Learning to Dance

One night when I was about 14 years old, I saw something that was almost indescribably beautiful, something that left me completely transfixed.   Mom and Dad had gone out for dinner, just the two of them.  I don’t know what the occasion was, but Mom was wearing a black cocktail dress and Dad was wearing his best suit and tie. 

A few hours after they left, I was in my bedroom doing homework when I heard the front door open and then close.  When I didn’t hear anything else for a minute, I padded down the hall to poke my head into the living room and make sure everything was okay.  And that’s when I saw it.  

Mom and Dad were dancing.

Glen Miller’s Moonlight Serenade was playing on the stereo, and my parents were dancing.  They weren’t just dancing…they were dancing beautifully.  They moved together perfectly.  They didn’t just sway together in time to the music, they knew The Steps, and they did them together flawlessly, as if they had practiced this every day for their entire lives.   

My parents were dancing, and it transformed them.  My dad was no longer the stocky guy with a short temper who, frankly, scared me a little, he was suddenly Gene Kelly, elegant, athletic and graceful.  My mom was no longer the brainy little elf with her nose forever in a book, she was suddenly Cyd Charisse, fluid, weightless and willowy!  They were no longer two separate persons, they were one, united by the music, their synchronized steps,  and their embrace.

So why am I telling you this very personal story about a very personal moment between my mother and father?  I’m telling you this story because this is Trinity Sunday, and for one brief moment when I was 14, I saw the Mother, the Father, and the Holy Music united together as one:  a nearly perfect analogy of the Holy Trinity.

Nearly perfect.  And also, not even close to perfect.  That’s because even the very best analogies break down at some point.  They break down because they are trying to describe something that is too vast and deep and intimate to fit into human words.  Martin Luther said that to deny the Trinity imperils our souls, but to try to explain the Trinity imperils our sanity.

And that makes sense when you think about it.  Can you explain you?  Could you give a concise yet comprehensive description of everything that makes you you?  You are not an intellectual construct to be defined and understood.  You are a person to be befriended and loved.  The only meaningful way for someone to “understand” the mystery that is you is to relate to you—to be in a relationship with you.  

When I saw my parents dancing that night, all those years ago, it was an epiphany for me, but it was by no means the final epiphany.  I had a new understanding of who they were together and what they meant to each other, but it was by no means a complete and exhaustive understanding of the mystery of their relationship.  Much of their relationship would remain a mystery.  In the same way, no matter how many epiphanies we have about the relationship, the oneness of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, there will always be more that remains a mystery.

The infinite God cannot be boxed into our very finite minds.  The limitless God cannot be corralled by our limited understanding.  The Holy Trinity, the union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, three distinct persons united as one God, is not a puzzle to be solved.  It’s a mystery in which to immerse ourselves.  Frederick Buechner called the Trinity the Mystery beyond us, the Mystery among us, and the Mystery within us.  You don’t solve mysteries, you explore them.  You enter into them.  You participate in them.  Maybe instead of calling this day Trinity Sunday, we should call it Mystery Sunday.

When something is a mystery, especially when it’s a God mystery, that doesn’t mean it can’t be understood, it means that it can be understood endlessly.  There is always more to see.  There is always more to relate to.  There is always more to understand.  There are always new steps in the dance.

And it is a dance—or at least that’s one of the best descriptions we’ve ever had of the Trinity.  But how did we come to have the Doctrine of the Trinity in the first place?

Well, early followers of Jesus had a problem.  Like the Jews—and remember, the first followers of Jesus were Jews—these early Jesus followers believed that there is only one God.  But they also believed—or at least most of them did—that Jesus was divine in nature and that he was somehow completely one with God whom he called Abba or Father.  On top of that, they had received the Holy Spirit—the very breath of God, who they also experienced as a divine person because the Spirit often seemed to exist and act independently of Jesus and Abba.  At the baptism of Jesus, all three seemed to have been present: Jesus coming up out of the water, the Spirit, descending in the form of a dove, and the Abba, speaking like thunder.  So how do you reconcile three divine persons but hang onto the idea that there is only one God?

Well, you don’t, said one group of Christ followers.  These people were called Arians because the main proponent of their theology was Arius of Alexandria.  The Father is God, said Arius.  Jesus, the Son is a slightly lesser god.  All his authority and power comes from the Father, but he is separate in substance and stature.  And the Spirit is a lesser god than Jesus, the Son, and also of a lower stature and substance.  What the Arians were saying, more or less, is that there are really three gods and the Father is the only one who is really God, the one with all the power and authority.   

Hang on a minute, said the Trinitarians.  Jesus said, “The Father and I are one.  You who have seen me have seen the Father.”  After the resurrection, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples.  He is in his breath.  It’s his Spirit flows in us.  When the prophets would say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”  they were talking about the Father’s Spirit.  So, the Three have to be One.  They are also Three.  But they are also one.  Three persons, One being.

This disagreement had started to become violent and threatened to completely and irreparably divide the church which had only recently really begun to come together in a meaningful way.  So in 325, the emperor Constantine, who had recently declared himself to be a follower of Christ, decided that this question had to be settled for the good of the Church and the good of the empire.  He called for a Council and ordered all the bishops to meet at Nicaea to debate the matter.  After much argument, Constantine declared that the Trinitarians had won the debate. 

Constantine ordered the Council of Nicaea to formulate a statement of Doctrine to describe the Trinity.  This was the very first official doctrine of the whole Church, by the way, and the bishops and presbyters argued heatedly over the words they would use.  They argued about whether the Father and the Son were made of the same substance and whether they had the same nature.  They knew they were standing at the edge of an enormous Truth about God and they felt it was vitally important to get all the details exactly right even though there was no possible way for them to even know or see all the details.  In some ways, they were like children who stand on the beach and think they can fully describe the breadth and depth and power of the ocean and all the life contained in it.  

They created the first draft of the Nicene Creed and decided that adherence to this statement of faith would determine if someone was a true Christian or not.  Ironically, their very useful insight about the all-loving, all-relating God who exists eternally in the expansive community and relationship of the Trinity led them to formulate a faith statement that would be used to exclude people from the community and the embrace of the Church.

Fortunately, about 50 years after Nicaea, the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil, the bishop of Caesarea, his younger brother, Gregory, the bishop of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen, the patriarch of Constantinople came up with a better description of how the three persons of the Trinity exist as one God.  The model they used was a circle dance, and the fancy theological name they gave their idea is perichoresis, a Greek word which more or less literally means circle dance.   The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they said, exist as one in an eternal circle dance of love.  The Trinity is an eternal, joyful, radiant manifestation of love, loving, and being loved.  The love that endlessly flows between, in and through the Father, Son and Holy Spirit creates and sustains the universe.

One of the beautiful things about this idea is that there is no hierarchy in it.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal in their eternal love for each other and for their creation, which includes us.  Another wonderful thing about this idea is that it describes God as always in motion, God as a verb and not as a static noun, exists as an endless flow of love.  But perhaps the most powerful thing about this idea, at least as far as we are concerned, is that we are invited into their dance.  We are invited to participate in the endless flow of love, loving, and being loved.  The Holy Spirit, who dwells within us, carries us into the loving embrace of the Father and the Son and invites us to learn the steps of the dance.

When I saw my mother and father dancing on that long-ago night, they had lost themselves in each other and the music.  They were still themselves, but they had become something more, and that something filled up the whole room and spilled out into me and my sister and the dog.  It’s like that with the Trinity.  The eternal dance of love spills over to create the universe and fills that universe with love.  You and I are invited into the dance.  Never mind if you don’t know the steps.  The Spirit will teach you, and as you learn, the dance itself will carry you.

The Breath, the Wind, the Spirit

John 14:8-17, 25-27

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

It’s no surprise that this is the text that usually gets all our attention on Pentecost Sunday.  It’s a big, dramatic story.  The language is intense and the narrative is filled with almost cinematic details that light up our imaginations!  Violent wind!  Tongues of fire!  Everyone streaming out into the street speaking different languages!  This outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the second chapter of Acts is so vivid and powerful, so action-packed and full of good stuff for motivating the church that it’s no wonder we return to it every year to be inspired by it and to have our own personal zeal and dedication rekindled. 

This Pentecost story in the second chapter of Acts is an important part of our heritage.  Many call it the birthday of the church;  Pentecost is the day that God endowed us with God’s own Holy Spirit, right?  Well, yes. The Pentecost story in Acts  is one version of how the followers of Jesus were endowed with the Holy Spirit.  Over the past few years, though, I have felt myself more and more drawn to the way the followers of Jesus receive the Spirit in the Gospel of John. 

In chapter 20 of John, the disciples were huddled together in hiding.  It was evening, three days after Jesus was crucified.  The day had been an emotional roller coaster.  Just before sunrise, Jesus’ tomb was found to be unsealed and empty.  Mary Magdalen claimed that she had seen Jesus and spoken with him, but no one else had.  And then suddenly, even though the doors were locked, there he was standing in the room with them!  “Peace be with you,” he said.  “As the Father has sent me, now I’m sending you.”  And then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

This is a much gentler and more subdued giving of the Spirit.  It’s not as flashy as Luke’s Pentecost story, but it is very powerful in its own way.  It’s more personal.  The Holy Spirit is given and received as the very breath of Jesus.  

