You have probably heard the story of the child busily drawing at the kitchen table. Mum, showing an interest, says, “What are you drawing?” “God”, responds the child. Now Mum isn’t a theologian but she knows enough to reply, “But nobody knows what God looks like”. “Well, they will when I finish this drawing”, says the child.
A few days ago I found myself in a somewhat updated version of this story. My five year old grandson, encouraged by his dodging-the- question mother, asked me what God looked like. While I struggled with an answer he sighed, handed me the iPad and suggested I google it. Cornered, I used even more words in an effort to explain the inexplicable. He sighed again and asked me to google what Jesus looked like when he was alive again, after he was dead – his words. Now I was on more comfortable ground. I tapped in What did Jesus look like and up popped a scripturally correct picture of a middle-eastern man. Harry took one look and said, “That’s not Jesus! Jesus has long curly hair.”
As you’ve probably guessed Harry goes to a catholic school and along with the wonders of numbers and words he is soaking up catholic-talk. And yes, I could have answered his question a whole lot better, but in typical little kid fashion he ran off to the next thing and suddenly I was off the hook, looking at a middle-eastern version of Jesus and feeling decidedly at a loss.
So, when did you stop knowing what God looked like?
I inherited an image of God as white-bearded man who was distant and authoritative, a scary adult who held eternal damnation over my head if I dared to step out of line. After Vatican 2 that gradually changed to a more personal image, the one that Jesus used when he spoke of God as “Abba”, Father or Daddy.
Early childhood faith is a mysterious and wonderful thing, all mixed up with parental care – God’s love with skin on- and an unspoken, instinctive recognition that they are made in the image and likeness of God. As they get older and more self-conscious they lose their ability to speak simply and directly about God, until around adolescence many, if not most, place the ‘God stuff’ into boxes marked School, Old People, Church and Desperate Occasions.
As I’ve aged, the way I see God has floated around a bit. Relationship with God is never static, always encouraging, inviting us to become the person that God has dreamt we could be, Yet, all the time, God is silent. That’s the really difficult thing about God – the silence.
Recently I read this sentence: We come from God, and we return to God, and everything in between is either a lesson, a seduction or an invitation. It’s relatively easy to hear God’s voice in a beautiful landscape, not quite so easy to trust the whisper of seduction or a dreamlike invitation in what would seem to be perfectly ordinary experiences. It was only when I came to a realization that God meets me where I am, and God comes to me disguised as my life, and said it often enough, that I could begin to let go of all the tactile images that once peppered my prayers and religious vocabulary.
We adults don’t trust our personal experience of God enough. Privacy, embarrassment or self-consciousness stop us from letting our children see that everyday experiences of beginnings and endings, freedom, failure and hope are an integral part of a life, lived with faith. It’s a life-long process and I pray that over his lifetime Harry’s question, “Nanna, what does God look like?” will move from wanting to see with his eyes to an inner recognition that God is right there with him, disguised as his life.