This week I helped my friend, the Rev. Adam Yates, and a group of other clergy in Connecticut craft a response to the Nashville Statement. Our first attempt was little more than a reactionary rebuttal of the Nashville Statement’s affirmations and denials. It turns out we needed to write that first draft in order for it to evolve into what we really wanted to say. The second draft is an expansive vision of God’s creation and the rich diversity of people who belong to that creation. Because it is still a response to the Nashville Statement, ours still focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity. But it goes further than that, because as we wrote it, we reveled in the rediscovery of just how wondrous and creative is our God. Continue reading “The Connecticut Statement”
Sermon for Sunday, February 19, 2017 || Epiphany 7A || Matthew 5:38-48
Just today and next week left in our Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. God sees, names, and celebrates us as beloved, befriended, gifted, blessed, and enlightened. Last week we talked about God designing us to be unfinished products, always ready for further growth as we love and serve the Lord. So it might surprise you that we return to God’s point of view today and see that God also names us “finished.” How can we be both finished and unfinished at the same time? Well, this is one of those experiences of both/and reality so common where God is concerned.
More than any sermon in this series, I am least qualified to talk about this one. In the next few minutes I might say something that is true, but if I do, it will have been by accident because what I’m really going to do is talk about Adam’s point of view about God’s point of view. It springs from Jesus’ command at the end of today’s Gospel: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, be complete, be your entire self, be finished. Now from our own point of view, it is impossible to be our entire selves, to be finished as it were, because we still have many days ahead of us. But God’s point of view is, I think, entirely different.
Sermon for the Easter Vigil, Saturday, April 4, 2015
It’s great to have a baptism scheduled for the Easter Vigil, but we didn’t this year at St. Mark’s. I still wanted to bless the water of baptism before we renewed our baptismal covenant, so my father suggested I build the blessing into my sermon. At the vigil, you can preach before or after the transition from darkness to light, and this year I chose before.
Tonight, we began with fire. We kindled a new flame and processed the Light of Christ into the church. We gave “this marvelous and holy flame” to God during the chanting of the Exsultet, saying: “Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor. May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning––he who gives his light to all creation.”
Then we heard the first words ever spoken in that creation; indeed, the Word spoken to call creation forth: “Let there be light!” Creation erupted from this Word and God flung wide the fiery fusion of the stars and billions of years later, here we sit. (I skipped a little bit of the story there.) Our worship this night returns to such primal origins to make sure we know the infinite and eternal reach of the event we are about to celebrate. As I said, tonight, we began with fire.
And now we move from one primal element to another – from fire to water.
(I pour the water into the baptismal font.)
“We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.” (These are the first words of our baptismal rite’s blessing of the water. The rest are contained throughout this sermon.) The fiery fusion of the stars is there a moment after the beginning, a moment after the blazing creativity of the Holy Spirit dances over the face of the deep. When we give thanks to God for the gift of water, we show our gratitude for one of the fundamental things that makes life possible. We might not normally thank God for water, especially where we live and in this day and age, because water is so plentiful and constant. But tonight we acknowledge the gift of this building block of life, which helps us focus on those things that sustain life.
“Through [water] you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.” We heard this story a few minutes ago, too. Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and all the people of Israel stand at the edge of the sea with their enemies bearing down on them. The sea could be a barrier, but God causes it to be their protector and rearguard. They arrive on the other side, but the sea swallows up the Egyptians and all their trappings of war. As the water delivered the people from slavery in a foreign land, for us the water symbolizes freedom from all that enslaves us.
“In [water] your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.” Jesus’ baptism began his public ministry of healing and bringing people closer to God. You might wonder why Jesus himself was baptized since John’s baptism was a path to repentance. What would Jesus need to repent if he knew no sin? With his baptism, Jesus foreshadows his death on the cross. He did not need to be baptized, not for the reasons the others coming out to the Jordan River did. But he chose baptism in order to wash in the same muddy water and to be in solidarity with his people. In the same way, he chose the cross, not because of his own guilt, but because of ours. In the river, Jesus swims in the sin of the people. And on the cross, the same sin hangs there with him.
“We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.” We show our gratitude again, this time for specific water, the special water of Baptism. This water is like any other, except that we set it apart with prayer and blessing and ask the Holy Spirit to make it holy.
“In [the water of Baptism] we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” We borrow these words from the Apostle Paul, who wrote the church in Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). A baptism is so much more than a ritual washing away of sin, says Paul. Indeed, in baptism we recognize that we have died and risen with Christ. Paul continues, just to make sure we understand his point: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).
“Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” How could we not invite others into Christ’s fellowship after we have known the supreme gift of the Risen Christ being alive in us? But just in case we think that this new life is too precious to share, but must be hoarded like other precious things, Jesus himself commanded us to “Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
“Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.” We ask the Holy Spirit to infuse this ordinary water with the presence of God just like we will do later with ordinary bread and wine. We set the rite of baptism at this point in our service because it serves as the perfect hinge between death in the gloom of Friday and new life at dawn on Sunday. When you feel this water touch your skin in a few minutes after we renew our baptismal covenant, remember that you have died and risen with Christ. You belong not to the old things that are passing away. You belong to the new creation.
“To [Christ], to you (Lord), and to the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.”
Art: Detail from “Creation of the World” by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1864
Or the Epic Story Hidden in John 3:16
Sermon for Sunday, March 15, 2015 || Lent 4B || John 3:14-21
We Christians often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. There are generally two major categories that this mistake falls under. First, the limits of our language make describing God in any accurate way impossible. No word or combination of words that has ever been invented can do justice to the sublime combination of power, grace, and harmony that is our God. Whenever we say something true about God, we always have to add, “Yes, and…,” lest we think we summed up God’s character with what we said.
Second, we tend to remake God in our own image and likeness instead of the other way around. It’s true that the Genesis creation story says God created humankind in God’s image and likeness, but turning the mirror the other way around doesn’t work. God is not an old white-haired man floating on a cloud in the sky, despite Michaelangelo’s depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God is not like our own fathers or mothers, no matter how good and loving they were…or weren’t. Whatever good qualities we see in those we associate with holy living, those qualities are but a pale shadow to their perfected forms in God’s nature.
So because of the limits of our language and our self-centered inclination to see a drab facsimile of God when we look in the mirror, we Christians often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. And nowhere is this mistake made more often than when folks interpret the most famous verse in the Bible. I read it just a few minutes ago. Do you remember what it is? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Growing up in the Deep South, I saw the citation for this verse all over the place. “John 3:16” was emblazoned on bumper stickers, T-shirts, billboards, and signs at football games. Always without the actual words of the verse, the citation alone was something of a brand or logo for certain expressions of Christianity around which I grew up. Throughout the years, many well-meaning friends asked me if I were saved and when I had asked Jesus to become my personal savior. At the time, I got quite irked whenever anyone asked me this because it made me feel like my Episcopal expression of Christianity was worth less than theirs. But looking back from a vantage point of 15 to 20 years in the future, I bless their efforts – they were concerned enough, after all, about the state of my soul to invite me to meet Jesus in the same way they had been taught to meet him.
One night at the Fifth Quarter, which was held at Valley View Baptist Church after high school football games as an alternative activity to the hedonism that resulted when the Patriots of Hillcrest High School won, the church’s youth minister invited all the attendees to sit down. He then talked to us about Jesus, quoting from several verses of John 3, including the famous 16th verse, and in the end, prompted each of us to pray, and to ask Jesus to enter our hearts. So I did. I asked Jesus to be my personal savior. I now had a satisfactory answer for those acquaintances seeking to save my soul.
But while it was satisfactory for them, it wasn’t satisfactory for me. It felt too small, somehow. It felt like I had asked Jesus to be mine, sort of like a divine version of a valet on Downton Abbey. My personal savior. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this ritual formulation of asking Jesus to enter my heart was one way to discover he had been in my heart all the time and was in fact the one prompting me to ask in the first place. Thus, he wasn’t my personal savior. He wasn’t mine at all. I was his. The gift was that he wanted me to be his.
But to understand this gift God has given us, I had to thinker bigger than my own personal salvation. I had to read John 3:16 with a greater scope. But it wasn’t until my first semester Greek class in seminary that I had the tools to do so. (We haven’t had an ancient Greek lesson in a long time. I’m so excited!) The key to the verse is in the first couple of words: “For God so loved the world…” When we read those words in English, it sounds like God loves this planet we find ourselves on, this “fragile earth, our island home,” as Eucharist Prayer C says. Sure this love encompasses more than just me and my personal salvation, but we’re still not thinking big enough.
The Greek word that’s translated in this verse as “world” is kosmos. Do you know what English word we get from this? Yes. “Cosmos.” Not just this rock 92 million miles from the sun, but the whole universe! Space, the final frontier! All that God has created or will ever create is wrapped up in this word, kosmos. The Gospel of John thinks big; that’s why it has the temerity to start, “In the beginning…” and continue with the founding of Creation.
To even begin to understand the depths or heights of God’s love, we first must understand what God loves. It’s everything that has ever existed or will ever exist. It’s every atom in every cell in every organ in every being on every planet in every solar system in every galaxy in this universe that is still rapidly expanding, for all time past, present, and future. Nothing at all would exist if the love of God were not animating existence.
For God’s love of the kosmos, God gave the supreme gift – God’s own self in the form of God’s own Son. Thus, the gift God gave included an experience of the perfect relationship, which we name the Trinity: the Parent, the Child, and the Love between them. By giving Creation this experience of perfect relationship, God repaired the broken relationship between God and Creation. This is the epic story being told in those first few words of John 3:16.
The second half the verse and the verses that come after invite our response. Will we walk in the light of this great love or in the darkness, where we can hide in self-imposed exile? Will we choose to do all that we do “in God?” Will we choose to acknowledge that we belong to Christ, that we wish to shine in the light of the perfect relationship of the Trinity? I pray the answer to each of these questions, for each of us, will, with God’s help, always be “Yes.”
I began this sermon saying that we often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. Even though I’ve tried to use as expansive language as I could since then, these words still fall pitifully short of their target. But the good news is this: no matter how small we make God, no matter how much we reduce God to our level, God is always and forever seeking to expand us, to excavate more space within us for God to fill. The kosmos exists because the love of God animates its existence. That existence includes you and me, who are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, the love of God causes us to exist. And the gift of God – God’s only Son – causes us to love.
*Image: Detail from Nasa Daily Image, March 8, 2015 (Susan Stolovy (SSC/Caltech) et al., JPL-Caltech, NASA)
(Or The Fundamental Goodness of Creation)
Sermon for Sunday, January 11, 2015 || Epiphany 1B || Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11
You may recall during a sermon last spring, I challenged you to choose six words to proclaim your faith. I remembered the “Six-Word Witness” challenge as I began to prepare for this new season after Epiphany, as there happen to be six Sundays between now and Lent. If you read my article in the recent issue of The Lion’s Tale, you got a sneak peak at a particular six-word witness, one that describes the trajectory of the next six weeks as we hear the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. My plan during this season after Epiphany is to connect this sermon with the next five to tell a much larger story of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.
Yes, you heard that right. Today’s sermon is the beginning of a six-part series. That means if you have plans to go skiing in a couple of weeks, I’m afraid you’re going to have to cancel.
We begin today with the first word: Affirmation. And we begin today, appropriately, at the beginning. What we find when we enter the story as early as we possibly can is the affirmation of goodness. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”
Right away, in the first verses of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, God has already affirmed something as good. This pattern continues throughout the rest of the creation story. Each day God creates, and that which God creates God affirms as good. Thus the fundamental goodness of creation is built into the very fabric of creation. From the sweeping array of celestial bodies to the lowliest tadpole dwelling in the muck to us troublesome and ungainly humans, God affirms everything God makes with the seal of goodness.
(As an aside, God calls us humans “very” good while the rest of creation is merely good, but I think that has more to do with the fact that we humans we were the ones who wrote it all down.)
The reality that goodness entered creation on the ground floor is of utmost importance for the rest of the ongoing story. There have been folks in the past, notably in the early centuries of Christianity, who taught that the physical creation God made — the matter, the flesh, the stuff we can see and touch — was, in fact, inherently evil. They taught that only the spiritual realm held any goodness, and so they sought to divorce themselves from the flesh entirely. Of course, to make this heretical mental leap, they had to ignore the bulk of the Biblical witness, which they did with no qualms at all. Their path led to disengagement from the world; the founding of secretive, insular societies; and what I imagine was quite a lot of struggle against instincts that are totally normal, but which they decided were base and evil. Thankfully, the majority of Christians were not led astray by this faulty understanding of creation. And so we still have the witness of Genesis reminding us of God’s affirmation of the fundamental goodness of creation.
But now comes our own mental leap. Or call it a leap of faith. We move from one beginning to another, from the beginning of creation to the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. At the outset of Mark’s account of the Gospel, Jesus comes up out of the water of the River Jordan during his own baptism. He sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And he hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Notice the placement of this piece of the Gospel. Before Jesus has a chance to do anything of consequence; before his ministry gets off the ground; before any miracles or teachings or healings or his death or resurrection, God showers upon Jesus God’s love and pleasure. Just like God affirms creation as good right from the start, God affirms Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son before he has a chance to earn the right to such a name.
Now, you might be thinking: “Of course God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved Son — that’s who he is! What about me?!” Yes, what about the rest of us troublesome, ungainly, and yet “very” good humans? Well, to make our leap of faith, we need a little help from our friend the Apostle Paul. He writes to the church in Rome: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17).
If the writers of Genesis were presumptuous to call us “very” good, then Paul must be doubly so to claim that we are joint heirs with Christ. Or is he? Perhaps, instead, Paul has seen into the truth of the matter, seen Jesus’ plan all along, a plan to show us what we have always been and to reaffirm our inherent goodness, our lovableness.
And here’s where our own version of the heresy I spoke of earlier comes to into play. While those folks taught the matter of creation was inherently evil, there is an overriding voice in our modern American society telling us that we aren’t exactly evil, but we sure are deficient. I’m of course referring to my favorite homiletical punching bag, the ubiquitous marketing department. Marketing campaigns work like this: they tell us ways we are defective, and then they try to sell us products designed to improve those defects. Truck commercials tell men they aren’t manly unless their vehicles can haul a couple tons of dirt. Toy commercials tell kids they won’t be happy unless they receive the hot new toy for Christmas. And don’t get me started on commercials aimed at women. Judging by the ads, women in this country have hair that isn’t shiny enough; bodies that aren’t the right shape; the wrong handbags, clothes, shoes, and earrings; too many wrinkles; and not enough diamonds.
All this must be true, right? I mean, we’re bombarded with our supposed deficiencies everywhere we turn. Then we repeat them over and over again until they seem like truth. And pretty soon, it’s not just the marketers, but everyone getting in on the fun. And that’s when the boy feels deficient because he hasn’t played the video game all his friends are talking about. That’s when the girl feels defective because she doesn’t quite fit the clothes her friends have started to buy. That’s when the parents feel substandard because they can’t afford the tuition at the “best” college. That’s when we forget our inherent goodness, the goodness God affirmed in the first rushing breath of creation.
Here our leap of faith continues, because the marketing department has convinced us of our utter worthlessness. And so we might not want to believe that Jesus has invited us — yes, even you and me — to be joint heirs with him of the love and pleasure of God. Jesus received this affirmation of his belovedness before his ministry even started. Likewise, you and I who are joint-heirs with Christ have never done anything in our lives, nor will we do anything in our lives, to earn God’s love and pleasure. They are ours intrinsically. They are ours because we are God’s. And because we cannot earn God’s love and pleasure, we cannot do anything to lose them either. They are part of what makes us who we are – the best part of what makes us who we are. God’s love and pleasure are nestled at the very core of our beings, nestled right next to the affirmation of goodness, which God breathes into all creation.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu summed this up in one dazzling sentence. He once said, “God does not love us because we are lovable; we are lovable because God loves us.” This love is the core of our identity, not something we earn, not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we choose to believe this fundamental truth, we will be ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives. It is to these invitations we turn next week as our six-part series continues. But for today, feel this truth in your bones. Feel God say this to you: “You are my Son. You are my daughter, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
Sermon for Sunday, June 15, 2014 || Trinity Sunday, Year A || Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
As most of you know, Leah and I are expecting twins in just a couple of weeks. I’ll let you in on a little secret. I am so excited. And terrified. And excited. Whenever I think of the immensity of the change that is about to take place in our lives, I get this “deer in the headlights” look on my face for a minute. But then I remember to breath, and I remember that we’re going to have a lot of help and support, and I remember what Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel reading: “I am with you always.” And all that helps.
But I’m getting off topic. You all know we’re expecting twins. You know we’re hoping for six more weeks of gestational time, and you know we’re having a boy and a girl. But there’s one thing Leah and I have been keeping to ourselves – one thing we barely whisper even to each other. We’ve been keeping their names a secret.
(Now, before you get all excited, I’m not going to tell you their names today. You’ll have to wait until they’re born.)
As I sat down to ponder this Trinity Sunday sermon, I found myself wondering why we’ve been keeping their names secret. We don’t even use them when we’re alone. We still call them “Baby Girl” and “Baby Boy,” which took over a few months ago from their original codenames “Alpha” and “Bravo.”
All of this was on my mind while reading the creation story from Genesis that we heard a few minutes ago, and something struck me that I’ve never noticed before. Did you catch how many things God names in the first three days of creation? God calls the light “Day” and the darkness “Night.” God calls the dome “Sky,” the dry land “Earth,” and the gathered waters “Seas.” Likewise, in the second creation story, which follows what we read this morning, God invites the first human to name all the living creatures of the earth.
Thus, as Genesis tells the story, one of the things God creates is the act of naming. And God passes this act to the first human and by extension to us. Have you ever stopped to think how important names are? The simple act of naming causes us to value things in new and greater ways.
Think of it like this. I don’t know anything about trees, but you do. We go for a hike in the woods. I see a bunch of trees. But you see an Oak and a Chestnut and a Birch. You appreciate the curves of the boughs and the shape of the leaves. You know which root goes with which tree and which bird prefers to nest on which branch. I still just see a bunch of trees. But then you teach me the name of the Chestnut and how to recognize it. And suddenly, I see Chestnut trees all around me. I appreciate them in a new way because I can see them and name them.
Naming something brings out that something’s intrinsic value: value it always had, but which we don’t necessarily appreciate until we name it.
So what’s all this have to do with the Trinity? I’m glad you asked. Our understanding of God springs directly from our desire to name God. Yes, we have the word “God,” but in our experience those three letters do not do justice to the sublime coherence of grace and love and communion that we feel when we stumble into God’s presence.
So let’s train our imaginations to look back before God said, “Let there be light”; back before there was a creation for God to call God’s own. We believe that “God is love,” as the First Letter of John puts it, but if there was no creation to fill the role of the Beloved, then how could this be? Well, if there was nothing else to love, then God loved God. But we can’t stop there because true love always manifests as a relationship. And so in our futile attempt to find the right word to name God, we latch on to relational language and name God “Father.” We could just as easily use the word, “Mother,” as well. This sets up one side of a loving relationship, that of parent to child.
But the relationship is incomplete without the second person. And so we also name God “Son” to acknowledge the complete relationship between loving parent and beloved child. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus says that God “loved me before the foundation of the world.” This love between parent and child is so palpable that the love itself is the third member of the Trinity, which we name the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Paul tells the church in Rome that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
This loving relationship between parent and child existed before anything else. Nothing existed that could substitute for or diminish the relationship. The love was pure, perfect, unsullied by deficiencies such as lust or anger or apathy or dominance. In fact, the perfection of the relationship meant that, while there was a Trinity of persons, a Unity of being was the ultimate reality. This Unity of being was the home in which the three persons dwelt: the Parent, the Child, and the Love between them.
When we name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we show our willingness – our desire – to resonate to a deeper degree with God’s movement in our lives. Just like learning the name of the Chestnut tree and suddenly seeing them everywhere, when we name God with the relational words of the Trinity, we set ourselves up to notice God moving in our lives in myriad ways: as the Father, the Son, the Spirit; as the Parent, Child, and Love between them – Love that brings us into the relationship and ushers us back home.
As I contemplate the secret names of our nascent children, as I lift those five syllables daily to the heart of God, I remember the importance of names. Names reveal the intrinsic value of things. Names pulls us deeper and deeper into relationship. Names help us notice things our eyes have never seen before. This is why we have three names for One God. This is why God has given us the gift of revealing God’s personhood as a thrice-named Trinity.
As I pray the names of our unborn children silently to God, I continue to wonder why we are keeping them secret. And I think the reason is this: we are saving their names for the new and joyous relationship that will begin at birth. Right now, they are ultrasound photo and pulsing heartbeat and kick on the belly and empty car seat waiting to be filled. And they are hope. I feel so much love gathering up inside of me – more love than my heart can hold because my heart is too small right now. I think this is a piece of the kind of love God felt in that moment before creation when there was only a Parent, a Child, and the Love between them. This new love is overflowing the banks of my heart, flooding me, waiting for the rapidly approaching day when I will hold my children in my arms, smell the tops of their heads, kiss their tiny fingers, and whisper their names.
And the moment I do, my heart will grow. These two new creations, these two incarnations of the love of God will hear their names. And pieces of my heart will exit my chest, enter theirs, and beat in tandem with their new hearts.
* ART: Detail from “Trinity” by Andrei Rublev (c. 1410)
Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life. (John 1:3-4a; context)
For my birthday this year, my then fiancée bought me a LEGO kit of a police helicopter. It was great fun to put together, and when I was finished the helicopter looked exactly like the one on the box. And no wonder, considering that I had followed the directions exactly. Not one piece was out of place. It was the perfect realization of the set on the box.
Then over the summer I instituted a LEGO club at church, and one of the participants brought in a helicopter of his own. It didn’t quite have the sleek lines of the dedicated pieces that the one I made had, but I sure thought his was way better. His was better because he didn’t use instructions to build it. It didn’t come from a kit ready to assemble. He built his helicopter directly out of his imagination. Whereas I constructed mine, he created his.
In this post, we are going to talk about the link between God’s creation and our own creativity. This link is the imagination, the wonderful gift that God gives us that helps us access our creativity. As we move on, I want you to be thinking about how you personally express your own creativity. We’ll get to that later; for now, just thank God simply because God created you.
Before we go any further in our discussion about imagination and creativity, I have to rehash some stuff that I’ve said before so please bear with me.
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…everything came into being through the Word.” So says John the evangelist at the beginning of his account of the Gospel. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…God said, “Let there be light.” So says one of the writers of the book of Genesis at the beginning of the whole Bible.
The important words here for our discussion are “Word” and “said.” As these two writers articulate the miracle of God’s work in the beginning, God speaks creation into being. Now, we get into trouble when we decide that at the end of Day Six, God stopped speaking. God may have rested on Day Seven, but that Word, which God used to organize creation, continued and continues. God has never stopped speaking creation into being.
As parts of this creation, God continues to speak us into being, as well. None of us is finished being made yet. Not even close. God breathes life into us with each word God speaks, giving us the opportunity to grow, to change, to use our imaginations.
Creation is God’s imagination made real. When we access our imaginations, we tap into the kind of energy that God uses to create.
Our imaginations allow us to access our creative sides unrestrained by any thoughts of boundaries or rules. In the beginning of creation, there were no boundaries or rules; there was just God and God’s Word. So when we use our imaginations, we get as close as we can to the state God was in when God began to create. (Of course, we’re still really really really far from the actual state, but we are closer than we normally are.)
Our ability to imagine finds its roots in the reality that God made us in God’s image. You might think that this means, “in God’s physical appearance” because of our use of the word “image” in today’s parlance. But “image” here does not mean “superficial representation.” Rather, it is shorthand for “the deep and abiding spark of God’s Spirit that animates us.” It is that which is within us that allows us to imitate God, to reflect how God is, or to put it another way, to follow.
And it’s no coincidence that the words “image” and “imagination” come for the same root. When we tap into our imaginations, we find ourselves in a pure moment of creative energy. Children are so good at imagining because they don’t have as much baggage, which tends to pollute this pure moment. But even with baggage, we can soar into the heights of creativity. And in so doing, we enable the spark within us that is calling us to create in God’s image.
Talent Not Required
We’ve spent the first half of this post discussing the theological warrant for why we are able to engage our imaginations to aid in creative endeavors. Now let’s talk about one of the pitfalls that can accompany this discussion.
This pitfall centers around a word that is often linked to creativity, and that word is “talent.” Too often we ascribe the creative task only to those people we describe as “talented.” And while it is true that the vast majority of creative artifacts – paintings, musical scores, choreography, to name three – that survive the test of time come from talented people, this does not mean that so-called talented people have a monopoly on creativity. Rather, their works generate value beyond the initial act of creation because other people have decided on sets of factors that assign such value.
But the initial act of creation is much more important than any resultant value of a work. And anyone, no matter how much or how little talent he or she has, can and should create. Exercising our creativity, no matter what the outlet, allows us to reach deep inside and root around for the spark that God buried within us. In this searching for our creative spark, we concurrently probe for our strong, but often ignored, bond with God’s own constant creation. And this leads us to be better followers of Jesus Christ.
So don’t worry if you do not have what the marketplace has decided is “talent.” Don’t worry if the fruits of your creative endeavors sit in your basement once you’re done. Don’t worry if your creativity manifests itself in a way that leaves no material product, but rather leaves a mark on the life of someone else. Rather, create for creation’s sake. After all, that’s what God does.
A Poem for Creativity
As we close our discussion on creativity and imagination, I invite you to imagine with me how you might work with God to release your own creativity. Perhaps you will
Sing a song a way that’s not been heard before,
Or write a play and cast your little brother as the lead,
Or take a day to dig a garden in your yard
And sow some seeds that soon will be a living tapestry.
Or paint a picture with the watercolors in your bottom drawer,
Or stitch a many-colored quilt to lay across a pair of old, scarred knees,
Or take some pages from old magazines and roll them
Into beads for jewelry for your mother’s special day.
Or hum a tune you half-remember hearing at a pub, oh way back when,
Or write some epic verse about adventures Spot has when you are away,
Or take an afternoon to bake a latticed apple pie
And bring it for dessert to potluck night at church.
