Creation, Exile, and the Pandemic

Inspired by our chapel series last fall called “Hope of All Creation,” I have been increasingly interested in how the creation itself reflects the actions of God and the relationship between humanity and God in the Bible.

One idea I wanted to explore is the way in which the good news of Jesus is not just about redeeming human souls, but all of creation. The entire cosmos will be restored to right relationship with God. Paul beautifully describes this cosmic hope found in Christ:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:18-25

With any eye towards the “universal restoration” (Acts 3:21) promised in the gospel, I am curious how creation imagery in the Bible reveals a broader picture of God’s creative actions. Our theology often emphasizes the relationship between God and humanity to the exclusion of humanity’s relationship with creation and God’s relationship with creation. In an age of unprecedented climate change that threatens the well-being of the vulnerable throughout the world, I believe it is crucially important to highlight these relationships in our faith communities, drawing from a deep well of biblical ideas about creation.

The book of Isaiah is filled with creation imagery that reflects God’s intentions and the people of Israel. The prophet sings a love song depicting the nation of Israel as a vineyard that produced the wild grapes of injustice and bloodshed (5:1-7), but will one day make peace together with God (27:2-6) and “fill the whole world with fruit” (27:6). God’s salvation will be known in all the earth (11:9, 12:5; c.f. Hab 2:14) by way of a Messianic seed: “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (11:1).

One key text that discusses the state of creation in response to social injustice is the so-called “apocalypse of Isaiah” (ch. 24), in which the economic and social upheaval present in Israel (24:1-3) associated with the destruction of the environment:

“The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.”

Isaiah 24:4-5

I’d argue that, in most of the Old Testament prophets, the state of creation seems to reflect the relationship between God and God’s people. In our time, human-made climate change, brought about by needless consumption (and made possible by exploiting the poor), has ravaged the environment. In this way our world is experiencing “ecological consequences” of injustice, which are found throughout the book of Isaiah.

Without downplaying the devasting human impact of Covid-19, I believe that the pandemic can lead us to reflect on our relationship with the environment. Recently scientists have noticed an unprecedented drop in C02 emissions as much of the industrialized world “shelters in place” to control the spread of the pandemic. According to the historian of 2Chronicles, one purpose of the exile was “to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.” (20:31) In other words, while the people are not presents (and are away in exile), the land itself is finally able to rest after Israel had neglected the commandment to care for the land (observing a weekly Sabbath rest).  I am struck by the parallel.

As we come to terms with the destruction of the environment, we lament. We might be inspired by the language of the prophets, who personify land that “mourns” the exile (Hosea 4:3, Jer 12:4) In the NRSV Bible, Joel 1 has the header “Lament over the Ruin of the Country” and plainly observes that “the fields are devastated, the ground mourns; for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails”(Joel 1:10). In my estimation, all of the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible (save, perhaps, Obadiah and Daniel) describe the destruction of the earth. If the exile (the subject of the prophets) is about a fall from grace due to social injustice, then injustice and the destruction of the earth are deeply intertwined.

Through sharing the gospel, Christians see themselves as being agents in God’s plan for the redemption of humanity. But I wonder how much “building the kingdom” also involves caring for creation.  I am currently reading The Green Gospel which seeks to provide an agricultural context to the time of Jesus and how this might prompt us to redesign food systems to be more sustainable and equitable.  

Despite the destruction evident from exile, the hope of the gospel spreads further, to the far reaches of the cosmos:

  • “By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.” (Psalm 65:5)
  • “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:19-20)
  • Like the lovers in the Song of Songs, in which creation is animated by love and mutuality, we long for the day when “the flower appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land” (2:12).

Perhaps one of the most poignant messages of hope for our time is expressed in Habakkuk 3. Despite destruction during the Bible and destruction now, God’s saving work continues:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.”

Hab 3:17-19

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

What’s with the pigs?