This is the culmination of a wonderful play on words that has been going on throughout John’s gospel since chapter 3 when Jesus told Nicodemus that “The wind blows wherever it chooses, and you hear its sound, but do not know where it is coming from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”  In Greek, the language in which the Gospel of John was written, the word for wind and breath and spirit are all the same word.  Pneuma.  So when Jesus breathes on them in chapter 20 and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” it could also be understood as “receive the Holy Breath” or “Receive the Holy Wind.” 

What does it do to our understanding of the Spirit if we can hear it all three ways: to hear it as the Spirit, the essence of God that resides with us and in us guiding and speaking to our spirits; but also to hear it as the very breath of Jesus filling our lungs, empowering our words when we speak; and then to also hear it as the wind of God that blows us where God wants or needs us to go?  Receive the Holy Breath.  Receive the Holy Wind.  Receive the Holy Spirit.

I like the rambunctious giving of the Spirit in Acts 2.  It’s a joyful and empowering picture of the Spirit at work.  But as I said, I have been more and more drawn to the way the Gospel of John describes the movement and work of the Spirit.  I find this quieter, gentler “Pentecost” more in keeping with my own experience and more consistent with the ways I have seen the Spirit move and work in others.  I find that very often the work of the Spirit is so subtle that it’s not until I look back on the moment that I even realize that the Spirit was at work.

Let me give you an example.  As I was preparing this sermon, I had done my research and gathered all the bits and pieces in my notes, and prayed, so that the only thing left to do was to start writing.  And that’s where I was stuck.  My brain needed more time to percolate all the things I had been reading and thinking.  I guess I was still in sermon-avoidance mode.  So I went online to Facebook just to get the synapses firing and blow out the cobwebs.  As I scrolled through different posts, I came upon a painting of Jesus.  It was an arresting and well done picture, and there were two things I liked about it immediately.  First, in this painting Jesus looks like a Palestinian.  There’s an authenticity about it that makes it easy to say, “Yeah.  Jesus could very well look like that.”  But the thing that was really striking was that in this picture, Jesus is smiling.  He looks warm and friendly and understanding.  And loving. 

Staring at this marvelous picture of Jesus, I found myself thinking about our gospel text for today from John 14.  This passage is part of the Last Supper Discourse, also called the Farewell Discourse.  John pictures Jesus gathered with his disciple on the night of his betrayal, taking advantage of their short time together to prepare them for what is to come.  I have always imagined him being very somber throughout this whole discourse, after all, he’s sharing some very serious things with his disciples.  But looking at this picture where he’s smiling, where he looks so loving, I began to think, “What if this was his expression as he said all these difficult and necessary things?  What if he was looking at them with love and gentleness and patient understanding?”  As I looked at that painting, I began to hear his words differently.  The tone of voice changed and the words of Jesus came alive for me in a new way.  I could hear Jesus saying with that gentle smile, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid,” and those words went to my heart in a deeper way than ever before.

That, I believe, was a Holy Spirit moment.   Finding that picture.  Reimagining that scene of the text.  Opening to the words of Christ in a new way.  That’s the kind of thing the Holy Spirit does for us much more often, I think, than tongues of fire and speaking in unfamiliar languages.

It was not a happy or festive night when Jesus gathered his disciples to give them the new commandment to love each other and to promise them the gift of the Spirit.  They were anxious and afraid.  They had so many unanswered questions.  Jesus had told them that he would be departing from them and it had begun to sink in that soon they would be on their own.  The needed some kind of reassurance.  

“The promise of the Spirit,” wrote Meda Stamper, “does not come to completely faithful, courageous people, already loving one another and the world boldly, already worshiping in spirit and truth.  It comes in the midst of confusion and fear, which has made them unable to grasp what he is saying, and it is the answer to that.  Jesus makes the promise of the Spirit, emerging from the mutual love of the Father and Son for one another and for us, into which they and we are invited, at the very moment when such grace seems most beyond their grasp and ours.”[1]  

Jesus tells them and us that simply in our love for one another we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in us and with us, to guide us and make us bold enough love a world which is both threatening and beloved.

Jesus promises that when loving the world and each other feels like a trial, when it seems to be beyond our ability to find one more drop of grace and understanding in what Johannes Buetler called our “lawsuit with the world,”[2] when life, itself, feels like an ordeal, Jesus promises that we will have an Advocate.  The Spirit comes alongside us and abides in us in the same way that the Father abides in the Son and Jesus dwelled in the world.  “When the physical presence of Jesus is no longer available, still the way, the truth, and the life are in us.”[3]

This is what the Spirit does.  She comes into us like a breath and carries us forward like a powerful wind.  She reminds us of all the things that Jesus has taught us.  She gives us courage to witness, to give our testimony, to convict or convince the world of the presence of Christ and the power of love.  She gives us the energy and the courage to do in our time what Jesus did in his own time—to love each other and the world.  

“Jesus in John shows us what living love looks like in his own life of making God’s love for the world known,” said Meda Stamper. “He enacts love… in words and works: in dangerously truthful testimony to political and religious authorities; in a ministry of boundary-breaking healing and of feeding the physically and spiritually hungry; and in a life of humility,… friendship, and prayer. He tells us that we are to follow his example…”

Jesus enacts love and tells us to do the same.  Jesus makes his own life an example of God’s love in the world and tells us to do the same.

This is the quieter Pentecost, the alternative Pentecost, a Pentecost centered in love. This is the Pentecost that empowers us to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Spirit is breathed into us, dwells in us, advocates for us, and flows through us as a witness to God’s love in a hurting world.  Jesus calls us to live into the fullness of life in this Holy Spirit to bring light and love and restoration to all of creation.

Jesus breathes the Spirit into us to give us comfort and courage and peace.  “Peace I leave with you,” he says. “My peace I give to you,” and the peace that Jesus give us is the breath of the Spirit.  It is the very presence of God in us.   Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  God is with you and in you.

Whether it’s with tongues of fire and a loud rush of wind, or with a whisper, a breath, or a breeze, may this Pentecost renew the power of the Spirit within you.

May the Spirit of God make you bold to love the world.  May this Holy Spirit, the breath of Christ within you, empower you to be kind, to speak truth, and to stand for justice and fairness.  May your life be centered in love.  And may the peace of Christ, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.


[1] Meda Stamper, Commentary on John 14:8-17, 25-27

[2] Johannes Buetler, Paraclete, The New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible

[3] Meda Stamper, Commentary on John 14:8-17, 25-27

Painting by Maria B., http://www.magnificatprints.com, used by permission

Rise Up

The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord was on Thursday, but since most of us aren’t in the habit of going to church on Thursday, and since Lutherans and other protestants don’t really know what a Feast day is anyway, we moved it to Sunday.  So, Ascension Sunday.  Except that it’s really still the 7thSunday in Easter.  Also this is Memorial Day Weekend when everyone is out of town in their RVs or boats, or out shopping at those great Memorial Day sales, so maybe not so many are attending this Feast.  

The Feast of the Ascension.  It’s almost as if we really didn’t want anybody to notice it.  Ascension? Uh… yes.  Isn’t that mentioned in the Creed?  Ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father…  and… he will come again with special coupons for everything you need for your Memorial Day barbeque.  No?

I have to confess that I’ve always had a little trouble taking the Feast of the Ascension seriously.  The way the Jesus ascending is described in Luke and Acts always felt a little cartoonish to me.  In my imagination I keep seeing it like a Terry Gilliam animation like the ones he did for Monty Python, with Jesus suddenly rising up from the ground then catching a ride out of town on a nearby cloud. 

I realize that’s not the best way for a pastor to be thinking about a significant event in the life and ministry of Jesus, an event so significant that it is included in the Creeds, so I’ve made an effort to think about it more seriously.  After all, the Ascension of Jesus has real significance for those of us who are followers of Jesus.  It deserves some thoughtful attention. 

The Ascension marks a turning point in the way God engages with humanity—with us.  For a very long time, God engaged with us infrequently through prophets like Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Micah.  They gave us Torah—the teachings—with all the basic information needed to build good relationships and a just society, and occasional corrective advice and direction.  And encouragement.  Worship in the temple and reading the scriptures in the synagogue were formative community experiences that reminded the people that they lived in the covenant of God’s teachings, that God was with them, and that their relationships with each other and with God were important. 

Then came the Incarnation.  God entered human history as one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.  Jesus came to expand on the teachings of the law and the prophets, to confront human systems based on greed and oppressive power dynamics, to renew our relationship with God and expand our understanding of God and to teach us not to be afraid of God.  As Richard Rohr says, Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us, Jesus came to change our mind about God.  Most importantly, Jesus came to proclaim that the reign of God had begun—that a human society structured on God’s values was being inaugurated and was within reach. 

So after going to all the trouble of incarnation and living a fully human life from start to finish, after challenging our religious and political and economic systems and suffering the most extreme consequences for doing that, after training disciples, after being crucified and then resurrected—after all that, why would Jesus just up and leave? 

I can think of two reasons, and they’re connected to each other.  First, I think Jesus ascended, returned to his trans dimensional life, because it was time for the kids to grow up and go out on their own.  The kids being us.  God decided it was time to engage with the humanity in a new way.  Instead of working and speaking through only one person, God was now going to engage the world through multiple persons by endowing us with the Holy Spirit.  And for that to happen, Jesus had to step back so we could step forward.  His disciples and followers would never fully take the responsibility of renewing and transforming their world if Jesus was still handy in person to arbitrate disputes, point the way through dilemmas, and make all the tough decisions.  

Jesus had prepared them for this.  Luke says he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.  He reaffirmed the key points of what he had been teaching them, telling them that repentance, metanoia,and forgiveness of sins was to be proclaimed to all peoples.  Then he told them to go back to Jerusalem and wait for his signal.  “Stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high,” he says in Luke.  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” he says in Acts.

During that time of waiting in Jerusalem, the disciples prayed together, sang together, worshiped together, and ate together.  They created a model for the followers of Jesus that we still follow in many ways.  This life together was part of their preparation for the work that lay ahead.  Through all this they continued to remind each other of their discipleship experiences with Jesus, sharing what they had learned and imagining how they might apply that knowledge.  Though they probably didn’t realize it, they were building a foundation of community to fortify their relationships with each other and to build the mutual support that they would rely on to carry them through the challenging days ahead.

Jesus ascended so we could carry on the work of transforming the world as we are  empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit and enriched by our life together.  

I think the second reason Jesus ascended is that he had taught us everything we need to know to live a whole, healthy and helpful life.  These were the same lessons that we are called to share with the rest of the world: 

  • If someone lashes out at you, let it go.  Turn the other cheek. 
  • Don’t curse your enemies, pray for them instead. In fact, don’t stop there—love your enemies. 
  • Forgive and you will be forgiven.  
  • Do not judge and you will not be judged.  
  • Treat others the way you would like to be treated. 
  • Share—if you have an extra coat, give it to someone who doesn’t have one.  If you have 5 loaves and two fish pass it around to the multitude in front of you.
  • Give something to everyone who asks.  
  • Don’t make yourself crazy worrying about how you’re going to get by.  God knows what you need and God will take care of you.  
  • Don’t embrace violence or the tools of violence.  Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
  • And most important of all, love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s what all the law and the prophets were about.  Love each other.

Much of what Jesus taught was a restatement of what God had been trying to teach us from the beginning.  Jesus, himself, said, he had come to fulfill what the law and the prophets had been saying all along.  Jesus embodied what the prophet Micah had said 700 years before him, “God has told you what is good, people.  And what does God require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  Or as Eugene Peterson translated it  in The Message Bible:  “God has already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.”

What else was there to teach?  All the bases had been covered.  So it was time for Jesus to return to the place he called “My Father’s House.”  As one of my friends said, “The Feast of the Ascension celebrates the day that Jesus started working from home.”  

Jesus started working from home.  But he promised that we wouldn’t be left like orphans.  Yes, the work of the kingdom was now in our hands, but we wouldn’t have to do it alone.  He promised that the Holy Spirit would be with us and in us to guide us and prompt us and remind us of what Jesus taught us.  “I have said these things to you while I am still with you,” he says in the Gospel of John.  “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” 

The book of Acts tells us that while the disciples were gazing up toward heaven and watching Jesus ascend, two men in white robes suddenly stood by them and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  

Why do y’all keep looking up toward heaven?  Your work is down here.  Jesus will be back when the time is right.

Our work is down here.  And God knows we could be doing better.  War is still erupting all over the world even because people are greedy or sometimes because people are so convinced that their way of seeing the world is the only way and that people who see it another way must be eliminated. Or conquered.  Or controlled. People are still turning to self-medication in huge numbers because life for many is meaningless and painful or frightening…or just plain boring.   Whole groups of people are oppressed by other whole groups of people because we have made gods of power and competition and money instead of following the God of love and cooperation.  The planet itself is crying out in pain and becoming less habitable because we have trashed it instead of loving it and taking care of it and learning our proper place in the interconnected, intricate, and beautiful web of creation. 

In the church, the place where the followers of Jesus should be replenished and renewed for our work in the world, we are putting ourselves out of business with overthought, overwrought and exclusionary theologies that are long on structure and order but short on the love and teachings of Jesus, with patriarchies and hierarchies that Jesus never intended, and with abuse of authority and just plain abuse. 

In a week like this past week when a devastating mass shooting of school children is bookended by a convention of the Church of The Holy Gun in the same state, when yet another Christian denomination is revealed to have been covering up sexual abuse by its clergy and leaders, when once again a small cadre of politicians managed to block legislation that would make the country safer for all of us, it’s really tempting to gaze up to the heavens and hope that the next cloud that floats overhead will be carrying Jesus back to us to fix everything once and for all.

But that isn’t happening.  Jesus is still in heaven, working from home.  Which means that the work of transforming the world through love is still very much in our hands.  It’s time for us to rise up.  It’s time for us to ascend, not to a cloud that will take us away from it all, but to our feet taking us into it all—into the world with the ministry of love, healing, and transformation that Jesus has left in our hands.

God has told us how to live and what to do.  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with God and with each other.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love yourself.  Love the world that God has given us.  Love it into peace and wholeness one person at a time.  And listen to the Holy Spirit reminding us of everything Jesus said.

What the Numbers Don’t Tell Us

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.  Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. –Jeremiah 31:15

I am writing this the day after a teenager walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas and killed nineteen children and two teachers, and wounded 16 others.  Before going to the school, he had also shot his grandmother.  This was just 10 days after a young white racist killed 10 people and wounded 3 at a supermarket in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York.  Nine days ago, another gunman killed 1 and wounded 5 people at a church in Laguna Woods, just down the freeway from here.  In the past 10 days, there have been 17 mass shootings across the United States, resulting in the deaths of 44 people and leaving 89 wounded.  This is just a small 10-day sample of the 213 mass shootings which have already occurred in 2022.  By the time you read this, that number will be higher.  I guarantee it, because there were a total of 693 mass shootings in 2021 and we’re already on pace to match or exceed that.  You can see all the numbers at www.gunviolence.org.

There have been a total of 119 school shootings since 2018.  There were 34 school shootings in 2021, and the shooting at Robb Elementary was the 27th so far this year. 

There are 393 million guns in private hands in the United States, the equivalent of 120 guns for every 100 citizens.  Fifty-three people a day on average are killed by firearms in the US.  79% of all homicides in our country are caused by guns.  

According to Pew Research, 53% of the people in this country favor stricter gun laws, including universal background checks.  NPR and Forbes place that number at 60%.  Gallup breaks that down, finding that 91% of Democrats favor stricter gun control but only 24% of Republicans and 45% of independent voters.  77% are in favor of “red flag” laws that would remove firearms from the hands of persons in a mental health crisis, spousal abusers, and persons who threaten violence.  All in all, the takeaway is that a clear majority want stricter gun laws.  Two major gun control measures were passed by the House of Representatives last year: the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021 and the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021.  Both bills are stalled in the Senate.  Think about that for a moment.  Fifty Senators are blocking legislation that the majority of the people in the country want to see passed.

All of that is just numbers.  Those numbers describe a country that is addicted to personal weaponry far beyond all need or reason, a country where life is cheap.  Those numbers tell a story of a country that is so sick in its soul that significant numbers of its people are so turned inward on their own fantasies or pain that they can’t see the other people around them as, well, people.  Not even children.

Those numbers tell us a lot.  But they don’t tell us anything about the pain of bereaved families.  They don’t tell us anything about the heartbreak.  They don’t tell us anything about the fear that scars the survivors of gun violence for life.

Nineteen kids in the 4th grade didn’t make it home from school yesterday.  That breaks my heart.  But my heartbreak is nothing compared to the devastation the families and friends of those 19 children are experiencing.

Nineteen 4th graders.  That hits so close to home that I can’t stop the tears as I write it.  Two of my three grandsons, the twins, are in 4th grade.  Their mother, my daughter, Brooke, is a former School Psychologist.  My son-in-law, P.A., is an elementary school principal.  Here’s what my daughter wrote on Facebook earlier today:

“This morning I talked to the twins about the Texas school shooting before school.  I remembered my school psych training, where we had to practice how to discuss this exact topic with different age groups.  We were taught to emphasize how rare it is for this to happen.

But…I just couldn’t say those words without feeling like a complete liar.  Instead, I reassured them that it is very unlikely that something like this would happen at their school and we discussed the safety measures in place.

And then I left them at school.  And I couldn’t stop worrying.

What if someone starts shooting at recess?  What if they’re in the bathroom?  Where are the most likely entry points?

If they come through the office this might buy enough time for the children and teachers to get into their locked classrooms.  But then, what will happen to the people in the front office, like P.A.?

What will happen to all my friends who are administrators, school psychs, counselors, speech pathologists, administrative assistants, parent volunteers?  What will happen to the teachers? WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE CHILDREN?

What if one fourth grader comes out of the school, but not two?  What if three kids come home, buy my husband doesn’t?”

The trauma from these incidents isn’t limited to the victims and their immediate families.  It spreads out in ripples and damages all of us.  I am heartbroken.  But I am also furious.  I am furious with a culture that lionizes violence.  I’m angry at a culture that makes life so cheap.  I’m furious with a country that puts profit above health and safety.  I am particularly angry at the politics that greases the wheels of all this.  I’m incensed by 50 Senators holding the country hostage to this violence while their campaign chests are being stuffed by the gun lobby.  And, quite frankly, I am also angry with all the people who wring their hands and say we’re helpless, that nothing can be done.  I am furious with all those people who work to oppose common-sense legislation to curtail the damage done by an overbroad interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.  The words “well-regulated” are in that amendment.  Let’s start there.

