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I have experienced and witnessed miracles.  I have also seen the fruits of wisdom blossom and accomplish much.  Yet, I have also seen their limits.  I have found myself waiting for the miracle, waiting for the sign only for it to never come.  I have seen wisdom be thrown off by the illogical and unpredictable proving it can only go so far.  In the midst of this meaning was traded for meaninglessness.  The seeds of emptiness were sown that could not be easily gone with a quick snap of the fingers or explained away with an engineer’s systematization.  Still, I looked for a sign, I looked for some wisdom, some meaning.  Though, as life went on, such things were harder and harder to find.

There are the stories and the experiences that we remember and take comfort in.  These are the signs.  They can increase our confidence in God but they can also work against our faith.  They can all too easily form within us a standard and an expectation in regards to how he should or will act.  He parted this sea here, therefore he will crumble the walls before me there.  There is the discernible system to explain why things are the way they are best articulated in the famous statement, “Everything happens for a reason.”  When tragedy strikes, when the unexplainable occurs, we always have a way out because we can explain it all away.  To stay in the anxiety and the discomfort is to be reminded that we are not in control.  Oddly, we seek out God in order to regain some modicum of control.

“God spoke to me.” “Come see what God is doing.” “God is on the move.”

I’ve been there, I’ve said similar things. Many seem to lay claim to God, yet contradictions abound. The abuser and the narcissist always seem to have God on their side.  Like a cacophony of voices or what must be like the mind of a schizophrenic, there are no shortage of voices claiming God’s approval and blessing.  All around me, God is here, God is there and yet he is seemingly nowhere.

There’s a fine line between atheism and faithfulness to Jesus of Nazareth. Faithfulness to Jesus often requires us to get rid of our crap, to get rid of those things that are seemingly good but end up being idols.  Things like signs and miracles.  Things like wisdom and reason.  Such things are exhausted and revealed to be incredibly lacking on the hill of the Skull.  There, no sign or miracle is given.  No one swoops down from heaven in a chariot at the last minute to give the bad guys what they deserve.  Strangely too, wisdom accomplishes its mission, for it was good that only one man should die rather than a whole nation.  There we see all of the institutions that we are taught to trust in take off their masks and dispose of the things they supposedly uphold.  The Church, the government, the right and the left hand, simply upholding the social order and sending another scapegoat on its way.  Thus, our way of life continues on unabated; a way of life that we created in spite of God.

I’ll confess, I’m compelled to rush to the Resurrection, to make it all okay and to take away any anxiety or discomfort.  But I’m not. The Cross of Jesus Christ gets to the heart of our problem.  It cries out at us and begs us to grapple with such things, with tragedy, with the seeming meaningless of life itself where not everything makes sense.  Where signs and miracles come, go or never show and where wisdom helps but shows itself to be lacking.  The Cross calls us to let our trust in such things go, to see them for the idols that they often are and the Resurrection calls us to begin anew.

I’ve been in ministry now for 8 years and one thing that has become clear to me in this amount of time is that the image that we project out into the world can mask much darkness. Human beings who believe in God and believe that they are doing God’s work can easily justify anything.  How often do we do something that we wanted to do all along and then attach God’s name on to it as if that makes it all okay?  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t guilty of this myself but I am.  Do what I want and then tack on God’s name as my legitimizer.  It’s a great tactic of ab-users.  The reason is that it’s hard to argue with someone who invokes God’s name in emotional circumstances and situations.  That’s what makes it so confusing.  That’s how it works.

The Pharisees claimed that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebub and his family said he was out of his mind. He didn’t subscribe to the normal narrative.  Accordingly, the Pharisees were considered the blessed, the sons of the light, and the keepers of the great tradition.  They were the faithful and they truly meant well.  They were ab-users, though.  They divorced their wives for better ones that brought more status and wealth.  They devoured widows’ houses to keep their way of life going.  They loved banquets, they loved to socialize, and they loved to network.  All of these things were for good because it could serve their children and their grandchildren well in the future.  All of this revealed that God was on their side and that they were blessed.  Ab-users wouldn’t want you to think otherwise, even though they left a trail of destruction behind.  Their image was great, the rest sucked, but you’re not supposed to know that.  That’s what social media is good for.  Press releases are a God send.  Triangulation is the best way to distract and push forth.

It’s not an accident that after being accused of being in cahoots with Satan and of being out of his mind that the Markan Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Image is one thing, words are another, but actions speak much louder than anything else we can come up with.  How you live, how you behave, how you treat others reveals what you really believe, where your true allegiance lies. The rest…well…

 

 

Right before he died Emperor Constantine decided to finally be baptized.  Some scholars believe that this was because he knew that he could not be a faithful Christian while acting as emperor of the Roman Empire.

During this time in church history baptism was preceded by catechesis which placed a great emphasis on how one lived.  It wasn’t until a catechumen fully displayed a Christ-like habitus that they were baptized into the faith.  We know that Constantine had a deep respect for Christianity, but we also know that as emperor he preferred to take Christianity on his own terms.  It could be said that he was the first cafeteria catholic.  It seems that it was the prospect of death that finally prompted him to take the call of Christ seriously by literally shedding his purple robes (the early church rejected purple clothing as it believed that it was a sign of excess, privilege and wealth).

It’s strange to think but it would seem that Constantine has a one-up on many Christian leaders today.  He may have at least saw the contradiction between worldly power and faithfully following Jesus.  This hit me when I read the blog of a former church body president who expressed his disapproval of those athletes who refused to stand during the singing of our national anthem.  We’ve so wedded our civic religiosity with our Christian religiosity that we often can’t even tell the difference between the two.

One of the pernicious affects of unbridled nationalism and patriotism is that it serves as a conduit for all of the anxiety and anger of a people.  It gives us a sense of control in an uncontrollable world.  It provides a mask and a distraction from all the darker elements within ourselves.  It’s far better to be united around a common cause and against an enemy out there.  It’s a large scale example of Jesus’ teaching on projection – seeing the speck in your brother’s eye while not noticing the log in your own.

It’s a deep tragedy when the church signs on to this and gives it its blessing.

Integrity Lost.

 

This past weekend Emma and I built a garden bed out of the rocks strewn about along the rock wall alongside our house.  We had some left over bags of soil to use for a small garden bed but rather than go out and by some wood or cinder blocks we opted for the rather inexpensive route of rocks.  In fact, it probably goes without saying that they were free.  So after scavenging for some good wall building rocks, throwing in two bags of dirt, and planting some strawberry plants we have a nice little garden in the corner of our backyard.

As we were looking for rocks and stacking them I was reminded of all of those scenes in Genesis when Noah or Abraham or Jacob build an altar to the Lord by stacking stones or rocks.  An even more powerful passage that came to mind is the one from Exodus 20:25 that says,  “If you make an altar of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it.”

In the world in which we live distortions, disconnections, perversions abound in our relationships with one another, ourselves and the world around us.  Yet in the world in which we live connection, harmony, and health abound despite such things.  While the scorching sun can bring drought so can it also bring growth and health.  There are moments that call us back to who we are, that call us back to connection and to clarity.  Some would say that this is the Holy Spirit reaching out to us.  There’s a continual call to repentance, to have a change of mind and of heart, away from ourselves and away from what the world would tell us is important.

Building with rocks this past weekend served as such a reminder.

Rocks dug up from the ground many years ago, stacked as a wall to serve as a property line of sorts.  Now some of them strewn about taken by Emma and I to build a small garden.  Free and from the earth, not created out of our hands and by the latest technology.  Rather created by God and now stacked by us, made to fit by us without tools.  We simply worked with what God created.  And I was reminded of how truly good it is.

In his book The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future Thomas Berry writes, “The deepest cause of the present devastation is found in a mode of consciousness that has established a radical discontinuity between the human and other modes of being…”[1] In other words, Berry contends that the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in at the advent of the twenty-first century is due in large part to the failure of human beings to understand and truly appreciate the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life and matter on the Earth. As Berry writes, “In reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all it component members whether human or other than human.  In this community every being has its own role to fulfill, its own dignity, its inner spontaneity.”[2]

Unfortunately, we in the West, particularly those of us in the United States of America, have come to understand the world around us through what could be characterized as a purely utilitarian lens. Again, Berry writes succinctly, “A sense of the continent being here primarily for our use has been developing throughout the past few centuries.”[3] One could argue that one of the strongest indicators and representation of this reality is the consumerism that controls our very culture and economy.  Such consumerism is always in need of something new in order to keep the economy going.  We make products with a planned obsolescence in mind.  They must die and be thrown away so that we might continue to consume products made from the very resources of the earth.  Thus, more wisdom from Berry: “Our more human experience of the world of meaning has been diminished in direct proportion as money and utilitarian values have taken precedence over the numinous, aesthetic, and emotional values.”[4]

