“In him we live and move and have our being.”
Where Paul picked up that fragment of poetry no one is sure, but it is familiar to us Episcopalians from one of the collects in Morning Prayer. In God we do indeed live and move and have our being. The best guess is that Paul adapted and turned upside down a line from a Stoic poet and philosopher named Epimenides, who said that “God is in everything.” Paul turns that upside down and says everything is in God. He says the same thing in Colossians 1 where he talks about Christ in the eternal sense: “All things have been created through (Christ) and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” That, I believe, is one of the most important truths in the Bible.
To say that everything and everyone is in the God we know in Jesus Christ is to say, first of all, that all creation is filled with love and meaning and purpose. Second, it is to say that all history unfolds in the eternal embrace of our loving God and is being drawn to its fulfillment in accord with God’s gracious will. Third, and this is what I really want to talk about this morning, it is to say that God is incredibly close to us. And that, I believe, is the main point Paul was trying to impress upon those Athenian philosophers. They looked for their gods in “shrines made by human hands.” But Paul, always on the lookout for teaching opportunities, noticed an altar inscribed “to an unknown God” and used it to proclaim to them a God who was far, far closer to them than any earthbound god could possibly be.
And that is such a vital lesson for you and me. God is closer to each one of us individually, and to all of us collectively, than we can possibly fathom in our earthbound ways. Picture the one in your life to whom you feel the very closest. God is far closer! God is closer to you than your wife, your husband, your partner, your child, your brother or sister, your parent, your nearest and dearest friend. Maybe you have one person—perhaps only one–in your life to whom you would entrust your very innermost secrets. God is far, far closer to you than he or she.
Now, for God to be that close to us may be a strange or even scary thought. Some of us have trouble with intimacy. We fear letting anyone get too close to us. To allow another person behind our defenses may be extremely threatening to our sense of identity or wellbeing. And that may stem from hurts we’ve sustained in the past: hurts from childhood abuse; abandonment, or the fear of abandonment; a love affair gone sour; a confidence betrayed; a sense of shame over a misdeed or a failure; a rejection by someone we trusted. Or, fear of intimacy may stem simply from being brought up in a family where formality prevailed, and physical or verbal expressions of affection were few and far between. That, frankly, was the way I was brought up—an only child, with very formal and conservative parents, and very high expectations of my behavior and performance. It took years of loosening up and lightening up for me to be comfortable with intimacy. I’m a hugger now. You’d never have gotten hugs and kisses from me forty years ago!
But when I lightened up, my walk with God, and my sense of God’s closeness became far more real. I used to be awfully cerebral and head-centered about God. I poured over books of doctrine and dogma, studied different religions—as every young person seems to do at some point—and debated the various philosophical arguments for the existence of God. I even looked down on people who talked in any intimate or personal way about God, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. But all that began to change when I began to deal honestly with my own problems with intimacy.
And that started in college. My intellectual approach to religion led me to attend a number of conferences on the subject. One of them stands out this morning because it marked a breakthrough regarding intimacy with others and intimacy with God—and I believe they are so closely connected. The speaker was a wise old professor, and his talks about God were refreshingly free both of intellectual jargon on the one hand and unctuous, sentimental familiarity on the other. He was a man obviously of enormous learning, but he had a thoroughly down-to-earth and endearing way of talking about God. I was so taken by this man that I followed him out of the building at lunchtime and joined him on a walk across a nearby park. By the time I got back with him I was in tears. His care for me—someone he had never seen before and would never see again—and the gentle way he led me through my doubts and my cautious reserve and into a genuine friendship with him and with God was one of the truly life-giving experiences I have had.
The result was a growing willingness on my part to let myself be vulnerable, to be able to take the risk of opening up and revealing to others my inadequacies, my faults and fears, my doubts and my dreams. And I found my prayers from then on to be much more from my heart than from my head. I found I didn’t have to start my prayers by dropping to my knees for them, or beginning “Almighty and everlasting God,” or ending them “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” All that was fine in church, when we were using the Prayer Book, but I experienced a wonderful freedom in just praying spontaneously, in my heart, whenever I wanted to, praying things like, “Help me, Lord!” “Forgive me, Lord!” “Keep me close, Lord!” “I don’t know what to do, Lord!” “Make things alright, Lord!” “Heal my loved one, Lord.” “I trust you, Lord!” There was born in me a real sense of what Paul meant when he said, “In God we live and move and have our being.” My fears of intimacy with people and with God began to fade.
You know, we can learn a lot about intimacy from children. I heard the other day about a little girl named Meredith, age 4, whose 14-year-old dog Abbey died. Meredith asked her mother to help her write a letter about it to God. She wrote: “Dear God, Will you please take care of my dog? She died yesterday and is with you in heaven. I miss her very much. I am happy that you let me have her as my dog even though she got sick. I hope you will play with her. She likes to play with balls and to swim. I am sending a picture of her so when you see her you will know that she is my dog. I really miss her. Love, Meredith.”
Meredith and her mom placed the letter and picture in an envelope addressed to God in Heaven, put on stamps and return address and dropped it in the letter box at the local post office. A few days later a package wrapped in gold paper arrived on their front porch, addressed to Meredith in an unfamiliar hand. Inside was a book by Mr. Rogers called “When a Pet Dies.” Taped to the inside cover was Meredith’s letter to God, and opposite it was the picture of Meredith and her dog.
There was also a letter from God which read, “Dear Meredith, Abbey arrived safely in heaven. The picture was a big help; I recognized her right away. Abbey isn’t sick anymore. Her spirit is here with me, just like it stays in your heart. Since we don’t need our bodies in heaven, I don’t have pockets to keep your picture in, so I am sending it back to you in this little book for you to keep and have something to remember Abbey by. Thank you for your beautiful letter and please thank your mother for helping you write it and send it to me. What a wonderful mother you have! I picked her especially for you. I send my blessings to you every day. Remember that I love you very much. By the way, I’m easy to find. Wherever there is love, I’m there too. Love, God.”
I give thanks for people like that alert and caring postal worker whose intimacy with God was so reflected in love and understanding for Meredith and her dog. Little wonder it is that Jesus was always comparing the Kingdom of God to the faith and innocence of a little child! May you and I grow up to be like children too!