08 September 2017

The Face Of God

God used to smell of incense. He was ritual and the silence of the church. He was song as the choir burst into song and a thousand students stood as the priests made their way to the altar. He was light and darkness, beauty and golden chandeliers, He was there and not there. The three priests would turn to face us. "The Lord be with you", they would say. "And also with you", we would answer. And also with you.

The chapel at my high school, St Columba's Anglican High School, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
God was my face the day the Headmaster made me stand up in front of the students. I used to like to sit in the very front row of the church, all the better to hear the music and watch the rituals unfold in front of me. The breaking of the host and its mysterious transformation into the sacrifice. The pouring of the blood red wine into the silver grail as the choir exploded into song, Igama lenkosi malibongwe. The girls soprano dancing above the rumbling of the boys tenors and bass. I would march up the red carpet and take my seat and watch in wonder and awe, sad that I could not take part in any the communion because I was a Lutheran and not an Anglican.

Usually I would leave unmolested but that day the Headmaster, who was also one of the Head Priests was bellowing through his sermon then suddenly he waved, "you are all made in the image of God. All of you. Love one another because God is in each one of you. You have the Face of God". He looked around and let the words sink in, then he grabbed me by the arm as he gestured for my terrified self to stand up and face a thousand students. "In fact, even this small boy, look at his face. If you ask yourself what God looks like, he probably looks like this." The teasing endured for months. 

Njube Lutheran Church where I was baptised at eight months (c) Agneta Jürisoo and Mats Lagergren,
God was harsher and more stringent at our humbler church whose domes made it look more of a cross between a mosque and a museum. The wall was covered in white plaster that rubbed off on your clothes if you leaned against it and the louvred windows reached almost up to the top of the building letting light stream in throughout the service. Here God was simpler, no incense and no golden chandeliers, the candlesticks were made of simple metal painted black and the flowers picked from the garden outside. No high tech public address system nor red carpet. But He was louder, harsher, more demanding. He was the voice of the pastor whose robes would flail from behind the lectern as he warned us all of the consequences of sin, of the dangers of death, of the evils of the world. My heart beat in wariness of the sins I knew I had committed and in mortal dread of the sins I didn't know I had committed and in absolute horror at the sins I might commit. 

God was mystery at my A-Level school. His words had turned from Shona and Ndebele to Latin as five hundred boys repeated after the brothers. Kyrie elysion, Christe elysion, Kyrie elysion. He was wrapped once again in incense but this incense formed thicker clouds around him with words of dogma, of history and traditions and messages from a Pope, (or to use his formal title: His Holiness, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God.) in the Vatican, thousands of miles away who spoke on His behalf and whose spirt we regularly prayed for. God's mother, Mary, was suddenly everywhere and she was prayed to. Prayed to for her mercy and intercession so she could speak to this mysterious God on our behalf. He was incredible wealth as the brothers spoke of the many other schools like ours around the world but he was also service in action for the poor and oppressed in the world.

The Pietà Madonna by Michelangelo in St Peter's Basilica, The Vatican

But in an instant God became nonsense in Algeria. Suddenly the privilege from living in a 99% majority Christian country disappeared like the morning dew when I found myself in a 99.8% majority Muslim country surrounded by a fraction of the almost two billion Muslims around the world. God was hidden Bibles on our way to church, covered crucifixes around our necks, was a thousand inquisitive questions, some friendly, others harsh where suddenly a lot of 'simple' things became extremely difficult to explain.

"So you have three God's n'est pas?" "No, we have one God". "But you just told me that Jesus and this Holy Spirit person are also God no?" "Yes, yes but they are one." "You literally don't make any sense at all you know that, plus you said God died on a cross!" Latin words and dogma lying in a library somewhere in the Vatican somehow started feeling less comforting. "So this Bible of yours has many versions but some versions are the true one and the one you follow is one of the true ones but not some of the other ones whom you call cults....who gets to decide heh? You know the Koran only has one version?"

Anger and frustration would rise, but also questions that led down paths that sometimes had no answers. Like the time when I was a child and I had piped up during a Bible study session; but if God was really so good why did he put the Apple tree smack bang in the middle of the garden? My question hung in the air like an unexploded bomb until someone told me not ask such silly questions. Perhaps God's answers were in the mosque I attended with my friends several times but the flood of Arabic only raised more mysteries. Perhaps God was only in Zimbabwe and this was indeed a people doomed to fate. Perhaps he was in the Vatican whispering answers to the Pope. Perhaps he was in the streets with the prophets who screamed fire and damnation was nigh to anyone who was not in their denomination of Christianity, one of 38, 000 worldwide. What did I know? Nothing.

I looked at my Algerian, Muslim friend, his face screwed up in confusion at the crawling mass of my stories of this God of ours against the injunction of his Allah. And then I heard Mr Moyo's rumble of a voice from that incense filled building, Your friend has the face of God.

Love him. 

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