The Land Knows, and the Land Remembers

The second Sunday of the Season of Creation invites us to reflect on the land—the soil beneath our feet and the landscapes we inhabit.

Many biblical writers imagined the land as much more than merely a stage, and landscapes as much more than props. A week ago, for example, the lectionary for this mini-season included the story from Genesis about God bringing forth a delightful forest from the land. The soil is where divine fruitfulness and abundance reside, bringing forth every tree that is lovely to see and suitable for food.

The situation changes quickly and dramatically in the third and fourth chapters of Gensis: one of God’s creatures is cursed; animosity appears in the garden of delight; intimate relationships are distorted by power and mapped to gender; the land itself is no longer apparently fertile and readily fruitful.

What happened?

The lectionary skips over the causes—a complex mix of lies and deception, of guilt and shame—and jumps ahead to the consequences, especially the way bodily shame can lead to an inward and downward spiral of isolation or it can turn outward, projected on to others as disdain and anger, or hatred and violence.

And here’s the key point for this season: the land knows all this, and the land remembers.

That is, admittedly, a rather strange way to put the matter, but perhaps you’ve experienced something similar about particular places, or buildings, or street corners, any physical location where something just doesn’t seem quite right. You feel a bit uneasy, perhaps a little anxious, and you’re constantly looking over your shoulder even though no one is there.

A mean spirit, the undercurrent of hatred, or threat of violence—we all know what it’s like to encounter these things in a person, or in a situation. It’s like riding through turbulence—you can’t see it but you can certainly feel it.

When those moments are sufficiently severe, they can leave a mark on us, a wound or a scar. For some, the experience lingers long after the situation has ended; we now call this “post-traumatic stress syndrome,” or PTSD.

More than a few biblical writers would have us notice exactly these same things about the land; the land knows, and the land remembers.

“Cain and Abel,” South African artist Margrit Prigge

The classic story about the land’s own memory comes from a passage of Scripture that we never hear on Sunday mornings from the ordinary lectionary; that might be why it sounded so shocking to hear it during worship this past Sunday as it was being read from the lectern. I mean the heart-rending story about Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.

These two are brothers, sons of the first humans. Abel is a shepherd, tending flocks; Cain, by contrast, is a farmer, trying to tend crops. Remember, by now in the story the land is no longer friendly to farming, and Cain is struggling. So he takes his brother Abel “out to the field,” out to where he has been trying to make things grow, to the ground that has already been cursed.

And there, in that field, Cain kills his brother.

When God confronts Cain about this, Cain tries to deny it, insisting that he knows nothing about it. Oh yes you do, God says, because “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground”; the land remembers.

“Cain and Abel,” Frank Hoesel

It matters that this early story of violence is a story of fratricide. It is not a story about protecting one’s self from outside invaders, from people you’ve never seen before; it is not a story of war between peoples or nations. This is a story of fratricide, in which violence takes root among siblings, not strangers. It’s a horrifying story precisely because the actors in it are as close to each other as they possibly can be; they are kin.

These opening chapters in Genesis present a gut-wrenching tale of how the first humans are gradually alienated from all their kin—not only from each other but also from the garden-like forest and its fruitful land, which are also their kin.

The land knows, and the land remembers.

All over the world, in every corner of every country, including right where I’m writing this in the U. S. state of Michigan, we live on land that carries horrific memories—much of it soaked in blood from the violence that turns kin into strangers.

This remains a vastly under-diagnosed condition of distress and disease among all those who treat the land as mere stage and landscapes as inert props. The land not only cradles the pools of human blood spilled in violence, but also retains the wounds and scars of the violence we continually inflict on the land itself—strip mining, flaying Earth of her skin, burning her with industrial farming, and then casually pouring toxins and acids into her open wounds like salt on skinned knees. Not only the ancient storyteller in Genesis but also the Hebrew prophets are shockingly clear: the land will not remain patient forever; one day (perhaps tomorrow), the land will simply stop yielding harvests of any kind.

I confess to having trouble finding where precisely any good news might be buried in this second week of the Season of Creation. But I think it emerged from both Cain and then Matthew.

The very same God who did not abandon Cain—Cain, the one who killed his own brother—that very same God has also not abandoned us but has given God’s own self to us in Jesus.

Let’s make that standard Christian trope a bit more pointed: God stands in solidarity with us as our own kin.

Some theologians have coined the term “deep incarnation” for this kinship with God. The union of God’s creative Word with Jesus is not just superficial or merely apparent; God is truly united with the human body of Jesus, all the way down, as it were, to the cellular level.

This is what makes the suffering and violent death of Jesus so profound: God’s kinship with us extends to the very depths of human mortality, and all for the sake of love.

Consider this: what if this divine incarnational passion extends also to the land?

What if the depth of God’s loving union with God’s own creation does not end with the human body but embraces the body of Earth herself?

What if we read and heard more regularly the Gospel in exactly those terms?

Week Two in the Season of Creation also gave us a rather strange passage from Matthew’s account of the Gospel. There Jesus compares himself to Jonah, to that ancient prophet who spent three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish.

This is of course a foreshadowing of Jesus being laid in a tomb, but notice the phrase Matthew uses to describe the burial: in the “heart of the earth” (Mt 12:40).

God’s kinship with God’s own creation extends to the very heart of the earth herself, for love and healing and redemption.

I do believe this is good news indeed, but I couldn’t quite connect all these dots, especially how we ought to live in response, until I just happened upon a startling scene in the latest in the Star Trek franchise on television.

The second season of Star Trek: Picard features an episode in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard decides to engage in the tricky business of time travel, to go back in time. The situation was dire, so this dramatic step was needed. As Picard put it, “If we want to save the future, we have to repair the past.”

I nearly fell off my comfy couch when I heard that line so casually spoken. What a wonderful summary of the Gospel, of what God is committed to doing—has done and will do—to ensure a fruitful future!

And that’s exactly what God’s people everywhere are called to do in partnership with God: to repair the past, to heal so many broken lines of kinship.

Among the countless ways to do this, I was recently stumbled across a powerful example recently in the news from the upper Midwest, from a small slice of land in southwest Minnesota.

That small slice of land was the site of the short but often brutal U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. It was also the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history when 38 Dakota Sioux were all hanged at once that year by the U.S. army for participating in that war and after each had undergone a trial that lasted approximately five minutes.

In one of the precipitating events of that 1862 war, one of the Dakota bands was temporarily relocated to a federal facility, also on that same slice of land. Over the course of the subsequent winter months, they were all allowed to starve to death, most of them women and children.

Adding insult to profound injury—still more salt poured in the wound—that slice of land was later turned into state recreational parks with picnic tables, and trails for hiking and snowmobiling, and a river for boating. Local Dakota Sioux were then charged a fee every time they entered that park to visit the grave sites of their ancestors—to visit the ground where the blood of their ancestors cried out to God.

