Earth Sunday: open your eyes

*reflection based on Romans 1:18-23 and John 1:1-14 for Earth Sunday – Season of Creation*

A couple of years ago my optometrist told me that the best gift I could give myself when I hit 40 was a pair of reading glasses. I’m now 42 and quite proud of the fact that I still haven’t had to get a pair; although, honestly, my eyes are very tired after a few hours of serious study and there are more than a few nights when I’ve gone to bed with a searing headache.

That gift to myself is actually long overdue, but I have plenty of good excuses: I don’t have time to go and see an optometrist; I’ve never found a pair of frames that really suits my face; it’s just another thing to remember and misplace and waste time looking for; but – honestly again – I’m actually pretty smug about the fact that I’ve spent hours of my life in front of a computer screen gaming and I still have excellent eye-sight!

The truth we encounter in Scripture today is that God longs to be known and offers us all of creation as the lens through which we can begin to see God’s eternal power and to unveil the mystery of God’s divine being.

Equally true is that many of us don’t want these God-coloured glasses – even though they’re the best thing for us. And we’re full of fantastic excuses:

  • we don’t have time to sit with and see the Divine Optometrist;
  • we’ve never found frames that suit our pre-existing picture of God or ourselves or the world around us;
  • they’re yet another thing for us to forget and misplace and have to intentionally search for;
  • and, actually, we’re pretty smug surrounded by the cheap figurines we’ve accumulated along life’s way that give the impression that we’re really important or smart or popular or successful or just plain better than other people.

The Message tells us that the reality of God is plain enough (vs. 18).

It’s captured in the stars, the silence, the burnt-orange sunsets, the crashing seas.

It’s in the science that keeps us grounded to this spot instead of suddenly floating away; that dictates that with the phloem and xylem of a flower cut off from the roots of the plant, it will wither and die in a few days; that allows us to create and capture our thoughts while sitting in our studies in Australia and share them with people we’ve never met, in places we’ve never visited in an instant.

It’s in the sum total of your life story and my life story woven together – all of the “coincidences,” all of the “you won’t believe what happened next-s,” all of the inexplicable moments that we haven’t even shared out loud because people might think we’re crazy.

The reality of God is plain enough … if we are prepared to open our eyes and take a long and thoughtful look at what God has created.

When we put on the God-coloured glasses of creation, and take a long and thoughtful look around us, there are a few things that we can see more clearly.

Firstly, we can see that God is far bigger than we can ever imagine or comprehend or describe or even begin to worship adequately. That’s why mystery is such an important term in the Christian faith: we’ll never know it all; we’ll never be able to claim that we are on the inside track of God’s good graces while others are on the out; we’ll never have a perfect understanding of who God is or what God wants – at least not in this life.

But God longs to be known by us, and every day, if we’re open to it, God enriches our knowing and our wonder and our love by unveiling the next little bit of the Divine mystery that we’re ready to receive, ready to wrestle with, ready to respond to.

In being open to the length and breadth and height and depth of God – and God’s love – we, secondly, see more clearly our own smallness in the ways in which we seek to contain and control this creative fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – or Birther of the Cosmos, Liberator of Women, and Comforter of those who weep – if we’re looking for less traditional imagery and language.

Sometimes we don’t treat God like God because we’re afraid of what we might have to sacrifice or surrender or change along the way. Sometimes we’re just being stubborn. Sometimes we’re so focussed on being good leaders that we forget to be humble followers. Sometimes we want things to work out in our favour, to go according to our plans. Sometimes we’re enraged by the bad things that happen to good people and the good things that happen to bad people and figure that if we take charge things would turn out more fairly. And sometimes, well, sometimes we think that we know best so we roll up our sleeves with an “I’ve got this God” attitude and get right to work without thinking through the consequences or worrying about who we might hurt or alienate or forget along the way.

There’s no excuse for it. No way to avoid the damage that we do when we pretend to know it all, to have it all sorted; when we replace the hands that hold the whole world with our own.

For it’s when we try to trivialise God’s glory and apportion God’s love and administer God’s justice through our own small view that human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate and people lose faith in a church that has lost sight of the renewing, restoring, revitalising life and love of the God who paints with many colours ….

