Chapter 4

tree

The Drama of Desire

Chapter 4

Genesis 3:1–13
. . . man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’
Psalm 32
Philippians 2:3–11


In the ancient wisdom of storytelling, Genesis tells us that we are part of God’s good creation. It then tells us we have a special responsibility as God’s reflections or image bearers.

It tells us that in order to reflect God’s image, we have to desire the Tree of Life, not the tree that feeds our pride so that we think we can play God and judge between good and evil.

Of course, we know what happened. The story of Adam and Eve doesn’t need to be about literal historical figures in the past to tell us something very true about us, our history and our world today. We humans have consistently chosen the wrong tree. Instead of imitating and reflecting God as good image-bearers should do, we start competing with God, edging God out, playing God ourselves. We reject the Creator and choose another model instead: a snake (the story says), who seems to represent a subtle and dangerous desire to choose rivalry and violence over harmony and well-being.

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'So they hide from God in fear.

In Genesis, after feeding on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve suddenly feel a change come over them. Perhaps they each fear that the other will judge them for being different, so they fashion crude clothing to hide their sexual differences. When God approaches, they no longer see God as a friend, but as a rival and threat. So they hide from God in fear. When God asks what has happened, they blame one another and refuse to admit their mistake. Soon they face a harder life of pain, competition, sweat, labour, frustration and death – east of Eden, outside the beautiful garden that was their home.

Later, their two sons repeat the pattern. The older brother – we might say he is ‘more advanced’ – becomes an agriculturalist. His life is wrapped up in fields, fences, ownership, barns and accumulated wealth, with all the moral complexity they bring. The younger brother – we might say he is ‘more vulnerable’ or ‘less developed’ – is a nomadic herdsman. He can’t own land or accumulate wealth, because he moves constantly with his herds to wherever the fresh grass is growing. Their different ways of life are expressed in different forms of religious sacrifice. They soon become religious rivals, competing for a higher degree of God’s favour. The perceived loser in the competition, Cain, envies and resents his brother.

Sometime later, we can imagine Abel leading his flocks into his brother’s field.At that moment Cain, his resentment simmering, no longer sees a brother: he sees a trespasser, an enemy. He plays God and judges his brother as evil and therefore worthy of death. Abel soon becomes the first victim of violence, and Cain the first murderer. So we humans quickly turn from reflecting the image of a creative, generous, life-giving God.

With Adam and Eve we become graspers, hiders, blamers and shamers. With Cain and Abel we become rivals, resenters, murderers and destroyers – the very opposite of God’s image.

What do these ancient stories mean for us today?

They help us know what’s broken with our world: something in us human beings. And they help us know what’s broken in human beings: something in our desires. And they help us know what’s broken with our desires: we have stopped imitating God’s good desires to create and bless and give life. Instead we’ve started imitating the prideful, competitive, fearful and harmful desires we see in one another . . . the desire to acquire what someone else has, the desire to compete and consume, the desire to judge as evil those who get in our way, even the desire to harm or kill those who are obstacles to our desires.

Think about how much imitation runs our lives.

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'Somebody hits or criticises you and what do you want to do?'

Somebody hits or criticises you and what do you want to do? Hit them back! Criticise them back! Somebody buys a new shirt or a new TV, and what do you want to do? Buy an even better shirt or bigger TV! Somebody moves to a bigger house in a different neighbourhood, and what do you desire? To get an even bigger house in an even better neighbourhood! And what happens if you can’t get what you desire? You’ll be tempted to cheat, steal, lie, harm or maybe even kill to get what you desire.

Now there’s nothing wrong with desire. The question is, whose desires are you imitating? To be alive is to imitate God’s generous desires . . . to create, to bless, to help, to serve, to care for, to save, to enjoy. To make the opposite choice – to imitate one another’s desires and become one another’s rivals – is to choose a path of death.

If we imitate our way into that rat race, we will compete rather than create, impress rather than bless, defeat rather than protect, dominate rather than serve, and exploit rather than respect. As a result, we will turn our neighbour first into a rival, and then an enemy, and then a victim.

We all live in this drama – the drama of desire. We have the opportunity to imitate God’s generous and good desires on the one hand – and we have the temptation to imitate selfish, fearful, envious human desires on the other hand.

Think of all the advertisers who are trying to influence our desires. Think of all the politicians who are eager to mould our desires so they can manipulate us for their advantage. Think of all the potential rivals who are glad to engage us in competition – their desires against ours. What’s true of us as individuals can also be true of us as groups – both personally and socially, we are caught in the drama of desire.

