Several years ago my next door neighbor came over and asked if I would keep an eye on his house while he and his family were away for a while. I told him I’d be glad to do that and asked how long they would be gone. “One month,” he said. They were going home to India. It had been a long time since they had visited family there and it was the time of year for the Hindu celebration of Diwali, also known as the festival of lights.
About a year later we pulled into our driveway and saw them lighting sparklers in their front yard. Somehow I remembered that it was the time of year for Diwali, but on Old Orchard Drive there was no one else to celebrate the festival with them.
The kids and I walked over, inviting ourselves to their small celebration. We were warmly received. John and Anna lighted sparklers with their son. We made small talk and I asked some questions about the festival and what it meant. They knew we were Christians – they called me and Marnie “priests.” So walking over to join in their celebration of Diwali was meant to be a way of reaching out. At the time it seemed like something Jesus might have done. It seems that way now.
But I look back on it and I’m not sure what it accomplished. I did not get as far as reasoning with them about their beliefs and talking to them about Jesus. I was not Paul on Mars Hill. Honestly, I didn’t intend to be. And that’s what I wonder about. Did I do enough? Did I say enough?
Yesterday we observed that Paul in Athens is not an angry man. That statement was not entirely true. We can say that Paul is not hostile to the Athenians – but we are told that as he looked around the city he was “greatly distressed” (Acts 17:16). This NIV rendering of the Greek word lacks intensity. The ESV bible does a better job by saying that Paul’s spirit was “provoked.” The Greek word suggests the idea of being grieved or angered over something. We might say that Paul was “fired up” by the idolatry he saw.
When I remember standing in my neighbor’s yard as they celebrated Diwali I am struck by my lack of distress. In a culture marked by religious diversity, to be provoked is not a good thing. In fact it is feared as radical. Had we been in Paul’s place the noble and enlightened response to Athenian idolatry would have been dialog but not debate. Let the Athenians be Athenians. Anything else betrays a lack of sophistication.
However, to be provoked does not mean to attack or demean someone else’s beliefs. It is not prelude to coercion. In Acts 17 it seems that Paul’s provoked spirit expressed itself in a tender but courageous kind of love. He loved the Athenians enough to tell them about Jesus and the resurrection.
If everyone finds God in their own way we gradually begin to believe that no one truly finds God at all. It’s a matter of taste and choice and background and upbringing. As you think about finding God in the everyday remember that others around you are looking for God as well. Their search may be very different from your own.
What does it take for your spirit to be provoked? What do you do in response?
Give me a burden for this world, O Lord. Let my spirit be provoked in a way that moves me to love others for your sake and in your name. Teach me how and when to speak a timely word of my own love for you, and then give me courage to speak it. Amen.