‘He saw a palace in flames’. It’s the opening of the midrashic story about how Abraham found God. It came to my mind during a conversation about Grenfell Tower.
A man was walking from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered: Was it possible the building had no one in charge? The owner looked out at him and said, ‘I am the master of the palace.’
It’s supposed to describe how Abraham finds his faith. He sees the world burning with violence and injustice and thinks: perhaps it has no guide. God looks out at him and says: ‘I am the Master of the World’.
But why is God, the ‘owner’ in the parable, inside the building, letting it burn? Why isn’t he or she putting out the flames, rescuing others, at least getting out of the way of the fire?
Instead God, the so-called owner, is trapped inside among the victims, crying out to the bewildered passers-by.
That, it strikes me, is the point. If we’re looking for a God who won’t ever allow tragedies to happen, who intervenes in our world to prevent every disaster, who takes the responsibility for the safety of buildings, or countries, or children, out of our hands, we’ll probably search in vain.
It’ll be different if we look for God among those who’re struggling in the midst of the fire. I’m not thinking only of Grenfell Tower, but of everywhere people need to be rescued, helped, heard, or saved from the internal flames and demons which at times beset us.
God in the voice of the person at the window; in the longing of the firemen, ‘Can we reach that storey still?’? God in the angry accusations that too little was listened to, too late? What kind of a God is that? What can such a God possibly mean?
Because that is the God I believe in, those questions pursue me. They’re the questions against which I have to square my conscience, justify my life.
They entail principles which are challenging, difficult, even frightening; but essential, honest and true:
Every human life is part of Life, God’s life, because God is not some remote entity, some super-galactic being, but inhabits every single life here on earth. Every heart is God’s sanctuary, every song God’s music, and every cry God’s calling out.
If God is ‘the owner of the palace’ then everyone is the owner of that palace too. We all have the right, and carry the responsibility, to insist that it is safe and that there is space within it for the most indigent, as well as the most wealthy.
If God is ‘the owner of the palace’ the failure to listen to any voice raised fairly and justly against any wrong on earth is a failure to hear God.
Such a God is difficult. The trouble is that we may find ourselves hearing that God’s call anywhere, any time. We are all Abraham, and none of us will escape witnessing flames, metaphorical if not real. The constant challenge is, ‘to hear, or not to hear’, and the best we can manage is sometimes.
But there is wonder, too, with such a God. For God inhabits our heart also and speaks within our thoughts and feelings, awakening us to the glory of life, arousing in us a keen alertness to grace, beauty and tenderness.
And that very sensitivity, that love, makes us want to listen to the voice which is always calling out: ‘You there, don’t just walk away’.