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I cannot get it yet, not yet: The Dauber and talking about God

19 October 2010

Come to our church.  It is like Babel.   People talking all over the place.  Chatter before the service on Sunday morning gives way to a different kind of talk and afterwards, more chatter, gossip, politicking and even a little praying.  How long does it go on?  Ask the person who has to lock up the building but is not allowed to be ruthlessly impatient in dealing with loquacious lingerers by locking them in. 

Now we are trying to generate focused conversation amongst ourselves and with friends outside the church, by asking What Matters to you?   What questions gnaw at you?   What Matters?  is a question that might have the answer God, but that is not inevitable. 

At the same time, some people in church have started saying that we do not talk about God very much or very freely amongst ourselves.  It may seem strange that we are a chattering people and yet feel we do not talk much about God.  This strange phenomenon of the church invites inspection, like the Bush that Moses saw burning and burning and not dying down.  And on inspection, we see it is a complex mystery, where varied lines of enquiry and reflection open up. 

This paper is one little probe of the mystery of the chattering church that doesn’t really talk about God very much.    

The man who could not paint the sea

We cannot find words to do justice to God. 

We find words that might serve to point to what we can never do justice to but we are shy to experiment with them or to risk trying them out with other people. 

The Dauber, in John Masefield’s long poem, is a man who wants to paint pictures of the sea. 

He says

It’s not been done, the sea, not yet been done,

From the inside, by one who really knows; 

I’d give up all if I could be the one

In order to learn how to paint the sea, he needs to go to sea.  But he is poor and cannot afford to travel as a passenger.  He enlists as crew member on a clipper.   His crewmates do not welcome a painter and he has a miserable life, until he is killed in an accident.  He gave up all to pursue what mattered to him. 

Along the way, he draws and paints whenever he can.  He perseveres though he is persecuted by the men around him.   He perseveres although he is still far from ‘doing the sea’.   He sees more than he can capture. 

I cannot get it yet –not yet, he said;

That leap and light, and sudden change to green,

And all the glittering from the sunset’s red,

And the milky colours where the bursts have been,

And then the clipper striding like a queen

Over it all, all beauty to the crown.

I see it all, I cannot put it down

It’s hard not to be able.   There, look there!

I cannot get the movement nor the light;

Sometime it almost makes a man despair

To try and try and never get it right.

Oh,if I could – oh, if I only might,

I wouldn’t mind what hells I’d have to pass,

Not if the whole world called me fool and ass. 


Talking about God is like trying to paint the sea

Does God, like the sea, put us in the position of the Dauber?  

He could not paint what he saw.  I cannot get it.   The sea was just too much for brushed colours on canvas.  He saw it all, he could not get it down.   God likewise is too much for our words.  We are touched and shaken, moved and called by God.  Many people see something of God, enough for them to know Augustine talked sense when he wrote:  You, God, have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless, till they rest in You.   But every time we try to put it into words, our words, it goes flat.  The words are not true to God. 

But the dauber persisted:  I cannot get it yet.  ‘Yet’ is a little word for a big hope (or a big fear).  It is a word which is simultaneously honest and hopeful – and being honest and hopeful simultaneously is at the heart of being a real person reconciled with God.  ‘Yet’ means we recognise our present limits and incapacity; we are truthful about where we are now.  That is a necessary condition for doing and becoming anything good:  it is no good trying to get to our destination starting from where we are not.  We want true diagnosis of where we are not false optimism.   ‘Yet’ means we are not defeated and imprisoned in the present.   We do not yield to despair that presses upon us when we are honest about where we are.   ‘Yet’ means we are not giving up.  Even if we never get it right, we would try and try.   The goal we hope for may be out of reach for the moment, but we can find and keep our life and soul in hoping for it.  Hope says:  Oh, if only I might, I wouldn’t mind what hells I’d have to pass. 

This is the thirst for God Psalm 42 voices. 

Do we want it enough to carry on trying? 

The Dauber said:   ‘I’d give up all if I could be the one’ who managed to ‘get it’. 

Can we talk of God if we do not travel along the road of life through dumbness and suffering and sacrifice?   Moses did not meet God till he had been rescued as a baby from being murdered, grown up with a confused social identity, become a killer, lived in the desert of near emptiness for forty years.  And even then, God gave him no easy words to say and allowed him to have the unreliable ignorant Aaron to help him with the talking.

The disciples on the Emmaus road (Luke 24) had to live through the devastation of the crucifixion before they could hear Jesus and get from him something to talk about with their friends. 

Talking about God in reality does not come cheaply.  It is not a matter of being given some pious words, in songs, or being able to quote texts of the Bible, or to talk some popular or academic jargon.   As Martin Luther said:  I did not get my theology from books, but from living, dying and being damned.  

‘Being damned’ meant something fearful and real to Luther – it was like the Dauber, passing through hells, and suffering the scorn of his companions who call him ‘fool and ass’.  

Doing it from the inside, by one who really knows

The Dauber tried and tried and did not give up on his hope.  He would not be content to paint pictures that did not ‘do it’, even though they might sell and give him a comfortable living.   He wanted more. 

It’s not been done, the sea, not yet been done,

From the inside, by one who really knows

This is what God invites us to – knowing from the inside.  God invites us,  by being God as God is in Christ by the Spirit.  If we are talking of God,  God sets the standard.  And more: God does the talking.    Our talk of God  aims at what is not yet done, talking ‘from the inside, by one who really knows’.   It aims at what we can hardly imagine or understand.  There is a lot more that could be said about this, but for the moment, accept this as the measure of what we are invited into by God, Father, Son and Spirit:  to be somehow, even in our little way, doing it ‘from the inside’ in the fellowship that really knows.  We then are taken beyond talking  about God, as though God is out there, an object to us, and talk from within the living God.  

This does not mean it becomes any easier to talk about God together or in public.  We go on, like the Dauber, admitting,  I cannot get it yet, not yet.  But just as for him the sea was there, and he was in the sea, so for us, trying but not getting, God is there and we are in God in Christ by the Spirit.

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