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On a Hill Far Away

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I can still see the bright red oxygenated blood spilling out of my sister’s head.

Researchers increasingly say memories from long ago are not very accurate. Perhaps.

I was five years old and my family was visiting friends in the Catskills. We were on what we called a “hike,” although it was not strenuous or long. My young mind was fascinated by the trail’s switchbacks—how I could be quite a ways ahead of my sister, yet she was really just there, right below me. More curious than malicious (or so I believe) I picked up a pretty big rock and blooped it down toward her. If I tried one hundred more times, I would not have been able to duplicate that initial result. Square and flush, right behind the ear. She screamed, fell to the ground, and poured forth blood.

I took off running. Out of fear I suppose. I knew I was in trouble.

I remember hearing my dad call out “Steve! Steve! Come back here!” Of course, I didn’t. I zigzagged through the woods, not knowing where I was going but knowing for certain that my dad would catch me. Soon he was in sight and closing fast.

This is what I remember most—as he was very close, I began to dodge around trees. This way and then that. It turned into something like a game of tag, or a rundown between second and third base. Probably out of fear, I started laughing. My dad did too. I wouldn’t call it “fun” but the terror I had felt 90 seconds earlier was gone. Eventually, he scooped me up off the ground.

Here the memory fades. I suspect my laughter melted into sobs. It is telling, I think, that I have absolutely no memory of my punishment, although I’m sure there was one. I also don’t recall anything about my sister’s condition.

I’m not going to go all Freudian here. Father image and God image. Maybe this is simply an example of my father whom I never feared. But might it inform my understanding of God—who was, for me, never angry, never scary, never volatile, vindictive, or mean. That Catskill hillside shows me that even when I had done something terrible or stupid, my dad was on my side.

*****

A colleague at a neighboring church was doing a reader’s theatre of the opening chapters of Genesis. They were rehearsing chapter 3. The man and woman have eaten the fruit. The Lord God appears in the “cool of the evening,” calling out “Where are you?”

The member of his congregation voicing God thundered out in a snarling rage, “Where are you?” The pastor stopped rehearsal.

Why did you make God sound so furious and frightening?

Because they’ve sinned. Because they’re hiding. Because he’s angry. Really, really angry.

How would it be if you made your voice sound sad? Maybe more heart-broken or disappointed?
What if you tried to sound like a playmate asking if a buddy could come out and play?
Or maybe concerned for your buddy, unsettled, wondering if something has befallen your friend?

Hmmm. Maybe, I guess. If you say so.

As my colleague shared this experience, we joked that we could establish a “voice-of-God-test” (similar to the Bechdel test for women in movies) for one’s understanding of God. Simply ask people to read this portion of scripture and observe their tone. Is your God voice frightening or seeking?

*****

“God owes us nothing.” I hear Reformed folk say this when explaining election. In other words, God doesn’t need to save anyone, or give an explanation about why or who or how many are damned. I get it. I really do. My understanding of election is more robust and orthodox than most Reformed folk.

But to say “God owes us nothing” seems like such a terrible and unfair way to speak of God, especially early in the conversation. Maybe it is accurate in some narrow and esoteric way. But is this really how God wants us to speak of God? Is this how we can best describe God? The same God who desperately does about anything to be with us and for us, doesn’t owe us anything? Aren’t there about 10,000 better, more scriptural, more beautiful, more compelling things we would want to say about God before we would ever say “God owes us nothing.” And then we wonder why in reader’s theatre our members use a raging voice for God.

Maybe God is pursuing me and the chase itself has now turned into something playful and loving. I’m sure God is going to catch me. I hope so.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the Reformed Journal's previous iteration, Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

6 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Enjoyed this. I had the same experience of God, growing up. Sovereign almighty judge, yes, but welcoming, loving, embracing. From my dad too, in general, most of the time. Although I think, if I had thrown that rock, he would have spanked me hard till I cried. Out of his fear.

  • Jill says:

    I really appreciate this article.
    I will use the idea of how God says those words in Genesis 3, when I lead a Bible study today.
    It is with great thankfulness that I recognize I have gone from hearing the angry voice to hearing God’s loving voice.

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    When my son was about 3 he was obsessed with whether or not aliens were real. Not one to suppress critical and creative thinking I let him stew. One day he told me in no uncertain terms that there were no aliens. I asked him how he knew that. “God told me,” he replied. “Really, ” I said. “What did God sound like?” I will remember his reply as long as I live because it was both funny and carried what I think is deep truth. “Loud like Dad, but not mean.” Out of the mouths of babes…

  • Lee Collins says:

    Thanks, Steve. A useful message on “day 22”.

  • Wonderful, Steve! Beautiful thoughts and beautifully written!

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Very nice, Steve. I always point out to students that Scripture has so few adverbs (he said “softly” or “loudly”) and not a wide range of verbs for how things get said (it’s mostly just “he said . . . he answered . . . she replied . . .” and not “he THUNDERED” or “she whispered.”). This lets us imagine different acoustics. What happens to “Let not your hearts be troubled . . .” in John 14 if we have Jesus say it not in some confident, passionless voice but in a voice choked with emotion, chin quivering, tears forming in the corners of his eyes? The circumstances just then warrant imagining Jesus that way so why not? (Different comment: I always liked the rabbi’s answer to the person who asked “Why did God ask Adam where he was–didn’t God know?” The rabbi replied, “Ah yes, God knew. It was ADAM who didn’t know where he was.” 🙂

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