Or dance a dance that you are making up right then and there,
Or tell yourself the story of the star that shines before the others do,
Or take a piece of rusty clay and throw a pot
And glaze it with a dye you mixed yourself.
Or pick a bunch of daisies for the vase atop your sister’s chest of drawers,
Or weave a brand new romance with the threads of your two lives,
Or take some time to shape a handful of the deepest silence
Into a laugh
Or a cry
Or a long, contented sigh.
I leave this moment with you, God, imagining how you will move in my life tomorrow.
A new weekly feature here on Wherethewind.com brings a week’s worth of devotions from my other website devo180.com and puts them together in one long blog post. I will be editing them for continuity, so the text isn’t exactly like it is on the other site. You can go there and get the original. This one is from the first week of September.
I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you. (2 Timothy 1-5; context)
“May you continue to have the space for reflection, the silence for relationship with God, the time for relaxation, and the temperament to recognize and rejoice in all of creation.” You probably don’t recognize the name of the person who wrote this quotation. And that’s okay, because she’s not famous (except in genetically exclusive circles). She’s my mother, and she is one of the wisest and gentlest people I know. She could easily be a saint except that her miracles aren’t the flashy kind that gets you noticed by the canonization committee. Anyway, she wrote those words to me over the summer in a card celebrating the third anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. The card has been propped open on my desk ever since, and I’m excited that I get to share it with you.
So I invite you to dig up some wisdom from your own mother. If you can’t, dig up some wisdom from one of those surrogate mothers that everyone seems to collect (I’ve got about five, I think). Reflect on that wisdom, and then we’ll pick up with the first phrase of my mother’s message.
Space for Reflection
In her note to me, my mother prayed that I have “the space for reflection.” Now, the word “reflection” is one of my all time favorite words, so I’m sure my mother knew that it would resonate with me. We use the word “reflection” in two main contexts: we see our reflection in mirrors or still ponds and we engage in reflection when we think back on previous events. In both of these contexts, gaining space – both spatial and temporal – allows us to make the most out of reflective moments.
They say that you don’t learn from experience; rather, you learn from reflection on experience. If the middle linebacker (yea football season!!) takes a bad angle and gets blocked out of the play by the left guard, he now has gained some vital experience. But there’s a good chance he’s going to get blocked out of the play again unless he reflects on the mistake and takes time to correct it. For football players, the space for reflection is the film room. For the rest of us, the space happens when we intentionally pause to look back over our days and discern how we succeeded and failed at living the lives God desires for us.
Now let’s get back to the mirror context of the word “reflection.” The word comes from the Latin word flecto, which means “to bend.” Literally, “reflection” is “to bend again” or “to bend back.” So when we allow ourselves the space for reflection, we literally “bend” or, to make the action physical, we “bow.” We bow to the God who is patiently waiting for us to hold up the mirror to our days and see God reflected back at us.
Silence for Relationship with God
My mother prayed that I develop the silence for relationship with God. On the surface, this may seem like a strange juxtaposition – silence and relationship don’t usually go very well together. In a human relationship, a “silent” party may be accused of being incommunicative or may be cowed by an aggressive partner into non-speaking.
But there’s where we make our mistake – too often, we think of silence as a “non-something,” as an absence of something. But silence, when we are speaking about how it functions in our relationships with God, is the exact opposite. Silence is a full something. Practicing silence does not mean shutting off all the noises around and within you. Rather, practicing silence means replacing those noises with attention to what is there, hidden in the background beneath the noise.
This fullness of something beneath is God’s presence. It is beneath the noise because God’s presence is the framework of existence, the structure, the undergirding support for all things. It makes sense, then, that when we find ourselves in silence, we notice this behind-the-scenes presence. When we become attentive to this presence, we can begin to participate in our relationship with God. And it is then that we will notice that God has always and forever been participating in God’s relationship with us.
Time for Relaxation
The third prayer my mother had for me was that I find the time for relaxation. She apparently has some inkling into the fact that I would probably work all the time if I didn’t have people around me to tell me to slow down.
I remember during my first year of college having so much work and reading to do that I never had any time to relax. I always told myself that I would relax when my work was done. The trouble was that when I finished reading for one class, I would need to start it for another, and by the time I was done with that reading it was time to start reading again for the first class. And then there were papers and projects and studying for exams and…and…and…
Finally, a day came when there was just too much hitting me all at once. Then I realized that there was never a time when I wouldn’t have some work for class to do. So I started scheduling relaxation time in order to be more effective when I was working. And that put me on the right path.
The best time to relax is at the moment when you say to yourself, “I am just too busy right now to even think about relaxing.” You (not to mention everyone around you) will be better for it. Remember, Jesus often went off by himself for a bit of a recharge. You can too.
The Temperament to Recognize and Rejoice in All of Creation
The final prayer my mother had for me in that card back in June was that I have “the temperament to recognize and rejoice in all of creation.” I love that she didn’t simply pray for me to recognize and rejoice in creation. Rather, she prayed that I have the “temperament” to do so. In so doing, she asked God that I be granted a specific tool for my faith’s toolbox, not just the effect the tool brings.
Growing into a temperament that recognizes and rejoices means nurturing a certain demeanor, a set of behaviors that leads to the expectation that there is and always will be something to rejoice about. This temperament is not about glossing over the bad stuff or pretending that everything is fine and dandy when it’s not. We aren’t trying to delude ourselves when we seek this temperament. In fact, we are trying to do just the opposite.
