When I was in third or fourth grade, my neighbor came home from catechism at his Catholic church and told me about how they had learned which cloud was heaven and then pointed it out to me. I was totally bummed and couldn’t understand why we didn’t learn cool stuff like that at my Congregationalist church.
Years later, crying under a tree the night before classes started in my sophomore year at Bowling Green, I hadn’t registered for any classes because I’d given up on music education and didn’t know what else to do. I could have really used a burning bush at that point, but none appeared. I finished my degree in music and liked student teaching well enough to try being a band director for one year. After five years at that first job and a year in grad school, I faced another big decision and agonized over whether to accept an unpromising job at Brush High School.
Like the psalmist, I would have described my soul at both of those times as “cast down and disquieted within me”. It seemed that God was not involved in the process and I too thought, “Why have you forgotten me?” If someone would have asked me at the time, “Where is your God?” I would have said, “I have no idea.” I just took my best guess and moved ahead because I couldn’t identify any other viable options.
I’ve wondered since I was a kid why God appeared so directly to the people in the Bible, but nothing like that ever happened to me. As a young adult, I couldn’t understand why evangelists on TV and my fundamentalist friends heard God talking to them all the time while my prayers seemed to be met with only an impenetrable silence and I was left to ask, along with today’s psalm, “When will I come and behold the face of God?”
Faith In Retrospect
That’s why it’s been so inspiring in the last few years to take some steps toward seeing God in ways that wouldn’t have made much sense when I was ten or twenty.
In our Kerygma bible study class we read the Hebrew scriptures, learned about their historical context, and talked about how their meanings resonated with our own lives. As we shared our own personal faith experiences, I still couldn’t relate to the people in our class who knew they had heard from God. But I did have a sense of confidence and gratitude for how the big decisions in my life had turned out.
As we read over and over of God saying to the Israelites, “Don’t you remember? I was the one who brought you out of Egypt and lead you through the desert, and delivered you to the Promised Land. Don’t you think I can handle whatever problems you’re having now?” all I could think was, “I must be Jewish!” Despite the lack of heavenly voices, my decision to keep taking music education classes in 1979 shaped my whole adult life. Taking the job at Brush High School and marrying Jennifer Miller have resulted in blessings that I could never have imagined at the time.
My experience in our Kerygma class gave me a tangible sense of what I called “faith in retrospect” that, although I couldn’t see it at the time, God was there, guiding me at those key points in my life guiding me toward fulfilling a purpose that I would only be able to see much later. I always tell my student teachers that whenever you start a new job, or a new school year, there will be absolutely no evidence that things could ever turn out well. When we’re young we just dive in and work hard because we’re scared and don’t know what else to do. With experience, we can learn to trust the process and have faith that things will come together just as they have with previous challenges that began with few apparent prospects for success. With experience, we’re able to say in the words of the psalm “these things I remember” and to trust in God. Trusting God doesn’t take away the need for hard work, but it can sure amplify the results and lessen our doubt and worry along the way.
God Brings People Into Our Lives
A second recent step toward “seeing” God came from thinking about how God brings people into our lives. Most of my career I’ve felt as though I was working in isolation in a wilderness by myself. And then in the past few years, a group of teachers who really like working with each other and who each bring unique talents to our students have started to come together in our music program. The results have been incredible progress in the quality of our ensembles. Yet the circumstances of these people coming together were so unlikely that I wondered whether it was dumb luck, the brilliant strategic planning of our HR department, or the work of God.
It’s clear that there is something beyond my understanding or my own efforts at work to bring these people together at this particular place and time. I experienced the same thing in Faith Leaders. As we listened to each other’s stories about what brought us to Cleveland and Forest Hill Church, it seemed to me that we’re all here together for a reason rather than as the result of random circumstance. It feels like the only response is to be thankful, figure out what our purpose is, and to trust that God will continue to connect us with the people we’ll need in the future.
While reflecting on how people come into our lives, I realized that God is the only possible answer to life’s central mystery, which for me is, how can a dopey looking guy find a beautiful, wise, and powerful wife? It just doesn’t make any sense. It’s clear looking out at you that I’m not the only guy here who’s blessed beyond any reasonable expectation and has good reason for “glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving”.