Mark 5 tells the story of Jesus sending a demon out of an unclean man into a herd of pigs. Then the pigs (2000 of them) rush down a steep bank and drown. Simply asking the question, “what’s with the pigs?” gets at some of the complexity of the text:

  • Pigs are unclean. Jews don’t eat pigs, so it’d be unusual for them to be raising pigs. Mark suggests the place is close to Jewish territory, but Matthew and Luke suggest that its further away. So the man and the swine herders were probably Gentiles. That then changes the story and the interpretation.
  • Why did the demon, named Legion, ask to go into the pigs? There is no mention of demons going anywhere in other stories of Jesus casting out demons.
  • Pigs can swim, so why did they drown? Furthermore, if they were also quite a distance from the coast, where was the “lake” in which they drowned? Incidentally, as veterinary students pointed out during the study, pigs tend to carry a lot of diseases so that water would have become contaminated.

All of these questions point to the text having a more complicated understanding to it than we first imagine. Add to this the political implications of the text: Legion refers to a 5000 man unit of the Roman armies, so there’s something very subversive in “legion” drowning.

Finally, there’s one more odd thing in the text: why did Jesus not allow the man to follow him, especially when Jesus was calling followers? How did the man know enough for him to be a true witness? Considering that I come out of a tradition that values high understanding, this is a bit confrontational. What does this then say about the high value that the university puts upon knowledge? What about rational explanations for things?

These are the sorts of questions and textual analysis that we ponder at our studies. If these sorts of questions intrigue you, join us!

The Spirit uses my being uncomfortable?

As we were reading 1 Peter 2 and 3 this past week at study, a student noted that the text made her uncomfortable. As the text was talking about slavery, women, and submission, it was easy for me to understand why she felt uncomfortable. As we noted in our study on Colossians a number of years ago, too often those of us who’ve grown up in the church have seen how submission has been used to validate abuse, or, at the least, make women second-class citizens.

It would be easy thus to dismiss this text as no longer being culturally relevant to today. Yet, to do so would be to lose an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work to challenge what assumptions we might bring to the text, whether that be errors in our own perception or unhealthy assumptions that we have learned from church/Christian culture and/or society at large.

For instance, the dominant voices of our society invite and encourage us to put me first and not let anyone hold us back from unleashing our inner potential. Might our discomfort with the word submission be because such a narrative of me first leaves little space or validation for submission of any sort? What picture of God’s love might we show when we actively choose to let go of some of our own personal wants and desires for the good of others?

Yet, might our discomfort with the word submission be a misunderstanding of the word submission? Might our submission be less of a diminishing of self and more of a living more fully into who God has called us to be, including through challenging systems of oppression, as Walsh and Keesmaat propose in their book, Colossians Remixed?

While dismissing the text might be the easiest way to get rid of the discomfort brought by the text, it is worthwhile to sit awhile with the text and acknowledge that discomfort. Through consulting wise teachers and allowing the Spirit to work (sometimes also through our peers), God can use our discomfort to help us grow in wisdom about the biblical text and ourselves.

Lamentations 5 for today

In light of our study on Lamentations and everything happening in the world today, we are sharing with you a paraphrase of Lamentations 5 for today as written by Soong-Chan Rah.

The following is a short excerpt:

“Trust in our ultimate triumph has diminished;
          our triumphant proclamation of victory has turned to a funeral dirge.
Our sense of exceptionalism has been exposed.
          Woe to us, for we have sinned. . . .
Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us for so long?
Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
renew as that we may find a new way forward
unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.”

Soong-Chan Rah

New Study: Julian of Norwich

We’re holding a study on Julian of Norwich and would love to have you join us, even if you’re not currently a graduate student or otherwise involved in academia.

Julian of Norwich was a 14th century writer who lived in seclusion in Norwich, England during the Black Death. She is most known for the saying “all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” In her book Revelations of Divine Love, the earliest surviving (Middle) English text written by a woman, Julian struggles to accept the fullness of God’s love for “well-making.” How do we realize and embrace the power of God’s love to create wellness in our lives?

Together we will read excerpts from The Drawing of This Divine Love by Robert Fruehwirth, who spent decades living as a monk in the Order of Julian of Norwich. His devotional (yet academic) book provides reflections and commentary on Julian’s writings and theology. Join us as we wonder together about how wisdom from this medieval mystic interacts with the current pandemic.

This will be a 3-5 session study starting with our first session on Tuesday, May 26 from 2:00-3:00 p.m. Each session will have a recommended (but optional) reading sent via email. Anyone is welcome to participate in any or all of the sessions. If you are interested in this study, please contact us, so that we can determine a time for the next sessions that will work for all those who’d like to join.

