At the height of the Vietnam War a young female war correspondent for the New York Times found herself in the deserted streets of Saigon in the wee hours of the morning. She heard bombers rumbling overhead, heard the distant thunder of explosions and saw flashes of weaponry on the horizon. Her heart was heavily freighted with all that she had encountered, the lies, the deceit, the vicious and callous disregard for human life that she had witnessed on all sides. Having beheld the scope of humanity’s inhumanity to humanity, her soul was weighed down with sadness and sorrow. She had beheld human malignity and malevolence on a scale she had not imagined. Her every sensibility was stunned at how basely humanity had misused its freedom. In response, in an act very uncharacteristic of her, she pulled out a pen, found a blank wall and wrote these words upon it: Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.
The odd thing was, the woman admitted later, “When I wrote, ‘Father forgive them,’ I didn’t believe in God. But in that moment I knew, no other word would do.” She realized that the only language that could do justice to the moral profundity of the situation was God-language. She didn’t believe in God, yet she knew that no other word but God would do to capture accurately the meaning of the moment.
Her experience called to my mind that great Alabamian Helen Keller, the deaf, dumb and blind young woman who eventually emerged from the prison of her handicaps to become one of the world’s most famous citizens. Early in her childhood, as she was only beginning to unlock the brilliance of her mind, her parents wanted to jump-start her spiritual education, so they retained the services of a well-known minister, who agreed to come to their house and talk to the child. Through a sign-language interpreter the great preacher spoke to the child about the reality of an Unseen Spirit that creates and empowers and sustains all of life. The preacher feared that he was not getting through to the child, when suddenly little Helen Keller’s face broke into a grand smile. She signed back joyously, “I have always known of this presence. I have always sensed this reality. But until now I did not know that the name for this reality was God.”
Everyone has central convictions upon which they base their life – this is mine: God has placed a divine imprint of God upon all of creation and upon every human being. This divine imprint upon our lives grants us validation, direction, purpose and identity. The Spirit of God gives us the courage to live boldly and to implement transcendent values. Without God, not just as a concept, but as a daily reality that communes with us, our potential as human beings remained limited. If we ignore the divine imprint upon our lives, we truncate our understanding of the world, and we bring not only our individual lives, but all of human society into peril. To describe the reality that guarantees, nourishes and sustains life, only one word will do – God.
I harken back to the experience of C. S. Lewis, that literary critic and inveterate agnostic who was moved toward theism by observing basic human interactions and discerning that everyone, regardless of their professed faith or lack thereof, appealed to a principle of Fair Play. People might differ as to how Fair Play was applied, they might occasionally differ as to how Fair Play was to be interpreted, but everyone instinctively appealed to a standard of Fair Play without which society was impossible. Lewis wondered, ‘How could this moral imprint be so universally evident?’ He conceded that, logically speaking, there must be an Imprinter. He realized that there was no other adequate word for that Imprinter but God. He maintained that he didn’t want to believe in God because there was so much injustice in the world, but then he asked himself, ‘Where did I get my ideas about justice and injustice?’ He realized that those concepts were derived from his acknowledgement of the standard of Fair Play, the handiwork of the Imprinter. And there was no other word for that Imprinter but God. No other word would do.
We must confront the basic fact that there are only two explanations for the origin of our universe – and our lives. Either the entire cosmos, life on earth, our own existence, came into being through a series of random accidents, or all was brought into reality by a Divine Intelligence. Those are the stark choices facing us. If a Divine Intelligence brought the cosmos into being, we could not expect to discern the presence of that Divine Intelligence in the same way we discern other realities. If you walked into a beautiful mansion and beheld the staircase, or the moldings or the beautiful doors, you couldn’t equate any portion of that lovely house with the architect. Yet, everything in that grand house speaks to our souls about the reality of an architect. Likewise, a divine imprint is upon every corner of our universe, is upon our very lives, and there is a part of us that yearns for contact with the Architect of the cosmos. However, as C. S. Lewis noted, it would be a very odd thing if we felt an urge to interact with the Architect of the universe and there was no Architect. The fact that we sense the reality of an Architect speaks to us about the fundamental nature of our universe. The Architect who designed our cosmos is trustworthy, and there is no other name for that Architect but God.
The mark of the Architect is not just found in the physical universe, it is also found in the impact that this Architect has on human lives. The power of God’s presence is transformative. We can see its impact in our everyday lives. When I lived in Charlotte, there was a young wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers named Winslow Oliver. Winslow Oliver had several good seasons for the Panthers – I think he still holds their record for the longest punt return in franchise history – but he was cut from the team after three years – told he was not good enough. Winslow Oliver could have made front-page news if he had accused the team of unfairness toward him, could have gained attention had he claimed he was the victim of prejudice or injustice. He could have accused the coaching staff of playing favorites. But he did nothing of the kind. Winslow Oliver was known as a devout Christian, and his response to being cut from the team was to thank the organization for having given him a wonderful opportunity. He wished his teammates the best of luck. His attitude was, ‘I know God has a plan for my life. I guess that plan is elsewhere.’ This young man’s fundamental belief was that the God of the universe wanted what was best for him, that the God of this universe was benevolent and took a beneficent attitude toward him. So even though being cut from the team was a bad thing, he trusted that God would make something good out of it. His graciousness, equanimity, self-evident love for others, these qualities he attributed to the power of God’s Spirit. The thing is, no scientist could have devised a test to detect the reality of God’s Spirit in Winslow Oliver’s life. But his teammates and coaches could see the reality of God’s impact upon his life. The power of the Spirit of Christ is the power able to transform our being.
