Thursday, July 23, 2020

Groaning Good News: Making Peace with Creation and Each Other Through King Jesus, Our Creator and Reconciler



God is not distant. God is the eternal Gardener on His knees, holding the soil of our lives in His hands, breathing life into it day after day. God is the eternal Farmer who comes with a bucket and hoe to water and weed His world so that there is a bountiful harvest. In God's reconciled world, "the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy" (Psalm 65:12-13). + Norman Wirzba


In continuing to consider the Gospel of Jesus after reflecting on 
Praying Good NewsSharing Good News, Working Good NewsReconciling Good NewsForgiving Good NewsBefriending Good News
World-Altering Good News, and Experiencing Good News, we are now going to take a deeper look at another crucial aspect of the abundant life Jesus offers: Groaning Good News in order to make peace with all of creation.

Norman Wirzba provides thoughtful considerations on how to groan and give selflessly with the Spirit of God in his unique and thoughtful book with Fred Bahnson entitled, Making Peace with the Land: God's Call to Reconcile with Creation anchored in the ancient hymn of Colossians 1:15-20:

1:15 Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, 16 for through Him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through Him and for Him. 17 He existed before anything else, and He holds all creation together. 18 Christ is also the head of the church, which is His body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So He is first in everything. 19 For God in all His fullness was pleased to live in Christ, 20 and through Him God reconciled everything to Himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.

Below are some adapted excerpts from Chapter 3: Reconciliation Through Christ in Making Peace with the Land (a chapter worth the price of the book alone) that help us understand why in Christ we get to be free to groan and grow with the creation that is groaning with the Holy Spirit for us to be reconciled to our Creator and to each other as His beloved creatures and children.

From the beginning, God's nurture, love and joy have been revealed and made real in our bodies and in the material bodies of the world. Jesus' body is of supreme, unalterable significance because its materialitythe fact that it could physically touch us and dwell with usmakes possible the healing and the liveliness of every body one earth. Jesus' miracles are not, as modern deists suppose, an "interruption" of the laws governing a body's life; rather, they are the body's (and communities' and creation's) liberation into wholeness.

A Story of Groaning, Grief, Gardening, and Growth with God and His Creation in Christ in Cedar Grove, North Carolina


| Groaning | Cedar Grove is a one-stoplight community in the northern part of Orange County, North Carolina, nestled in the middle of gently rolling terrain, woodlots and beautiful farmland. Farmers have worked this land for generations. Viewed from the outside, Cedar Grove is peaceful, even a bit idyllic.

Life changed for this community on a summer afternoon in 2004 when Bill King, the owner of a convenience store, was shot in the back of the head. Bill had recently taken over the store that for years had been a home for crack dealers and drug addicts. He had made the place safe for children to come and eat ice cream, buy candy and drink sodas. He let neighbors buy food on credit even when they didn't have the money to pay. His generosity and work ethic were known and admired throughout the community.

Bill's murder was a great shock. Residents wondered if it was racially motivated, since Bill, a white man, was married to Emma, a black woman. The police found a body and an empty cash register, but they were never able to identify a suspect. As far as the people of Cedar Grove knew, the killer was still roaming about the region.

How does a community like Cedar Grove recover from a murder like this? What would reconciliation or peace look like, and what would it require? Exactly who or what needs to be reconciled?

When we probe any community deeply, we can find multiple sources of trouble that, under particular circumstances, might lead to a violent outcome. Most of our lands and communities bear the scars of racial and ethnic oppression, class antagonism, nomadic careerism, neighborhood neglect and greedy ambition. Much of what we claim as personal and communal success depends on the exploitation of soil and water, forests and oceans, chickens and cows—what we have learned to call the earth's "natural resources." In abusing these gifts and sources of life, however, we also end up abusing the human bodies and communities that depend on them. We cannot poison the ground that grows our food without also poisoning its eaters. Our culture trains us to think that exploitation is "normal," the way things are. That is why we are not surprised or grieved when we learn that the living conditions of many migrant agricultural workers are akin to our slaveholding past, or that poor people living in rural communities—often referred to as "white trash" or "hicks"—lack basic necessities like running water and adequate food. Our land is a place where opulent wealth exists in close proximity to abject poverty. Our country reduces almost everything—from farm fields to lambs to workers—to an economic equation or political advantage. It is a breeding ground for fear, suspicion, abuse and sometimes murder.  But not always ...

| Grief | In Cedar Grove, Valee Taylor, a black man, approached Grace Hackney, a white woman, seeking to find a way to address this murder. Valee was hoping to raise money for a reward to capture the killer. But after further conversation, they both decided that was not the right response. As pastor of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, Grace approached Emma, Bill's wife and now widow, asking what the local church could do for her. 