One of the more disconcerting aspects of the ‘radical discontinuity’ is that its development can be attributed to aspects of the Western Christian worldview. It’s a bit ironic to note that the first settlers who came to North America came in search of religious freedom having fled persecution.  Those such as the Pilgrims and Puritans came seeking the freedom to practice their religion as they saw fit.  Unfortunately, this did not translate into a wholly benevolent spirit towards outsiders whom they encountered such as the Native Americans as well as towards the abundance of natural resources throughout the New World.  What developed was exploitation of the land and the devastation of wildlife.[5] Such behavior found its justification in the often misunderstood passage in Genesis 1:26-30 which states,

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them;     male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Words such as “dominion” and “subdue” engendered the belief that creation and its animals were simply there for the benefit of human beings according to the bible. Such an understanding has been communicated by the likes of journalists and political commentators such as Charles Krauthammer who said “Nature is our ward, not our master”[6] and Ann Coulter who infamously said, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.'”[7]

Ironically, I believe that it is the aforementioned understanding of Genesis 1 that can provide the inroad for a religious education that can serve to reform the attitudes of many Christians concerning creation.  The understanding of Genesis 1 that provided the justification for the exploitation and devastation of the Earth is woefully mistaken.  In fact, one could argue that the words of both Charles Krauthammer and Ann Coulter are heretical.  The reason being is that the writer of Genesis was most likely concerned with forming a meaning and worldview that stood in contradistinction to that of the great empires like Babylon and Egypt.[8]  Fascinatingly enough, these empires were known for exploiting the land of its resources and not respecting the dignity of all human beings.  Genesis 1 is a counter-narrative to this way of thinking and being. It asserts that God created everything and that it is good. It also asserts that “all the heavens and earth are filled with God’s creative presence and life.”[9] What’s more, it reveals that human beings are given the task of taking care of and stewarding this creation and its animals. It’s not hard to see a connection between such a worldview and the worldview of many of the indigenous tribes all around the world, particularly the worldview of the Native Americans.

While in the Hebraic worldview human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation this does not mean that they have the right to abuse and exploit. In fact, Genesis reveals a more “naturecentric”[10] worldview than previously thought.  Words like “dominion” and “subdue” are not the best translations that have different connotations in English and other Western languages.  “Manage” “steward” and “take Care of” are far better translations of the Hebrew word “Radah” particularly as they relate to our cultural context.  Highlighting these very things in the context of teaching, preaching and worship life can enable the Holy Spirit to bring about a renewal of thinking (Romans 12:2[11]) concerning the “radical discontinuity” of which Berry speaks.

It’s also important to recall that Genesis 3-11 is actually a commentary on the pitfalls of human exploitation and devastation. In Genesis human beings fall into sin and they end up creating a world of their own making within God’s world.  This world comes to its culmination in the creation of the city (Genesis 4:17) and in the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).  As Wes Howard Brook notes regarding Adam and Eve’s desire to be like God and falling into sin, “It is a condition that generates a “need” for something that God has not provided and they therefore must make for themselves.”[12]  It’s not hard for one to trace the consumerism of our culture all the way back to Genesis 3.  Before we know it fig leaves are used as clothing, animals need to be killed for their skins to provide better clothing, brother murders brother and weapons are made.  This points to the “disjointedness” that comes about in creation because of sin.  In a sense, we witness the first fruits of a radical discontinuity in Genesis and according to the writer it is not a good thing.

In a similar vein it’s important to note that Jesus of Nazareth offers an alternative to the radical discontinuity of our age as well. Given that he is the “New Adam” he has come to make things right between humans, creation and God, he comes to show God’s Way and to liberate human beings and his creation from the sin, death and the evil one.  Some stalwart conservative Christians might vehemently protest against such an understanding and usage of Jesus of Nazareth and the gospels but if one looks closely Jesus’ message has much more in common with indigenous values than much of what we might find in the modern industrial context.  Note what Berry states regarding the indigenous people of Australia,

“[They] were once thought to be totally lacking intellectual or cultural achievements associated with even the most primitive peoples known elsewhere. They had food for the day, no permanent dwellings, no clothes, only a few implements.  Yet we now find amazing achievements in their capacity for understanding and responding to both the physical and the spiritual dynamics of the world about them.”[13]

