Monday, September 30, 2013

What Do You See?

This week, I'm planning to give the online writing retreat over at Days of Deepening Friendship a try.

Today's post  invites us to try to write with attentiveness to one of our five senses.  Or 3.5, in my case, as I have no sense of smell and, therefore, little sense of taste.  I am surprised by how challenging this assignment is.  As I try to imagine various moments in my life upon which I might focus, it becomes apparent to me that I am intensely visual and that, nevertheless, it's difficult to write a description focusing solely on what I see.  Sounds and physical sensations intrude almost immediately.

I'm going to start with a list, visual only, as an experiment in recalling a particular morning:

Blue cross-hatches of nylon lightening from the purple of the night to the sky color of early morning.

Faded blue leggings, stone-washed blue jeans, gray wool socks, white long-underwear t-shirt.

Metal tent zipper.

Damp brown leather boots, laces left untied.

Grass shiny with dew, narrow beach sodden with night, lake lapping at the shores.

Streams of marigold, tangerine, lilac and rose running the length of the horizon.

In the distance they stream in skeins just over the water and rise into Vs above the sun, hundreds of them filling the northern sky.  Necks outstretched, wings beating in unison, a multitude of small dark silhouettes again the vast palest of pale blues.

~ Isle Royale Sunrise, October 1979

Sunday, September 29, 2013

What I Was Thinking About


So this past week I wasn't writing much.  A church newsletter article, a Powerpoint for the college class I teach, a sermon that I didn't much like (but other people seemed to ~ go figure), and a very few emails and FB posts.  Mostly what I did was use that space usually taken up with communicating  as many of my thoughts as possible to reflect on things I haven't thought about in a long time.
When I was a girl, a teenager, one of the lives I imagined for myself was as the owner of a few horses.  I grew up out in the country, on the 25 or so hillside acres that my family and my grandparents owned.  About five of those acres consisted of an overgrown meadow along the road, on the other side of the creek below our house.  One year my dad had it mowed so that we could play baseball down there, but for most of my life it sustained itself somewhere between the range of grassland and young forest.
I kind of thought that someday I would take over those five acres and build a stable and a riding ring and maybe create a couple of riding trails through the woods.
I wasn't much of a rider.  I learned during my four summers of camp, and I rode most afternoons during my middle school years with the nuns; they had a few horses and a neighboring lady, the mom of one of my classmates, took us out on trail rides.  But skilled or not, like so many adolescent girls, I fell in love with horses, and had old horseshoes, once worn by some of my favorites, hanging from my bedroom wall. 
I was never interested in horse shows; I just liked the freedom of a ride over the fields and through the woods, to grandmother's house we go. Toward the end of my senior year spring at my second boarding school, a group of us who had been friends for all of those years discovered that we all knew how to ride, and that one of our day student classmates had parents who ran a stable.  And so as one of our last and best flings, we signed up for the school's cabin up on a mountain and rode the horses up there for the week-end.
I was surprised, two-plus decades later when my daughter took riding lessons for a couple of years, to discover that I could bridle and saddle and brush down a horse as if I'd never taken a break. 
I don't know why I've been remembering horseback riding all week.  I haven't given it a thought for years. But as the days opened up, I found my thoughts turning repeatedly to that dream of a small barn in the overgrown field, and early morning rides on a horse of my own.  I  was pretty sure that I would become a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist, but I thought that I would have that horse to keep me grounded and in touch with the outdoors.
I've been teaching my college religion students about symbol and myth, and so I decided to google horse symbolism.  I found this:
The horse spirit animal symbolizes personal drive, passion and appetite for freedom. Among all the spirit animals, it is one that shows a strong motivation that carries one through life. The meaning of the horse varies depending on whether this animal spirit guide is represented as wild, tamed, moving freely or constrained.
I found that to be an intriguing description for this juncture in my life.  I'm not sure why, not yet. I certainly don't want to be in charge of a horse!  But it's interesting to me that these memories and once-intense longings have surfaced.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Out and About ~ Oops!