Emma did not have enough money to pay for a funeral, so they decided to hold a vigil in honor of Bill at the parking lot of the store on the two-week anniversary of the murder. Over one hundred people came: black and white and Latinx people, poor and rich, churchgoers and those who had never been in a church building. The community gathered to listen to preachers and to remember Bill. People prayed. People cried. People who had never shaken each other's hands or even said hello to each other hugged. For Valee and Grace it was a special moment, a divinely inspired moment, that showed them that the segregation of the past was not normal or inevitable. 

| Gardening | Scenobia Taylor, Valee's 76-year-old mother, was at the vigil. A 5th-generation African American descendant of sharecroppers and the daughter of one of Orange County's largest landowners, Scenobia had experienced a lot of racial hatred during her life. Crosses had been burned on her front yard and gun shots fired at her and other children during school integration efforts. But at the vigil, Scenobia saw a new, racially reconciled community being born. Not long after the vigil, she received a vision from God that she should give 5 acres of land to help feed the hungry. As she put it: "My father, he gave land for a school. My grandfather, he gave land for the Church, and for people to be buried. And here, Papa, at one time he had a thousand acres. And then here we all have all this land here. And then what do we do with it? We not doin' nothin'. I wanted to do something like you know my grandfather and my father did, you know. And I just pray, and I were praying and I said Lord, please show me, give me a sign or somethin'." Land was at the heart of her vision for reconciliation.

Meanwhile, Grace had been dreaming with Cedar Grove United Methodist Church about how they could be involved in the feeding of Cedar Grove's rural poor. Again, land was a central issue. It did not seem right that there should be hungry people in an agricultural community that had good land the skill to grow good food. 

Scenobia's vision and Grace's dream, along with the conversations of several community members, came together in the founding of Anathoth Community Garden, a 5-acre garden and orchard located just down the road from Bill's store. The naming of Anathoth Community Garden came from the prophet Jeremiah (Anathoth was his hometown). Jeremiah was living in a time when his own people had been invaded and sent off to live in Babylonian exile. In the midst of this devastation, fear and violence, God instructed Jeremiah to buy a field at Anathoth as a sign of hope that God would turn devastation into peaceful living. God said a remarkable thing (even while the people were still in Babylonian captivity): "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. ... Seek the welfare (shalom) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:5, 7).

| Growth | Members of the Cedar Grove community took this seriously. With the help of some grants, and under the leadership of Fred Bahnson (co-author of Making Peace with the Land), they together turned Scenobia's 5 acres into a fruitful garden producing thousands of pounds of strawberries, asparagus, tomatoes, greens, blueberries, corn, potatoes and squash. This food is grown with the helping hands of rich and poor, white and black. It is food that is generously shared with shut-ins who have no access to healthy, organically grown produce. It is eaten together at picnic and kitchen tables. Gradually, through hard work and ample conversations, the distance between people is being bridged. Though hardly perfect—tensions and divisions within the community can still be found, and funding and physical energy to keep the garden going are a perennial challenge—Anathoth is a beacon of what is possible when community members are inspired by God's reconciling ways. On special days, it offers a taste of heaven.

Members of this community, many of whom had been formed by the Christian story, understood deep down that life is supposed to be more than what our culture tells us is normal. Choosing between reconciled and suspicious forms of life requires that we ask some hard questions about what life is ultimately for. It requires a particular understanding of life's significance and meaning, an understanding in which reconciliation is not optional but the very fulfillment of life. 

| With God and His Creation in Christ | How do we know if our living—the ways we set up our families and communities, run our politics and economies, grow food, use energy, educate our young and order our worship—is truly good and rightly lived? The Colossians hymn (see at top of post in verse 1:15-20) speaks precisely to this line of questioning. It presents Jesus Christ as the key to what life is all about and what our living is ultimately for.

Jesus can show us what all life is for, because in Him and through Him all life comes to be in the first place. Christ is the One through whom all things are created (see 1 Corinthians 8:6), which means that He knows life's origin and end from the inside. Having the first place in everything, He also has authority over all creation (see Mark 4:35-41, in which Jesus calms the storm). With Him, the world holds together. Without Him, things fall apart into states of alienation, fragmentation and violence. This is a peculiar way to speak about anyone, even for Christians! Many of us have been taught to look to Jesus as our Savior. Not nearly as many have been to think of Him as our Creator. What does this mean? Why does it matter? It all starts with the affirmation that Jesus of Nazareth is the definitive, bodily manifestation of who God is. Jesus was not born merely to tell us a few things about God, things that will get into some faraway heaven. No, Jesus is God. In His flesh the very "fullness" (pleroma) of God dwells. Touching His body, connecting to the way He moves through life and ministers to others, we can feel God's heavenly life realized on earth. He Himself is the "image" (eikon) of the invisible God (see Hebrews 1:1-3 along with Colossians 1:15). ... How the perfect uniting of Creator and creation could happen in a particular creature is an unfathomable mystery. Its implications, however, are immense and profound. For those who wonder why there is a world at all—as 17th-century philosopher G.W. Leibniz famously asked, "Why is there something rather than nothing?"—the beginnings of an answer are to be found by seeing how Jesus nurtures, heals, consoles, exorcises, reconciles and celebrates creatures. ... When (Jesus) found creatures on a path toward degradation and destruction, He turned them around so that they could enter paths of joy and shalom. Jesus made manifest in His own body that the life of love is what creation is for. Creation's purpose is definitively revealed in His self-sacrificial love.