If one looks one can see a parallel here between indigenous values and the teaching and ways of Jesus as found in the gospels. Jesus teaches his disciples not to worry about tomorrow and to look at the flowers and the birds as an example of God’s continuous provision.[14] They are to live in the moment and to look at the creatures and creation around them for reminders and encouragement.  As Berry writes,

“Only if the human imagination is activated by the flight of the great soaring birds in the heavens, by the blossoming flowers of Earth, by the sight of the sea, by the lightning and thunder of the great storms that break through the heat of summer, only then will the deep inner experiences be evoked within the human soul.”[15]

Moreover, Christians are not to hoard but rather are to give and to serve for the sake of other and the upholding of the community.[16]  Again, one can sense a kindred spirit in the teaching and message of Jesus with that of the Native Americans like the chief of Powhatan confederacy.  This chief said to John Smith in regards to the colonists’ aggressive actions: “Why do you take by force what you may have quietly by love?”[17] Ultimately, their way of life is to be bound up in the belief and understanding of a gracious heavenly father who deeply cares for and loves them and the entire creation.[18]  A religious education that is simply based on the gospels can make inroads into combating the radical discontinuity of our age and its formative influence upon our thinking and approach to life.

This now provides a segue into the last aspects of this project. Given the vein and purpose of Thomas Berry’s writing it would be unthinkable and almost unjust to not reference and use Celtic spirituality.  One of the big problems with “a radical discontinuity” is that it reduces “the earth to an object primarily for human possession and use” which “is unthinkable in most traditional cultures.”[19] Having discussed how both Genesis and the gospels can be used in a religious education that can ward off the influences of a “radical discontinuity” Celtic spirituality can serve to bring this project to its coalescence.

Celtic spirituality reminds us to look for God in creation which also serves to remind us that all life is holy and purposeful. It is believed that Celtic spirituality comes from the Johannine tradition. It was the Apostle John who began his Gospel with the words, “In the beginning was the Word…All things were made through him.”[20]  The Word or Logos has always been understood to be Jesus.  And John’s language is meant to remind the reader of the beginning of Genesis.  Here, in the gospel of John, creation and Jesus meet and it all comes together.  This is why John Philip Newel writes,

“What we need today are insights and spiritual practices that remind us of the Unity of our origins and that further nourish the longing for peace that is stirring among us. The Celtic tradition offers these to us while at the same being deeply aware of the disharmonies within and between us that shake the very foundations of life.  This is not a tradition that is naïve regarding the destructive energies of evil.”[21]

Thus, with a strong understanding and spirituality that Christ is truly “in, with and under” our creation we can be better poised to introduce a “radical continuity” in our own minds and lives and in the minds and lives of others. Amen.

[1] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” New York: Three Rivers, 1999, 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.,5.

[4] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 60.

[5] Ibid.,44.

[6] Ibid.

[7]Consumpopculture.com, “Ann Coulter,” consumpopculture.com, accessed May 11,2017, http://www.consumepopculture.com/ann-coulter/

[8] Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond,” Maryknoll: Orbis, 2010, 22.

[9] Ibid.,19.

[10] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 45.

[11] Romans 12:2: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

[12] Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond,” 30.

[13] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 54.

[14] Luke 12:22-34.

[15] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 55.

[16] Mark 10:17-31.

[17] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 37.

[18] Luke 11: 1-13, 12:4-7.

[19] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 61.

[20] John1: 1a, 3a.

[21] John Philip Newell, “Christ Of The Celts: The Healing of Creation,” San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2008,  xi.

We’ve recently taken up gardening in the Geminn household and I have found it immensely enjoyable.  We now have two garden beds with growing vegetables, fruits and flowers.  What’s amazing about this new experience of ours is how easy it has been.  Apart from getting everything set-up like building the boxes, putting in the dirt, the plants and then watering them it hasn’t required much more from us.  Instead, with enough sun and water they grow which is exactly what is happening with ours. Frankly, it’s a miracle.

Again, so simple and easy.  It so fascinating to me because it sort of runs in contradistinction to the workaholism that has come to dominate our culture and church.  Embedded within this notion is the idea that how hard one works is indicative of the outcome they will get.  It correlates hardwork with production and in a consumer based culture production is incredibly important, is it not?  But this begs the question: have we misunderstood the value of hardwork as it relates to our vocation as human beings?  I sometimes think that we use vocation as justification for unhealthy behaviors such as workaholism which often plays itself out in bad boundaries and co-dependent behaviors.  Moreover, as I’ve written elsewhere, we tend to use vocation as the legitimator of “life as it is” in the midst of systemic and personal sin.

