Encountering God

By Al Lewis

I had the pleasure of attending this event at St Martins in the Field recently, as part of their autumn lecture series. It was an interview style event with Q&A afterwards.

Justin was very good and talked across a range of topics. Sam & he were clearly friends and the warmth between them added a richness to the encounter. He was so approachable in how he spoke that in the Q&A one of the audience asked a deeply personal, pastoral question on what to say to a family member who was unexpectedly dying and did not know God. Justin was touched by the question and responded with gentle compassion and advice.

He had a lot of nuance and humility, an appreciation of how complex life is and that the questions we ask need complex answers. He often answered both when asked an either/or question.

He’s a man who has suffered and struggled and become deeper, richer, more human for it. He is aware of his own failings and looks to himself first rather than focusing on others faults.

He spoke about when he & his wife lost a child, how close God felt through that experience, in the depths of their grief and anguish. Then, later, when another child was terribly ill, how absent God felt in that situation.

He has had a practice for a number of years that he takes a group of clergy to a place of great evil, and prays there.

So, he’s been to Rwanda, Nazi concentration camps and other places. He does this every year. He’s done reconciliation work when he was at Coventry, so this continues that practice.

The final question was about how he related to God as Father. Given his own complex paternal history, how is God a Father to him? He made the point that all human language is inadequate to describe God. God is not father or mother in the way that we might use those words because God is so much more. The definitive revelation of God is not in words but in the Word, Jesus, God incarnate. He then went on to talk about God as Father in terms of family and belonging.

From my own perspective on this, God made people in his own image, male and female he created them. So maleness and femaleness are both distinct and different reflections of the image of God. Hence, Father is not a big enough description of God. However, we are family, so we are meant to relate to God in love and intimacy, so the language of calling him Abba Father reflects this closeness.

Father was how Jesus referred to God, so that’s good enough for me.

It was an excellent evening. Good to see Justin Welby again and to have an extended time to listen to him, rather than media snippets or sound-bites. A depth and a richness to what he said, grounded in the real life of a man who has known difficulty and been sustained by God through it.