The Unknown

unknown god

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

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 worshipping the one true God of his faith versus the many false Gods of their culture was 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 word 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 surrender 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. And sometimes, I don’t doubt, we would talk about the absence, not the presence, of the Holy.

*          *          *

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

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

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 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 lots 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 oft-told stories. I also heard unfamiliar (to me) tales. 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 vamoose. And yet on that long, languid day I simply enjoyed the moments with Mom and her sister. 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 left home for the hospital and would never return. Cancer, insidious and silent, 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 wondered when that 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 an atheist, I might say luck or coincidence played a dominant role in my providential 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. It is what I believe. It is what I cannot prove. I will never succeed in expressing what or how God Is. I’m often more influenced by God’s absence than presence. And yet, on rare occasions—here I can only speak for me—God, as Paul once preached, feels fully known.

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

One of those experiences occurred on a handful of holy midsummer days.

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  1. God has played His hand boldly in my life these past 5+ years. Just a couple examples, if I may. The July before Jim died, I was fired from a very stressful/toxic job. This allowed me to spend time with my husband before his untimely death 9 months later – time I would never have had if I had not been let go. Then, about 2 years after Jim died, my grief counselor suggested I find a job because she could tell that widowhood was boring to me. She suggested I get a job as a church secretary. My response was something akin to “yeah, right. There’s that type of job around every corner.” But I told my Pastor and Family Minister that I was in the market and the next day (3 days after my grief counselor’s suggestion), First Presbyterian Church contacted my Family Minister because their secretary was leaving. I got that job. Do I believe in an invisible God who is there when you need Him? You bet I do!

  2. Thoughtful reflection today, Vicky and I were touched by your observations. I sometimes read your blog out loud to her at coffee and toast on our chair and coach. Then we talk for a while and try to pick up on your possible meanings. BTW, Vicky thinks you are an excellent writer as do I.

    We both have experienced God more in looking back rather than in the moment. We can’t describe God in any adequate manner no matter how we try. But looking back both of us are convinced that more was going on than we knew at the time. It is in recognizing a presence rather than naming a particular source; God may be a name to use when we are unable to find another.

    We make many decisions in a lifetime. Some are excellent yet some fall far from the mark with disastrous results. These often keep me up at night; Vicky sez, “Don’t replay your losses”. So in the end, is God embedded in everything?

  3. I was in the middle of reading ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,’ by Yuval Noah Harari. It convinced me that religion is a construct of human imagination. Sometimes it is beneficial construct which helps humanity live in community. At other times, it leads to the destruction of thousands.

    Then I picked up an old favorite, ‘Mister God, This is Anna,’ by Fynn. Anna reminds me of the delicious wonder and joy of life. She knows that God is all about love. Then I believe, or at least I want to believe.

    I have had powerful experiences like yours, when I knew God is present. However, they are too easy to forget. Thanks for the reminder. Thanks for sharing your experience. It makes me want to believe.

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