That’s another reason Jesus is so important to us: because he modelled a different way of life. He gave us a down-to-Earth example of God’s creative self-giving. True, Adam and Eve grabbed for the chance to be like gods – judging others as good or evil, exploiting rather than preserving the Earth, competing with one another rather than loving and serving one another. But Jesus didn’t grasp at god-like status. He humbly poured himself out for others – in service, in suffering, even to the point of death. He even gave us a way of remembering his attitude of self-giving: he said that his life was like food, like bread and wine, and he freely gave himself for us. His constant invitation – ‘Follow me’ – could also be expressed as ‘Imitate me’.

To be alive is to be mindful that we live in the drama of desire. We can imitate one another’s competitive desires, and so be driven to fear, rivalry, judging, conflict and killing. Or we can imitate God’s generous desires . . . to create, bless, help, serve, care for, save and enjoy. At this moment, let us turn towards God, not as rivals who want to play God, but as image-bearers who want to imitate and reflect God. Let us humbly and fervently desire the right kind of desire.

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Engage

Meditate and Contemplation

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about your interaction with someone you were jealous of or considered a rival. What did they have or desire that you desired? How did your relationship play out?

3. How do you respond to reading the Philippians 2 passage as a reversal of the Genesis 3 passage?

4. For children: How do you feel when you win or lose in a game? How do you feel when you do better or worse at something than someone else? Tell us a story about it.

5. Activate: Be especially sensitive to rivalry this week. When you feel it, ask what ‘desire to acquire’ is driving you. And ask whom you are imitating in this ‘desire to acquire’. In this way, seek to become more aware of the Cain and Abel struggling in your own life and heart.

6. Meditate: After a few moments of silence, let one emotion rise to the surface and express that emotion to God – and, if you’d like, to your companions, with a brief explanation.

Chapter 3

space

A World of Meaning

Chapter 3

Psalm 145:1–16
Proverbs 8:1–36
John 1:1–17
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 
The light shines in the darkness . . .


OK. Pay attention.

1, 6, 11, 16, 21, 26, 31... What comes next?

1, 4, 2, 5, 3, 6, 4, 7... What comes next?

1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34... What comes next?

I, space, L, O, V, E, space, Y, O... What comes next?

You know the answers because you are paying attention to the pattern.

It becomes more obvious the longer you live that all life is full of patterns. Reality is trying to tell us something. Life is speaking to us. There’s lots of mystery out there, to be sure, and no shortage of chaos and unpredictability. But there’s also lots of meaning... messages trying to find expression, music inviting us to listen and sing, patterns attracting our attention and interpretation. The chaos becomes a backdrop for the patterns, and the mysteries seem to beckon us to try to understand.

Sometimes the universe feels like this: 71, 6, 2, -48, -213, 9... random numbers with no pattern. Or... G, M, B, O, I, space, Q, H, Z, space, P... random letters with no meaning. Or... 1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1... sameness or repetition going nowhere. But above and behind and beyond the sometimes confusing randomness of life, something is going on here. From a single molecule to a strand of DNA, from a bird in flight to an ocean current to a dancing galaxy, there’s a logic, a meaning, an unfolding pattern to it all.

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'Like wood, reality has a grain. Like a river, it has a current.

Like wood, reality has a grain. Like a river, it has a current. Like a story, it has characters and setting and conflict and resolution. Like poetry, it has syntax and structure, so letters are taken up in words, and words are taken up in phrases and sentences, and they’re all taken up in a magnificent pattern of beauty and meaning that we can glimpse and savour, even if it’s too big and deep to comprehend fully. Creation reveals wisdom through its patterns. It reveals wisdom about its source and purpose, and about our quest to be alive... if we are paying attention.

Of course, we often struggle to know how to interpret those patterns. For example, if a tornado destroys our house, an enemy army drops bombs on our village, a disease takes away someone we love, we lose our job, someone we love breaks our heart, or our best friends betray us, what does that mean? Is the logic of the universe chaos or cruelty? Does might make right? Do violence and chaos rule? Is the Creator capricious, heartless and evil? If we had only our worst experiences in life to guide us, that might be our conclusion.