Sadly, little of this story caught my attention—it’s too painfully common in American history—until I read this: in 2021, the State of Minnesota returned more than 200 of those acres of land to the Dakota Sioux, and just this year, the governor and the state legislature returned another park as well.

These gestures of return of course come at a cost—the cost of public recreational facilities and picnic tables and visitor fees. But as President of the Lower Sioux reservation Robert Larson put it, the cost of that land was already paid for by the blood of those who died there.

There are many stories like this from all over the country and the world; we must learn them, and then tell them, for the sake of healing.

As God’s people, if we are indeed committed to a thriving future we must repair the past.

The land knows this; and the land remembers.

“Healing Earth,” Mark Bettis

Born Again to the Love of Trees

This past Sunday, Christians observing the Season of Creation heard from one of the classic creation stories in Genesis (2:4-22). Here at All Saints’ Parish in Saugatuck, we heard Robert Alter’s translation of that passage, a “tale of the heavens and the earth when they were created.”

That passage, in other words, and just like the one in the first chapter of Genesis, is a legend, a myth, a story. That doesn’t mean it’s not true, but it is not a scientific account of how things came to be; it’s a spiritual account of who we are and where we belong in relation to each other, to the wider world of nature, and to God.

This is precisely and tragically what we have forgotten as modern Western people.

The Season of Creation this year begins where the Bible begins, with this powerful reminder from an ancient storyteller of who we are and where we belong.

Notice just a few of the features of this tale of belonging, beginning with a forest. 

I’ve read this story from Genesis many times over the years, and for some reason I never before imagined the Garden of Eden as a forest.

“Natives Playing on the Land,” Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun

Creator God makes the first human from the dirt and then causes the soil to bring forth every tree that is lovely to look at and is good for food. That’s where God places the human—in a forest.

And just like Saugatuck and Douglas, where I work and live, a river was running through that ancient forest. I started to pay much closer attention to rivers when I was living in California and how important they are on a drought-prone landscape.

Soil, water, plants, food—everything that first human needed for life, except for one thing: companions.

As a spiritual account of who we are and where we belong, this ancient story suggests quite directly that companionship is not optional but actually essential, it’s mission-critical for flourishing.

In this era when the Centers for Disease Control has identified loneliness as an epidemic in this society, with a whole host of health consequences, in this era when so many humans feel so isolated, even alienated from the wider world of God’s creation, let’s notice that the first companions of the first human were other animals.

“Adam Naming the Animals,” Barbara Jones

These other animals were not merely resources or commodities, or just a bunch of livestock; these were companions. The first human even gave them names! I don’t mean taxonomic classifications into distinct species, I mean names, like my dear Aussie shepherds Judah and Tyler, and my beloved golden retriever Sydney, and the beagle I grew up with, Ginger.

Perhaps now more than ever, the world today needs a spiritual account of who we are and where we belong with all the other creatures of the same Creator God.

This first week of the Season of Creation draws our attention in that regard to the forest where the first humans began and, I would suggest, to where we must now return—a long overdue homecoming, as it were, to the many forests where we belong.

Back in the 1980s, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture began studying a popular cultural trend of spending time immersed in nature—and especially in forests; people were doing this as a way to address high levels of burnout in the technology industry.

The researchers coined a term for this practice—“forest bathing”—and the results of that study were remarkable. Among people spending even short periods of time in forests, they documented significant improvements in immune system function, notable reductions in blood pressure, accelerated recovery times from surgery, measurable gains in the ability to focus, even among children with ADHD, and also reams of anecdotal evidence about increased energy levels and better moods—and all of this thanks in large measure to the quality of the air generated by the trees, the insects, the fungi, and the mosses.

“Dancing Trees,” Oliver Wong

Having just celebrated Labor Day, giving thanks for a social movement of human beings that vastly improved the conditions for the working poor, among others, let us also give thanks for the shared labor of trees that makes the conditions for life itself on this planet possible.

Trees perform this amazing feat in many ways, not least for the air we breathe in that magical process called photosynthesis that converts carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Air, breath, breeze, wind—these are all equally suitable ways to translate the word we see rendered in the Bible as “Spirit.” John loved making that theological pun, as this season invited us to hear on Sunday from John’s account of the Gospel (3:1-16). “The wind blows where it wills,” Jesus says—that’s the Spirit, the very breath of God, the source of life everywhere on this planet.

It’s the same pun, by the way, made by the ancient storyteller in Genesis. That story begins with the Spirit of God moving over watery chaos like wind—it’s the very same word used to describe God’s own breath filling the nostrils of the first human who then resides in a forest.

As part of this spiritual account of who we are and where we belong, we might take note of what scientists have been learning about trees for several decades now—and it’s mind-blowing.

In his 2015 book The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben, a forester, summarizes beautifully what we have come to understand about trees as truly social beings.

A forest, for example, is not just a collection of individual trees; it’s a community, with older trees supporting younger ones by sharing nutrients. Trees can actually count, learn, and remember. They care for and tend sick members and they warn each other of danger by sending messages through fungal networks—I saw this happening in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains back in California: when one tree succumbed to the drought-driven bark beetle infestation, nearby trees started to produce more sap to protect themselves.

We stand today as a society in need of profound change, a dramatic reorientation of how we see ourselves living on this precious Earth and with her many creatures, including trees and forests. The change we need is so pronounced we should probably borrow the now-classic image from John’s account of the Gospel: we must be born again.

“But how can this be?” Nicodemus says to Jesus. I can’t crawl back into my mother’s womb and start all over. We can’t possibly retool our electrical grid, redesign our whole transportation system, re-evaluate our entire food supply, or reconsider how we live with other species—plant and animal. How can we possibly do all that?  

How? By falling in love.

Evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould once noted that “we will not save what we do not love.”

For God so loved the world…

God saves the world not of anger but only and always out of love. Always and forever for love.

And so the stories we tell about who we are and where we belong must be stories filled with wonder and amazement and gratitude—stories told by people who have fallen in love with the world of God’s creation.

We must tell the kind of stories that sound like we have just been born all over again…

“The Love of God,” Sabrina J. Squires

The Radiance of a Thousand Suns

I have not yet seen the new film about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist for the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb. I did, however, see the world premiere of “Doctor Atomic” produced by the San Francisco Opera back in 2005 (libretto by Peter Sellars, music by John Adams). While not an enthusiastic fan of modern opera, this piece was gripping. Portraying a talented but deeply conflicted man, “Doctor Atomic” invites us into a space of distressing contradictions—the brilliance of human ingenuity and the terrifying brilliance of a weapon of mass destruction.  

It’s worth remembering that the site in New Mexico where the first atomic bomb was tested in July of 1945 was called “Trinity.” Oppenheimer himself chose that name for the site based on a sonnet by sixteenth-century-century poet John Donne. “Batter my heart, three person’d God,” Donne wrote, and Oppenheimer apparently imagined this line as a form of penance, remorseful for having unleashed such destructive power in the world.  

