Monday, April 24, 2017

The Mystery of Creation

Preached at Newberg Friends Church
April 23, 2017

I went to see Beauty and the Beast with grandkids recently; this is the third movie version I’ve seen. The first, a surreal black and white directed by Jean Cocteau, had Belle say sadly after the beast is transformed into a ordinary handsome prince, “Where is my beast?  Ou est ma bête?” Today I want us to think about the creation we are part of without the sentimentality of turning the beast into a prince, without the need to attribute the aspects we fear to the Fall depicted in Genesis, without the need to prioritize comfort so that we cannot glorify God for what inspires discomfort, awe, disgust, and even terror. Even as we never want to lose sight of the love of God that knows us intimately and cares to make us whole, we want to remember that we are a small part of the astonishing creation that God loves and has called good.

The God we know personally is also infinite, and thus unknowable to finite beings, which we are. We can infer this by looking around us at creation. We are still learning about creation; thus we are still learning about the Creator. This is a cause of hope, not despair.

Even when God became human, we could not understand or contain Jesus; we could just a bit better understand how God loves us. We are now companioned by the Spirit who lives within us but who also sweeps us off our feet and blows down some of the things we cherish. Our recommended posture before our Creator, our Sustainer, and our Redeemer is humility and meekness—accepting that we are who we are, and God is who God is. No matter what we try, we cannot bring God down to our size. 

Some of the verses that underlie our understanding of the relationship between creation and our Creator:

And God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good (Gen. 1:31)

You wove me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise you for I am astonishingly and individually made. (Psalm 139:13-14)

All creation waits expectantly, longing for God’s children to be revealed; for the creation was subjected to frailty, not because it willed itself to be so, but because God so willed it, with the hope that creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and be included in the glorious freedom of God’s children. (Romans 8:19-21)

Blessed are the meek, the humble and gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. (Psalm 37:11, Matt. 5:5)

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. (Rev. 21:1)

These verses celebrate the creation: both the creation that has been completed and the creating that is going on right now. God is Creator not once but always. And God is creating good out of the materials to hand, even as we speak. All good gifts come to us from the Father of lights (James 1:17).

We can ask the question, how can God be good and call creation good, and yet humans—and other parts of creation--suffer pain and terror. This may be a question we can ask without being able to understand and contain the answer. The question “why” always takes us back to our belief structures if asked repeatedly, and we must admit to ourselves that we take God on faith—God’s goodness, God’s love for us and creation, God’s work to redeem us and make us whole, God’s long-term purposes. Some of the most powerful words about creation are placed in God’s personal conversation with Job:

Job—why am I suffering?
God—look at the world around you
This is not an immediately helpful answer, particularly since God makes it clear that creation is far more than the humans who are part of it. Its processes operate independently of humans, much of it cares not a whit for humans, humans cannot inhabit much of it, and some of it is hostile to humans.

God asks Job what he knows about the beginning of the universe: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … Who determined the measures of the earth, if you know? Or who stretched the measuring line upon it? Upon what were the foundations of it fastened, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors when it broke forth and issued out of the womb?—When I made the clouds its garment, and swaddled it in thick darkness, and marked its appointed boundary and set bars and doors, and said, Thus far shall you come and no farther; and here shall your proud waves be stayed?

God asks Job what he knows about the reasons for day and night: “Have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place, so that it may get hold of the corners of the earth and shake the wicked out of it? The earth is changed like clay into which a seal is pressed; and things stand out like a many-colored garment. …

God asks Job what he knows about the oceans, what he knows about light and dark: “Have you explored the springs of the sea? Or have you walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Or have you seen the doors of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth? Tell Me if you know it all. Where is the way where light dwells? And as for darkness, where is its abode, that you may conduct it to its home, and may know the paths to its house? … By what way is the light distributed, or the east wind spread over the earth?

