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.

Job 07 – Four Ways to Speak Out Against Injustice Without Speaking

Therefore I will not keep silent.

“Do not mortals have hard service on earth?
    Are not their days like those of hired laborers?
Like a slave longing for the evening shadows,
    or a hired laborer waiting to be paid,
so I have been allotted months of futility,
    and nights of misery have been assigned to me.
When I lie down I think, ‘How long before I get up?’
    The night drags on, and I toss and turn until dawn.
My body is clothed with worms and scabs,
    my skin is broken and festering.

“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle,
    and they come to an end without hope.
Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath;
    my eyes will never see happiness again.
The eye that now sees me will see me no longer;
    you will look for me, but I will be no more.
As a cloud vanishes and is gone,
    so one who goes down to the grave does not return.
10 He will never come to his house again;
    his place will know him no more.

11 “Therefore I will not keep silent;
    I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit,
    I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
12 Am I the sea, or the monster of the deep,
    that you put me under guard?
13 When I think my bed will comfort me
    and my couch will ease my complaint,
14 even then you frighten me with dreams
    and terrify me with visions,
15 so that I prefer strangling and death,
    rather than this body of mine.
16 I despise my life; I would not live forever.
    Let me alone; my days have no meaning.

17 “What is mankind that you make so much of them,
    that you give them so much attention,
18 that you examine them every morning
    and test them every moment?
19 Will you never look away from me,
    or let me alone even for an instant?
20 If I have sinned, what have I done to you,
    you who see everything we do?
Why have you made me your target?
    Have I become a burden to you?
21 Why do you not pardon my offenses
    and forgive my sins?
For I will soon lie down in the dust;
    you will search for me, but I will be no more.”

In today’s reading the passage that most stood out to me was v. 11: “Therefore I will not keep silent; I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”

While doing a little background reading I came across a quick article that introduced me to the idea of pluralistic ignorance. To quote the article, this “describes a situation in which a majority of people in a group privately disagree with an idea, while incorrectly assuming others in the group accept it.”  So we keep silent, in fear of speaking out, not knowing that more people agree with us than we realize.

I actually find this a reassuring idea. I for one, hate debate and disagreement.  Even common household arguments leave me feeling shaky and my mouth dry, so speaking up doesn’t come naturally for me.  But I’m hoping that knowing about pluralistic ignorance will help me to speak out more. Wouldn’t you be more likely to speak up against injustices if you knew that everyone around you felt the same way?  It’s scary to be the first, but this implies that if we take the lead, we’re going to get more back-up than we think.

Clearly, this isn’t always going to be the case, and I urge caution in sensitive or dangerous situations.  But don’t be afraid to speak your mind at a family barbeque, or a friend’s dinner party, or in class if you disagree with something that has been said.  I viscerally understand being vocal isn’t for everyone, so if publicly disagreeing with someone sends you into a panic attack, here are a few other ways you can “speak” out against injustice:

  • Put your money where your mouth is! Donate to causes that fight injustice, whether it be women’s rights, immigrant rights, fighting racism, fighting poverty…there’s a lot of injustice out there, so there’s bound to be an organization for you.  The Southern Poverty Law Center is dedicated to fighting hate throughout the entire country, and I’m going to go ahead and plug Planned Parenthood, too, because of it’s comprehensive and inclusive care.  (I actually do wish to see a world where abortions aren’t necessary, but stigmatizing abortions and shaming women who decide to have them isn’t the answer.  Better and cheaper contraception and more pre- and post- natal support services are.  I’ll step off my soapbox now).
  • Volunteering is another way to support a cause you believe in.  Fighting injustice doesn’t have to be controversial.  I can’t think of a single person who doesn’t think Meals on Wheels is a good idea (just whether or not it’s good enough to be funded with federal dollars….Mr. President….), and I loved doing meals at the Salvation Army as a kid.
  • Make Responsible Purchases.  This can mean a lot of things, whether it’s buying fair-trade coffee, reusable instead of plastic, local produce, or ethically produced clothing.  I am eagerly awaiting the launch of Loop later this year, a company partnering with common household brands like Cascade, Crest, and Pantene to bring reusable containers (and shipping containers!) to consumers.  Retailers pay close attention to consumer habits, and the more we support responsible industry, the more it will be available.
  • Finally, my favorite – call your representatives.  Again, if speaking just terrifies you, you can write a letter or an email, but calling has the most impact.  Call off-hours and leave a voicemail if it is less intimidating. Laws are one of the most effective ways of mitigating change – why do you think there are so many lobbyists out there??? You can find out who your representatives are, and how to contact them, here.