apart–of rock, a place made, by definition, of brokenness, by forces measured not in moments or days or even decades, certainly not within a 24/7 news cycle, but in eons, millenia. Sometimes–and more often than not–it is in experiences of brokenness, which human beings have experienced for as long as there have been human beings–in the death of a friend or loved one, in the midst of disease or injury, in the rending or betrayal of a relationship, in failure, in our own deaths–it is precisely in these crevaces and times of suffering in our lives that we may experience the glory of God.
Tal Ben-Shahar, my teacher in Positive Psychology, writes that we in the west reject suffering, we see it as an interruption in our pursuit of happiness, and so we look for a quick fix, or repress our suffering, deny it. [I was stunned when a woman whose mother’s funeral I was planning with her said that her partner had told her, “You know, you should just get over it.” Her mother had died a week before.] In Eastern traditions, though, Tal says, suffering is acknowledged for the important role it plays in our lives (this life and any others that are to come). One Tibetan monk teaches that there are four benefits of suffering: wisdom, resilience, compassion, and a deep respect for reality.
Wisdom–When things are going well , we rarely stop and ask questions about our lives. Difficulties force us out of our mindlessness and cause us to reflect upon what’s important. Resilience–Like a muscle that needs to be stressed in order to get stronger, so too we can become more resilient when we allow hardship and suffering to strengthen us. Compassion–Suffering can teach us compassion because everyone experiences suffering at some point, and so we recognize our connection and gain empathy for others going through hard times. And finally, suffering teaches us a deep respect for reality, Tal says, when we are reminded of our limitations and perhaps obtain some humility.
“Show me your glory,” Moses said to God. “I will put you in the cleft of a rock, while all my goodness passes by,” God says, “and I will shield you with my hand.” “I know you by name,” God says to Moses, knowing him all too well. And Moses returns to God, “If I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you.” It is a deep, though dangerous, longing we have–to “know God”–and it is said that the longing itself is first initiated by God. From the very first explosion of matter, in what we call the Big Bang, deep into the forming of planets and stars, rocks and seas, God has been longing for us, planting seeds of glory in us, waiting for us to emerge into wholeness and our full glory. For now, though, glimpses are all we get, for more than that must wait until we come fully into God’s presence on that far shore. Still, the more awake we are, the more mindful we become, in times of joy and times of sorrow, the more we recognize and affirm our longing for God, the more alive we become and full of the glory of God.
May these words be hope, and courage, and wisdom, for the living of these days. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark