Job 09 – Including Nature in Christianity

To admire nature is to admire and acknowledge God.

Then Job replied:

“Indeed, I know that this is true.
    But how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God?
Though they wished to dispute with him,
    they could not answer him one time out of a thousand.
His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
    Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
11 When he passes me, I cannot see him;
    when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
12 If he snatches away, who can stop him?
    Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
13 God does not restrain his anger;
    even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet.

14 “How then can I dispute with him?
    How can I find words to argue with him?
15 Though I were innocent, I could not answer him;
    I could only plead with my Judge for mercy.
16 Even if I summoned him and he responded,
    I do not believe he would give me a hearing.
17 He would crush me with a storm
    and multiply my wounds for no reason.
18 He would not let me catch my breath
    but would overwhelm me with misery.
19 If it is a matter of strength, he is mighty!
    And if it is a matter of justice, who can challenge him?
20 Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me;
    if I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty.

21 “Although I am blameless,
    I have no concern for myself;
    I despise my own life.
22 It is all the same; that is why I say,
    ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’
23 When a scourge brings sudden death,
    he mocks the despair of the innocent.
24 When a land falls into the hands of the wicked,
    he blindfolds its judges.
    If it is not he, then who is it?

25 “My days are swifter than a runner;
    they fly away without a glimpse of joy.
26 They skim past like boats of papyrus,
    like eagles swooping down on their prey.
27 If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint,
    I will change my expression, and smile,’
28 I still dread all my sufferings,
    for I know you will not hold me innocent.
29 Since I am already found guilty,
    why should I struggle in vain?
30 Even if I washed myself with soap
    and my hands with cleansing powder,
31 you would plunge me into a slime pit
    so that even my clothes would detest me.

32 “He is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him,
    that we might confront each other in court.
33 If only there were someone to mediate between us,
    someone to bring us together,
34 someone to remove God’s rod from me,
    so that his terror would frighten me no more.
35 Then I would speak up without fear of him,
    but as it now stands with me, I cannot.

I once had a pastor who said she thought it was a shame that early Christianity was formed at a time and place where popular thought was enamored with the idea of a separation of body and soul.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with Plato arguing that that soul is immortal (he is not the first to do so, but probably is the most influential), it leads to a disconnect from the physical world. To paraphrase: Stoics believed the highest human achievement was rational thought; Epicureans believed one could only achieve the highest mental state through focusing on rational (instead of physical) pleasures; and Skeptics doubted anything that could be perceived through the senses – basically the whole natural world.  All of these early philosophies were focused on taking man beyond body and the experiences of the physical.  Nature became a second-class citizen.

Then, with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, nature became something for man to dominate through conquering and rules.  This was the great age of exploration, where “new” worlds were discovered, colonized, and bent to the will of the ruling people.  As scientific thought became first less dangerous and then more popular, western society approached nature through rules and laws, and it became at best a system from which to take resources, at worst an adversary to be quelled.  Yes, nature was God’s creation, but one over which people (at least, the people in power) have total control to exploit and subvert at our own pleasure.

It makes some people uncomfortable to think about Christianity being prone to “influences,” but the truth is, it did not form in a bubble.  Jesus was a vocal critic of society in a time of great political tension. Yes, he came to save all mankind, but the problems of his day were searingly visceral as well as spiritual.  And the societal influences, as you can see from the previous two paragraphs, just continued from there, usually at the expense of nature’s influence on worship.  I will say that there has been a slow return towards a respect for nature as God’s creation.  Romanticism, in particular, held a mystic view of nature, and conservation efforts today help us recognize the finite beauty of the world, and our responsibility towards it.  But there are still those who are afraid of nature, afraid that by looking to nature we are introducing pagan practices to Christianity and polluting our Christian faith. Well, I have a news flash for anyone who believes that: Pagan practices have been a part of Christianity from the very beginning, so that ship has sailed.  Here’s a whole Wikipedia article, with a whole subset of links, that describe all the pagan practices currently in Christianity, if you don’t believe me.

The early authors of the Bible did not have a conflict of thought between God and Nature.  And it readily apparent in the Book of Job.  Clearly, God is the great creator of nature, and when we are in awe of nature, we are in awe of Xyr power.  To illustrate this point, I think a whole section of this chapter bears repeating:

He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.

I don’t think we should go out and pray to the trees, or the moon, or the sun.  They are all creations – glorious ones, but still just creations – of our almighty God.  But, does a mindful walk through the forest count as a prayer?  If done with intention, I think so.  Same goes for marveling at the beauty of a sunset, the vastness of the ocean, the delicateness of a butterfly.  I think it similar to admiring a painting.  When we admire a painting we are admiring the artist’s skill.  What artist wouldn’t want their painting admired?  To admire nature is to admire and acknowledge God.

And then there’s the act of planting.  Planting, in particular, I find synonymous with prayer.  We plant a vegetable garden in the hopes of a bountiful harvest, or plant bulbs in the fall in the hopes for flowers in the spring. Even planting saplings in the hope of a timber harvest decades from now is a hopeful and even prayerful act: planting implies hope for the future, faith that God will carry us through to the next season.

Perhaps, if we all spend a little more time with nature – admiring it, respecting it, and caring for it – then we will be spending more time with God, too.

Job 08 – A Delayed Response to the Christchurch Shooting

Standing by all God’s children.

Then Bildad the Shuhite replied:

“How long will you say such things?
    Your words are a blustering wind.
Does God pervert justice?
    Does the Almighty pervert what is right?
When your children sinned against him,
    he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.
But if you will seek God earnestly
    and plead with the Almighty,
if you are pure and upright,
    even now he will rouse himself on your behalf
    and restore you to your prosperous state.
Your beginnings will seem humble,
    so prosperous will your future be.

“Ask the former generation
    and find out what their ancestors learned,
for we were born only yesterday and know nothing,
    and our days on earth are but a shadow.
10 Will they not instruct you and tell you?
    Will they not bring forth words from their understanding?
11 Can papyrus grow tall where there is no marsh?
    Can reeds thrive without water?
12 While still growing and uncut,
    they wither more quickly than grass.
13 Such is the destiny of all who forget God;
    so perishes the hope of the godless.
14 What they trust in is fragile;
    what they rely on is a spider’s web.
15 They lean on the web, but it gives way;
    they cling to it, but it does not hold.
16 They are like a well-watered plant in the sunshine,
    spreading its shoots over the garden;
17 it entwines its roots around a pile of rocks
    and looks for a place among the stones.
18 But when it is torn from its spot,
    that place disowns it and says, ‘I never saw you.’
19 Surely its life withers away,
    and from the soil other plants grow.

20 “Surely God does not reject one who is blameless
    or strengthen the hands of evildoers.
21 He will yet fill your mouth with laughter
    and your lips with shouts of joy.
22 Your enemies will be clothed in shame,
    and the tents of the wicked will be no more.”

I, like many of you, have been listening to the news coverage of the shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, NZ.  On Friday, hours before I write this, twenty-six victims were laid to rest, including three year old Mucad Ibrahim.

Bildad’s words particularly seem like disingenuous lip-service reading them in the light of this tragedy.  Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right? (v. 3) Suddenly this doesn’t seem such a rhetorical question.  Surely God does not reject a blameless man or strengthen the hands of an evildoer. (v. 20) Are we so sure?

What angers me the most about Islamophobia is how quickly people – supposed Christians – forget that we all worship the same Abrahamic God.  God may have chosen Isaac and later Jacob for Xyrs special covenants, but both their brothers, Ishmael (a forefather of Islam’s great prophet Muhammed) and Esau (associated with Islam, but to a lesser extent), received blessings, too. It is in Genesis! We’ve seen one already, in Genesis 17 God says to Abraham: “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will makes him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.” (Gen 17:21).  The blessing is less explicit with Esau, but the Bible goes out of its way to tell us of his prosperity:  In Genesis 33, when Jacob and Esau meet again after many years, Esau is not only rich, but magnanimous. “I already have plenty, my brother, keep what you have for yourself,” Esau tells a deferential and nervous Jacob in Gen. 33:9.  And then, all of chapter 36 is dedicated to describing the great and long line of Esau’s descendants.  To make a long story short, Muslims are our brothers and sisters in an extended faith tradition.  Those who claim otherwise are willfully shutting their eyes to truth of the Bible.  Yes, there are some very bad people who claim Islam.  But there are also some very bad people who claim Christianity.

I don’t want to white-wash the pain of the Christchurch and larger Muslim community away by saying “it’s all part of God’s greater plan.”  That is cold comfort when you are mourning the loss of a father, a brother, a child.  I am sure God grieves with them and with us over this tragic, needless, and hateful loss of life.  So what I’ll say instead is don’t let this get swept under the rug.  Let us not be like Bildad, and mumble pious false comforts, let us instead provide real solidarity and support. Islamophobia is a real problem impacting people’s daily lives in this country and around the world.  In case you don’t believe me, here’s an article citing 86 (!!!) times our current president made Islamophobic statements.  Are you ready to take action?  Here is a thoughtful article that gives an introduction to talking, in a meaningful way, with friends or acquaintances who may make Islamophobic statements. It is of the utmost importance, I would even argue our Christian duty, to combat the hateful rhetoric that leads to attacks like the ones in Christchurch.  Regardless of faith practices we need to stand with one another, protect one another.  We are all God’s children, and deserve to be treated as such.