Indeed, through the lens of creation we begin to see the both-and possibilities of God, rather than the either-or (or even neither-nor) position that, in our smallness, we seem to adopt as our default way of being in a world so big and a universe so unknown and mysterious.

In the beginning … was the Word and the Word was with God; in that beginning, as all things came into being through the Word and the words “let there be light” brought something new into the darkness, we saw the full glory of God – not in the light obliterating the darkness but, in fact, accentuated by it.

Light and dark;
heaven and earth;
ebb and flow;
life and death;

Father, Son and Spirit;
proton, neutron, and electron;
gas, liquid, and solid;
animals in the sea and sky and on land;

spring, summer, autumn, and winter;
earth, air, fire, and water;
north, south, east, and west ….

In our ever-expanding Universe, God is always astounding and – sometimes – confounding us – in the miracles of conception and development, the abundant diversity of life, and the confluence of factors that sustain it.

You and I are wholly insignificant in the grand scheme of things and yet we act as though we are at the centre of the universe and all that exists should either contribute to our happiness or be cut off, cut out, ignored, isolated, attacked, ridiculed, corrected, or even – obliterated.

Do you want to know the most amazing thing about being God’s created children?

Despite our smallness and our relative insignificance and our silliness, God sees us – clearly; beyond the skin and bones that God knit together cell by cell, to who we are in our hidden depths … and God wants to be known and loved and worshipped by all (the whole) of us.

Over the next five weeks of the season of creation, as we look together at the earth, at humanity, at the sky, at the mountains, and at the animals, we have the opportunity to examine our lives through the lens of God’s creation and see who or what it is that we are really worshipping.

Against the vast mystery of who God is and how and why God loves us, we can know our own smallness and take ownership of the myriad ways in which our insecurities and ambitions have damaged the Earth and caused the people with whom we have journeyed pain or sorrow. We may even be moved to that radically vulnerable act of saying sorry and working towards reconciliation and understanding.

We can be liberated through the creative imaginings of God who brings together colour and form and function in oftentimes contradictory and surprising ways to enrich the grand tapestry of life from the sense of scarcity and self-importance that leads to so much of the mistrust and wrongdoing in the world.

We can find rest as we entrust those things that we have grasped hold of as our own and sought to manage and contain and control into the hands of the One who holds the whole world.

And, above all, if we’re open to it, we can be surprised by God, delighted by the gift of Earth, re-energised and revitalised by the wonder of what is and what might be.

So … clear a morning, or an evening, turn off your phone, shake off your walking shoes, pack a picnic, head to a quiet spot … perhaps even take a friend or a family member with you … and sit in a place that speaks to you of God’s greatness and your smallness … and treasure a moment in which you are surrounded by the handiwork of God … and wonder at the fact that in that moment God is treasuring you too – for you are God’s handiwork.

The reality of God is plain enough … if we are prepared to open our eyes and take a long and thoughtful look at what God has created.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day Thirty Three: In Spite Of

Psalm 110
Proverbs 3:1-12
James 4:11-17

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how often
God’s power,
God’s presence,
God’s purpose,
is made manifest in spite of,
rather than because of,
me ….

I know, as Christians, we are called to be light to the world
as we walk in and with and through the Light of Life;
I know, as God called me into ordained ministry,
it was with the command to watch my life and doctrine closely that those who listened might be saved;
but I also know that countless people have experienced the church as a hurtful and unwelcome place,
and that, many times, my own service has been offered from a space of brokenness, exhaustion, distraction, and/or poverty.

The grace of today’s Scriptures
is that God continues to be God
in spite of …

… external circumstances that threaten to overwhelm
or destroy us:

“You were forged a strong scepter by God of Zion; now rule,
though surrounded by enemies!
(Psalm 110:2) …

… our fickleness and forgetfulness:

But don’t, dear friend, resent God’s discipline; don’t sulk under his loving correction.”
(Proverbs 3:11) …

… our preoccupation with our own life plans and the accumulation of power and possessions:
“yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
(James 4:14) …

… our words – so concerned with pride and judgement rather than peace and affirmation:
But who are you to judge your neighbour?
(James 4:12b).

