Tag Archives: creation care

Asset or Ally?

married-handsIn our early years of marriage, my husband and I faced a mish-mash of assumptions and theories about what our relationship was supposed to look like, especially in regard to my role as his wife. Before marriage we had been classmates, peers, and debate partners, enjoying the freedom of a relationship built on mutual admiration for each other’s opinions, abilities, and unique contributions to the world. But having said “I do,” I suddenly felt a nagging theological pressure to change the way I related to the same man.

Intruding into our easy friendship came the idea that I should drop a step back and start following him, that I should lay aside my goals and dreams and replace them with his, and that I should suppress my natural tendency towards critical thought and assertive action in order to make sure that he always came out on top. While introducing the element of hierarchy into our heretofore cooperative partnership seemed unnatural, I felt that it was the right thing for me to embrace as a Christian wife. Despite my husband’s protests that this is not why he had married me, I felt that I should live out my created purpose as a woman to be his “helper.”

Much of my confusion came from the way I had always heard the story told of why God made Eve. Looking back on the story from this side of the fall, I assumed that a “helper” is someone of inferior social status who exists for the purposes of someone higher up a chain of command. In a world of hierarchical pecking-orders, it was hard to imagine a working relationship without clearly delineated and regularly exerted indicators of who is in charge. But leaving behind these social assumptions and looking with fresh eyes at how Genesis 2 tells the story of husband and wife, I now see a refreshingly different sort of relationship from the one I had pictured.

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. 5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Long before the lack of a helper suitable for the man comes up in our story, the Bible points out that there was no helper suitable for the ground. God had created the earth and the heavens, but without someone capable of taking care of the ground, there wasn’t much point in planting a garden. So out of the substance that was in need of help, God created a man. From within this telling of the story (which obviously does not encompass the whole range of God’s purposes for humanity), the man’s primary created purpose in being made was to meet the earth’s need for a “helper,” someone who would enable it to fulfill its created purpose and to maximize its full creative potential.

18 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” 19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh.

Similarly, within this telling of the story, the woman’s created purpose was to meet the man’s need for a “helper.” Though the nature of the man’s need was quite different from that of the earth’s, God’s manner of meeting it was surprisingly similar. First He took the man through an interactive learning task to help him discover his need for himself. The man exercised his authority over the animals by determining what they would be called, in a sense assigning them an identity. But as he set about his work, a realization about himself began to dawn. All these other creatures formed from the earth had two versions of themselves. In fact, it was through this diversity that they were each able to fulfill their calling to be fruitful and multiply. Where was his “other?”

So just as God had done for the earth, He completed what was lacking in the man by creating a helper from the very substance that needed help. From the man’s wounded side emerged a version of him more beautifully capable than anything he could have imagined. The word used to describe what she would be to her husband (ezer) is the same word used throughout the Old Testament to describe what God is to His people: a helper or ally (for more on this see Carolyn Custis James’ insightful book Half the Church). She would come to his aid in shouldering along with him the enormous task of governing the rest of creation and of filling the earth with more little images of themselves (and of God).

23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” 24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Genesis 2:4-25

And waking from his death-like sleep, Adam recognized just what a gift he had been given. This wasn’t another animal to rule or govern—her being was of the same substance and nature as his. He acknowledged her equality with himself in what he called her, embracing her as a treasure worth letting go of everything else (including parents) to gain.

Far from the picture of subservience and inferiority that I had assumed, Genesis 2 paints a picture of loving partnership and empowering mutuality between husband and wife. My role as helper to my husband doesn’t lower my status any more than God’s role as our Helper or man’s role as the earth’s helper lowers their positions. If anything, it emphasizes my God-given power, capacity, and responsibility in working alongside my husband to lead and to serve our shared corner of the earth. Yes, it will involve laying aside my “rights” and my independence just as much as God’s service to us required His sacrificial death-to-self, but it does not make me the second-class citizen or the passive follower that I had assumed. Rather, being the kind of wife God made me to be calls me forward to throw the full weight of my gifts, aspirations, and man-power into our shared calling as servant-leaders of God’s creation, whether in our home or out in the world.

