Glimpses of God’s Backside – Exodus 33:12-23

glimpseYAHWEH said to Moses: “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Memories, stories, imaginings, myths, wonderings, and glimpses are the stuff of truth. Even though I was only a child, I have very vivid memories of my very first trip on an airplane. We lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland and we were moving to Canada. I was terrified and fascinated all at the same time. I don’t know where I heard them first, but words like “frozen,” “north,” “wolves,” “igloos”, and “Eskimos” filled my imagination. I have a vague memory of being told that there wouldn’t be any Eskimos where we were going.

I remember the excitement and the fear about flying up in the sky, higher than the clouds. We’d be so high that we’d be able to look down at the clouds. I just couldn’t wait. I was going up, up into heaven. Visions of angels sitting on clouds, maybe, just maybe I’d catch a glimpse of Jesus playing with all the little children. I never dreamed that I’d see God. God would be clothed in a cloud and if God peaked out I’d hide. I didn’t want to see God. God was way too scary. I wanted to stay well clear of God. God was a scary guy, so scary that you’d probably drop down dead if you saw God. Maybe I shouldn’t look down on the clouds, just incase I caught a glimpse of God, because then I’d never make it back down from heaven. And then, I’d never get to see the Eskimos that I just knew were waiting for me down in Canada!

It wasn’t easy being up there in the sky for the very first time. I couldn’t take my eyes off that little porthole. Even though I knew somewhere deep down inside that I wasn’t really looking out at heaven, I just couldn’t help wondering what was really out there. I remember thinking that maybe just maybe there were angels dancing on those clouds, invisible angels, cause I knew that you became invisible when you died. God was pretty much invisible most of the time.     

It was an amazing thing to fly above the clouds. The mythical creatures of my imagination never appeared up there in the sky. Growing up, I continued to wonder what heaven might really be like. I never wanted to see God. God was just too terrifying to meet, but I couldn’t help wondering what God might be like. That wonder lives in me now. That same wonder that I know must have lived in the hearts and minds of women and men ever since we evolved on this planet.

We human creatures just can’t help wondering. How did we get here? Who made us? Why were we made? Why are we here? Where are we going? We humans can’t seem to help wondering, what’s it all about?

From days of old, we’ve been sitting around campfires weaving tales about how we came to be, and what it’s all about; speculating on the nature of our creator. Story after story has been told. Stories that weave in and out between our experiences and our wonderings, what’s real, what’s not, what’s true and what are imaginings. The best stories the ones that captured our imagination and stimulated our wonderings, those stories were told over and over again. Handed down from one generation to the next. Some stories so profound that they just had to be written down. Elevated to the realm of the sacred these wonderings, took on the quality of myth. Sacred truth, so precious that over the years some have sought to defend these stories with their very lives. Others have built their world around these sacred truths, found their identities between the lines of their imaginings. Still others have feared the very wonderings that birthed these sacred truths. So afraid have they become that they’ve tried to insist that these sacred truths aren’t even ours, but rather the divine ramblings of our God. Whispered into the ears of scribes who jotted them down word for word, in the Kings English no less, holding between their lines not only sacred truths, but perfectly preserved history. So treasured are these sacred truths that some even claim that between their lines lie the for-telling of our future. So treasured are these sacred truths that the questioning of even the slightest detail has the power to set one tribe or nation against another.

From the storytellers of old to the recesses of our imaginations the character Moses has cast a spell on generations of wanderers and wonderers. All Moses wanted to do was to see God in all God’s glory. Moses who’d been talking with God for years, who’d staked his whole life, and the lives of his kinsfolk, the lives of his people on those conversations, Moses wanted to actually see God, in all God’s glory. Who can blame Moses? Wandering out there in the wilderness, trying to juggle the needs of a people lost and wandering, hoping against hope that there was a land of milk and honey out there somewhere. Moses had the stone tablets; God’s law written in stone a gift for this people who’d followed him out into the wilderness. Imagine: they followed Moses out into the wilderness all because Moses had heard God speak. Right there from out of the flames of a burning bush God called out to Moses. The God of Moses’ ancestors spoke, and a promise was born, the promise of liberation from slavery, of deliverance from oppression, the promise of a land; a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Such a promise required more than just the ramblings of a burning bush, such a promise required a name.