The blast and cloud from the Trinity test site, July 1945

In the opera, Oppenheimer recites Donne’s text as he waits for the bomb’s detonation. He takes Donne’s plea that God would “break, blow, and burn” as his own hope that God would cleanse him of sin, but also at the same time as a description of the terrifying power of the bomb he himself had largely made possible—a bomb to break, blow, and burn everything in its path.

Oppenheimer recalled a line from the Hindu scriptures at the precise moment of the Trinity site explosion. It was a line spoken by the god Vishnu about his power to destroy. As he described that scene in a later interview, Oppenheimer noted the reactions of those around him in the moments immediately following the detonation: “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that one way or another.” (I highly recommend seeing and hearing Oppenheimer himself speak those lines.)  

I am reflecting on all this not only because of the new Oppenheimer film just released but also because, for many years now, I have thought about him and these intertwined strands of religious poetry nearly every summer. It just so happens that the first atomic weapon was detonated on August 6 in 1945, over Hiroshima, on the very same day as the Feast of the Transfiguration on the Christian liturgical calendar.

How can we possibly commemorate the transfigured splendor of Jesus (Luke 9), dazzling white, on a day when the skies over a Japanese city likewise sizzled with unimaginable brightness? Oppenheimer remembers thinking of still more lines from the Bhagavad Gita shortly after the Trinity test was complete: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.”  

“Transfiguration of Jesus,” Armando Alemdar Aar

These are nearly unbearable tensions: human creativity and human violence; religious poetry and military strategy; the divine glory of Beloved Jesus and the horrific “glory” of atomic fission. I confronted those tensions shortly after I became an Episcopalian, when I was eager to adopt a spiritual practice rooted in the rhythms of the church year. Realizing this confluence of dates, of Transfiguration and Hiroshima, was certainly dismaying to make back then, and yet also a vital reminder that religion and culture are actually inseparable. Keeping our religious observances somehow free from cultural “taint” is not only impossible, it’s not even desirable. Our religious faith and spiritual practice are meant to help us engage more directly and deeply with the wider society, even when—and especially when—it’s troubling.  

As Christians gather this Sunday for worship, on August 6, the lectionary will invite us once more to imagine transfigured splendor. But do what do we really wish to say about glory in a world of unrelenting violence? Surely by now something other than the triumph of the church itself, and please not yet again the “shock and awe” of military victories, nor certainly not the taming and colonizing of wild spaces on this “fragile earth, our own island home” that too often passes for human “glory.”

What if “glory” resides in a human face, with each act of compassion, at every moment of kindness offered toward a stranger, when vulnerability becomes an occasion for care, and earth itself is “crammed with heaven” and “every common bush afire with God,” as Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote? I dare say, that would be a glory readily praised and one we could quite literally live with.

The Gate of Heaven on a Groaning Earth

The water is delectable in ways I find hard to describe. A week ago, I finally took my first plunge of the summer season into the Big Lake along the shoreline of Oval Beach; the water feels like home.

It’s a mistake to suppose that all the water on this planet is exactly the same. The difference between fresh water and salt water is only just the beginning of the differences. The water in every lake and river is distinctive; every body of water has its own peculiar mineral content, and sediment saturation, and oxygen concentration.

I don’t know any of those details about the water in Lake Michigan, but it does feel like I’m swimming in my own DNA—probably because I was born not far from these waters and so were both of my parents. Something about this great lake has shaped my own bodily life, and I can feel it whenever I swim in it.  

The lectionary gave us a wonderful story from Genesis yesterday about this sense of place—about the significance of particular places (Gen. 28:10-19). Jacob falls asleep in a desert and dreams of a ladder with angels on it. Upon waking, he declares that place “the gate of Heaven.” He then assembles a stone pillar in that place and names it Bethel—the “house of God.”  

Biblical writers pay careful attention to places, often finding or creating spiritual insights from how places are named. A classic example comes from Matthew, who portrays a pregnant Mary migrating with Joseph to Bethlehem—which means the “house of bread”—where Jesus would be born in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Matthew later shows Jesus at table offering bread to his friends. “This is my body,” he declares (Mt. 26:26). Born in a feeding trough on the outskirts of the House of Bread, Jesus presents himself as bread—just as he does here every Sunday at the Eucharistic Table.  

God always shows up not just everywhere all at once but in particular places: while Abraham sits by the “oaks of Mamre” (Gen. 18:1); as the Israelites pause on the edge of the Red Sea (Ex. 14:1-2); as Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River (Mt. 3:13-17); and where John sits on the Island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9) to receive his apocalyptic revelations.  

Temples, altars, sanctuaries, sacred forests, holy ground—places of divine encounter are all around us, and not only inside our churches. Even so, I still kiss the Eucharistic table when I approach it during worship and I genuflect before the tabernacle when I open it—not because I think Christ is present only in these places but because it reminds me that Christ is present at every table set with hospitable grace and the love of justice.  

Honoring and respecting these religious spaces can help us notice how physical, material places carry and convey the very presence of God.  

This emphasis on physical places sounds very strange to most modern, Western Christians; we don’t usually think this way about our faith. The last three centuries of Western society have instead shaped generations of people with a disembodied faith, disconnected from the physical world we inhabit, separated from the land, even from our own bodies.  

What the lectionary has been giving many Christians these last few weeks from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans has certainly contributed to that tendency, and for some the firm conviction that the material world of God’s creation stands opposed to life in the Spirit—the material and the spiritual realms not merely in tension with each other but in open conflict.  

That has become such a commonplace reading of Paul’s letter that it is rather shocking to realize that Paul meant precisely the opposite: the material world of God’s creation thrives because it’s imbued with the very Spirit of God.  

Body and soul, flesh and spirit—these belong together, inseparably united. Moreover, deadly consequences happen when they are divided, and that is precisely what the modern Western world has done with the vital ecosystems of Earth, treating them as a lifeless warehouse of resources for us to use or, quite literally, to burn.  

If Paul were writing this letter today he would likely have much more to say about how deeply God’s entire creation is groaning (Rom. 8:22-23).  

“The Whole Creation Groans,” Claudio Rossetti

That’s such a moving image, especially since Paul is referring to the kind of “groaning” that accompanies childbirth. The whole creation groans with “labor pains,” he says, struggling to give birth, eagerly anticipating the “redemption of our bodies.”

It sounds like he’s mixing metaphors, doesn’t it? Childbirth and redemption don’t seem to belong together, but I think Paul is inviting us to consider how they really should.   

Christians have always wrestled with just how far God’s saving reach extends beyond our own bodies—to the bodies of our companion animals, perhaps, or to the wild ones in our fields and forests and seas, or how about to all the surging bodies of water that cover most of this planet?  

St. Augustine, back in the fourth century, just couldn’t bring himself to imagine such an extensive divine reach. “Creation” in Paul’s letter, he says, refers only to the material parts of human bodies.  