God asks Job if he can control (or even predict) the weather: “Who has prepared a channel for the torrents of rain, or a path for the thunderbolt, to cause it to rain on the desert, where no human lives, to satisfy the waste and desolate ground and to cause the tender grass to spring forth? Has the rain a father? Or who has begotten the drops of dew? Out of whose womb came the ice? And the frost of heaven, who has given it birth? The waters are congealed like stone, and the face of the deep is frozen. Have you entered the treasuries of the snow, or have you seen the treasuries of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that an abundance of waters may cover you? Can you send lightnings, that they may go and say to you, Here we are? Who can number the clouds by wisdom? Or who can pour out the bottles of the heavens when the dust has run into a mass and the clods have hardened together?

God asks Job if he can organize the constellations: “Can you bind the chains of Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the signs of the zodiac in their season? Or can you guide the Great Bear with her young? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule upon the earth?

God asks Job if he can provide food for predators: “Can you hunt the prey for the lion? Or satisfy the appetite of the young lions when they couch in their dens or lie in wait in their hiding place? Who provides prey for the raven when its young ones cry to God and wander about for lack of food?

God asks Job if he knows the life cycle of prey animals: “Do you know the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? Do you observe when the deer are giving birth? Can you number the months that they carry their offspring? Or do you know the time when they are delivered, when they bow themselves, bring forth their young ones, and cast out their pains? Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open field; they go forth and return not to them.

God points out that not all animals exist to serve humans, and asks Job if he can control the untamable wild donkey: “Who has sent out the wild donkey, giving him his freedom? Or who has loosed the bands of the swift donkey, whose home I have made in the wilderness, who dwells in the salt land? He scorns the tumult of the city and does not obey the shoutings of the taskmaster. The range of the mountains is his pasture, and he searches after every green thing.

God asks Job if he can tame the wild ox: “Will the wild ox be willing to serve you, or remain beside your manger? Can you bind the wild ox with a harness to the plow in the furrow? Or will he harrow the furrows for you? Will you trust him because his strength is great, or will you leave your labor to him? Will you depend upon him to bring home your seed and gather the grain of your threshing floor?

God points out to Job that not all of nature cares well for its young, but it nonetheless has its own beauty: “The wings of the ostrich wave proudly; are they the pinions and plumage of love? The ostrich leaves her eggs on the ground and warms them in the dust, forgetting that a foot may crush them or that the wild beast may trample them. She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers; her labor is in vain because she has no sense of danger, for God has deprived her of wisdom, neither has he imparted to her understanding. Yet when she lifts herself up to run, she can laugh to scorn the horse and his rider.

God points out that horses, even tamed, are combative: “Have you given the horse his might? Have you clothed his neck with quivering and a shaking mane? Was it you who made him to leap like a locust? The majesty of his nostrils is terrible. He paws in the valley and exults in his strength; he goes out to meet the weapons. He mocks at fear and is not dismayed or terrified; neither does he turn back from the sword. The quiver rattles upon him, as do the glittering spear and the lance. He devours the ground with fierceness and rage; neither can he stand still at the sound of the trumpet. As often as the trumpet sounds he says, Ha, ha! And he smells the battle from afar, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.

God asks Job if he understands how the hawk flies: “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars and stretches her wings toward the south?

God points out to Job how amazingly the eagle sees prey: “Does the eagle mount up at your command and make his nest on high? On the cliff he dwells and remains securely…. From there he spies out the prey; and his eyes see it afar off. His young ones suck up blood, and where the slain are, there is he.

God celebrates the monsters of the dry land: “Behold now the behemoth, which I created as I did you; he eats grass like an ox. See now, his strength is in his loins, and his power is in the sinews of his belly. He moves his tail like a cedar tree; the tendons of his thighs are twisted together like a rope. His bones are like tubes of bronze; his limbs or ribs are like bars of iron. Behemoth is first of the works of God. God who made him provides him with his tusks; only God can master him. Surely the mountains bring him food, where all the wild animals play. He lies under the lotus trees, in the covert of the reeds in the marsh. The lotus trees cover him with their shade; the willows of the brook compass him about. Behold, if a river is violent and overflows, he does not tremble; he is confident, though the Jordan swells and rushes against his mouth. Can any take him when he is on the watch, or pierce through his nose with a snare?

