There was a little boy who decided that he wanted to find God. It would probably be a long trip and fill most of his day so he packed well – four packets of potato chips and two poppers of juice. He was set!
He set out on his journey and walked down the street, around a corner and a bit further on until he came to a park. Sitting on one of the park benches was an old woman, sitting and watching the pigeons.
The boy sat down beside her and watched the pigeons too. After a while he grew hungry and took out a packet of chips. As he ate, he noticed the woman was watching him and held out the packet and offered her some. She gratefully accepted his gift and gave a lovely smile. He thought that she had the most beautiful smile in the world. He wanted to see it again, so he opened one of his poppers and offered her the other. She gave him another very beautiful smile.
For a long time the two sat on the park bench eating chips, drinking their juice and watching the pigeons – and smiling at each other. Neither spoke, they just sat and watched, eating, drinking and smiling. Finally the boy realised it was getting late and he should go home. He started to leave, took a few steps and then turned back. He gave the woman a big hug. She smiled a smile that was brighter and more beautiful than anything he had ever seen.
When he arrived home, quiet, subdued but happy and content. His mother noticed his mood and asked, ‘What did you do today?’ ‘Oh, I had lunch in the park with God,’ he said. Before his puzzled mother could reply he said, ‘You know, she has the most beautiful smile in the world!’
Meanwhile, the old woman left the park and returned home. Back in her flat, her son also noticed something was different about her. He had been worried about his mother as she often seemed vague and not altogether with it. ‘What did you do today, Mum?’ he asked. ‘Oh, I ate chips and drank juice in the park with God.’ And before her son could say anything at all, she added, ‘You know, God’s a lot younger than I imagined.’
I shared this story with our congregations a couple of weeks ago and was not surprised at how it touched many people, with its beautiful, simple truth. Many people often wonder where they might find God. We wrestle with where God is, how to describe God, make sense of God or even name God. There is a beautiful wisdom and depth of understanding in this story – God is in our midst. God is encountered in people we meet and share beautiful moments with – ‘chips and juice’. God is encountered in the wonder of the world in beauty and creativity. I look out at the garden and am sure I see the ‘face’ of God there in the simple beauty, peace and colour. In the beautiful, music and song I listened to the other day I am sure I heard the ‘voice of God singing’. There in the laughter and the tears, the wrestling together over a problem, the reaching out to give a hand up to a troubled person… God is mysteriously, wonderfully present.
There is a passage I’ve read often, a piece of poetry from the ancient Greek world that Paul quotes back to the men of Athens: ‘In God we live and move and have our being.’ I love that simple sentence that God is like an ocean that envelopes us in soft and gentle embrace, giving us life. God is like the air around us that we breathe and is in us, through us, around us, but God is deeper, richer, more profoundly present and real in all of our lives – even when we’re not aware of it!
In the passage that this sentence belongs to (Acts 17:22-31), Paul responds to the people of Athens who are very religious. Walking down their city street he encounters a multitude of statues and idols with the names of various gods. They are there to honour and seek blessing from these gods. At the end of the row is one with the strange title – ‘Unknown God’. Paul speaks to the people of Athens claiming that their religiosity is commendable. He then speaks about the statue at the end – the Unknown God. He speaks of God who is not manufactured nor controlled by humans but is beyond, within, through and mysteriously, lovingly, deeply present and very close to each one of us.
In the very first lesson in the local high school Scripture class, Steve, the Christian worker, asks students to draw their image of God. Some come up with surprising and creative images. Most, however, draw and old guy in the sky with a white gown and long beard sitting on the clouds. Sometimes there are wings and a harp as well. This is the image many have of God – a human form, with human characteristics that we can define and recreate in images and statues, idols and so on. In the next few lessons Steve gently demolishes this image of God replacing it with a broader, deeper, less sharp, more mysterious and wondrous God who isn’t human and can’t be recreated in our image.
I think Paul was doing this – he used Greek philosophy and poetry to quote back to the religious people of Athens something deeper and more profound about this God who he proclaimed and within whom he lived and moved and had his being. This God wasn’t ever very far from him or them or anyone of us!
So where do you and I encounter, see, experience God? Do we recognise God in our midst? God in the mystery and wonder of life, in the love between us, in the hope that rises in our being through despair or the quiet gentle strength we receive that helps us go on through crisis? Do we recognise God in those places of life where there is beauty, strange wondrous beauty? Do we encounter or recognise God in the curious coincidences of our lives where strange things happen and we don’t understand all the connections that bring everything together in a moment of wonder and joy? Do we recognise God through the evolving of our lives and the life of the world as we grow, mature, gain wisdom, see anew in a moment of sudden clarity?
I suspect, with a degree of sadness, that many people do not ‘see’, will not ‘see’ and do not want to ‘see’. There is a Divine mystery and wonder at the very heart of our lives that is profound and holds us, drives us, urges us onward into growth and life as it is meant to be – this is where we encounter, recognise God.
Recognition comes easily if we are open to the possibilities that God is here and everywhere and very close to us.