A few centuries later, Medieval mystic and theologian Hildegard of Bingen begs to differ. We might refer to her as “The Abbess of Earth” as her poetic visions and musical compositions invite us to imagine Earth in every respect and in every atom vibrating with divine energy: the wind is God’s breath; the water is God’s blood; we touch the very presence of God’s own body in the hills and valleys and mountains—just as we do in the bread and wine at the Eucharistic Table.  

I find such a vision both enticing and terrifying. It’s actually easier and feels safer to keep Heaven ensconced at the top of the ladder, or to suppose that the ladder itself is our escape hatch from a world on fire. To suppose instead that the heavenly sanctuary sits on our own doorstep demands quite a bit more from us, right here and right now.  

Or as David Wallace-Wells recently noted in the New York Times: “it is always comforting to believe disasters are far away, unfolding elsewhere,” never quite touching our own place.    

Smoke from Canadian wildfires in New York, June 2023

But when Canada burns, we choke on the smoke—if ever there was a moment to recognize in more compelling ways the deep interconnections of all things, this is it.

Perhaps what is struggling to be born in the world today is a deeper consciousness of God’s own presence, not far away or in some distant future but in each and every ecosystem of Earth right now—and this would be the redemption of our bodies, of all bodies.  

This is the hope to which Paul is drawing our attention in this richly packed chapter of his letter to the Romans. It’s a hopeful and yet unseen energy that animates all things. And I think God is calling the Church to make that hope visible, tangible, present, and believable.  

The world of God’s creation groans in anticipation of that hope made true and real. And I can think of no more urgent or thrilling mission to join, nor any work more vital and important than that.  

Every Christian community gathered in their particular places, in their churches on Sunday mornings, can and now must say with Jacob: this is the House of God, and we stand at the Gate of Heaven—Heaven on Earth, as it was always meant to be.

“Peaceable Kingdom 2,” John August Swanson

Divine Alternatives

Wilfred Owen was a British poet, born of Welsh descent in the late nineteenth century. He was best known in his young life for his poems about World War I.

He wrote most of his more than 80 poems in just slightly over one year, from August 1917 to September 1918, while on the front lines of that war. In November of that year he was killed in action in Northern France at the age of 25, just one week before the Armistice.

Owen experimented with a variety of images to convey the horrors of war, especially what transpired in the trenches of the First World War—let’s not forget that by the end of 1914, just five months into that war, more than four million men had already been killed or wounded in those trenches.

In one of his attempts to write about that war Owen turned to the harrowing story from Genesis about Abraham and the near-sacrifice of Isaac, his beloved son (Gen. 22:1-14). Here is what Wilfred Owen wrote:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

To our horror, the poem’s ending differs from the biblical story; Isaac is not spared—the offspring of Europe are not spared.

Perhaps more horrifying still, and just like the biblical version, there was a way out. God provided an alternative path—as Owen described it, to sacrifice their pride—and that path was not taken.

Owen shocks his readers with the violent ending hoping they would be equally horrified by their own actions—or inaction concerning war. He was convinced that war subverts everything we hold dear as human beings: goodness, justice, empathy, and compassion. Owen subverts the ending of the biblical story to make his point about what war itself subverts and destroys.

The iconic story from Genesis appears repeatedly in Christian history. Most of the theologians writing in the first five centuries of Christian traditions, for example, chose to read this story from Genesis symbolically. Abraham and Isaac arrived to the place of sacrifice on the “third day”; this represents the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Or it refers to the day of resurrection after Christ has been sacrificed on the wood of the cross—the very wood Isaac himself carries, who is himself a symbol of Jesus, who carried his own cross to his death…and so on.

While I whole-heartedly endorse symbolic language in our faith traditions, I also worry sometimes that symbols themselves divert us from the actual story right in front of us.

Abraham was poised to kill his dear son, the one he thought would never be born, and the one through whom God had promised to bless the world—Abraham nearly killed him, but he did not, and God prevented it.

“Binding of Isaac,” Abel Pann

Right there is the key to this story, especially when we keep its ancient Mediterranean context in view. In many of those societies, child sacrifice was not uncommon as a way to secure the favor of the gods—whether for a good harvest, victory over enemies, or prosperity for your extended family.

This story, foundational to Israelite history, suggests that Israel’s God is not like all the others. Israel’s God wants violence to end, and provides an alternative.  

That’s exactly why Abraham calls the mountain where this happened, “The Lord will provide,” or as I heard that phrase growing up, Jehovah jireh! That’s a rough, Anglicized vocalization of the Hebrew phrase in this story—the Lord will provide.

Notice the significance of that confidence in this story: even when your course of action seems wise, or prudent, even socially expected, perhaps the only one imaginable, God will nonetheless provide an alternative—and in this case, it saves Isaac’s life.

This story of Abraham embracing God’s alternative still matters, perhaps now more than ever, especially given Wilfred Owen’s brilliant and deeply troubling insight about the human condition: even when we believe God will provide—even when we see the alternative with our own eyes—we won’t take it; inevitably, we choose our own path, even when it’s violent.

Inevitably? Really? Oh, I really want to reject that, which is what worries nearly everyone who reads Owen’s poem. He doesn’t question whether God provides; he wonders whether we will ever take what God provides! Today that quandary applies no less compellingly or urgently in the war we are currently waging against the ecosystems that give us life.

Embedded in a resource-extracting, profiteering, consumerist economy of relentless commodification, Jehovah jireh! God provides a way out—why aren’t we taking it?

Factory farming is simply today’s default standard for our food supply—the daily, hourly torture of thousands of sentient, living beings—Jehovah jireh! God provides alternatives; why aren’t we embracing them?

Meanwhile, the world runs on the burning of fossil fuels—Jehovah jireh! God provides a host of alternatives; but we aren’t adopting them, even while we choke on the smoke of our own fires.

Yes, I know all those instances of “we” are problematic. So whom do I mean?

I mean “we” as individuals, and also “we” as members of Christian churches, and also we the citizens of the United States of America, and yes, We the People—not we the corporations, not we the CEOs, not we the political action committees, not we the lobbyists, but we the people, who once upon a time declared our independence from an empire for the sake, we said, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We European Americans declared that independence nearly 250 years ago, and as members of the Body of Christ today, we have something to say about that agenda: the life must be for all beings on this planet and not just some, and that liberty must include every demographic category we can possibly ever imagine, and happiness should never come at the cost of anyone else’s wellbeing—true delight is shared, not owned.

Perhaps as we celebrate Independence Day this week, we might notice that God provided an alternative to the way things had always been done back in the eighteenth century. Some courageous souls stepped up and followed it.

It’s time we stepped up again, especially as the Body of Christ in a world that is unraveling and in pain.

The way we have done things in the past will not serve us in the future, nor even now.

The God who provided an alternative to the sacrifice of Isaac continues to provide alternatives today, and also the courage and companions we need to follow those alternatives.

This week invites the perfect occasion for giving thanks for such a generous God—Jehovah jireh!—and then, for the love of everything good, and true, and beautiful, to live like we believe it.