God celebrates the monsters of the ocean: “Can you draw out the leviathan with a fishhook? Or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope into his nose? Or pierce his jaw through with a hook or a spike? Will he make many supplications to you? Will he speak soft words to you? Will he make a covenant with you to take him for your servant forever? Will you play with leviathan as with a bird? Or will you put him on a leash for your maidens? Will traders bargain over him? Will they divide him up among the merchants? Can you fill his skin with harpoons? Or his head with fishing spears? Lay your hand upon him! Remember your battle with him; you will not do it again! … No one is so fierce that he dares to stir up leviathan. Who then is he who can stand before Me?

“I will not keep silent concerning leviathan’s limbs, nor his mighty strength, nor his goodly frame. Who can strip off his outer garment? Who shall come within his jaws? Who can open the doors of his mouth? His teeth are terrible round about. His scales are his pride, shut up together with a tight seal; one is so near to another that no air can come between them. … His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. Out of his mouth go burning torches, sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goes forth smoke, … his breath kindles coals, and a flame goes forth from his mouth. In his neck abides strength, and terror dances before him. … His heart is as firm as a stone, indeed…. When he raises himself up, the mighty are afraid; because of terror and the crashing they are beside themselves. Even if one strikes at him with the sword, it cannot get any hold, nor does the dart, nor the javelin.

“He counts iron as straw and bronze as rotten wood. The arrow cannot make leviathan flee; he treats slingstones and clubs as stubble; he laughs at the rushing and the rattling of the javelin. His underparts are like sharp pieces of broken pottery; he stirs up the mire. He makes the deep boil like a pot….. He makes a shining track behind him… Upon earth there is not leviathan’s equal, a creature made without fear, fearless. He looks all might in the face; he is monarch over all the sons of pride.

And then God asks Job what he knows about himself: “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts? Or who has given understanding to the mind? Who has first given to Me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heavens is Mine.”

Then Job said: “I know that You can do all things, and that no thought or purpose of Yours can be restrained or thwarted….I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

So we can now know who created our reality. The whole Trinity: God, God’s Spirit, and the Word of God—Jesus. The Spirit brooded over the waters at the beginning, there was nothing created apart from Jesus, the Word, and God pronounced it good. We also know who continues to create—God has begun a good work in us, we are the dwelling place of God’s Spirit, and God will continue this good work  until the day of Jesus Christ. Jesus said that God is still working, that he does only what his Father says and what he sees his Father doing. Even as life continues to be generated on the ocean floor, God continues to generate spiritual life in humanity and in individual human beings. Please be patient; God is not finished yet.  

We also have faith that from God’s perspective, God who sees beginning and end and exists outside time, God’s works of creation, redemption and reconciliation are completed.  When we share God’s perspective, we may well see Komodo dragons and frilled sharks as beautiful and good. Creation will be reconciled with itself as well as with God.

As part of creation, we humans live and move and have our being in God, who holds all things together. AND God makes space for our freedom to exist.

Human free will is responsible: we are responsible to our neighbors and to God for what we choose—human history and the way God moves through time are a mystery. It is scandalous to justify human atrocities to each other by saying they are the will of God.

And God exercises God’s free will toward us by loving us while we are yet in error, entering our experience of creation, receiving the actions of human free will, and in every sense rising above it, bringing us along. God exercises free will in taking what we have broken and weaving it together into something useful and good.

God’s perspective is bigger than humans, bigger than planet earth, bigger than the solar system, bigger than the Milky Way galaxy, bigger than our universe, and also includes mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, cells, atoms, chemical reactions, electricity, fractals, time. Let’s work to appreciate God’s perspective that values both the leviathan and the individual human being.


