To Err is Divine

Matthew 9:9-17

Karl E. Peters writes: “To err is divine.”

This phrase feels uncomfortable to most religious practitioners in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We have been conditioned to think of the Divine as an all-powerful being who has established unchanging standards of truth and righteousness in the world. Peters, on the other hand, identifies “God” as “the creative process working in our midst.”

Biological evolution happens by mistake. Mutations are copy errors in an organism’s genetic code. Most genetic mutations have a neutral or adverse effect on an organism’s chances for survival, but some of them turn out to be beneficial. When a mutation gives an organism a survival advantage, that error gets incorporated into the genetic code and is more likely to shape future generations.

Cultural evolution happens in much the same way. When Jesus invited outcasts into his grassroots movement and challenged established moral and theological standards of his culture, the leaders of his culture regarded his actions as mistakes. The appointed guardians of tradition branded Jesus as a dangerous heretic because he did not practice his spirituality in the “right” way or with the “right” people.

The early followers of Jesus incorporated his tendencies toward inclusion and innovation into the cultural DNA of their movement. These cultural mutations gave that community the independence it needed to survive and thrive after the Roman Empire razed the second Jewish temple in 70CE. Other religious movements survived because they centered their faith and practice in the study of the Torah, rather than the rituals of the temple. These two movements evolved into the religious traditions we now recognize as Judaism and Christianity.

The following questions arise: What creative mistakes are we making in our lives today? How might today’s heretics become tomorrow’s leaders? How might “the creative process working in our midst” be adapting our communities to include new voices and invent new ways of doing things?

Peters asks:

“Are these mistakes mutations in religious thought that ought to be destroyed or might they be something else, a new and helpful way of portraying the sacred? That will be determined not by what I am saying. It will be determined only by how you and others respond, by whether these ideas help you make sense of your own experience in living.”

Karl E. Peters. Dancing with the sacred: evolution, ecology, and God (Trinity Press International: 2002).

Now
is the space between
what is known and
what is new.

It is a constant
coming into existence.

No respecter
of who belongs
or how it’s done.

Some mistakes
turn out to be correct
and vice versa.

Some heretics
turn out to be prophets
and vice versa.

Stardust: A Meditation on Grief

One of the many remarkable truths about nature is that death is often a gateway to new forms of life. My favorite illustration of this process is the most powerful incident of death in the known universe: a supernova.

A supernova is how a star dies. Stars are born as hydrogen atoms are drawn to each other in the cold depths of outer space. These atoms huddle together in the dark until their bodies fuse into one. This fusion gives off a burst of energy that can be felt as heat and light. The end product is a new atom called helium. As more and more hydrogen atoms join the group, they start a chain reaction that results in a giant ball of gas that we call a star. Stars burn for billions of years, constantly making new kinds of atoms. You can look out the window on a clear day and see this process happening right before your eyes.

Eventually, these atoms become too big and heavy for this process to continue. When this happens, the inward pressure of gravity overwhelms the outward pressure caused by fusion and the star implodes. Because every action in physics causes an equal and opposite reaction, the star’s implosion results in a dramatic explosion. In that brief moment of tremendous destruction, the light of a single star outshines the entire galaxy.

I imagine that for you, the loved ones of those who have recently died, the pain of grief feels overwhelming in the same way. The felt absence of the one who died seems to outshine every other concern in life. This feeling is very normal and natural. You might wonder: Can my universe ever be the same again? Can any good possibly come from a loss so great? These questions are also very normal and natural.

Here’s how nature answers those questions:

Can the universe ever be the same again? No. A great star has been lost, just as the unique light of your loved one’s presence has faded from this world. We grieve this incalculable loss with you.

Can any good possibly come from a loss so great? Yes! The new atoms forged in the heart of that star get launched into space, where gravity draws them back together over billions of years. They form new bodies like other stars, comets, and planets. On our planet Earth, these atoms came together in just the right way to allow life to form and grow. Today, in the ground beneath your feet, in the air you breathe, and even in the atoms of your own body, you carry the remnants of these deceased stars. Quite literally, you are made of stardust!

The spiritual traditions of the world have observed this process and expressed it in various ways. Some believe in reincarnation while others believe in resurrection. Some believe that our physical life ends while our spirits live on in some mysterious way. What all of these beliefs have in common is the hunch that death is not just an end, but also a gateway to new life, just like a supernova.

I know that your world will never be the same again after the loss of this precious loved one. I invite you, in this time of overwhelming grief, to be patient and caring with yourselves and each other. May the gravitational forces of love draw you closer together and help you pick up the scattered pieces. May the blinding light of loss plant seeds of new life as it fades. And may you remember always the unchanging truth that fires your life with dignity: You are stardust!

There is a Vastness…

Paternoster

There is a vastness,
beauty,
and logic
in the cosmos
that defies imagination.
I stand in awe
before it
and within it.

Something inside me
yearns
for the same greatness,
beauty,
and logic
to be made real
and observable
in my short life
on this tiny planet.

All I have,
and all I am,
is a product
of this vastness,
and beauty,
and logic.

It sustains me,
even when I forget
and take it for granted.
Perhaps then,
I can find the strength
to let go
of resentment
when others forget
and take me for granted
as well.

I remember this
in moments of peace,
that I might remember it
in days of stress,
and thus be freed
from anxiety:

This vastness,
beauty,
and logic
does not come from me,
did not begin with me,
and will not end with me.

It never has,
and never will.

It’s Mine, And I Share It With You

Click here to read the bulletin. Readings included.

It amuses me sometimes when my kids really get into fighting over something at the house. I can pinpoint the exact moment in their epic struggle for justice when the tragic wail ascends to heaven over the unbearable tyranny that is being imposed upon them by their sibling. It’s usually over something electronic, like the computer or the television. Each of them is equally committed to their belief that the immutable laws of justice in the universe demand that they are the one who gets to claim ownership over the device in that moment. The outrage is so unbearable that the conflict sometimes comes to blows and an electronic device might go sailing across the room. And that’s usually when my wife or I decide that it’s time for a parent to intervene.

It reminds me of the times when my brother and I would get into similar battles as kids. It was the early 80s, so we didn’t have many electronics around the house, but kids never seem to have trouble finding things to squabble about. I remember one time as a five-year-old, in a fit of righteous indignation, I insisted that these toys were my toys, so I shouldn’t have to share them with my brother. And our quick-thinking mother came up with the perfect comeback: “No, they’re my toys, and I share them with you!”

I think sometimes that God wants to say the same thing to us grownups, when we bicker and fight over the things we think belong to us. People get so worked up about my house, my car, my money, my church, my country. I imagine God in those moments as the patient but stressed out mother, still in her bathrobe on a Saturday morning, shouting back her words of wisdom: “No, they’re mine, and I share them with you!”

The God we serve is a giving and forgiving God, but we humans, in our selfishness, often take that generosity for granted. We get all kinds of worked up over something that isn’t going right in our lives and quickly turn to shake our fist at the sky and shout, “Why, O God? Why?!!!” And when someone else, one of our brothers or sisters, comes along and asks something of us, we react as if some great injustice has been done to us. “Why should I have to give my spare change to that homeless person? This is my money; I worked for it!” And God says, “No, it’s my money, and I share it with you!”

We rarely stop to think about how much we’ve been given, and I don’t just mean material wealth. Think about sunlight. We remember from science class that stars shine by transforming matter into energy by way of nuclear fusion. I read a book recently that noted how our sun converts four million tons of its own matter into light energy every second. That light then travels 93 million miles to our planet, where it warms us in just the right amount to sustain life, and it does this for billions of years! Just think about that level of generosity and compare it to the paltry gesture of dropping a few coins into a hat for a fellow human being who has been standing out in that same hot sun all day.

We like to complain about the weather, how it’s always just a little too hot or a little too cold for our liking, but do we ever stop to think about the amazing and delicate balance that has kept life going and growing for all these millennia? Do we ever stop to give thanks for the wonder of it all? Or are we still too caught up in our own little tizzies about the next little thing that isn’t going quite right in our lives?

In today’s gospel, Jesus draws our attention to the great generosity of God that is constantly being poured out upon us, just as the sunlight is poured indiscriminately over the face of the earth. Jesus marvels at the way that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

And our God is so gracious and unassuming in this ministry, never waiting to be thanked before offering the gift. Like so many human parents, God’s hope is that we will one day realize how much we have been given and pay it back by paying it forward to others. Children often don’t appreciate how hard their parents work to provide for them. And the parents don’t ask for recognition. Our only hope is that our children will one day be parents themselves, and will work just as hard to provide the same kind of love and care for their children. Jesus shows us today that God hopes the same thing for us.

Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”.

It is a foregone conclusion that children tend to look like their parents. In a physical sense, they “bear the image” of the ones who made them. In the same way, each and every one of us is made “in the image and likeness” of our Father in heaven. Jesus asks us today to embrace that divine likeness in our own lives.

But something has to happen before we can begin that work in earnest. We need a Copernican Revolution of the soul.

Copernicus was a scientist in the middle ages who discovered that the earth was not the center of the universe. By careful observation, he figured out that our planet is traveling around the sun, not the other way around. This discovery sent shockwaves throughout the world. People’s whole conception of their lives was turned upside down. Church officials ranted and raved against Copernicus and his heretical ideas.

But history, as we know, proved Copernicus right. The earth is not the center of the universe. Ours is just one planet circling around a small star in a galaxy of billions of other stars, which is only one of billions of galaxies in the known universe. Copernicus’ idea caused a revolution in the scientific world, but it’s one that turned out to be true. And I thank God for Copernicus, because he has opened us up to discover so many more wonderful and useful things about ourselves and the world we inhabit.

In the same way, we humans today have once again fallen into the trap of believing that we are the center of the universe, while everything else simply revolves around us. In our sinfulness, we set ourselves up like little gods in life-or-death competition with all the other little gods around us. We battle each other for supremacy, screaming all the while, “It’s mine! It’s mine!”

But Jesus, our great Copernicus of the soul, comes alongside us to reveal the truth that makes us simultaneously smaller and bigger than we could have possibly imagined: We are not the center of the universe. We are not gods, but we bear the image of the God who says to us, “It’s mine, and I share it with you.” Jesus directs our attention to the bountiful generosity of God and invites us to participate in it, in our own small way.

Nowhere does Jesus embody this truth more fully than in his death and resurrection. In his passion, Jesus bore the sin of a world full of people who wanted to believe that they were the center of the universe. His Copernican Revolution of the soul was so dangerous to their agenda that they would stop at nothing to shut him up. And Jesus, ever the exasperated mother dealing with a toddler throwing a temper tantrum, willingly absorbed the full force of their hatred and violence. And he died there on that cross.

But then, in the greatest revolutionary moment in human history, he tore open the gates of hell and made death itself begin to work backwards. He rose from the grave, breathing peace to his betrayers and pronouncing, once and for all, that nothing “in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:39)

Friends, this is the good news in which we stand today: We are not the center of the universe. We are the recipients of God’s amazing grace and Christ’s self-giving generosity that turns the world upside down. This grace is offered freely for you and for all by the One who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

“It’s mine,” God says, “and I share it with you.”

Jesus invites us this morning to join his Copernican Revolution of the soul and return the favor of this grace, not by paying it back, but by paying it forward: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”.

And remember the words of the old gospel hymn:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven.
There is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given.

For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind,
and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful, we would gladly trust God’s Word,
and our lives reflect thanksgiving for the goodness of our Lord.

Vast, beautiful universe says astrophysicist

Image of a solar flare by NASA

Reblogged from the PC(USA) news feed.

Original post by Erin Cox-Holmes

The universe is so vast that trying to understand it makes our minds melt. So said Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, speaker at the Science and Faith lunch on Thursday (July 5) at the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

An astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Wiseman is the director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

It would make sense to conclude that since the universe is so overwhelming, we are small, tiny and insignificant. But, said Wiseman, what we can learn from astrophysics is that we can see the universe tuned for life… (Click here for full article)

Evolutionary Thoughts: Creed

I’ve been enjoying a book by the Irish Catholic priest Diarmuid O’Murchu called Evolutionary Faith: Rediscovering God in our Great Story (Orbis: 2002).

O’Murchu is an innovative mystic with a poet’s heart.  Neither his theology nor his science are very orthodox.  He kind of picks and chooses what he likes from both.  Of course, if we’re honest, every single one of us would have to admit that we do the same.

More inspiring than informative, this book has really had my wheels turning lately.  I’m going to start posting some fascinating snippets on this blog.  I really don’t care if you’re not impressed with him (I’m not always) or if you don’t agree with him (I don’t always).  He’s introduced me to some new ideas and authors that are quite fun and interesting.

Think of this as the jungle-gym on the playground of ideas.  The following is from the book (p.2-3):

My Evolutionary Creed

  • I believe in the creative energy of the divine, erupting with unimaginable exuberance, transforming the seething vacuum into a whirlwind of zest and flow.
  • I believe in the divine imprint as it manifests itself in swirling vortexes and particle formations, birthing forth atoms and galaxies.
  • I believe in the providential outburst of supernovas and in the absorbing potential of black holes.
  • I believe in the gift of agelessness, those billions of formative aeons in which the paradox of creation and destruction unfolds into the shapes and patterns of the observable universe.
  • I believe in the holy energy that begot material form and biological life in ancient bacterial forms and in the amazing array of living creatures.
  • I believe in the incarnation of the divine in the human soul, initially activated in Africa over four million years ago.
  • I believe in the “I Am Who I Am,” uttered across the aeons, pulsating incessantly throughout the whole of creation and begetting possibilities that the human mind can only vaguely imagine at this time.
  • As a beneficiary of the Christian tradition, I believe in the power of the new reign of God, embodied and proclaimed in the life of Jesus and offered unconditionally for the liberation of all life-forms.

Last summer, I also enjoyed reading Prayers to an Evolutionary God (Skylight Paths: 2004), a daily devotional by William Cleary based on Evolutionary Faith.  You can order both books on Amazon.com by clicking on the image:

“And God saw that it was good.”

Image of the Carina Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

Trinity Sunday sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Genesis 1:1-2:4a.

We read this morning from the story of creation in the book of Genesis.  This is one of the most familiar (and controversial) texts in the entire Bible.  It’s often used as a wedge and a weapon by those who would try to set up science and faith as mutually exclusive categories of knowledge.

Some say that this is a literal and historical account of what actually happened during the first week of existence for the universe (which they take to have happened about six thousand years ago).  These folks often have witty bumper stickers that say things like, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” or “The Big Bang Theory: God spoke and BANG, it happened”.

On the other hand, there are those who say that this story is nothing more than an ancient legend made up by people who didn’t have the benefit of modern science at their disposal.  These days, they say, this story is useful only as a cultural artifact.  It should be studied in the same way that Greek mythology is studied: without regard for its truth or relevance to contemporary life.

So then, are these our only two options for understanding this text?  Do we reject, on the one hand, the findings of the scientific community as the deceptions of Satan or the product of secular humanist conspiracy?  Or, on the other hand, do we throw out the Bible as an ancient relic, abandoning it to be used and abused by ignorant bigots, like those who once believed that the earth is flat?

Or is there a third option?  Is there some way for us to lower our mental buckets into this well and bring up gallons of living water?  Can this text serve as a source of divine truth for us, even if we don’t accept it as literally and historically factual?  I think there is.

Let’s start by looking at the text itself.  You’ll notice that there is a lot of repetition going on.  “And God said, ‘Let there be… and God saw that it was good… and there was evening and there was morning, the [#] day.”  This happens over and over again, so much that you start to expect it.  There is a kind of natural rhythm to this passage.  Tell me, where else do you find rhythm and repetition in language?  In poetry!  This text reads like a poem.

What’s even more interesting is how the ideas and images in this poem develop as we read on.  Let’s look at the first six days of creation and the creatures that emerge on each day.  To make it easier to understand, we’re going to divide the days into two groups that stand side by side: days 1-3 and days 4-6.

On the first day, God creates light and darkness itself.  Parallel this with the fourth day, when God creates the sun, moon, and stars (i.e. those objects (beings) that dwell in the light and darkness of day and night).  On the second day, God separates the sky and the water.  Then look at the fifth day, when God creates birds and fish (i.e. the life-forms that live in the sky and water).  On the third day, God calls forth the land and vegetation from the sea.  Match this up with the sixth day, when God makes land animals and humans, whose job it is to care for the rest of creation.

On days 1-3, God creates a particular environment and then fills each environment with inhabitants on days 4-6, leaving human beings in charge of the whole thing.  Then, on the seventh day, God takes a break.  For this reason, the text tells us, every seventh day is set apart as sacred.  On this day, people are called to rest from their work and reflect on the goodness of God’s creation.

