The Finger and the Moon
There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “When the sage points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger.” Does this resonate with you? We see it with dogs all the time. You point at the ball you just threw: “It’s over there! Go get it!” And they couldn’t be more excited as they stare at your finger, completely missing your greater point about direction and purpose. Have you ever played the fool, focused on the finger that’s trying to point out the moon?
Last Sunday, we picked up on the reality that faced John the Baptist. Upon his arrival, he was consistent in his message that it was time to get ready for Messiah. But the problem he constantly faced was that the people’s expectation of Messiah was part of what got in the way. They knew the prophecies, especially those of Isaiah, pointing to the coming of Messiah. But they had gotten so wrapped up in the prophetic finger that they completely missed the heavenly reality it was trying to draw their attention to.
Today, the question turns to John himself. Now the people think that he hangs the moon, that he is the Messiah arrived. But in reality, he’s just one more prophet trying to get the crowd’s attention so that they can see what really deserves attention.
And the hard truth is that we are not that different. We, too, get trapped by the layers of tradition and interpretation that build up over time. It’s like the scar tissue that covers over an old wound. It’s harder than the skin that used to be there, limiting our range of motion. What started out with good intentions ends up confining our imaginations.
We all know how churches can end up fighting – yes, really fighting – over things like Sanctuary carpet colors and hymn selections and musical styles and PowerPoints and who can and can’t be a minister or an elder or a deacon. The truth is that, each of them, even at their best and most perfected, is just a finger – not the moon.
I’m reminded of stories I’ve heard of John Calvin. Having become a leading figure in the Reformation, Calvin had led his church in Geneva to what they saw as a purely Reformed way of worship. They destroyed the religious artwork, because they saw it as idolatrous. They tore out the pipe organ, because pipe organs weren’t Biblical instruments of praise. They elevated the pulpit up close to the ceiling, because the word of God took precedence over everything else.
When Calvin would preach, he would do so in academic robes, not priestly attire. He would ascend the high staircase. But because he knew that he wasn’t meant to be the object of attention, one legend relates that he would dress head to toe in black cloth, even wearing gloves and a kind of mesh over his face to be sure that the congregation wasn’t tempted toward the wrong focus.
What has happened to the church in Geneva since that time is fascinating, a lesson in the difference between the finger and the moon. There is still no artwork, just plain stone – even though the original intent was not to draw focus to the art itself, but as a way to point to God. There is a pipe organ, however; but because the original works were torn out, the massive bellows that feed air to the pipes are exposed, snaking under one side of the pews. It was not an object of devotion itself, but was a wonderful instrument for focusing the people’s devotion on toward God.
Being Presbyterian, being part of this Reformed family of faith, puts us in an odd kind of middle ground. We are, by heritage, a people who look upon our traditions with healthy skepticism. It would be one thing to hold onto traditions because they are simply that – traditions. It would be another thing to toss them out because they are “old”. It’s another thing altogether to examine them for what they are, fingers pointed at the moon. It’s when we treat them as the objects of devotion that our faith calls us to re-examine their importance in our lives.
How many of you are familiar with the old British comedy group Monty Python? I was reading an interview with Terry Jones, one of the members, talking about when they were considering ideas for their second film:
“We thought we were going to do just a funny version of the life of Christ,” he says, “but then we read the Gospels again, which we hadn’t done, I suppose, since we were tiny, and we all realized that what Christ says in the Gospels were actually great things. The humor wasn’t there; it wasn’t in any of that. The humor is more in how people interpret it.”
No doubt with the violence in nearby Northern Ireland, Jones goes on to say, by way of illustration:
“Christ talks about peace and love, and two thousand years later people torture and kill each other because they can’t quite agree on how he said it – what hats you should wear, how you should dress, or what services you should have in church.”
The film that came out of that encounter with the Gospels was Life of Brian. The film was banned in some locations, because it was assumed that they were mocking Jesus. But the true object of their ridicule was religiosity.
In the movie, the title character Brian has been mistaken for the Messiah, and is constantly being hounded by would-be disciples. He has fled into the mountains after telling them he’s not the Messiah at all. Even so, they track him down, because, after all, “only a true Messiah would deny that he was the Messiah.”
Once they find him, in their confused efforts to figure out the proper way to follow him, he gives them the slip. In his hurry, Brian leaves behind a sandal. One of the crowd is convinced that this is a sign, a sign “that we should hold up one shoe and let the other be upon our foot.” Another is confident that they are meant to “gather up shoes in abundance.” A debate breaks out between those who want to call it a shoe or a sandal.
Meanwhile, yet another follower is sure that the shoe isn’t the proper focus, but rather his gourd. “Follow the Gourd!” she says, “The Holy Gourd of Jerusalem! Come, all ye who call yourself Gourdenes!”
There’s an uncomfortable truth in the silliness of this satire. We are heirs of similar interpretations. And at our worst, we become convinced that the battle over the gourd or the sandal or the shoe is more important than anything else we do as a people of faith. At our best, we consider these things prayerfully, examining the ways they point us toward God and also the ways they can distract us by drawing attention to themselves.
This is one of the things that I love about OPC. There is a thoughtfulness in our life together that gives our faith a level of intentionality and integrity. It would be the easiest thing in the world to say, “We worship this way, we have these programs, our church does this because we always have…” It would also be easy to say, “We’re changing everything because they’re all outdated. The world has moved on, and we should, too.” What I consistently see here at OPC is a faithful struggle to live in the middle, struggling with what it means to be God’s incarnate people in 2011, shaped by traditions that have pointed us toward God, and yet aware that there may be other practices and forms that can do the same to people who are very different from us.
Ultimately, as we move into the end of the season of Advent, we concern ourselves with these questions: what is it that distracts us from God? What is it that helps us focus our attention on God? And what is the difference?