Time and time and time again,
we get it wrong; we let what is happening around us detract from or destroy what is happening within us; we fail to live up to the purposes for which we were forged; we commit, as James points out in verse 17, the sin of knowing what is right but neglecting to do it.

But being good – and, in turn, good ambassadors of the Gospel – does not begin with the best of intentions or a to-do list of right behaviours.

It starts with and is sustained by an intimate friendship with God
(see Proverbs 3:5-6)
who will make straight our paths,
and speak through our poverty,
and transform our tiredness,
and use our brokenness,
and receive our “sorrys,”
and cover our inadequacies and excuses,
and correct us when we head off
in the wrong direction …

… and the very evidence of God’s power, presence and purpose at work in spite of all of this is precisely the light
– the lifeline –
that others need in the midst of their own struggles.

Trust God today
with where you feel weak,
or broken,
or tired,
or inadequate,
or distracted.

Feel His/Her favour resting upon you in spite of everything else that is happening in and around you.

Receive the gift of healing, of nourishment, of peace. 

Day Twenty Five: A Shared Life Taking Shape

Psalm 148
Exodus 33:18-23
1 John 1:1-9

Within the Christmas Mystery this year, I have been captivated by the wonder of the God-of-our-wide-universe
(the Maker of mountaintops and morning stars,
of sunshine and thunderstorms,
of apple orchards and cedar forests,
of fire and hail and snow and ice,
of ocean depths
and the fantastic beasts that dwell within them,
of animals, wild and tame,
of angel armies and intimate friends,
of old and young of different races and giftings;
praised by all created things as the
God-whose-radiance-exceeds-everything) – see Psalm 148 –
choosing
to enter into our lives
in the wrapped-up form of a human baby.

To borrow (and re-order) the words of the hymn-writer, Charles Wesley:

“He laid his glory by,
He wrapped him in our clay …
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.”

At the heart of my wonder is the realisation that though our Christmas celebrations centre around a historical act, it is one that spans the ages to offer me (and you), personally and intimately, the invitation to experience a shared life with God –

a life lived right beside God,
shielded by God’s own hand from the fullness of God’s glory which we cannot yet grasp or understand (Exodus 33:22),
yet fully welcome in the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
and present to the Infinite and Eternal taking shape and unfolding right before us
(1 John 1:2-3).

God not only knows you and I by name
but God longs to be known
by you and by me
in increasing intensity of understanding and intimacy …

… the God who holds everything known and unknown about the universe
in such mighty hands,
shielding us in such gentle hands,
entrusting Godself into our hands
made clean by the blood of God’s son …

… that our joy (and God’s) may be complete
as we walk and fellowship and grow in God’s truth and light.

For a moment, make your arms into the shape of a cradle waiting to receive a child. Feel the emptiness of space waiting to be filled.

Now imagine the Infinite God, wrapped in cloth, in human form, lying in your arms. Savour the weight of such presence,
the warmth of such intimacy.

Reflect on what Christ gave up in taking on such a fragile form. Wonder about some of the yearnings of God to share life with YOU. 

Such intimacy,
such trust,
such knowing
is not – as we saw in yesterday’s readings concerning Jeremiah and Stephen –
without implications or consequence:
if we long to share life with the One-in-whom-there-is-no-darkness,
that life needs to make place:
for God’s Word and Truth,
for fellowship with one another,
for confession of our sin, our need,
for God’s faithfulness and forgiveness,
for “Son-bathing” in God’s light and love
for us and for others (1 John 1:6-10).

As you think about the year that lies ahead, reflect on the space that you have created and might want to create to share life. Where and when and how will you find place to cradle and to be cradled?

Day Two: Where Is Our God?

Psalm 79
Micah 4:1-5
Revelation 15:1-8

A retired accountant opens fire on a crowd of festival-goers from his hotel room in Las Vegas – over 50 dead and 500 taken to hospital emergency rooms for treatment ….

Buildings collapse in Mexico as the earth shakes. Thousands of homes are destroyed and over 360 people are pulverised and smothered by the falling debris ….

Strategic air strikes in Syria – some for domination, some for retaliation, some even in the hope of peace – result in well over 2000 deaths in the region in the month of September alone ….

A father of two returns home from a wonderful family vacation and is found a few days later, hanging in the basement ….

