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God in Many Guises

This week I met two people in whom I encountered God – the source of all goodness. And I doubt whether either of them had a clue that it had happened.

One of them was a 'brickie' doing a small job in our house. He told me about his troubled teenage years and being thrown out of school. Eventually, he discovered what was, for him, the fascination of the building trade. ‘Once I took the course in bricklaying’, he told me, ‘that was it. It turned my life round.’ Quite un-self-consciously, he talked about the care and wisdom and generosity he offers his children and step-children, his elderly relatives and various elderly and disabled colleagues and clients.

The other witness to God was Kay(not her real name), a one-time carer for my aunt who has become her friend. An immigrant single parent who left an abusive husband, Kay has struggled emotionally and financially over the last ten years to make a life for herself in this country. Throughout that time, she has made time for regular visits to my aunt, to care for her with skill and a devotion which survives even my aunt’s increasingly demented aggressive behaviour. This week, K said to me. ‘Please stop paying me for what I do for your aunt. She matters so much to me. I want to be able to give her something.’

If I can learn in my life to share just a morsel of the wisdom, care and generosity of these two people, I’ll be content. Both of them reminded me about the dangers of being a professional religious person.

I’ve lived all my life among professional religious people. My father and grandfather, my husband and my brother were all ‘professionals’. Insofar as women are allowed, I’ve been a professional myself – teaching and writing(like here!) and preaching about ‘the good life’.

We religious professionals make it our business to know what goodness looks like and sounds like but we don’t always show what it looks and feels like. We read holy books and gather to share ideas about how to be good. Some of us stand up once a week and tell other people how to do it better. We can sound as if we’ve got the business of holiness wrapped up.

Underneath our ‘knowing’ and wordy activity there are a lot of complex assumptions about what it means to be ‘good’. And they are important. One common but rarely acknowledged assumption is: ‘some people know more about goodness than others’ or ‘we know better than non-religious people’ or ‘we know better than religious people from different religious groups than ours’! Although rarely spoken aloud, that assumption can be the foundation of what we call 'our mission' - telling people what we ‘know’. Why? Because we ‘know better’.

I was reminded this week that this ‘knowing better’ assumption needs very careful examination. Whatever my knowledge and skills, if I stand blind, unmoved and ungrateful before authentic goodness in all its forms, my spirit is in danger. I hope I can continue to discover and learn from what the Quaker leader George Fox called, ‘that of God in every person’.

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