Remember two days ago, when I talked about the fullness of God’s presence being the something beneath the silence. In the same way, nurturing the kind of temperament my mother is talking about has to do with searching for the greater reality around and upon which all transient reality clings. Discovering God’s presence in our lives, both when times are great and when times are tough, is all about acknowledging that God is there, undergirding our existence with God’s own greater existence. When we discover this, or more often, when we rediscover this (considering we have a tendency to forget about it), we can recognize and rejoice in creation.
And in so doing, we recognize and rejoice in God’s creating movement in our lives.
I leave this moment with you, God, wishing for open ears to listen, a sensitive mouth to speak, and strong arms to embrace your people.
(Sermon for March 28, 2010 || Palm Sunday, Year C, RCL || Luke 19:28-40)
“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones themselves would cry out.” So says Jesus to some Pharisees, who want him to corral his exuberant disciples. If we lived anywhere else, I would be tempted to take these words of Jesus merely as metaphor, as a turn of phrase intended to illustrate the remarkable nature of the event taking place. But in the month that I’ve been in Cohasset, I’ve walked on the beach several times, and I’ve heard a certain, special noise that has made these words come alive.
As you know, small stones populate the beaches here, stones that were once boulders and are not yet sand, stones made round and smooth by the ebb and flow of the tide, stones good for skipping on the ocean. Waves break over these stones and cover them with foamy surf. As the tidal forces suck the waves back out to sea, the water runs through air pockets between the round edges of the stones. And as the water vibrates the stones, they cry out. The stones sing with a quavering voice, a thousand violins playing the same note but each with unique rhythm and tempo. As the waves flow out, the stone symphony plays the chords of creation, joining the great company of all the myriad instruments in God’s terrestrial orchestra.
If we attune our ears and eyes and hearts, we can hear these chords and we can witness all of Creation praising God. This praise happens when God’s creatures fulfill the purposes for which God made them. The sun praises God by shining, the moon by reflecting the sun’s light. The thunder praises God by crashing, the rain by watering the earth. The gazelle praises God by running, the wolf by hunting, the rose by blooming, the bee by pollinating. Each member of the great symphony of Creation praises God in an unique way, and all work in concert to glorify the Creator.
Well, all except for one glaring exception. We humans are a thick lot. On our best days, we ignore the symphony, and on our worst days, we spend our time devising ways to silence Creation’s praise. Down through history, we have slowly but surely forgotten how to read Creation’s score, forgotten that we too have parts to fulfill in God’s orchestra.
We are able to join in praise to God when we remember that God created us to display one fundamental attribute: goodness. God created everything that is, Genesis tells us, and at the end of each creative session, God pronounced the new creation Good (and on the last day, not just Good, but Very Good). So, at the fundamental level of our human nature is goodness, which is a reflection of God’s delight in Creation. The manifestation of that goodness is our praise to God. We embody this praise when we sing and dance, when we laugh and pray, when we love, and most importantly, when we serve.
The trouble appears when we forget that goodness remains at the core of our human nature. Instead, we see all the malignant attributes that attack our goodness and mistake this tumorous growth for what defines us as humans. How often have you heard the following statements explained away by attributing the behavior to human nature:
“He’s just jealous because I won the office pool.” “Well, jealousy is just a part of human nature.”
“She’s so petty: who cares if we wore the same dress today.” “Well, pettiness is just a part of human nature.”
“I can’t believe he lied about where he was last night.” “Well, dishonesty is just a part of human nature.”
We make the worst mistake of our lives when we attribute these negative actions to human nature. Our fundamental nature is Good, and anything else is a perversion of the goodness by which God brought us into being. These perversions of our goodness (also known as “sin”) distort our relationship with God. We start playing our instruments out of tune, thus ruining the symphony of Creation.
But when Jesus rides that donkey’s colt down the Mount of Olives, he takes a step in the process of subverting all our tumorous perversions of human nature. On his way to the cross, which is the epicenter of the perversion the Good, he begins showing that goodness (and all of goodness’s positive emanations) still exist, despite the malignancy eroding the nature of humanity.
First, he tackles the perversion of power. Notice that his parade is rather incongruous. Anyone would expect a king to enter the city on an armored warhorse with weapons-laden legions flanking him. But Jesus rides in humility, on the back of a lowly farm animal. He displays that humility (which is one manifestation of goodness) has more majesty than any imperial power could ever muster.
While Jesus subverts the perversion of power, his disciples tackle the perversion of terror. While fear is sometimes a helpful emotion, terror is not simply “really big fear.” Terror is an extension of power meant to control. But at this moment in the Gospel, the disciples walk directly into the most dangerous situation in their lives unabashedly praising God with joyful voices. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” They display courage, another manifestation of goodness, and their courage subverts any attempt by the perversion of terror to control.
The rest of the Gospel plays out in much the same way. Jesus subverts the perversion of greed when he overturns the tables of the moneylenders in the temple. He subverts the perversion of fame when he tells his disciples that he is among them as one who serves. He subverts the perversion of revenge when he stops the retaliation during his arrest and heals the slave’s ear. And in his greatest display of goodness, Jesus defeats the perversion of domination by willingly giving up his life. Jesus brought all our perversions of human nature to the cross and died with them. And in his resurrection, he shows us that these perversions of our good nature have no ultimate power over us.
Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have the ability to access the goodness at the core of our human nature. We have the humility and courage necessary to let God excise all the malignancy that perverts our relationships with one another and with the rest of Creation. We have ears to hear the symphony of praise playing all around us, and we have the music within us to add our own harmonies to the orchestra of Creation.
And when we fail, when we once again forget our goodness, we can be silent, we can be still, and we can listen. And then we will hear the stones themselves crying out on our behalf, crying out their praise to God.
For the Internet versions of my sermons, I usually remove the specifics of place, but for this sermon, I really needed to preserve them for the imagery. If you ever make it up to the Massachusetts coast, listen for the sound I’m talking about.
An ancient Good Housekeeping cookbook resides in the cabinet above the stove at my parents’ house. Whether it ever had a dusk jacket, I don’t know. Possibly, it was a victim of my childhood crusade against dusk jackets, a period of my life that my mother recalls grimacing every time she runs the feather duster over her shelves of first editions. I’ve never been sure why my mother has kept this volume around for so long, what with our constant moving from place to place; the book has been unshelved, boxed, unboxed, and reshelved at least two dozen times since she received it for a wedding present. She definitely doesn’t need the entire book. She only ever uses the pancake page, which has been warped and wrinkled by years of my enthusiastic stirring.
About five years ago, I discovered how glad I was that my mother retained the extraneous five hundred or so pages of the ancient cookbook. A few days before Christmas, I opened the refrigerator and freezer hoping that all the food I had already eaten that day had spontaneously reappeared so I could eat it again. This action was nothing new — I had been doing it several times a day for years, with little efficacy. But that time I noticed the apple pie, boxed and frozen, deposited sideways, squashed between the broccoli and my father’s ice cream quart collection
My shoulders slumped — how unexciting that the apple pie in the freezer would taste like all the other frozen apple pies from all the other Christmases and Thanksgivings and birthdays (yes, I had birthday pie). Since no new food had appeared, I closed the refrigerator’s doors. But a new idea had formed in my mind. I opened the cabinet and selected the ancient cookbook. It fell open to the batter-sodden pancake page, but I was in search of something new. The book’s spine creaked and cracked in protest as I forced it open to a new page, which sported the chapter heading: “Pies that Please.” How promising, I thought.
I wonder if, before the sixth day of creation, God opened the fridge and slumped her shoulders, bored by all the rocks and stars and fish he had been keeping fresh, ready for dispersal into creation. Sure, those rocks and stars and fish were all good, but their pages in God’s recipe book were warped and wrinkled by now. How about something new?
My experiment began with a moment of feverish self-doubt: my mother can’t make piecrust. As I read over the ingredient list, a nagging fear surfaced that I carried the same defective gene. What if I’m genetically unable to make pie? Flour and salt, shortening and water — these base pairs, in certain quantities and combinations, held the secret to flaky, golden-brown goodness. Could I succeed where my mother (and perhaps generations of Parsonses stricken by dough deficiency) had failed?
I pushed my chromosomal makeup out of my mind and began measuring, pouring, sifting, and cutting. I Jackson Pollocked flour all over the kitchen but managed to land two and a quarter cups of it in the correct bowl. Coaxing the Crisco into the mixture raised my blood pressure to stuffing-the-cat-in-the-cat-carrier-level, and only after several of the breaths I imagine they teach at Lamaze classes was I able to continue. Gradually, my flour/salt/Crisco mixture achieved the consistency of peas (a good sign, the recipe assured me), and I added the cold water. Now came the moment of truth. I pushed and prodded my concoction and said some desperate magic words under my breath, hoping by miraculous alchemy that the slimy mass before me would transform into heredity-denying dough.
I wonder whether God worried that her creation mixed from dust and breath might not turn out the way he expected. Would this experiment fail? Was making a being in the image and likeness of herself too complex a recipe? What if he had to start again from scratch?
The transformation worked. Where a bowl of sticky ingredients sat mocking me a minute before, a lump of dough now beckoned me to flatten it with my rolling pin. I placed the dough between two pieces of wax paper (I’m not sure where I picked up this trick — it was either instinct or the Food Network). Then I rolled out the crusts, making two circles my ninth grade geometry teacher would have been proud of.
Buoyed by my success with the crust, I decided to improvise the filling. After checking the oven temperature and baking time, I returned the ancient cookbook to the cabinet above the stove and began peeling apples. Seven or eight would do, I told myself. With a bag of brown sugar in one hand and a box of cinnamon in the other, I showered the cut apple pieces with sweetness. Then I hurried the filling into its pie tin bed and tucked in the top crust. A quick glaze of melted butter and a few knife slits on top and it was into the oven. For the next forty minutes, I paced and fretted like a father outside the delivery room.
I wonder that God gave me the ability to grow and the desire to create. God’s recipe was simple—dust and breath. The dust grows, remembering the earth and the deep things of those creation days that were called good. And the breath creates, remembering the heavens and the Spirit moving and creating and renewing.
Against all odds of genetics and pie-making virginity, my first apple pie succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. I usually take my parents’ compliments with a salt mine (they are my parents, after all), but my own taste buds confirmed their praise. I have tweaked my recipe and method since then, adding a few subtle spices and making sure to cover the crust with tin foil half way through baking. Though some are better than others, each pie is good (and only one — the famous “Lattice Crust Experiment” of 2007 — was an unmitigated failure). And each pie pushes me to improve, to better my technique, to take the basics from that ancient cookbook and create. And create. And create.