And it’s about time I sorted that out–my poor husband has been waiting long enough!

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The Infertility Gospel

Again, Lord?

My heart breaks each time I hear news of a couple losing another unborn child. One loss is enough, but as the death toll rises, grief stacks on grief until hope reaches its breaking point.

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Genesis 3:16

What happened to the promise you made to our first parents? I know that sin didn’t make childbearing easy, but you set our hopes on the fact that we would eventually succeed. After all, isn’t fruitfulness what you created us for?

So God created mankind in his own image… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.
Genesis 1:28

Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
Psalm 8:2

For Christian men and women, the desire to have children is so much more than just starry-eyed dreams of tiny toes and baby announcements. It is the fulfillment of our God-given commission to reproduce little images of ourselves, to love and nurture them as He does us, and to fill the earth with their serving hands and worshiping voices. Our bodies and our hearts long for this like a sculptor’s fingers long for a bit of clay or a writer longs for pen and paper.

So when we give childbearing our best shot, when we once more risk the pain of failure or loss, what are we to think when God doesn’t bless us with a living child? What hope can we cling to for the woman whose womb won’t carry or for the couple who simply can’t conceive?

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
Acts 8:33-35

Strangely, I think this is exactly the issue the Ethiopian eunuch was wrestling with as he pored over Isaiah’s words on the road out of Jerusalem. In them he found a kindred spirit—another Servant whose “life” had been humiliatingly cut off and who found Himself without the honor or joy of offspring. And yet this Man’s story didn’t dead end there. If there was hope for Him, perhaps there was also a way forward for this infertile man.

And somehow the good news about Jesus that Philip was able to explain to the eunuch satisfied that quest. Was the good news simply that Jesus had died to take away his sins, or is there something in the gospel that also addressed the pain and disgrace of his infertility?

…and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great…
Isaiah 53:10-12

Looking further in the passage he had been reading, the answer begins to dawn. After the anguish of His suffering and the dark night of the grave, the Servant would somehow find Himself with more children than any one body could produce. Because of His self-sacrificing investment in the lives of many, He would be honored among the great patriarchs who normally only achieved that status through their impressive numbers of children.

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
Luke 11:27-28

The good news about infertility is that, in Christ, family and childbearing have been redefined. Mothers and brothers are now those who have been brought near through His blood and who share in the work of nurturing and teaching the rest of God’s children. Fathers are those who mentor and shape those who are younger in the faith (or not yet in the faith.) And children are those whom we have the pleasure of watching as they grow in faith and fruitbearing.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus… To Timothy my true son in the faith…
1 Timothy 1:2
Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.
Romans 16:13

Yes, our hearts and our bodies still long to produce biological children to hold and to love. And of course we ache and grieve when we are unable to do so. But that is not the only way to go about fulfilling our created purpose. The joy of all believers, both those with and without babies of their own, is that the Great Commission redefines the Creation Mandate. We get to spread our tents wider than we could have ever imagined, loving children that were not born to us and investing ourselves in the nurture of people with whom we would not otherwise have shared a bond.

“Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back…
Isaiah 54:1-2

I have witnessed this joy in the face of the Nigerian man who told me that though none of his biological children are still living, he is the father of more children than he can count (including three of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram whom he took in after their rescue). I feel this joy as God brings to me exponentially more spiritual children to counsel and mentor than the four unborn children I lost. And I cling to this joy for the sake of those whose wombs are bare and whose cradles remain empty.

The gospel for the eunuch is the good news for you. In God’s family, you can have more kids than the rest of us.

God: The Noble Mother

imagesIn a society embroiled with conflicting ideas about gender roles and sexual identity, writing about the feminine nature of a masculine God feels like gardening in a minefield. But to neglect or abandon this aspect of Scripture would be to deny a significant part of who God reveals Himself to be, effectively putting Him in the box of our own culturally conditioned “image.” As much as I shy away from the political and social agenda that drive similar conversations, Scripture itself compels me to take a deeper look at the maternal character of God.

