Inspired by Acts 17: 22-31
At the 2019 Bioneer’s Conference, the keynote speaker, American activist, documentary filmmaker, lawyer, educator, and faith leader, Valarie Kauer, began her speech with this story:
“Just a few weeks ago, my son was coming home with my father and my mother from a summer concert. My son was sitting on my father’s shoulders, on top of the world, and they were going to grab a ride on a ferry across the marina to come back home. I mean, he was… Ahh, his childhood has been magical. Until they heard it.
Change Patterns | May 16, 2020
‘Go back to the country you came from.’
My father was hard of hearing, so my 4-year-old son had to tell my father what the mean lady said.
When they came home, my parents were shaken.
‘Didn’t anyone say anything?’ I asked them.
And they said, “No. There were a crowd of people who watched, who saw, but no one said anything.”
Just like last time when my father was walking on a beach with a baby carrier, with my son at his side, and someone called him a suicide bomber. There were no bystanders who spoke up then.”
Kauer’s speech evolves from the culmination of a million experiences witnessed and survived toward the eruption of a revelation gifted to anyone present who would listen: that our liberation is bound up with one another…and, to combat racism, nationalism and hate, we cannot succumb to rage ourselves or we have already lost…
Paul stands before the Areopagus, speaking to the Athenians about an altar in the city with the inscription, ‘To an unknown God.’ And, Paul uses this inscription as an entry point into an ingenious presentation of the God he does know, the God who he wishes that they too could know.
Absent of the illusive utopian promise or the scathing historical rant of the first two lectionary passages in Acts, Acts 17: 22-31 is a story with space to explore in the here and now. It is a calm and competent discussion between two parties who respect the practice of dialogue within difference, even as they hold to their diverse ways of knowing. It is a statement bridging the gap between what our lives are, and what our lives could be, if we were to see and respond to the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
In a time of pandemic, in a time of incredible suffering and staggering uncertainty, it has been fascinating to me how eagerly I have welcomed Paul’s introduction of a God who, in crisis, can become so easily unknown.
In the May 18th edition of Time Magazine, Alana Semuels concludes her article highlight the ways in which the pandemic has put millions on the edge of financial ruin with these words;
“In times of great economic insecurity, pundits often wonder why there aren’t widespread revolts. Where are the pitchforks, the ramparts? But it’s not that people do not feel the rage of injustice. It’s that they’re too busy fighting to keep a roof over their heads.”
There are many of us for whom this statement is relatable. For many of us as white persons of privilege in America, this statement is true now as it is true before the pandemic but in ways more of our own making. Then, we were busy making sure our children were in every sport imaginable. Then, we were busy travelling in retirement. Then, we were busy doing whatever we needed to do to forget what we felt we couldn’t control; that our children were being murdered in schools, that immigrant children were being held in cages, that black men were being shot in the streets. We became bystanders who, perhaps posted something, but ultimately did nothing, not because we did not care, but because we were stuck in a pattern of not changing. We lost touch on the pulse of the beating heart of our connectedness to all beings. We cluttered the truth that our liberation, our faithfulness, is bound up in each other with entertainment and false achievements
It is Paul’s presentation of an unknown God that clears the wreckage from the destruction of our divine mis-definitions. Beyond a God to whom we pray for a football team’s victory or a nations violent defeat, rests the reality of a God present as the lifegiving Creator; that which gives us life and breath and all things. This God is no fantastical Santa Clause enslaved to providing our materialistic wishes or our individualistic salvations. This God is Creator, Abba, of all that has been and is and ever will be, and so, we, alongside all sentient beings are creatures living into an opportunity to sustain, reconcile and resurrect an ecological holiness honoring God’s Creation.
In God’s kin-dom, there are no bystanders: even the silent participate.
Paul tells The Athenians who this unknown God is so that through knowing the Creator, they can adjust their behaviors in the world to reflect honoring this relationship. This is not knowledge for the sake of intellectual exploration. This is knowledge for the sake of understanding, for the response of repentance in the manifestation of changed patterns that are based on the awakening to the true identity of a living God.
With God the Creator God justifiably taking responsibility for what is created, repentance becomes a matter of living in right relationship with God. Repentance, an incredibly painful proposition, requires altered patterns of daily living as a means to establish balance in ecological systems and thus provide a healthy habitat for all of earths creatures.
