A Creation Meditation on MLK Day

Picture1The song of creation in Genesis encompasses the sheer delight of God creating a world out of a primordial soup. In the language of the Bible, “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (1: 2). I find that immensely reassuring. Even when we do our worst in demeaning and destroying our world, it can be recreated and brought to life again.

This creation song can serve as a source of hope for our time. It’s so easy to become obsessed by our president’s latest outrageous tweet or vulgar, racist comment. Should we just ignore them like we ignore a child who seeks our attention through throwing a tantrum? We certainly should not allow such behavior to distract us from doing what we can to oppose the real harm of public policies that injure the most vulnerable among us. New life continually emerges even in situations of despair. Rather than getting too focused on the chaos and ugliness, we will want to recognize, welcome, and celebrate the new light that continually shines forth in creation.

We tend to read the Genesis creation story as an abstract statement about the creation of the world. Even worse, we read it literally and then insist that the earth was created in six days or, conversely, that it’s unscientific superstition. The fight between literalists and rationalists is most unfortunate because each side destroys the text in their effort to control it. Both misunderstand the meaning or purpose of the story.

When we immerse ourselves in the world of the text it, it gradually opens itself to us. I like to use the analogy of reading the Bible like a love letter. During the first year of our courtship, my wife Ruth and I lived in different states and wrote weekly letters to each other. I relished and read her letters several times over, carefully parsing each sentence as I got to know her better. It was the joy of discovery. When we read the Bible like that, pouring over the meaning of the text and delving into the historical background in which it was formed, a whole new world opens to us.

According to biblical scholars, the Genesis creation story was written to counter the oppressive creation stories of Israel’s neighbors. For example, the Babylonian story claimed that the powerful male warrior god Marduk slew Tiamat, the goddess of primordial chaos, and created the world out of her carcass. Babylonian kings claimed to be human embodiments of Marduk who likewise conquered, destroyed, and subjugated neighboring nations.

In contrast, in the Genesis creation story, God creates nonviolently by simple proclamation, “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” After every act of creation there’s the exclamation, “And God saw that it was good.” Notice the sheer delight in the created world. It’s a theological and pastoral response to real human problems. It undergirded the hope and confidence of the Jewish people during their harrowing experience of living as exiles in Babylon.

The forces of war, abuse, and oppression are not all-powerful and will not have the last word even in the darkest periods of our lives when everything appears to indicate otherwise. We instead trust in God as our loving and nonviolent creator.  Martin Luther King Jr. King had this uncanny faith that justice and self-giving nonviolence will ultimately triumph because they are woven into the fabric of creation. During the long and often discouraging Civil Rights struggle he made the bold claim, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Revolutionary Patience

I have a quote on the bulletin board in my church office that says, “Above all, trust is the slow work of God.” It’s a good reminder when I get anxious or impatient about events in our world. The same is true for my personal spiritual journey. I remind myself of that when I mess up, which can be depressingly consistent.

The Christian calendar is a tool that I use to help balance my spiritual life and my pastoral ministry. The weekly lectionary scripture passages related to it provide a rhythm and a challenge that keeps me grounded and on my toes.  Through this discipline, I learn to trust in the slow work of God within the turmoil of our world. These are troubled time because of the political dysfunction in our county and in our world.

During Advent we lament with the prophet Isaiah, “The earth staggers like a drunkard, it sways like a hut; its transgression lies heavy upon it” (24:20). Things are not well and we long for God to come and shake us up for the better. We long for a political savior and are tempted to take matters into our own hands. Mark’s Gospel tells us to, instead, school ourselves in the revolutionary patience of God (13: 1-37).

To better understand, we need to know the historical background of Mark’s Gospel. The long-suffering Jews had finally revolted in 66 C.E. and drove the Roman armies out of Palestine but the different Jewish rebel forces were not able to consolidate power. The Roman army then regrouped and began to reconquer Palestine, eventually conquering and destroying the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in 70 C.E.

