The Practical Atheist, part 2

“In the beginning, the church was a fellowship of men and women, centered on the Living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture, and finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.” —Richard Halverson (1916-1995), chaplain to the United States Senate, 1981-94.

PRAYER: (the Liturgy of St. James, originating from James the brother of Jesus, dating back to 60 A.D.)

Let all mortal flesh keep silence
And with fear and trembling stand
Ponder nothing earthly minded
For with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

SCRIPTURES: (from the Lectionary)

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:7-18
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD…”

PRAYER FOCUS: To the Unknown God

Practical Atheist, n., Someone who says he or she believes in God but lives as if He doesn’t exist.

This is the American tragedy: In a country where the common man rules, nobody is common because everybody is special; everyone gets to be a star for fifteen minutes. The fictional Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” has morphed from make-believe comedy to a real expectation.

The message of the Western World is self-reliance. It permeates nearly every aspect of our lives. Just turn on the TV. Take your pick of social media. You’re bombarded by commercial images. The world is at your fingertips. You can have everything you want. Just do it…

In the midst of all this noise and distraction, once every week or so, maybe, we will carve out an hour on Sunday for God. One hour out of every 168—and that’s if you’re into it. Many modern Christians have a more “progressive” viewpoint when it comes to church attendance and Sabbath worship. Assuming, of course, the music is good, the people are like us (“our kind of folks”) and the pastor/preacher doesn’t step on our toes or make us feel bad about ourselves.

Come on, seriously. Worship? Dude, that’s so—Grandma and Grandpa.

So much of what we know as “Christianity” has become just another commodity. Select your style of music—organ or guitar? Pick your seating—pews or stadium seats? Would you like your pastor in robes or ripped jeans? As long as the service ends in time to make the last brunch seating. Don’t even talk to me about services during football season.

Admit it—on a day to day basis, we hardly ever stop and think of the Almighty, much less WORSHIP him. We go to church for some weekly shot of feel-good. How often do we walk out of the sanctuary feeling like, “Hey, man, I really left it all on the altar…”?

What do you need God for, anyway? Are you hungry? There’s a 24-hour store near you. Need money? ATMs abound. Your account low? Hit the credit cards. Lonely? Social media—someone’s always there for you on Facebook. Sick? Anyone can go to the nearest Emergency Room. It is a rare instance when we can’t seek results in our money, our skills, our social connections, family, and education. Plus we have insurance. We have Government programs. They’d never fail us, would they?

And when the predictable, linear track of your life runs off the rails and everything you’ve relied upon—perhaps all your stuff—is carried away; when you’re hammered by loss, or the threat of loss; when fear or pain pierces your heart like an ice pick; when suddenly you’re confronted with your helplessness and utter insignificance, and, God-forbid, you should need somebody, some THING bigger than your perilous, pitiful circumstances: Who do you turn to?

Of course, you turn to God. That’s why you believe, right?

Ahhh…so there’s the core of your faith. Yes, God exists, and you do believe in Him, which means you’re not an actual atheist. But in practical terms, your faith is more of a hip-pocket Sunday thing to pull out in case of a real emergency. You don’t really know God, you don’t really love Him, and you don’t really know how to worship Him. And yet you reserve a place in your life for the God Who Saves You. You erect an altar to the unknown God. Just in case.

The ancient Athenians hedged their bets, too. In their polytheistic, pagan theology, the Greeks of that day worshiped and made sacrifices to a whole pantheon of imaginary deities. Their law and tradition demanded it. And yet the Athenians were careful to make a space for a god—a God—they did not yet know. Enter the Apostle Paul, speaking this thing called Truth.

Our first Lectionary Scripture comes from Acts 17, a superbly written chronicle of Paul’s second missionary journey. To the Areopagus, atop Mars Hill, in the tradition of Greek philosophy dating back to before Socrates and Plato, the Apostle Paul delivers the oratory below:

People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:24-31)

God doesn’t need anything from any of us. He is perfect and complete, holy and almighty, all-knowing, all-seeing, unchanging, omnipresent, everlasting and eternal. In His wisdom, He gave to His highest creation, mankind, the ability to choose. Like Adam and Eve, we can choose what’s good or what is forbidden. The love, the worship, God wants us to know becomes true only through choice. Father God longs for His beloved children to choose Him. He loves it when we choose Him. All of Heaven rejoices when another soul chooses Him. Because of the Cross, God holds nothing back from those who come to Him through His only Son. He literally extends to us the keys to the Kingdom.

Everything that is best and highest in Him can also be in us. But it must be chosen, it must be learned.

Never mind the place where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children above average. Here, at the altar where the unknown becomes known, and known again, is the ultimate place of joy and song and beauty and rest. Here is where the beloved offspring gather together with the Awesome Power that brought it all into being. As Paul says, “He is not far from any one of us.”

God does not want to be an unknown God any more.

If Paul’s oration to the Athenians speaks to you today, you’re not alone. According to a recent Barna study, 72% of self-identified Christians claim they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, but only 17% feel that the local church is necessary for spiritual growth. Only one in three believe God expects them to live out what they say they believe. And that’s far too low, Christian. We simply cannot be satisfied with this.

To paraphrase the author Richard Foster, we all come to the altar with a tangled mass of motives—altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. On this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But our God is big enough, our God is good enough, to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright or pure, or filled with faith, or anything. That is what grace means, and not only are we saved by it, we live by it as well… We pray by grace. (Prayer, 1992, p.8)

It’s Monday Morning. May we go into this week knowing that God is waiting for us to “seek Him and perhaps reach out to Him and find Him.”

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