On Attempting to Comb God’s Hair

A friend of mine has convinced me that people who do maths at university study truly wacky things. For instance, he claims that he once took an 18 lecture course to show that you can’t comb the hair down on a hairy sphere. Eh?

Imagine a circle with hair growing out of it. You can comb it down – just start with your comb at one point, and comb it down all the way round.

But when it comes to a hairy sphere – ah, now you’re in trouble. You can start combing the hair down, but you’ll always find that somewhere or other you’ll create partings or mohicans. It just won’t lie flat.

I feel something like the same way about my beliefs about God. I have various beliefs that I think are true – I’ve got these from a mixture of reading the Bible, listening to other Christians, thinking for myself (heaven forbid!)… and I feel as though I should be able to arrange them all neatly together, without any scrunches.

So far, it never quite works.

It *nearly* works – they do fit together and tie in together quite a lot. For instance, I remember feeling reallly satisfied when I realised I had an answer for the question ‘Why do we divide the Bible into two main sections, not three or fifteen?’ It’s a trivial example, but it’s pleasant when you realise that your beliefs fit together to make sense of unfamiliar questions.

But it doesn’t *totally* work. Fort instance, I can’t fully reconcile these things, all of which I believe: (a) God knows everything about the future; (b) God is totally capable of acting to bring about any outcome he wants; (c) we have real choices. How can all three be right? I’m not entirely sure. I’m not willing to abandon any of them, because they all make sense and seem important on their own; but together they seem to make a mohican.

And my point is?

Well it certainly isn’t ‘Give up’. I think we can make progress in making sense of what we believe – we can talk to each other, wrestle with the issues, read books, think hard, decide to be ready to change our minds, abandon some beliefs, correct others, be prepared to let the Bible disagree with us and change us – maybe some of the knots in our hair can be disentangled. The branch of theology that tries to lay out a set of beliefs in a well-ordered way, Systematic Theology, is really valuable, and none of us has investigated it enough, I’m sure. Life is too short.

But my main point is that, if you feel as though your beliefs are a bit provisional, messy, and contradictory, then you’re in good company. We all have to put up with this, while trying to seek out more understanding as time goes on. We aren’t God, and it would be a huge surprise if we could describe him and the world fully and without distortion.

I seem to remember that there was a happy sequel to the sad “can’t comb the hairy sphere down” story. Although I can’t imagine it at all, I seem to recall that if you have the 4-dimensional equivalent of a hairy sphere, you *can* comb it down. I wonder if our attempts at having no tensions in describing God are doomed to failure for now, because our descriptions are always going to be on too low a plane…?

The Rich Young Man

This is a story that has come to mean a great deal to me. I used to think that what I lacked in my life was a direct challenge from God; that if like some first century martyr I was thrown into a place where the choices were simple, black and white and irrevocable, I would be OK. It was the endless uncertainty and struggling to have the faintest idea what God intended me for that was the problem.

However, increasingly I’ve been drawn to this story. Here’s a young man who gets exactly that. Jesus himself offers him a direct black and white choice – sell all you have and follow me, or don’t. And he doesn’t.

I have found myself looking increasingly hard at how I would have done in that situation. Not that Im a millionaire or anything; but I have a stable job, I can afford to live in a nice flat, by myself, in a nice area; I can go out a lot, to nice places, with my nice friends; as the prevalence of that hideous word ‘nice’ suggests, I’m very comfortable. And I like it; or to be more accurate, I strongly dislike the idea of losing it. Actually, to be more brutally honest, I am deeply afraid of losing it. Not in the sense of lying awake at night worrying about being made redundant – in some ways redundancy would be a relief, forcing a change of direction. But whenever I contemplate doing the bunjee jump; voluntarily throwing myself over the edge, abandoning my security and comfort; well, I get a serious case of cold feet.