Biblical scholar Ched Myers says that Mark’s Gospel provides a radical criticism of all parties in the conflict because an ideology of domination infects all of them. He’s therefore committed to nothing less than a complete unraveling the present order based on domination, resisting it with the practice of revolutionary patience rooted in God’s coming new order.[1]

We practice revolutionary patience because God’s reign (the new world coming) that Jesus announced and inaugurated is both “here” and “not yet.” We see signs of this new world in various places, but the tired old world of dominion and violence is still very much in place in our present world order of nation states, each fighting for territorial, military, and economic dominance.

As followers of Jesus, we stay alert, looking for incidents of God’s new world breaking in. During the season of Advent, we ritualize this by singing songs, lighting candles, and waiting in expectation. Mature faith accepts the enduring struggle of our historical existence. We cannot be presumptuous because faith and spiritual growth is a continuous journey. We never arrive—at least not on this side of the eschaton. We’re prone to making lots of mistakes and even falling into egregious sin.

Chet Myers writes, [Mark’s Gospel] advocates neither fatalism nor escapism, but a revolutionary commitment to the transformation of history, which always demands political vigilance and discernment.”[2] It involves experimenting with a political practice that will break, not perpetuate the reign of domination in our world.

[1] Chet Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Orbis Press, Maryknoll, NY: 1988), 339.

[2] Ibid., 341.

Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart

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Thanksgiving days here and around the world are a celebration of the bounty of the earth. The foundation of the world rests on the giving nature of God. Our creator God has blessed us with good things—fertile soil, sun, rain, and loving relationships. In the words of the creation hymn, “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.”

Furthermore, the Bible tells us that God gives us wisdom and hope; God gives peace; God gives strength; and God comforts those who mourn. Paul’s letters have a pattern of beginning with a greeting followed by thanksgiving. He encourages the Thessalonian Christians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (5: 16-18).

Ungratefulness is at the root of so many of our social evils while gratefulness opens our hearts and imaginations. Our capitalist market system makes virtues out of selfishness and consumption and this the source so many of our social problems. Learned dissatisfaction is a socially engineered engine that drives our economy.

During World War II American corporations has scaled up production and grown rich producing war materials. The increased production had helped the American economy get out of the Great Depression. To keep the factories running after the war we needed increased consumption at home and expanded markets abroad. Secretary of State Dean Acheson insisted, “We need markets—big markets—around the world in which to buy and sell.”[1] That meant shifting our America economy from providing needs to filling desires. We must be trained to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, in their book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, write:

It is a culture driven by a perpetual dissatisfaction machine that inundates us with the message that our lives won’t be complete unless we have the shiniest toy, the latest gadget, the most exclusive memberships, a younger wife, smoother skin, bouncier hair, the right brands, a nicer car and a bigger house. We’re surrounded by advertising and other media that tells us from an early age that it is possible to buy happiness . . . at least until the next must-have item comes around. [2]

Such dissatisfaction leads to distrust, broken relationships, ruthless competition, and war. It amplifies our stark social and political divides. It’s connected to subtle social forces like hypermobility that undermine our neighborhoods and churches. It contributes to the kind of church shopping where we’re continually looking for the latest worship experience or hip church that meets our desires.

Being grateful breaks this vicious cycle of dissatisfaction. Canadian theologian Mary Jo Leddy says that the “choice to affirm that there is enough for all is the beginning of social community, peace, and justice.” It frees our imaginations to think of new possibilities. We can start over “in the recognition of what we have rather than in the awareness of who we aren’t.”[3]

[1] William Chafe, The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 71.

[2] Smith and Pattison, Slow Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 180.

[3] Ibid., 182.


The Song of Creation

creationI was in my office answering correspondence, planning various things in the life of our church, and studying for my weekly sermon. Then the noon bell rang at nearby St. Leo’s Catholic Church reminding me that it was lunch time. I went to the kitchen, prepared my food, put it on a tray, and carried it to the picnic table in our woods.

