Sunday, August 30, 2020


You may or may not realize or remember that Vivian and I spent about three years working in the islands of the South Pacific, doing the same thing that we did in Latin America. That work was in Pastoral and Leadership Training.

During this past week, as part of a celebration of our wedding anniversary (44th), Vivian and I took a little trip up to Lake Superior. Not quite the Pacific Ocean, but as I sat on the shore looking out on the Great Lake and the huge expanse of water, the sense was much the same for me as sitting on an island of the Pacific. It brought back many memories.

One of the things that intrigued me about working among the island people of the Pacific was to learn a little about what is somewhat an obscure history of their people. Certainly, the history of the past couple of hundred years is quite well known, for the Pacific Island people place great importance on their family lineage and heritage.

However, their earlier history is less clear. No one is certain, for instance, just when the first explorers began to colonize the islands; nor does anyone really know the reasons that they began to do so. The normal explanations that are sometimes given for the migration of a people, such as famine or warfare, do not seem to fit the origins of the Pacific Islanders. What is more, the very idea of setting out from the continent of Asia on vessels that were little more than large canoes to explore the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean is an astounding one.

One thing that is quite certain however, by the time that Christ was born ten thousand miles away in the village of Bethlehem of Judea, the Polynesian people were already scattered throughout the Pacific, living on the tiny little islands in the midst of an ocean that covers almost a third of the surface of the earth.

This fact alone is intriguing on several levels. Among the important questions that we may have has to do with some words that the Apostle Paul spoke to the people of Athens. He told them that God had made “every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling places” (Acts 17:26 ESV).

I think that the primary reason that these words of Paul come to my mind is because I have wondered about God’s purpose for urging the Polynesians far out of contact with the rest of the world at just the time that his greatest message came to the earth – the message of Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God.

It is true that there were other parts of the world that were also remote. Even the Americas themselves were cut off from the events that were happening in Palestine of that day. Yet, there is something about the sheer isolation of the tiny Pacific Islands in the immense ocean of water that has caused me to wonder about Paul’s words. 

Land vs. Water Migration

We will return to this thought in a moment or two, but first I would like to mention another aspect of the Polynesian history that intrigues me. The migration and settling of the islands of the Pacific was unlike any other in the history of the world, for it was one that took place over what must have seemed like a limitless and open ocean in their search for small specks of land. These were the Pacific islands that the first explorers hoped that they would find in the midst of a world of water. They could not be certain that there were islands out in that great ocean, but something must have pushed them to look.

It is easier for us to understand the concept of a land migration where a people might start out on foot in search of a new place to live. At the end of each day, colonizers traveling overland are able to stop and make a camp under some trees in order to rest, and then start out again on the next day. These terrestrial pilgrims also may not know what lies ahead of them, but at least they are still in their element of living on the solid earth. We are a people of the land. After all, our forerunner Adam was even formed from the dust of the earth.

The Polynesian people are also of the land. They even have a name for it. They call themselves tangata whenua, which literally means “the people of the land.”[1] But these people of the land also grew to have an affinity for the sea. It is this kinship with the sea has shaped many aspects of their view of life.

Something is Moving

For instance, when the early Polynesian voyagers were traveling across the ocean and in passing by islands on their right or left, they had the perspective in their minds that, when they were in their canoes, they themselves were actually relatively stationary. In their thinking, it was instead the islands that were traveling past them, and it was the ocean that was moving and flowing underneath them.

This might seem strange to us, but you may be able to see how they came to view it in this way and it is not so perplexing if you think about it a little. With land travel, we are very aware of every step that we take as we note our progression over the terrain. As the pioneers of our own country traveled west, they listened to the wheels of their covered wagons squeak with every revolution as they rolled over the soil. In land travel, we can observe that it is the earth beneath our feet that is stationary, and we are obviously the ones that are moving over it.

