What is the glory of God really like? The glory of the infinite and eternal God who rules and sustains the universe? Men had longed to know. Now the veil is drawn aside: the glory of God is like Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. It is the glory of a God who humbles himself. Think how God humbles himself in his relations to the world, in the humble birth in the manger at Bethlehem, in Calvary, in all his gentle and patient dealings with ourselves. In that humility of God we see what the glory of God is like. –Michael Ramsey
Last week, I sent a photo to a friend. I scanned it and sent it in an email. Looking at the picture as I took it from the scanner, I saw the date on the edge: “Feb. 71”. Forty-six years ago the two of us were standing together in a Christian commune in Oregon, after having moved from California. Yes, the commune was legalistic, pretty light on formal theology and in many ways an aberration from the norm. Looking at our faces, however (faces with no lines, creases or wrinkles, but topped off with a great deal of hair), we looked happy. I’m not sure why we were happy, as we possessed nothing. We had no ambitions apart from sharing the Gospel in the college community where we were located. We had no claim to fame or notoriety. The work we engaged in to support the community, such as planting trees, or picking crops, or demolishing vacant houses, was back breaking. The food, while usually plentiful, was plain. In truth, we were probably living a life closer to the early Franciscans than we might have imagined. Of course, we would have had no real idea about that. You see, even though we knew that there was an early Church (we read about that in our Bibles) we were also pretty certain that everything else of importance started a long time before 1971, probably around 1969!
Looking at that photo, however, there was something “authentic.” There was a sense of family. When I called my friend, “brother,” I meant it. There was also a humility in thought and action. While the leaders of the movement might have had grander schemes, the rest of us formed a community of which Francis or Bonhoeffer might have been proud.
As it happens in such situations, we eventually all went our different ways, but we carried the experience with us. While I cannot speak for others who have had this or similar experiences, for myself I have been left with a somewhat jaundiced view of what is considered “success” in the life of the Church today. For myself, this is especially odd, as even though I’ve served in some very humble situations, I have also had the opportunity to serve through the years in a variety of institutions, cathedrals, endowed churches and, by and large, have been well compensated. Yet, in all these situations and circumstances, I’ve carried a “compass.” Now, there have been many times I have not consulted that “compass” when it would have been good to do so. Nonetheless, the “compass” has been there.
The compass of which I speak is the knowledge that, most often, God is not found in the grand and the glorious. More often, God is to be found in that which the world, and society at large, finds to be of little value or, indeed, that which society at large excoriates. You see, the God we worship “all glorious above,” is a God who only reveals himself to us in humility. We find him, not in a Hallmark card version of the Nativity, but in a dank cave, with perhaps a bit of fresh hay laid over the filthy feeding rough for the animals, wrapped in discarded rags. Imagine the smell, the dirt, the desperate refugee parents begging for a place in which Mary can give birth– and there we find the Glory of God.
A Cambridge professor in theology in the thirties used to say that he wished that once a year in high summer a bull could be sacrificed in the courtyard of the college, so that his divinity students could understand what a sacrifice meant – the distress of the animal, the panic in the eye, the sounds, the agony, the blood, the flies, the smell of death. Once again, this is where we find God revealed not in mere humility, but in humiliation. The scourging and buffeting, the hard wood of the cross, the rusted nails, the thorns, a young mother watching her son die an agonizing death– and there we find the Glory of God.
A leader knows his death is imminent, he plans a last evening with his followers. The dust and the dirt of the city lay upon them all. Rather than seeking the comfort and solace of his friends as betrayal and death looms large, however, he assumes the role of a servant and after the meal he wraps himself about with a towel and, one by one, Individual by individual, he kneels before them and washes their feet– and there we find the Glory of God.
All too often, I have identified the glory of God with that which seemed appropriate in the eyes of society and the values of the country in which I was living. All too often, I have identified the glory and the greatness of God with the larger church, the greater attendance, the better school, the next degree, the respect of the community, financial well-being, the next book published, or even, a good report from the doctor after the last examination. And, while none of these things are harmful in themselves, this is not where we will find the Glory of God.
Too often, I have failed to reference my compass.
Yet, I find that I am not alone in my failure to reference that compass. Church leaders make common cause with politicians to sit at the table of power and influence. The so-called “prosperity Gospel” continues to be foisted upon believers, even from the steps of the U.S. Capitol. National greatness is aligned with Christian aspirations. Numerous Christians endorse policies to benefit the wealthiest among us while scorning the poor, the immigrant and the refugee. Christian leaders, such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., boast of carrying concealed weapons as a show of power and align themselves with the most vulgar expressions of misogyny. And all this is done, by their own pronouncements, for the “glory of God.”
Maybe some of these have never had a compass, or if they did, maybe they mislaid it. I know that I have, from time to time.
So, I return to the picture of those two young men and I try to remember the heart, the ideals, the compass that we shared. Yet, I have to tell you, I’ve had a gift that has made it easier for me. After 40 years of not having seen or spoken to each other, I reached out to that long ago friend and for these last number of years, our friendship has been renewed and, if it is possible, enhanced. Moreover, he still possesses that very same heart, those ideals and that compass that has also guided him through the years. It seems a simple thing to have happened, of no consequence to the great or the powerful… almost too humble a thing to be noticed… yet, it is there we find the Glory of God.