God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.For “In him we live and move and have our being”.
I have struggled with him for much of my life: the God who is “up there”. From the time I was a boy, I had these notions of God as being somewhere ‘up there’. Whether saying my prayers at bedtime, sitting through church, or the time a car hit my dog, ‘up there’ was God’s default mode of being for me. He was always ‘up there’.
Of course that also meant that I had many struggles with prayer. If God was ‘up there’, how would I go about getting my prayers up to him? And if God was ‘up there’, and I was down here, how could I even know that he cared? I often wondered if my prayers got through the green plastered ceiling of my bedroom.
I do not know how I came so young to imagine God as being ‘up there’. Perhaps it had something to do with God as Holy, Holy, Holy, and “Who art in Heaven”. I was sure that God was high and lifted up, ‘up there’, and I was struggling along down here.
But it was the remarkable words of today’s scripture text that helped me begin to change the way I thought about a God ‘up there’, and about how he relates to all of us ‘down here’. It was this particular text that helped me to let go imagining God in spatial terms of ‘up there’, or in geographical terms as apart from us.
In our text comes the startling truth that in God we live and move and have our being.” God is the divine milieu, the atmosphere, the environment in which we live our lives. He is the center of all being who is without circumference, the all-encompassing presence to us all.
It is the Apostle Paul who speaks this truth to curious philosophers in ancient Athens. As Paul addresses his secular and skeptical audience he speaks of God’s nearness in words they could understand. Paul quotes to them approvingly one of the Greek philosopher-poets (Epimenides, 6th century B. C.) about how it is in God that “we live and move and have our being“. Paul agrees with the quote and assures his listeners that God “indeed is not far from each of us“. God is not ‘up there’, but near to each of us. God saturates all creation with presence and compassion and grace.
I speak here of things I do not understand, but delight to live into. Living in God is like living in the air we breathe. God’s mode of being is wide, deep and loving enough to encompass all he has made. The great church father, St. Augustine, said of God’s closeness to all: “In my heart of hearts God is closer to me than I am to myself; my being depends on God’s being near me and present to me”.
Knowing God’s nearness to all has given me great joy as I have walked into prison cells, hospital and hospice rooms and spoken about God’s closeness and care. Our Lord Jesus also spoke about our Father’s closeness. He told us to pay close attention to the birds of the air and learn from them the Father’s closeness to all that he has made (Matthew 6:26). Jesus also revealed the Father’s heart when he said that no sparrow falls to the ground without the Father’s loving attention (Matthew 10:29-30).
I am now coming to understand that to worship God as holy, as high and lifted up, does not restrict him to being ‘up there’. Rather God is holy, high and lifted up in that there is no one like him; there is no one who compares to him in the way that he loves and the way that he cares. He is with us right now, closer to us than our own breath. He hears our every prayer.
I am grateful to Thomas Merton who wrote so powerfully about our God in whom we live and have our being. Merton said:
Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything — in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it.
In his magnificent prayer, known as “The Breastplate of St. Patrick,” Patrick of Ireland expresses awareness of God-with-us in Christ. May we take it as our breastplate for today and be encompassed by God’s presence:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ in breadth, Christ in length, Christ in height, Christ in the heart
of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. Amen.
Grace and peace–Tim
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