Let’s be humble in the face of what we do not know, humble before the God whose love we do know in part, and gentle with each other, so that we can be the blessed meek, who inherit the earth.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Galatians: Grace and Trust, Not a New Law

A Friends (Quaker) Perspective on Romans and Galatians
Provided several years ago for Illuminate, an adult Sunday School curriculum published by Barclay Press, a Friends publishing house

Lesson 11
Galatians 1:6-9; 2:11-16, 19-21

I resonate with Paul’s frustration here in Galatians. George Fox taught from the beginning that God calls both men and women as ministers and gifts them to do the work. The second preacher in the Quaker movement was Elizabeth Hooten. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, Quakers in a number of churches preached that women were not allowed by Paul to be preachers (or pastors or elders). Just imagine what Paul thought when he heard that! NO, he shouted from beyond the grave, NOT A NEW LAW!  I said you are set right BY TRUSTING IN JESUS, and you are now free to listen to God and obey what God tells you to do. If God says preach, DO IT!

Just try and pry people loose from a rule that makes them feel competent and comfortable. It’s nearly major surgery. Yet Paul has a similar problem here. He has taught, as he always did, that we are saved through confidence in the work of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection, and what that tells us about the character and will of God. This saves us into freedom from rules and laws and freedom to hear and obey the lively and living Spirit; and yet, the Galatians are yearning for something safer and more obvious—circumcision. So much easier, really, a few minutes of excruciating pain and then recognition by others that one is “in.”

I can see Paul tearing his hair out. Live by faith, he says; you were included in Jesus’s death, and now your daily life is lived through and by Jesus. The death of Jesus proves that the law was not doing the job of setting people right. Don’t start trying to use the law for that purpose now.

And don’t be like Peter, says Paul, who talks out of both sides of his mouth—acting like someone without the law one minute and then trying to fit in with those who insist on the law the next. Act consistently with the truth of the gospel. How often do we compromise the free air of the good news because we are afraid of those who insist on following rules?

Lesson 12
Galatians 3:1-14

The measuring stick Paul introduces here is the presence of God’s Spirit in the lives of the Galatians. Just as Abraham’s faith was what set him right, so also the Galatians’ faith set them right so that God’s Spirit now dwells in them. This Spirit is the guide for living.

Paul points out some things about trying to live by the law that I wish we would listen to as we apply some part of the law today and ignore the rest. Paul says that those who rely on the works of the law to be right with God are cursed unless they do EVERYTHING written in the law. Paul says that relying on the law is the opposite of living by faith. This is true even with regard to advice Paul gave to churches in his time. Paul is not instituting a new set of laws that set us right with God. He must still be frustrated with us.

What does it mean to live by faith?  We believe the good news about God that Jesus came to tell us and illustrated by the way he lived; he identified with us as human beings doomed to die and brings us along with him into the resurrection. Now, identified with Christ, we have died to the law in order to be free to live to God.

The last part of Galatians 3 celebrates the equality of all in Jesus Christ. When we trust our oneness with Jesus Christ, we are all children of God. We are wearing Jesus. We don’t have lines drawn between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. We are one in Jesus and we are one with Jesus.

Lesson 13
Galatians 5:1-6, 13-18, 22-25

I remember seeing a Gordon setter walking itself around the track at a local middle school. The owner was ahead by ten feet or so, and the dog followed, carrying its own leash in its mouth. A 1000-lb. horse wearing a halter can be led by a tiny person. In both cases, the animal still wears the “clothing” of intimidation or domination. But Jesus has let us off the leash, out of the halter, and has set us up as freeborn human beings.

George Fox wrote of being renewed to the innocence of Eden before the fall. This is a good picture of the eternal truth of what Jesus has accomplished for us. Implicit in it is the truth that each day we make the choice between listening to and obeying what God says and acting on our own advice or as we are dominated by voices other than God.

Paul particularly warns against attempting to bring Judaic practices into the life of freedom in Jesus. His own experience of living under the law made clear to him that he wasn’t going to be able to please God that way; only his face-to-face blinding encounter with the resurrected Jesus made it possible for him to live at peace with God.