We long ago crossed any imaginary threshold of an acceptable number of deaths.  We are way past the threshold of patience.  We have spent too much blood on the altar of alleged “rights” and not nearly enough sweat on the sacred ground of responsibility.

And yes, we need to pray.  We need to hold the victims of our violent culture in our thoughts and prayers.  We need to ask God for help.  But we also need to ask God for the courage, the wisdom, the will, and the vision to be part of the solution as we try to find a way to disarm this country and to address the alienation and dysfunction that’s at the heart of these incidents.

Finally, I know that some people who read this will not like what I am saying here.  I offer no apologies.  My ordination vows obligate me to speak for justice and to stand with victims.  But beyond that, I want to live in a country that loves its children more than it loves guns.

Pro Gloria Dei,

Pastor Steve

Seeing Jesus

“In a little while, the world will no longer see me,” said Jesus, “but you will see me.”[1]

My friend, Pastor David Nagler, who was just elected as bishop of the Pacifica Synod on Friday, told the synod assembly a story about seeing Jesus when he was serving as the Director of the Central City Lutheran Mission (CCLM) in San Bernardino.  CCLM has been helping to provide a variety of services and assistance to the county’s most vulnerable people since 1994 and in 2015 they became part of Lutheran Social Services.  I don’t know if they still do this, but when Dave was the director they would have a morning worship service, then after the service, people were invited into the fellowship hall for lunch.

There was a kid from the neighborhood named Rudy who had been born in a very small town in Mexico.  He was born with bowed legs and since his town was very poor, there wasn’t any medical help to provide braces or surgically straighten them.  Rudy loved to hang out at the church, and he followed Pastor Dave around like an eager puppy, running everywhere on his little, bowed legs as he tried to keep up with Dave’s long stride.  He was fascinated by the worship service and was always asking Dave if he could help out.  “Pastor Dave, can I collect the money?”  “Pastor Dave, can I hold the cup at communion?”  “Pastor Dave, can I wash the cup after communion?”    

One Sunday, right after worship when everyone else had filed into the fellowship hall for lunch, Dave was still up at the altar putting away the communion elements when a homeless man wandered into the church through the side door.  The man was disheveled and obviously a little disoriented, and didn’t seem to be quite aware of where he was.  Dave didn’t think much about it because people like that drifted in all the time.  He figured he would go talk to the man when he finished what he was doing.  Rudy, however, hustled over to the man, took his arm, and led him over to the baptismal font and said,  “Bend over the water,” and without questioning, the man did.  Before anyone could say or do anything, Rudy poured a handful of water onto the man’s head.  Then Rudy led the man up to the altar and said, “Pastor Dave, can he have communion?”  It was one of those moments when time stands still and the angels hold their breath to see what you’re going to do.  Dave gave the man communion then walked with him over to the fellowship hall to make sure he got some lunch.

Most pastors will tell you that there are times in life, in ministry, when you will see Jesus.  If your mind and your heart are open, you will see Jesus so, so clearly.  There are times when you will undeniably feel the breath of the Spirit filling your sails.  “That day,” said Pastor Dave, “Rudy showed me Jesus.”  

“You will see me,” said Jesus, “because I am alive.  And because I am alive, you will be alive.  The day that you realize that my life is your life and your life is my life, that’s the day you will begin to see that I am in the Father, and you are in me and I am in you.  You who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love you and make myself plain to you.”  And here’s the thing we need to remember as we hear this:  every time Jesus says “you” here, it’s plural.  All y’all.  His life is ourlife.  He lives in us, collectively and connectedly.  We who love him are the ones who make him visible in the world.  We are the ones who show God’s love to the world.  Our arms are the arms Jesus uses to embrace the world.  And our eyes are the eyes that get to see his presence.

Bishop Andy Taylor said that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing is the Gospel—the announcement of God’s love and presence in the world through Jesus.  We are not called just to just preach about God’s love or teach about God’s love, we are called to live into it and let it be alive in us.   

Richard Rohr once said, “The only way I know how to love God is to love what God loves.”  Jesus said, “Those who love me will keep my word.”  Keeping his word means that we get to show people in clear and tangible ways that they are loved.  That means that when someone is oppressed, we stand up for them, even when it’s scary.  When someone is excluded, we welcome them to the table.  When someone is wounded, we make a safe space for them to be healed.  When someone is beaten down, we lift them up.  That’s what it means to love one another as Jesus has loved us.  That’s what it means to follow Jesus.  And sometimes that means we have to put our bodies on the line.

It was two years ago this week, May 25, 2020, that George Floyd was killed by police on the streets of Minneapolis.   In the wake of his death and the death of Brionna Taylor and others, Black Lives Matter organized protests all across the country.  I was part of a group of clergy and other faith leaders who were asked to attend the Black Lives Matter Rally at the Civic Center in Los Angeles.  We were asked to wear our clerical collars and our stoles—symbols of our office, clear and visible signs that we were there representing our various faith communities and traditions.  We weren’t there to share any words.  We were there to witness.  We were asked to perform one simple task, to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other in a line, a kind of human boundary line between the law enforcement officers and the protesters.  We were there to help create a safe space where black people and other persons of color gathered in community could speak their grievances and share their grief.  We were there to help assure both sides that things would remain peaceful.

It was scary to stand there in that line.  It was still early days in the Pandemic and even though we were all masked, we knew that Covid was in the air.  But the really scary part was to stand just a few yards away from a line of fully armed Sheriff’s deputies in riot gear, watching them watching us, and knowing that my stole and my clerical collar wouldn’t help one bit if they suddenly decided to move in on the demonstrators.  

As you might expect, my thoughts were racing.  But then I decided that I was going to love those deputies.  I was going to love them because Jesus loves them.  I realized that they were in a difficult position, too, and probably didn’t want to be there.  As I stood there across from those deputies with their hands resting on their batons or their holsters, I just kept repeating one thought in my mind over and over:  “God loves you.  God loves everyone here.  We are all children of God.”  And then these words of Jesus came to me: “Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give you.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  Those words of Jesus became my prayer that day—my prayer not just for me but for the deputies and the protestors, too.  Peace.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  

There is so much in our country and in our world that has become oppositional.  There is a real struggle between those who believe that peace and prosperity will come through progressive ideas and those who think it will come through conformity to imposed systems of hierarchy and order.  Those positions have boiled themselves down to hardened political polarities and ideologies.  People just aren’t listening to each other.  No one is seeking middle ground.  There is no real exchange of ideas, no conversation, just entrenched positions.  

Jesus is calling his followers to step into the front lines of this tension.  We are being called to create a space of grace where people can be heard and their fears addressed, where conversation can begin and the seeds of God’s transforming love can be planted.  

We called to build a Beloved community, a  people who are living into the Gospel, a companionship enlivened by the vibrant love of God.  That’s what church is supposed to be about.  We are called to create a welcoming space where God can love us into something new.  We are called to create a community where people can see Jesus.

There is a beautiful vision at the end of the Book of Revelation, a vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of the heavens from God.  Some people think this is a description of what heaven will be like.  Some think it is a literal description of what God is going to do at the end of time.  Personally, I think it’s a wonderful metaphor for what the church of Jesus Christ can be and should be now when we’re at our best.  

The river of life flows in that city[2] and I believe that this river of life in all its fullness can flow in and through us when we immerse ourselves in God’s life and love and grace. 

The tree of life grows in that city with its leaves that are for the healing of the nations[3]—healing for all the different peoples of the world, healing for all the wounds we have inflicted on each other simply because we are different from each other.  I think we can be that tree when we are rooted in the love of Christ.  

Revelation tells us that the people will bring all the splendor and richness of their cultures and ethnicities into that city.[4]  Imagine how vibrant and powerful our worship and ministries would be if we opened our doors and our hearts to all that splendor and richness here and now.

God has given us a vision, a revelation, of the Beloved Community as a loving and healing place where everyone is welcome at the table, a place where the splendor and richness of all peoples is cherished and celebrated.  A place where people are transformed and renewed.  

May the Spirit empower us to make that vision a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  May this church and every church become a place where people can see Jesus.


[1] John 14:19-20

[2] Revelation 22:1

[3] Revelation 22:2

[4] Revelation 21:26

Love Story

I came across the best love story on Facebook this week, and I just had to pass it along to you.  A reporter was interviewing a man who had managed to get himself and his family out of Mariupol during the Russian bombing.  Here’s what he said:

“I left the bomb shelter and saw a car with keys in the ignition near the store.  I watched it for two hours, waited for the owner.  When the owner didn’t show up, I didn’t wait.  I took my family, got in the car and drove to Vinnitsa to stay with relatives.  I found a phone number in the glove compartment and called the owner:

“‘Sorry,’ I said, “I stole your car.  Saved my family.’

‘Thank God!’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, I have four cars.  I took my family out in my Jeep.  The rest of the cars I filled with fuel and left in different places with the keys in the ignition and the number in the glove compartment.  I received calls back now from all the cars.  There will be peace.  See you.  Take care of yourself.’”

