A guy in the sky pulling the strings and asking for your contributions in return. A Music Hall act well past its sell-by-date in this digital age. An historical curiosity to psychologists of religious belief. A charming diversion to enthrall young children.
What do you make of this image?
When I saw this enterprising busker I realised that what I was looking at was the parody of God which many atheists delight to mock. I have added in the sky background to make the point. Somehow this picture of God as a man (sic) in the sky pulling the strings is stubbornly entrenched somewhere deep down in what we used to call 'folk religion'. Is this really the default position of our public use of the word 'God'? Is this what the term 'Christianity' brings to mind for the increasingly unchurched majority? Are churches a sideshow from a different age, as relevant to contemporary issues as the posters inside the busker's case advertising the acts at 'The Palace' and 'Coliseum' Music Halls?
If the answer to any or all of these questions is yes then the sooner we talk openly about the images of God which work for us the better.
A God who pulls the strings and is responsible somehow for everything which befalls us lies underneath that most vexed question which is sometimes asked of us: how can you believe in God when....? For the dots substitute cancer, genocide, child abuse, rape, war crimes, car crashes, earthquakes and any number of the calamities and tragedies which regularly beset humanity. If God is the cosmic puppeteer then God is responsible, because God is pulling the strings.
Except that there are no strings attached. We are not puppets. God is not a man with a plan in the sky making us dance to his tune.
Jesus open-handedly portrays a very different picture of God, one which bears no relation to the Emperor in Rome who pulls the strings and wields destruction and mayhem on a whim. The Anglican priest and theologian W.A. Vanstone caught this alternative picture so well in his books 'Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense' and 'The Stature of Waiting'. They were a revelation to me when first I read them. Here God is so vulnerable, love so longing and faithful. No strings, just an eternal yearning deep within the heart of God for our wellbeing. Vanstone's 'Hymn to the Creator' imprints an alternative picture of God in our minds, the crux of which is this beautiful awareness:
Hidden is love's agony, Love's endeavour, love's expense.
Love that gives gives ever more, Gives with zeal, with eager hands, Spares not, keeps not, all outpours, Ventures all, its all expends.
Drained is love in making full; Bound in setting others free; Poor in making many rich; Weak in giving power to be.
Therefore He Who Thee reveals Hangs, O Father, on that Tree Helpless; and the nails and thorns Tell of what Thy love must be.
Thou are God; no monarch Thou Thron'd in easy state to reign; Thou art God, Whose arms of love Aching, spent, the world sustain.
Love's agony. Love's endeavour. Love's expense. No detached God in the sky, the cosmic puppeteer; rather the vulnerable God of love who cradles creation and weeps over its pain, hatred and mess. And who invites us to dance to music of the kingdom, no strings attached. Our response is that of love to love. Like a coin placed in an upturned hat.