“Okay Barrett,” you might say, “it’s a nice poem, but what does it mean?  Why are these words and ideas laid out in the way they are?”  In order to answer that question, it would make sense to look at who wrote this poem, where and when it was written, and why they wrote it.

The problem is that we don’t exactly know the who, where, when, and why of this poem’s author.  Unlike modern writers, authors in the ancient world didn’t exactly sign and date their material.  And, as any teacher will tell you, it’s almost impossible to figure out who wrote a nameless and dateless paper, even when you know it was written in the last week!  Imagine trying to do it with a paper that’s several thousand years old!  Forget about it!

Biblical scholars have spent years trying to solve this mystery.  Their best guess is that this poem was probably written by a Jewish person sometime during the sixth century B.C.  Jews at that time were living in exile, working as slaves in the country of Babylon.  The Babylonians had conquered the holy land and dragged many of the people off to work for them elsewhere.  Removing people from their land was a common strategy used by the Babylonians to break people’s spirits and keep them submissive.  The Jews living and working in Babylon huddled together in sorrow for their lost home.  All around them, their Babylonian bosses made them feel like they were less than human.  They treated God’s people like machines or property.  They made fun of Jewish culture and religion.

“You God is so weak,” they said, “our god, Marduk, was able to beat yours in battle.  That’s why you’re our slaves now.  Why don’t you give up worshiping your pitiful little God and worship ours instead?”

Well, the Jews didn’t listen to that talk.  They got together and, once a week, these Jewish slaves went on strike.  They refused to work.  They huddled together to sing, pray, and tell stories.  They celebrated their faith and culture.  This is the Sabbath day.

On the Sabbath the Jews said to the Babylonians, “You might be in charge (for now) but you don’t own us.  We belong to our God, who made heaven and earth.”  That’s where scholars think this poem came from.  The sun, moon, and animals were all different gods to the Babylonians.  They worshiped them and made all kinds of sacrifices, but the Jews said, “Those aren’t gods!  The sun and moon are just lights in the sky.  The animals were made by our God and given to us to care for.”  Rather than bowing down, the Jewish people stood up to preserve their dignity and celebrate their faith that, one day, their one true God would free them from slavery and bring them home again, just like God once did with Moses in Egypt.  In the meantime, the Jews kept going on strike once a week.  They kept meeting together to worship.  “We’re not your property,” they said, “We’re God’s people.”

So this poem becomes a celebration of faith, hope, and human dignity in the face of chaos, destruction, and oppression.  The poem opens with the image of a dark and stormy ocean.  Nothing but a “formless void”, but God is there.  God is speaking.  And God is making something good out of this mess!

In the same way, you and I live in a dark and chaotic world.  The society around us laughs at our faith.  It would be so easy to become frightened or cynical.  Maybe we’re not exactly slaves, like the Jews were under the Babylonians, but we often get treated like we’re less than human.  Government bureaucracy treats us like cattle, shuffling us around and identifying us by our Social Security Number.  Corporate advertising calls us “consumers” and tells us that our only value as human beings comes from how much money we have to spend.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” they say, “you’ve got to take whatever you can get or somebody else will!”

Can we, as people of faith, find the courage to stand up and say no to that?

Like the ancient Jews, you and I already gather here once a week to sing, pray, and tell stories like this one.  When you come here, you’re reminding yourself that you are more than just a consumer or constituent.  You are a child of God.  You have inherent dignity as a human being.  You matter.

That’s a message that the world around you will try to drown out, if it can.  It will try to swallow up your soul in that ocean of darkness and chaos.

The power of faith is the power to resist that fear and cynicism.  It’s the power of hope.  It’s the power of human dignity.  It’s the power to celebrate the goodness of creation.  It’s the power to say that our God is more real than the false gods of consumerism and ideology.  The power of faith is the power to say, “God is making something good out of this mess!”

Do you believe that?  Can you see in your life what the ancient Jews saw in this passage?  The truth in this text has little to do with how the universe began, whether it was thousands or billions of years ago.  It has everything to do with how you look at the universe today.  Are you a faith-full or a faith-less person?  My prayer is that God would open your heart in the midst of this life’s “formless void”, so full of darkness and chaos, and that you would somehow sense the mystery of God’s presence saying to you, “Let there be light.”