The first time I ever made an eight-day silent retreat, I started to get restless around the fourth day. 
"Isn't it about time for a movie night?" I asked my director.  "Couldn't we all get together for some popcorn and a film and some conversation?"
She was a humorless woman, and she gave me a horrified look as she said, "No!"
"Just kidding," I said.
This morning I forgot all about my internet sabbatical, and posted a few things on FB.  I've noticed many posts, on FB and in blogs, on which I've wanted to comment, but I've restrained myself.  Such a habit, though!  Open laptop and start talking!
Going back to my bunker now.

Monday, September 23, 2013


I'll be reading, but . . .
No blog posts or comments ~
No FB posts or comments ~
No responses to email beyond the absolutely necessary ~
I think the world can live without my commentary for a week ~
Except, let me go out with this one:  I like Skyler.  A LOT.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sunday Morning Musings

On my mind as I prepare to head over to church, in a spiraling and not particular order . . .
The pope and his interview. On my kitchen counter (because I am a disorganized person, which is apparently something the pope and I have in common) is a well-marked copy of Catholic Theologian Elizabeth Johnson's Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints.  I used it as the basis for a talk to a group of Presbyterian Women some months ago. I wish a similarly marked-up copy were on the pope's kitchen counter as well.   I am interested in what the pope has to say, partly because Ignatian spirituality is something else we share, and partly because he says so much of value to the world,  I am not one of those raving about this interview, however, because I am so disappointed in his comments about women.  But he is a man who is in a constant mode of learning.  Perhaps someday he will invite the many notable Catholic women writing theology to spend a week at the Vatican . . .
My son and his relationship with a Muslim woman.  I have taken graduate courses in Islam and teach a bit about Islam to college students, but I, too, am a person in a constant mode  of learning.  I am own trying to formulate five or so sentences that convey my faith in a Trinitarian God and my practice of a religion that has at its center a relationship with Jesus Christ.  But, you say in astonishment, you've been a Presbyterian elder for years, you have an M.Div., you are a pastor.  How do these words not slide off your tongue?    As I learned in my years teaching in a Jewish school, it is one thing to speak of faith in an atmosphere in which it is taken for granted; quite another in which it is questioned with a mix of  curiosity and hostility . . .
I need to visit several people this afternoon.  Two recovering from surgery.  A few I have not seen in awhile as I have been quite preoccupied with the needs of an elderly couple.  At least one with dementia.
I need to try to convince some folks to attend a workshop on hospitality with me, on a Saturday morning and an hour away.  I don't feel much enthusiasm myself, as shifting the direction of a congregation is indeed like changing the course of a massive oil tanker mid-journey.  I  have experienced so many small failures in this dimension of ministry that I need far more energy than I have this morning to tackle it again. But I suppose that I will.
And I need to out the clothes in the dryer before I go.  Always, always, there is the laundry . . .

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Strange week; head spinning.
Two instances of rejection ~ two completely different contexts ~ people walking away from work we have done together without a word to me or a backward glance.
I would like to think that in similar circumstances I would at least send an email, if not schedule a conversation, to explain and perhaps offer a thank-you.  I wonder.  Perhaps in these situations lies a reminder to do so when the tables are turned.
On the other hand,
Three conversations with three different people in which I have been encouraged to do something it has never occurred to me to do and to which my first response, to the first person, was to laugh and say, "No way!"  By the end of the third, last night, I was re-considering.
There must be a Mary Oliver poem about this.  Oh, yeah, there is.  What is it you plan to do . . .
I wonder what the answer will turn out to be.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Theology of Gas and Electricity

