Encountering God

(C) 2000, Don Mize

In the silence of our souls
we wait,
for what we do not know.
We wait for

An arresting scene is played out at the end of the book of Acts (Acts 28:16-29).  Paul is in Rome in chains.  His great ambition to go to Rome and preach has been realized in a backward way.  He comes in chains.  However, given the freedom to have his own lodging, he invites the Jewish leaders in Rome to come and visit him.  That meeting is enacted before us.  Luke, the writer of Acts, tells the story.

When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him.

Three days later he called together the leaders of the Jews.  When they had assembled, Paul said to them: “My brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans.  They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death.  But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar--not that I had any charge to bring against my own people.  For this reason I have asked to see you and talk with you.  It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”

They replied, “We have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of the brothers who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you.  But we want to hear what your views are, for we know that people everywhere are talking against the sect.”

They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying.  From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.  Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe.  They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made his this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet:

‘Go to this people and say,
“You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become callused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts and turn,
and I would heal them.’”
Therefore, I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen.”

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.  Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (NIV)

The Human Problem

We must understand that the problem presented in this passage is a human problem rather than a Jewish problem.  The Jews in this passage are like any religious people who hold a set of beliefs, who are involved in a religious institution, and who are presented with something new.

In a New Jersey newspaper, The Record, Rev. Wayne Holcomb wrote an article entitled, “Three Views from Three Branches.”  In the article he discusses the nature of God.  He correctly points out that in the history of Christianity there have been two different views about how to talk about the nature of God.  One view, negation, takes the position that the least said the better.  After all, God is Other, beyond human comprehension, and words are inadequate.  The other approach, affirmation, maintains that we may talk accurately about God by making inferences from revelation or from observation.

He goes on to say, which I also believe is correct, that theology is working backward from experience.  In other words, no one does theology in a vacuum.  A knower must experience what  is known.  A tree may fall in the forest without anyone being there to hear, but that objective fact is not thought about, reasoned about, or expressed in words unless a person (a knower) does so.  When we start to think about that encounter, when we start trying to put that encounter into words, we are doing theology.

In my opinion, Christianity is about encountering God.  On the Damascus road, Paul encountered the living Christ, and he changed (Acts 9:1-20).  Out of that encounter and subsequent encounters, Paul wrote, preached, and taught.  After that encounter, he looked at the scriptures from a new perspective, he saw Jewish history from a new perspective, and he saw Jesus of Nazareth from a new perspective.  That encounter brought him to Rome and brought us to the scene Luke described.  And, we must not fall into the trap of focusing on those Jews.  The problem presented is not a Jewish problem but a human problem.

Beware of an open heart

There is more to hearing than ears, and there is more to seeing than eyes.  You and I must beware of an open heart. 

In the journal Occupational Hazards, Virginia Sutcliffe pointed out in a June 1, 1999, article “A Sound Check for Hearing Conversation,” that hearing loss is gradual. Therefore, people don’t notice their hearing loss.

In the Journal Science, Phillip D. Szuromi wrote an article entitled “Move it or Lose It.” In this March 3, 2000, article, he discusses his study in which he established that eye movement is essential to seeing.  If we stare for a long time at something that does not move, a process called “fading” sets in.  We simply stop seeing it.  We simply stop seeing the familiar.

In the December 1, 1998, journal Theological Studies, Rebecca McKenna wrote an interesting article on “The Transformative Mission of the Church in the Thought of Gregory Baum.”  She mentions Baum’s view that we do not see the truth because we do not want to see.  We are too eager to defend out interests.  We do not make ourselves sensitive to aspects of reality that threaten us.

Hearing loss is so gradual that we don’t notice.  We stop seeing the familiar.  We stop being sensitive to the truth because we are safe “within our castle,” defending our interests. This human problem is made more intense by religious institutions.  Paul’s listeners inherited the great stories of God’s work in the lives of their ancestors.  They inherited the synagogue, the written scriptures, the teachings of the rabbis.  But they, like too many moderns, stopped encountering God.  They had ears that did not hear, and eyes that did not see, and hearts that were hard.  The encounter with God became lost within the wasteland of their organized and institutionalized religion.

Beware of the open heart.  You might encounter the Living God.  Religion, the great barrier to God, wraps us in the past while God arrives now.

Religion, the great barrier to God

The online source, www.quotationspage.com, gives the two following quotes without citing the original works.  I share the quotes as illustrations because  I am familiar enough with the works of Archbishop William Temple and Carl Jung to believe the quotes probably are correct.  I have been unable so far to locate the original works.

Archbishop William Temple supposedly once said, “It is a mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly concerned with religion.”

Carl Jung, one of the farthers of psychology, is quoted as saying,  “Religion is a defense against the experience of God.

Both ideas are on target.  God is not concerned with religion as an end within itself.  Furthermore, all too often religion becomes a defense to ward off an encounter with the Living God.

How often we retreat into our religion rather than opening our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to the Living God.  But what later becomes fossilized as religion begins as an encounter with the Living God.

We flee the Living God who comes exploding expectations, bursting theologies, igniting fires.

We long for the Living God

Abraham, the great father of faith, encountered God and started a journey in response to that encounter.  He became to prototype of all who are saved by faith (See Romans 4).

Moses encountered God at the burning bush and returned to Egypt to lead the Hebrews out of slavery (See Exodus 3).

Elijah, discouraged and alone, encountered God in a still, small voice that sent him back to face Queen Jezebel and proclaim the true God to an idolatrous people (See I Kings 19).

Isaiah, in the day when King Uzziah died, encountered God in the temple.  In his terrifying vision of the holiness of God, he responded to the question, “Who shall we send?” with the response, “Here am I; send me.”  He proclaimed God’s word in days of crisis and gave us all a vision of hope (See Isaiah 6).

Paul, on the Damascus road, serving his religion, bearing papers that would allow him to throw followers of this Jesus into prison, encountered the Living Christ and was never the same again (See Acts 9).

How we flee the Living God who comes caring not for past shrines, touching our hearts, creating new holy moments now.

How we flee the Living God

Kelly Ettenborough, wrote an article in the February 25, 2001, Arizona Republic: “Where Has God Gone? American Spirituality May Be Miles Wide but Only Inches Deep.”

She gives some interesting statistics.  About 96% of Americans say they believe in God.  About 90% say they pray every day.  Yet, on any given weekend, 4 out of 10 show up at any religious service.

Evidence is growing that this sort of faith in God doesn’t translate into a belief  that God watches their actions.  They may quote that God watches over the sparrow, but unless the boss is watching, God doesn’t affect their behavior.

About 82% say that they want to experience spiritual growth, but they have no spiritual practices to lead them into spiritual growth.

She quotes a Gallup Poll that concluded, “Spirituality in American may be 3000 miles wide, but it is only inches deep.”

An even more disturbing finding is that while people say they believe in God, on a follow up question they indicate they don’t trust God.

Another finding is that even people who regularly attend religious services don’t have a deep knowledge of their faith.

Her conclusion is that Christians have been losing the sacred core to their faith.  They have lost the sense that faith is based on an encounter with God.  Belief in God and religion have become a sort of personal mythology that somehow makes life go better without being real.

Our Problem

We do those things that make up our personal religion without the awareness that all worship, all faith, all true belief comes from an encounter with the Living God.  Like the Jews with whom Paul spoke, we focus on our religion.  We have eyes that don’t see, ears that don’t hear, and hearts that are hardened.

Too much to hear and understand

We are afraid that a new encounter with God might make us think differently, view relationships differently, act differently, or believe differently.  Too much to hear and understand, too glorious to see with blinded eyes, and so we cower in the past.

James Russell Lowell has a line in his poem, “The Cathedral,” that sums up how many of us live.  He visited one of the great Cathedral’s in Europe and reflected on the seeming conflict between science and religion.  Inspired by the magnificent old church with its stained glass windows, he penned the words, “Safe in the hallowed quiets of the past.”

That is precisely what many of us desire to be: “Safe in the hallowed quiets of the past.”

A dangerous thing

A dangerous thing, an open heart; for seeing and hearing, we encounter God now.

Francis Thompson wrote a wonderful poem entitled “The Hound of Heaven.”  In this poem he describes his fear of God as he imagines God as a great Hound on his trail.  He describes how he fled from the Hound of Heaven, how he feared God, how he could always hear the beating feet on the Hound behind him.  Finally, he cannot go on, and the Great Hound approaches.  He encounters Love.  When we run from God, we run from Love.

We want to wrap ourselves in the past, in religion, in institutions so we can avoid the Living God.

In the silence of our souls
we wait
for what we do not know.
We wait for

We wait for Something
in our misery,
in our laughter,
in our diversions.
We wait
for Love.


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