This is where the Gospel of John adds its insight to the creation stories we find in the book of Genesis. John had a special term for the pattern of meaning God has spoken or written into the universe. He called it Logos, which is often translated in English as ‘Word’. We find logos in words like biology, anthropology and psychology – the logic of life, human development or the human personality.

This Word or Logos, he said, was ‘made flesh’ in a man named Jesus. In other words, if we want to know what God is like and what the universe is about, we should pay attention to the logic, meaning, wisdom and patterns found in the life of Jesus. He communicated the logos, or logic, of God in his teachings. He lived the logos, or pattern, of God in his life. He showed the logos, or essence, of God in the way he treated others. From his birth to his death and beyond, John believes, Jesus translates the logic or meaning or pattern or heart of God into terms we humans can understand: skin and bone, muscle and breath, nerve and action.

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'So, inspired by Genesis, we are guided to look for the pattern...'

So, inspired by Genesis, we are guided to look for the pattern, meaning, wisdom and logic of God woven into galaxies, planets, forests, fields, plants, animals, you and me.

In John’s Gospel, we are inspired to look for the pattern in a poor man travelling across the land with a band of students and friends, telling stories, confronting injustice, helping people in need. If we learn and trust the wisdom that comes in creation and in Jesus, we will live our lives in a new way, John says. We will discover God as our loving parent, and we will encounter all other creatures as our relations, our relatives, in one family of creation.

Of course, we have other options. For example, many of us live by the logic of rivalry. Under this logic, the cosmos is a huge battlefield or coliseum in which participants can survive only by competing, defeating, deceiving, displacing or killing their rivals. In this universe, the strongest survive, the ruthless are rewarded, the kind are killed and the meek are crushed. You’d better fight, or you’ll be trampled. Others of us live by the logic of compliance. Under this logic, the cosmos is a big organisation ruled by powerful bosses, and your job is to learn the rules and comply. Stay in your allotted place, do what you’re told, curry favour in the ‘inner circle’ of power, and the logic of compliance will work in your favour. You’d better play it safe, or you’ll get into a lot of trouble.

Still others of us think of the universe as a giant machine, and live by the logic of mechanism – action, reaction; cause, effect; stimulus, response. You can use the mechanisms of the universe to seek whatever pleasure, power and security you can during your short lives. But in the end, there is no meaning to the machine, so you’d better grab whatever moments of fleeting pleasure you can. That’s all there is or ever will be.

Clearly, the creation stories of Genesis and John offer us a powerful alternative to the logic of rivalry, the logic of compliance and the logic of meaningless mechanism.

They dare us to believe that the universe runs by the logic of creativity, goodness and love. The universe is God’s creative project, filled with beauty, opportunity, challenge and meaning. It runs on the meaning or pattern we see embodied in the life of Jesus. In this story, pregnancy abounds. Newness multiplies. Freedom grows. Meaning expands. Wisdom flows. Healing happens. Goodness runs wild.

So here we are, alive and paying attention. We discern patterns in life. We interpret those patterns and we open ourselves to the possibility of a creative logos of love and wisdom that runs through the universe like a current and can play in our lives like a song.

wave

Engage

Meditation and Contemplation

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you lived by the logic of rivalry, compliance or meaningless mechanism. How did that work out for you?

3. Imagine and describe what your life would be like if you chose to live more by the logos of love than you do now.

4. For children: Is there one cartoon or film that you like to watch again and again? What about it makes you want to keep enjoying it again and again?

5. Activate: Share with someone this week – a family member, a friend, a co-worker or an acquaintance – the idea that we all live by a certain logos or logic. Ask them which logos they see to be most powerful in today’s world – rivalry, compliance, meaningless mechanism or love.

6. Meditate: Observe a few moments of silence to imagine yourself living more fully in the logos of love.

Chapter 2

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Being Human

Chapter 2

Genesis 2:4–25
Psalm 8
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, . . . what are human beings that you are mindful of them?
Mark 3:1–6

Two eyes are better than one, because they make depth perception possible. The same goes with ears. Two ears make it possible to locate the direction of a sound. And we often say that two heads are better than one, because we know that insight from multiple perspectives adds wisdom.

The same is true with stories. We can best think of the Bible not as one tidy story with many chapters, but as a wild and fascinating library with many stories told from many perspectives. On any given subject, these multiple stories challenge us to see life from a variety of angles – adding depth, a sense of direction and wisdom. So, we’re given four Gospels to introduce us to Jesus. We’re given dozens of parables to illustrate Jesus’ message. We’re given two sections or Testaments in which the story of God unfolds. And right at the beginning, we’re given two different creation stories to help us know who we are, where we came from and why we’re here.