“Abraham and Isaac,” Alissa Kim Tjen

The Sword-Wielding Jesus at the Stonewall Rebellion

This past Sunday, many Christians heard a troubling portion of Matthew’s account of the Gospel (10:24-39). Jesus apparently disavows peace-making, takes up a sword, and promises to divide families.

Like so many others, I have struggled with this passage for many years. To be clear, wrestling with the texts and traditions of Christian faith can be a very good thing indeed, but Jesus is certainly pushing against the edges of our comfort zone in that particular text. He is, it seems to me, provoking us to consider seriously what it means to live authentically and openly, truthfully and with vulnerability—what is hidden, he says, will become known, and what is only whispered in the dark will be shouted from the rooftops.

In this last week of June, of this LGBTQ Pride Month, what Jesus describes and its consequences resonates in some startling ways with the Stonewall Rebellion.

Recall this: back in the 1960s that gay bars were secretive places, often unmarked, where respectable people should not be seen. These taverns were routinely raided by the police, their patrons arrested, and many careers and whole lives ruined as a result.

One of those bars, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, the Stonewall Inn, was a gathering spot for those on the margins of this marginalized population, like transgender youth.

The Stonewall Inn, 1960s

In the early hours of June 28, 1969, those who had gathered at the Stonewall resisted arrest and fought back against the police—they were tired of hiding in the shadows and had grown weary of whispering in the dark. For their own self-respect and God-given dignity, they started shouting their lives from the rooftops. This led to several days of unrest on the streets of New York and energized a brand new chapter for LGBT civil rights; that’s why we have “Pride Month” in June.

Many of those on the streets that night had been rejected by their biological families; more than a few of them were homeless—and this still happens today. Out of necessity they created what many of us would later call “families of choice.” They had to re-learn how to care for each other, what it means to love each other, and to cultivate relationships that would redeem for them the very concept of family.

With still more biblical resonance with modern society, many of us also heard a heartbreaking story this past Sunday about redefining “family” in the ongoing saga of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 21:8-21). The surprising birth of Isaac suddenly made their household a rather awkward place for Hagar, their servant, with whom Abraham had already sired a child, Ishmael.

“Hagar and Ishmael,” Abel Pann

Sarah insists that Hagar and her child be put out, cast off, and sent into exile. In that ancient Mediterranean society, Sarah was likely well within her rights to demand this—Hagar was their slave, and Ishmael would have been Isaac’s rival. Abraham and Sarah might have done these things believing they were cooperating with God’s own promise of blessing.

Even so, let us not fail to notice how God cares for Hagar and Ishmael nonetheless, sending an angel to ensure their survival in the wilderness. This is of course a recurring thread in biblical traditions: regardless of cultural norms, God cares for the cast-away and the abandoned ones—both the queer youth and the single mom alike.

Not long after the Stonewall Rebellion, and not surprisingly, more than a few religious leaders started calling for a return to “biblical family values.” Quite honestly, I have to wonder whether any of them actually read the Bible.

Ancient Israel’s patriarchs often lived with more than one wife—or sired children with their slaves; the biblical story about wise King Solomon suggests that one of the reasons we know he was blessed by God is that he had over 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).

In the Christian Testament of the Bible, Jesus himself is apparently unmarried and childless—a very unusual social status in that day for a religious teacher, a rabbi. St. Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians to remain single, just like he is; if you really have to get married, he says, that’s acceptable but certainly not ideal (1 Cor. 7:8-9).

So which of these family values in the Bible are we supposed to adopt today?

That’s entirely the wrong question to ask, of course. We should be asking today’s religious leaders directly what they mean by “biblical family values.” In my experience, that religious rhetoric is coded language for two interrelated things: rejecting gay and lesbian relationships, and keeping women in the home, where they are subservient to their husbands.

Let me underscore that these coded aims are interrelated. Resistance to gay and lesbian relationships has never been about whom human beings can love; the resistance has always been about gender, and especially maintaining (white) male privilege. Today, transgender people are bearing the brunt of this violent resistance rather acutely (75% of transgender youth, for example, feel unsafe at school). More succinctly put: homophobia has always been rooted in misogyny.

Rather than wondering how we might adopt so-called “family values” it’s high time the Church devote its entire attention to cultivating “Gospel values”—how we sustain a community of courage as we strive for peace with justice; a community of care by embracing the outcast and marginalized; and a community of compassion as we try to ensure that no one ever again needs to be afraid or alone on the streets of our towns and cities.

Without question, Matthew’s Jesus would applaud that list of Gospel values. But, he would also say urge us to notice that there’s something missing from that list: truth-telling.

Whatever is covered up, he says, must be uncovered; whatever secrets you harbor, must become known; and what I say to you in the dark, what is now only whispered, you must proclaim from the housetops.

Telling the truth about our lives, our communities, our politics, our economics—this is what will free us, and save us, and lead the whole planet toward healing and thriving.

Needless to say, truth-telling is challenging when denial feels easier in a society committed to superficial harmonies. Surely everyone knows what it’s like to keep the peace with polite avoidance. Matthew’s Jesus is clear this morning: he wants nothing to do with that kind of “peace.”

I have come, he says, to inspire the courage of truth-telling, which will feel like wielding a sword. Telling the truth, coming out, taking sides, standing in solidarity—these are risky endeavors, all of them, because they will cost us something. They might cost us some friends, our reputations, a few family members, our positions of comfort, our favorite seats at the restaurant, perhaps even our lives.

It really doesn’t matter if you’re straight, white, black, queer, trans, indigenous, lesbian, gay, bisexual, none of these or all of them depending on the day of the week—whoever you are, the sword-wielding Jesus at the Stonewall Rebellion is urging all of us along a path of courageous truth-telling in a society devoted to lies and deception.

To be sure, that path can be scary; that’s one of the many reasons I’m grateful for the Eucharistic Table, where Christians can gather with each other and find the grace and love and support we need to live the truth.

Yes of course this is scary; but also worthwhile. It might actually be worth absolutely everything, which seems to be the point of this deeply troubling and still hopeful passage from Matthew’s account of the Gospel: when you lose your life by following Jesus, that’s when you find it.

“It was Beautiful (Stonewall),” Doug Blanchard

Amusing Grace and Biblical Sodomy

The season after Pentecost is dedicated in many ways to mission—to God’s mission in the world, a mission in which God calls the Church  (among others) to participate.

The portion read in Church this week from Matthew’s account of the Gospel is a classic instance of that mission as  Jesus sends out his disciples to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom. “Cure the sick,” he said, “raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons!”

That’s quite a mission statement—and not a little daunting.

“And Sarah Laughed Within,” Abel Pann

Meanwhile, Sarah laughed.

Sometimes, participating in God’s radical mission of revolutionary love can feel ludicrous, like we’ve walked on stage in some theater of the absurd.

And so many also heard the story in church this weekend about Sarah laughing. She laughed quietly but she laughed nonetheless when God said she would bear a child (Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7).

