Not Alone: Gatineau, Quebec
Sophie was born and raised in Quebec. She left the Catholic Church because its worship services were impersonal and it failed to hold abusive priests accountable. Yet she has not left faith behind. She speaks of moments in her life when she feels the presence of God and divine promptings in her heart. She is cautious yet curious about matters of faith. She came into our lives when she married our son Tom.
My wife Judy and I had traveled to Gatineau, Quebec, to help Tom and Sophie refurbish their house. As Sophie and I were painting and chatting she paused with paintbrush in hand and asked, “What does being a Christian mean to you”? It was such a basic question, yet it caught me off-guard.
As Sophie and I were painting and chatting she paused with paintbrush in hand and asked, “What does being a Christian mean to you”? It was such a basic question, yet it caught me off-guard.
Being Christian has permeated my life and I often take it for granted. Asking me about Christianity is like asking a fish to describe water. I grew up in a family whose life was caught up in the rhythms of the old Third Reformed Church on the corner of Diamond and Hermitage in the old Brickyard district of Grand Rapids—morning and evening services on Sundays, catechism and prayer meetings on Wednesday evenings, elaborate pageants in the Christmas season ending with a Florida orange and a chocolate bar. I absorbed a Reformed world view and see myself as part of a remnant blowing on the embers of a once blazing fire. I have spent my adult life studying Scripture, writing essays, and training people for ministry. I talk about God all the time, yet all my God-talk can function as a surrogate for faith, the real faith that moves in my heart and carries me moment to moment, day by day.
“What does being a Christian mean to you?”
I realized the gravity of the moment. Sophie was standing at the threshold and knocking on the door. I hesitated. I thought about explaining the essential doctrines that define my faith, but sensed she was more interested in the dynamic of my faith than its content. She wanted to know what animated me as a Christian. Her question demanded that I dive deeper into my heart where the waters were murkier, where there are undercurrents of longing and desire.
What is in the depths of my heart? I reflect on this when I watch my grandchildren grow up full of energy and excitement as they move into ever widening circles of life; when I lay my parents in their graves and dispatch their earthly treasures; when I see small acts of kindness burn unconsumed like bushes in a wilderness; when the communion liturgist says, “Send your Holy Spirit, we pray, that the bread that we break and the cup of blessing that we bless may be to us the body and blood of Christ;” when Judy and I take our COVID-walks and witness the decline of flora and fauna in our small patch of the world and hear sounds of lament in the silence of the wooded lakeshore; when the secure findings of science about the story of life on our planet raise questions about the story of life in Scripture; when I discover that I have an incurable cancer and realize that my appointment with death is coming sooner than I had scheduled in my life planner.
“What does being a Christian mean to you?”
After hesitating for a moment, I answered, “That I am not alone, that in the walk of life I have divine companionship.”
My answer surprised me because it seemed to come unbidden, out of nowhere. The more I pondered this, the more I realized that the longing for divine companionship had been part of me from an early age. It had been awakened in those times when I felt God’s presence in my life and amplified in those times when I felt God’s absence.
What follows is a series of reflections on the longing for divine companionship in the Reformed tradition of my upbringing, in the tabernacle tradition of the people of Israel, and in the rhythms of my everyday life.
Not Alone: Heidelberg Catechism
We worked our way through the Heidelberg Catechism on Wednesday evenings at Third Reformed Church in preparation for making profession of faith. I memorized a number of the catechism’s most beloved questions and answers as well as the corresponding passages of Scripture, and complained endlessly about having to do memory work not related to school.
I am so thankful now that our caregivers had the foresight to make us memorize key parts of the catechism. Memorization is a spiritual discipline practiced by believers of old but mostly neglected today. The practice of memorization echoes the practice of hospitality: the constant repetition of the words of the catechism or the words of Scripture prepares a place in the heart and invites these words to reside there. At home in the heart, they meld with your thoughts and shape your behavior.
Olevianus and Ursinus, the primary authors of the catechism, distilled the content of the whole in the very first question and answer. Their focus on a personal relationship to God and their articulation of the triune God’s comforting presence is beautifully and succinctly expressed there, and believers for centuries have cherished and memorized their words:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
As a young person I understood, “not my own, but belong” to mean that I was not “on my own” and therefore not “alone.”
I was drawn to this hope of divine companionship but struggled to understand its consequences. The relationship demanded mutual sacrifice, both Jesus’ blood and my own, and I was not sure that I wanted to pay for anything with my own blood. I was, after all, growing up in a time of unprecedented economic expansion and buying into the assumption that self-actualization would come through the acquisition of economic resources.
