The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World by Dean Nelson.
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How often does God use the occurrences throughout our day to point us to himself? My sense is that he does it continuously. The biggest variable is whether we are alert enough to get it. As Eugene Peterson said, “We are always coming in on something that is already going on.”
Jesus tells us that we can see God at work in the little things, like a mustard plant—the equivalent of a weed. People generally expect to see evidence of God in the big stuff—the Gee Whiz events—when in reality, according to Jesus, it’s at knee or ankle level, spreading like a weed. Or like yeast in bread. It’s in the everydayness, using everyday elements. Whether we see it is up to us. Instead of looking up, we should be looking around. Or down.
It is a dangerous thing to look for the activity of God in the unclean and unwashed aspects of life. The danger is that we’ll have to let go of our expectations that God can be experienced only in cathedrals and big, contrived events, with only certain people in charge of dispensing that activity. What about in a hotel lobby? Or a classroom in Bombay? Or incidents that occur in everyday life? “If we really had our eyes open, we would see that all moments are key moments,” Buechner said.
Much of our lives, it seems to me, are spent like that of the main character in Camus’ novel, The Stranger; we are indifferent, unmoved, unfeeling, walking dead people. Not until the stranger faced his own death did he even notice the stars in the sky. He reminds me of a lot of the people I meet. “Listen to your life,” Buechner said. “See it for the fathomless mystery that it is . . . There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him.”
I experienced this hidden presence when I was covering a story for the New York Times. A boy had brought a gun to his high school outside of San Diego, and murdered two students and wounded thirteen more. The newspaper asked me to rush to the school and interview as many people as I could, to try to provide some understanding during the aftermath of the horrible act. I confess that I didn’t want to go. I hate covering sensational stories. A few years before, I was one of the first reporters at the house where thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult took their own lives so that they could join the secret spaceship following the Hale-Bopp comet. Stories with this kind of loss are so tragic, so sensational, so senseless, that I approach them with a certain amount of dread.
At the high school, police had blocked off several blocks to keep traffic out, so I parked a half mile away and started walking to the school. In my head I was going over what I thought readers would want to know about this tragedy. I passed some people walking away from the school, and then I heard my name being called. Two of the people I had just passed were youth pastors from the area. I knew them both. One of them taught part-time where I teach. They were leaving after having spent time with students from their youth groups who had called them when the shooting began. I talked with them briefly, and felt strangely encouraged in my own task as a result.
Across the street from the school was a strip mall with a large parking lot. That’s where emergency vehicles were, along with the Red Cross, and hundreds of students milling around, waiting to be picked up by parents whose primal instincts had been triggered. I approached two girls, identified myself, and asked if I could ask them a few questions. One knew the shooter well. They had seen the bodies in the hallway. It was a terrifying sight for them, yet, through their tears, they wanted to talk about it. As I wrote down their comments in my notebook, a small crowd of reporters gathered. Television cameras zoomed in. Other reporters began asking questions. It didn’t get out of control, but it did start getting very intense. While this was going on, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Usually when that happens to me in a crowd of journalists, it is a photographer asking me to move to one side or another for a better picture. Without turning around, I moved a little to my left to accommodate what I presumed to be a colleague. The hand remained. So I moved a little to the right. No change. It
didn’t put pressure on me. It wasn’t trying to get me to move. It just stayed there, and I let it while I did my work.
When I was done talking to the girls, I thank them, and the television people moved on. I turned around to see who was behind me. It was my neighbor, whose kids are in school with my kids in another part of the city. He is the regional director of the Young Life ministry group. He had come to the school to help the Young Life chapter respond to the attack. But he saw me, and decided to come along on my task and pray for me as I talked to witnesses of the shooting. I saw his actions as God saying, “I got here before you in Leon. I am in the middle of this whole, terrible situation, including your being one of the reporters covering it.” The activity of God was present, thorough, expressed with a hand on a shoulder. “Long before I arrive on the scene, the Spirit is at work,” Eugene Peterson said. “I must fit into what is going on.”
Jesus drives home this point with a story he tells. It is about a judge who had little regard for God or people. In his city was a widow who kept coming to the judge and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” He refused at first, but was worn down by the woman, so he granted her justice just so she’d stop bothering him. End of story. This had always been a confusing parable to me. The sermons I’d hear about it usually justified begging and harassing God with our requests. It was a parable of getting God to bend to our needs, I thought.
But it’s really about how we are constantly confronted by grace—grace that pursues, invades, initiates. We are the judge in this story, and grace continuously approaches us, like the insistent woman, demanding that we do it justice by seeing it. Grace pursues and precedes. It bends us toward God. It is like a weed that comes from a tiny seed and grows wherever it wants. It is like bacteria that takes something traditionally predictable, and changes its nature. It says to us, “Do me justice. See me everywhere.”
When we’re paying attention, we see that grace is breaking into our everyday moments, making them different—sacred—drawing us into the presence of God.
It’s not about us getting a hold of the sacred. It’s about the sacred getting a hold of us.