As I said, it’s a love story.  Leaving those cars behind, gassed up and ready to go  with the keys in the ignition so that other people, strangers, could escape the hellish bombing of their city—that was an act of love.  That was God made manifest.  

“I give you a new commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It isn’t doctrine that marks us as disciples of Jesus.  It isn’t our intellectual assent or understanding of the faith.  It isn’t embracing particular ideas about atonement or grace or the nature of Christ.  It isn’t our righteousness or our moral stance on hot-button issues.  It isn’t even “accepting Jesus into our hearts,” whatever that might mean.  “By this everyone will know you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “—if you have love for one another.” 

When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the most important, he went straight to love.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  There are no greater commandments.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Do this and you will live.”[1]

When some of the people in Corinth got all wrapped up in their charismatic gifts and started to take a kind of overweening pride in their spirituality, St. Paul wrote to them with a word of caution:

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge—if I have so much faith that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions—even if I give up my body as a martyr—but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

A few years later, Paul said in his letter to the Christians in Rome:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Paul’s descriptions of love in 1 Corinthians and Romans are excellent and instructive.  But they’re also rather passive.  When Jesus talked about love, he seems to have had something more active in mind.  Often when he talked about love, he would combine it with action.  “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[2]  “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”[3] When a lawyer tried to find a loophole in the commandment to love your neighbor by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with a story about a Samaritan who rescues a traveler who had been left for dead after being beaten up by bandits.  Clearly, loving your neighbor involves action.  Love also involves generosity.  The Gospel of John tells us that God so loved the world that God gave God’s unique son to us.  Giving is an act of love.

All people are called to love, not just Christians, but followers of Jesus have been commanded to love so that we can be known as his disciples.   Love is supposed to be the thing that identifies us. Love is what we’re supposed to be all about…but how do you that?  Especially, how do you do that part about loving your enemies—or even just people you don’t particularly like?

You may already know that the ancient Greek language in which the New Testament was written had four different words for love: agape, eros, philia, and storge.  Storge was a word used to describe duty to family and country—think of it as patriotism.   Philia is friendship.  It meant a lot to call someone your friend in the ancient world.  True friendship, then and now, is a kind of love.  Eroswas the most commonly used word for love in the ancient world.  Our word erotic comes from eros, but properly understood there’s a lot more to it than that.  

Agape is the word for love that’s used most often in the New Testament.  Agape is a love that is unconditional.  It has no motive other than to seek the well-being of the beloved.  It can be spontaneous, but usually it is decisional—you simply decide that you are going to love that other person or those other people.  Period.  Agape is indifferent to any kind of reward and it doesn’t seek reciprocity— agape doesn’t ask to be loved in return.  Agape is the simple yet profound recognition that giving of yourself is a worthy and good thing to do.  It is an unconditional willing of good.  Agape loves the beloved for their own sake, whether they are worthy and deserving or not.

Eros, on the other hand, speaks of desire and longing.  Eros seeks to possess what we find valuable but not to covet or desire a person at the expense of overall well-being.  Edward Vacek defined erosas “loving the beloved for our own sake.”[4]  Plato thought that eros was the pathway to God.  His reasoning went like this:  I see a beautiful person or thing and I desire them or it, but if I look beyond the person or thing I find that what I am really desiring is beauty.  But beauty is truth, so if I look beyond beauty, I find that what I really desire is truth.  But truth comes from God, so what I am really desiring is God.  

Ilia Delio reaffirms that the heart of eros is passion or desire.  “Eros,” she writes,  “is that ineffable longing that stretches beyond oneself for the sake of oneself.”  She goes on to suggest that eros and agape aren’t so much in contrast with each other as related to each other and that philia—friendship—is the thread between them.  In philia a person gives themselves over to the relationship.  Philia is expressed in camaraderie and companionship, in life together in community.  Edward Vacek says that philia “may be the most cosmic form of love because it is based on mutuality, reciprocity, and cooperation—with the purpose of promoting overall well-being.”  That’s how the Quakers understood it, which is why they officially called themselves The Society of Friends.

Agape is the word for love that’s used most frequently in the New Testament, but there are moments when philia comes into the text to give love a meaning that is broader and deeper.  Jesus brings agape and philia together in John 15:13 when he says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  No one has greater agape than to lay down one’s life for one’s philon—those who are loved with the deep bond of philia.  He goes on to say, “You are my friends (philia/philon) if you do what I command you.”  And what did Jesus command?—that we should love one another with agape love as he has loved us.  

So how do you love—how do you obey the command to love?  Well to start with, it helps to realize that the kind of love Jesus commands doesn’t have to involve any warm, fuzzy emotions.  You can decide that you will unconditionally will and work for goodness for others without expecting anything to come back to you.  You can decide to love with agape.  That’s the starting point.

But agape can be a poor kind of love if it doesn’t bloom into something more than just a decision.  If it remains simply a decisional kind of love, it can become rote, individualistic, non-mutual, and even task-oriented.  Yes, agape is patient and kind, it’s not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, it does not insist on its own way, it rejoices in truth, it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and doesn’t quit—agape has all those qualities that St. Paul pointed out to the Corinthians.  But agape can be all that and a bag of chips and still not be warm enough to bloom into a real relationship.  Love, complete and healthy love at work in a community of faith, starts with a good base of agape, but mixes in a good dose of philia, friendship, and even a dash of eros, to keep us longing for God, for each other, and for the beauty of our relationships.

From the beginning of creation, God has been pouring love into the universe and calling us into relationship.  Love is the force that brings quantum waves together to form hydrogen atoms and hydrogen atoms together to form stars.  Love is the force that drives evolution, overcoming entropy to continually transform biological life into higher, more complex, more aware forms of life—forms capable of loving.  We are commanded to love because it is intentional love that identifies us as followers of Jesus, but even more importantly, because love is what God has been using throughout all time to transform the all of creation.  When we reflect that love back to God and to each other, we participate in God’s formative and transformative work.  

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love.  And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, humanity  will have discovered fire.”

Love is patient and kind.  Love does bear all things and believe all things and hope all things, and endure all things.  But love goes beyond that.  Love puts gas in the car and leaves the keys in the ignition so that beloved strangers can escape to new life.  Love promises there will be peace.  

May the Spirit ignite in all of us the bright flame of God’s transforming love.


[1] Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:25-28

[2] Matthew 5:43

[3] Luke 6:27

[4] Edward Collins Vacek, Love, Human and Divine: The Heat of Christian Ethics, 1994, pp. 157-158; as quoted by Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, Orbis Books, 2013, p.42

Of Mothers and Vineyards

It’s Mother’s Day today, so naturally, I’ve been thinking about my mom.  My mom told me once that I’d never amount to much because I procrastinate too much.  I said, “Oh yeah?  Well just you wait.”  

I’ll never forget one Mother’s Day—we had a big family meal at Mom and Dad’s house but right after dinner Mom kind of disappeared.  I found her in the kitchen getting ready to wash a sink full of dirty dishes.  I said, “Mom, it’s Mother’s Day!  Go sit down and relax.  You can do the dishes tomorrow.”

I bought my mom a mug that said, “Happy Mother’s Day from the World’s Worst Son.”  I forgot to give it to her.  

Mothers often put their own needs last.  You know you’re a mom when you understand why Mama Bear’s porridge was too cold.

I love the recipe for Iced Coffee that one mom posted on Twitter.  She wrote, “Have kids…Make coffee…Forget you made coffee…Find coffee…Put it in the microwave…Forget you put it in the microwave…Drink it cold.”

Mother’s Day was first proposed by feminist activists after the Civil War.  They originally envisioned it as a day of peace to honor and support mothers who had lost sons and husbands to the carnage of the war.  The most well-known of these women was the abolitionist, Julia Ward Howe, who wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic. In 1870, she issued a Mothers Day Proclamation calling for mothers of all nationalities to band together to promote the “amicable settlement of international questions.”  She envisioned a day where women from all over the world would meet to discuss ways to achieve world peace.  In that proclamation she wrote:

“Arise, then, women of this day!  Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!…We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.  From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own.  It says “Disarm, Disarm!  The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”

Another early proponent of Mothers Day was the education activist and community organizer, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis.  She was very active in her Methodist congregation and in 1876, during her closing prayer for her Sunday School class,  she said, “I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial Mothers Day, commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.”  Her daughter, Anna Maria Jarvis, never forgot her mother’s prayer, and on May 10, 1908, three years after her mother’s death, Jarvis held a memorial ceremony to honor her mother and all mothers at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia.  That church is now a historic landmark known as the International Mother’s Day Shrine.

Anna Jarvis continued lobbying to make Mothers Day an official holiday in the United States.  By 1911 Mothers Day was being observed in every state, and in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation officially designating the second Sunday in May as Mothers Day. 

And here’s an odd but important note:  originally there was no apostrophe in Mother’s Day.  Julia Howe, Ann Reeves Jarvis, and Anna Jarvis all envisioned it as a day to honor all mothers.  Plural.  But the greeting card industry, the florists, and the candy makers quickly individualized it and idealized it, and began promoting it as a day for you to honor your mother.  In their advertising, Mothers Day (plural/all mothers) quickly became Mother’s Day with an apostrophe, as in your mother’s day (singular/possessive).  Needless to say, the idea of it being a day to promote international peace pretty much vanished with the arrival of that apostrophe.