Traveling over the sea is not as apparent as that. The ocean is a fluid instead of a solid, and the movement of the canoe in relation to it is not so evident. Noting our progress in relation to the water is not obvious to us as travel over the land.

In addition to this, we know that the waters of the ocean are indeed constantly flowing. The sea is not just an enormous bathtub, but it has currents that run through it in various directions.

The navigators of those early days saw their task as pointing their canoes in the proper direction toward their goal and allowing the ocean to flow underneath them. As they sat their vessels, they could see currents of the ocean move and all of its features to pass by them.


Lessons in Navigation

Navigation then, depended upon how well these early voyagers knew the currents. As I said, there are various currents throughout the ocean, and they even change in the different seasons of the year. In addition to this, these rivers of the oceans, along with their accompanying wave patterns, are also modified when they are in a vicinity of an area of the ocean where there is an island or group of islands.

The early navigators were well aware of these movements in the water. They knew them intimately. To you and me, any single wave in the ocean is probably like any other wave. Sometimes they are large and sometimes not so large; sometimes you can put a surfboard to them and other times you cannot, but that is about the only thing that we use to distinguish one wave from another.

But the early explorers needed to know them better than this. When an experienced navigator was teaching a young man how to read the waves and the currents of the ocean, the master would have the student get out of the canoe and lie on his back in the ocean for long periods of time.

The two would first go out to sea rather close to their island and gradually work their way around the entire island so that the student could feel the difference in the way the waves and current were on every side of the land. Then they would go out further to sea, to a place where the teacher knew that there was a noticeable current or where there were two currents meeting.

The student, lying on his back, would also feel these currents on his body. Then he would climb back into the canoe so that he could also observe how these movements in the water interacted with the boat. The whole affair was a long apprenticeship, and one that I must say I cannot understand.

Nevertheless, we can all probably understand it on some level. In our own environment, we know that the more a person is in the woods or the bush and the more that he studies the activities of what is constantly happening all around him, he or she is able to read signs that would go completely unnoticed by a novice. It all comes from being intimately acquainted with your environment. For the Polynesians, the open ocean was their environment.

We will understand it even better when, along with these early navigators, we lift our eyes and consider the stars. It was largely these heavenly bodies that the Polynesians used to guide their canoes across the trackless sea. As these sailors watched the stars, they could see that neither were these stationary in the sky. These points of light were in constant motion, moving from east to west, rising and then setting, and, especially in the latitudes further from the equator, even changing from season to season.

The early navigators were also intimately acquainted with the stars. They used them as a compass and had particular guide stars to help them navigate to places that were unknown to them. Once an area of the ocean did become known because of their exploration, the navigators knew which star, when it was in its zenith in the sky, stood over any particular island.

As I mentioned before, with all of this movement around them, we can understand a little why the early Polynesians saw themselves as the stationary ones. That is why they viewed their job of navigating as pointing their canoe in the correct orientation so that the water and the islands passed in the right direction. Through experience, they saw how this related also to the movement of the stars overhead.

There is even a phenomenon that I had not before heard of called te lapa: an “underwater lightning.” This is a luminescence that appears far out into sea and can be seen on very dark nights. It is not a bioluminescence that comes from living organisms in the ocean, but rather a glowing that appears about two meters beneath the surface of the water and runs in a line pointing toward an island, sometimes one hundred miles away. The only natural explanation that I could find for the phenomenon is that it is thought to be the result of leaching caused by heavy rains on some of the larger islands, washing something out into the sea that produces this effect. I must say that this explanation seems unlikely to me, but I have read of no other.


Finding God

I know that this has been a rather long explanation of ancient navigational methods, but it has been so wonderfully interesting to me that I could not pass up the opportunity to share a little of it; and I have not even begun to talk about how the early sea travelers also read the winds that blew and how they used the ocean birds to tell them where they could find land. Nor have we even begun to talk about how they gained knowledge from the creatures of the sea and the clouds in the sky.