According to the first creation story, you are part of creation. You are made from common soil . . . soil that becomes watermelons and grain and apples and peanuts, and then they become food, and then that food becomes you. As highly organised dust, you are closely related to frogs and tortoises, lions and fieldmice, bison and elephants and gorillas. Together with all living things, you share the breath of life, participating in the same cycles of birth and death, reproduction and recycling and renewal. You, with them, are part of the story of creation – different branches on the tree of life. In that story, you are connected and related to everything everywhere. In fact, that is a good partial definition of God: God is the one through whom we are related and connected to everything.

eye

'we all bear God’s image, no exceptions.

In the first creation story, we learn two essential truths about ourselves as human beings. First, we are good. Along with all our fellow creatures, we were created with a primal, essential goodness that our Creator appreciates and celebrates. And second, we all bear God’s image. Women and men, girls and boys, toddlers, the elderly and teenagers, rich or poor, popular or misunderstood, powerful or vulnerable, whatever our religion or race or marital status, whatever our nationality or culture . . . we all bear God’s image, no exceptions.

What is the image of God? An image is a small imitation or echo, like a reflection in a mirror. So if we bear the image of God, then like God, we experience life through relationships. Like God, we experience love through our complementary differences.

Like God, we notice and enjoy and name things – starting with the animals, our companions on the Earth. Like God, we are caretakers of the garden of the Earth. And like God, we are ‘naked and not ashamed’, meaning we can be who we are without fear.

Back in ancient times, this was a surprising message. Yes, kings and other powerful men were seen as image-bearers of God. After all, since they were powerful, rich, sophisticated and ‘civilised’, they could reflect God’s power and glory. But in Genesis, the term is applied to a couple of naked and ‘uncivilised’ hunter-gatherers, a simple woman and man living in a garden with no pyramids or skyscrapers or economies or religions or technological inventions or even clothing to their credit! Centuries later, Jesus said something similar: the Creator loves every sparrow and every wildflower, and so how much more precious is every person – no matter how small, frail or seemingly insignificant? Every woman, man and child is good! Every person in every culture has value! Every person bears the image of God! It’s all good!

But that’s not the only story. The second creation account, which many scholars think is a much older one, describes another dimension to our identity. In that account, the possibility of ‘not good’ also exists. God puts the first couple in a garden that contains two special trees. The Tree of Life is theirs to enjoy, but not the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life is a beautiful image – suggesting health, strength, thriving, fruitfulness, growth, vigour and all we mean by aliveness. What might that second tree signify?

'God’s judging is always wise, fair, true, merciful and restorative.

There are many answers, no doubt. But consider this possibility: the second tree could represent the desire to play God and judge parts of God’s creation – all of which God considers good – as evil. Do you see the danger? God’s judging is always wise, fair, true, merciful and restorative. But our judging is frequently ignorant, biased, retaliatory and devaluing. So when we judge, we inevitably misjudge.

If we humans start playing God and judging good and evil, how long will it take before we say this person or tribe is good and deserves to live, but that person or tribe is evil and deserves to die, or become our slaves? How long will it take before we judge that this species of animal is good and deserves to survive, but that one is worthless and can be driven to extinction? How long until we judge that this land is good and deserves to be preserved, but that river is without value and can be plundered, polluted or poisoned?

If we eat from the second tree, we will soon become violent, hateful and destructive. We will turn our blessing to name and know into a licence to kill, to exploit and to destroy both the Earth and other people. God sees everything as good, but we will accuse more and more things of being evil. In so doing, we will create in ourselves the very evil we claim to detect in others. In other words, the more we judge and accuse, the less we will reflect God . . . and the less we will fulfil our potential as image-bearers of God.

So the second creation story presents us with our challenge as human beings. We constantly make a crucial choice: Do we eat from the Tree of Aliveness – so that we continue to see and value the goodness of creation and so reflect the image of the living God? Or do we eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – constantly misjudging and playing God and as a result mistreating our fellow creatures? It’s a good and beautiful thing to be an image-bearer of God. But it’s also a big responsibility.

We can use our intelligence to be creative and generous, or to be selfish and destructive.

We can use our physical strength to be creative and generous, or to be selfish and destructive.