As always, freedom is not the same as a license to kill or harm. As the Spirit fills more and more of the corners of our lives, our actions can be characterized not by competitiveness, egotism, or envy, but instead by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This shows that Jesus is working in us to bring about in our bodies what we hope for—our complete redemption.

One word about aging: it seems to me that aging requires us to lean entirely on what Jesus has done for us. I know many older folks who are more rather than less anxious, more rather than less querulous, more rather than less self-absorbed. I encourage the elderly to remember that it is not our own good behavior that earns us God’s love. It comes freely as we trust in what Jesus reveals about God and accomplishes for us through his life, death, and resurrection.

Romans 12 and 14: No Judgment in a Heart at Peace

A Friends (Quaker) Perspective on Romans and Galatians

Provided several years ago for Illuminate, an adult Sunday School curriculum published by Barclay Press, a Friends publishing house

Lesson 9
Romans 12:1-8, 14, 17-21

In Romans 9-11, Paul revisits the comparison between Jews and Gentiles in relation to the faith in God that sets people right with God, each other, and themselves. Most notable is the cautionary example of the Jews, the chosen people through whom came the law, the worship, the promises, and the Messiah (Romans 9:4-5). The Jews, says Paul, look for righteousness based on fulfilling the law and fail, and are thus outside the life of faith and caught in a life of works. We in the church are often in the same place as these folks. It is so human to prefer the known, the law, to the unknown, God’s grace and God’s Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus that the wind blows where it chooses and humans do not understand where it comes from or where it goes, and that this is the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8).

Romans 12 helps us recognize the Spirit’s work, but it is not a new set of laws. Instead, because of what Jesus has already accomplished through identifying with our humanity, our sin, and our death, and through prefiguring the resurrection we all hope for, we are free to offer our whole selves, body and soul, to the service of God. We don’t have to be pawns of the forces that dominate our social world. As we obey God with our bodies, we worship God in spirit and in truth. God renews our minds so we can see clearly the good, acceptable, complete actions that are the will of God for us.

We use the gifts God gives us, as Jesus illustrated in the parable of the stewards. We treasure and care for the gifts of others. We aren’t tied up in the knots of competitiveness and self-sufficiency. We can lay down our sword and shield and study war no more.

The most important practical faith lesson I’ve learned recently is the importance of having a heart at peace toward those who I believe need to change. This is a spiritual discipline for me and involves praying blessing on them and for God to judge between us. And this prayer is frequent, just as frequent as the thought of conflict arises.

Lesson 10
Romans 14:1, 5-17

Underlying Romans 14 is this principle from Romans 13:8-10: all the interpersonal laws are summed up in “love your neighbor as yourself,” just as Jesus said. This means that we live honorably as if under a spotlight, which is where we are (John 3:21).

What about other believers who hold the wrong opinions?  Paul says, welcome them, but don’t argue with them. God has welcomed them. It is before God they stand or fall, not before us. Like us, whether they live or die, they are the Lord’s because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is one practical application of the law of love. Surely we can imagine that as we are judging them for wrong opinions, they are returning that judgment on us, unless we obey the law of love.

The advice not to judge repeats Romans 2. After the list of sins in Romans 1, therefore, Paul says, do not judge, since all have sinned. Here he says, do not judge, since you are no one’s boss, and all believers are accountable to God for how they obey. If a person hears from God that some behavior is unholy, that person must obey. The Gentiles and Jews to whom Paul wrote had different boundaries, and all still had to treat others with tenderness and love.

Another practical application of the law of love is that we don’t push people to violate their sense of what God wants from them. We respect the boundaries people believe God has given them. We don’t think we are better because God allows us different boundaries. Romans 12:3 tells us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought and to respect the fact that not all members of the body of Christ will function exactly like us.

Many times, I think, what causes our brother or sister to stumble is not a freedom in Christ we live into with joy and gratitude but rather the judgment that we pass on that brother and sister who does things differently from us, whether with more or less freedom. When we judge, we place ourselves as superior to the one being judged. Instead, we who are Spirit-led must be humble and obey God ourselves.