A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

For years now I have read and reflected on Psalm 103 as an exposition on the fatherhood of God. It doesn’t take long to notice the judicial oversight and compassionate leadership of a father relating with his children in its underlying narrative. But only lately has it struck me that Psalm 104 is just as much an exposition of God’s motherhood, especially when laid side by side with Proverbs 31. The parallel imagery and language are so tight that I can’t help but think they were intended to be read comparatively.

…you are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, … they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them.
Psalm 104:1-8

Like the wife of noble character in Proverbs 31, God is described as a fastidious homemaker. He takes care to dress Himself gloriously and to decorate His home beautifully. Light is His favorite garment and sky-blue the color He chooses to paint His downstairs ceilings. He employs the elements (wind, fire, and water) as His domestic help. And although He initially carpeted the whole downstairs with water, He decided to rearrange the floor plan to include large patches of dry land, too.

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart…
You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away… Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening.
Psalm 104:10-23

Like that industrious Proverbs 31 woman, God’s lamp never goes out at night. He works all day watering His garden, feeding His household, and making sure that each member of His brood is well looked after in body and spirit. And while the rest of the family sleeps, He keeps vigil over the prowling “night owls” to make sure they get their tummy full, too. Around the clock He keeps up His work of tender nurture, creative provision, and loving care.

How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number–living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
Psalm 104:24-26

His motherly ingenuity and domain are anything but small in scope. Just as the woman of noble character engaged in global commerce, buying from and supplying ships that crisscrossed the seas, He fills the earth with His handiworks, too. In fact, He repurposes the oceans as playgrounds for His “little ones” and as sidewalks for His children to ride their boats around on.

These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104:27-30

But beyond being a cosmic homemaker, universal food supplier, and global nanny, God meets His offspring’s greatest need through the gift of His presence. He doesn’t simply bring them into the world and then abandon them. As long as He is nearby, His dependents learn and play and grow in peace, assured that all is well with their world. But the second they can’t see His face, they have every cause to panic. Their lives are utterly contingent on His.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Psalm 91:1, 4; 131:2

And so like the children of the Proverbs 31 woman, God’s children rise up with blessing and praise for all He is and all He does. We approach Him confidently when we need something, snuggle under His sheltering wings when we are scared or overwhelmed, and rest peacefully against His chest when we simply desire the reassuring comfort of His presence.

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:28-31

The point is that God is not only the perfect father: He is also unapologetically the ideal mother. This is no cause for confusing gender or reinterpreting the divine, but it does liberate us to relate to Him with the same intimacy and security we experience with a mother. It also sheds a new light on the significance of human mothers as image bearers of God’s maternal attributes. A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

In A People Garden

IMG_9140Would the world be a better place if it weren’t full of people? People, not things, perpetrate violence and atrocities on the earth. People pollute the ground with their waste and the air with their emissions. People overfill certain parts of the planet, cementing over its other inhabitants and upsetting their life-sustaining cycles and webs.

The narrative that rises from focusing in on these harsh realities can often cast people in the role of barbaric imposters, of foreign invaders whose very existence on the earth brings nothing but harm. But is this the picture that God sees? What story does He tell about how we fit in His global garden?

Last Sunday I encountered one of those a-ha moments in which my experience suddenly fleshed out my theology. Literally. I had spent the afternoon meandering quietly through a private walled-in garden. Blooming roses crept up ancient stone walls, weeping willows swayed beside a meandering stream, and birds, wind, and water mingled their voices together in peaceful song. That evening, as the garden began to fill with people coming in for an open-air concert, my mind cynically assumed that the perfection of the garden would be marred with their fabricated fashions, noisy chatter, and energetic gestures.

But to my surprise, I discovered that, far from messing up the beauty of the garden, the people completed it. Their vibrant colors, sounds, and movements filled the garden with a new element of life that I hadn’t even noticed was missing. In fact, as I looked around the by-then familiar green-scape and listened to French horns sounding across the distance, it struck me that the people were the most beautiful flowers in this garden. They were the crowning touch. Their creative accessories complimented the decorative designs on the plants. Their effervescent spirits animated the terrain. And their artistic composition filled the space with melodies that the birds quickly picked up and played back.

