You can’t get to know someone from a distance.
My Father-in-Law tells the story of how he met his wife.
“I’ve got the perfect girl for you,” his friend John told him.
It was September of 1972. The two friends were football players at the college they attended. They were on their way down to practice that afternoon.
“Who is she?” My future father-in-law asked.
“She’s right over there.” John pointed across the field to a girl sitting in the bleachers watching a soccer match. It was too far to get a good look at her.
“Hey Mr. Derrickson,” John said to the man with a camera standing nearby, “Can you take a picture for us?” Mr Derrickson was the sports photographer for the school. He had come for the soccer match and was taking pictures with his telephoto lens.
John pointed to the girl sitting on the bleachers on the far side of the field. Then he hollered, “Hey you!” and just as she turned to look Mr Derrickson snapped a picture.
Now in those days, kids, you had to wait a really, really long time to get your photos—like, days, so my father-in-law had almost forgotten about the girl by that following Monday. They were in the locker room and the football team captain was passing out photos from the game on Friday, so each player could see his own action shots. He looked through his stack of photos and there in the middle was the one of the beautiful girl in bleachers watching the soccer match.
She had a mysterious look on her face, something like, “Who’s yelling at me?”
He took the photo and wedged it in the back of his football locker. As he locked up his gear, once more he gazed at the picture through the metal mesh of the locker door.
He thought to himself: “I wonder who she is?”
I wonder who?
A lot of folks have this question about the universe. I wonder who? Who made all this? Why is it here? Is this all there is? When we ask these questions, we are engaging in theology (Theo=God).
Repeat after me: “I am a theologian.”
A theologian is someone who thinks or talks about G/god. In some way or another, we’re all theologians. It comes to us quite naturally. So we call this natural theology—it’s all those thoughts about G/god that come to us quite naturally.
Natural Theology: getting to know G/god from a distance
Even though fewer Americans go to church, most still believe that someone, some powerful being got all this started. Who is He? Or maybe you prefer, Who is She?—like those bumper stickers say, “Goddess Bless.” Or maybe you like to think God is an It—like the Force, or a Divine Spark of power within you. This is what happens when we try to know a person from a distance. We inevitably fill in the gaps with our imaginations—our personal preferences, fears, and biases.
Sociologists call these imaginations metaperceptions. That’s a fancy word for what I think you think about me and what you think I think about you. As we accumulate experiences, we naturally try to calculate how others perceive us. Sadly, the research shows that we often miscalculate. People who study this say we tend to be overly suspicious, negative, and selfie-centered in our metaperceptions.
For example, studies show that women often think men are judging them more negatively than they actually are, and vice versa. They also show that people of a certain color, race, or ethnicity often think that people of another color, race, or ethnicity do not desire contact with them, when, in fact, it’s not true. It only seems true because both groups tend to think the other group doesn’t like them.
Metaperceptions lead us to think people are thinking the worst about us, when in reality, it’s more likely that
- (a) they’re thinking good things or simply neutral things about us or,
- (b) they’re not thinking about us at all because they’re so preoccupied with thinking about themselves and worried what we’re thinking about them.
Sadly, we do the same as natural theologians … We create gods that are a lot like us.
Many of us are angry and judgmental of ourselves and others, and so we make angry, judgmental gods.
Many of us are unhappy with who we are, so we make gods that hate us.
Because we feel we can’t control our lives, we make gods that are unreliable, gods that suffer just like us.
Because we want to be successful and prove that we can make it on our own, we make gods that demand we get our act together.
And whenever we make these gods, we control them. We can buy them off, impress them, sedate them, manipulate them, or even change them.
Martin Luther called this a theology of glory.
Repeat after me: “I am a theologian of glory.”
Theology of Glory: thoughts about G/god that come from a distance, from our metaperceptions
Theologians of glory get to control their gods. When we feel good about ourselves, we create gods that praise us and bless us with prosperity. When we hate ourselves, we create gods that hate us and destroy us.
They echo our own thoughts. They applaud us in our pride. They stomp us down in our guilt and leave us there to wallow in our misery.
We natural theologians naturally become theologians of glory.
We theologians of glory left to our own devices naturally implode on ourselves.
However, you can’t truly know someone, neither God nor human, from a distance; trying leads to trouble.
My father-in-law learned this lesson.
A couple of months had passed since he hung up that picture of this mysterious person in the back of his locker. His friend John kept bugging him, “Hey, have you talked to her yet?”
Like the origin of the universe and the meaning of life, she remained a mystery. All he had was this picture in his locker and his own metaperceptions to deal with.
The school dance came around. But Mystery Girl had gone with some other guy.
Tired of his friend nagging him, and compelled by his own curiosity, halfway through the night, he walked up to the guy dancing with Mystery Girl and tapped him on the shoulder to cut in: “May I have the next dance?”
Mystery Girl nodded that it was ok. They chatted while they danced. Then Mystery Girl said, “So, I’ve heard you’ve got a picture of me in your football locker.”
Apparently, Mystery Girl’s date had been strolling through the locker room the other day. And saw a picture of his date for the dance in some other dude’s locker. And so he was telling her all about this big creep stalking her … and then look who shows up.
Trying to know someone by observing them from a distance, whether God or human, always leads to trouble. If you want to truly know them, it’s got to be up close and personal.
Natural theology is what we do when we try to get to know God from a distance.
We can know some things about God from a distance.
As the psalmist said, “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
But because our metaperceptions tend to be selfie-centered, because we want God’s glory for ourselves, we take what we can know about God from a distance and twist it for our own use.
In contrast to natural theology, revealed theology is up close and personal.
A revelation is an unveiling, it doesn’t come naturally.
We have to wait for God to reveal himself. Revealed theology is when God steps from behind the curtain and onto the stage. It’s when we stop guessing what God might be and listen to him tell us who he is. Revealed theology is when God opens his mouth and speaks to us personally in Jesus, who is the Voice of God in the flesh.
Now, wait a minute. My inner theologian of glory wants to say, “How can this Jesus be the only real revelation of God? How can this one Jewish man be the true God, when all of us men and women want our own custom-made gods?”
Jesus’ claim to be the Voice of God is the ultimate offense to all theologians of glory. Remember that it was good, natural theologians of glory just like us who put Jesus on the cross.
In contrast to a theology of glory, is the theology of the cross.
The theology of the cross is the death of our attempts to make God in our own image.
We wanted powerful, glorious gods who would affirm us just the way we are. But we have a God who came in weakness to willingly die at our hands.
We wanted angry gods who would hate and judge us as much as we hate and judge ourselves. But we have a God who loves and forgives us so completely that even his own death could not keep him from us.
The theology of the cross teaches us that the road to knowing God’s glory leads through the death of our glory. Jesus patiently leads us on this road. He shows how to take up the cross. He helps us die to our miscalculated metaperceptions.
Dying with Jesus, we learn to think less about what others might think about us and to think more about how God would have us serve them as Jesus serves us.
Forty-five years later, my father-in-law still has that picture of Mystery Girl—not hidden in his locker, but out in the open on his dresser (now you know where her daughters and granddaughters get their good looks).
After 45 years, Mimi has shown Papa and Papa has shown Mimi the life-giving, cross-bearing love of Jesus, not from a distance, but up close and personal.
I asked Papa what Mimi has taught him about the love of Jesus.
“Her love has been constant and consistent, even and especially when my actions have fallen short of her expectations. So much so, that I am given confidence that her love will never fail me.”
Let’s agree to stop trying to guess who or what God is from distance. Let him get up close and personal in Jesus. I think we will find that he is better than we could have imagined.