Too Many Stars in the Sky?

We’ve skipped a few centuries from last week. Humans have started to develop from the creation story. Again, we need to remember that these stories are being written and created not as they are happening but in hindsight. Following the story of creation there is the story of Cain and Abel and the first murder—the first act of violence, then the story of Noah and the ark. Several generations later, Abram appears.

The basic story of Abram goes like this:

Abram and Sarai are very elderly and Abram is lamenting to God the fact that he and Sarai have no children and that his slave will end up inheriting everything he has. God speaks to Abram and tells him that he will have as many descendants as stars in the sky. Abram and Sarai travel around a bit. They spend some time in Egypt. They wander a bit more and then God and Abram have another conversation and again Abram laments that he has no children of his own.

Sarai had a slave girl named Hagar. Hagar had a child by Abram and named him Ishmael. Sarai becomes jealous of Hagar and her son and has them expelled from the camp. They wander in the desert. They are out of water and Hagar thinks they are both going to die. God speaks to Hagar and tells her that from Ishmael will come a great nation. Muslims trace their lineage to this story, to the child Ishmael, and then back to Abram.

Sarai still really wanted a child of her own. God and Abram have another conversation. God again promises Abram that he will have many descendants. At this point, his name is changed to Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah. God appears to Abraham and Sarah and announce they will have a child. Sarah laughs and laughs because she is so old—there is no way she could have a child. Isaac is born and Abraham now has two children to fulfill the promise God made.

Image from:  http://arttrak.blogspot.ca/2013_09_01_archive.html

How many stars are in this picture? Can you count them? How did they get there? All these pinpricks of light in the sky brighten the night.

There are 7.4 billion people in the world right now. It seems that God’s promise to Abram to create many nations and have many descendants did indeed happen. I imagine the people writing the stories of Abraham and Sarah (several centuries after Abraham and Sarah were alive) trying to figure out how there came to be so many people in the world. Their conclusion, which we see in this story, is that God was fulfilling a promise.

But what does the planet do with so many humans? How does the earth sustain so many humans let alone other life?

The original invitation at creation was to till the earth, to care for it and enjoy its abundance within limits. There was wisdom in setting limits and boundaries. But while the earth is abundant, it cannot continue to sustain so many creatures indefinitely—especially if one species consumes and destroys so many resources.

What do we do with a promise like the one made to Abram thousands of years later? Is the promise still valid? Part of the way many humans make sense of life is to look towards a new generation of ourselves. We often look forward to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In our culture, this often means making sure that children have advantages. Perhaps it means giving things up so that the next generation can have more. Most of us have heard stories of parents who went hungry so their children could eat. There is value in continuing life. But where do we draw the line between what we need and what we want. Many of us are comfortable. We have good, healthy food. We have homes and vehicles. We have technology and appliances of various kinds. I like being comfortable but I am also conscious that, even in Canada, we have people who live much closer to that survival line than I do.

In many First Nations cultures there is a concept of the Seventh Generation. In this tradition, every action and decision is considered for how it will impact descendants seven generations into the future. I wonder if we would live differently if we could combine the seventh generation teaching with the concept of boundaries and limits in our relationship with the earth? Could we bring healing?

We see the earth struggling to sustain life. We see humans struggling with each other. God’s promise to Abraham was many descendants. God seems to have come through on that. How do we live up to our original covenant to care for the earth and observe limits? When we covenant in relationships, we agree to be in relationship and to work on the relationship. It doesn’t necessarily end when one person makes a mistake or breaks the covenant. There are opportunities to come back and try again. We continue to be in a covenant with God. The boundaries were broken but the boundaries are still there. There continues to be a responsibility to live within the limits.

My invitation to all of us is to reflect on the limits we find in the earth and to reflect on how we live within those limits as individuals and as a society. As we rediscover the limits, may we be open to changing our own lives so we live well in the creation.

 

 

In the creation story, humans are given one boundary—to not touch the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But they did touch that tree, and with it came knowledge. We have inherited that knowledge and the responsibility that goes with it.

15 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

 

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ge 15:1–6). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Breath of Life

With the Narrative Lectionary this fall, we are starting back at the beginning of the Biblical story with a creation story. There are two creation stories in Genesis and this reflection is based on part of the 2nd story.

What we need to remember about the creation stories (and many other Bible stories) is that they are true even if they are not fact. It is true that God created. It is true that humans are part of that creation. It is true that there is sin (brokenness, pain, suffering) in the world.

Most scholars agree that the creation stories were written thousands of years after creation actually happened. They were written after slavery in Egypt, after wandering in the wilderness, after the Hebrew people had conquered surrounding lands, after king David, after the Babylonian and Assyrian exiles. After all this happened the people started asking questions and telling stories about the beginning of their relationship with this God who had led them through all these ups and downs. The stories of creation evolved into what we have today.

In this second story, we hear how God created an earth creature. This is the first act of creation in this story. The word translated as earth being comes from the Hebrew adama which means soil. This is where the name Adam comes from. It simply means earth creature. And it is this clay figure that God breathes life into. Breath, spirit and soul all share the same Hebrew word. God animates this living being with soul and breath.

In the first creation story, God speaks and things happen. In this creation story, God fashions and forms the humans and all the creatures. This is a God who has gotten their hands dirty in the mess of creation. This is a God, playing in the mud and the clay.