As I reflected further on this unexpected discovery, I realized that I was experiencing a foretaste of the garden-city, the new creation for which we long and towards which we proactively work as we wait for God to bring His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. This garden resonated with echoes of Eden, bringing human “progress” in harmony with natural development.

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.”
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.”
So God created man in his own image… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
Genesis 1:11,20, 27-28

In the beginning the world was empty, the ground was bare. God planted grass and trees, animals and eventually people in His fertile garden, giving them all the same commission: Live. Grow. Blossom. Reproduce. Spread out. Fill the earth with your unique contribution to its vast array of textures and colors, functions and sounds. Testify in your own limited way to the presence and nature of your Creator. Echo back to Him the song of creation, imitating His innovative work in the world.

God … will uproot you from the land of the living. The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, “Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!”
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God…
Psalm 52:5-9

Of course the story goes on to show how we have abused our role in God’s garden, stealing the fruit that wasn’t ours to eat and oppressing our fellow inhabitants with our selfishness, greed, and outright contempt. And God has much to say about how He will come and tend His garden, uprooting the weed-like plants who defy their Gardener’s order and choke out His other plants.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted… to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes… They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
Isaiah 61:1-3

But God also intervenes in His garden to nourish and restore the plants that have been trodden underfoot or impeded from what they need to grow. Jesus came to walk among hillsides of tender shoots, watering weary souls, restoring withered limbs, and even raising dead branches. He cut off fruitless vines who were leeching life from those who needed it, and He grafted in foreign vines who longed to be included under His life-giving care.

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”
Psalm 92:12-15

God takes great delight in His people garden. He shines the light of His face on us in warming, life-giving relationship. He satisfies our parched hearts with streams of living love. He crowns us with beauty and fills our branches with fruit, the satisfaction of a project successfully accomplished or the fruition of a dream finally fulfilled.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. … No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face… They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.
Revelation 22:1-5

And best of all, God is in the process of planting us as near to Himself as it gets. He is gathering His vast array of plants into one garden-city, built out of organic stones and filled with the light of His presence. Even as we wait for the fulfillment of His story, we are already flourishing in His courtyard, rooted by His stream, and abiding in His Vine.

IMG_9033So who or what are we in the story of creation? Would the world be a better place without us? I am reminded that, according to God’s narrative, humans are the pinnacle of creation, the apple of His eye. Without us, His garden would be beautiful but incomplete. Our expansion is what He intended from the beginning; our advances are potential reflections of His image within. We are an integral part of His earth, planted here to thrive.

When God Came Home

IMG_7992Seven Christmases ago I lay in a hospital bed, wondering if I would ever get to go home. Typhoid, brucellosis, and a host of companion infections had racked my body for months, reducing my frame to skin and bones and my consciousness to an unsteady state. The long battle with illness had finally landed me (literally) in an American hospital bed, transported on a stretcher through more ambulances and diagnostic labs, foreign ICUs and international flights than my semi-conscious brain could keep track of. Gazing out the sterile hospital window into the lonely darkness, I wanted nothing more than to be home.

But where was my home?

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere
Psalm 84:1-2,10

The borrowed space where my children were being tucked into bed without me there to kiss them goodnight? The flat back in South Asia where our pictures hung on the wall and our smell lingered in the rooms? Or was the home I was longing for really in heaven with God?

For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life… We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
2 Corinthians 5:4-8

Under the circumstances, that last option seemed better than usual. And my theological assumptions nudged me towards it. After all, wasn’t this earth just a temporary stopping place, this life just a preparation period for the life to come? Other than the grief it would cause my loved ones, what still tied me to my earthly home? In my experience, it was a place of pain and sickness and suffering, one that I wouldn’t mind escaping in order to move on to my true heavenly home.

But Christmas challenges my dualist assumptions. Christ’s entry into our world makes me stop and question the low value I have placed on it. If the only place that is really important to God is heaven, then why would He go to such lengths to make His home on earth? The longer I ponder Christ’s incarnation, the more I am compelled to ask:

Where is God’s home?