Question and Answer One ends by saying that a sign of my belonging is the presence of the Holy Spirit who assures me of eternal life. I was not sure what eternal life meant, and my mentors were vague about that as well. At the time in a famous interview, Billy Graham said that we would do the things in heaven that we enjoyed on earth, like playing golf. I liked playing golf, but was hoping that life in heaven would be more meaningful than that. Eternal life was explained as a reward for good behavior (quasi-Arminian) or a gift coming to me after I died (quasi-Reformed). Both explanations downplayed the significance of God’s active presence in the world and God’s love for its manifold forms of life, and both invited me to adopt an otherworldly focus.
I was never much moved by either notion of an afterlife even as a young person. I felt that this otherworldly focus ran against the grain of the catechism and the Reformed tradition as a whole. Question and Answer One suggested that divine companionship was heaven on earth. The reference to “eternal life” was the catechism’s way of emphasizing that the “comforter” in my heart was instilling in me the steadfast love of God, a love that was irresistible and eternal, and that the good work that my savior had begun in me would be brought to completion.
Not Alone: Psalm 23
One of the psalms that I memorized in conjunction with the catechism was Psalm 23, a psalm that both celebrates divine companionship and offers a concise summary of Israel’s theology. The people of Israel celebrated a God who was leading them safely through the death-shadowed valleys of life and bringing them home to overflowing tables of food and wine. God’s house in Jerusalem was their house, a home in which the people of Israel could enjoy the presence of God and dwell forever.
The translators of the NRSV changed the KJV’s “forever” to “my whole life long.” Scholars theorized that the people of Israel had no notion of an afterlife, so the translators took the Hebrew phrase which literally says “for an extension of days,” to mean “days that come to an end,” and not “days without end.” Scholars today question this translation. They point out that the Israelite understanding of chesed, the steadfast love of God, implied a notion of eternal life. According to the people of Israel, the steadfast love of God endures forever (Psalm 136); it is omnipresent, filling the created order (Psalm 33:5) and extending from heaven to Sheol (Psalm 139); it ever preserves those upon whom it falls (Psalm 40:11); and inspires them in turn to love steadfastly (Psalm 31:23). The clearest example of the steadfast power of human love is found in the Book of Ruth. When Ruth pledges her love to Naomi, she ends her famous soliloquy saying that her love is so powerful that not even death would separate them (Ruth 1:14).
Not Alone: Kohl’s Department Store
A few years ago Judy was shopping for a graduation gift at Kohl’s and I had the choice of waiting in the car or tagging along on the condition that I would not become impatient and press her to make a quick decision. I parked myself at the front of the store and watched as a parade of customers made their way up and down the aisles. There was a young mother with her daughter toddling alongside her, and she did not notice when her toddler, maybe three or four, drifted down another aisle. Realizing suddenly that she was alone, the daughter started to wail. The mother ran to the sound of the wail. I watched as mother and daughter reached out their hands and ran toward each other. When their hands touched, the daughter stopped wailing, and the two of them walked hand in hand down the aisle as if nothing had happened.
Sometimes the rhythms of our everyday life reveal the deeper rhythms of our life together with God. What I saw play out at Kohl’s was a parable: the children of God lose their way, God hears their cries, and God’s touch allays their fears and brings them home.
Not Alone: Tabernacle
We Protestants have tended to ignore how important the tabernacle and temple were to the people of Israel. We came into existence protesting the abuses of the medieval church and have all too easily equated the Israelite tabernacle and temple, priests, and rituals with the degradation of their faith. We have, therefore, downplayed the fact that the tabernacle and temple were the center of Israelite life and that worship at these centers taught them truths about God, truths that the early church referenced to explain the ministry and mission of Jesus.
Much of the book of Exodus is devoted to specific instructions for building the tabernacle, a fact that indicates how important the architecture of the tabernacle was to the people of Israel. Its architecture instantiated their theology, and worship at the tabernacle was catechism.
The architecture of worship centers is not inert or neutral. Form and formation go hand in hand. Both the visual patterns that it presents and types of movements that it allows teach worshippers truths about God and their place in the world. Any attempt to understand what a people believed must begin with an attempt to understand how they structured their place of worship.
One important feature of the architecture of the tabernacle was its outer covering. God commanded Moses to make the walls of the tabernacle out of curtains of fine twisted linen and to roof over the rooms of the tabernacle with two coverings, the inner one made of goats’ hair and the outer one made of animal skins (Exodus 26: 14).
