I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.