It was a perfect day. The sky was bright and the trees formed a canopy overhead, shading me from the sun. I could hear the stream tumbling slowly across the rocks down below. Most enjoyable was the spirited and joyful song of a mockingbird perched up in the tree above me. As in Wendell Berry’s short poem:

Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.

Part of the quiet he’s talking about is quiet within. We need to stop our work and our plans to contemplate and listen. It’s hard to hear bird song when we’re busy, anxious, or distracted. I desire to bring this quiet attentiveness to our meditation on the biblical story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis.

The first chapter of Genesis is poetry, most likely created for liturgical purposes.  Its dramatic sweep begins with God confronting chaos and creating a cosmos. At the end of each day, this creation poem concludes with the statement, “and God saw that it was good.” The poem ends with God’s serene and joyous rule over the whole universe in peaceful sabbath rest.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that the relationship between creation and Creator is a relationship of free, gracious commitment and invitation. It involves full trust rather than requirement and obligation. Furthermore, we tend to confine God’s grace to individual, guilt-related issues of morality. But in this creation song, God’s grace is portrayed as the Creator’s transforming disposition toward the whole world. Creation faith is our confession that all of life is characterized by graciousness.[i]

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation (John Knox Press, 1982), 27.

Trust in the Slow Work of God

I recently posted a quote from the Catholic philosopher, theologian, and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin above my desk, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.” As a paleontologist who studied fossils, he would have been well acquainted with the slow work of God. One of my personal goals for this season of Lent is to develop such patient, determined, resolve and faith.

Part of that wisdom is the recognition that I am mortal, we’re all mortal. What presently appears so pressing and urgent pales in the perspective of eternity and the slow work of God. Remember, I am dust and will return to dust. Soil is a better word. The Hebrew word for soil is Adamah. God created Adam (meaning human) out of Adamah. A literal English translation is that God created the first human out of humus. That includes all of us, including the rich and the powerful. We’re all mortal, all made from soil, and we will all die. I find that liberating.  Nurya Love Parish writes:

Our mortality is meant to be a wake-up call . . . [It draws] our attention to the eternal God, our Creator, whose image we bear. . . It’s hard to grasp that the measure of my days isn’t my bank balance, my reputation among my colleagues, the relative happiness of my family. . . [Instead] the measure of my days is the relationship I have with God.[1]

A fellow gardener recently showed me a garden bed that he had mulched with hay and manure. The dark, rich soil was teaming with earthworms and microscopic bacteria and fungi invisible to the naked eye. Most of us have no idea how much life there is right under our feet—life that we participate in.  This is part of the slow work of God that literally grounds our lives and our faith.

[1] https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/15a7f0490ee201cc

God’s Steadfast Love


I love the cadence of the first verse of Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” It speaks of inexplicable joy. Gardening gives me deep satisfaction. It makes me so happy when I harvest crisp cucumbers or admire a table covered with my heirloom tomatoes, Brandywines, Lemon Boys, Cherokees, and a bowl full of mouth popping delicious Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes.

Still, that doesn’t quite measure up.  The psalmist is speaking of an even deeper joy, such as the relationship between good friends sharing a special moment. Or I think of the joy felt at the birth of a child and while holding a newborn in your arms. And I think of our two-year-old grandson Oscar who was so thrilled to see us when we came to visit this summer. He’s so secure in his world. Playing with him was so much fun.

Such love goes beyond measuring up to my own or other people’s expectations. Striving to live up to expectations is a trap because we always fall short. We love ourselves and we love each other because God first loved us. We live the love. This is what strong churches do almost instinctively. It’s who we are.

According to the psalmist, our hearts overflow with reciprocal love and thanksgiving as we remember all that God has done. God forgives my sin (those places where I willfully choose that which is destructive and hurtful). God heals me; God redeems my live from the terrors of death; and God crowns me with steadfast love and mercy.

