On our dining room wall there are photos of our children, including one of each of them on their first days at school, which happened to be in three different cities, Sheffield, where they were all born, Nottingham, where I was at theological college, and Liverpool, during my curacy. What can be seen is temporary. Who I was at birth, at seven, at fourteen, at twenty-one, at twenty-eight, at thirty-five, at forty-two – or, at least, who I understood myself to be, and who others took me to be – differs one from the other. Like icebergs, only a small and melting part of who we are is visible; most of our selves are interior, hidden as much to us as to others, buoying us up in an eternal sea.
Today I want to consider the temporary outer nature, which is [beautiful in its many stages of] wasting away; the eternal inner nature, which is being renewed day by day; and the crucial role hiding plays at the meeting-point of the two.
Let me set the scene for the reading from Genesis. The human family, embodied in our first parents Adam and Eve, were given three gifts by God: firstly, the gift of a vocation, to enable harmony within God’s creation, characterised by fruitfulness and rest; secondly, the gift of abundant provision, which is what fruitfulness looks like; and thirdly the gift of limit-setting, which is actually what rest looks like, given in order to spare us from being overwhelmed by the wonder and mystery of life. But we, again embodied in our first parents, ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; our eyes were opened to our nakedness; we were afraid, and hid. As embodied persons this surely includes physical nakedness, but actually describes being overwhelmed by a glimpse into the enormous, mysterious life we were created for, terrifyingly desired and just as terrifyingly costly.
We are made to be a particular person who stands in the presence of other particular persons, including God; and who enjoy ourselves and the other as gift. (This is what it means to be made in the likeness of the Trinity.) This being present in the presence of another is easy in innocence, when we have no idea that it will cost us everything – just this week, I watched a baby interact with every adult in a café – but is overwhelming when our eyes are opened to the enormity of our own possibility and that of every other person. When I was fourteen, all I wanted to become in time was a husband and a father. When I became a real husband to a real wife, and a real father to three real children – all of whom change through time – I discovered that I hoped for something far beyond the ability of the person I have become.
The man and the woman hide. Now, the instinct to hide is a reflex common to all animals God has created, and learning to hide well is an essential skill. Hiding gives us the space we need in order to closely observe, to observe ourselves as well as others; a place where we will be safe until we are ready to step into the presence of another person, not as an innocent who knows not what we are doing but as one created for real relationship with real others. Indeed, hiding, done well, is good – as we will see in Jesus. But when we fail to hide well, we fall back on hiding badly, because we have presented ourselves too soon.
The first place the man and woman hide is among the trees of the garden. The calling to fill the earth [provision; fruitfulness; including relationships] and subdue it – that is, calm its raging storms [limit-setting; rest; involving struggles] – has become overwhelming to them; and so they hide in that part of their vocation they can see in the present – as gardeners of the Garden. And here they hide well, by which I mean that from their hiding place they carefully observe God, and what they observe enables them to overcome fear and step out from the trees.
But in this beautiful story we also see what hiding badly does to us. The thought of filling the earth is overwhelming. Adam hides within the immediate relationship he can see in the present - ‘the woman you gave me’. But he does so badly, the encounter defined by blame and not delight. Fruitfulness is frustrated. The thought of subduing the earth is also overwhelming. Eve hides within the immediate struggle she can see in the present, represented by the serpent. She also hides badly, the encounter defined by deceit and not honesty. In shifting blame [movement, with false intent] rather than owning responsibility, rest is frustrated.
Both male and female hide from what is invisible, or too large to see, in what is visible: the temporary, passing, wasting-away outer edge of our vocation and relationships and struggles. Even though this edge is falling away, it provides the place from which we can see the next step emerge, the place from where we can step into our ‘being renewed’ selves rather than being pushed unprepared.
Jesus also hid and watched, but always hid well. He hid within his vocation: for thirty years of obscurity as a builder, forty days in the wilderness, at the festival of Booths, in the tomb. He hid within his relationships: observing others with compassion before stepping from hiding to respond to a woman ostracised by her neighbours, a woman longing for her child to be healed, sisters weeping for their dead brother, a woman in a garden weeping for her lord. And he hid within his struggles: asleep in the bottom of the boat while his friends wrestle the storm that rises within them as much as about, until he is ready to step forward and restore calm with a word.
Hiding is an essential skill; and God is so gracious in recognising this. Eavesdropping as two guilty children are being questioned, can we glimpse the knowing gaze and loving smile of a wise parent? God’s response is to re-state the vocation of humanity to enable harmony in creation; and, in parallel promises, to re-affirm first to the woman and then to the man that, though their labour will be hard, they will ultimately know both fruitfulness [met desire] and rest [under the protection of human relationship, in life; under the protection of the earth, in death]. In three successive declarations, the eternal perspective on vocation, on relationships, and on struggles are revealed, beneath the surface of what is presently visible.*
We hide, holding on to a role in the community that has, in part, defined us, before we let it go and step into the next chapter in the story of our inner nature. We hide, holding on to our children as, well, children, before we know them, and are known by them, as adults. We hide, holding on to perceived enemies [including ourselves], before we dare to meet them as potential friends.
Letting go of what is temporary and stepping into the next temporary season has its own timing. This is a mystery; and mystery is not meant to be understood but, rather, to be experienced. Wherever you are hiding today, whatever immediate past you must let go of, whatever immediate future you must take hold of, God comes, looking for you, wanting to know you and to be known by you in that intimate moment where we disappear and appear. Parent and child, caught up in a game of hide-and-seek. It is a beautiful encounter – and it can be yours today.
[*By such steps, the man and the woman are able to move out from the Garden into the world that must be tamed. Finally, God sets an angel to prevent them going back, for hiding is instinctive to us, and while it stops us from charging ahead too soon, it can also prevent us from stepping out at all. We can never hide in the same place twice, for once a hiding place has served its necessary purpose, it is lost to us forever.]