The incarnation was God’s fullness
coming home to earth.

As I trace the story of God’s presence on earth, I begin to see that He has always maintained a bit of home here. In the beginning He dwelt with Adam and Eve in a hilltop garden. In the exodus He resided in a glory cloud, ever perched above the tabernacle. In the temple He sat at the top of Jerusalem’s mountain, enthroned between heavenly cherubim with the earth-ark footstool just below.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:10, 14

But in the incarnation, God fully came home to earth. He stopped hovering above it and finally pitched His tent within it. He wrapped Himself in human flesh, an earthy, portable tabernacle, and used it to walk around in our dirty streets.

Contrary to my former assumptions, He didn’t do so merely to rescue souls out of the earth. He used His physical body to touch other bodies, to fix physical problems, to make physical food. These were not merely proofs of divine, existential power, they were also manifestations of God’s value on His physical creation. Jesus came to keep house, to perform some much-needed maintenance on God’s beloved earthly home.

Our bodies are the dwelling place of God,
His fleshy, portable temples.

The final nail in my dualist coffin comes when I ponder what Jesus did with His earthly body after He was done with it. Far from discarding it as a piece of used-up clothing that had outlived its purpose, He took it with Him, a piece of earth now resident in heaven, awaiting reunification with the rest of its redeemed kind.

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
Habakkuk 2:14

So where is God’s home now? Yes, it is in heaven where Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father while everything in heaven and on earth is being put under His feet. But His home is also on earth, where the Spirit has been poured out into the physical bodies of His people. We are the dwelling place of God, His fleshy, portable temples. And He has sent us out into the whole earth, filling this physical space with His presence until eventually every inch of it is saturated with His glory.

I love the house where you live, O LORD, the place where your glory dwells.
One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.
Psalm 26:8; 27:4-6

I’m glad I didn’t die that Christmas. I’m glad I got to stick around and enjoy the delights of God’s house here on earth. Now as I run through sunlit forests and walk through people filled-streets, I relish the beauty of His dwelling place. I savor the sweetness of His house, decorated according to His unique taste and filled with His “mini-me’s”. Yes, the suffering and pain are still present here. And yes, I still long for heaven’s rest. But for now, I get to be part of God’s cosmic DIY project.

This earth is my home because God lives here, too.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
…as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my (home).

Taking My Theology to the Grocery Store

caged_hens3It’s time for me to eat some humble pie.

For years I have observed food fads from afar, marveling that people have the time and resources to make such a fuss over the labels on the foods that they buy. Organic grocery aisles and upscale health food stores have often struck me as marketing ploys, one more way for the wealthy to spend their excess resources while the poor have to make do with the overly processed, chemically polluted foods that they can actually afford.

Which value will win out: the well-being of the chickens who produce these eggs or the well-being of my children who need to eat them?

I often feel trapped between the responsibility to feed my family well and my meager resources to do so. I’m one of those who show up at closing time to snatch up the clearance foods that are too old to sell. I pick mold off of bread crusts and find creative ways to turn leftover scraps into another meal. And with a family that walks or cycles everywhere we go, I often feel at my wit’s end to keep up with our caloric needs, especially in light of how expensive most protein sources are.

So each time I examine the price labels on the egg aisle, I face a moral dilemma. Which value will win out: the well-being of the chickens who produce these eggs or the well-being of my children who need to eat them? I am ashamed to admit that I have intentionally buried my head in the sand, preferring to walk out of the store with my three affordable cartons of caged-hen eggs rather than to take seriously my responsibility to be a steward of God’s creation.

I tried to keep my theology conveniently contained at home. But God won’t stay in my cage.