You can see why this is such an interesting study, but now I would like to take you back from our sea voyage to look again at what Paul said to the people of Athens. Here is the somewhat more complete version of what he was saying: 

And he (God) made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. (Acts 17:26-27 ESV)

Feeling Our Way to God

You will notice that Paul, in describing the purpose of God in his determination when and where people would live on the earth, said that he did it in order that the people might feel their way toward him and find him.

I want to point out that the word Paul used in speaking about the search for God is feel. The Greek word is pselaphao, and it literally does mean to feel, or to handle and touch.

It is the same word that the gospel writer Luke used when quoting something that Jesus had said. After Jesus had risen from the dead and was appearing for the first time to his disciples, the disciples were having a difficult time believing that what they were seeing was actually the living, physical Jesus.

To help them believe, Jesus said to them, “Why are you troubled and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch (pselaphao) me and see—for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Luke 24:39).

This the word that Paul used, and it is especially interesting that he used it when addressing a crowd of people in Athens. The Athenians, as we know, loved their philosophical discussions and deliberations. Theirs was a culture that valued the power of reason. Yet, despite this philosophical climate of first century Athens, Paul did not try to impress the crowd to which he was speaking by appealing to their reason, as he well could have.


Philosophical Wanderings

In other of his writings, the apostle lays out this reasoning in very clear fashion. In fact, even here in Athens, if we go back a little in the account of Paul’s experiences in that city, we see that he first went to the synagogue and into the marketplace, where he did reason with the people.

We are specifically told that he reasoned with the Epicurean and the Stoic philosophers. These were two schools of thought that one could say were on opposite extremes of the philosophical spectrum. Put in general terms, the Epicureans taught that in order to find fulfillment in life, one must seek those things which gave physical or emotional enjoyment and to learn to avoid any kind of pain or displeasure. The Stoics, on the other hand, almost denied that there was such a thing as emotion. They instead sought to be self-governed almost completely by reason.

Certainly this is an oversimplification of the two philosophies, and I am sure that the followers of these two schools of thought spent many long hours discussing their differences in the marketplace of Athens. When Paul showed up, it only added some more spice to their deliberations.

At first, Paul did take the time to reason with them. I am sure that he pointed out to them what he considered to be the flaws and weaknesses in their arguments, but in the end, he could see that this was a discussion without conclusion. It would always remain a philosophical debate and was more for the purpose of entertainment than it was to find out what is true.

There is one telling sentence in this account which gives us the atmosphere of the discussions that went on in the marketplace. “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21 ESV).


Finding God in a Dark World

It was because of what Paul had come to see in these philosophers, that when he had the opportunity to speak to the people of Athens, he avoided the tool of reasoning. Instead, he focused on using one’s sense of touch to find God, “that they may feel their way toward Him,” Paul told the people. Other Bible translations render the phrase as “reaching out” for God, or even “groping,” as one would do when looking for something in a dark room.

In this situation in a dark room, reason and philosophy can do little. A person looking for something in darkness cannot philosophize where to find it. He may use his memory about where he last saw it or where he may have put it, but pure reason will not lead him to it.

In the same way, I would say that very few people initially find God purely through reason and philosophy. Certainly, our intellect is important, and we do well to exercise it and use it. However, reason is primarily applied later, after we have found God, to get to know him better and to understand him. Reason and philosophy alone will rarely lead anyone initially to God. This Paul explains in another of his writings, this one to the Corinthians: 

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:20-21 ESV)


Training Our Feelings

But using our feelings to find our way to God is not as straightforward as we are likely to make it seem. Like the apprentice Polynesian learning the wave patterns of the ocean, we must also train our feelings. Neither does it mean that our logic is not part of this process. It only means that we must use logic properly.

I need to stop here for now, but next week we will hopefully all enter into a bit of an apprenticeship to learn how to properly use our feeling to help us to know God.

That will be Navigating Our Way to God – Part 2.

[1] This is New Zealand Maori, but there are similar phrases in other Polynesian Maori Languages

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