We can use our sexuality to be creative and generous, or to be selfish and destructive. We can use our work, our money, our time and our other assets to be creative and generous, or to be selfish and destructive.

Think of your hand. It can make a fist or it can extend in peace. It can wield a weapon or it can play a violin. It can point in derision or it can reach out in compassion. It can steal or it can serve. If the first creation story is about the gift of being human, the second story is about the choice all humans live with, day after day. To be alive means to bear responsibly the image of God. It means to stretch out your hand to take from the Tree of Aliveness – and to join in God’s creative, healing work.

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Engage

Meditate and Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when someone played God and judged you, or a time when you played God and judged someone else.

3. Tell us about a person who has reflected God to you in some special way.

4. For children: Think about your hands. What is something kind and creative you can do with your hands? What is something mean or harmful you can do with your hands? How can the same hands do both kind and mean things?

5. Activate: If part of being image-bearers of God means that we represent God in caring for the Earth, it’s important to learn about your corner of the Earth. You know your postal address (road, town or village, county, postcode). What is your environmental address? Learn about your watershed, what makes it special, and the environmental issues it faces.

6. Meditate: Observe a few moments of silence. Let a silent prayer rise from within you.

Chapter 1

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Part 1

ALIVE IN THE STORY OF CREATION

You are entering a story already in process. All around you, things are happening, unfolding, ending, beginning, dying, being born. Our ancient ancestors tried to discern what was going on. They conveyed their best wisdom to future generations through stories that answered certain key questions:

Why are we here?
What’s wrong with the world?
What’s our role, our task, our purpose?
What is a good life?
Is there meaning and hope?
What dangers should we guard against?
What treasures should we seek?

From the Hopi to the Babylonians, from Aztecs to Australian Aboriginals, from the Vikings in Europe to the Han in China to the Yoruba in Africa to the ancient Hebrews of the Middle East – human tribes have developed, adapted and told powerful creation narratives to convey their best answers to key questions like these. Of course, their language often sounds strange to us, their assumptions foreign, the details of their culture odd or alien. But if we listen carefully, mixing their ancient wisdom with our own, we can let their stories live on in us. We can learn to be more fully alive in our time, just as they learned in theirs. In that spirit, we turn to the creation narratives of the ancient Hebrews.

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Chapter 1

Awe & Wonder

Genesis 1:1 – 2:3
Psalm 19
The heavens are telling the glory of God.
Matthew 6:25–34

Big bangs aren’t boring. Dinosaurs aren’t boring. Coral reefs aren’t boring. Elephants aren’t boring. Hummingbirds aren’t boring. And neither are little children. Evolution isn’t boring. Magnetism and electricity aren’t boring. E=MC2 might be hard to understand, but it certainly isn’t boring. And even glaciers aren’t boring, although their dramatic pace is at first quite hard for us to perceive. And God, whatever God is, must not be boring either, because God’s creation is so amazingly, wonderfully, surprisingly fascinating.

The first and greatest surprise – a miracle, really – is this: that anything exists at all, and that we get to be part of it. Ripe peach, crisp apple, tall mountain, bright leaves, sparkling water, flying flock, flickering flame, and you and me... here, now!

On this, the first pages of the Bible and the best thinking of today’s scientists are in full agreement: it all began in the beginning, when space and time, energy and matter, gravity and light, burst or bloomed or banged into being. In light of the Genesis story, we would say that the possibility of this universe overflowed into actuality as God, the Creative Spirit, uttered the original joyful invitation: Let it be! And in response, what happened? Light. Time. Space. Matter. Motion. Sea. Stone. Fish. Sparrow. You. Me. Enjoying the unspeakable gift and privilege of being here, being alive.

'Imagine how space dust coalesced into clouds...'

Imagine how uncountable nuclei and electrons and sister particles danced and whirled. Imagine how space dust coalesced into clouds, and how clouds coalesced into galaxies, and how galaxies began to spin, sail and dance through space. Imagine how in galaxy after galaxy, suns blazed, solar systems twirled and worlds formed. Around some of those worlds, moons spun, and upon some of those worlds, storms swirled, seas formed and waves rolled. And somewhere in between the smallest particles and the largest cosmic structures, here we are, in this galaxy, in this solar system, on this planet, in this story, around this table, at this moment – with this chance for us to breathe, think, dream, speak and be alive together.

