The visible presence of the living God…
It is an installation by artist Berndnaut Smilde, who uses smoke machines and bits of trickery to form clouds in the middle of rooms. They only last for seconds, but I think they are really cool.
Th fact that this one is in the middle of an empty church is particularly poignant if you are wired like me. It conjures up Biblical images of the Host of God in the temple of the Ancient Hebrews – but in this case, within what looks like a run down and disused chapel, tarted up a little for the photograph.
It also asks some rather searching theological questions about our hopes for God and where we might encounter God. There are some clues in the Bible;
God is not contained, but is there when we gather.
God is not to be conjured up, but delights in our praise.
These are all very familiar concepts to anyone who has been involved in leading communal worship. I have spoken before about the tendency we had within lots of the services I have been involved with to try to whip up some kind of God-expectancy, or God-imitation as part of a religious show.
You could say that we made our own cloud in the middle of each and every gathering just like the one above. We tried hard to make visible the fact that God was there, whether or not we really believed it, whether or not it was true. If we had created some kind of evidence that he was there, this was enough.
But then I am reminded of an obscure passage from 1 Kings 19, when Elijah is in the middle of a particularly tough time. Prophets tended to upset people then (and now) and would have to flee for their lives;
And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
There is humour here I think. And love, and tolerance, and power. There is the man on the mountain scared out of his wits by what is happening all around him.
And then there is a whisper asking him- “What are you doing here?”
The clouds and the winds and the earthquakes come and go- but the point is not the transcendent experience, but the life we live in the wake of it all.
What are we doing here?