Chapter 11

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Chapter 11

From Ugliness, a Beauty Emerges

Deuteronomy 7:1–11
Psalm 137:1–9; 149

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept... For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth... Matthew 15:21–39


We’ve come a long way in our story already. We’ve discovered . . .

Creation – God brings into being this beautiful, evolving world of wonders.

Crisis – we step out of the dance and enter into rivalry with God and our fellow creatures, throwing this planet into disarray.

Calling – God calls people to join in a global conspiracy of goodness and blessing, to heal and restore whatever human evil destroys.

Captivity – the people who have joined God’s global conspiracy of goodness experience the horrors of slavery, but God eventually leads them by the wilderness road out of captivity towards freedom.

And now we come to a fifth major episode. It’s the story of conquest, as the Israelites finally reach the land their ancestors had inhabited four centuries earlier. There’s just one problem: others have moved into the land and made it their home for many generations. To possess the land, the Israelites will have to displace these current residents through a war of invasion and conquest. Wars like these are the most bloody and difficult of all, but the Israelites trust that their God will give them victory.

This episode in the biblical story, more than any other, forces us to deal with one of life’s most problematic questions: the question of violence. By violence, we mean an act that intends to violate the well-being of a person or people. To help some, is God willing to harm others? Is God part of the violence in the world, and is violence part of God?

Or is God the voice calling to us in our violence to move to a new place, to join God beyond violence, in kindness, reconciliation and peace?

Today, as in the ancient world, many people sincerely believe that God loves us and wants peace for us so much that God has no trouble harming or destroying them for our benefit. We find a lot of that kind of thinking in the Bible, giving God credit and praise for our victories and their defeats. Before we go too far in condemning ancient people for that exclusive way of thinking, we should realise how easy it is for us to do the same – when we create a superior us that looks down on them for thinking so exclusively!

We should also notice that where we see this kind of thinking embedded in the Bible, we also find important qualifications. For example, God’s favour towards the insiders is dependent on the insiders living good and humble lives. If the insiders become oppressors, they should not expect God’s help. And God gives the freed slaves the right to conquer just enough land for themselves, just one time. They are never given a licence to create an empire, expanding to enslave others as they had previously been enslaved.

Even as they prepare for war, they are told again and again that after the conquest ends, they must treat ‘aliens and strangers’ as neighbours, with honour and respect, remembering that they once were ‘aliens and strangers’ themselves in Egypt. Their ultimate dream is to be farmers, not warriors – so that swords can be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, as soon as possible.

But even with these provisos in mind, we can’t ignore the brutality found in many Bible passages. From Deuteronomy 7 to Leviticus 25 to 1 Samuel 15 to Psalms 137 and 149, we hear claims that ‘God’ or ‘the Lord’ actively commands or blesses actions that we would call crimes against humanity. Many religious scholars have assumed that because the Bible makes these claims, we must defend them as true and good. Fortunately we have another, better option.

We can acknowledge that in the minds of the originators of these stories, God as they understood God did indeed command these things. We can acknowledge that in their way of thinking, divine involvement in war was to be expected. We can allow that they were telling the truth as they best understood it when they found comfort and reassurance in a vision of a God who would harm or kill them to defend, help or avenge us. We can try to empathise, remembering that when human beings suffer indignity, injustice, dehumanisation and violence, they naturally pray for revenge and dream of retribution against those who harm them. Without condoning, we can at least understand why they saw God as they did, knowing that if we had walked in their sandals, we would have been no different.

But we don’t need to stop there. We can then turn to other voices in the biblical library who, in different circumstances, told competing stories to give a different – and we would say better – vision of God.

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For example, take the passage in Deuteronomy 7 where God commands Joshua to slaughter the seven Canaanite nations. They must be shown no mercy. Even their little girls must be seen as a threat. Then we can consider a story from Matthew’s Gospel which offers itself as a response to the earlier passage. There we meet a woman who is identified by Matthew as a Canaanite. This identification is significant, since Canaanites no longer existed as an identifiable culture in Jesus’ day. Calling this woman a Canaanite would be like calling someone a Viking or Aztec today. She asks for the one thing that had been denied her ancestors: mercy . . . mercy for her daughter who is in great need.

Up until this point, Jesus has understood his mission only in relation to his own people. After all, they’re pretty lost and they need a lot of help. So he hesitates. How can he extend himself to this Canaanite? But how can he refuse her? In her persistence, he senses genuine faith, and he hears God’s call to extend mercy even to her. So he says ‘yes’ to the mother, and the daughter is healed. From there, Jesus goes to an area to the north-west of the Sea of Galilee. He teaches and heals a large crowd of people there who, like the woman and her daughter, are not members of his own religion and culture. Their non-Jewish identity is clear in their response to Jesus’ kindness: ‘And they praised the God of Israel.’ What was an exception yesterday is now the new rule: Don’t kill the other. Show mercy to them.

Then Jesus repeats a miracle for these outsiders that he had done previously for his fellow Jews, multiplying loaves and fish so they can eat. In the previous miracle, there were twelve baskets left over, suggesting the twelve tribes of Israel – the descendants, that is, of Jacob and his twelve sons. In this miracle, there are seven baskets left over – suggesting, it seems quite clear, the seven Canaanite nations that Jesus’ ancestors had been commanded to destroy.

Matthew’s version of this story makes a confession: Our ancestors, led by Moses and Joshua, believed God sent them into the world in conquest, to show no mercy to their enemies, to defeat and kill them. But now, following Christ, we hear God giving us a higher mission. Now we believe God sends us into the world in compassion, to show mercy, to heal, to feed – to nurture and protect life rather than take it.

We begin with pre-biblical visions of many warring gods who are all violent and capricious. In much of the Bible, we advance to a vision of a single God who uses violence against them in the service of justice for us. Eventually, through the biblical library, we find a beautiful new vision of God being revealed. God desires justice for all, not just for us. God is leading both us and them out of injustice and violence into a new way of reconciliation and peace. God loves everyone, everywhere, no exceptions.