Prayer from Psalm 5

“The Psalms are not religious in the sense that they are courteous or polite or deferential. They are religious only in the sense that they are willing to speak this chaos to the very face of the Holy One.” (Walter Brueggemann, “Praying the Psalms,” 19)

In the spirit of the Psalmist who brings vulnerable feelings of to the Holy One, today I offer these prayers, using words from Psalm 5:

  • “Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray.” (v. 2)
  • Gratitude for all medical workers, grocery store workers, scientists and others on the frontlines of the pandemic. Thanks for their persistence and their sacrifice. “Spread your protection over them.” (v. 11)
  • Anger at the murder of another unarmed black man, Ahmaud Arbery. Anger at the denial of systemic injustice. “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.” (v. 4)
  • Frustration at lies and misinformation, which hurt the most vulnerable. “For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues.” (v. 9)
  • Sadness that communal singing may not return soon. “O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.” (v. 3)
  • Encouragement for the homeless, the jobless and all those suffering economic hardship. “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing.” (v. 1)
  • Gratitude for moments of grace and joy. “But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house.” (v. 7)

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge intern

Deconstructing and Reorientation

In our study of the Psalms, we are using Walter Brueggemann’s framework of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Brueggemann explains

that our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of (a) being securely oriented, (b) being painfully disoriented and (c) being surprisingly reoriented. This general way of speaking can apply to our self-acceptance, our relations to significant others, and our participation in public issues. It can permit us to speak of passages, the life cycle, stages of growth, and identity crisis. Most of all it may provide us a way to think about the Psalms in relation to our common human experience, for each of God’s children is in transit along the flow of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 14.

As Brueggemann notes, these concepts of disorientation and reorientation are helpful not only for looking at the Psalms but also for talking about life and faith. Life is full of moments and seasons of disorientation, such as this pandemic, transitioning into or from grad school, new jobs, new relationships, losses, and more. These seasons of disorientation lead to new patterns and rhythms but also to new questions. Sometimes these questions involve a deconstruction (or unravelling) of one’s faith.

When one’s faith starts to unravel, it can be comforting to hear others’ “stories of deconstruction,” as Ian Harber notes. In doing so, Harber “found people who understood what it was like to deconstruct your faith and rebuild it from scratch.” However, he also notes the challenges of reconstructing or reorienting: he “didn’t have the tools to rebuild.” Thus, as much as he appreciated those who had helped him in his time of disorientation, he also argues that “Helping people deconstruct their faith without also helping put it back together again is lazy, irresponsible, dangerous, and isolating. The goal of deconstruction should be greater faithfulness to Jesus, not mere self-discovery or signaling one’s virtue.”

While I find Harber’s critique of progressive Christianity to be lacking nuance and grace, he raises a very good question about what happens when deconstruction appears to be the goal instead of part of the journey of faith. The question is especially relevant for those of us whose lives are shaped by academia, where deconstruction is strongly encouraged. Harber argues that “Doubt and questions need not catalyze a pendulum swing from belief to unbelief. If worked out in healthy, thoughtful Christian community—and with an abiding connection to Christ, our true vine (John 15)—they can actually deepen faith and strengthen roots, producing a life where we bear fruit and withstand the fierce winds of a secular age.” The only challenge, though, is that for most people, faith shifting, along with reconstruction and growth in faith is hardly simple. There’s no clear and obvious set of guidelines to follow.

Brueggemann’s language of disorientation and reorientation thus provides a hopeful perspective for describing the challenges when life and faith does not happen the way we expect. There’s also hope for the journey of faith. As Brueggemann notes,

“The other movement of human life is the surprising move from disorientation to a new orientation that is quite unlike the old status quo. This is not an automatic movement that can be presumed or predicted. Nor is it a return to the old form, a return to normalcy as though nothing had happened. It is rather ‘all things new’. When it happens it is always a surprise, always a gift of graciousness, and always an experience that evokes gratitude … Such experiences include all those gifts of friendship and caring, all those gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness, all those risky signs of hope in public life, all experiences that may touch us deeply and announce that God has not left the world to chaos (c.f. Isa 45:18-19).”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 19-20

Lamentations and Transformation

One of my prayers coming away from Lamentations is based on the poet’s petitions that invite transformation. The petitions in chapter 5 urge God to remember, look, restore and renew (5:1, 5:21). This is a powerful pattern that compares God’s great acts of deliverance in the past (remember) to the current reality of suffering (look) and implores God to repair this breach (restore) so that a new future is possible (renew). It is a process of transformation and seeking help from the living God who “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (3:33).