Ann Jarvis, who had worked so hard to make Mother’s Day a national observance, ended up hating it. The holiday became so commercialized, that in 1943 she tried to organize a petition to rescind Mother’s Day, but her efforts went nowhere.  Frustrated, and literally at her wits’ end, Anna Jarvis died in 1948 in a sanitarium, her medical bills paid, ironically, by a consortium of people in the floral and greeting card industries.

Anna Jarvis wasn’t the only one who has problems with Mother’s Day.  Anne Lamott’s column a few days ago began this way: “This is for those of you who may feel a kind of sheet metal loneliness on Sunday, who had an awful mother, or a mother who recently died, or wanted to be a mother but didn’t get to have kids, or had kids who ended up breaking your hearts…”  Lamott goes on to acknowledge many of the ways that this Greeting Card holiday can be painful for many women…and also for many children.

Most pastors I know are ambivalent at best when it comes to Mother’s Day.  It’s something of a minefield for us.  We don’t dare let it go unmentioned, but at the same time we are very aware of those women in our congregations who for one reason or another will be feeling that “sheet metal loneliness” that Anne Lamott describes.

On the plus side, though, Mother’s Day does give us an opportunity to highlight issues that women face in a world and culture that still operates with far too much patriarchal dominance and oppression, often in ways that men don’t even see.

One of the issues that comes up every year around Mother’s Day is the question of whether or not stay-at-home moms should be paid.  This question has been highlighted by the pandemic when so many women found it necessary to become stay-at-home moms and had to take on the extra duties of tutoring or teaching their kids.  CBS News reported that during the pandemic, more that 12 million women lost jobs and more than 2 million voluntarily left the workforce altogether. 

There are some very good arguments for creating a basic income for the stay-at-home mom… or the stay-at-home dad, for that matter.  At its most basic level, such a stipend would remind us that parenting is a valuable job and that the community as a whole benefits from it being done well.  The question then becomes how much should the stay-at-home mom be paid, and the answers to that are all over the lot.  One economist totted up the “jobs” that a stay-at-home mom does, multiplied by the minimum wage and came up with $18,000 per year.  Insure.com did the same math for the 18 or so jobs a mom takes on during the day, used a more livable hourly rate, and came up with $126,000 per year.  Salary.com’s annual Mom Salary Survey from May of 2021, said that moms should be paid $184,820 per year.   Clearly,  the marketplace recognizes that parenting is valuable.

Parenting is valuable, but one of the problems with Mother’s Day is that it reinforces a cultural expectation that puts the weight of parenting primarily on Mom.  That’s unfair to Mom and limits a child’s experience because even SuperMom can’t really do it alone.  As the old African proverb reminds us, it takes a village to raise a child.  “My main gripe with Mother’s Day,” writes Anne Lamott, “is that it feels incomplete and imprecise.  The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering [their children], including aunties and brothers; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, who unconsciously raised me to self-destruct; and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men. I have loved them my entire life, including my mom, even after their passing.”

Raising children is a community affair.   It should be done with an eye on what’s best for the community.  We lose sight of that too often.  We think good parenting means raising kids who will share our cherished internal family values.  That’s good as far as it goes, but the child really needs to be prepared for the time when they will leave home to enter the world on their own.  They need to be prepared to not just make a valuable contribution to the community, but to be a positive contribution to the community.  Parents need to remember that their children are not just a gift that God gives to them, but a gift that they, in turn, give to the world.  We need to send our children into the world equipped with empathy, wisdom, patience and understanding, and developing those attributes requires more influence than any one parent can provide. 

Jesus told a story in chapter 20 of the Gospel of Matthew about a man who went to the marketplace one morning to hire some workers, and before sending them out to work in his vineyard, he made a verbal contract with them to pay them the basic daily wage of one denarius.  A few hours later, he went to the marketplace again and hired some more workers and said, “I will pay you whatever is right.”  He went to the marketplace three more times during the day to hire more workers, the last time just an hour before sunset, and each time he told those workers that he would pay them “whatever is right.”  At the end of the day when all the workers lined up to receive their pay, he paid the workers who had only been in the field for an hour a denarius, the whole day’s wage.  Naturally, the workers who have been working since sunrise figured they were in for one heck of a bonus, but when it was their turn to be paid, the man paid them, too, a denarius, the daily wage.  They were upset about this and groused about it. “These latecomers only worked an hour and you’ve made them equal to us even though we were out here in the heat all day!”  The landowner responds, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong;  didn’t you agree with me for the usual daily wage? I chose to give the latecomers the same as you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”

This parable makes a lot of people squirm, mostly because we tend to feel slighted on behalf of those workers who were out in the hot sun all day.  On the flip side, we tend not to feel any joy on behalf of the one-hour workers who got what amounts to an amazing bonus.  I think we feel all this because we lose sight of what this parable is all about and our focus is in the wrong place.  

This is not just a story about wages—how much should the fieldworker get paid per hour or how much should the stay-at-home mom be paid—this is a story about what’s best for the community.  Jesus starts the story by saying “The kingdom of heaven is like…”  The context is bigger than the owner of the vineyard or the workers.  The owner of the vineyard understands that he is not just paying workers to harvest his grapes on his property, rather, he is providing a means of support for the whole community.  He understands that by paying the one-hour worker the full wage, he is creating one less beggar in the marketplace, preserving that person’s dignity, and helping to feed that worker’s family for days.  He understands that by paying all the workers the same wage he is sending the message that they are all equally vested in the good of the community.  Even the worker who complained noted “you made them equal to us.”  The landowner understands that his wealth, his resources are not just for his own personal benefit or his family’s, but are meant to be used to make the whole community healthier and stronger.  I suppose you could say he’s “mothering” the community.

And that brings us back around to the original intent for Mothers Day.  It was intended to be something to strengthen the community and bring peace to the world.  This Mothers Day, I invite you to do just that.

Water is Life

Two headlines grabbed my attention on Thursday morning.  The first one, in the LA Times said, “With less water, Southland will see browner landscape. Officials are imposing limits that could get even more strict.”  The second headline was from The Week and said, “Ocean animals face potential mass extinction from climate change, according to a new study in the journal Science.”  That headline was followed by a synopsis that said, “Rising temperatures and declining oxygen levels are cooking, starving and suffocating marine life.  Unless humanity takes swift action to curb fossil fuel use and other planet-warming activities, climate-fueled die-offs could rival the demise of the dinosaurs, research shows.”

It was an interesting juxtaposition.  Both stories were about water and climate change.  The first story emphasized how the drought is going to affect the aesthetic preferences of humans in Southern California.  With the new water use restrictions, our green lawns will be fading to brown.  People are not happy about that.  The second story was about how creatures that live in water are threatened with extinction because the emission of greenhouse gases from human industries and transportation has warmed their environment too much.  I would like to think that people aren’t happy about that, either.

Water is life.  That’s true for every living creature on earth.  Somewhere between 20% to 80% of all the earth’s creatures live in water.  The number is uncertain because no one really knows how many species live in the depths of the oceans.  Their need for water is obvious.  It’s their habitat.  But land creatures need water too.  Water is an essential element in all kinds of organic processes.  We have never found any living organism that can flourish in a completely dry environment.

71% of the earth’s surface is covered by water—332.5 million cubic miles of water—but that water only accounts for 0.02% of the planet’s total mass.  97% of the earth’s water is salt water in the oceans.  Only 3% is fresh water.

2.5% of the earth’s fresh water is unavailable because it’s locked up in glaciers, polar ice caps, the atmosphere, or soil.  Or it’s highly polluted.  Or it lies too far below the earth’s surface to be extracted at an affordable cost.  It the end, only 0.5%–one half of one percent—of the earth’s water is available fresh water, the water we drink, the water we use to water our lawns and gardens.  If the world’s total water supply was 100 liters (26 gallons), our usable supply of fresh water would be only about 3 ml (about half a teaspoon).

In ways you probably haven’t thought of, you are a water creature.  The human body—your body—is 60% water on average.[1]  Your brain and heart are 73% water and your lungs are about 83% water.  Your skin is 64% water, your muscles and kidneys are 79% water, your blood is 90% water, and your eyes are 95% water.  Even your bones are 31% water.  You can go a month or more without food, but the average person would die after only 2 to 4 days without water.  

Water is life.  Water is life because it has unique properties that make life possible.  It is the only natural substance where all three physical states—liquid, solid and gas—occur naturally on earth.  Water is the universal solvent. That means that it can carry other elements and compounds.  Your blood is 90% water but that water carries sodium, potassium, iron, and all the other minerals and nutrients your body needs.

Water is life.  And water is holy.   

Water is mentioned 478 times in the Bible:  

The primordial waters of Creation with the Spirit hovering above them.

The waters of the Flood.

The wells where relationships were formed, where Rebekah is brought to Isaac, where Jacob meets Leah and Rachel, where Moses meets Zipporah.

The waters of the Red Sea which Moses parted to reveal a pathway to freedom.