God In Relationships
I got another big jolt in my search for God several months ago listening to John preach on a well-known passage from Isaiah. The text was made famous in Handel’s Messiah, and it begins, “Comfort ye, my people.” In the original setting, the Israelites had been freed after a long exile and the prophet was preaching that the glory of the Lord would be revealed through their making the arduous journey back to Jerusalem.
When John said that it’s also when we participate in making the crooked straight and the rough places plain, that God is again revealed for all to see, I thought, “I know what he’s talking about! I’ve experienced that! Maybe I have seen God!” I still haven’t heard the voice of James Earl Jones from a cloud, but I have seen kids mangling their clarinet part get miraculously better with some careful help and a lot of practice. I’ve gone to the emergency room frightened after chopping off the tip of my thumb and come home relieved after the guy who sewed me up told me I was going to be OK. I’ve seen families without a home of their own enjoy a brief respite from anxiety when they spend a week in relative peace here in our church. It’s from experiences like these that I know that when we work to smooth the path of others, we unleash the power of God for all to see and everyone involved is changed by the experience.
Tricia Dykers-Koenig reinforced this idea when she preached on the Trinity a few weeks ago. She said that the three “persons” of the Trinity express the idea that God exists in relationship, that the very nature of God is community.
The Sacred Canopy
It’s significant too that the Psalms themselves were originally composed for community worship. Walter Bruggemann points to this is his book, The Spirituality of the Psalms and says that we can use psalms to create what he calls a “sacred canopy” for the community of faith.
His image of a sacred canopy fascinates me because it speaks to an awareness that’s been developing in me for years. The image recalls the both tabernacle the Israelites constructed so that God could live right there with them in the wilderness and the chuppa that’s still part of Jewish wedding ceremonies. Reflecting on this image allows us to ask, “Where’s my tabernacle? Where is it that I find God living with me?” I think the most important aspects to me of a sacred canopy are that we can set one up wherever we find ourselves and invite others to join us inside. I’ve come to see our band room as a sacred canopy and that awareness has become essential to my understanding of the work we do there.
One of our biggest challenges each year is helping students who come to us in 7th or 8th grade with skills that are below a 5th grade level. I’ve always met with new kids after school and have a pretty good record of helping most become functional during their time with us. But for years I did this grudgingly asking, “Why do I have to do all this extra work with someone who’s likely to quit anyway?” and “Who else is spending this much time whenever a new kid moves in?”
But an idea I learned from a teacher training video years ago changed my approach forever. The idea is that FAIRNESS doesn’t mean that everyone is treated the same, but that fairness actually means that everyone gets what they need.
Now, with a better understanding of fairness and a commitment to making our band room a place where we take good care of each other, I can usually experience it as a privilege to welcome kids into our sacred canopy and help give them what they need to thrive. After years of frustration with trying to get everyone to have a pencil in rehearsal, now I have a cup on my desk with pencils for kids who need one. Although we can’t provide instruments for everyone, I don’t have any reservations about finding an old horn for kids who join us without their own instrument. Not everyone needs weekly help after school, but it’s important to say “yes” to those who do.
At this point in life I think “seeing God” is mostly about finding what you look for and deciding how you want to view the world. I spent a couple decades experiencing the band room as a frustrating wilderness and, like any good Israelite, doing more than my share of whining and complaining. It’s incredible to be able to experience that same place now as a sacred canopy where we can make great music and help kids grow into young adults. Thinking about all that’s happened since 1979 and the people that God has brought into my life gives meaning to words like “faith”, “mystery”, and “grace.” that I couldn’t understand a couple of decades ago.
And so, if you asked me now, “Where is your God?” I still couldn’t point out the right cloud. But I’d introduce you to Jennifer and Zoe (I think most of us can see the face of God in our children – sometimes even when they’re awake). We’d stop off at the band room, and I’d bring you here and say, “Watch these people work for awhile” and ask “Is it just me or do you see God too?”