The Creator brought it all into being and now, some 14 billion years later, here we find ourselves: dancers in this beautiful, mysterious choreography that expands and evolves and includes us all. We’re farmers and engineers, parents and students, theologians and scientists, teachers and shopkeepers, builders and fixers, drivers and doctors, dads and mums, wise grandparents and wide-eyed infants.

Don’t we all feel like poets when we try to speak of the beauty and wonder of this creation? Don’t we share a common amazement about our cosmic neighbourhood when we wake up to the fact that we’re actually here, actually alive, right now?

Some theologians and mystics speak of the Creator withdrawing or contracting to make space for the universe to be . . . on its own, so to speak, so that it has its own life, its own being and history. Others imagine God creating the universe within God’s self, so the universe in some way is contained ‘in’ God, within God’s presence, part of God’s own life and story. Still others imagine God creating an ‘out there’ of space and time, and then filling it with galaxies, and then inhabiting it like a song fills a forest or light fills a room or love fills a heart. Interestingly, some scholars believe the Genesis story echoes ancient Middle Eastern temple dedication texts. But in this story, the whole universe is the temple, and the Creator chooses to be represented by human beings, not a stone idol.

love

'How can we not celebrate this great gift – to be alive?'

The romance of Creator and creation is far more wonderful and profound than anyone can ever capture in words. And yet we try, for how could we be silent in the presence of such beauty, glory, wonder and mystery? How can we not celebrate this great gift – to be alive?

To be alive is to look up at the stars on a dark night and to feel the beyond-words awe of space in its vastness. To be alive is to look down from a mountaintop on a bright, clear day and to feel the wonder that can only be expressed in ‘Oh!’ or ‘Wow!’ or maybe ‘Hallelujah!’ To be alive is to look out from the beach towards the horizon at sunrise or sunset and to savour the joy of it all in pregnant, saturated silence. To be alive is to gaze in delight at a single bird, tree, leaf or friend, and to feel that they whisper of a creator or source we all share.

Genesis means ‘beginnings’. It speaks through deep, multilayered poetry and wild, ancient stories. The poetry and stories of Genesis reveal deep truths that can help us be more fully alive today. They dare to proclaim that the universe is God’s self-expression, God’s speech act. That means that everything everywhere is always essentially holy, spiritual, valuable, meaningful. All matter matters.

If you ask what language the Creator speaks, the best answer is this: God’s first language is full-spectrum light, clear water, deep sky, red squirrel, blue whale, grey parrot, green lizard, golden aspen, orange mango, yellow warbler, laughing child, rolling river, serene forest, churning storm, spinning planet.

A psalmist said the same thing in another way – the universe is God’s work of art, God’s handiwork. All created things speak or sing of the God who made them. If you want to know what the Original Artist is like, a smart place to start would be to enjoy the art of creation.

Genesis tells us that the universe is good – a truth so important it gets repeated like the theme of a song. Rocks are good. Clouds are good. Sweet corn is good. Every river or hill or valley or forest is good. Skin? Good. Bone? Good. Mating and eating and breathing and giving birth and growing old? Good, good, good. All are good. Life is good.

The best thing in Genesis is not simply human beings, but the whole creation considered and enjoyed together, as a beautiful, integrated whole, and us a part. The poetry of Genesis describes the ‘very goodness’ that comes at the end of a long process of creation . . . when all the parts, including us, are working together as one whole. That harmonious whole is so good that the Creator takes a day off, as it were, just to enjoy it. That day of restful enjoyment tells us that the purpose of existence isn’t money or power or fame or security or anything less than this: to participate in the goodness and beauty and aliveness of creation. And so we join the Creator in good and fruitful work . . . and in delightful enjoyment, play and rest as well.

So here we are, friends. Here we are. Alive!

And this is why we walk this road: to behold the wonder and savour this aliveness. To remind ourselves who we are, where we are, what’s going on here, and how beautiful, precious, holy and meaningful it all is. It’s why we pause along the journey for a simple meal, with hearts full of thankfulness, rejoicing to be part of this beautiful and good creation. This is what it means to be alive. Amen.

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Engage

Meditate and Contempation

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you most felt the humble awe and joyful wonder described in this chapter.

3. What is the most beautiful place you have ever seen? What was so special about it?

4. For children: What is your favourite animal? Why do you like it so much?

5. Activate: This week, choose one facet of creation that you love – birds, trees, weather, soil, water, light, children, sex, ageing, sleep. Observe it, think about it, learn about it at every chance you can, with this question in mind: If that element of creation were your only Bible, what would it tell you about God?

6. Meditate: Observe a few moments of silence. Let a silent prayer of gratitude arise from within you.

Introduction

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Introduction

Seeking Aliveness

Philippians 3:12–14

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on . . . this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on . . .

What we all want is pretty simple, really. We want to be alive. To feel alive. Not just to exist but to thrive, to live out loud, walk tall, breathe free. We want to be less lonely, less exhausted, less conflicted or afraid... more awake, more grateful, more energised and purposeful. We capture this kind of mindful, overbrimming life in terms like wellbeing, shalom, blessedness, wholeness, harmony, life to the full and aliveness.

The quest for aliveness explains so much of what we do. It’s why readers read and travellers travel. It’s why lovers love and thinkers think, why dancers dance and filmgoers watch. In the quest for aliveness, chefs cook, foodies eat, farmers plough, drummers riff, fly-fishers cast, runners run and photographers shoot.

The quest for aliveness is the best thing about religion, I think. It’s what we’re hoping for when we pray. It’s why we gather, celebrate, eat, abstain, attend, practice, sing and contemplate. When people say, ‘I’m spiritual,’ what they mean, I think, is simple: ‘I’m seeking aliveness.’

Many older religious people – Christians, Muslims, Jews and others – are paralysed by sadness that their children and grandchildren are far from faith, religion and God as they understand them. But on some level, they realise that religion too often shrinks, starves, cages and freezes aliveness rather than fostering it. They are beginning to see that the only viable future for religion is to become a friend of aliveness again.

Meanwhile, aliveness itself is under threat at every turn. We have created an economic system that is not only too big to fail, it is too big to control – and perhaps too big to understand as well. This system disproportionately benefits the most powerful and privileged 1 per cent of the human species, bestowing upon them unprecedented comfort, security and luxury. To do so, it destabilises the climate, plunders the planet and kills off other forms of life at unprecedented rates.

The rest, especially the poorest third at the bottom, gain little and lose much as this economic pyramid grows taller and taller. One of their greatest losses is democracy, as those at the top find clever ways to buy votes, turning elected governments into their puppets. Under these circumstances, you would think that at least those at the top would experience aliveness. But they don’t. They bend under constant anxiety and pressure to produce, earn, compete, maintain, protect, hoard and consume more and more, faster and faster. They lose the connection and well-being that come from seeking the common good. This is not an economy of aliveness for anyone.

As these tensions mount, we wake up every morning wondering what fool or fiend will be the next to throw a lit match – or assault, nuclear, chemical or biological weapon – onto the dry tinder of resentment and fear. Again, this is a formula for death, not a recipe for life.

'our world needs a global spiritual movement...

...dedicated to ALIVENESS!'

So our world truly needs a global spiritual movement dedicated to aliveness. This movement must be global, because the threats we face cannot be contained by national borders. It must be spiritual, because the threats we face go deeper than brain-level politics and economics to the heart level of value and meaning. It must be social, because it can’t be imposed from above; it can only spread from person to person, friend to friend, family to family, network to network. And it must be a movement, because by definition, movements stir and focus grass-roots human desire to bring change to institutions and the societies those institutions are intended to serve.

I believe that the Spirit of God works everywhere to bring and restore aliveness – through individuals, communities, institutions and movements. Movements play a special role. In the biblical story, for example, Moses led a movement of liberation among oppressed slaves. They left an oppressive economy, journeyed through the wilderness and entered a promised land where they hoped to pursue aliveness in freedom and peace. Centuries after that, the Hebrew prophets launched a series of movements based on a dream of a promised time . . . a time of justice when swords and spears, instruments of death, would be turned into ploughshares and pruning hooks, instruments of aliveness. Then came John the Baptist, a bold and non-violent movement leader who dared to challenge the establishment of his day and call people to a movement of radical social and spiritual rethinking.

John told people he was not the leader they had been waiting for; he was simply preparing the way for someone greater than himself. When a young man named Jesus came to affiliate with John’s movement through baptism, John said, ‘There he is! He is the one!’ Under Jesus’ leadership, the movement grew and expanded in unprecedented ways. When Jesus was murdered by the powers that profited from the status quo, the movement didn’t die. It rose again through a new generation of leaders like James, Peter, John and Paul, who were full of the Spirit of Jesus. They created learning circles in which activists were trained to extend the movement locally, regionally and globally. Wherever activists in this movement went, the Spirit of Jesus was alive in them, fomenting change and inspiring true aliveness.

