By Drew Williams
As a small boy growing up in the U.K., I sang in a church choir in what was considered (especially by all of us who went there) as most probably the largest and grandest church in town.
I wore a black cassock and a cotta with a ruff that was starched so as to keep my chin up. These were the days of rank political incorrectness, and so there were absolutely no girls allowed in the choir. I, and all the rest of the small boys, sang on cue (almost) and for the rest of the time passed the tedium of the service by either attempting to sleep with our eyes open or fighting each other quietly beneath the pews. Occasionally something exciting would happen—a Christmas floral tribute would catch fire, or one of us would pass out or have a nosebleed (very dramatic against the white cotta). Looking back, I can see that I was in the midst of very faithful and loving people, and the church had a rich liturgical tradition. As a small boy this was all, sadly, lost on me, and for the most part church services were made up of long, long periods of boredom interspersed with some boisterous singing.
If you had asked me if God was real, I would have said something like “I think so.” But to be honest, He seemed so very far away, so enormously distant. He was very difficult to make out. Our choirmaster always encouraged to sing to the back of the church, to project our voices to the tops of the pillars and fill the rafters of the vaulted ceiling so that God could hear us. These instructions rather left me with the impression that He was miles away—a pity, because this was a desperately unhappy time at home and I really needed Him to be a lot closer.
One day, in the tedium of the service, I had a few words with God. I said, “God, if you are there, and if you love me and care about me and my brother and everything that is going on at home, here is how you can prove it: When I take communion, will you give me an especially large mouthful of wine?” When the communion cup came, I snatched it and drained it. And then, because the tradition in this church was to use fortified wine, I went back to the choir stall and fell asleep. I got in so much trouble and my conclusion was that—if He existed at all—God kept Himself at a considerable distance.
I suspect that maybe there is something in each of our histories that might lead us to draw the same conclusion that God is unknowable, impersonal, uncaring—very cold and very distant. And yet, the reality that the Apostle John attests to is that God is knowable and much more intimate than we could possibly imagine. If the John were asked, “What is your primary identity, your most coherent sense of yourself?” He would not reply, “I am a disciple, an apostle, an evangelist.” Instead, with his head on Christ’s breast, accepting the grace of God, his answer would be, “I am the one Jesus loves” (John 21:7).
John would have us understand that the reality of God’s love is that “He loved us first” (1 John 4:19), that at every moment of our lives He tracks us, pursues us, and literally abides in us. I look back at those desperately sad times, and although I could not see Him then, by His Spirit, I can now see exactly where He was standing. I can see how He stepped in and saved me from others, and myself, on so many occasions. I can see the faces of the people that showed His love and I remember their words. Years later, I found out about the couple that walked their dog late at night so that they could stop in front of my house and pray for my brother and me. I also see that somehow we made it through and that even today He knows the cartography of my wounded heart better than I know it myself and He is still healing me.
One of my other objections to the notion that God loved me was an abiding impression that He was really disappointed with me. Our choirmaster was a very long-suffering man. Honestly, he really did have a lot to put up with given all our nosebleeds, fistfights and fainting, etc. Even as a young child, I recall picking up on his disappointment. At the end of some sacred aria, I would look at him, desperately searching his face for some small sign of approval. He would do the same thing at the end of every piece: drop his eyes and then his arms and then his shoulders and sigh, a deep withering, despairing kind of a sigh. To my young mind this signaled only his colossal disappointment in me–because it must have been me that messed up the second verse or breathed in the wrong place or let it show too much that I had completely lost my place in the middle of the piece.
I wonder if too often we read the same disappointed expression into the face of God—that we have miserably failed Him, again, and so surely He must be disappointed. And so disappointment characterizes the whole of our relationship: He is disappointed in me, I am disappointed in me—and God. And then there is fear in asking for anything of God for fear of being further disappointed by Him. There is this dark lava of disappointment flowing steadily and inexorably from our hearts that flows and solidifies and streams and sets and it is all about disappointment.
Hidden in that caricature is a truth—because actually, yes, we have failed Him. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way…” (Isaiah 53:6a). Ironically, I know these words because I first sang them in the choir. And to say that God is disappointed is an understatement. God is devastated. How would you feel if one of your own children was homeless, broken and lost? Wouldn’t you do whatever it took to get that child back home… no matter the cost? And isn’t that exactly what Jesus did for us on the cross? There He paid the ultimate price for our lostness and made a way for us to come home. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
Paul Young took up the theme of God’s grace in “The Shack,” his bestselling novel that is an allegory of God’s love. In an encounter between God and Mack, the main protagonist, God says, “I have no favorites. I am just especially fond of him.” To which Mack asks, “Are there any you are not especially fond of?” “Nope,” replies God, “I haven’t been able to find any. Guess that’s jes’ the way I is.”
Brennan Manning speaks for all of us when he wrote of God’s amazing grace: “That in the end, my sin will never outweigh God’s love. That the Prodigal can never outrun the Father. That I am not measured by the good I do but by the grace I accept.”
Drew Williams is senior pastor at Trinity Church in Greenwich.