Summer Days: The Great Outdoors
When I was in Sunday School in about 5th grade or so in Westernville, NY, my class didn’t have to be in any of the skits for the Children’s Sunday pageant. Instead, we each got to pick and read our favorite passage of scripture. I already had lots of favorites, and I hadn’t yet discovered my current long-lasting favorite – “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” But out of my favorites, I decided to go with the creation story found in Genesis 1. I thought it was so beautiful. And I loved the part about how we’re created in God’s image. I’m not sure, looking back, whether my questions about creation came first, and then I chose to read this text in worship, or it is was the other way around. But near the same time, I asked my Sunday School teacher Mr. Waldo how it could be that God created the world in seven days if dinosaurs lived and became extinct all millions of years before people came around. I had learned the first thing at church and the second thing at school and both sounded right to me until I tried to put them together. Adults can respond in a lot ways, sometimes not so helpful ways, when kids are asking faith questions. But Mr. Waldo just said that God’s time might not be measured like our time, and he thought they could go together just fine – both what I had learned at church and what I had learned at school.
I’ve never forgotten his response, and I always give thanks for it when I remember, because it really enabled me to always see the way we describe the world in faith language and the way we describe it in the language of science as things that go hand in hand – two ways of talking about the same thing. When I read Genesis 1, I’m not looking for the science of how the earth got here – and I don’t think that’s why the author was writing. The author wanted us to know some essential things about God, the world, and our relationship with God. And the author wanted to communicate in a particular literary style. It’s poetry. It’s a hymn. Genesis 1 is practically a piece of liturgy – it’s a call to worship. I still find it beautiful.
I read about a neat activity for Bible study that I’ve since used with study groups or prayer stations – and I will hopefully try here sometime with you. It’s called Bible Blackout. You take a passage of scripture and print it out on a sheet of paper. Then you read the text and circle all the words that stand out to you. And then you take a sharpie and black out all the words except the ones you’ve circled. And you’re left with a kind of poem that you’ve created out of the scripture passage. When I did this with my youth in Liverpool, I worked with the creation text that we read today, and this is the poem I came up with:
“God created deep waters. And God saw good. And God saw good. And God saw good. And God saw good. And God saw good. And God saw good. So God created humankind in the image of God and blessed them. God saw everything, and indeed, it was very good. And God rested.”
Boiled down, that’s the message of creation I get from Genesis 1: God created. And God saw good, good, good. And humans are created in God’s image and blessed. In God’s image. When God created us, God made us reflections of God! Each one of us! A sacred gift. And God saw it all, and saw us all, and saw that it was very good indeed. Good enough that God felt ready to take a bit of rest. That’s a good story, this hymn of creation, that tells us a deep truth that we’re still struggling to accept. I think most of scripture answers a question, and figuring out the question can help you understand the text. I think the question, in this case is: are we inherently good or bad? People? The world? Good or bad? Theologians have actually debated this – created new religious movements because of their beliefs about this – for thousands of years. Are we inherently sinful and bad? Or, at our core, despite what we might become or how we behave, or how we choose that which is not what was intended for us, are we, in fact, good? The author of Genesis 1 has a pretty straightforward answer to that: good.
I don’t know if, in ancient times, people felt closest to God in places other than the great outdoors. I’m sure some people especially felt God’s presence in the Temple. Certainly, though, even the writings of the poets and prophets in the Bible – the Psalms, Job, Isaiah – it is clear that even though ancient peoples spent much, much more of their time outside than we do, still they were filled with awe and wonder and a sense of closeness to God as they observed the world around them. Still today we’re filled with wonder when we head outdoors, and for many, it is easier to find God in nature than elsewhere. Maybe outdoors, maybe in the midst of creation, it is a sliver easier to remember that God is Creator and that God chose to create us, and that God called us good. And yet, we’ve become such an indoor people, that I wonder how often we forget what would otherwise come so naturally to us.
I was walking one day a few years back at beautiful Green Lakes State Park and spotted two teenage girls sitting near the water, enjoying the view. And then one said to the other, “It looks just like a computer screen.” I remember going to see a set of caves one time while we were on family vacation in Lake George. I had found out about these caves doing a little research for our trip, and had convinced my mom and brother to go. It was taking a while to get there. A bit out of the way. My family was complaining a little bit about the drive. And just then we started passing signs put up on the road that said, one word per sign: “Can’t move the caves closer to the road.” I think, though, that we’ve come to have this foolish belief that we can control nature, and we’re surprised again and again when it is beyond us. We want nothing to keep us from the crazy rhythm of life we have established. And so we try to box ourselves in, try to build up walls, literal and figurative, between us and creation, sometimes preferring to view it from our window. We’re surprised when wild animals crash into our wild-free world. Frustrated when we can’t keep our life at a consistent 70 degrees no matter what season it is – God knows – seriously, God knows that I am thankful for air conditioning and heat. And we don’t even think about how crazy it is that we have access to any kind of food we want from any part of the globe at any time of the year.