He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field… The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.
The trees of the LORD are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. There the birds make their nests…
These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.
Psalm 104:10-12, 16-17, 27-18

God loves all of His creation. For years I have savored His repeated declarations of loving care for His creatures, inevitably filling in the blank with mental images of myself and my family, or perhaps of oppressed women in South Asia and starving children in Africa. But when it comes to those bits that specifically talk about His tender care for the animals, I’m ashamed to admit that I have largely read them in terms of just how loving and compassionate He is, and then lumped them in with how much He cares about people.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
Psalm 8:3-8

How anthropocentric of me! The world doesn’t revolve around people. Yes, we are the crowning glory of physical creation, the bits of earth that have been fashioned into the image of God and infused with the Spirit of God. We are the ones whom He has raised up from the dust and entrusted with the responsibility of ruling over the rest of His earth, including its dogs and chickens, crops and ecosystems. He has given these things to us to provide for our needs, but with that privilege comes responsibility.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny ? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.
Matthew 6:26; 10:29

Jesus had strong words and an even stronger example about what it looks like to rule. Tender nurture. Sacrificial service. And embedded in His reminders of our Father’s loving care for us are powerful statements of God’s loving care for the rest of His creatures. Feeding the birds. Noticing their living conditions. Of course we are more valuable to Him than they are, but that doesn’t negate their worth. It confirms it.

After receiving all of God’s lavish provisions, can I really turn around and stingily refuse some chickens the dignity of a decent living space?

And so as I am faced with the question of how much I am willing to sacrifice for the living conditions of these out-of-sight, out-of-mind hens, I feel just a bit like that ungrateful servant who received much grace but refused to pass it on. My Father has lavished abundant resources on me. Those discounted items at the grocery store are His manna falling from heaven. And that gift-ordered turkey that I can’t fit into my tiny freezer is His extravagant provision, more bountiful than my storage capacity. After receiving all that, can I really turn around and stingily refuse some chickens the dignity of a decent living space?

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ …your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Matthew 6:31-33

And lest I think that in looking out for the needs of the rest of creation my own needs will suffer, God puts my silly worries to rest. Will He who did not spare the turkey for our Thanksgiving dinner not along with it graciously give us all the ethically-sourced eggs we need to dress it?

Fleshy Theology

"Christ Child" St. Martins-in-the-Fields Trafalgar Square, London
“Christ Child”
St. Martins-in-the-Fields
Trafalgar Square, London
What’s the point of having a body?

As a college student, I remember finding my body an inconvenient obstruction to being in all the places I wanted to be at the same time. I had a hard time accepting that it wouldn’t allow me to work through the hours of the night and then stay awake in class the next day. Somehow physical limitations didn’t register as a valid reason to lower my ambitions. After all, wasn’t my body simply a temporary vehicle for my soul?

Years of motherhood, physical challenges, and the inevitable experience of aging have forced me to listen to my body (at least with one ear). But only recently have I encountered a compelling argument for why I should value it.

Sitting in an N.T. Wright lecture a few weeks ago, I was introduced to an entirely new perspective (no pun intended) on the physical realm. Far from being the messed-up, spiritually devoid location where our souls are temporarily housed as they await their true home in heaven, Tom Wright challenged me to think of the earth and everything in it as an integral, ongoing part of God’s redemptive plan. The imagery of a delighted God walking through His garden in Eden and the promise of new creation have sparked my imagination to see how infused this physical earth is with the presence of God. What’s more, taking seriously the fact that God manifested His glorious image in fleshy, human bodies has caused me to reconsider my former assumptions about the significance of my own body.

Is it merely a temporary shelter to be minimally maintained? Is it a side-point to my spirituality, a distracting, limiting necessity along my journey to Christ-likeness, or is it, in fact, an integral part of my being re-created in and conformed to His image?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ…
Colossians 1:15; 2:9–10

I suppose the starting point in answering these questions is to consider the significance of Christ’s body. It was the dwelling place of God, the physical space where God’s Spirit was located. But more than that, it was the visible manifestation of the invisible God. Looking at the face of Jesus was the same as looking at the face of God.

Looking at the face of Jesus was the same as looking at the face of God.

I admit I have to take a moment to let that sink in. I am accustomed to conceptualizing this in a spiritual sense but missing its physical reality. But if I have no trouble believing that God really was born of a woman and took a fleshly form, why do I get hung up on thinking of Jesus as a physical replica of God? Perhaps this is where I get caught with my dualist, Neoplatonic slip showing. Has my Western worldview really kept me from appreciating the full meaning of Christ’s incarnation?