Who was this god? Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?” From that burning bush came the sacred name God said to Moses, “YAHWEH.” I AM WHO I AM. YAHWEH. I SHALL BE WHO I SHALL BE. YAHWEH the sacred name of God, so sacred that Moses and his people would never utter it. So sacred that even after they‘d told their stories for generations they’d punctuate the name of God with only a silence; a long pause where people could breathe the name within themselves. So sacred that when it came time to write down the sacred stories, they didn’t write the whole name of God. Just the consonants were enough to evoke the sacred name. Over the generations, the people forgot how to breathe the name of God, and so the scribes, hinted at the vowels so that the breath of God continued to emanate from God’s people. But as the tribes fought over the details of the story, the sacred code of silence failed to evoke the breath of God and even though from the burning bush God was said to have declared, “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” The peoples of God, forgot the sacred name. So the scribes replaced the sacred code with bold letter that included consonants and once again the name YAHWEH was heard when the sacred stories were told. YAHWEH, I AM WHO, I AM or I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE. It says it all, God IS. GOD WILL BE. NOW and FOREVER.

It ought to be enough. But wouldn’t you like to more? Is it any wonder that Moses asked for just a little more? And so, one day, Moses gave it a whirl: come on, just once show me. “Show me your glory, I pray.” And the MIGHTY ONE said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the HOLY NAME, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.

“But,” said the MIGHTY ONE, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the MIGHTY ONE continued, “See there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

And so, Moses caught but a glimpse of YAWEH’s backside. Just a glimpse mind you. But isn’t that how it always is. Just a glimpse, a glimpse of God here and there for God WILL BE WHO GOD WILL BE. And we must let the glimpse be enough, but oh those glimpses.

There’s another airplane ride that I can’t forget. I was working up in the Yukon. I’d landed a job with a cruise line. It was my job to ensure that the folks who came ashore were taken care of. I received a call from our head office that there was trouble on a one of our tours to Tuktoyuktuk. Somebody would have to fly in and sort things out. There was no one else, I’d have to go.  I’d always tried to avoid flying into Tuktoyuktuk. It wasn’t the place that I minded so much, what’s to mind about Tuktoyuktuk there’s nothing much there. Just a place were the tourists could go to see the midnight-sun and dip there toes in the Arctic ocean if they were lucky enough to be able to break through the ice.

No, it wasn’t the place that I avoided. It was the flight. The tourists went in on a small DC3, but our staff was usually flown in on one of the small bush planes. I love flying, but I like a nice big airplane. Tiny planes don’t really inspire much confidence in me. I just knew that at that particular time of the year, the flight to Tuktoyuktuk would mean a small plane with skis attached as landing gear.

If you’ve never experienced a float landing or a ski landing, we’ll you’ve never really flown. There’s a kind of science to those sorts of flights that escapes comprehension. There’s also a very delicate balancing act that the pilot has to get just right, that’s the balance between the amount of cargo and the amount of fuel you can carry. Every flight into Tuktoyuktuk is burdened by the inhabitants’ need for stuff they can’t seem to get.

So, up there in the sky, just the pilot and I enjoying the beauty of the wide open spaces, I couldn’t help wondering if the pile of stuff in the back was piled just a little too tightly. But I had an experienced skilled pilot who could surely work out how much fuel he needed to carry us all the way to Tuktoyuktuk.

As I drifted off into wondering how the Creator came up with the idea of a frozen north, I didn’t really notice the tapping of gages that preceded the pilot’s radio message to the tower at Tuktoyuktuk. Something about landing shy of Tuk. Shy of Tuk that couldn’t possibly mean what I thought it meant because there wasn’t anything or anyone shy of Tuk. It’s a big empty frozen north, why would anyone want to land shy of Tuk? Jesus, Mary and Joseph. What in the name of all that’s holy was going on?

Well, before the pilot could calm me down we were safely on the ground and he was explaining to me about some miscalculation and telling me not to worry. Not to worry, out there in the frozen north, well not really frozen cause it was July after all, but there was nothing but whiteness as far as I could see. Fortunately the pilot had a very fine bottle of something called Yukon Gold and so we managed to keep warm.

I have to tell you, it is very true, “there are strange things done neath the midnight sun,” because after we knocked back some Yukon Gold, I started to think about walking the rest of the way to Tuk. That is until the pilot told me that as near as he could figure we hadn’t “landed” per say, not on land anyway. We might actually be standing on the frozen inlet of the Beaufort Sea.

Fortunately for him the radio began to crackle and in the rush that followed, I forgot to smack him upside the head. They’d managed to figure out exactly where we were and we needn’t worry cause we were indeed just shy of Tuk.  And then I saw them. They didn’t look anything like I’d imagined all those years ago, but they were beautiful nonetheless. No sled teams for them, just the most beautiful snowmobiles in the entire world. Snowmobiles! Now I really was on top of the world, but it wasn’t the Yukon Gold that filled me with joy, it was the sight of smiling Inuit.

It only took a few minutes to get to Tuk. All through that bumpy ride I couldn’t help but thinking about my first childhood wonderings about Canada’s Eskimos. Over the years my childhood images had created characters of mythic proportions, wandering the frozen North, among the wolves and polar bears. I was about to meet the people I had dreamed of.

I’d been to Tuktoyuktuk many times but it never looked so beautiful. Unusually, I’d just fly in and fly out, but not that trip. I spent a whole week, exploring every nook and cranny. Meeting as many people as I could, listening to as many stories as folks were willing to tell me. I heard stories, sacred stories about polar bears, whales, wolves, wild dogs and women and men who’d survived in the frozen north for generations. It’s a magical land, a mythical place a place were the sun shines day and night and where darkness rules day and night. Yes, there’s poverty and alcoholism and cruelty and neglect. But there’s also a quality of hospitality that lets you catch a glimpse of God in the wonder of it all. The Eskimos of my imagination, of myth and story, have taken on flesh and dance with my memories of the Inuit.

I’ve still never seen an igloo, but I know there up there. Even though I’m not so sure I’d live to tell the tale, I’d still love to see the face of God. But for now I’ll settle for a glimpse of God’s backside. For now all we’ll see is a glimpse of God’s glory. But oh those glimpses.  Once you catch a glimpse you’ll never forget it. So, close your eyes and remember them. I mean it close your eyes.   Remember the glimpses. There, look can you see a glimpse of God? There, in the eyes of your beloved. The first time you knew you were in love and there in your beloved eyes, you saw but a glimpse. Or standing there holding that beautiful child for the very first time, gazing into the wonder that you held in your arms, there was but a glimpse.

Look down onto the page, between the lines of that poem that told your whole life in just a few lines, there’s the hand of God. Look, look there she goes, she just learned to ride it all by herself, she’s growing up so quickly, do you see right there behind her there in the shadows watching her, if you look closely you see the arms of God ready to catch her. Look at him he thinks he knows it all, there he goes with the keys to your car, in the screech of tires can you hear it, it’s the sound of God trying to catch up with him, trying to keep him safe.

Listen carefully can you hear it, it’s ever so faint the rattle of her last breaths makes it hard to hear but if you listen carefully you’ll hear the breath of God breathing along side her as she breathes her last breath; YAHWEH. And as you struggle to leave the room wondering how you can ever find a way to say good-bye, good-bye Grandma, good-bye Grandpa, good-bye Mom, good-bye Dad, good-bye my love, if you lean back you will feel them, there the arms of God holding you.

Look there, God is in that smile, the smile that says I’ve known you so long and yes I still love you even if you drive me nuts, there in the gleam in your lover’s eyes, can you see the glory of God?

Gaze out into the field and see there amongst the wildflowers, there dashing by through the trees, trudging up into the hills, hiking over the mountains, if you look closely you’ll see God’s backside.

There’s truth in our stories, sacred truth; truth in our myths, in our wonderings, our musings and our longings. Between the lines, beyond the page, in, with, through and under the words, there’s truth in questions and questions in the truth and through it all dances our God.

If you open your eyes and look around you’ll catch a glimpse of God; whose backside is more beautiful than words can say. Words may fail us, but we will keep trying to describe the wonder, the beauty, the magnificence of God’s glory. That’s just the kind of creatures we are.

So, proclaim God’s glory! Let the God of your imagination, myth and story, take on flesh and dance with your memories of God’s backside. Delight in the knowledge that all our wonderings pale in comparison to God’s splendor.       

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