It is, as the poetic prose of Naomi Shihab Nye instructs, “you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go…”
Several years ago, Katie Orlinsky, a reporter for National Geographic, was sent on a last-minute assignment to photograph the Yukon Quest, a thousand-mile sled dog race through the subarctic wilderness of Alaska and Canada. In her March 2020 article reflecting on the experience, Orlinsky explains that “the Yukon Quest is considered one of the toughest sporting events on the planet: Temperatures frequently reach minus 50F, winds can blow over 40 miles an hour, and the days are so short that most of the race happens in the dark.”
She humorously confesses that she was not aware of any of this before the assignment and tells a story of the kindness of two women behind the Air Canada desk, one of whom gifted her with a navy blue Air Canada wool cardigan from the back office and the other woman who gave the gray down jacket off her back and the furry boots off her feet. Orlinsky writes that, “when I stepped outside, the air was so dry I could barely breathe. But at that moment borrowed clothes and the kindness of strangers were all I needed for warmth.”
I imagine that the offerings of kindness that marked the beginning of her story, opened the door for the untold story she decided to tell; a story about the dogs that were leaving the race instead of the dogs that might win it. Wrapped in potato sacks and loaded onto small planes, the dogs that had been dropped from their teams offered Orlinsky an entry point into a story not only about the race, but ultimately a glimpse into what it means to be fully alive and live through the inescapable experience of “having a goal you’d work toward your whole life, only to have something happen to change your course.”
The photograph accompanying Orlinky’s story, the one of the ‘dropped dogs’ with two furry ears on two furry faces, tired and slightly depressed, bound up in sacks that would keep them safe and calm while flying home has been an image I can barely think of without a soft heart and damp eyes.
This may be a stretch for you but I long for a sack to rest in and a plane to ride out of this pandemic. I whine and I whimper in the frigid terrain of a restless world rampant with indescribable, unspeakable cruelty and thus pain. I imagine myself to be a bystander in a race that the compassionate collective might never win, and my weary heart craves the presence of a God who would see my inadequacies, my faults and my failures and identify me as ‘dropped disciple.’
I wish to change, to repent myself into a world of ecological harmony, but what change reconcile us across this present divide? In Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent article on the alarming rate at which insect numbers are falling, she writes, “at any given moment, there are 10 quintillion insects flying, crawling, hovering, marching burrowing, and swimming around…something like 80 percent of all the different kinds of animals are insects. They maintain the world as we know it: without insects to pollinate them, most flowering plants, from daises to dogwoods, would die out.” In this same article, American biologist, naturalist, and writer, Edward O. Wilson, is quoted as saying that, “if insects were to vanish, the environment were to collapse into chaos.”
The point of this article was not, I am quite certain, to offer a metaphor for the importance of God’s known presence in the world, but when I read it, this was the thing I thought of second. The first thing I thought of, obviously, was a deep and abiding sense of horror for our future. But, the second thing, this dependency on knowing God as Creator, this critical nature for understanding God as that which creates an environment where close participation is a constant, where God is not far from each of us…where human existence depends upon God, by whom we live and have our being…is the sack in which all of us wishful of being ‘dropped disciples’ find the possibility to hop one more unsteady hop forward in our work toward an alternative future.
I’m wondering, if we begin to walk through our lives with fresh eyes, if we too will begin to see evidence of an unknown God? If we too will begin to question the habits we have collected and the excuses, we have stockpiled for opting out of our participation in a world in which knowing God produces clear evidence to be seen.
I’m curious if the sack race before us will release the necessity of magnificent achievements done for God and rest in the more likely scenario of our role as responsible bystanders in a story larger than our own? A role cast for the way in which we behavior, wherever we are, in relationship to whatever is happening, in the moment, the type of bystander we are in a liberative narrative.
I’m hopeful that if we commit to changing any one thing this morning, it might be a commitment to change a pattern in our damaged, egoic thinking; That this world is ours to hold now and was only God’s to create back then.
Let us reconcile our lives to the truth that upon God’s grace, this world still depends. Let us soften our gaze to that which is within our control, to that which is bearable and amicable to our souls. Let us seek out to hold that which serves our created purpose to give love and to offer light in each moment given and received. Let us sit humbly in our sacks with eyes opened to injustice, with ears tuned for the moments to speak with our lives, let my life be home for the weary, the rejected, the repentant and the wretched. Let me life be the altar upon which these words might be read…”to a known God…that I pray all someday might know.”