On A Day In July

Acts 17:22-31 – The 6th Sunday of Easter – for May 25, 2014

“…I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To An Unknown God…’” (Acts 17:23)

According to the seventeenth chapter of Acts, Paul stood at Athens’ Areopagus and challenged the Greeks about worshiping an “unknown God.” In a city and an era where many gods were worshiped, Paul had stumbled across a local altar with words that declared allegiance to that “unknown” deity.

A modern view of the Areopagus in Athens...
A modern view of the Areopagus in Athens…

I’m impressed by Paul’s first-century speech in Acts. With rousing philosophical arguments, he out-Greeked the Greeks. Paul’s blunt exhortation about worshiping the one true God of his faith versus the many false Gods of their culture was thoughtful, faithful and persuasive.

The God Paul proclaimed was not unknown! God was real, and could never be understood by creating shrines of gold or silver. In a smattering of verses, the author of Acts had Paul recount creation, alluding to Adam and Eden, and declaring a confidence in a God that has “fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness . . .” The past was obvious. The future was set. All things were known.

How dare anyone worship an unknown God!

And yet I do.

As much as the Paul of the Acts of the Apostles railed against believe in an unknown God, the Holy unknown represents the foundation of my faith. Frederick Buechner wrote . . .

It is as impossible for man to demonstrate the existence of God as it would be for even Sherlock Holmes to demonstrate the existence of Arthur Conan Doyle.

All-wise. All-powerful. All-loving. All-knowing. We bore to death both God and ourselves with our chatter. God cannot be expressed but only experienced.

But. Only. Experienced.

I think so.

I hope so.

I believe so.

Every human name that we label God with . . . limits God. Every human way used to describe God will be . . . inadequate. From the ancient Hebrew or Greek to any modern translation, our language is vague verbiage, with meanings that are self-serving and misleading.

Then what’s the point? If we’ll always fail, let’s give up before we start.

But I need to try. I’m only human.

Who is God for you? Can I tell you—can you tell me—where God, thank you Mr. Frederick Buechner, has been experienced?

Don’t give me a fancy name. Don’t quote experts. Don’t search Google. Tell me of your experience of God. Tell me, with apologies to Paul, about your unknown God. At least the Holy “unknown” to me . . . until you share with me, or I with you.

*       *      *

About two weeks before my mother’s birthday in 2013, my older sister and I talked on the phone. Her home is close to Mom’s apartment and she had the most day-to-day contact with our mother. My older sister would be out-of-town during Mom’s birthday weekend. My younger sister lives in Oklahoma, a long way from California. In the course of our sister-brother chat, I became the designated child to spend time with Mom on her birthday. And so I did, driving the three or so hours from Fresno to Sacramento.

I believe God had already entered this story, but didn’t know it then.

Mom (L) and my Aunt Jean in Jean's garden...
Mom (L) and my Aunt Jean in Jean’s garden…

Mom and I had a great weekend. The best part was a visit and lunch at my aunt’s home in the Sierra foothills. Truthfully, not much happened on that July Saturday. Two elderly women, both born in the first decades of the 20th century, survivors of the Great Depression and World War II, now widows, spent an afternoon with a lot of “girl talk.” Mom and my aunt loved and liked each other—they could chatter for hours. And they did. Mostly, I listened. I eavesdropped on old and familiar stories. I also heard old but unfamiliar (to me) stories. I shadowed them as they strolled outside to tour my aunt’s vibrant garden.

God moved within those old and new stories they shared. God roamed the mid-summer garden with them, with me.

Often, I get antsy about staying too long at one place. I give “signals” that I’m ready to leave. And yet on that long, languid day I simply took time to enjoy Mom, to enjoy my aunt. If Mom wanted to stay, we would stay. When she was ready to go, we would go. The day and the weekend was a gift, a treasure of time. Indeed, now I believe it was a divine gift, and holy time.

You see, less than two weeks after Mom’s birthday, she entered (and never left) a hospital. Cancer, though no one knew of the silent, insidious disease as my mother and aunt laughed about riding a pony to school eighty years before, had already damaged her beyond medical help.

You see, barely six weeks after Mom’s birthday, she died, though no one would’ve guessed that awful future as two sisters happily wondered how quickly this year’s garden tomatoes would ripen.

*      *      *

Why did I so easily agree to spend a weekend with Mom?

Why did I not care how long we stayed with my aunt?

If I was an atheist, I might say luck or coincidence played a dominant role in my timely weekend. If I believed God planned all things, I’d claim that precious weekend was inevitable. But I’m not an atheist and don’t view God as the Almighty-Puller-Of-Human-Puppet-Strings. God, unknown and mysterious, known and merciful, offered me choices.

God lured me with love.

I will never succeed in expressing what or how God Is. Often I’m more influenced by God’s absence than presence. Rarely—here I can only speak for me—God feels fully known.

I’ve had just enough experiences to celebrate and trust Holy nudges.

One of those experiences occurred on a day in July.

 

(Google image of Areopagus in Athens.)

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8 Comments

  1. I struggled with asking you to be with Mom on her birthday. But she was already in a bit of discomfort and looked at me with such sad big brown eyes, declaring their disappointment, when I told her we would be gone on her birthday.. But be back the next day. She had such a good time that day with you and Aunt Jean. She told me the details of that day many times during the next few weeks. Each of us were special to her in different ways. You were their only son; the son; much loved. Thank you. v

  2. If I may intrude, I remember your posts vividly and how God was moving within you and your family. It is not just God moving at the moment, but an accumulation of our experiences with God that leads us to choose to seek that which he offers. I choose to think God spared you mother years of suffering from the ravages of chronic conditions that go on for years with some people. She was surely Blessed to go with the dignity allowed and surrounded by a loving family.

    1. Thanks for the comments Craig.

      I understand and appreciate your views, but wouldn’t come to the same conclusions. While my parents lived long and good lives, each death was different. I don’t think Mom would’ve used “dignity” to describe her death. I know I wouldn’t. But I do believe her love of God, and her awareness of being surrounded by the love of family and friends, brought enough comfort during an undignified, anguished time. Additionally, Dad’s death (because of his dementia) could be described by your “years of suffering.”

      If I thought God caused Dad’s dark dementia or Mom’s searing pain, I’d turn my back on that kind of dull, deranged divinity. On my best days, I simply felt God called me to be with my parents and to love and support them. And I fervently believe God was always with them, in the best and worst of their long, lovely lives. As I tried to say in my reflections on Paul’s “unknown” God . . . I think we have to be very careful about what we claim God does or does not do.

      Finally, I heartily agree with your, “God leads us to chose to seek that which he offers.” On this earth, there are choices, in every broken and blessed day. I believe God longs for us to help heal the brokenness and share the blessings…

  3. IF I REMEMBER RIGHT, AS YOU LOOKED BACK, YOU SAID YOU WERE NOW THINKING IT WAS A MISTAKE TO HAVE MOVED YOUR MOM OUT OF HER HOME, AS SHE NEVER REALLY ADJUSTED TO THE NEW PLACE?
    AM I THINKING CORRECTLY? I ONLY BRING THIS UP, AS A WAY OF LEARNING. WE ALL HAVE TO MAKE THESE DECISIONS IN LIFE AND HOW WONDERFUL IF WE CAN LEARN FROM ONE ANOTHER. YOU WERE A VERY GOOD SON TO YOUR PARENTS AND THAT IN ITSELF, BRINGS COMFORT. SINCE YOU DON’T HAVE CHILDREN, WHO WILL GUIDE YOU THRU THESE TIMES, YET TO COME IN OLD AGE? HAVE YOU GIVEN THAT SOME THOUGHT OR ARE YOU LETTING LIFE JUST HAPPEN?

    1. Kathy . . . yes, certainly one of the places I uselessly second-guess myself regarding Mom had to do with moving her from “home” to an apartment. It’s one of my many decisions where it’s easy to list (before and after the decision) the good/bad reasons for choosing a particular direction.

      My flippant response to your question about who will help “guide” me in my old age: hey, I’m trying to be real, real nice to our nephews and nieces!!

      More seriously, I do think about the needs “down the road” and try to be realistic as we plan for, save for and consider the future. I also know, based on my work in church and hospice, that having children is no guarantee for help during old age (or other times).

  4. Larry, it’s moving to hear you cherish your mum and describe that gift of a weekend. Personally, I catch glimpses, or nudges of the divine in human beings capacity to love and delight. Thanks for sharing that rare gift of shadowing your mum and aunt. On a less personal note, have you ever read the welsh poet priest R. S. Thomas. He wrote a poem called “The Absence”.
    All blessings, Marc

    1. Thanks, Marc . . . for your words. And now, I hadn’t read Thomas’ “The Absence.” I’ll search for it!

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