These are merely a few occurrences in the world today that cause people to question “where is my God?” or to curse and taunt “where is your God?”

Is there a particular moment in your life when you have wondered where God is …? 
… when you have felt abandoned or betrayed by God …? 
… when you have considered a terrible or tragic situation as the judgement or punishment of God?

Following the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, the Babylonian conquest was an unimaginable violation for the Jews – not only of their sacred places (the holy city of Jerusalem and the temple where they worshipped) but of their fundamental belief that, as God’s chosen people, they were totally untouchable.

Yet as their dead rotted in the streets without the dignity of burial, and the living were taken into captivity, they felt the scorn and derision of their neighbours keenly: their mocking question, “Where is your God?” echoed the fearful wonderings of their own hearts, “How long will God be angry with us? How long will we be punished for our sins and for the sins of our fathers?”

Reeling with the horror of what had happened and the disbelief that their mighty God would allow those who followed other gods to have victory over them, how difficult it must have been for them to hold onto the words of hope and restoration spoken by the prophets of old!

Read prayerfully through the passage from Micah 4:1-5 again.

Which promise speaks most powerfully to you?

Which image seems impossible or unbelievable given the state of the world today?

Each of today’s Advent readings invites us to examine the way that we think about the so-called “judgements” of God – none more so than the triumphant scene in heaven that John depicts in Revelation 15.

As seven angels carry seven disasters from the temple, the saved ones sing the song of the Lamb (verses 3-4, the Message):

Mighty your acts and marvelous,
O God, the Sovereign-Strong!
Righteous your ways and true,
King of the nations!
Who can fail to fear you, God,
give glory to your Name?
Because you and you only are holy,
all nations will come and worship you,
because they see your judgments are right.   

The season of Advent encourages us to give voice to our doubts, our wonderings, even our angry accusations, “God, where have you been in the midst of my/our suffering!?!” and then invites us to picture what lies beyond the crisis or the catastrophe that we are experiencing.

Salvation will come – rescue, restoration, an era of peace and plenty!

And the question, “Where is your God?” will be answered exquisitely by a personal experience of the power and presence of God acting to pull us from the muck and mess that our sin has made.

A Gathering Prayer

Following on from the gathering in – with string idea that I recently shared is a prayer based loosely on Psalm 119:49-56 which connects us with the countless generations of men, women, and children who have experienced the faithfulness of God in the triumphs and the struggles of their lives.

The naming of these saints in Scripture deliberately includes people of different ages, genders, callings, and covenants – and even those whose stories have been made known to us without naming for all have place in the kin(g)dom of God.

The simple response of two lines (in bold) roots us in this wide family and reminds us that God knows us by name. For large congregations, each person can offer their name simultaneously but in smaller congregations, I would encourage taking the time for each to offer their name in turn. It is an intimate moment of being seen and offering oneself to be known.

***

God we gather this day,
though life is difficult and full of its own troubles.

We gather though it often seems that the wicked prosper and flourish
even as we go through tough times.

We gather though people mock us, look down on us,
and ridicule our way of life, our beliefs.

We gather because Your Word comforts and counsels us.
We gather because Your age-old revelation keeps us on the right track.

We gather because Your instructions ignite a song within our spirit
as we walk the pilgrim way.

But above all,
we gather because we know You;
because we have experienced Your touch upon our lives
and can boldly proclaim that You are a good and gracious God –
merciful and kind,
just and true,
faithful to Your promises.

You are the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
You are the God of Benjamin, of Samuel, and of David.
You are the God of Ruth, Deborah, and Esther.
You are the God of Daniel, of Jonah, and of Jeremiah.
You are the God of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
You are the God of Peter, of Paul, and of John.
You are the God of Mary, Lydia, and Dorcas.
You are the God of the many unnamed people who You fed, who You taught, who You healed.

Today, we gather to remember that You are the God of <insert your name>
and we place our hope in Your presence and Your promises.

The power of a name

When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth.
~Tess Scott

In John 20:11-18, angels, titles, roles, designations – mommy, wife, daughter, reverend, sister, friend – cannot break through Mary’s blinding loss and grief. Yet by uttering her name, Jesus changes EVERYTHING!