Violence, like slavery and racism, was normative in our past and it is still all too common in the present. How will we tell the stories of our past in ways that make our future less violent? We must not defend those stories or give them the final word. Nor can we cover them up, hiding them like a loaded gun in a drawer that can be found and used to harm. Instead, we must expose these violent stories to the light of day. And then we must tell new stories beside them, stories so beautiful and good that they will turn us towards a better vision of kindness, reconciliation and peace for our future and for our children’s future.

The stories of Jesus’ life and teaching, wisely told, can help us imagine and create a more peaceful future.

They help us see the glory of God shining in the face of a kind, forgiving, gentle and non-violent man, and in the smiles and tears, words and deeds of those who radiate his love.

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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 film you’ve seen or a book you’ve read that upheld violence as the way to prosperity and peace. Can you share an alternative film or story that pointed to a non-violent way to peace?
3. How do you respond to Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman in conversation with the Deuteronomy story of Canaanite slaughter? Can you think of other paired stories like this?
4. For children: Who do you think is stronger – a person who can punch a bad guy and scare him away, or a person who can convince a bad guy to become good?
5. Activate: This week, listen for situations when people use God (or some other ‘good reason’) to justify violence or unkindness. Try to understand why they would see God and violence this way. Seek to see the world through their eyes and to imagine how hard it would be for them to see God differently.
6. Meditate: Hold in silence the tension between a violent world and a God who calls us to reconciliation, mutual understanding and respect, and peace.

Chapter 10

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Getting Slavery Out Of The People

Chapter 10

Exodus 20:1–21, Matthew 22:34–40, Hebrews 10:1–18

I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds . . .


Most of us spend a lot of our lives trying to get out of something old and confining and into something new and free. That’s why we so easily identify with Moses and the freed Hebrew slaves on their journey through the wild wasteland known as the wilderness.

The truth is that we’re all on a wilderness journey out of some form of slavery. On a personal level, we know what it is to be enslaved to fear, alcohol, food, rage, worry, lust, shame, inferiority or control. On a social level, in today’s version of Pharaoh’s economy, millions at the bottom of the pyramid work like slaves from before dawn to after dark and still never get ahead. And even those at the top of the pyramid don’t feel free. They wake up each day driven by the need to acquire what others desire, and they fear the lash of their own inner slave-drivers: greed, debt, competition, expectation and a desperate, addictive craving for more, more, more.

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'...the whole system survives by plundering the planet...'

From top to bottom, the whole system survives by plundering the planet, purchasing this generation’s luxuries at the expense of future generations’ necessities. Exiting from today’s personal and social slavery won’t be easy. It will require something like a wilderness journey into the unknown. We know who we have been: slaves. We know who we’re going to be: free men and women, experiencing aliveness as God intended. And right now, we’re a little bit of both, in need of the identity transformation that comes as we walk the road to freedom.

So we have much to learn from the stories of Moses and his companions. We too must remember that the road to freedom doesn’t follow a straight line from point A to point B. Instead, it zigzags and backtracks through a discomfort zone of lack, delay, distress and strain. In those wild places, character is formed – the personal and social character needed for people to enjoy freedom and aliveness. Like those who have walked before us, we need to know that grumbling and complaining can be more dangerous than poisonous snakes or the hot desert sun. Like them, we must be forewarned about the danger of catastrophising the present and romanticising the past. Like them, we must remember that going forward may be difficult, but going back is disastrous.

As they made a road through the wilderness, Moses and his fellow travellers received a mysterious food that fell from the sky each morning like dew. They called it manna, which in Hebrew, somewhat humorously, meant, ‘What is this stuff?’ Like them, we will receive what we need for each day, too – often in mysterious and sometimes even humorous ways, just enough for today, provided one day at a time. And like them, we will learn that we can’t survive on bread alone: we also need moral guidance, spiritual nourishment, manna for the soul.

So along with bread for their bodies, God gave the travellers inner nourishment in the form of ten commands that would become the moral basis for their lives in freedom.

1. Put the God of liberation first, not the gods of slavery.

2. Don’t reduce God to the manageable size of an idol – certainly not one made of wood and stone by human hands, and not one made by human minds of rituals and words either, and certainly not one in whose name people are enslaved, dehumanised or killed!

3. Do not use God for your own agendas by throwing around God’s holy name. If you make a vow in God’s name, keep it!

4. Honour the God of liberation by taking and giving everyone a day off. Don’t keep the old 24/7 slave economy going.

5. Turn from self-centredness by honouring your parents. (After all, honour is the basis of freedom.)

6. Don’t kill people, and don’t do the things that frequently incite violence, including:

7. Don’t cheat with others’ spouses,

8. Don’t steal others’ possessions, and

9. Don’t lie about others’ behaviours or characters.

10. In fact, if you really want to avoid the violence of the old slave economy, deal with its root source – in the drama of desire. Don’t let the competitive desire to acquire tempt you off the road of freedom.

Through the ten plagues, we might say, God got the people out of slavery. Through the ten commands, God got the slavery out of the people. God also gave them a set of additional practices – rituals, holidays and so on – to help them develop and deepen the character of free people. One of those practices was setting aside a special holy place. They started with a simple ‘tent of meeting’ that was replaced by a larger, more elaborate gathering place called the ‘tabernacle’. That holy space in the centre of their encampment reminded them that the God of liberation was journeying with them – not only above them, visualised as a cloud of smoke and fire, but among them, walking with them in the desert dust as they made the road to freedom.

In that central holy space the people offered sacrifices. Animal sacrifice had already replaced more primitive and brutal rituals of human sacrifice. But the whole idea of appeasing God through blood-shedding of any kind was gradually being replaced with the idea of communing with God over a meal. So sacrifices were seen increasingly as gifts of food, as if to say, ‘God is calling us to gather around the family table.’ At certain times of the year, and at special moments when the people realised they had done something horrible, they would come to God’s big tent. They would bring the makings of a feast, as if to say, ‘God, we’re sorry for our wrongs. We want to have our family meal again – reconciling with you and with one another. So here’s some food to express our desire to sit down at the table of fellowship. We won’t turn back. We’ll keeping walking this long road to freedom . . . together.’

Of course, Jesus gathered his companions around a table one night and encouraged them to do the same. We call it a meal of communion. We could also call it a meal of liberation and reconciliation. Around this table, we remember where we’ve been, where we are, whom we’re with and where we’re headed, as we make a new road by walking . . . together.

The wilderness journey is always difficult and seems to last for ever. Like children on a car journey, we keep whining, ‘Aren’t we there yet?’ But the truth is, if we arrive before we’ve learned the lessons of the wilderness, we won’t be able to enjoy the freedom that awaits us in the promised land beyond it. There is wisdom we will need there that we can gain only right here. There is strength and skill we will need in the future that we can develop only here and now, on the wilderness road. There is moral muscle we will need then that we can exercise and strengthen only through our struggles on this road, here and now. There is a depth of connection with God that will be there when we need it in the future – if we learn to trust and follow God now, on the long wild road to freedom.

The struggles will make us either bitter or better. The trials will lead to either breakdown or breakthrough. We will often be tempted to return to our old lives, but in that tension between a backward pull and a forward call, we will discover unexplainable sustenance (like manna) and unexpected refreshment (like springs in the desert). Against all odds, walking by faith, we will survive – and more: we will learn what it means to be alive.

There are no shortcuts. The road cannot be made by wishing, by whining or by talking. It can be made only by walking, day after day, step by step, struggle by struggle. It’s easier, it turns out, to get people out of slavery than it is to get slavery out of people. So, people, let us walk the road – right through the middle of the desert.

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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 significant wilderness experience in your life – either literal or figurative.

3. What do you think it means in today’s world to ‘get the slavery out of the people’? What kinds of slavery do you think we are still stuck in?

4. For children: What’s the longest trip you’ve ever taken? What was one of the best parts of the trip? What was one of the worst parts?

5. Activate: Each day this week, reread the ten commandments as worded in this chapter. (Maybe send them to yourself and others via e-mail or social media.) Look for ways this ancient moral code is relevant in today’s world – and in your life.

6. Meditate: Relax for a few moments in God’s presence in silence. Think of the Sabbath not as being deprived of activity, but as a day of liberation from the 24/7 work-week of a slave. Breathe deep. Let go. Thank God for rest.

Chapter 9

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Chapter 9

Freedom!

Exodus 1:1–14; 3:1–15

I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.
Indeed, I know their sufferings . . .

John 8:1–11
Galatians 5:1, 13–15


Slavery was a sad and common reality in the ancient world. There were at least four ways that people became slaves. First, when people suffered a terrible misfortune like sickness, accident, flood, debt, theft or famine, they could quickly find themselves in danger of death by starvation or homelessness. In that desperate situation, they might be forced to sell themselves into slavery, under the simple reasoning that being a live slave was better than being a dead non-slave. Second, when nations won a war, they often killed off all their vanquished enemies. But some nations decided to keep their defeated foes alive as slaves instead of killing them. Third, refugees or other vulnerable minorities might be enslaved by the dominant majority. Finally, babies born to slaves were destined to be slaves.

That was what happened to the descendants of Abraham between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus in the Bible. As Genesis ended, Joseph had welcomed his brothers into Egypt as refugees to escape a famine in their land to the north. Finding refuge solved the famine problem, but refugee and minority status made them vulnerable to enslavement.

As Exodus begins, the Hebrews, as Abraham’s descendants were then called, have been enslaved. And they have also grown in numbers, so much so that the Egyptians have begun to fear that they might rebel. In response, the Egyptian ruler, the Pharaoh, calls for a gradual genocide by decreeing that all the male babies born to the Israelite slaves be thrown into the River Nile to drown. You can see how this strategy would leave the next generation of Hebrew women either barren or vulnerable to sexual enslavement by Egyptian men. After one generation, no more ‘pure’ Hebrews would be born.

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'...God gets involved by challenging us to get involved.'

Often in the Bible, when there is a big problem God prepares a person or people to act as God’s partners or agents in solving it. In other words, God gets involved by challenging us to get involved. In this case, God prepared a man named Moses. Moses was one of the babies whom the Pharaoh required to be drowned in the Nile.

His mother came up with a creative way to save his life. She placed him in the Nile as required, but first she put baby Moses in a little raft of reeds. His raft floated downstream, where it was found by one of Pharaoh’s daughters. She felt sorry for the little baby and decided to raise him as her own. So this vulnerable slave boy was adopted into the privileged household of Pharaoh – and to top it off, Moses’ own mother was hired to be the wet nurse. Quite a turn of events! Now Moses could live happily ever after, right?

Not quite. The good news was that Moses survived. The bad news? Moses grew up with an identity crisis. He was an Israelite by birth but an Egyptian by culture. So a huge question was hanging over him as he matured: on whose side would he stand when he came of age? As a young man, his moment of decision came when he saw an Egyptian beating up an Israelite. He stood up for the Israelite and killed the Egyptian oppressor. Now he had made his choice. But to his surprise, his kinfolk didn’t welcome him as a hero. Instead, when he tried to intervene in a quarrel between two Israelites, they distrusted him. So he went from belonging to both sides to being considered an outsider by both sides.

In disgrace, he ran away from Egypt and came to an oasis in the desert. There, he saw a group of male shepherds drive away some girls from a well. Now, sensitised to the victims of oppression, he stood up for the girls. Their father was so grateful that he welcomed Moses into his family, and Moses married one of the daughters he had helped protect. Finally Moses had a place to belong, right? Now he could settle down and be happy, right? They lived happily ever after, right? Not quite.

Imagine the scene: Moses is out tending sheep one day and something strange catches his attention: a bush is on fire, but it’s not burning up. When Moses comes closer to check it out, he hears a voice calling his name. It’s God – and God is telling him to go back to Egypt, confront Pharaoh about his exploitation of the Israelites, and lead them on a long road to freedom.

Moses feels he has already failed at helping the Israelites, so it takes some persuasion for him to agree to accept this mission. But finally he goes, supported by his older brother, Aaron. They confront Pharaoh with the message: ‘God says, “Let my people go!”’ Predictably, Pharaoh refuses. So God sends plagues as pressure on Pharaoh, as if to say, ‘Oppressing others may seem like the easy road to riches, power and comfort, but there are high costs to following that road.’ After that cost is dramatised ten times through ten plagues, Pharaoh relents and tells the people they can leave. Now everything will be fine, right? Happily ever after, right?

Not quite. Soon after saying ‘yes’ to Moses, Pharaoh has second thoughts and sends his army to pursue the Israelites and bring them back into slavery.

So Moses and the Israelites find themselves trapped between the Egyptian army and a huge body of water. At the last minute, God opens up a path through the water and the Israelites escape. When Pharaoh’s army follows, the path closes and they all drown. The fate they had planned for the Israelite babies now becomes their own fate. Surely now there will be a happy ending for the former slaves, right? Not quite.

If you’re looking for a thirty-minute story with a happy ending every time, it’s hard to find in the Bible – just as it is in real life. Instead, we discover the presence of God with us in our troubles, helping us deal with them, helping us discover solutions to them, helping us deal with the new problems inevitably created by those solutions, and so on. Through it all, we discover God’s faithful desire to help the downtrodden, the oppressed, the exploited and the forgotten.

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'We’re all like Moses in a lot of ways. We all have choices to make...'

We’re all like Moses in a lot of ways. We all have choices to make – who we will become, whose side we’ll stand on, whether we’ll give up after our failures and frustrations, whether we’ll have the faith to get up and keep moving forward when we sense God’s call. Life may not be easy – but it can certainly be an exciting path to walk, if we go through life with God!

The story of Moses and the escape, or exodus, from Egypt glows at the core of the whole biblical story. It makes one of history’s most audacious and unprecedented claims: God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners! God doesn’t uphold an unjust status quo, but works to undermine it so that a better future can come. That revolutionary message is still unknown or rejected in much of the world today. If you believe it, you will live one way. If you don’t, you’ll live another way. Jesus, as one of the descendants of those slaves, was formed in this story of liberation.

Every year he gathered around a table to remember these events and to situate his life in the ongoing march from slavery and into freedom. All who ate that Passover meal, as it was called, were demonstrating that they were not part of the slave-owning economy, but were among those seeking freedom from it. They wanted God’s judgement to pass over them – which is the source of the meal’s name, Passover – so they could pass over from slavery to freedom. As part of this community, united in this meal, Jesus learned a profound way of seeing God and others. Where others used their gods to defend an unjust status quo, Jesus believed in the God of justice and liberation. Where others saw a worthless slave, an exploitable asset, a damnable sinner, a disgusting outsider, Jesus saw someone to set free.

The night before his crucifixion, Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Passover meal. He urged his disciples to keep doing so – not just annually, but frequently, and not just in memory of Moses in ancient Egypt, but also in memory of his own life and message. That’s why followers of Jesus continue to gather around a simple meal of bread and wine today. By participating in that meal, we are making the same choice Moses made – and the same choice Jesus made: to join God in the ongoing struggle to be free and to set others free.

That’s what it means to be alive in God’s story of creation and non-violent liberation. It’s a road into the wild, a road we make by walking

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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 you took the side of a vulnerable person, or the time you were the vulnerable person and others took your side . . . or didn’t.

3. Name the Hebrew slaves of today’s world. Who today is being exploited and crying out for help? Who does back-breaking work for which others reap the rewards? How can we join in solidarity with them, seeking liberation?

4. For children: What’s your favourite meal and what do you like most about it? What special meaning does that meal have for you?

5. Activate: This week, seek to have ‘Moses eyes’ – looking for people who are being oppressed or mistreated. Be open to ways God may call you to intervene.

6. Meditate: Hold this question open before God: ‘Loving Creator, help my small heart to join your great heart in having compassion for those most in need.’

Chapter 8

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Rivalry or Reconciliation?

Chapter 8

Genesis 32:22 – 33:11; 50:15–21
Matthew 25:31–40
Luke 10:25–37
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.


If you had siblings, how did you get along? The book of Genesis is full of stories of brothers and sisters in competition and conflict. After the tragic story of Cain and Abel, we come to the story of Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was Abraham’s first son, born not to his wife Sarah but to her Egyptian slave Hagar. According to Genesis, there was a bitter rivalry between the two mothers and their two sons. Hagar and Ishmael were treated terribly, while Sarah and Isaac were given every advantage. God intervened and made it clear that even if Abraham and Sarah failed to love Hagar and Ishmael, God cared for them deeply.

Years later, Abraham’s grandson Jacob was caught up in bitter sibling rivalry with his older twin brother, Esau. At the heart of their conflict was the belief that God loved Jacob and hated Esau. Based on this belief that he was uniquely favoured, Jacob felt entitled to take advantage of everyone around him, especially his disfavoured brother Esau. He seemed to get away with his trickery again and again until, eventually, Esau grew so angry at Jacob that Jacob had to flee for his life. For many years, the two brothers lived far apart, maturing, but still alienated from each other. During this time, Jacob married two sisters – a favoured one named Rachel and a disfavoured one named Leah. Leah became the mother of six of Jacob’s twelve sons, so her story had a happier ending than anyone expected.

After he became a rich and successful man, Jacob began a homeward journey. He learned that the next day he would be forced to encounter the brother he had wronged in so many ways so many years before. You can imagine how afraid he was. He had lived his whole life by trickery. Now his old tricks weren’t working any more. So all that night, he felt like he was in a wrestling match with God.

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His sleepless night of inner wrestling seems like an image for the human struggle common to us all.

His sleepless night of inner wrestling seems like an image for the human struggle common to us all. Like Jacob, we wrestle to get our own way by trying to cheat or defeat anyone who has something we desire – including God. Like Jacob, we grapple with changing old habits, even when those habits aren’t working for us any more. Like Jacob, we agonise through the long night, held in a headlock by despair, fearing that it’s too late for us to hope for a new beginning. 

So hour after hour through the night, Jacob wrestled. When the new day dawned, he rose from the struggle with two signs of his emergence into maturity as a human being. First, he received the blessing of a new name, Israel, which means ‘God-wrestler’. And he received a hip injury that required him to walk with a limp, a lifelong memento of his long night of struggle.