Genesis 22 – A Response to the UMC General Conference

Keep the faith.

 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lordcalled out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

20 Some time later Abraham was told, “Milkah is also a mother; she has borne sons to your brother Nahor: 21 Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel (the father of Aram), 22 Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel.” 23 Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Milkah bore these eight sons to Abraham’s brother Nahor. 24 His concubine, whose name was Reumah, also had sons: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maakah.

I love the concentric story telling of the Bible, like a water drop rippling outwards in a pond, providing us a visual focus for meditation. I love how stories foreshadow other stories and narrative and theological themes emerge and merge.  This is a great – maybe even the best – example of this.  Obedience and willing surrender to God have already been established as tenets of good Faith, and that is what this story is all about.  It also foreshadows Christ: Isaac, Abraham’s only son (by Sarah at least), carries the wood for his own funeral pyre up the mountain to be sacrificed, much like Jesus, God’s only son, carries his own cross up the hill to be sacrificed. And once again we see if we trust in God, His mercy and goodness prevail.

I do want to point out the timing of this test Abraham underwent.  He is well over 100 years old now.  In my post on chapter 17 I discussed how perhaps there was a reason God waited until Abraham was 99 to establish the covenant of circumcision: basically, he was mellowed out enough to accept it.  Since then, God has literally appeared to Abraham and basically had a dinner party with him, Abraham has watched the wrath of God wipe two cities from the face of the Earth, seen his 90 year old wife miraculously give birth to Isaac, and God spoke to him once more regarding Hagar and Ishmael.  I’m not trying to make light of God’s request of Abraham, I’m sure he had at least some trepidation, but I also want to point out that Abraham, by this point, must have been as secure in his faith as humanly possible.  I say this to encourage everyone who may feel weak right now, and like they could never be as faithful as Abraham is.  Don’t worry, God isn’t asking you to be. Of course He wants you to be faithful and good and dedicated to Him, but He also isn’t asking us all to go around sacrificing our kids, right?  Working on trust is a good enough place to start.  When we’re ready, he’ll lead us to higher callings.

Which brings me to the UMC General Conference vote last week.  First, let me summarize: the United Methodist Church (like many denominations) is actively wrestling with issues pertaining to sexuality.  The General Conference that happened last week was convened to vote upon plans addressing these concerns.  Delegates representing UMC congregations from all over the world, in a surprise move, voted to stick with the Traditional Plan, which reinforced it’s commitment AGAINST ordaining LGBTQ clergy and NOT performing same-sex marriages.  (Most, including me, thought they would go with the One Church Plan, which allowed for individual congregations to make up their mind over whether they would accept a gay minister or perform same-sex marriage.) Most of the news reports made it sound like half the congregations that make up the UMC will no longer be in the UMC by the time this is published.  In truth, there’s still a lot of road ahead: First, the judicial body of the UMC has to review the decision to make sure none of it violates the church’s constitution, and then, for those churches that may still want to leave, decisions have to be made about assets, as the UMC as a whole, instead of individual congregations, own the physical churches/grounds/etc.  So long story short, nothing is settled yet, but it was still a blow to progressives and the LGBTQ community.

Dear friends, it is tempted to be discouraged by this. But it simply means we have more work to do.  Please, do not lose faith.  I understand if you want to leave the United Methodist Church, but I hope you don’t turn your back on Jesus.  There are lots of moderate and progressive UMC congregations that disagree with this decision.  There are also lots of open and affirming churches of other denominations, too.  If you are searching for one, I suggest trying out an Episcopal, Lutheran or United Church of Christ to see if those feel more like home.  Personally, I will still be attending my UMC church.  I think work needs to be done from within, and, I’ll be honest, even with this issue still in limbo it is the best fit for me and my family in our community.

But again, please do not lose faith.  What Christianity, and the world, needs now is more examples of faithful allies, not less.  If we can provide a loving and united voice in favor of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters (and non-binary siblings!), I believe we will win.  We will make the world a better place, where people’s humanity isn’t question, where people’s love for one another isn’t questioned, and where more people feel welcomed in the church.  And isn’t sharing the good news of Jesus one of Christianity’s major goals?  That everyone can come to know Christ and also God’s infinite love for us?  Like Abraham, God will work through us when we are fully ready, we just need to keep practicing our faith.

***

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and the start of Lent.  I’ll be opening Lent by contemplating Psalm 38, and then spend the rest of Lent upon the first 18 chapters of Job, if I counted correctly.