What, then, does the name that I use for God change?

What would I name You, God?

Father, with a lap more expansive than the night sky You created and all-enfolding arms,     stronger than the mountains but gentler than the ocean’s breeze?

Redeemer, with a servant’s hands and humble heart and broken body upon the cross?

Liberator, who flings wide the gates of death and turns the valley of trouble into a door of hope? 

Do I name You Love, with and within me; patient, forgiving, reconciling, enduring, inspiring, alluring?

Or God of Israel, Holy One, full of power and might; zealous for my affections; worthy of may adoration?

Nay, Lord, though these You are, and thousands more beside … friend, teacher, master, healer, Spirit, Light, Shepherd, breath, living waters, eternal word ….

At Your invitation, I dare this day to call you “lover,” “husband” – my beloved, my betrothed;
  to risk a deeper intimacy with you than I have ever known;
   a full surrender;
    an absolute and unequivocal “yes” to life walked with You day by day and hand in hand.

To You alone
who knows my secret name,
my hidden depths,
I give my life
as I say “YES!”

 

 

 

A new song for a new year

I patiently waited, Lord,
    for you to hear my prayer.
You listened and pulled me
from a lonely pit
    full of mud and mire.
You let me stand on a rock
    with my feet firm,
and you gave me a new song,
    a song of praise to you.

~ Psalm 40:1-3a

O God, our Composing Creator,
who listens intently amidst the vast symphony
~ of rumbling waves and rolling thunder,
~ of shifting sands and butterfly beats,
~ of elephant trumpets and sparrow chirups,
~ of guileless giggles and adoring angels,
to the melody of my life in all its minor and major keys:
THANK YOU

for accompanying me through
the blues,
the bends,
the broken beats;
for chanting into the depths of my soul
an alternative refrain to the world’s “sure thing;”
for bringing harmony and rhythm
to the cacophony of demanding, expectant voices within and around me.

Fill in the blank score of this new year
with a new song –
a song of praise to You.
And may Your passion and truth resonate
through the minims and the moments of my days
as I dance in step with You.

Through Woman’s Eyes

It’s Spring Day. The first of September.

And the first day after Women’s Month which – having seen how rapidly the hype over the 60 year anniversary of 20 000 women of all races standing in solidarity against the evil of Apartheid, and 40 years of the Ordination of Women in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, and the powerful political speeches about the struggles that women still face in our patriarchal South African society shrivelled away – really only burgeoned for a day.

And I’m not done. In fact, I feel like I’ve hardly begun to appreciate fully the remarkable gift of Woman that has emerged in my conversations with women over the last few weeks.

Truly, to talk heart to heart with a woman is to be fully open to stories of unfathomable struggle and pain … and then to be amazed at how she has managed to carry on – often with such dignity and hopefulness and grace.

I have heard how God’s Word has been used to humiliate and oppress: how some men have taken from the Creation story a mandate to dominate and subdue the “helper,” the “second-born” shaped from his rib, the “afterthought” fashioned to serve his needs; how Eve’s error points to the inherent wickedness of women and our hidden desire to lead men into depravity and sin; how Solomon’s many wives and God’s promise to Abraham of many offspring condones the cultural practice of polygamy and justifies having children out of wedlock; how Paul’s admonitions to women on what to wear and how to behave honourably in the brand new Christian community indicate that they are unfit for positions of leadership within God’s church – even today.

I have grieved at stories of how women have turned on one another – forsaking solidarity and sisterhood in the quest for promotion, love and/or lust, and validation of their worth; how some single women have considered married men fair game and jilted women have responded with venom and viciousness, exonerating their men of all blame; how those looking for love have been preyed upon and manipulated by users and abusers without a word of warning from those who have witnessed their behaviour before; how married women and mothers have insensitively told unwed women and women without children (by virtue or biology or choice) that God is obviously unhappy with them.

I have railed against a society in which women must sacrifice or downsize parts of themselves in order to meet a narrow ideal of beauty or significance or perfection; in which the pressure to perform (and the punishment for under- or out-performing) a dozen roles leaves little time for dreaming, let alone breathing; in which a thousand insecurities and irrational beliefs worm into our psyche and self-image in the way that we are socialised, educated, spoken to, and treated.

