People search for God, when truly God is quite close by.
Searchers. Isn’t that what we all are? Maybe not everyone searches for God. There are those who search for “meaning,” those who search for “joy.” Some seek health and happiness, some look for family and belonging, some seek peace and solitude. There are people who long for fame, and people who want nothing more than quiet anonymity, people who want to be rich, and people who are ready to simplify their lives by getting rid of possessions.
Most of us, at some time or other, have a feeling that something is missing. And we go searching, at least in our minds. It seems that we are not unlike the ancient Athenians. They were looking for something. And they knew that they had not quite found it all. That’s why they had a place-holder, a statue, an idol, they labeled, “to an unknown god,” to cover all the bases.
Searching isn’t a bad thing. It signifies that you care about deeper meaning. You are not alone, even in this distracted society.
There is a new popularity for philosophy and philosophical dialogue. Oddly, I first became aware of this phenomenon through my daughter when she was in high school. She decided to start a club at her high school. That in itself is not particularly surprising, but it was a PHILOSOPHY Club! I knew right away, it was a new day! When I was in high school, while I would have been considered an academic – if we used that word – but I was no philosopher. It was by far my most difficult subject in college, too! And here was my daughter wanting to hang out with her peers and discuss philosophy! Of all things!
Not long after, I became aware of a radio talk show on NPR called “Philosophy Talk.” Now opportunities to gather for philosophical discussion abound, many of which I have attended or even helped get started: The Shepherd and the Knucklehead, Red Letter Pub, Death Café, Women’s Theology Hub, etc.
And what is all this conversation about, you ask? Perhaps, we like the people of Athens, are searching for something new, some new idea to make things make sense, some new way to understand the world which seems so bent on self-destruction.
We are seeing that the way we have been doing life in the last few centuries isn’t working any more. We cannot continue to measure everything by products sold or we will consume our planet! We cannot continue to govern ourselves the way we have or we will blow up the world. We cannot continue to over-medicate for every condition or antibiotics will no longer be effective in treating even pneumonia. We cannot continue to do things the same ways as we have for several centuries and expect to get different results. So…, we find ourselves desperately looking for something new.
We need a way to see the world differently, if we are going to begin to solve the problems we face. At the Multi-Cultural Tour yesterday, our guide introduced us to the basic tenets of Buddhism, then separately, talked about meditation. He recommended that Buddhists are the best at meditation and teaching meditation, and that the goal of meditation is to see life differently. He used the illustration of living in a black and white TV world, with only one channel. Meditation opens us from the inside so that we learn to see differently and we are suddenly in a vividly colorful HD TV world with hundreds of channels. Meditation teaches us to pay attention. Sometimes, we come to realize that we are searching for God who is really quite close by, like Paul told the Athenians.
With the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, Paul declares, there is “nothing new under the sun” (1:9). The God their altar called unknown, which they had cared for and nurtured possibly for six or seven centuries already, was the known, incarnate, resurrected God Paul was proclaiming!
What Paul was doing at the Areopagus was speaking to people in the language appropriate to the context in which he found himself.
The first task of anyone who wants to communicate anything in a new culture is to learn the language of the culture.
A cola company launched an advertising campaign in Saudi Arabia which was a colossal flop! It pictured a person tired and drooping on the left, and that same person drinking the cola, revived and happy on the right. We understand it – first drowsy, then revived by the soda. We see the images from left to right. But what did the ad campaign miss? Arabic culture reads from right to left, rather than left to right as we do. So everyone saw the ad as portraying someone who became exhausted and droopy by drinking the soda. The company didn’t do their homework in getting to know the culture.
So, what do we learn from Paul here? He had spent time in Athens, listening, observing and talking to the people. I imagine that his first conversations in the marketplace were awkward and that he failed miserably in some attempts to connect. But he learned. Until finally, the scholars of the city invited him to present his ideas to them.
The first principle of building any relationship is to speak in the language and culture of the ones with whom we wish to communicate. Today, we might learn to speak “Millennial,” or “Portland Weird.” What are the questions of Southeast Portland? For what do people here search?
There was a time in America when the people’s search connected with what the church and its preachers were teaching. But things have changed. Have you noticed?
Paul did not expect people to learn to do things his way, or to know his Scriptures. Instead, he quoted from the culture’s own poets and philosophers. He connected to the cultures questions before offering any answers.
This is what we have experimented with in the establishment of Taborspace – building a bridge of communication with a Southeast Portland culture. A laboratory for interaction where we can learn to listen and to understand each other. And somehow coffee, art and music seem to be petri dishes for this kind of learning today. It is as different for many of us as going to a remote Chinese village and trying to understand what they are saying to us. You may even feel like you are walking into a space “to an unknown god” when you walk into the coffeehouse, or the even coffeehouse worship service. Because it is a new form of speech, for a new era. And we may not have it figured out yet. Think of it as the Areopagus of Paul’s day. An intersection of questions and ideas – not answers really, but ideas which produce more questions and lead us deeper.
The way to build a connection with people is to jump start their curiosity. Connect with their searching, as Paul did here. “Seeker” has become a popular way to describe those who tentatively dip their toes in the water of church. Seeker is really an old concept – at least back to Augustine, who suggested that there is a god-shaped vacuum in every human heart, and we will never really be at rest until we find The One who fills that vacuum.
One of the really surprising and controversial aspects of this speech by Paul is that he didn’t quote Scripture. Whoa!, you say. He quoted their own poets twice, but no Scripture. It was not a book his audience knew and it held no meaning for them. Their poets and philosophers, on the other hand, had built-in significance. Paul had done the work to know their sources. So he could speak his faith in their language, according to their questions.
This one is difficult for those of us who have come to know and love this book we call the Bible. I have read it many times, and find myself quoting from it without knowing it all the time! My life has been saturated with the Bible ever since my Dad started giving us dimes for every verse we could quote to him. That is something I value highly, yet as I speak to newcomers, I am hearing that some are kind of intimidated by the level of biblical knowledge in the room.
Our task is not to advertise in such a way as to teach others to love our familiar traditions. Instead, like Paul, we learn their language, get to know their questions, so that we can speak our faith into that void.
The first step for us is to spend time with God ourselves, find our own place where we live and move and have our being in the holy one.
Perhaps the question is: have we learned our own faith well enough to translate it, live it among others? So they can get a glimpse of the astounding Love and Life that is available to all creation.
What if we took Paul’s advice to look for the God who is not far away, but actually close by? Meditation practice could help -us here. What if our inward looking led us to see the places in our souls where God has already been at work, stirring in us the desire for meaning? What if our outward searching led us to see the places where God has already been at work in the world? What if our searching could lead us to recognize meaning, happiness, peace, belonging, and all those other things we need, that aren’t that far away at all?
In God we live and move and have our being. God is here, much closer than we think.