Now, if you’re not merely a post-menopausal woman but you’re actually ninety years old and you’re told you would soon give birth, I think you’d laugh, too.

By the way, Abraham also laughed about this. In the chapter from Genesis before the one about Sarah, the 100-year-old Abraham actually fell on his face laughing when God told him he would have a child!

I would call this the “sacred laughter” of the Kingdom of God, a truly amusing grace, and I want to focus some attention on it. But we need to clear away some obstacles first, especially from that passage in Matthew’s account of the Gospel, which is no laughing matter (Matthew 9:35-10:8-16).

As Matthew’s Jesus sends out his disciples, he tells them that if any town will not receive them, “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than it will be for that town.”

In this LGBT Pride Month, it’s so vital for all church-goers to understand that every LGBT-identified person of faith feels their stomach churn whenever they hear those words—“Sodom and Gomorrah.” We must not treat this kind of religious language lightly, especially in places where LGBT people are eager and even desperate to find hospitality, welcome, and safety.

So let’s be perfectly clear: it does not feel safe to be in a religious space and be reminded of the story in Genesis when God destroyed those ancient cities with a storm of fire and brimstone, of burning sulfur. That story has been used to condemn lesbian and gay people and damn them to hell—and it quite conveniently comes pre-packaged with a popular image of the fires of hell itself.

“The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,” John Martin

Countless preachers have used that story from Genesis as a religious weapon, terrorizing and traumatizing their congregations. Every year, a horrifying number of LGBT youth take their own lives because of it—one would be too many.

Connecting the fate of Sodom with particular sexual acts even made its way into modern legal terminology. Still today the concept of “sodomy” is used in roughly 65 countries to criminalize lesbian and gay relationships; in eleven of those countries, the penalty is death.

In this country, sodomy laws were still on the books in some states and even enforced as recently as 2003 when the U. S. Supreme Court finally overturned them.

These religious and legal entanglements are so seamlessly woven into our cultural idioms that many of us scarcely think twice or even notice when they show up in jokes or in sitcoms or casually tossed into political speeches.

Back in 1966 John Huston directed a film called “The Bible…In the Beginning,” a classic Hollywood epic depicting the first 22 chapters of Genesis. The film won several awards, including for best director and even an Academy Award for best musical score.

The segment in that film about Sodom and Gomorrah portrays every single resident of those ancient twin cities as limp-wristed, effeminate, lisping gay men—those stereotypes are emblazoned on our shared cultural memory and they are a constant source of violence even though nothing about those stereotypes bears any resemblance whatsoever to the biblical story; that scene in the film is actually more about the misogyny of modern Western society than it is about the Bible!

Many people find this shocking, but it’s true: the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction is not about gay men; it’s not even about sex!

When biblical writers make reference to that story in Genesis—as Matthew did—they are concerned primarily with a grotesque violation of hospitality, persistent patterns of injustice, and physical violence.

The ancient Hebrew prophet Ezekiel could not be clearer in that regard: “This was the guilt of…Sodom,” he wrote; they lived with “hubris, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (16:49).

As more than a few commentators have suggested, interpreting “sodomy” as the behavior of a small sexual minority is easier and more comfortable than to suppose this ancient story might actually be directly related to our own economic system and a community’s collective failure to live hospitably and with justice.

Perhaps this is why Matthew’s Jesus refers to Sodom and Gomorrah as he sends his disciples out as emissaries of God’s Kingdom, to do the work of hospitality, and healing, and justice-making. And perhaps this could help us interpret for our own day what Jesus means by “curing the sick, and raising the dead, and cleansing lepers, and casting out demons.”

It might mean that God is calling us to soothe the hearts of those who are made sick from their social exclusion; or to notice just how toxic racial hatred can be as it kills the human spirit; or to rescue those shunted to the margins and treated like lepers just because of whom they love or how they understand their own gender; participating in God’s mission of reconciling love might mean naming and rebuking the demonic spirits of division and animosity that keep us from even just talking to each other in this country.

And don’t forget—Sarah laughed.

And Abraham fell on his face laughing.

I would call this “sacred laughter”—perhaps not at first in this story, when they laughed because of the absurdity of God’s promise, but over time when they laugh because of God’s astonishing grace, the grace that always exceeds our most reasonable expectations.

We know and touch this grace ourselves whenever we laugh in the midst of our tears, trusting God’s grace to transform what we cannot bear into something we cannot imagine.

I love that Sarah and Abraham’s child was given the name Isaac, which means “laughter.” This naming is God’s own embrace of tears and laughter mixed together into something called joy.

I think the world wants exactly this kind of life, and yearns for it—a life where we can acknowledge our pain and sorrow and name it with each other precisely because we’re on a road together toward healing and wholeness, and a road toward that great and wonderful day when our tears and laughter blend seamlessly together into the joy of God’s presence.

I think the world longs for a community devoted to curing the sick, and cleansing lepers, and casting out demons—a community where God raises us up, all of us, from death to life with an amazing grace and laughing hearts.

There’s really no time to waste. The world really wants to believe this is true—and the Church needs to show that it is.

“Sarah Laughed,” Yael Harris Resnick

The Courage to Be…Seen

The pain must have been debilitating. She had been living with it for a long time, at least twelve years. Gospel writers referred to her condition as a “hemorrhage”; they are likely describing frequent and uncontrollable menstrual periods, which would have made such a woman ritually unclean, and thus forbidden to appear in public.

Many Christians heard her story in church this past Sunday, from Matthew’s account of the Gospel (9:9-13, 18-26). The story features not only physical but also social pain—a woman who is isolated, without the comfort of friends and family. Both Mark and Luke, who also tell this story, note that she had spent all her money on multiple physicians, and no one had made her any better—so she is perhaps also a poor beggar.

“Healing Touch,” Robert Wright

And so this woman, who has run out of options, alone and dejected, reaches out as Jesus passes by, just to touch the fringe of his garments with a bit of ludicrous hope.

Consider what those details mean. She was probably crouched down by the side of the road; she wasn’t supposed to be seen and she certainly should not have approached a group of prominent men—not only Jesus and his disciples but also the leader of the synagogue and his companions.

And so she reaches out—in desperation, yes, but also with courage. Touching Jesus could have led to severe social consequences for her, and still she reaches out.

As many commentators have noted, the good news in this story is not only this woman’s physical healing but also and even more so the restoration of her dignity. Jesus made her visible with respect, brought her into the center of attention, not for shaming but to heal her shame. He does all this not merely tolerating her presence but actually praising her as an exemplar of faith.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, her story is paired with another poignant story—the one about the young girl who has died, the daughter of a religious leader in the community.

By pairing these two stories, these ancient writers show us something about faith. In each of the three versions of this story, Jesus says to the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

Given what she has just done, the meaning of faith here is not “certainty” but rather bravery. “Daughter,” Jesus could have said, “your courage has made you well.”