As I drove three of my parishoners into town today, I commented on the long lines of washing hanging outside an Amish house.  I said something about how hard life is for the Amish, and wondered whether they have those washing machines that you crank.
It turns out that they have washing machines with motors run by gasoline.
They can't drive cars, but they can ride in cars -- fueled by gas.
They can't run electric appliances, but they can run washers fueled by gas.
And here I was under the impression that Reformed theology can be hard to understand.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Suicide Prevention, Iggy, and Alicia Keyes

I have this card, a gift from my friend Michelle, framed and hanging in my office:

The truth is that I'm not really a set-the-world-on-fire kind of person.  I'm more of a curl-up-with-a-book kind of person. 
But a few days ago: Here's part of a note from a boarding school friend.  We barely knew each other back then, but our lives have bumped into one another's at unwanted tangents via FB, that great connection point for human experience:

Dear Robin,  . . .  I honor you and your son each day in my prayers. I know you will be happy to hear that you helped me have the courage to call 911 and crisis teams and rescue etc 3 times this summer so my son with shizoaffective bipolar got help. There is stigma, he was angry, not now but still some residual, neighbors are freaked, but he is well, back on meds and he is safe and well. Was in hosp for 6 weeks but better than the terrible alternative. Thank you for helping me face it and do the right thing.  . . .

I had never thought of it that way ~ that we have to pass on courage and strength that we don't have  to those parents and spouses and other loved ones in a position to take action.
And tonight: An email from someone I knew back in our days as Montessori moms.  She lost a nephew to suicide this summer, saw my article in our local community paper, and signed up for the walk in October.  He brother wants to know how to work on suicide prevention.  (Wow.  At three months, I wanted to know how to get up in the morning.)  I had to leave the Presbytery meeting where I was rudely reading my emails because I started to cry, remembering what three months was like and wanting so much to go back to Montessori middle school days when our kids were working on their rocket projects.  Not so much setting things on fire.
But Alicia Keys is one of my girls.  Trying to burn all that suffering away. Put up with the commercial and listen here

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why Work on Suicide Prevention?

First, a more grammatically correct version of something I just posted on FB:

There's an obituary in today's paper which acknowledges a death by suicide. A friend asked me my feelings about, and here's what I wrote:

I just read it; I think it is very brave of his family to acknowledge the illness that took his life just as they probably would have had it been cancer or some other form of physical disease. I am sure that his family members are completely devastated, but please tell them that I at least think they are also courageous and selfless in telling the true story, which is filled with both light and darkness.

This is how we eradicate stigma, folks, and this is how we get down to the business of creating a world without suicide.


It's no secret that I've spent a lot of time in recent months working on suicide prevention stuff.  As I try to motivate some of my more lethargic friends to join our team or donate money to the October 19 Cleveland Out of the Darkness Walk, I've been imagining talking to Josh about it:

No, sweetie, this is not what I wanted to do with you.  This is not how I wanted to spend one second of my time, ever. 

I wanted to help plan your wedding.  I wanted to visit you in Chicago again.  I wanted to go to France when you were in your French brother's wedding, and I wanted to welcome him to the States to be in yours. 

I wanted you and your beautiful and gifted wife to move here, so that you could come over for dinner all the time and so that I could read to my grandchildren every afternoon ~  those grandchildren who were going to be a blend of blue-eyed, blond Welsh and dark-eyed, dark-haired Vietnamese.  I wanted to cheer them on in their soccer games and visit your Montessori school as a prospective grand-parent. 

I wanted you and I to fulfill that dream of buying a Hasselblad camera and heading to Yosemite. 

But I do this instead.  I do this because maybe if we raise enough money, someday there will be the research needed to solve the conundrum of depression. 

I do this because if we get out there into libraries and schools and colleges and wherever with our books and our films and our talks, maybe a young woman here or a middle aged man there will bump into one of us, and will go home and tell the truth about living with despair to people who can offer support and find help. 

I do this because if we keep pushing our legislators, maybe there will be adequate funding for first responder training so that those called to bridges and tops of buildings and bedrooms and bathrooms will know what to do and be able to save lives.

I do this so that no one will say "He's not serious."  I do this so no one will be ashamed to say, "I need help."  I do this so no one will look back at a family history and ask, "Why didn't we know what we were looking at?"
Little things.  A meeting here, a conference there, a walk, an article, a lecture.  Whatever it takes.

But don't think for a minute that I wouldn't prefer one more walk on the beach with you.  I've met and I get to work with some extraordinary and determined people, but really ~ this pretty much sucks.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

"Here I Am" - Sermon (Genesis 21 nd 22)

Our text today is a tough one.  Here we are, only our second week into the narrative lectionary, and we careen right into a puzzling, seemingly outrageous narrative, in which God tells his main guy, the man on whom he has staked everything, to sacrifice his son.  Yes, in direct contradistinction to everything we have learned about the God of creation, the God of abundant love and artistry in Genesis, it seems that we now have a God who insists upon death.
And not just any death.  The death, the sacrificial death of Isaac, the son upon whom Abraham thought God was counting for a new future.
Let’s go back a minute:  Abraham and Sarah, a couple repeatedly called by God into new lives.   They start out in Ur, in modern-day Iraq.  They make their way to Egypt.  They return north to Hebron, in today’s West Bank of Israel and Palestine.  In Hebron, Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, is born, to Hagar, his wife Sarah’s maidservant.  That birth is the product of an ill-advised plan of Sarah’s; she cannot have children and so she urges Abraham to father a child with Hagar – but then, when the child is born, she is resentful and angry and insists that Abraham send mother and child away.  That child, Ishmael, is generally understood to be the progenitor of the Muslim people, which is why Abraham is the called the father of the People of the Book: Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
But I digress.  God makes three promises to Abraham and Sarah: that they shall be the parents of a great nation, that they shall have a multitude of children, and that God shall establish a land for them.  When the promise of a son comes to them in their old age, Sarah, in particular, at the age of ninety, finds that promise laughable, which is why when the miracle child is born, he is named Isaac, which means laughter.  Isaac is born in Beersheba, which is also in present-day Israel.
Our first reading is from Genesis 21:1-3, and covers this portion of the story: 1 The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.
Imagine the joy!  Imagine the delight!  This elderly, childless couple, promised to become parents, to become the ancestors of a great nation, to be established in a land of their own,  have spent their lives as childless nomads.[1]  The fulfillment of any of God’s promises seems highly unlikely and then – a son!  A wonderful  gurgling and giggling addition to their lives. A little boy who follows his mother around the tents , and who wanders the land with his father.  What could be better?
But now begins the story over which much ink has been spilt.  And I want you to listen for the repetition of the phrase “Here I am.” Our reading continues in Genesis 22:  1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 2 He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 
How do you think Abraham felt when he uttered that first “Here I am”?  Confident?  Hopeful?  Perhaps -- life had been going well.  His family was settled; his son was growing.
Or was he apprehensive?  Jewish tradition tells us that Abraham suffered ten trials, ten tests, and withstood every one of them.[2]  There is some debate as to exactly what the ten were  -- some appear in Scripture and some in legend – but all accounts agree that this story depicts one of them.  A man who had undergone trial after trial at the hands of God might indeed have been apprehensive to hear God’s voice again.
We don’t know. We don’t know how Abraham felt. What we do know is that he  was immediately responsive.  Immediately present to God.  God called, and Abraham said, “Here I am.”
And then?  Then, as he heard God’s instructions – take your son and make of him a burnt offering – I think we can guess what feelings must have been swirling within Abraham’s heart and mind.  Horror?  Bewilderment?  This could not be the God of Genesis, could it?  The God who had created the heavens and the earth in all their beauty and fragility? The God who had promised him descendants?  What was he to do?  What was he to say?  Why don’t we hear him saying anything at all?  Abraham has been known to question God and to argue with God.  Rabbinical stories have him questioning God in this instance.  But Scripture itself is silent.
All we read and see is that Abraham was immediately present and responsive, courageous – or perhaps reckless? -- and willing.
There was a 20th century theologian named Paul Tillich who described, defined, faith, as our “ultimate concern.”  He made the point that there are many, many things in which people have faith, which people view as their “ultimate concern.”  A sports team.  The nation, or a particular political party.  Money.  Success.  All you have to do is look at the magazines on display in the supermarket or listen to the radio for half an hour to know that people are ultimately concerned with many things.  Things to which they submit themselves and things which they expect to provide them with fulfillment – that’s how Tillich describes faith; that’s how he defines ultimate concern.
Abraham’s ultimate concern was God.  Abraham had heard a promise from God, and he expected its fulfillment.  If he could not rely upon the God in whom he had placed his confidence and his trust, all else was for naught. 
And so he trudged on his way, with his son, and he heard another voice.  Isaac’s voice.  Our reading continues:
7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" 8 Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together.  9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.  
Have you ever been required to be present to someone else in the midst of your own anguish? Have you ever had to be present to someone else in terrible circumstances as a way of being present to God?
That’s what I think was going on with Abraham here, here where he says “Here I am” to Isaac.  He did not stop being a father solely because God’s call took precedence.  In fact, it was precisely because of his call to fatherhood that he remained concerned, compassionate, and loving to his curious son.  Attentive and gentle.  I know that many of you, perhaps all of you, understand something the tension that Abraham felt.  I know that you have been in situations in which you have wanted to fall prostrate on the ground and scream your protests, but someone else has been in need.  A spouse,  a child, a parent.  And so even as you cry out within, you attend to them without.  It’s a way of being present to God,  of recognizing that sometimes love makes conflicting demands upon us.
And then, finally: 11 [T]he angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 12 He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place "The Lord will provide;” as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided."
A third “Here I am” – and how does Abraham feel now?  Tired?  Exasperated?  What more can you possibly have to say to me, God?  And then – Surprised?  Relieved?  Joyous?
What is going on in this story?
One prevalent tradition tells us that it is a story designed to instruct God’s people that their God will not tolerate child sacrifice.  God’s new people were surrounded by other, polytheistic, nations, some of whom did practice child sacrifice as a means of appeasing their gods.  Was God saying, “Not for my people?” Did Abraham misunderstand God’s voice at first?  Did he hear in the voice of God the voices of the cultures in which he had been immersed, those in which a child’s sacrifice might have been expected, and need God’s correction?[3]  Was God seeking to ensure that Abraham understood that the one God was indeed the Genesis God of creation and love, and not one of the many local gods who demanded sacrifice and death? 
Such an interpretation makes sense in the context of the Hebrew Bible as a whole.  Not only does the God of life and light not want child sacrifice; God will later tell the people of Israel, through the prophets, that God is not interested in their sacrifice of burst offerings at all, in their paltry attempts to appease him with altars on which plant and animal are laid and from which smoke rises to the sky.
No – what God wants is compassion and justice.  God wants their praise – our praise – not through burnt offerings, but through our care for others, our presence to others, our compassion for others through our perseverance for justice.
And how does one learn compassion and justice? One learns compassion and justice through suffering.  Perhaps Abraham was called to learn compassion through a silent and lonely walk up a mountain, through three days of anticipation that his dearest, most precious earthly companion, the source of all his hopes for fulfillment of God’s promises, was to be destroyed by his own hand.  Perhaps Abraham was called to learn God’s justice through the anguish of repeating the response, “Here I am” until he was certain, down to his own bones, that God alone is the source of all good; that God’s thoughts and ways, as the psalmist says, are not ours; and that, although God’s love and God’s ways are too great for us to comprehend, we are called to enact them in compassion for others.
How could Abraham have become the father to not one but two – no, three – nations without this understanding?  How could he – how could we – understand compassion and justice if we did not know the suffering that cries out for both?  How could we say “Here I am” with integrity if we did not understand the depth of suffering to which we are called to respond in love?
“Here I am” – words of hope, words of apprehension, words of courage, words of compassion, words of anguish, words of surprise, words of joy.  “Here I am.”  Amen.

[1] Kathryn Schifferdecker, Working Preacher Podcast.

[2] Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, “Abraham's Simplicity.”

[3] Brent Cunningam.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Breast Cancer Miscellany, Two Years Later

1.  I went swimming this summer.  It was glorious, absolutely glorious, to float on the gentle ocean waves and watch the sunlight sparkle all across the water.
I did not wear the swimsuit on which I had spent $100.  Well, I wore it once.  Not only was it the World's Ugliest Swimsuit; it did not perform as advertised.    Very secure sports bra and t-shirt after that.  Honestly, basic attire is so complicated now.
2.  I was looking at the results in the mirror the other day.  I actually thought, "This is not so completely terrible."  Wow.  I have no standards at all.  But I did feel  a twinge of regret for the way I reamed the plastic surgeon resident post-surgery.  I may have no standards, but I do have a fine vocabulary.  He probably didn't deserve to be exposed to it so very thoroughly.
3.  What brought this on?  Honestly, I don't give it much thought anymore.  But this week an $800 bill came out of nowhere for my lumpectomy just about two years ago.  After way too much time spent tracking it down, we concluded tonight that we actually owe it.  :(    It's dumbfounding to look at the insurance statements from that period -- a $40,000 bill here, a $25,000 adjustment there, another $40,000 here, several more adjustments there.  None of the really big numbers connected to anything tangible. 
4.  And a friend of mine is dealing with BC#2, on the other side, this month, after, I think, an eight-year hiatus.  My mammogram is in November.  Well.  S--t.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sermon Conundrum: Abraham and Isaac

This Sunday's text is a story known as The Binding of Isaac.  Google it if you don't know it.  It's a terrible story, and running though it once on Sunday is enough for me.
What was I thinking?  I switched to the Narrative Lectionary this month.  Had I stayed with the nice Common Lectionary, I could preach on the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin from the Gospel of Luke. I would be much happier. But oh no -- I got this idea from our yearlong Bible study that it would really help my congregation to approach the Bible in order.  At least in the order which appears in the Table of Contents, which is only one sort of order. So last week we looked at the creation story and, this week, we come to one of the stories in those about Abraham and Sarah: the awful little story in which God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son.  To stab him and burn him up on an altar.  Yeah.
The first time I really paid attention to this narrative, I was with the group of adults destined to become my nearest and dearest friends.  We were all duly horrified -- parents of young children, every one of us -- and I'm sure that some of us began to doubt the advisability of our return to church in our thirties.  Perhaps church would not be a good place at all for our children.
The second time was when I took my summer of intensive Hebrew at seminary the summer after Josh died.  Apparently there is a lot in the way of useful vocabulary forms in these chapters.  I duly memorized all of said vocabulary, had at least one meltdown in the classroom, and concluded that both God and Abraham were ~ well, not entirely in their right minds.  When I noted in one commentary that one explanation for Sarah's subsequent silence was that she never spoke to Abraham again, I understood that to mean that at least one person had maintained some semblance of reason.
Now, this week: the third time.  The text no longer enrages me.  Other things do, but not a few more pages of violence in the Bible.  And I like one of the commentaries I read that suggests that Abraham had it wrong, completely misunderstood  God, was listening to some version of God other than the one he knew. I am confident now that God is solely the God of Life, and so I'm guessing that Abraham was completely out to lunch on this one.
So, what am I doing? I am focused on the words "Here I am."  Abraham says them three times -- to the God who is calling him; to the son who is curious about what they are up to, these men journeying for days with a load of firewood; and to the angel of the Lord, who reaches out to stop him.  "Here I am," he says each time, and I am wondering about his tone of voice, his frame of mind, with each response.  I wonder what it means that he keeps saying that. 
I don't actually have any idea.  Fortunately it's only Tuesday.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Artist

