Sunday, January 25, 2009

Epiphany 2

I remember a while ago reading a quote by an anthropologist who defined human beings as animals in search of meaning.  We are meaning-seeking and meaning-making animals.  According to this guy, whose name I forget, that’s the main thing.  It’s not even about opposable thumbs or amazing cleverness.  Alone of all the species on the planet, human beings want stuff to make sense, and we want to find a reason that’s big enough to sustain us.  Well, the more I think about it, the more I think he’s right.

When I was a teenager, and particularly around the age I left home, I remember being acutely aware of searching for something.  Maybe it was just me, certainly I was a painfully serious young man – or maybe it was a generational thing, certainly all the popular songs back then, or at least the ones that weren’t about finding love, were about finding yourself  Or maybe it’s a universal human thing, that the anthropologist was right and we are meaning-making animals, constantly wondering whether what we’ve found in life is all there is, looking for something to make sense of it all, looking for an answer to the question of why we’re here at all, and now that we are here, how we can live in a way that reveals the purpose of our lives. 

And I think that fundamental human search is one of the major underlying narratives of the Bible.  Over and over again, the Bible writers tell us stories that show us that what it means to be human is to be constantly on the move, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically, constantly looking around us at the world we live in and saying, ‘is that all there is’?  One of the definitions of despair, of course, is to look around yourself and see the shallowness and selfishness that passes so often for normal and think, ‘what if that’s as good as it gets’.  But the Bible teaches us, I think, that it’s normal for human beings to be restless.  St Augustine gets right to the heart of it, and he sums it up, when he prays, ‘our souls are restless until they find their rest in you’.  And maybe it’s another sort of despair when people stop looking, learn to make do with what’s on the surface of life and lose their sense of restlessness for the eternal things, that alone can tell us what it means to be us.

The Old Testament, that wonderful treasure-house of stories that reveal the warts-and-all truth about human beings and our relationship to God – is chock-a-block with restless searchers.  In an episode of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, Ray’s father is telling everybody about how as a little boy Ray stuck Coco-pops up his nose, and he says, I can’t work out why you’d do that!’, and Ray says, ‘because you kept telling me not to!  And also, because they smelled good.’  Well, in Genesis that’s exactly what Adam and Eve do: ‘lots of good stuff here, hey, what about the one fruit we’re not allowed to have!’  It’s what human beings do.  And so they’re kicked out of the Garden, because they suffer from the human curse – or is the human blessing – of having to find out ‘what if ...?’  – so actually it logically follows that Eve and Adam can no longer live the settled and comfortable but not very exciting life in Eden and have to make their way in the world where trial and error is the way it works and seeking but not finding is often the way of things.  The Garden, of course, represents life as we would like to think it should be but never has been – a world where we never have to try very hard, where we always get a good night’s sleep and never open our mouths to change feet.  It’s just that it’s a world that – ever since Adam and Eve – we’ve never quite been able to find our way back to, we all, in a sense, live the whole of our lives off-centre and  East of Eden.

Then there’s Abraham and Sarah, packing up their belongings and heading west on the vague promise that they’ll find their dream home there and have lots of grandkids.  Abraham and Sarah, of course, explode the myth that nobody can ever expect anything new of you when you’re over ninety.  You’re never too old to have your head filled with dreams and starlight, and a good thing, too.  Or Jacob, who spends most of his life running away from the shadowy figure of the brother he wronged, waking up at 2am to wrestle with an angel who turns out to be the better side of his own Self. 

None of us lives in Eden any more.  Even when we do grow up and find the girl of our dreams and get the job we’ve studied hard for, even when we have the mortgage and the 2.3 kids the statisticians tell us we’re supposed to – no matter how far life seems to have taken us from where we started – there’s still going to come that night where you wake up at 2am wrestling with yourself.  And the rich vein of stories in the Bible that ring true for us because they show us what, deep down, we know we’re really like – the Bible tells us that that perennial sense of not being quite there yet, not quite sure what it is that I’m looking for but I’ll know when I’ve found it – is what it means to be human.

So John the Baptist’s two disciples are also images of us.  They’ve come a long way, they’ve followed John into the desert and now – maybe just out of curiosity – they start following Jesus.  And he turns and asks them, ‘what are you looking for?’

It’s a question without an easy answer, and certainly they don’t answer it directly, instead they just ask, ‘teacher, where are you staying?’  In other words, they don’t know whether he’s got what they’re looking for – they want to get a bit closer, check him out.  Actually, this intimate account of a spiritual encounter and the call to discipleship sounds disappointingly banal, like a conversation overheard between teenagers.  ‘Do you want to come over to my place.’  ‘I’ve got Playstation 4’  ‘Alright’  And after they’ve spent the whole day at Jesus’ place, when they meet Simon, ‘come and see for yourself.’

The reason it sounds so ordinary is because, deep down, what we’re looking for is simplicity itself.  We just want to be accepted.  We are looking for someone to welcome us and accept us just as we are without any preconditions, whether or not we’re attractive or clever or kind enough to deserve it.  ‘Do you want to come over to my place?’  ‘Alright’   Except - what we really want is to hear that affirmation deep down, from life itself or from the heart of the impersonal, mind-blowingly complex and improbably huge universe, that we matter.  Don’t want much, really, when you think about it.  Of course we’ve got a whole lot of other needs as well, and part of life is about learning that what we think we need and what we really need aren’t necessarily the same thing.  But this need – the need to belong and the need to know that ultimately there is meaning and purpose in our lives – even though as we go through life sometimes we seem to forget about it for a while, sometimes we get distracted by busyness or responsibility, sometimes we find ways of distracting ourselves with the latest toys or gadgets – this need or this obsession lasts our whole life through.

To be human is to be an animal in search of meaning.  The anthropologist was right.  But the good news is that God is also obsessed with the same search.  Our lives only make sense in relationship with God, because, as St Augustine also pointed out, we are made that way.  The whole point of creation, it turns out, is that God needs to be needed.  You know, theologians get a bit cranky if we start talking about God needing anything, God’s supposed to be totally self-sufficient, but there it is.  The whole kit and caboodle is just because God wants somebody to talk to.

So if, ultimately, we spend our whole lives looking for God, even if we tell ourselves we’re really looking for something else – the good news is that God is looking for us too.  And the trick is just not to make yourself too hard to find.

It reminds me of one of our absolutely all-time favourite games as kids.  I grew up before the days of proper childhood activities like Playstation 4.  And so, whenever you had a whole heap of cousins or whatever to entertain, you played hidey.  It was very sophisticated.  Whoever was ‘he’ – and yes, it was ‘he’ even if it was really a ‘she’ – had to count up to a hundred, and often as not they’d cheat and count by fives, or skip everything between about ten and ninety – and then come looking.  Well, one of my most vivid childhood memories is the day I found the perfect hiding place, by crawling under the house.  And I was so chuffed that nobody could find me that I refused to come out, even when I was given a ‘free homer’.  I wanted to be the centre of attention, to have everyone out looking for me, mystified by my cleverness – but after a quick consultation they decided to just keep playing without me.  So I learned something quite important that day.  If you’re really, really looking for something in life, don’t be a smartypants, don’t make yourself too small a target, don’t forget to leave a little bit of yourself sticking out so it can find you.

Let’s pray:    Creator God, you have made us for yourself,

                   and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.

                   teach us to offer ourselves to your service,

that here we may have your peace,

and in the world to come may see you face to face;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.