The Hebrew word hesed is translated as “steadfast love.” It’s the kind of tough love that endures all the challenges of a sustained relationship. A relationship is tested and built as we go through hard times together. The same is true for churches. We increasingly find our stride as we go through the ups and downs of life together and learn to rest secure in God’s steadfast love.

A Mother’s Day Tribute

Giving birth and nurturing new life are special gift from God. That’s why we pay tribute to all mothers on Mother’s Day. My wife Ruth and I enjoy the PBS television series “Call the Midwives.” It’s based on the story of a religious order of nuns and other midwives working with them to serve a working class community in London in the 1950s. This was the beginning of the National Health Service in Great Britain.

It was a tough world but it was also a genuine community of workers, mothers, shopkeepers, clergy, and healthcare providers who loved and cared for all their children. There’s both joy and heartache in each episode of the series. As a pastor, I appreciate the mostly positive role that the church plays. The story revolves around those tough and resilient midwives, the mothers, and the families they serve. Those of them who are not able to have children of their own become mothers in other ways through their service.

In that respect, we also pay tribute to all of us who take on mothering roles regardless of gender or having biologically given birth to a child—we dare not forget grandmothers. All mothers and those who support them are the unsung heroes in our society. These are the most important responsibilities in our world.

It’s fitting to make the connection between our creator God and the life giving and nurturing role of all mothers. I especially appreciate the poem “Mothering God You gave Me Birth,” by Mennonite poet Jean Janzen based on the writings of the 13th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich.

Mothering God, you gave me birth
in the bright morning of this world.
Creator, Source of every breath,
you are my rain, my wind, my sun;
you are my rain, my wind, my sun.

This year Ascension Day and Mother’s Day fall within several days of each other; let’s see if we can make a connection between Mother’s Day and Ascension Day. Christ’s ascension takes place 40 days after Easter. In the Bible, the number 40 is mythically alive. Rain fell for 40 days on Noah’s ark; the Children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years; a woman is secluded for 40 days after giving birth; and Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days before launching his ministry. All are pregnant times with a religious future.

Psalm 47 is a customary scripture readings for Ascension Day, It celebrates God as king over all the earth. The vision of God’s kingship is multidimensional, involving memory of the past, experience of the present, and hope for the future. It reaches back to the story of creation where God creates a living ecosystem out of barren chaos. It also reveals what God is doing behind and beyond the confusion of much that is happening in the world. As a people of faith, we absorb headline daily news with this realization.

God reigns over the nations and this means that, as a people of God, our identity transcends our ethnic and national identities. As Christians, our story transcends the American story. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote about how broken our national story is and how this is shaping our presidential primary in ugly ways:

Up until now, America’s story has been some version of the rags-to-riches story, the lone individual who rises from the bottom through pluck and work. But that isn’t working for people anymore, especially if people think the system is rigged. I don’t know what the new national story will be, but maybe it will be less individualistic and more redemptive. Maybe it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer from addiction, broken homes, trauma, prison and loss, a story of those who triumph over isolation, social instability and dislocation so common today (New York Times, April 29, 2016)

As followers of Jesus, we have a contribution to make to the new national story that David Brooks envisions. Rather than a story of pluck and self-sufficiency, our story is about giving love, nurture, care, dignity, and justice—especially for those who are most vulnerable. We respond as the people of our mothering God.

Spiritual Wisdom from a Garden

church garden 2

Spring turns my attention to gardening. The cool weather crops of lettuce, kale, carrots, peas, broccoli, cabbage and chard that I planted several weeks ago are thriving—they even seemed to enjoy the recent cold snap. I’ve been browsing gardening magazines for my bedtime reading. Cynthia Woods wrote in the Virginia Gardener about an ancient oak tree that came crashing down in her garden on Christmas eve.

Cynthia says that after she recovered from the shock and horror of smashed Camellia and azaleas, an enormous hole in the ground, and more muck and mire than she cares to describe, she began to ponder what to do about the situation. She had worked on the garden for over 20 years and had recently rather smugly decided that she had it where she wanted it.

