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.
Finding the human connection was so important for Bryan Stevenson as a first year law student. I wrote about this is my previous blog post and said that I have the same struggle with theological language that can feel just as esoteric and detached from the lives of people I serve in our church and our community.
What does it mean to say that Jesus in both fully human and fully divine? How do we understand abstract Trinitarian language about the relationship with God the Father, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit? Our common theological takeaway is a doctrine of redemption where our salvation is made possible by the incarnation, the sinless life, and the atoning death of Jesus. It’s a transaction that takes place in the spiritual realm and assures us that we will go to heaven when we die.
In theological language it’s called the doctrine of plenary atonement. It’s awfully thin soup, rather detached from the everyday lives of ordinary people. John’s Gospel can help us. It doesn’t have a nativity story, and begins instead by soaring into the farthest reaches of deity. Thinking, however, that it’s about life in the heavens would be a bad mistake.
The first three words “In the beginning” parallel the first three words in the book of Genesis. It’s about the origins of our world, including the human race. The Gospel story, as John tells it, is about a fresh beginning and a new human race. John’s Word or Light from heaven becomes flesh and is the life of humanity. Another way I’ve heard this said is that “God becomes everything we are—to make us everything God is.”
John is writing to a Gentile Christian community outside Palestine. They live in a different culture from the one in which Jesus was born. John is explaining to them that the life and teaching of Jesus comes from God and, at the same time, relates to their ordinary lives. He is placing Jesus both above and within their cultural world. John’s community believes that the spiritual world is good and the material world is evil. He counters this by saying that the eternal Word became human in the life of Jesus. It’s an affirmation that the earth and our physical lives are part of God’s good creation.
We have worth because we’re valued by God who entered our world in the human life of Jesus. In Jesus God shared our experiences including our love, joy and intimate companionship as well as our anger, our tears, and our suffering. God is not a detached deity in a world far away. Our God is an intimate, suffering God who shares both our joys and our wounds.
Jesus turns our world upside-down. In a world where social status is everything, he associates with common people and outcasts. In an anxious and fearful world, he reminds us that God cares even for the sparrows. In a world addicted to the power of violence, he demonstrates that nonviolent, suffering love is a force more powerful. This connects powerfully to the kind of world Bryan Stevenson relates to in his legal practice representing poor people and those trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system.
My daughter gave me the book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson for Christmas. It’s his personal story of working as a defender for poor people trapped in our criminal justice system, especially those on death row. In the introduction he tells how he became a lawyer doing this kind of work.
Near the end of his first year of studies at Harvard Law School, Bryan was disillusioned because the courses seemed esoteric and far removed from the race and poverty issues that had motivated him to study law in the first place. The next fall he took a course on race and poverty that included an internship with a nonprofit law group in Atlanta handling the appeals process for prisoners on death row.
Bryan was scared and insecure during his first visit to a death row inmate in a maximum security prison. His task was to tell the prisoner that they still didn’t have a lawyer assigned to his case but, never-the-less, to assure him that he wouldn’t be executed in the next year. Bryan was astonished when the prisoner, whose name was Henry, was relieved to hear this news.
They immediately connected, started talking about everything including their families, and went way beyond the allotted one-hour time limit for the visit. When the guard came back he was very upset, roughly shackled Henry, and started pushing him out the door. Both the guard and Bryan were startled when Henry shut his eyes, tilted his head back and began to sing the old spiritual, Lord Plant My Feet on Higher Ground.
That was the human contact and inspiration Bryan needed. He returned to law school with an intense desire to learn everything he could about the laws that sanctioned the death penalty and extreme punishments including constitutional law, litigation, and appellate procedure.
I can identify with Bryan in the sense that I’ve wrestled for a long time with theological language about Jesus, which can feel just as abstract and esoteric as those law school courses he was taking. Where do we as theologians find the human contact that Bryan found during his visit with Henry in that maximum security prison? I’ll write more about this on my next post.
Christmas lights at Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina
We’re especially drawn by the tender joy and companionship in that part of the Christmas story where Mary visits her older relative Elizabeth and is greeted with these words, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you are carrying.” Elizabeth adds, “As soon as I heard you greeting, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1: 41-44). We know so well the story of their shared lives—of how Elizabeth’s child John would eventually pave the way for the coming of Mary’s child Jesus who would be proclaimed as the Messiah.
Mennonite pastor Isaac Villegas writes, “The Christmas story begins with joy—visceral joy, ecstatic joy, a joy that moves through the characters’ bodies, drawing their lives together.” But it doesn’t stop there. He reminds us that we’re included in the story. “This is also our story, of you and me and the life we share. We’ve been brought together because of the joy of the gospel—a joy that leaps within us, stretching us toward one another, the ecstasy of shared life, fellowship through Christ, community in the Holy Spirit” (The Mennonite, Dec. 2015: 8).
Elizabeth’s heartwarming greeting elicits Mary’s song praising God and reveling in the way God is turning our world upside down. Lauren Winner says she once read Mary’s song on a park bench at a jazz festival and this prompted the recognition that it’s like jazz. A jazz “musician takes what she knows of scales and modes and the melodic theme and creates something new—in response to what the other members of the band are doing, or even in response to some random ambient noise” (The Christian Century, Dec. 9, 2015: 21).
The genius of jazz lies in improvisation. As Mary responds to what God is doing she latches onto the example of Hannah’s response to God’s gift-pregnancy of the child who would become the prophet Samuel. We can easily recognize how Mary improvises Hannah’s song. “My heart exults in the Lord,” Hannah sings. She also rejoices in how God inverts the social order, “He raises up the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes” (I Samuel 2: 1-10).