Jacob was now ready – limping – to face his brother. Instead of trying to trick Esau as the old Jacob would have done, he sent Esau a huge array of gifts to honour him. When Jacob finally met Esau face to face, Esau had his chance. Now the older twin could finally get revenge on his upstart younger twin for all Jacob’s dirty tricks in the past.

Esau could treat Jacob to a taste of the disdain and contempt Jacob had repeatedly poured upon him. But Esau surprised everyone. He made it clear that he wasn’t holding a grudge. He desired no revenge, nor did he require any gifts or appeasement. He simply wanted to be reconciled.

Jacob was so touched that he said these beautiful words: ‘Truly, to see your face is like seeing the face of God, since you have received me with such grace.’ The upstart trickster had finally learned to see the face of God in the face of the one he formerly tricked and despised. He discovered God’s grace in the one he had always considered disgraced. In the face of the other, he rediscovered a brother. In the face of the one everyone assumed God hated . . . God had been revealed. What a story!

Even though Jacob learned an important lesson that day, sibling rivalry had a resurgence in the next generation. Jacob had twelve sons. One son, Joseph, was resented by his eleven brothers, because – as with Abel over Cain, Sarah over Hagar, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, and Rachel over Leah before him – Joseph was favoured over them. In fact, Joseph dreamed that one day his brothers would grovel before him.

Eventually, driven by the resentment of the disfavoured, they plotted to kill him. At the last minute, however, they decided to sell him as a slave to some Egyptian traders instead. Through a dramatic series of temptations, delays, setbacks and recoveries, Joseph rose from slavery to a place of honour in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Many years later, when a famine sent the brothers to Egypt as refugees, Joseph had his chance, just as Esau did: he could get revenge on those miserable brothers who had treated him so badly. He could do to them what they had done to him. But Joseph, like Esau, made a different choice – not for revenge, but for forgiveness. 

When his brothers grovelled before him, as Joseph had dreamed they would when he was a boy, and when they offered to be treated as slaves rather than brothers, Joseph didn’t gloat. He refused to play God, judge them evil and sentence them to death or enslavement. Instead, he reinterpreted the whole story of their relationship. Their evil intent had been overshadowed by God’s good intent, so that Joseph could save their lives. He had suffered and he had been blessed, he realised, for their benefit. So instead of imitating their resentful and violent example, he imitated the gracious heart of God. By refusing to play God in judging them, he imaged God in showing kindness to them. In this way, Joseph – the victim of mistreatment by his brothers – became the hero.

The one everyone cruelly rejected was the one whose kindness everyone needed. The one who was considered favoured wasn’t made superior so others could grovel before him; he was made strong so he could serve them.

In both of these stories of sibling rivalry, the rejected brother, the ‘other brother’, is the one in whose face the grace of God brightly shines.

These stories pulsate with some of the most powerful and radical themes of the Bible. Blessing, power or favour is not given for privilege over others, but for service for the benefit of others. The weaker brother or sister, the one who is deemed ugly or dull or disfavoured or illegitimate, is always beloved by God. From Abel to Ishmael to Hagar to Esau to Leah to Joseph, God keeps showing up, not in the victors who have defeated or exploited or rejected a weaker rival, but in the weaker ones who have been defeated or rejected.

These same themes are the heartbeat of two of Jesus’ greatest parables. In the parable of the prodigal son, the father who runs out to welcome his runaway younger son behaves exactly as Esau did – running to him, embracing him, kissing him, showing grace rather than retaliation. And he acts just as Joseph did, as well, not making the runaway grovel as a slave, but welcoming him as a beloved member of the family. And in the parable of the good Samaritan, it is the disfavoured Samaritan, not the high-status priest or Levite, who models the love of God.

As in Genesis, life today is full of rivalries and conflicts. We all experience wrongs, hurts and injustices through the actions of others – and we all inflict wrongs, hurts and injustices upon others. If we want to reflect the image of God, we will choose grace over hostility, reconciliation over revenge, equality over rivalry. When we make that choice, we encounter God in the face of our former rivals and enemies. And as we are humbled, surrendering to God and seeking to be reconciled with others, our faces too reflect the face of God.

We come alive as God’s image-bearers indeed.

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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 how a conflict or rivalry with a family member, friend or colleague challenged you to face yourself . . . and God.

3. Respond to the idea that in revenge, we seek to imitate the person who has wronged us, and that in reconciliation, we imitate and reflect God.

4. For children: Tell us about someone you had a chance to forgive.

5. Activate: This week, look for opportunities for others to ‘see the face of God’ in your face, and seek the face of God in their faces, too – especially those you may see as rivals or outcasts.

6. Meditate: In silence, ponder forgiveness, and thank God for the joy of being forgiven – and for the release of forgiving others.

Chapter 7

baby

It's Not Too Late

Chapter 7

Genesis 18:9–33; 22:1–14
Micah 6:6–8

. . . what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Acts 17:19–34


Have you ever felt that it was too late? That things were so awful they could never get better, that you had failed so horribly and so often you could never, ever recover, that the situation was too far gone ever to be salvageable?

That was how Abram and Sarai felt at one point in their lives. Like many couples, they had dreamed all their lives of having children. But the years passed and no children came. They had received a promise from God that they would become a great family and that all people everywhere would be blessed through their descendants. But there was one problem: they had no descendants. When they were far too old to have children, you can imagine how they felt: it was just too late. Then they received reassurance from God that they would have a child. No wonder, according to the book of Genesis, that Sarai laughed when she first heard the promise!

However they felt at first, over time Abram and Sarai came to believe that what seemed impossible was possible after all. When that impossible baby was born, guess what they named him? They named him Isaac, which means ‘laughter’. And their names were changed, too, reflecting their new status as parents – from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah.

You might expect a happy ending at this point, but it was not that simple. Even after embarking on the adventure of faith, and even after becoming parents when it seemed too late, Abraham and Sarah faced another huge challenge.