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Reflections on Lamentations

The book of Lamentations is hard to read. Its five chapters contain some of the most angry and resentful passages in the Bible. While even the darkest Psalms usually contain some words of assurance, the book of Lamentations only has a few hopeful verses.

The lamenting poet knows the promises of God but feels like none of them are true. “He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light” (3:2) is in direct contrast to God’s creative action which “separated the light from the darkness” (Gen 1:4). When we are suffering or when all we see is suffering, we question God’s promises or we wonder if they have been subverted (3:35-36). Along with the poet we might say “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘gone is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.’” (3:17-18)

During the pandemic, some of the words in Lamentations might resonate with us as we try to understand a “new normal” separated from other people. It is a time of food insecurity when people “search for bread” (1:11), when the city is lonely that “was once full of people” (1:1) and cultural activities are suspended as “the young men [have left] their music” (5:14). In the United States it is also a time when economic and racial injustice are more clearly seen, bringing into question the true “greatness” of the country. Speaking about Jerusalem, the poet writes that onlookers sarcastically jeer and say, “is this city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of the earth?” (2:15)

I appreciate that this book is in the Bible because it speaks about reality. Suffering is a prominent part of the human experience and this book witnesses to the way that God’s people have long wrestled with the problem of human suffering. I believe that these words suggest that anger and lament are authentic expressions of faith rather than doubt. Too often in our culture we ignore pain and suffering and say “look on the bright side” or “just trust in Jesus,” like band-aids for flesh wounds. The pain of sufferings is even described in these terms: “he has made my flesh and my skin waste a way and has broken my bones” (3:4).

Liturgically speaking, what I learn from Lamentations is the necessity of lament: during times of crisis it is important to name the realities of suffering. Christian worship usually includes a time of confession to acknowledge sins, seek forgiveness and receive assurance. Perhaps this pattern happens too quickly. The chorus of “Great Is They Faithfulness,” one of the great hymns of assurance, comes from Lamentations 3, which has some of the only words of hope in the entire book:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:21-24

The fact that these words are found among deep laments of sorrow makes them all the more profound. While we might seek a quick resolution from the sin and injustice of the world, the poet struggled through some 64 verses of lament before “calling to mind” this great hope, suggesting that we could do more to acknowledge our own realities in worship. Not only is our grief and suffering acceptable to bring to God, but we share it in Jesus.

– Mitchell Eithun, Pastoral Intern

Lamentations and Christ

Crying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” Jesus quotes Psalm 22 from the cross, identifying his suffering with the Psalmist. Reading Lamentations 3 reminded me of Psalm 22. Both Lamentations 3 and Psalm 22 describe trapped (Lam 3:7, Ps 22:16) and threatened by lions (Lam 3:10, Ps 22:13). Further, Lamentations 4 perfectly describes Jesus’s descent to the dead: “The Lord’s anointed, the breath of our life was taken in their pits” (4:20).  In Orthodox Christianity, Lamentations 3 is read on Good Friday. To me this association between the crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem  makes a powerful statement: Jesus suffers with us.  Jesus is present in our pain because his suffering is not unlike the reality of exile. If Jesus’s ministry, and the cross in particular, occurred in the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), then Jesus’s death solidarity with all who suffer, including those who resonate with the deep suffering in Lamentations. The poet laments that “the punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished” (Lam 4:22) while Jesus cries, “it is finished” (John 19:30).

A cause for hope is that the ministry of Jesus sets in motion a new reality, the kingdom of God, which seeks reverses these painful realities brought about by iniquity and injustice.  In the midst of exile the poet laments that God “has made my ways crooked” (Lam 3:9). Preparing the way for Jesus in the midst of another occupying superpower (Rome), John the Baptist quotes the Isaiah’s promise of deliverance of exile in Isaiah 40, announcing that “the crooked [paths] shall be made straight” (Luke 3:5). Those under oppression in Babylon lament that “with a yoke on our necks we are hard driven; we are weary and given no rest” (Lam 5:5), but Jesus provides the parallel antidote: “come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mat 11:28-30)

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge Intern Pastor