The following is more or less what I plan to preach tomorrow, based on the first creation story in Genesis:
How many of you enjoy the process of creation?  I want you to begin our sermon time this morning by turning to a neighbor and telling one another what you’ve made recently that’s been a pleasure to you, either in the making of it or in the final product?  How have you in your own creativity reflected the artistry of the one in whose image you are made?
(I know you’ve done this!  Anyone plowed or harvested a field lately?  Baked a pie?  Knit a sweater or crocheted a scrubbie?  Painted a picture?  Taken a photograph?  Added a piece to a genealogical puzzle?  Sung a song?  Played an instrument?  Written a note or a letter to someone? You may not have thought of yourself as engaged in a creative process, but if you placed or added something where there was  nothing, or if you altered something that was already there – then you’ve been at work as a creator.)
Isn’t it interesting that the very first page of the Bible begins with a hymn of creation?  This past week I listened to a podcast[1]  as I prepared the sermon, and one of the points emphasized was that on the very first page of the story for Jews and Christians, there is a creator and a creation: there is an intentionality about the universe.  
The Bible doesn’t have to begin that way, does it?  There are all kinds of writings and all sorts of stories in the Bible.  We kind of take for granted that it begins with the story of creation, but there are other possibilities.  It might have begun  with a geography, or with a history of the first human beings, or with the prayer and music of the Psalms.  All of those things appear soon enough, but the Bible begins with a story of the beginning.
And, another interesting thing: The Bible begins with a hymn, with a form of music.  If you were in the Bible study class last fall, you may remember that we talked about all the different forms of writing in the Bible: stories and songs and laws and speeches and biographies and instructions for construction and letters and visions and announcements.  All kinds of writing.  And the very first kind is a hymn.  We just listened to this hymn, and perhaps you heard in the choral reading certain lines that reminded you of song: repetitions, or refrains,  such as “God saw that it was good,” and an organization into something like verses, “the first day” and “the second day.”  Take a few minutes sometime and highlight the various repetitions and organizational markers in this passage in different colors, and you will see a hymn emerge.
A grand and glorious hymn of a grand and glorious God.  This is a majestic God, a God who speaks and a universe comes into being.  A God who speaks and water flows and grass grows. A God who speaks and creatures populate a planet.  A God who speaks and human beings appear, creatures made in the image of God, whose image is both male and female; whose image is designed for partnership, for community; whose image is designed to create and to exercise care for all of creation.
We might take it for granted, that the beginning of the book sings joyously of the beginning of all things, or we might ask some questions about this beginning.  What’s it about?  Why is this the beginning, instead of one of the other possibilities?  What is the point of the Book of Genesis?  Why is there such a book?
One answer is that the Book of Genesis seeks to tell us who God is.  To communicate something about God’s identity to us. 
Some time ago, in response to a question posed by someone else, I began to ponder that question, “Who is God?”  And because we have this text, right at the beginning of the Bible, I started with its words.  And the first thing that came to mind, for me, anyway, on that particular day, was that “God is a painter.” 
Then I began to ponder the word "painter."  God as a designer.  God as abundantly and infinitely creative and creating.  I considered adding a few more nouns.  God as a painter, an architect, a builder, a potter, a designer, a musician, a dancer, a photographer.
Hmmm.  Was I responding to the "Who?" question with a litany of what God does rather than an affirmation of who God is?  I didn’t want to describe God as merely someone functional, someone doing utilitarian work.  No matter how beautiful the interlocking network of relationships and connections – relationships of chemical compounds, of atoms, of stardust, of cells, of thought, of emotion – God was more than a construction expert, or a framing specialist.
God, I realized, is an artist.  That's a what, and it's a "what God does," but most of all, to my way of thinking, anyway, it's a who.  An artist is a who.  An artist is someone who creates from the core of who he is.  An artist is someone whose very essence pours out of herself and into her creations.  An artist is someone who creates out of love – and God, by definition, cannot not love.  Cannot not be love and and give love.