Put yourself in their sandals. Imagine that you and everyone you know believes that God is a severe and demanding deity who can bestow forgiveness and other blessings only after human blood has been shed. Imagine how that belief in human sacrifice will affect the way you live, the way you worship and the way you treat others. Now imagine how hard it would be to be the first person in your society to question such a belief. Imagine how much courage it would take, especially because your blood might be the next to be sacrificed! Questioning widely held assumptions about God can be a dangerous venture indeed.

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'Are we allowed to question or point out problems with these images and understandings that are widely held and emotionally comforting for many?'

But if our assumptions aren’t sometimes questioned, belief in God becomes less and less plausible. For example, biblical writers used the imagery of God sitting on a throne to express their belief that God was powerful and glorious, like an ancient king. Even though we may agree that God is powerful and glorious, does that mean we must believe that God’s power and glory are exactly like those of ancient kings – who could often be insecure, capricious, vain or vicious? Does it mean we must conclude that God has a literal gluteus maximus that rests on a really big chair floating up in the sky somewhere? Are we allowed to question or point out problems with these images and understandings that are widely held and emotionally comforting for many?

Perhaps we can agree that whoever and whatever God is, our best imagery can only point towards God like a finger. We can never capture God in our concepts like a fist. In fact, the more we know about God, the more we have to acknowledge we don’t know.

The bigger our understanding about God, the bigger the mystery that we must acknowledge. Our faith must always be open to correction, enhancement and new insight. That’s why humility is so essential for all who speak of God. Science faces a similar problem, by the way. Scientists have names for gravity and light and electricity and magnetism. But even though they have names for these realities, and even though they can create models and formulas to predict how they will work, what these forces really are remains a mystery. It’s pretty humbling when you think about it. That’s why, in the world of science, people are constantly questioning old assumptions and creating new theories or models. Scientists test and argue about those new theories and models until they are either confirmed or replaced with something even better.

The dominant theory of God in Abraham’s and Sarah’s day taught that the gracious God who gives human life would also demand human life as a sacrifice. So when Abraham believed God was commanding him to kill Isaac, he was being faithful to a traditional model of how God and life worked. We might wish that Abraham had argued over this theory, just as he did when he believed God was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. But strangely, what Abraham did for two cities he refrained from doing for his own son.

So, one day Abraham led Isaac up a mountain. He piled stones into an altar, tied up his son and placed him on the stones. He raised the knife, and once again it seemed too late. But at that last possible instant, Abraham saw a ram nearby, its horns stuck in a thicket. Suddenly he realised that God had provided a ram to sacrifice in place of Isaac, his son. What a powerful new insight! Animal blood could please or appease their God as a substitute for human blood!

It was commonplace in the ancient world for a man to lead his son up a mountain to be sacrificed to his deity. It was extraordinary for a man to come down the mountain with his son still alive. Through that ancient story, Abraham’s descendants explained why they had changed their theory or model of God, and why they dared to be different from their neighbours who still practised human sacrifice. It wasn’t too late to challenge widely held assumptions and change their theory of God! But they still weren’t finished. Many generations after ritualised human sacrifice was left behind for ever, prophets and poets arose among Abraham’s descendants who made the shocking claim that God doesn’t need animal sacrifices either. 

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'...they realised God isn’t the one who is angry and hostile and needs appeasement.'

They realised that God could never need anything from us, since God provides everything for us. Not only that, but they realised God isn’t the one who is angry and hostile and needs appeasement. We humans are the angry ones! Our hostile, bloodthirsty hearts are the ones that need to be changed!

So over many centuries, led along by many teachers and prophets, Abraham’s descendants came to believe that God wanted one thing from humanity . . . not sacrifice, whether human or animal, but this: to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God. The only sacrifice that mattered to God was the holy gift of humble hearts and lives dedicated to his way of love. So with faith, it’s not too late. It’s not too late for a dream to come true, and it’s not too late to learn something new.

That’s true for us today as we follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah, walking this road together. We’re still learning, rethinking, growing, discovering. In spite of long delays and many disappointments, will we dare to keep dreaming impossible dreams? 

In spite of the assumptions that everyone around us holds to be true, will we dare to ask new questions and make new discoveries – including lessons about God and what God really desires? It may seem as if it’s too late to keep hoping, to keep trying, to keep learning, to keep growing. But to be alive in the story of creation means daring to believe it’s not too late.

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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 you almost gave up, but are glad you didn’t.

3. What are some critical issues in today’s world – or in our personal lives – where we might say ‘It’s too late’ or ‘It’s impossible’?

4. For children: What makes you laugh? Why do you think Sarah laughed in this story?

5. Activate: This week, try saying ‘It’s not too late’ when you’re tempted to be cynical or give up. Or practise the art of ‘the second laugh’. The first laugh comes as a reflex when we think something is impossible. The second laugh comes as a choice when we laugh at our lack of faith.

6. Meditate: After a few moments of silence, complete this sentence as your prayer: ‘Living God, it’s not too late to change my mind about . . .’

Chapter 6

walking

Plotting Goodness

Chapter 6

Genesis 12:1–9

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing . . .

Galatians 3:6–9
Mark 11:15–19


According to the ancient stories of Genesis, God is up to something surprising and amazing in our world. While we’re busy plotting evil, God is plotting goodness. Yes, sometimes we humans try to rope God into our dark plots and use God to help us scramble to the top of the pyramid, where we can dominate over others. Yes, we sometimes try to enlist God to condemn those we want to condemn, deprive those we want to deprive, even kill those we want to kill. But God isn’t willing to be domesticated into our little tribal deity on a leash who will attack our enemies on our command. While we plot ways to use God to get blessings for ourselves, God stays focused on the big picture of blessing the world – which includes blessing us in the process.

You see this pattern unfold when God chooses a man named Abram and a woman named Sarai. They are from a prominent family in a great ancient city-state known as Ur, one of the first ancient Middle Eastern civilisations. Like all civilisations, Ur has a dirty little secret: its affluence is built on violence, oppression and exploitation. Behind its beautiful facade, its upper classes live each day in luxury, while its masses slave away in squalor.