The waters of salvation which Isaiah speaks about and invites everyone to drink: “You will drink from the wells of salvation; Ho, all you who thirst, come to the water.”

The waters of justice that Amos calls us to produce: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!”

The waters of the Jordan where Jesus was baptized by John, where the Spirit descended upon him like a dove and the voice of God proclaimed “This is my son, the Beloved.”

The waters of Galilee where fishermen were called to follow Jesus and became disciples of the Way, waters that Jesus sailed across and walked upon.

The waters of the well in Samaria where Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for a drink, talked with her about worship and told her that he could give her living water.

The waters of the Mediterranean that Paul sailed across to carry the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles and diaspora Jews in far places. 

The waters of the River of Life in Revelation, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God where the Spirit echoes the words of Isaiah and says “Come, let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

Water is sacred.  

In his baptism, Christ was immersed in the waters of the world.  When we were baptized, the water we were submerged in or sprinkled with was a sign that we are immersed in the love and life of the triune God but also in the waters of Creation, the waters of the world.

What does it say about us when our way of life on this planet leads directly to the death and extinction of our fellow God-created creatures who live within the sacred life-giving waters of the earth?  

What does it say about us when our own trash pollutes the waters we rely on to such a degree that now our own bodies are tainted with microplastics?  

When we are claimed by the waters of baptism, we enter into a Covenant with certain declarations and promises.  We reject sin.  We renounce all the forces that defy God.  We renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God.  We renounce the ways of sin that draw us away from God.  We promise to “serve all people, following the example of Jesus,” and to “strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”  

In the waters of baptism we pledge our allegiance to the Kin-dom of God.  We volunteer to stand against evil and its power in the world and to live in the Way of Christ.  We vow to stand for justice, to be peacemakers working for God’s shalom.  We pledge to reject all types of violence, coercion, domination and oppression,  and to care for and protect all of Creation with fierce love. 

I’m pretty sure he would never claim to be speaking as a follower of Jesus in the Covenant of baptism, but Joaquin Phoenix, interestingly, captured much of what our baptismal covenant is all about in his Academy Award acceptance speech in 2020.  Here’s part of what he said:

“I think the greatest gift is the opportunity to use our voice for the voiceless… I think at times we feel or are made to feel that we champion different causes.  But for me, I see commonality.  I think, whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice.

“We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender, one species, has the right to dominate, use and control another with impunity.

“I think we’ve become disconnected from the natural world.  Many of us are guilty of an egocentric world view, and we believe that we’re the center of the universe.  We go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources…

“We fear the idea of personal change, because we think we need to sacrifice something; to give something up.  But human beings at our best are so creative and inventive, and we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and the environment… I think that’s when we’re at our best: when we support each other.  Not when we cancel each other out for our past mistakes, but when we help each other to grow.  When we educate each other; when we guide each other to redemption.

“When he was 17, my brother [River] wrote this lyric.  He said: “run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.”

In our covenant with God and the earth, we are called, as Joaquin Phoenix said, to be a voice for the voiceless.  Water has many voices—the thunder of a waterfall, the waves that lap against a boat or crash against the shore, the burbling of a stream, the splash of a puddle, the rushing flow from a tap or shower head.  Water has many voices, but the world has forgotten how to listen to them.  We need to speak for the waters.

We need to speak for the waters because the waters have spoken for us.  Every drink of water is a reminder of how God provides for us.  Every time we shower or bathe, Christ is in, with, and under the waters that cleanse us, singing about our baptism, giving us a sign to remind us that we are immersed in the life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  When we wade or swim, the waters that embrace us are a sign of our inclusion in this wet and wonderful God-made world.  Water is our intimate connection to the natural world. All the waters of our life tie us to the well-being of the earth and all its creatures.  The waters remind us that we are water creatures, too.  

In the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, St. Francis sang, “Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water who is so useful, humble, precious, and pure.”

May God teach us to love Sister Water.  May the Spirit that hovered over the waters of Creation, empower us to conserve and care for the water that sustains us and all life.  May Jesus, by the Living Water of his word keep us in harmony with the water that flows in our veins.  May the One who made us continually remind us that we have a kinship with water and all the creatures that live and move and have their being in water.  

We humans have brought distress to the waters of our world.  May we, as people of faith, be inspired to “run to the rescue with love,” trusting that peace will follow.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] The actual number varies from 45% to 75%.  Body composition varies according to gender and fitness level and amount of fatty tissue.

The Days of Our Lives

I was reading through the Book of Genesis, as one does, when a repeated phrase in chapter 5 made me pause. The phrase was “all the days of” as in “Thus all the days of Seth were nine hundred twelve years.”  As I noted, the phrase gets repeated: “all the days of Enosh;”  “all the days of Kenan,”  and so on.  Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech—each of them was given lots and lots of days, according to Genesis 5,  but after telling us how many years of days they lived, each account ends with a stark “and he died.”  Well, except for Enoch, but he was a special case.  

Apparently God thought this kind of longevity was excessive.  Right out of the chute in chapter 6 we read, “Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.”  It looks like that was meant to be an upper limit and not a prescription for everybody because almost nobody actually gets that old.  The longest verified human lifespan in recent times is that of Jeanne Louise Calment of France (1875–1997).  Genesis would say the days of Jeanne Louise were one hundred twenty-two years and 164 days; and she died.  So she got a couple of bonus years on top of the 120.  Good for her. 

In Psalm 90 that upper limit gets a few more years lopped off.  “The days of our life are seventy years, perhaps 80 if we are strong,” we read in verse 10.   Tradition says that Psalm 90 was written by Moses.  If so, then Moses was in a pretty dark mood that day. It’s not a happy Psalm, Psalm 90, and the curtailed life span is the least of its gloominess.  Oy.

The point of all this is that our days on this earth are numbered.  Frankly, I’m okay with that, even though I’m indisputably closer to the end than to the beginning.  C’est la vie, as Jeanne Louise would say if she were still here.  I’m okay with going on to what comes next, especially since I’m pretty sure that time will be experienced in a very different way—if we experience it at all. It’s all in God’s hands, so it’s all good.

Here’s what’s not good and what I’m not okay with: if we don’t clean up our act, then life on earth, at least life as we know it, is in real trouble.  If we don’t make some major changes starting yesterday, then our days as a species are numbered…and we’ll take a lot of other species with us.  Scientists are already calling our age the Anthropocene. They give names like that to bygone eras of mass extinction.  Anthropocene.  From anthropos, the Greek word for human.  When they call this current era the Anthropocene, they are saying that this is the era in which humanity has caused the extinction of massive numbers of other species.  Not our proudest moment.

I don’t care so much about my own personal extinction.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any hurry to shuffle off this mortal coil, but I’m also not worried about it.  It will come when it comes.  On the other hand, I care quite a lot about the threat of extinction to the various biomes of this beautiful planet, and all the other creatures that share the earth with us.  I quite like dogs,  for instance.  And cats and horses and frogs and dolphins and owls and even crows.  And octopuses, who, it turns out, are quite smart!  They didn’t have a say in the damage we’ve created with our massive carbon footprints.  They weren’t given a vote when our plastics were swept into the waters of the world.  I rather suspect they would have objected.  Strenuously.  I also care quite a lot about my children and grandsons and their potential progeny.  I would like for them to live in a world at least as nice as the one I’ve lived in.

Helen Caldicott once wrote, “We didn’t inherit the earth from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children.”   She has a really good point.  We did inherit some things from our parents, especially attitudes and habits that can have a profound effect on what the world will be like when we hand it over to those who come after us.  It would do us all a world of good if we treated the world as if we were renting it from the future and wanted to return it in better shape than when we entered it so we can get our security deposit back.

We are Easter people.  We believe that God can and will give all of creation a new birth, a resurrection life.  But let’s leave the timing of that up to God, shall we?  Killing the planet simply because we believe that God can un-kill it would not reflect well on us.  It’s not a good look and it will upset our grandkids.

There is a lot of amazing work being done to develop new energy and transportation sources as quickly as possible (see https://www.sciencedaily.com/news/matter_energy/batteries/.)  The world of science and technology has finally realized that we’re on a pretty serious deadline here and that there’s more at stake than impressing their colleagues.  There is really is hope for the future.  It’s slim, but it’s there.  We can help is if we all figure out how we can conserve and contribute less to the problem.  You’re all using LED lightbulbs, right?  

Your days and my days are numbered, but let’s do what we can to make sure that the world God loves (John 3:16) has a much longer and healthier run.

Back to the Dirt

Genesis 1:26-31; 2:1-15

When I was a kid, almost every summer we would travel back to Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas to see my aunts and uncles and cousins.  One of the things that was always a treat when we were at my grandparents’ dairy farm in the Ozarks of Arkansas was the fresh vegetables from my grandmother’s garden.  The soil in that garden was a rich, black humus the color of chocolate cake, and it produced the juiciest tomatoes, the fattest cucumbers, the most savory okra, and the sweetest sweet corn I’ve every tasted.  Those vegetables spoiled me, and I’ve been disappointed with grocery store produce ever since.  

My grandmother and my aunts were expert vegetable gardeners.  They knew when to plant, when to weed, and the perfectly ripe moment for picking.  Their skills brought the vegetables to the table.  But it was the soil that made them delicious.

