Sunday, May 17 – Reading: Acts 17:22-31
I really like the image of the Apostle Paul going through the city of Athens and looking the place over. Did he look like a tourist or like an anthropologist? We know that he was especially intrigued with the Athenian’s “objects of worship.” He would have studied the temples dedicated to the old Greek gods. He might have run his hands over monuments connected to the Roman imperial cult. People would have hurried past him as his mind mulled over all that he saw.
I wonder too what it would be like if the apostle walked through our own city and looked at our objects of worship. I wonder what he would make of it all. Aside from the obvious things—like our modern forms of transportation, the height of our buildings and our love for glass cladding—I wonder what would grab his attention.
Here in Ottawa I think he would notice the grand size of our public buildings. I think those would make a certain amount of sense to him. He would notice our sports stadiums. Those would be familiar to him too. Many of the Roman towns he visited would have had something similar. He would notice our shopping malls. I imagine the street-side shops and the farmers markets would make sense to him. In the big indoor malls he might see some of our contemporary religious convictions at work.
What caught the apostle’s attention in Athens, though, wasn’t the big showy structures. It was an altar to an “unknown god.” Most of the other structures were predictable and self-serving. They were obviously the work of human hands oriented to the human imagination and the all-to-human collection of gods. None of them pointed beyond. None of them pointed toward something wholly other. That is, except for the altar to the unknown God. It was the mysterious inscription on that altar that opened space for genuine conversation about belief and meaning. Everything else followed the standard script.
Let’s slow down a bit and shift the image. What happens if we think of our own lives as a city? What if we become tourists of ourselves?
Look at the traffic patterns. Where are you going? Look at the things that get your time and attention. What do you value? Look at what you’re building and how you’re building it.
Think about the history of your life-city. What has directed its development? Think about its future. What’s going to direct its progress in the coming years? What are your objects of worship? What do you notice as you roam about as apostolic anthropologist in your own life?
Athens was a pagan city. Paul had to look pretty hard to find something that pointed toward a God that was more than a creation of human hands. Only in that apophatic description–“to an unknown god”–did he find a gesture toward a God that could give life and breath.
The strange period of time in which we find ourselves is an invitation to renewed faith. It is an invitation to take a look at our own life-city. Do the big things we’ve built and the traffic patterns we’ve created suggest that we worship the “God who made the world and everything in it?”
The wonderful thing about orienting our lives around God and valuing the things that God values is that we still get to love the world. Actually, our love for the world is deepened when we understand that the wonderful things we enjoy are gifts of a loving God and not just happenstance stuff. When our life-construction is done in line with the divine code we end up loving our neighbours and loving this world–truly and deeply.
Yet the perspective is different. The emphasis is different. The traffic patterns are different.
Loving God – show us the difference, show us ourselves. Amen.