Believers often disregard this outer covering of tanned rams’ skins, yet this skin-covering was an important part of a larger story that the Israelite people told about their communion with God. We can reconstruct this story by piecing together references found throughout Scripture and reflections by early Jewish and Christian teachers. The story begins in Eden, the Garden of God that was adjacent to the House of God.
The Garden of Eden was a holy place where Adam and Eve at the dawn of time could commune with God and experience the full, radiant glory of God’s being. God shone forth; God was the perfection of beauty, brighter than the sun (Psalm 50:1). Adam and Eve basked in the radiant presence of God, and their bodies were in turn transfigured and glorified (cf. Moses in Exodus 34:29; believers in Philippians 2:15; 3:21). The people of Israel pictured both God and humans in this primal state as clothed in garments of light (Psalm 104:2; cf. Isaiah 61:10; cf. Matthew 17:1-8)—the Hebrew word for light is ‘or with the letter aleph.
When Adam and Eve violated the conditions this beatific state, their violation was a contagion, infecting them and the world around them. To protect Eden, God banished them to the thorny trials and thistled tribulations of life east of Eden. Adam and Eve could no longer tolerate the glorious presence of God and survive (cf. Exodus 33:20); sick and cut off from glory, their bodies began to decay and eventually die. God, however, had a plan for maintaining God’s relationship with Adam and Eve and their progeny until such time that God could draw them back to Eden.
The plan involved garments of skin to be worn by both humans and God—the Hebrew word for skin is ’or with the letter ayin. God made garments of skin for Adam and Eve both to make communion with God possible in stricken condition and to be a sign to future generations that the Holy One was with them. In like manner, God commanded the people of Israel to make a garment of skin and place it over the tabernacle in order to protect them from the glorious but now deadly presence of God and make communion possible.
The people of Israel longed for moments when the glory of God would fill the tabernacle—and its more substantial replica the temple—and partial communion with God would again be possible; and they longed from a time when full communion would be restored, a time when the garments of skin would be replaced by garments of light. In telling this story of salvation, early Jewish and Christians teachers took delight in pointing out that the Hebrew words “skin” and “light” are homophones and, they used the similar sound of these words to underscore the eschatological drama of the exchange of garments.
In the Book of Exodus after the completion of the tabernacle, such a glorious moment occurs:
“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (Exodus 40:34)
When the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle, God was clothed with a garment of skin. God was veiled in flesh, and the people hailed an incarnate deity. The invisible God who dwelled in a house and garden at the center of the world, a place that human beings could no longer see or reach, the invisible God from whom flowed the power that created and sustained the world, this God chose to be present to the people in a way that they could see and experience. The architecture of the tabernacle taught the people of Israel that their God was a personal God who desired communion with them.
The importance of the tabernacle’s outer covering of skin was not lost on the early Christians. In the prologue to his gospel, John borrowed heavily from the teachings of the tabernacle to explain the ministry of Jesus, writing, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son full of grace and truth” (NRSV 1: 14). When we realize that the Greek word, translated here as “lived,” is more accurately translated “tabernacled,” we see that John presents Jesus as the new tabernacle, the glory of God in the flesh. And John suggests that just as the people of Israel approached the glory of God in the skin of the tabernacle and received blessing upon blessing, so believers could approach the glory of God in the flesh of Jesus and receive grace upon grace.
Not Alone: State Street, Holland, Michigan
One morning many years ago now, Judy called me at the seminary to remind me that she would be away for the afternoon. She wanted to make sure that I would be home at 3:30 to meet our son Jeremy walking home from kindergarten. It was a busy day. One activity folded into the next. At about 3:20 I had the uneasy feeling that I had forgotten something. Jeremy! I bolted from my office, and, not having a car at the seminary, began the three-quarter-mile dash home.
I panicked as I visualized what would happen should I not get there in time. Jeremy would come home, walk in the back door, and call out for one of us. Then he would run upstairs to his room, and either crawl under the bed or crouch in the closet, where he would sob desperately. The realization struck me that our home was the center of Jeremy’s world and the source of his confidence. As long as one of us was at home, he could make his forays into the world; but if no one was at home, his world would fall apart. As I cut behind the neighborhood gas station, crossed the street, and headed up our narrow driveway, another realization struck me. I am a child. Will anyone be there when I finally come home?
Not Alone: Conclusion
As I have reflected on Sophie’s question about the meaning of being a Christian, I have come to realize how the longing for divine companionship has been an undercurrent in my life and in the lives of believers since biblical times. Often feeling vulnerable and alone, we believers have longed to enter the house of God and to enjoy the presence of God. And now, in these confusing times, when many leaders claim divine authority and invite us to follow them down the broad way, this longing, when honestly acknowledged, can guide us and help us find the narrow way home.