Sometimes, we forget about the hymn of creation. And we forget that God created us and called us good. In fact, another creation story is in our scriptures, right after the first, and it recounts, in Genesis 2 and 3, a story of Adam and Eve and a paradise, a garden where God walks. And then there’s this snake, this serpent. And then we see the beginning of the forgetting that God called us good, the beginning of the walls – between us and God, between us and creation, between us and each other. Walls and layers that we think protect us but in actuality hide us from God’s truth.
David Erlander is a Lutheran pastor who’s written some of my favorite stories for adults, called Tales of Pointless People. This is the creation story from his perspective, adapted by Barbara Lundbald:
I am telling you that in the beginning, God created not one or two but a whole bunch of us. Lots of us. Because God knows that we love to play. So we did play all day and into the night. We splashed in the rivers. We rolled down the hillsides. We ran with the wind.
Until one day the snake came. At least they told us it was a snake. It might not have been a snake. It might have been someone in a three-piece suit with a cellular phone. Or it could have been a theologian with a very fat book. But what they told us was that it was a snake.
And the snake came to us, to all of us who were playing on the hillside and splashing in the water, rolling and playing and tumbling, and said, "This is foolish! You are wasting time. None of this makes any sense unless you learn to keep score."
We had no idea what the snake meant. But then the snake said something really interesting. The snake said "Whoever gets the most points will get this apple!" But we had no idea what points were. So then the snake said "I will teach you. . . ."
And so the snake did teach us how to keep points with our running and our jumping and our climbing. And so that whoever climbed highest got points, and whoever ran fastest got points, and whoever could roll down the hill fastest got points. Some things however, like frolicking, were too hard to score. So we gave them up all together.
Soon we were keeping score for everything we did. We chalked up the points for everywhere. We kept track so that we would know who had the most points because surely all of us wanted to get the apple.
Soon we were spending so much time keeping score that we didn’t have time to play.
Then God came into the garden. And God was wroth. God was very, very wroth. And God told us that we would have to leave the garden. Not only that — God told us that we were going to die.
Well, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s God who didn’t understand things! My cumulative lifetime score is now 12,263. By the time I die, it will probably be even more! We were like God’s slaves in the garden. We had to do everything that God told us to do. It was the snake who taught us to keep score, and now I’m teaching my children to keep score. I think they could reach 15,000. Maybe 20,000. Now we are free to make as many points as we can, to keep making points till the day we die and to teach all our children and our grandchildren how to make points. I’m really grateful to the snake. . . .
We know, friends, don’t we, that there is no end of ways in which we’re given the message that we are not, in fact, good enough. Not, in fact, good at all. Only by believing that we’re lacking, that we’re without, that we’re not enough can be convinced that we need to buy any number of things that promises is contains goodness itself. Enough points for us perhaps not to win the snake’s game, but at least to stop losing so badly.
Sometimes, I think our souls just long to get back outside. I remember travelling to an event in Dallas in high school, and the event was at a hotel right near the airport. And there was a tram that departed from inside the airport and arrived inside the hotel. And the whole event was inside. And there was no scheduled free time. And then I got back on the tram and went back to the airport and flew back home. I was never outside. And I felt boxed in, longing for the fresh air, the great outdoors. I think our souls long to be closer to a place where we remember that God created, and saw us, and saw good. I think we long to remember a time when there were no points, and no keeping score. Fortunately, the snake doesn’t get to tell the end of the story. Here’s how the rest of it goes:
And then an ordinary fellow appeared from Nazareth - we said to ourselves, did any winner ever come from Nazareth? … And … do you know what he did? He went up to people like fishermen and whispered in their ear, "You don't need points!" And he sat down beside a Samaritan woman at the well and told her everything about her loser sort of life and said, "You don't need points either!" Then he sat down with Nicodemus, a teacher of the Law, and said to him, "You don't need points, Nicodemus." To Mary and Martha, to Joanna who was married to a very high official, to Susannah, Mary Magdalene, to Zacchaeus, to all of them he said, "You don't need points!" And those who gathered around him, listening to what he said about the kingdom of God being in the midst of them, soon looked at each other and him and said, "This kingdom is pointless!" Well, he didn't say a thing except to smile. They had pointless banquets where the guest lists were thrown away. They had pointless picnics on the hillside where everyone got plenty to eat, and there was still some left over. They even had a pointless parade into the city with children leading the way and people waving palms instead of swords. How pointless can you get!
But the snake, or the one in the three piece suit, or the theologian with the heavy book - I can't remember who it was, but it was someone with friends in high places - said, "This will never do. This will never do." And so shortly after that parade, they put him on trial. And they stopped him good as dead. And they sealed the place where they laid him to rest with a huge stone so that not even a whisper could escape that would ever say to anybody "You don't need points." And that was that. Except this morning-- This is strange. This morning some women came running to us, breathless, yet somehow full of breath. And they said to us, "You don't need points!" It was enough to make us think that that word had never died. But we said, "You've got to be crazy!" And we sent them away. And as they left, they were frolicking. I am not kidding - they were frolicking! Did you see where they went? (1)