But Hannah isn’t making up her song on the spot either. She’s drawing on the yet older song that Moses’ sister Miriam sang after God provided a way for the former Hebrew slaves and to cross the Red Sea and delivered them from Pharaoh’s powerful pursuing army.
Jazz moves, swings, and improvises by working with a common theme in response to a new situation. That’s what these three women in the Bible are doing. We can draw inspiration from them and do likewise in response to the challenges and opportunities of our time. As a people of faith, how do we improvise and swing in our present, ever-changing American social and spiritual landscape?
Lauren Winner writes, “In response to these changes, the thing to do is not to despair; nor is it to invent from whole cloth. The things to do, rather is to invent from the cords we have. Pianist Frank Barrett says that ‘the best jazz is always on the verge of falling apart.’ This is true of churches, too. The best church is always on the verge of falling apart—and life with God has always involved making new combinations from the essential practices of our faith” (The Christian Century, Dec. 9, 2015: 21).
Tragedy can strike any of us. Yet, we can persevere and even draw strength from it. This is the message that Vice-president Joe Biden shared as the commencement speaker at Yale University this year. He speaks from personal experience. Immediately after being elected to the US Senate at age 29 in 1972, his first wife Naomi and their year old daughter were killed when their car was struck by a tractor-trailer as they returned from Christmas shopping.
Their two sons were in the hospital in critical condition and the doctors were not sure they would live. Biden recalls, “By the tone of the phone call, you just knew, didn’t you? You just felt it in your bones. Something bad happened. And I knew. I don’t know how I knew.”
Biden speaks frankly about the anger, crisis of faith and wounds that don’t really ever heal, “I was angry. Man I was angry.… I remember looking up and saying, ‘God.’ I was talking to God myself: ‘God, you can’t be good. How can you be good?'”
His two sons did live and they became very close as a result of that tragedy. Joe took his oath of office in the hospital room where he was staying with his sons. He later regularly commuted from his home in Delaware to his Senate office so he could be with his sons. As a result, he became a deeply committed family man. Now recently his oldest son Beau, who was only 46 years old, died of brain cancer.
Biden’s experience has made him sensitive to the losses of others. Speaking to military families several years ago, he remarked, “Just when you think you’re going to make it, you’re driving down the road and you pass a field and you see a flower, and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up into the night and, you know, you think, ‘Maybe I’m not going to make it, man.’ Because you feel at that moment the way you felt the day you got the news.”
Still, he told those families that there is hope, “There will come a day, I promise you and your parents, as well, when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is that day will come sooner or later” (The Washington Post, May 31, 2015).
Psalm 130 speaks to such tragedy. It begins in the midst of overwhelming loss, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” For many this is initially expressed as anger at God. Such feelings are understandable but we can’t blame God for such tragedies because God doesn’t control events or our lives in that way. The source of suffering and of evil is shrouded in mystery. What we can be sure of is that God suffers with us and responds with compassion, empowering love, and healing grace.
The psalm moves from that depth of pain and anguish to expectant waiting, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” We will survive, we will gradually heal, and a day will come when it doesn’t hurt so much. Psalm 130 expresses it as a confident assurance of trust in God, “Hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.” It’s a promise that healing will come.
My dear friend confided that she finds it difficult to believe in life after death. She’s not alone. Such belief is a stretch for many of us. I instinctively knew that it wouldn’t help to quote religious dogma about life after death. I instead said that how we answer that question has to take into account that death is a final horizon beyond which none of us can see. Literal notions of Heaven and Hell can get in the way. Our faith and how it informs our lives is what’s important.
Irish, poet philosopher John O’Donohue reflects on being a child and looking up at the mountain near their village. He imagined standing on that mountain and being able to see the whole world. He was very excited on the day when his uncle invited him to come with him to bring his sheep over that mountain. He remembers, “As we climbed up the mountain and came to where I thought the horizon would be, it had disappeared. Not only was I not able to see everything when I got there, but another horizon was waiting, farther on. I was disappointed but also excited in an unfamiliar way. Each new level revealed a new world.”
According to German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer, “A horizon is something toward which we journey, but it is also something that journeys along with us.” O’Donohue reflects, “If you are striving to be equal to your destiny and worthy of the possibilities that sleep in the clay of your heart, then you should be regularly reaching new horizons. Against this perspective, death can be understood as the final horizon. Beyond there, the deepest well of your identity awaits you. In that well, you will behold the beauty and light of your eternal face.”
What’s temporal is caught up in the eternal—that’s real. Sure, we can’t see beyond the final horizon of death (it’s a mystery) but we can have confidence that we’ll be part of the eternal life of God. I find it helpful to relate this to the fact that we’re creatures of time and space.
O’Donohue writes, “It’s a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have the whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you.” Yet our bodily existence also entails separation. “I am here. You are there. Even the person that you are closest to, the one you love, is still a separate world from you. That is the poignancy of love.” Likewise, our lives are defined by time. “Time is primarily linear, disjointed, and fragmented. All your past days have disappeared; they have vanished. The future has not come to you yet. All you have is the little stepping-stone of the present moment.” It’s what mystics call the eternal now.
In the words of the Apostle Paul, “The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). O’Donohue considers, “In eternal time all is now; time is presence. I believe that this is what eternal life means: It is a life where all that we seek—goodness, unity, beauty, truth, and love—are no longer distant from us but are completely present with us.” (Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, 215-229).
This does not directly answer my friend’s skepticism but it does give us added perspective on our hope in the eternal.