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.