I can’t help but wonder whether that was the case for the rich young man too. Was it really greed – or fear? There’s something very moving about the story; the young man knows there is something that he lacks, that what he has, what he is doing isn’t enough. He knows who can tell him what he should do, too. He even has the courage to ask. And Jesus looks on him, and loves him (God bless Mark for including that bit), and tells him what he needs to do. And he goes away sadly; that’s always struck me as tremendously significant. He isn’t angry or resentful; he isn’t challenging Jesus’ diagnosis. The sadness suggests he accepts it. Jesus has asked for something he lacks the courage to give.

That’s when I see myself; kneeling in Church, asking for God to show me how I can serve him, resolving to actually mean it when I say I dedicate my life to him. And I wonder whether I don’t hear anything because I have already shut my ears to protect myself from hearing anything I don’t want to hear; and I go away sadly, because I am very comfortable, and very uncourageous. Would it really make any difference if I had Jesus physically standing there and asking the question?

It’s not necessarily about money, either. I’m not the best person in the world at interacting with other human beings, and whenever I get the slightest sense that it might be my duty to get involved I go cold to my very heart with fear. I wonder if one of those men on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho passed by on the other side not from pride or contempt or disdain, but because he was afraid; afraid to go outside his own comfortable world and deal with the pain and hurt outside it, interacting with strangers, people whose reactions and behaviour he could not count on. God help me, I’ve done that. And I wonder if there will be a third category on the last day, the cattle, who will cry out “Lord, we saw you hungry and we knew you, and we did not feed you; we saw you thirsty and we knew you, and we did not give you a drink; we saw you homeless and naked and we knew you, and we did not take you in or clothe you; we saw you sick and in prison and we knew you and we did not visit you. For we were comfortable, and afraid.”

That’s why I choose to live in a nice area; it shelters me off from dealing with people in situations which will be uncomfortable. That’s why my friendship circle remains the same group of people from school and university; people I am comfortable with, people like me with similar thoughts and prejudices and ways of behaving. It’s why I seek out a church filled with people like me, and even there I try to hide away, at the back, not to interact. It’s so that as far as possible I can insulate myself from ever being uncomfortable.

If it’s not too heretical, a paraphrase:

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the comfortable to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a comfortable man to enter the kingdom of God’

The disciples were even more amazed and said to each other, ‘Who then can be saved?’

Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’

A bit of hope there, perhaps. Perhaps that rich young man came back, one day, and managed it. I hope so.

Not being close to Christians.

Does anyone else find that their close friends – indeed the vast majority of their friends – aren’t Christians? I’ve always felt far more comfortable with non-Christians.

I find that with Christians there’s always something in the way somehow or other; I feel both under pressure to project a version of myself which isn’t the truth, and also that they are feeding me a false image of themselves. My friendships with non-Christians feel far more honest, and so far more real. I can’t help but feel that this is totally the wrong way around, that it should be within the Church that people are free to deal with each other as we are rather than as we feel we ought to be; but it doesn’t seem to work that way. To me, at least. It’s not for want of opportunities; I was brought up in a strongly Christian family, went to the usual round of Christian house parties, my brother and sister both have largely Christian friends.

Of course, there are some pretty painful issues with having a basically non-Christian circle of friends. First and foremost there’s the difficulty of not being able to talk about something that’s the most important part of my life. I’m a very reluctant evangelist; not entirely from fear, either – I have always been very reluctant to trespass into the parts of people’s lives that really matter to them without their invitation. Where invitation and opportunity arise I do, but they don’t very often. Not that I find it any easier talking about Jesus to Christians – not without slipping into some fairly shallow cliches and platitudes, anyway. And then there’s the points at which morals diverge so sharply as to make it very difficult; particularly over relationships.

I don’t know whether it’s a failing of mine or not, but it makes things very difficult. It’s difficult always being a bit of a prude by comparison with your friends, unable to share in many conversations without either appearing a rather judgemental prude or else betraying things you really believe. It’s particularly difficult if you fall for someone who doesn’t share your faith. Yet I rarely feel at ease, relaxed and comfortable, in a group of Christians.