God is an artist.  We know this from what we read in Genesis, and we know this from our own lives: almost every form of human work and human relationship is a work of art ~ an expression of the one in whose image we are created. 
What tells us that God is an artist?  To start with, the universe itself.   If you had asked me when I was a little girl how I knew about God, I would have pointed to the world around me: the brilliant beech trees on the autumn hillside, the glittering ice in the winter sunshine, the caterpillars turning themselves into butterflies, the lightning bugs filling the summer night spaces, the oriole nest hanging from the tree across my grandmother's driveway, the goldenrod growing alongside the country roads, even the snakes leaving their discarded skins across the gravel road to our own house.  Color, shape, size, form;  such dazzling ingenuity.  There is God, I would have said. 
And how does this God, this Creator, this artist, work?  Or play? – I often think that creation is more play than work for God.  As I’ve been attending to this text this past week, two things – no, three; three dimensions of God as Creator have sprung to my attention.
For one thing, God separates.  God makes distinctions; God pulls apart in order to create differences.  God separates the light from the darkness; God separates the waters above – which become the rain and the snow – from the waters below – which become the oceans and lakes and river; God separates the waters and the dry land; God separates the day from the night.  For us, made in God’s image, these distinctions make sense.  Distinctions create order.  Distinctions help us to understand.  Would we know what land is if we did not know what water is?  Could we grasp the concept of light in the absence of the concept of darkness?
But God does not merely separate and distinguish.  God designs and conceives and erects and builds and fashions in abundance.  Abundance!  Diversity!  Lots, and all kinds!  Vegetation and lights and living creatures.  God creates corn and orchids and banana trees and grass; God creates the woodlands we know and the savannah grasslands and jungles of Africa and Asia. 
God creates suns and stars; bodies in space that we hardly know anything about.  A few weeks ago I heard on the radio that there are countless stars out there like our sun, stars around which planets orbit.    Did you know that there are seven main types of stars?  I learned that this week on a website called “Enchanted Learning.”  What a great name for a site devoted to learning  -- it immediately made me imagine God, absolutely enchanted and delighted by creation.
God creates living creatures: elephants and birds and alligators and tigers and polar bears and dolphins and butterflies and human beings – God creates living creatures in abundance and diversity.  God creates which swim and those which walk, and fly, and think and talk. 
And what is it about God as artist that puts God’s mark on this vast creation of distinctiveness and abundance?  How is it that God’s creation reflects who God is?  How is that God’s creation is pure gift, pouring out of love?
Relationship.  Connectedness.  An interwoven network in which all are involved, all are related, all work – and play – together.   God is a Trinitarian relationship; God’s very being is always in relationship.  We see an expression of that in this first Genesis creation story:  As God begins to create, a wind from God – the Spirit of God – sweeps across the waters.  We see another expression of God in relationship in the creation story at the beginning of the Gospel of John:   
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The Word: Jesus Christ.  He was there – here – in the beginning, from all time.  Life came into being through him, and that life was the light of all people.
Relationship and connectedness, within God, within God as Creator, Christ, and Wind, and extended to all of creation, to the abundance of all creation, to each of its distinct parts, woven together and dependent upon one another to express the love of God the artist.  God separates; God pulls apart in order to create: light and dark, land and sea, yellow and blue.  God fashions in abundance and variety: green plants and scaly fish and sleek foxes and conversational human beings.  And God designs for relationship: the sun to warm the earth, the rain to nourish the plants, the birds to sail the skies and sing in the trees, and the human beings to care for it all. 
Yes, God is the architect and the artist of all.  And it was all very good.  Amen.

[1] Working Preacher’s Narrative Lectionary Podcast for 9/8/13.