The playful, hidden God

Truly, you are a God who hides” -Isaiah 45:15

Last week I told the story of the seeker of Christ who discovered that she didn’t have to travel to some remote, far-away place to meet Jesus. Because she encountered Christ on her very doorstep. Much closer than she ever expected.

In the poetry of Isaiah, the salvation of the exiled and captive Israel in far-away Babylon would come in the person of King Cyrus of Persia. Salvation came disguised in a foreign king. “Truly,” Isaiah prays, “you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”[1]

Indeed, we Christians believe in the God who hides: Deus absconditus (the hidden God). God is disguised in a tiny baby, hiding in a manger. God’s majesty and glory is veiled upon a cross. Salvation indeed comes to us disguised, coming from the least expected places. We may not see it right away.

Why is God like this? Why does God make it so difficult for us to see God? Is God trying to be funny? Why this subterfuge? Some of us who may take ourselves a bit too seriously at times may recoil at the notion of a playful God, seeing this disguising God more as twisted manipulation and a waste of valuable energy.

In my first parish I received some good counsel from my colleague Ted about encouraging youth who were scheduled to acolyte on Sunday mornings. In that parish, being an acolyte entailed quite an elaborate ritual – putting on an alb (a white gown), bowing in front of the altar at the start of the service, and using a long, tapered stick to light first the Epistle candle (the candle on the altar farthest from the pulpit) and then the Gospel candle (the one closest to the pulpit) – and doing all this without tripping on the hem of the gown when going up the steps and starting the church on fire!

There was some stress involved in this performance. And more and more youth were being emboldened to object to such ‘chancel prancing’ nonsense. “Why do this weird, awkward, strange thing?” they asked. “After all, the point of lighting candles hundreds of years ago was so worship leaders could see and read the texts. Today, we can simply throw a light switch.”

Ted listened patiently to all their valid points. He did, nevertheless, suggest something important. “When you are an acolyte and do it this way,” he said, “it is awkward and strange, for sure. But let it remind you, whenever you do it, that following God often feels awkward and strange. Like a weird kind of playfulness. You experience something that is at the same time uncomfortable and playful.” 

I haven’t forgotten that advice. It helps me make sense out of difficult situations in life, even about what we are doing for worship during this pandemic. We do things that make us uncomfortable, like wearing masks; sitting, standing and walking physically apart; not singing, hugging nor drinking coffee together. And still, we are drawn to experience something of the divine. 

There’s something to this playful nonsense that still brings us close to God. It’s like love. Expressing love can sometimes appear nonsensical. People will do crazy things for love. There’s this playful riskiness associated with love.

God is love, and maybe that is why God appears at first hidden to us. Maybe, it has something to do with being vulnerable. Maybe, God plays this way “so that we might irresistibly be drawn to a grace far closer than we ever imagined” …. [Because] at those moments when we are most fraught with vulnerability, we may also find ourselves most open to unexpected grace.[2]

Martin Luther wrote in Table Talks of his experience as a young student in Magdeburg, singing in the streets with a friend, hoping for small gifts of money or food. A huge man suddenly came running out from a nearby house, waving sausages in the air and yelling at them in noisy jest, “What are you boys up to with such a racket?”

The man grinned as he spoke, yet the boys weren’t sure how to respond. They wanted the sausages, but in fearful confusion they bolted and ran. Luther asked if that wasn’t typical of our response to God and God’s grace. Like the man frantically waving sausages, God holds out Jesus Christ to us, not seeking to frighten but to draw us to himself.

Yet, we are afraid. We can’t imagine such forgiveness. We run the other way, certain that God is angry with us, tragically misinterpreting God’s play. We can be like Teresa of Avila who talked back to God when she came on hard times; she prayed: “God, if this is how you treat your friends, I know why you have so many enemies!”[3]

Nonetheless, the goal of this prayer – this relating with God – is intimacy, vulnerability. It is risky to play this way; and yet this path leads us into a deeper relationship with God who is always very close to us.

I love that story of a father playing hide-and-seek with his young daughter. The father knows that his daughter is stretching the rules when she pretends that she has run away to hide. But, he lets her do it. When the father closes his eyes and counts loudly and slowly to ten, the daughter makes noise running away but then comes sneaking back to stand right beside her father, centimeters away, hoping the father can’t hear. 

As soon as he opens his eyes, she takes the greatest delight in reaching out to touch home base. She is cheating of course, but the father lets her get away with it. Why? 

In his words, “I longed so much for those few moments when we stood close together, pretending not to hear or be heard, caught up in a game that for an instant dissolved the distance between parent and child, that set us free to touch and seek and find each other … It was a simple, almost negligible act of grace, my not letting on that I knew she was there. Yet I suspect that in that one act my child may have mirrored God for me better than in any other way I have known … God is for me a seven-year-old daughter, slipping back across the grass, holding her breath in check, wanting once again to surprise me with a presence closer than I ever expected.”[4]

In the craziness of these times, when it is far from easy to feel, let alone see, God’s presence, may we be surprised by God’s grace. God is closer to us than we ever thought.

[1]Isaiah 45:1-15; First reading for Pentecost 20A, RCL

[2]Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (Oxford University Press, 1988), p.180, 182.

[3]Lane, ibid., p.182-183.

[4]Lane, ibid.,p.181.

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