It is a bit strange but no accident that Jesus refers to this woman as “daughter.” Remember, he’s on his way to the home of a religious leader whose daughter has just died—these stories are intentionally intermingled.

Recall how often Jesus is getting into trouble with the religious authorities—“eating with tax collectors and sinners.” Just like this woman who reaches out with courage for healing, so this religious leader, heartbroken over his daughter, breaks ranks with his colleagues and courageously begs Jesus for help.

Paul Tillich, the great mid-twentieth century theologian, urged us to see faith as a form of courage, what he called the “courage to be.” For Tillich, the life of faith is a life in which we accept our own acceptance by God and thus live boldly, defying all the “principalities and powers” that would rob God’s creatures of their dignity and respect. I would add this: faith is also the courage to be seen, especially when we are made invisible by others.

It matters to think about such things during this LGBTQ Pride Month. We should note carefully that the Human Rights Campaign has for the first time declared a “national state of emergency” for LGBTQ Americans.

We are witnessing today an unprecedented spike in anti-LGBTQ legislation in state houses all over the country; more than 75 such pieces of legislation have been signed into law this year alone, which is more than double the number from last year.

This frightening trend is unfolding right where I live, in my own backyard. A far-right takeover of Ottawa County government by Christian Nationalists is making both queer people and people of color more than a little nervous. And along this otherwise “progressive” shoreline in West Michigan, I just recently overheard a conversation among some business owners in Saugatuck—an LGBT resort town. One of them said to the others, “I’m glad they spend their money here; I just don’t want to see them.”

It is high time that Christian communities ramp up our commitment to deeper solidarity with those who are unseen and kept invisible, whether because of sexuality, or gender, or race, or economics; all of these social categories are intertwined with each other. To see those deep interconnections would in turn help us to read stories from the Bible as not merely about ancient Mediterranean societies but also about us, all of us.

“If Only by the Hem,” Chris Cook

St. Augustine wrote in the fourth century about the passage from Matthew’s account of the Gospel. He invited us to see in the daughter of the religious leader a symbol of the ancient Israelites—who were being reborn and coming to life—while the woman with a hemorrhage stands for Gentiles, all those who are declared “unclean” on the margins of God’s people and who are now welcomed and embraced.

Gospel stories about healing are never just about the person being healed. They are also about the reader, about us. We are the ones who need to live right now with the courage to be in a world that is otherwise risky and frightening.

We are called to live this way not only for ourselves alone but also for all those who cannot imagine such courage for themselves—the gay teens who wonder whether suicide wouldn’t be better than a lonely life; women who live only as the objects of male scorn in a patriarchal society; people of color crushed under the weight of white supremacy.

Quite honestly, modern Western society has been in a “state of emergency” for centuries now unless you just happen to be a white, straight, cis-gender male.

Living courageously—living with faith—offers visible signs of hope to the unseen, coaxing them into a Gospel light.

This, I would venture, is a compelling way to read the story of Abraham’s calling in Genesis, which many Christians also heard this past Sunday morning. “I will bless you,” God says to Abraham, so that you will be a blessing to others (12:2).

Surely this is an enduring rationale for the existence of the Church—to receive God’s blessing for the sake of blessing others. And especially today, to be a place of compassion and safety where the invisible can be seen and loved. The time to do this is now.

“Such is the Kingdom,” Daniel Bonnell

Living as Ikons of God

And it was good.
And it was good.
And it was very good.

“Trinity,” Rom Isichei

There are still four more instances of that declaration of goodness in the first account of God’s creation of the world in Genesis, and many Christians heard all seven of them this past weekend when we celebrated Trinity Sunday.

What does it mean to call something “good”? What makes something “good” and how can we discern when it is? And why would it matter so much to repeat this refrain of goodness so often in the story of creation?

I’m guessing that human beings have not changed so terribly much over the last few thousand years. Just like today, humans in the ancient Mediterranean world likely thought something was “good” when it was good for them; something’s good when we can use it, or sell it, or trade it for something else; we become the standard for what’s considered “good.” I cannot help but think of how often I called my dear dog Judah a good boy simply because he obeyed me!

So perhaps it’s time to notice again (or for the first time) that all but one of the declarations of goodness in the first chapter of Genesis occur before humans even existed. Six out of seven times, God’s creation is declared good without any reference to human beings.

The whole creation itself is thoroughly good—whether it’s useful to us or not.

Well, that’s rather rude, isn’t it? Don’t we count for anything? Yes, we do, and much more so than most of us have dared to imagine—and sometimes more than we want to believe. To be described as “very good”—as humans were in that story—comes with some responsibilities.

John of Damascus, a monk and theologian of the seventh century, was embroiled in what came to be known as the “iconoclast controversy.” This was a vigorous debate about whether it is appropriate to have icons, or visual images, in churches.

John was an ardent supporter of icons and actually cited a familiar verse from Genesis to support his case: “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image…”

John would have been reading the Greek version of that passage, and in Greek that phrase—“in the image of God”—reads as the icon of God.

The human face as an icon of God! Shouldn’t this take our breath away? My face, and your face, and every single human face we see, all of them, icons of the God who made us!

And so, John of Damascus says, if you degrade and denigrate and reject visual images, you offend the artist—and in this case, the artist is God.

I think a lot these days about the visual arts, living and working as I do on what many call the “arts coast” of Michigan. We Christians actually have a lot to say and to offer, from our own Christian traditions, about the importance of visual images, the spiritual depth of art as it connects us to Creator God, the very source of creativity itself.

We might also note, rather urgently, that the stakes are rather high in this shared artistic endeavor with God. John of Damascus goes on to note something else about that familiar passage in Genesis. We are created not only in the image but also the likeness of God.

Those are not the same words; in fact, in Greek the word “likeness” is not a noun but a process, not a state of being but a state of becoming.

We are created in God’s image, yes, but we’re still on the way toward God’s likeness.

To be human is to be engaged in a profound process of assimilating to God, of resembling the One who made us, of being constantly formed and transformed into the divine creatures God intended to make from the very beginning.

The choices we make in this life shape the course of that journey; that’s why the stakes are so high, and that’s why visual artists can help us.

Visual artists can help us see at least a bit more clearly the imprint of God not only in our own faces, but also in the faces of those who are different from us, even different species, and in Earth herself. And by seeing more clearly the presence of God all around us and among us and in us and in each other, hopefully we will act and live differently.

“The Trinity,” Paul Rivas

As we launch into June, LGBTQ Pride Month, we need to see just exactly how high the stakes are for the varieties of gendered sexualities in the human race. Beyond the usual platitudes—“love is love” or “we embrace diversity”—we need to see much more clearly that those who do not conform to the standards of White Patriarchy are increasingly at risk of serious physical harm, especially with easily accessible firearms.

This risk pertains no matter where we happen to live or work or play in this country, from shopping malls and suburban streets, to national parks and urban office buildings—and this risk continues for black and brown people, just as it always has been present for women.