Take a handful of modelling clay. Touch it. Squish it. Imagine that this is the clay that God formed into humans. See if you can make something out of your little bit of clay. What does it look like? What does it feel like? It might be something, but is it alive? It is simply a lump of clay. If you breathe on it, does it also breathe? There is something special about the breath of God that breathes life. There is nothing else quite like it in the universe.

This story speaks to the uniqueness of God’s breathe, God’s spirit and the ability of God’s spirit to infuse the creation with life. Within this creation, the humans were given one task: to till and keep the earth. They are given permission to eat from every tree—except one—the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Is this too much responsibility—to care for the earth, to eat and enjoy its bounty within limits? Is it too much to ask? Within this abundance and responsibility, we find the first brokenness in the world. Following the creation of humans, the giving of abundance and boundaries we hear another story. The story of the snake. There is an interaction between the snake and the first woman that goes like this:

The snake goes to the woman and entices her to eat from the one tree that is off limits. “Come on, it will be ok,” says the snake. The woman tries to resist but she knows she wants that fruit, it looks so good hanging there. So she takes it and shares some with the man. This is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And when they ate this fruit, their eyes were open. Just like we hear stories in the gospel of Jesus healing blindness, there is a moment where everything changes and suddenly, there’s no going back to not knowing something, to not seeing something clearly.

This moment in human history brought with it the ability to recognize good and evil. It brought with it the ability to choose right and wrong. It was also a moment when the boundaries were broken for the first time. This moment in human history brought the humans more responsibility. Up until this moment in time, their responsibility was to till the earth and care for it and enjoy the bounty of creation.

Because we have inherited the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge of the boundaries and the task of caring for the earth, we have also inherited the responsibility that goes with the knowledge. As humans, it is often greed and our inability to accept boundaries that puts us into conflict with other people and with the creation.

How many wars have been started over land, oil, power, water? How much of our human greed causes environmental destruction: the pollution of air, water, soil, the destruction of wildlife habitat, the extinction of species? As a race, we have forgotten whose breath is within us. We have forgotten our task. We have forgotten our boundaries.

Our faith invites us to return to who we are meant to be. We are called to an awareness of God’s breath and spirit within us. That’s why we breathe in silence at the beginning of worship. It takes us back to that place of creation. It takes us back to the breath of God that is within us and around us. When we have a sense of that breathe we are better able to navigate the choices of good and evil. We are better able to recognize the abundance of the creation and we are better able to accept the boundaries and limits of that creation. May it be so in us.

The Story of Job, the Story of Grief

The book of Job is 42 chapters long. The song above does a pretty good job of summing up the book. Job was very good and very wealthy. Apparently, God and the other heavenly beings notice Job. So they have a bit of a contest to see if Job will curse God. The only rule is that Job can’t be killed.

So first, all of Job’s property is lost – the livestock and servants killed, his children dead. Job prays and is pretty philosophical about these events: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Next Job becomes very ill. His wife says to him: “Curse God, and die.” Job continues to pray and speak for God. Job’s friends hear about what’s happening to him and come to sit with him. Job laments. This means that he pours out his thoughts and his prayers. All of the anger, the rage, the wishing it were different. He pours it all out to God. He wonders why these things have happened to him. Why has God given him darkness? In the midst of his turmoil and grief God speaks to him. God reminds him that “human beings are born to trouble, just as sparks fly upward.” Pain and suffering are a part of the human condition. It doesn’t mean that God has gone away, only that there is sometimes trouble in life. Job and God have this conversation for several chapters.

His friends get in on the conversation saying that his children or himself must have sinned in order to cause these terrible things to happen. Job or his family brought this tragedy upon themselves. Job responds by defending God. He maintains his innocence saying: “I am blameless; I do not know myself.”

Job’s friends and his wife spend the book, trying to convince Job that he is responsible for these terrible things and that God has abandoned him to his fate. Job refuses to be moved. He spends most of the book defending God and maintaining that he didn’t do anything to cause these tragedies and still pouring out the anger, the pain and frustration of deep grief.

It isn’t uncommon for us in times of grief, in moments when we walk with death to ask these questions. Where is God? Why is God causing these terrible things to happen? If I did such and such would God heal and restore? Could I have prevented a death, a terrible illness, a tragedy? I’ve asked myself a lot of these questions in the last few weeks. If God is all powerful, God could prevent tragedy, death, illness. Since God doesn’t prevent these things, what good is God? Why do we bother to have faith at all in the face of death and tragedy?

The easy way to respond to God in the midst of tragedy is to walk away. To curse God, to believe that since God didn’t prevent the tragedy God must not be watching, not care, be punishing or maybe not even exist. This is what Job’s friends tried to convince him of.

Job saw another path. He maintained that even though these terrible things happened, God was not the cause. God became the place where Job poured out everything that he was thinking and feeling, while maintaining a relationship with God. He asked God the hard questions: Why? Where are you? and then he listened for the answers. God responded by showing Job the wonder of creation. Job came through this tragedy. He had more children and built up his wealth again. His life did not end with tragedy. He trusted God enough to hold all the strong emotion of grief. He trusted in the goodness of God and recognized tragedy for what it is—something that happens in the world.

When we experience death, illness and tragedy in our own lives it can be difficult not to stay present with God. It can be difficult to ask God the hard questions. It can be hard to pour out all the anger and pain so it no longer consumes us—in body, in mind and in spirit. Job was able to do this and found fullness of life beyond his tragedy. God’s love continues to surround us and hold us even in the face of profound pain. Don’t give up in God in tragedy and death. This is when God’s love for us is strongest and when we need it most.