Maybe I am getting ahead of myself but this experience has prompted me to reflect upon our role as human beings in God’s creation.  The ancient wisdom found in Genesis suggests that we were called to be gardeners with God rather than busy bodies working endlessly for some sense of pleasure and security.  This problem, of course, comes when we decide to create our own world within God’s world which results in the curse of hard labor and toil.  For some reason we accept this as our lot in life rather than reflecting upon the fact that while it’s a curse there’s a way out.  Abel reveals that much to us in Genesis 4 when instead of being obedient like his brother Cain by becoming a farmer he becomes a shepherd.  Remember, there’s a direct line from Cain to Egypt.  After all, the farming Egyptians looked down upon the Hebrew shepherds because they considered them lazy and unproductive.  What could such persons contribute to their way of life?  Slavery it was!

Anyways, forgive the digression, but gardening has proven to be enjoyable for us.  I am amazed at the joy it brings me when I look outside our back window to see both garden beds growing more lush by the day.  I also find myself more grateful for things like rain and sunshine because I know what effect such things will have on my plants.  Gardening reconnects me with creation and reminds me that I am link in a chain of interdependence which has been mostly forgotten in this highly individualized and modernistic era of ours.  I can better understand and appreciate the profundity of the words of Moses throughout Genesis 1, “it was good.”  Indeed it is good and the Lord has invited us to take part in this goodness, in taking care of it and in taking care of one another.

Correction: In most cases military recruiters do not receive a commission based on the number of recruits.  

During my four years of high school we were visited by a military recruiter each year.  The military recruiter would set up shop in our cafeteria so that we could speak with him during lunch time if we so desired.

I grew up with a positive view of the military.  In fact, I flirted with the idea of enlisting in either the Navy or the Marines.  When my senior year rolled around I decided to look seriously into this option and had a conversation with the recruiter who was a Marine in the cafeteria in my high school.  I distinctly remember him telling me that him becoming a Marine was the greatest thing he had ever done with his life.  He even brought along Brian who graduated the year before and had gone through boot camp and was now officially one himself.  Brian echoed his sentiments.  It was a life-changing experience for him, too.  Also, they both looked damn good in their uniforms.  With that I gave the recruiter my information as I was on the fence about going to college even though I had been accepted and received a good financial aid package.  What followed after this was nothing short of overbearing.  In the coming months the military recruiter called me regularly and continuously tried to get me to his office.  He was incredibly pushy and aggressive to the point where despite communicating that I was no longer interested he still kept on calling.  I remember getting off of the phone with him and complaining to my father about the pushiness.  It turns out that recruiters have a quota that they must fill which determines where they are stationed next.  Hence, that explained the pushiness.  After that I was completely turned off, this didn’t necessarily match up with the nobility and glory of the military message that I was getting from the said recruiter.  I still got phone calls, though, and I am not even sure when they stopped altogether.

Interestingly enough, here I am 16 years later getting a recruitment video for military chaplaincy.  Yesterday I got an email from the LCMS Ministry to the Armed Forces entitled “‘If not us, then who?’ – military chaplains needed”.  It seems that I get such a notification via email or snail mail every few months.  It came with a video too.   Though, since I am now clergy the pay and the work are far higher and different. What’s striking are the images in the video of chaplains extolling the virtues of military chaplaincy while giving their blessing to aircraft that are built to bring all sorts of destruction down on people and places.  It’s a bit eerie to hear their voices of the need for chaplains as a huge tank of sorts rolls by as well as soldiers getting into those very tanks. It’s so strange to hear the talk of the two kingdoms which is derived from the words of an ancient Jew whose scriptures decried the military might of empires like ours today.  It’s also strange because he wrote those words serving amongst a marginalized people who were tempted toward revolutionary revolt against a mighty power with great military resources like ours today.  But I suppose it also reveals that we can convince ourselves of anything so long as we believe we are right or on the side of right.   Heck, we’ve even got theology and theologians to do that.  In my opinion one of the best examples of this inconsistency is St. Martin of Tours.  Martin was a soldier who became a conscientious objector because of the call of Christ.  He is quoted as saying to his superior officer, “But I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.” Yet, Martin is the patron saint of soldiers.  Moreover, the LCMS has an award named after him that they give to chaplains.