Exactly thirty years ago, in 1987, I was entering the ninth grade, a time in life when every experience is oversized and formative. That year, an Irish rock band of whom I’d previously never heard released its fifth studio album. The band was U2, and the album was The Joshua Tree, with tracks including “With or Without You” and “Where the Streets Have No Name.” The Joshua Tree’s reach made it all the way to Paragould, Arkansas and far beyond. It had such cultural impact that in 2017, during this thirtieth anniversary year, U2 is reprising The Joshua Tree tour and playing the entire album live in cities across the globe. It just so happens that U2 will be in Houston this very Wednesday at NRG Stadium. If you have a thousand dollars to spend, you might still be able to snag a ticket!
What I didn’t know in 1987, but what I came to know later, is that three of the four U2 bandmates are Christian. Their faith began as evangelical when they were teenagers. Over the decades, that faith has morphed somewhat, and the bandmates sometimes speak of it hesitantly or cryptically. U2 has never been known as a “Christian band,” but some of their music is overtly so. The 1981 song “Gloria” includes the lines, “Gloria in te domine/ Gloria exultate/ Oh Lord, if I had anything, anything at all/ I’d give it to you.” How about that. Later songs are titled “Yahweh” and “40,” hearkening to Psalm 40.
Knowing this about U2 offers a code key to much of the rest of their music. Songs that on the surface may not seem overtly spiritual are revealed to be subversively so. “She moves in mysterious ways,” from the album Achtung, Baby for instance, becomes not about some profane seductress but about the Holy Spirit of God. The track on Joshua Tree that most captivated me thirty years ago also opens up into new vistas of meaning:
I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you.
I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
What is this song about? Is Bono looking for love, for his heart’s desire? Yes, but not the worldly kind. He speaks of a restlessness that will travel to the ends of the earth looking for his center and source of being, and cannot find it. This is a song not about romance but about the soul, and about our fear and frustration when we cannot find that which we need the very most. It is about being existentially alone in a crowded place but sensing that that which can sustain us is out there, somewhere. That’s a feeling teenagers know, and U2’s song connected with my ninth grade self. It’s a feeling that forty-four-year-olds, and sixty-four-year-olds, and ninety-four-year-olds also know, in all times and in all places. It is a universal mythic theme, told in stories and dreams, where some most precious thing is lost, and the search for it is equal parts frantic and futile. We’re looking for something that we sense will make us whole, and it seems always just beyond our vision, just out of reach.
In Acts, this is what St. Paul encounters today in Athens. The Athenians are not an irreligious people. They, too, have a deep desire to connect to their source, to know God. Perhaps to the surprise of some Christians reading this story for the first time, Paul does not dismiss, condemn, castigate, or deny the pagan Athenians’ spiritual lives. As Paul wanders through the Areopagus, that ancient pantheon overlooking the city, he looks sympathetically upon the various statues of the gods, and especially so upon the altar inscribed “to an unknown god.” With eloquence, Paul says to the Athenians gathered around him, “[The Creator] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth…that they would search for God and perhaps…find God.”
All people are made to yearn for God, in other words, and that desire is placed in us by God. But Paul doesn’t stop there. “Indeed,” Paul goes on to say, “God is not far from each one of us. For ‘In God we live and move and have our being.’” Already, and not only after a conversion to Christianity, Paul claims, all people including pagans live and move and have their being in God. It is a remarkable affirmation coming from the preeminent Christian apostle and evangelist.
But it begs the question, then, why are they—why, often, are we—still restless? Why don’t we find what we’re looking for? Paul explains that our error is that we place our hope in that which is not God. We run around frantically and seek God in things, whether material or relational. We make idols of them—not unlike those statues in the Areopagus—exalting them, but knowing deep down that all such things will ultimately disappoint, and many will be destructive. As Bono sings:
I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone.
And I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
We move from one possession to another pursuit, feeling momentarily warm but ultimately cold as a stone and restless all over again.
What, then, to do? How do we find what we’re looking for? Paradoxically, by ending the search. Like a child alone in the woods, our impulse is to keep moving from one thing to the next. But as with that child, we know that we’re likely simply to move in circles and become lost. The thing to do is stop moving.
In John’s Gospel last week, Philip asked Jesus, “How can we find you? How will we know the way?” And today, Jesus responds by saying, in essence, “You don’t have to find me. Stop moving, and I will come to you.” And Jesus adds perhaps the most moving words in scripture, words that affect us on levels deeper that we understand. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says, “I am coming to you, and my Spirit will abide with you. You will be in me, and I in you.”
The truth shared by St. Paul—that we live and move and have our very being in God—means that we are never alone, we are never orphaned. The source of us seems so often just out of reach because we make the mistake of reaching beyond us, when in fact God’s great gift in Christ is that God’s very Spirit inheres as near to us as the air we breathe, and, yes, even within. It is our center and our ground.
The quelling of our restlessness will not come with the arrival at some place or something. That hope is futile. It will come with the recognition that God’s Spirit, through Christ, is incarnate. In Psalm 46, the same psalm from which comes our Cathedral theme that “God is in the midst of the city,” God promises that God is in the very midst of us. At Psalm 46:10, God says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” We need not find God, because we are found. And we will never be orphaned or alone.