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay…We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6–10

And yet there it is. Not only is Christ’s body a physical manifestation of God’s image—mine is too! My body is a visible representation of God, the eating, sleeping, moving, breathing, touching, seeing image of its Creator. But more than that, it has become a sacred space in which His Spirit lives. The eyes that I would prefer to be bluer and the wrinkles that are setting in despite my best effort are part of a face that is being transformed to look more and more like His.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
2 Corinthians 4:16

True, the image I see in the mirror is a far cry from the Original. Ugly expressions, dark circles, and sagging cells betray the fact that this face has been cursed. But there is hope! My body is going through the same process that Jesus’ body did. I can see its weakness, decay and eventual death setting in, but at the same time I experience a renewing force bringing light to my eyes and a smile to my lips. I treasure the fact that my mortal body is the place where Jesus’ life is being currently revealed. Better than that, I look forward to the day when this very body will be raised up from the dead, a new improved version of the same old me.

Our faces are being transformed to look more and more like His.

It may sound silly, but I think that is the beginnings of a theology of beauty, a little extra motivation to care for my body and make it as true an image of its glorious Lord as is possible this side of the new creation.

Godly makeup. Fleshy theology.

Abuse: An Assault on God

“Why should I care about abuse?” Cain asked God almost the identical question, right after he beat his brother to death. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Genesis 2:7, 15; 4:2, 8

The irony of Cain’s question makes me laugh every time I read it. Had not God just created a magnificent world and placed people in it to tend and “keep” it? Was Cain not a devoted gardener, a “keeper” of the soil and a nurturer of its tender plants? He had embraced his God-given role to rule the earth in a way that made it more fruitful, more beautiful, more full of life, but did he not understand that his care for fellow humans was an inseparable part of that created role?

The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
Genesis 4:10-12

If Cain thought it was possible to tend his own business without tending his brother, he was in for a big surprise. Even the land had noticed his abusive treatment of Abel, and as a result, it was boycotting his business. It refused to cooperate with his efforts to make it productive, righteously protesting his abusive behavior and compassionately receiving his victim’s broken remains.

Abuse is an attack against the image of God within us. What is done against us is done against God.

But the land wasn’t the only one that had noticed. God saw the way Cain had treated Abel, and He took it personally. Abel was precious to Him. He had lovingly fashioned Abel’s body and spirit according to His unique design. Abel was God’s handicraft, and Cain had defaced it. Even worse, Abel was God’s image, and Cain had desecrated it.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.
James 3:9

Abel, like every other human on the face of the earth, had been created in the image of God. That meant that his body, his personality, and his very life were a sacred representation of God Himself. Any mistreatment of Abel was, in fact, a direct attack against the God in whose likeness he was made. When Cain raised his fist to strike Abel, he was really assaulting God. And as the Scriptures go on to make clear, when we raise our voice to lash out at another, we are really attacking God.

“And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
Genesis 9:5-6

God does not tolerate such abuse, against Himself or against the ones He loves. He confronted Cain for His reprehensible conduct, allowing him no wiggle room for excuses or diverting questions. Like any good property owner, God required Cain to give an account for the way he had cared for his brother. And like any offender caught red-handed, Cain was left powerless before God. Everything he had said or done to Abel was laid bare before God, and all he could do was beg God for the compassion that he had refused his brother.

The story of Cain and Abel is just the first in a long line of abuse stories that are an integral part of our Bible. God does not turn His face away from abuse, nor does He allow us to. He will require us to give an account for how we have looked after each other, not just in terms of whether we have abused others or not, but also in terms of what we have done to protect, nurture, and build them up.

When I stop to look at myself and at those around me as living, breathing, touchable images of God, I am moved by a deeper, more connected love for humanity. What happens to us happens God. His glory is bound up in our frail lives.

Abuse is an attack against the image of God within us. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is an affirmation of that image.

So am I my brother’s keeper? Even the dirt knows the answer to that one.