And still, it was good.

Everything depends on the goodness of God’s creation, and therefore on the goodness of God—a divine goodness in which we are invited to participate ever more fully.

That’s a key word—participation—for a celebration of the Trinitarian character of God. Rather than some abstract metaphysical doctrine, affirming God as Trinity is meant to draw us ever deeper into the never-ending mystery of God’s own life of self-giving, reciprocal love.

Returning to John of Damascus for a moment, he used a mostly untranslatable Greek word to describe this Trinitarian mystery of God—the word is perichoresis.

Some scholars have noted that there is at least a trace of our word “choreography” in that Greek term. John apparently was inviting us to think about the Trinitarian relationships of God like a cosmic dance—and if you’ve ever been swept away by the alluring rhythms of a tango or the gracefulness of a waltz, the energy often spills off the dancefloor and you can feel it pulsating across your skin, rumbling in your muscles, your heartrate rising.

“Lakota Trinity,” John Giuliani

And that, John of Damascus said, is how God creates. The creative energy and fertile relationality of God’s own life just spills over, as it were, and the whole Universe comes into existence—the whole cosmos itself as an unimaginable dance of evolving, changing, glorious life.

That mutual and eternal exchange of divine energy among the divine persons makes it impossible to tell the dancers from the dance and the dance itself is endless, deathless love—that’s the Holy Trinity, a doctrine that could actually change the world!

The very source of creativity itself is swirling all around us and in us and among us—our very faces the ikons of Creator God as we journey into God’s own likeness, from one degree of glory to another—world without end!

Now…let’s live as if this were true.

Heaven and Earth are One

See the Conqueror mounts in triumph; see the King in royal state…

Those are the opening phrases of a hymn often used for the seventh Sunday of Easter, when many churches hear about the Ascension of Jesus, the story of the risen Christ being lifted up and taken by a cloud into Heaven.

“Ascension of Jesus,” Greg Blanco

We used a revised version of that hymn at my parish yesterday morning, with words that portray the rising Jesus not as the one who conquers but the one who saves; and to offer our praise, not for the glory of vanquished foes but of tender hearts.

I am convinced, perhaps more than ever, that such differences make a difference in today’s world—especially among those of us who are eager to make Christian worship matter for a world in pain.    

The older and more typical images for the Ascension—images of conquest and of the totalizing power of monarchy—reflect particular cultural assumptions. The original version of the hymn I just noted, for example, was written by Christopher Wordsworth, a nineteenth-century English Bishop, who was writing at the height of the British Empire. The triumph of the risen Jesus, in other words, is the global triumph of Western civilization.

This blending of divine and imperial power offers a cautionary tale about religion itself: it’s never merely benign or neutral. Even well-intentioned people can mingle religious institutions and cultural customs in harmful ways. More severely, religious symbols can be appropriated for nefarious and violent purposes.

Nearly every religious tradition has fallen prey to this kind of appropriation over the centuries. And it’s happening today, in this country and others, under the banner of “White Christian Nationalism.”

I am not referring to all forms of patriotic engagement with our civic institutions; I don’t mean “Christian” in the way all churches worship and serve; and I certainly don’t mean to imply that white people are inherently bad.

“White Christian Nationalism” describes a particular cultural movement rooted in authoritarian impulses, divisive and hateful rhetoric, and is increasingly violent. I urged my own parish yesterday morning to take up the vital work of resisting this burgeoning cultural movement, to denounce it, and then bear witness to the transformative love and healing grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

While it seems like a wild stretch to go from the first-century ascension of Jesus to twenty-first century nationalism, religious symbols have always been vulnerable to that kind of political manipulation.

It’s worth noting here some key features of symbols.  Many years ago, when I first started to learn about metaphorical and symbolic speech in Christian theology, it troubled me. I worried that theological symbols made the world of Christian faith less “real” somehow—as many people often say, Oh, that’s just a symbol.

What I have realized about symbols since then is precisely the opposite. Symbolic speech points to a reality so real that our ordinary, everyday language fails us. Whatever we may be trying to consider, perhaps its intimacy is just too close, or the joy too ecstatic, or the grief just too unraveling—in any case, we cannot speak of it directly; we need a symbol.

Gospel writers do this frequently. Many churches heard from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles yesterday morning, for example, when the closest friends of Jesus encounter Easter itself embodied; the risen Jesus is standing before them, and they have no idea what to say (Acts 1:6-11).

All they can manage to do is to look backward, to what they knew in a time gone by—what glory used to be, what fullness of life felt like so long ago, and what happiness might yet be once again.

“So,” they ask Jesus, “is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

That question sounds like such a wild non-sequitur it’s almost funny! But this is exactly the kind of question most of us would ask in a moment like that. Human beings always interpret and understand the world based on our past experiences and expectations. That’s really all we have to go on. Especially in disorienting moments of divine encounter we naturally revert to old patterns and familiar rhythms.

So while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the question these disciples ask the risen Jesus, it just sets the bar far too low for Easter.

When we finally realize that Easter has ushered in a new world, already unfolding before us, with a wider horizon than we could have imagined, a dawn lighted with a brighter sun, we suddenly need a symbol for this, a way to talk about what we cannot possibly comprehend—and so Luke gives us the Ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God in Heaven.

“Ascension,” Wole Lagunju

It’s a beautiful symbol and it makes perfect sense to frame it with triumph. But precisely because “triumphalism” presents a real and present danger in today’s cultural moment, we need alternative frameworks.

We might consider a wonderful line from poet Mary Oliver: “My work,” she says, “is loving the world.” And that means, as she describes it, “mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”

What might happen if we embraced the Ascension of Jesus, not with images of conquest and triumph, but with love and astonishment?

What if we were astounded not only by the spectacular pyro-technics usually associated with heavenly glory, but were also thoroughly amazed just by looking at each other, the nearly unspeakable glory of human faces? What if noticing iris blooming and dogs playing and babies taking their first steps actually took our breath away? Could we hear the wind in the springtime trees and the birds singing their own songs of praise in the early morning and the waves that come rolling up the ancient dunes along stunning shorelines and just stand still, astonished?

I don’t mean that we must choose between the heavenly glory of ascension and a down-to-earth God dwelling among us. To the contrary, the Ascension of Jesus invites us to embrace both and especially how they are inseparably intertwined. Right there is the good news of Luke’s dramatic symbol, of Jesus joining Heaven and Earth, revealing their intimate union.

Heaven is not far off, and Earth is not lost. They are joined, united, woven together in an unimaginable tapestry of divine beauty.

We must live into that vision of union and communion, or we risk abandoning Earth to those whose only desire is to “divide and conquer.”

God calls the Church to live as witnesses to flourishing life and gracious healing and the transformations that come only from love and laughter and all the things we can’t even dare yet to hope for—because Heaven and Earth are one.

And that’s what it means to live as Easter people, people who are loving and astonished.

“Ascension of Christ,” Ed de Guzman