Sometimes institutions welcomed this non-violent spiritual movement and were strengthened by it. Sometimes they co-opted, smothered, squelched, frustrated, corrupted or betrayed it. If the movement slowed, receded or weakened for a while in one place, eventually it resurged again in some new form. For example, there were the monastic movements led by the desert mothers and fathers, the Celtic movement led by St Patrick, St Brigid and others, and the beautiful movements of St Francis and St Clare. Later reform movements grew up around people like Menno Simons, Martin Luther, John Wesley and Walter Rauschenbusch. Over the last century, we’ve seen new movements being born through people like Dorothy Day, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Wangari Maathai, Óscar Romero, Rene Padilla, Richard Twiss, Joan Chittister, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Richard Rohr, Phyllis Tickle, William Barber, John Dear, Steve Chalke and Shane Claiborne.

And of course, just as the Spirit has moved among Christians, the Spirit has been at work in other communities, too. Too seldom have these diverse movements recognised their common inspiration, and too seldom have they collaborated as they should. It’s surely time for that to change.

This year long journey of reading scripture and commentary around it, is a resource for this spiritual movement in service of aliveness.

There’s an old religious word for this kind of learning experience: catechesis (cat-uhkey-sis). At first glance, catechesis hardly seems like a resource for aliveness and movement building. To most people, it evokes either nothing at all or the unpleasant aroma of dust and mould. For others raised in highly religious households, it may bring to mind boring classes taught by stern teachers where we memorised answers we didn’t understand to questions we didn’t care about for reasons we never knew. It suggests pacifying, indoctrinating and domesticating people for institutional conformity.

But before Christianity was a rich and powerful religion, before it was associated with buildings, budgets, crusades, colonialism or televangelism, it began as a revolutionary non-violent movement promoting a new kind of aliveness on the margins of society. It dared to honour women, children and unmarried adults in a world ruled by married men. It dared to elevate slaves to equality with those who gave them orders. It challenged slave masters to free their slaves and see them as peers. It defied religious taboos that divided people into us and them, in and out, good and evil, clean and unclean.

Flooding Texas Neighbourliness

'a vision of mutual service, mutual responsibility...'

It claimed that everyone, not just an elite few, had God-given gifts to use for the common good. It exposed a system based on domination, privilege and violence and proclaimed in its place a vision of mutual service, mutual responsibility and peaceable neighbourliness. It put people above profit, and made the audacious claim that the Earth belonged not to rich tycoons or powerful politicians, but to the Creator who loves every sparrow in the trees and every wildflower in the field. It was a peace movement, a love movement, a joy movement, a justice movement, an integrity movement, an aliveness movement.

In this light, catechesis was a subversive practice of movement building. It was a ‘people’s college’, transforming any room, campfire or shady spot beneath a tree into a movement school. It equipped the oppressed and oppressors to become partners and protagonists in their mutual liberation. Mentors (or catechists) would invite a student or students (catechumens) to meet regularly. They used a simple curriculum (or catechesis) of meaningful stories, healing teachings and transformative practices. Their course of preparation traditionally culminated in a kind of oral examination based on a series of predetermined questions (a catechism). Those who had been mentored through this process would then be ready to pass on what they had learned. In so doing, they would learn the catechism more deeply, since teaching is surely the best way to learn.

The subversive nature of catechesis was all the more remarkable because many of the teachers and students were illiterate. It was through the personal give-and-take of face to face conversation and interaction that people were formed and transformed, equipped and deployed as non-violent activists in the movement of the Spirit.

Catechesis had a resurgence about five hundred years ago. Martin Luther designed a catechism to help a head of household train or retrain family members in the emerging Protestant faith using simple questions and answers. A young leader named John Calvin also published a catechism that served as a foyer or an entryway into an intricate doctrinal system he was constructing. John Wesley came along two centuries later. He encouraged people into groups which gathered for spiritual formation, reorientation and activation. He published his sermons to help resource these groups. And to make his movement’s essential vision available to children, he published a catechism-like book called Instructions for Children.

These examples from history have helped give shape to the fifty-two chapters that follow.

We are joining this rich history of discipleship. We pray that the next 52 weeks will be a wonderful time of encouragement, growth, focus, transformation and clarity - that Jesus will be glorified as each of us seek to live for Him, and like Him in every area of our lives.