Genesis tells us that God formed the first human out of “the dust of the earth.”  The Hebrew word for “human,” adam, is derived from the word for earth: adamah.  The word we translate as dust, ‘afar, can mean any loose dirt.  I like to imagine that the “loose dirt” we’re made of is not dry desert dust but the dark, chocolate-cake soil made rich and fertile from eons of composting as the ground organically recycled the fallen leaves and stems of earlier seasons and renewed itself.  I like to imagine that we humans were made from humus.

Humus and human come from the same root word in Latin.  Our language itself gives us a clue that we are intimately connected to the earth.  In recent generations, though, we’ve often lost sight of that connection.  We have separated ourselves from the earth in far too many ways, and that separation has affected both our health as a species and the health of the world.  

Humility is another word that comes from humus.  Douglas Kindschi, the Director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute wrote: “Fully understanding who we are requires the realization that we are part of the earth, the soil, the humus, to which we will return.  It is only by God’s grace that we have life.”  We didn’t create our species.  We didn’t create the amazing world that sustains us.  If we all disappeared tomorrow, the planet wouldn’t miss us; if anything, it would breathe a sigh of relief.  It is only by God’s grace that we have life.  We need to be humble enough to remember that.  When life is over, the stuff we are made of will return to the earth.

Did you know that the smell of humus elicits a physiological response in humans?  Breathing in the scent of Mother Earth stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin.  That’s the same hormone that promotes bonding between a mother and her child.  It’s the same hormone that helps us bond with our dogs and cats and other pets.[1]  Clearly, we were made to feel a bond with the earth, but it’s hard to keep that bond strong when we live our lives primarily indoors and cover so much of the ground with asphalt and concrete.  I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we all went outside once a day, scooped up a big handful of humus, and deeply inhaled the aroma of it.  Maybe we would treat our planet a lot better if we did that—if we reminded ourselves in some physical, ceremonial way that we are bonded to the earth.

“Being human,” said Richard Rohr, “means acknowledging that we’re made from the earth and will return to the earth.  We are earth that has come to consciousness.”  We are earth that has come to consciousness, but we have been destructively unconscious in the way we have been treating the earth.  We take the earth so much for granted.  We forget that the very ground we stand on is a mystic wonder of theology and physics and a biological and chemical marvel.  It is the stuff from which life arises.

One afternoon when the philosopher Brian Austin came home from hiking with his family, he found himself contemplating the mud that was stuck to his boots and he realized that “the mud, still glistening with the mist that makes dust come to life, harbors mysteries as magnificent as the mountains.  From that mud, from its carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and assorted metals, a child can be woven.  The atoms in that mud, the same kinds of atoms that comprise my children and you and me, have existed for billions of years…This mud is spectacular, and we believe that God made it so.  This mud is rich, pregnant with possibility…To see ourselves as made of the same stuff that rests under our boots as we journey a mountain path is no insult to human dignity, no affront to the image of God in us; it is rather a reminder of the majesty of inspired mud, a reflected majesty that gives us but one more fleeting glimpse of the blinding brilliance of the maker of the mud.”

If we are going to repair the damage we’ve done to the earth, we need to learn to love the mud.  And the dust.  And the clay and the sand and the stone and the water.  We need to relearn how to love all the plants and animals—“the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle and all the wild animals of the earth, and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  We need to relearn how intricate, complex, balanced and beautiful our amazing planet really is.  We need to cherish more deeply the air that fills our lungs, the water that cleans us and quenches our thirst, and the dirt that feeds us.  We need to rekindle our sense of wonder.  

If we learn to listen to Genesis in the right frame of mind and heart, those first two chapters have a lot of wisdom that can help us restore our relationship with this beautiful world.  In those first two chapters there is a lot we can learn about God, about ourselves, about the earth, and about our relationship with God and the earth.  Genesis tells us that this world was made for us and we were made for this world.  Genesis tells us that we were made in the image and likeness of God, but that the stuff we are made of comes right out of the dirt.  We like the idea of being in the image and likeness of God—but we get carried away sometimes and act like we are God.  We need to pay more attention to the part about the dirt.

Genesis tells us to make ourselves at home—to be fruitful and multiply and fill up the earth.  Well that job’s done.  It’s full.  But we keep filling it up more which is hard on the earth and hard on us.

Genesis tells us to subdue the earth, to learn how the earth works so we can use its rhythms and systems to produce what we need in due season and with due care.  But God didn’t tell us to completely subjugate the earth, to bleed out its resources until its life-generating abilities are depleted.

Genesis tells us to have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.  But God wasn’t telling us we could erase their habitats, destroy them in their dens, and hound them to extinction.  We were given permission for a certain amount of domestication, not for eradication.

We share this beautiful world with all the rest of God’s creatures.  It belongs to them as much as it does to us.  They, too, are made from the stuff of earth and stars.  God’s life is in them as much as it is in us.  The earth and all its creatures (including us) belong to God.  “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,” says Psalm 24.  “O Lord, how manifold are your works!  In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures,”  says Psalm 104.  Your creatures.  We may have “dominion” in the sense that we are the species most capable of manipulating our environment and impacting all the other living things on the planet, but that greater ability means we have more responsibility to take care of the species that don’t have any way to protect themselves from us and the changes we make.

If we’re serious about doing a better job of living in harmony with the earth and all God’s creatures, this is where Genesis can guide us yet again, especially if we pay closer attention to the original language.  Genesis 2:15 tells us “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it;” that’s how it reads in the New Revised Standard Version.  The word that’s translated as “till” is ‘ovd in Hebrew.  It means to work or to serve.  The word that’s translated as “keep” is shomr.  It means to watch over or to preserve.  So let’s try this translation:  “The Lord God took the humans and put them in the garden of Eden to care for it, watch over it, and preserve it.”  We were made to care for the earth.

Sometimes we say that God has called us to be good stewards of creation.  That’s a good idea as far as it goes.  The concept of stewardship is good for reminding us that the earth belongs to God and not us.  But the idea of stewardship also has some problems.  When we think of ourselves as stewards, we tend to see ourselves as somehow set apart from and above creation instead of seeing ourselves within creation.  Stewardship depicts the relationship of humans to other creatures as vertical with us above and them below.  It depicts us as caretakers of creation, which is good, but it doesn’t acknowledge all the ways that creation cares for us!  We need to remember that we are creatures, too.  We need to remember that we are also embedded in and interconnected with the earth and all God’s other creatures.  We are part of the community of creation.

Archbishop Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury said, “As people of faith, we don’t just state our beliefs — we live them out. One belief is that we

find purpose and joy in loving our neighbours. Another is that we are charged by our creator with taking good care of … creation. The moral crisis of climate change is an opportunity to find purpose and joy, and to respond to our creator’s charge. Reducing the causes of climate change is essential to the life of faith.”[2]

Reducing the causes of climate change is essential to the life of faith.  Frankly, we’ve reached a stage where reducing the causes of climate change is essential to life.  Period.  As UN Secretary-General António Gutteres said recently, we’re living in a 5-alarm fire.  As people of faith, we need to do whatever we can to put out the fire and repair the damage.

One of the great theological ideas that Saint Francis reawakened in the church is the understanding that Christ is revealed in creation.  Luther was thinking along these same lines when he said that Christ is in, with, and under the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the eucharist, but Francis was thinking of Christ’s presence even more broadly and deeply.  This is another reason why care for the earth is not just a nice idea; for followers of Jesus, it’s an imperative.  We have been called to see and experience Christ not just at the table and the font, not even just in the community of faith, but in all the world around us.  

Franciscan theologian Ilia Delio describes Christ in creation this way:  “Where is the risen Christ?  Everywhere and all around us—in you, your neighbor, the dogwood tree outside, the budding grape vine, the ants popping up through the cracks.  The whole world is filled with God, who is shining through even the darkest places of our lives.  To ‘go to church’ is to awaken to this divine presence in our midst and respond in love with a yes: Your life, O God, is my life and the life of the planet. We have an invitation to go to church in a new way, by praying before the new leaves budding through the dormant trees or the wobbly flowers by the side of the road pushing through the solid earth… [With Francis of Assisi], we too can sing with the air we breathe, the sun that shines upon us, the rain that pours down to water the earth.  And we can cry with those who are mourning, with the forgotten, with those who are suffering from disease or illness, with the weak, with the imprisoned.  We can mourn in the solidarity of compassion but we must live in the hope of new life. For we are Easter people, and we are called to celebrate the whole earth as the body of Christ.  Every act done in love gives glory to God: a pause of thanksgiving, a laugh, a gaze at the sun, or just raising a toast to your friends at your virtual gathering.  The good news?  “He is not here!”  Christ is everywhere, and love will make us whole.”[3]

Love will make us whole.  Love of God.  Love of our neighbor.  Love of ourselves.  And love of the earth.  Richard Rohr once said, “The only way I know how to love God is to love the things that God loves.”  Well, in Christ, God has already shown us how much God loves the world.  It’s time we showed our love, too.  In Jesus’ name.


[1] This idea is beautifully expressed in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific  Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

[2] Season of Creation 6, Introduction by Archbishop Justin Welby

[3] The Hours of the Universe: Reflections on God, Science, and the Human Journey; Ilia Delio, OSF, Ph.D., as quoted in Daily Meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation