A Cushion For Your Head
Just sit there right now
Don’t do a thing
For you separation from God,
Is the hardest work
Let me bring you trays of food
That you like to
You can use my soft words
As a cushion
Translated by Daniel Ladinsky
Scholars tell us that, in Ancient Near East when Jesus was born, our ancestors conceptualised creation as being comprised of a Three Story Universe. Floor Three is heaven, the place above the sky where God (or, depending on what culture you lived in, the gods) lived. Floor Two is the Earth (which, for most Ancient people, a handful of brilliant Greek mathematicians excluded, is flat), where you and I live. Floor Two is supported by the columns which run through Floor One: the underworld, in some traditions the place of the dead.
Paying attention to the Three Story Universe matters, and not just because it illustrates how fluid our understanding of “how the world works” can be. (I sometimes wonder about the future: when people look back on the early part of the 21st Century, what will they hear about us and say, “I can’t believe that they thought that”?) Becoming aware of the Three Story Universe provides insight into scripture as well as into faith right now. There are three things in particular that I would like us to notice.
First, because the Three Story Universe is one of our ancestors’ starting assumptions about reality, because it is their model for reality, it informs the stories that they tell us across the Bible, the images that they employ. When we hear imagery of the Holy Spirit coming down on Jesus, or God speaking from a cloud on the mountaintop, or angels ascending and descending on a ladder, or going down to Hades, we are hearing ideas that are congruent with the Three Story Universe.
Second, while we have learned a lot about creation since Jesus’ time – we know that the Earth is round, that it is several billion years old, that it orbits the sun, that the solar system is rocketing around the Milky Way, and so on – the Three Story Universe remains a remarkably durable part of our consciousness, of our imaginations. It is an archetypal image of how creation works. Listen to people speaking of a loved one being up in heaven, sing the 19th-Century hymn Love Came Down at Christmas, listen to us sing the Gloria, in which we offer Glory to God in the Highest and you are hearing echoes of the Three Story Universe. It remains a common metaphor or archetype with which we speak of God.
Third – and this is what I most want to underline – the physical structure of the Three Story Universe holds the risk of inviting assumptions about who God is and where God is. Assumptions that scripture repeatedly and emphatically refutes.
Cast your mind back to being six years old, lying on the grass on a summer’s day and looking at the sky. What is it that you notice? Well, the sky is blue. Perhaps there are some clouds, maybe in the shape of a dog or dragon or a boat. There is that great orb, the sun, at which you cannot look directly. Maybe the moon is hanging around as well. And: The sky is really far away. Even with the biggest crane, you can’t touch it; even with that tower that the citizens of Babel built, you can’t touch it; even with Icarus’ wings, you can’t touch it.
Floor Three, heaven, is distant. The place where God lives is distant.
In English, distant has two meanings. Distant means physically far removed: London is distant from Portland. And it also means reserved or even aloof – if you go to a wedding reception, and the person sitting at the table beside you answers all of your questions with one or with a grunt before going back to staring off into the distance, you will likely go home and remark about how distant he was.
I suspect that these two meanings overlap because when you are physically far removed it is way easier to be aloof. When you’re distant it’s easier to be distant. It’s why it’s so much easier for us to care about people whom we have met or places that we have actually been than places with which we have no direct contact. It’s why people say that travelling to a Third World country changed them. It’s why people say that breaking bread with people of other religious traditions or no religious tradition at all changed them.
What the Bible declares over and over is that God isn’t distant, God isn’t up on Floor Three. God is right here. The Bible says as much starting right at the beginning: remember the beautiful and whimsical image of God at walk in Eden during the cool of the day. Remember God leading the people of Israel through the wilderness, God with them the whole time. Remember God feeding Elijah and the widow and her son.
And remember the Incarnation, remember God becoming a human being: the Word became flesh and lived among us. In the Incarnation, God says: I am here. I am with you. And I always have been.
I want to emphasise that “always,” because it seems to me that there is a risk of talking as though the Incarnation fixes something that wasn’t there before, that there is a risk of suggesting that the New Testament “corrects” the Old. No. The Incarnation is not a departure from the Hebrew Bible: it is in continuity with it. God has been with us since the beginning. And – here’s the next vital thing – God is with us still.
Sometimes, after a near miss in a car, we will say, “God was with us.” Or after we get an “A” on a test, or get the job we were hoping for, we will say, “God was with us.” And yes, God was with us in those times. And God would have been with us if we had been T-Boned, God would have been with us if we had gotten an “F,” God would have been with us if we had been rejected yet again.
God doesn’t just come down from the Third floor every now and again to, as Rob Bell marvelously puts it, “do God things” before retreating back to heaven. God is here all the time. Across history. Right now. God was there to set a fire in people’s hearts to put an end to slavery. God was there to set a fire in people’s hearts to give women the vote. God is here to set a fire in our hearts right now, perhaps to find ecological justice, perhaps to end poverty and hunger in our country, perhaps something else. And God is with us as well as we wash the dishes and walk the dog and brush our teeth.
Richard Rohr tells the story of visiting a monastery. There is a monk there, a hermit, who lives in silence. Everyone is accustomed to respecting the monk’s quiet, to simply nod in wordless greeting when they see him. One day, Richard sees the monk coming – they are walking towards one another on a path. Richard nods quietly, he is going to keep on walking. But it is clear that the monk wants to talk. The monk stops and, in some excitement, he says:
Richard! You get the chance to preach and to write. You have to tell people: God isn’t somewhere else!
Scripture proclaims that God isn’t somewhere else, that God is not hiding out on the Third Floor. God is right here.
Scripture proclaims that separation from God, from love: well, it’s the hardest work there is.
God is not distant. God was with our ancestors. And God is with us, right now.