God tells this couple to leave their life of privilege in this great civilisation. He sends them out into the unknown as wanderers and adventurers. No longer will Abram and Sarai have the armies and wealth and comforts of Ur at their disposal. All they will have is a promise – that God will be with them and show them a better way. 

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'From now on, they will make a new road by walking.'

From now on, they will make a new road by walking.

God’s promise comes in two parts. In the first part, Abram and Sarai will be blessed. They will become a great nation, and God will bless those who bless them and curse those who curse them. That’s the kind of promise we might expect. It’s the second part that’s surprising.

Not only will they be blessed, but they will be a blessing. Not only will their family become a great nation, but all the families on Earth will be blessed through them.

This is a unique identity indeed. It means the children of Abram and Sarai will be a unique us in relation to all the other thems of the world. No, their identity will not be us at the top of the pyramid and them at the bottom, or vice versa. Nor will their identity be us assimilated into them, or us assimilating them into us. Nor will it be us against them, us apart from them, or us in spite of them. No, Abram and Sarai’s unique identity will be us for them, us with them, us for the benefit and blessing of all.

That ‘otherly’ identity – us for the common good – wasn’t intended only for Abram’s and Sarai’s clan. It is the kind of identity that is best for every individual, every culture, every nation, every religion. It says, ‘We’re special!’ But it also says, ‘They’re special, too.’ It says, ‘God has a place for us and a plan for us.’ But it also says, ‘God has a place and plan for others, too.’ When we drift from that high calling and start thinking only of me, only of our clan or our nation or our religion, our sense of identity begins to go stale and sour, even toxic.

So the story of Abram’s and Sarai’s unique identity tells us something powerful about God’s identity, too: God is not the tribal deity of one group of ‘chosen’ people. God is not for us and against all others. God is for us and for them, too. God loves everyone everywhere, no exceptions.

And this story also tells us something about true faith. Faith is stepping off the map of what’s known and making a new road by walking into the unknown. It’s responding to God’s call to adventure, stepping out on a quest for goodness, trusting that the status quo isn’t as good as it gets, believing a promise that a better life is possible.

True faith isn’t a deal where we use God to get the inside track or a special advantage or a secret magic formula for success. It isn’t a mark of superiority or exclusion. True faith is about joining God in God’s love for everyone. It’s about seeking goodness with others, not at the expense of others. True faith is seeing a bigger circle in which we are all connected, all included, all loved, all blessed. True faith reverses the choice that is pictured in the story of Adam and Eve. In that story, Adam and Eve want to set themselves above everyone and everything else. True faith brings us back down to Earth, into solidarity with others and with all creation.

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'True faith is seeing a bigger circle in which we are all connected, all included, all loved, all blessed.

Sadly, for many people, faith has been reduced to a list. For some, it’s a list of beliefs: ideas or statements that we have to memorise and assent to if we want to be blessed. For others, it’s a list of dos and don’ts: rituals or rules that we have to perform to earn the status of being blessed. But Abram didn’t have much in the way of beliefs, rules or rituals. He had no Bibles, doctrines, temples, commandments or ceremonies. For him, true faith was simply trusting a promise of being blessed to be a blessing. It wasn’t a way of being religious: it was a way of being alive.

And so this story not only tells us something about God’s true identity and about the true nature of faith, it also tells us about true aliveness. If you scramble over others to achieve your goal, that’s not true aliveness. If you harm others to acquire your desire, that’s not true aliveness. If you hoard your blessings while others suffer in need, that’s not true aliveness. True aliveness comes when we receive blessings and become a blessing to others. It’s not a blessing racket – figuring out how to plot prosperity for me and my tribe. It’s a blessing economy where God plots goodness for all.

Like all of us, Abram and Sarai will lose sight of this vision of aliveness sometimes. But even when they lose faith, God will remain faithful. Through their mistakes and failures, they will keep learning and growing, discovering more and more of God’s desire to overflow with abundant blessing for all.

Are you ready to step out on the same journey of faith with Sarai and Abram? Will you join them in the adventure of being blessed to be a blessing? Are you ready to make the road by walking?

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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 you observed or participated in a group that saw itself as blessed to the exclusion of others rather than for the blessing of others.

3. Where in today’s world do you see people practising the kind of ‘otherly’ identity to which God called Abram – ‘us for the sake of others’?

4. For children: Tell us about a grown-up or another child who often asks you to help him or her. How does helping someone make you feel?

5. Activate: Look for opportunities to ‘be a blessing’ to others this week. Come back with some stories to share.

6. Meditate: In silence, hold this truth in God’s presence: I am blessed to be a blessing.

Chapter 5

sea

In Over Our Heads

Chapter 5

Genesis 4:1–17; 6:5–8; 7:1–5; 8:1; 9:7–17

Psalm 51

James 4:1–8


Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?

In the ancient Genesis stories, our species was created in the image of God – to reflect God’s character faithfully in the world, both to our fellow creatures and to one another.

Soon, though, we wanted to be little gods ourselves. We wanted to judge good and evil for ourselves, to decide who would live and who would die, who would rule and who would be enslaved. Consumed by the desire to grasp what others had, we became rivals of God and our neighbours. That crisis of desire has led to great shame, pain, suffering, violence, counter-violence and fear... in our lives, our communities and our world. Today’s headlines tell the same story in a hundred different ways.

In the Genesis story, the descendants of Cain, the first murderer, started building cities, and those cities reflected the violence of Cain. As city-states competed with each other and defeated one another, the winners created growing empires that elevated a few to god-like status and reduced most to oppression and slavery. The situation became so unbearable that in the story of Noah and the flood, God felt sorry for making the world in the first place. Eventually God decided to wipe the whole slate clean and start again. Maybe Noah’s descendants would do better than Adam’s had.

Although many people think of this as a cute story about animals and a boat ride, those who think more deeply find it deeply disturbing. The image of violent oppressors and innocent victims drowning together seems only to make a bad situation worse. At the very least, one would think God would have more creativity, moral finesse and foresight than to create a good world only to destroy it because it went so bad so (relatively) quickly. Shouldn’t God be better than this?

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'ancient cultures were oral cultures

To understand this story – and others like it – properly, we need to remember that ancient cultures were oral cultures. Few people were literate, and oral storytelling was to them what reading books, using the internet, going to concerts and watching films and TV shows are to us today. Ancient stories had a long life as oral compositions before they were ever written down. As oral compositions, stories could evolve over time. In a sense, writing them down ended their evolution.

For ancient people in oral cultures, a story was like a hypothesis. A good and helpful story, like a tested hypothesis, would be repeated and improved and enhanced from place to place and generation to generation. Less helpful stories would be forgotten like a failed theory, or adjusted and revised until they became more helpful. Sometimes, competing stories would stand side by side like competing theories, awaiting a time when one would prevail – or both would fail, and a new story would arise with more explanatory power. In all these ways, storytelling was, like the scientific method, a way of seeking the truth, a way of grappling with profound questions, a way of passing on hard-won insights. As our ancestors deepened their understanding, their stories changed – just as our theories change.

In this light, we can reconsider the story of Noah as an adaptation of even older stories from the Middle East. In one of those earlier versions, a gang of gods unleashed a catastrophic flood as a personal vendetta against some noisy people who kept the gods awake at night. Ancient Jewish storytellers would have found that story repulsive. So they adapted it to reveal more of God’s true character, replacing many vindictive gods who were irritable from lack of sleep with one Creator who unleashes a flood to flush out human violence.

That’s certainly a step in the right direction, but the process doesn’t need to end with the Noah story. After all, God’s violence doesn’t really solve anything in the Noah story, since Noah’s family quickly starts cooking up more trouble so that soon things are just as bad as they were before the flood. Again, we can’t help but wonder, shouldn’t God be better than that? To answer that question, we need to bring in another story. Later in Genesis, in the story of Joseph, God responds to violence in a very different way – not with more violence, but with kindness. Another big step in the right direction!

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'The ancient world was filled with huge structures...'

We see the same pattern in the story of the Tower of Babel. The ancient world was filled with huge structures – towers and pyramids and temples and the like – that were built with slave labour. Just about everyone in those days assumed that the gods chose a few high-echelon people to sit pretty at the top of the pyramid. The masses were destined to be slaves at the bottom, sweating to make bricks or haul stones or irrigate fields so that the elite could have a nice day. Everyone assumed that the gods supported these slave-based economies of empire, and everyone understood that the towers, pyramids and temples both pleased and honoured the gods of the status quo.

But in the Tower of Babel story, the storytellers realise that the living God must be better than that. So in their story, tower-building is exposed as another form of rivalry with God. God opposes their soaring ambition of assimilation and domination. God diversifies the languages of the Babylonian Empire so that its ambition of global empire fails, memorialised for ever in an unfinished tower. This new version of an old story is a big step in the right direction. Later, when we come to the story of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, we’ll see another giant step forward, revealing God even more beautifully and fully.

As we progress through the biblical library, these stories interact with one another again and again. Together they reveal an ever fuller and deeper vision of God. We come to know a God who consistently refuses to support a pyramid economy with a few at the top and the masses at the bottom. We come to trust a God who consistently opposes the oppressors and consistently takes the side of the humble, the vulnerable and the poor. We eventually come to understand God as one who consistently prefers non-violence over violence, equality over dominance and justice over injustice. Taken together, these stories make one of the most audacious claims in all of history: the living God doesn’t uphold the status quo . . . but repeatedly disrupts it and breaks it open so that something better can emerge and evolve.

Do you see what’s happening? Generation after generation, people are telling stories that improve upon previous stories and prepare the way for even better stories to emerge. The process leaps forward in the story of Jesus. He comes proclaiming the message of the commonwealth – or kingdom, or alternative economy – of God. He shows how in God’s way of arranging things, the last are first and the first are last.

Leaders serve, and the humble – not the arrogant – inherit the Earth. In word and deed, in parable and miracle, Jesus shows that God is at work in history to heal what is broken – on the personal level of individual lives, and on the societal level of economics and government too. And he proclaims God not as a reactive avenger who sweeps away the innocent with the guilty, but as a forgiving, merciful, gracious parent who loves all creation with a perfect, holy, faithful, compassionate love.

No wonder he told people to ‘repent’ – which means to ‘rethink everything’. No wonder he was known as a brilliantly creative and original storyteller. As with the parables of Jesus, the Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, flood and tower stories in Genesis don’t need to be factually true to tell an actual truth about us and our civilisation. Those ancient stories courageously expose how all civilisations were founded on violence and oppression, producing luxury and ease for a few but exhaustion and degradation for the many. They warn us that unjust structures are unsustainable. They advise that floods of change will sweep injustice away and internal conflicts will thwart arrogant ambitions. They promise that in the long run, justice and reconciliation will prevail over injustice and rivalry.

If we aren’t careful, we can grow comfortable and complacent with a status quo of injustice, oppression and violence. That’s why we are wise to gather often and retell these ancient stories. Rather than being conformed to this world and its mixed-up priorities, we can seek together to be transformed by a different and better story so we can join with God in the healing of our world. To be alive is to join God in caring about the oppressed, the needy, the powerless, the victims and the vulnerable. To be alive is to believe that injustice is not sustainable and to share God’s desire for a better world. To be alive is to look at our world and say, ‘God is better than that!’ – and know that our world can be better too. 

And so can we.

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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 where you felt like someone at the top of the pyramid, or like someone at the bottom.

3. How do you respond to the comparison between stories and scientific theories, or to the distinction between factual and actual truth?

4. For children: Have you ever known a bully, or have you ever been a bully, or have you ever been bullied? Tell us about it.

5. Activate: Look for moments this week when it might be appropriate for you to say, ‘God must be better than that.’ And look for examples this week of the powerful exploiting the vulnerable when it might be appropriate for you to say, ‘We can be better than that.’

6. Meditate: Ask yourself, in God’s presence, ‘What desire to acquire may be driving me into trouble?’ After a few moments of silence, acknowledge the desires that come to mind. Then ask for other, better desires to replace the desire to acquire.

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.

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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.

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'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.