She says she should have known better. “A garden is never, ever finished. Any experienced gardener knows that even entertaining such heretical thoughts is just plain foolish.” She began to look at the desolation each day and walked around it to try to see and hear what the new, radically altered landscape was telling her.

Plants that thrived in the shade of an oak tree will not be happy in the bright sunlight that emerges when it falls to the ground.  After she finished sulking, Cynthia began to contemplate the possibilities for the new, open space in her garden, perhaps an interesting Japanese maple and some low growing conifers that she could train to grow over large rocks.

Even under the best of circumstances, things are never finished. Cynthia concludes, “It’s best to accept the lessons of patience, watchfulness, and resilience that our gardens offer. Slow gardening—it’s the way to go. Breathe deeply, observe closely, and enjoy everything, even the imperfections. There is beauty in everything.”

The same wisdom applies to faith communities. Together we’re God’s garden. Our church is located in a particular spiritual micro-climate here by Daniels Run in the City of Fairfax. This environment supports what will grow in our garden. I’m not sure what the equivalent of an ancient oak tree toppling over might be but the wisdom we can gain from this is that even disasters open up new possibilities—that is if we have eyes to see and ears to hear what our new landscape is telling us.

Like Cynthia walking around in her garden, I spent considerable time getting familiar with this new space when I first became the pastor of our church. I occasionally walk downtown for lunch to absorb the ambience of our city. I have joined the local Clergy and Leadership Council to get a better feel for what other faith communities are doing and to explore ways of working together. I find ways to build relationships with church members.

I love puttering around in our church garden. My gardener and pastoral avocations flow together as I dream of ways to keep developing who we are and what we have. Our Fairfax community is part of the old South. This was a slaveholding community and a Civil War site. How does our presence, and the life of our peace oriented church fit into God’s purposes for our community?

The apostle Paul says we’re co-workers linked together as one. (1 Corinthians 3: 9) The Greek word he uses is synergoi from which we get the word synergy—diverse people working together to achieve a common purpose. Skilled garden landscapers strive to weave a common thread through a garden that ties things together but it’s the contrasts of shape, texture, and color that make it interesting. Monocultures are boring; furthermore, they’re more perceptible to pests and disease. So we mix it up. Inviting, resilient, and thriving churches have the same characteristics.

A Beautiful Thing


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The beautiful bloom above is from our Wandering Iris plant. You need to be attentive or you’ll completely miss it. The Wandering Iris blooms only once a year, scattering its blooms over several weeks, each bloom lasting only one day. I see a parallel in the lectionary reading of the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and then wiping his feet with her hair (John 12: 1-8).

It’s holy extravagance! The vial of nard perfume that Mary poured over Jesus’ feet comes from the spikenard plant that grows high up in the Himalayan Mountains of India, Nepal, and China. Because of the long overland journey, it was very expensive in ancient Palestine. One vial alone cost about 300 denarii, which was about a year’s wages.

The significance of this story is often missed in the church calendar because it’s immediately followed by accounts of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Good Friday and the crucifixion, and the resurrection on Easter morning. I suspect we also skip over the story because we don’t know what to make of its extravagance and sensuality. A beautiful woman splurged a year’s wages on a vial of perfume, which she poured over Jesus feet, wiped them with her hair, and filled the whole house with the fragrance.

I admit that I would have been shocked by this display and would have sided with those who grumbled that it would have been better to sale the perfume and give the money to the poor. Jesus wasn’t having any of it, saying, “This is beautiful!” In what sense is spirituality sensual and extravagant? For frugal and somewhat prudish folk like me, all this seems self-indulgent rather than holy.

We don’t talk a lot about beauty in the church and God forbid that we would talk about sensuality. We instead talk about worship, mission, service, peace, and justice–all good and worthy things. Let’s lay aside that discussion for a bit to ponder (dream and scheme) about how our spirituality and our service can be informed by Mary’s beautiful deed of holy extravagance.