Yet, through it all, I have encountered a God who has written us into Life’s Unending Story:

  • who, in our forming, wove into us the capacity for creating, for nurturing, for self-sacrificing;
  • who reminds us in every act of provision and protection in Scripture that we are living expressions of God’s image, God’s very being;
  • who affirms rather than beauty and charm our independence and our wisdom, our strength and our influence and commands that others affirm it too;
  • who takes the vulnerable and the outcast like Rahab and Ruth and Tamar and makes them part of God’s family, a necessary heroine in the incarnation of the Messiah;
  • who comes to us not as a fully grown, powerful man but is bound through the intimacy and humility of umbilical cord and a woman’s breast;
  • who overthrows cultural traditions and religious laws to heal she-who-is-bowed-over-in-need and defend she-who-is-accused-of-improper-conduct;
  • who appears first to the women at the tomb with good news of resurrection and new life – and tells them to preach and proclaim the truth to those still living in the shadows of loss and fear;
  • who is pleased to name the church the “Bride,” sacrificially and lovingly chosen – truly wanted and worthy.

So I give thanks to the God who names me “Beautiful. Beloved.” And I celebrate the women who have drawn me closer to who God is and who I am in God through their sharing and self-offering over this time.

And I pray for eyes that will help me see the God-bearers who I will meet upon Life’s Way, and hands that will hold theirs in friendship and support, and a voice that will speak truth about their true significance and worth – not just in Women’s Month, but every day.

A Woman’s Creed

In preparing for my last session in our “From Queens to Prostitutes” course in Women’s Month, I came across this powerful and moving creed by Rachel C. Wahlberg from Prayers & Poems, Songs & Stories Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity With Women. May it help you to draw closer to the God who created you as “Beautiful beloved” as it has me.

***

I BELIEVE IN GOD
who created woman and man in God’s
own image
who created the world
and gave both sexes
the care of the earth.

I BELIEVE IN JESUS
child of God
chosen of God
born of the woman Mary
who listened to women and liked them
who stayed in their homes
who discussed justice with them
who was followed and financed
by woman disciples.

I BELIEVE IN JESUS
who discussed theology with a woman
at a well
and first confided in her
his messiahship
who motivated her to go and tell
her great news to the city.

I BELIEVE IN JESUS
who received anointing from a woman
who rebuked the men guests who scorned her
I believe in Jesus
who said this woman will be remembered
for what she did
minister of Jesus.

I BELIEVE IN JESUS
who healed a woman on the Sabbath
and made her whole
because she was
a human being.
I believe in Jesus
who spoke of God
as a woman seeking the lost coin
as a woman who swept
seeking the lost.

I BELIEVE IN JESUS
who thought of pregnancy and birth
with reverence
not as punishment
but as wrenching event
a metaphor for transformation
born again
anguish-into-joy.

I BELIEVE IN JESUS
who spoke of himself
as a mother hen
who would gather her chicks
under her wing.

I BELIEVE IN JESUS
who appeared first to Mary Magdalene
who sent her with the bursting
message GO AND TELL.

I BELIEVE IN THE WHOLENESS
OF THE SAVIOR
in whom there is neither
Jew nor Greek
slave nor free
male nor female
for we are all one
in salvation.

I BELIEVE IN THE HOLY SPIRIT
as she moves over the waters
of creation
and over the earth.

I BELIEVE IN THE HOLY SPIRIT
the woman spirit of God
who like a hen
created us
and gave us birth
and covers us
with her wings.

 

A prisoner of hope

Return to the fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.
Zechariah 9:12

I am a prisoner of hope.

Hope does not set me free; it binds me to the hard places, to the dry places, watching and waiting for the bud to blossom, for the river to run, for the promises of God to become a present reality.

Sometimes, I wish that God would release me: allow me to wallow in self-pity; to throw up my hands in despair and declare, “There is nothing to be done!”

Yet hope catches the lie between my lips and counters,
“Just wait and see what God can do.”

***

Keep me grounded, God,
even in those places that seem scorched and inhospitable;
when then are no short cuts – no way round – 
just a hard way across the wilderness
hoping, praying, begging,
for Your restoration to break through.