Years ago Melissa was out of town for the weekend, but she had forgotten to cut off her clock radio, which awakened me early on a Saturday morning, greatly displeasing me. I was reaching over to silence the radio when I stopped to hear a conversation between a psychologist and a woman from Wisconsin who had called in to confess, “I am a complete social failure. I have no friends. I have no community. I have no positive self-image or sense of self-worth.” The psychologist bantered with her a bit about why she felt so inadequate, then asked, “Have you ever considered joining a church or a synagogue?” I knew the woman’s answer before she could stammer out, “I don’t believe in God.” That was self-evident. What was present in Winslow Oliver’s life was absent even in her voice. Having invalidated God’s stamp of worth upon her, she could find no means to validate the worth of her existence. The psychologist challenged her to attend a church or synagogue anyway. “You’ve got to find some kind of gracious community,” he urged her. The woman replied in a defeated tone, “I don’t think I can do that.” There was a hole in this woman’s psyche, and the psychologist perceived it. The name of that hole was God. No other word would do. “People Need the Lord” is not just a pretty song. It is a fundamental assertion about the structure of human life.
All of this discussion brings us to young Samuel, who had the advantage of growing up under the tutelage of a wise, if flawed, holy man named Eli. Stretched out on his cot in the temple, Samuel heard a voice calling him, “Samuel! Samuel!” He assumed it was the voice of his master, Eli, but he went to Eli, only to be told, “Son, I have not called you. You are hearing things.” Samuel returned to bed only to again hear a voice summoning him from sleep, and once again he went to Eli, who said, “My son, I did not call you. You are restless. Go back to bed.” When this event happened a third time Eli recognized the true state of things. “Samuel,” he said, “what you are hearing is not an earthly voice. There is no other name for who is calling you but God.
The next time you hear that voice, you respond, ‘Here I am, Lord. Speak for you servant listens.’ Your life will be changed forever.”
There is no other word for the Reality that was summoning Samuel to be a prophet but God. This summoning voice can be found throughout our Scripture. Abraham hears a voice calling him to leave all that he knows and to travel to an unknown land on the basis of a promise – there is no word for the Reality that calls him but God. Moses, a stuttering shepherd who had killed a man, is summoned to become an agent of liberation for his people. There is no word for the Reality that summons him but God. Young David is summoned to challenge the seemingly indomitable Goliath – there is no word for the Reality that issues that summons but God. The voice that called those fishermen to throw down their nets and follow Christ, there is no other word for that Reality but God.
Do not think that this call of God is simply a voice the ancients could hear, but modern humanity cannot.
That same Voice called Albert Schweitzer, famed theologian and organist, to leave his creaturely comforts in Europe and go serve as a medical missionary in Africa – there is no word for that Voice but God. The same Voice that summoned a rich young woman to lay aside all of her privileges and enter a convent and then go minister to the destitute of India – there is no word for the One who called Mother Teresa into her ministry but God. Jimmy Carter, a former president of the United States, could have enjoyed riches and adulation as the former leader of the Free World, but instead he spent his retirement years building houses for poor people and establishing a center that focuses upon reconciliation. There is no word for the Reality that has shaped Carter’s values but God.
Do we hear that voice in our own lives? Or do we think, ‘I am too old, too set in my ways, to change.’ If that is the case, why are we here in this sanctuary? We are here because a Reality has summoned us, and there is no word for that Reality but God. That Reality calls us to open our being to transformation, to live in the service of a power beyond ourselves, to invest our lives in a Kingdom not of our making, but is rooted in the eternal will of God. Why are we here in this sanctuary if we don’t think the Spirit of God can transform us? Why are we here if we do not believe that we can be changed? We are here because we commune with the Reality of God’s Spirit, who calls us to be transformed and continues to propel us forward in the process of our becoming new creatures.
I grant you, no word has been more abused in the human history than “God.” Some of the most abhorrent causes in history have been advanced in the name of God. Some of the most heinous deeds in history have been perpetrated under the banner of God. And yet! The best people I have known – not the most famous people, but the best people – have been people of wisdom, love, grace, tolerance, compassion, generosity and kindness – and every one of those people have been shaped by a Reality that can only be accurately described as God. If you are here, you are here because you admit the possibility that you can be transformed by God’s Spirit. The voice that has spoken to so many of old is speaking to you this very day, asking, ‘What could you be doing for God and for God’s people that you are presently not doing today?’ When you hear that voice of God, answer like Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant listens.” Respond to that Reality that summons you to be continually transformed, the Reality for which there is no other word but God.