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.”

I Was Hungry and a Stranger

Jesus’ account of the final judgment in Matthew 25: 31-45 challenges us on several levels. I love the message about seeing him in the faces of those who are suffering and in need. He makes it personal and up close, I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I was naked, I was sick, I was in prison.

The apocalyptic scene and the language about dividing the sheep from the goats is especially hard to grasp. Who are all these nations gathered around the throne of the Human One when he returns with his angels? The Greek phrase is pantes ethnê (translated “all the nations”). It’s a term indicating non-Jews or Gentiles.  Jesus certainly pushes the buttons of those who think they alone are God’s chosen people. He claims that there are many who are welcoming and caring for him even though they don’t realize it. This is mind boggling.

All the needy and powerless people in the world are representatives of Jesus. Today, we see Jesus in the faces of the many refugee children from Syria. We see Jesus when we believe the women who say they were sexually groped and molested by powerful men. Jesus’ solidarity with vulnerable people means that the nations or peoples who recognize and care for them have a relationship with Jesus.

That relationship has nothing to do with technique: believe these things about Jesus and repeat this prayer and you will be saved. Instead, it’s about encountering Jesus in real, caring relationships with those who are insignificant, vulnerable, and hurting. Could it be that many people from other faiths or no faith actually know Jesus better than those of us who easily name his name and claim to be his followers? That’s what he’s telling us.

Jesus’ pronouncement about eternal life and eternal punishment indicates far-reaching consequences, but we should not kick the can down the road to some far-off eternity. How we treat the least of these, our sisters and brothers has pivotal consequences for us and our country right now. For instance, consider the bitter legacy of slavery and how native Americans have been treated in our country. It created a hell that keeps following us. It’s judgment day in America based on how we treat the hungry, recent immigrants, people without adequate healthcare, and those in our overfilled prisons.

What does inheriting the kingdom—God’s new world coming—look like for us. Bringing these vivid images down to where we are, we can say that it looks an awful lot like, “living love, growing justice, and welcoming everyone.” And the opposite is—well just that—the opposite.

Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart

planting seeds


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.

The Human Connection (part 2)

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.


The Human Connection

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.

A Joy That Leaps Within Us

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).

Finding Healing in Tragedy

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.

Hope in the Eternal

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.