We don't have to believe any of this. We can go on thinking that life is about individual fulfillment or getting power for ourselves while we can. We might insist that the path toward reconciliation is a dead end that only diminishes our prospects for fortune. Or we can become comfortably numb and resign ourselves to quiet desperation, in which we view the murders of people like Bill King as sad but to be expected. But in thinking this way, we also commit ourselves to a world in which division, suspicion, neglect, cutthroat competition and discord will inevitably be the outcome. It is precisely this sort of divided, broken and bleeding world that Jesus wants to redeem.

To understand Jesus properly, we have to appreciate how His living makes possible the transformation of our own. God became incarnate in Jesus Christ to show us and welcome us into what creaturely life is ultimately about and for. This means that salvation is not about being plucked out of creaturely life to some immaterial heaven beyond the world of creation. Salvation is about reconciling this creation so that it can know, taste and intimately experience God's heavenly life that is constantly making its way toward us. Looking to Jesus, we see heaven's earthly life realized. Scripture makes clear again and again that God is Emmanuel, God with us. This is why God became incarnate in Jesus. This is why God sends the Holy Spirit to live within us as our animating and inspiring breath and to direct us in the ways of heavenly life. This is why Revelation shows us that the grand climax of God's cosmic drama has heaven descend to earth, because God's dwelling will forevermore be among mortals (see Revelation 21:1-4). The goal is not our souls' escape from this world but the transformation of all creatures in their relationships with each other. The goal is that our embodied living radiates and becomes the perpetual expression of God's glory. ... Because Jesus is the divine, creating Word, He is also the One who shows us how all creatures best fit together and relate to each other. He is like a cosmic conductor who holds the score that will lead all creatures into a harmonious and symphonic life—if we let Him direct us.

If Jesus is the divine, creating Word unleashing creation into its full potential, then insofar as we are in Christ or have the mind of Christ, we participate in God's renewing of creation. ... Beholding Jesus, we not only see God; we see creation in an entirely new way. ... To be in Christ means that we can no longer look at any creature in terms of political maneuvering, economic profitability or self-enhancement. If everything has become new because we now behold and engage it through Him, then literally everything is wrapped within God's creating, healing, feeding and reconciling ways.

Reconciliation makes itself incarnate in relationships in which people spend enough time—even "waste time"—with each other so that they can delight in each others' joys and comfort each other in their pain. ... We need to get close (to become more like Jesus). We need to develop practical forms of life that bring us into clarifying and sympathetic relationship ... By committing ourselves to a particular section of land and doing the hard labor such commitment requires, we learn the skills and habits that bring healing and life to it. This love and labor, which takes us deeply into the world, enables us to see the loveliness God creates there. The proximity and training I have in mind are most clearly revealed in the work of gardening. Gardening is hard and daily labor that sharpens our understanding of the biophysical conditions that make fruit and flowers flourish. It is a form of attention that brings us into a sympathetic and nurturing relationship not only with pleasurable parts of our gardens—tulips and tomatoes, for example—but also with those elements that are less immediately attractive—worms and weeds. There is no substitute for this work if we desire to overcome the division and alienation that degrades the earth. Gardening is also the form of work that best describes God's relationship to creation. God is not distant. God is the eternal Gardener on His knees, holding the soil of our lives in His hands, breathing life into it day after day. God is the eternal Farmer who comes with a bucket and hoe to water and weed His world so that there is a bountiful harvest. In God's reconciled world, "the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy" (Psalm 65:12-13). ... 
As our Creator, God is always close. In giving us the ministry of reconciliation through Christ, God invites us to become close to each other too, close enough both to see how we are wounding each other and to celebrate each other's triumphs.




Next post: Gentle & Lowly Good News: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers

Previous Good News posts: 

Praying Good News: Believing the Simply Good News of Praying the "Our Father" or Lord's Prayer 
Sharing Good News: Getting Beyond the Awkward and Talking about Jesus Outside Our Comfort Zones 
Working Good News: Discipling for Monday through Friday in Our Work and Workplaces 
Reconciling Good News: Moving with God in Welcoming Justice and Building Beloved Community 
Forgiving Good News: Making Peace Through the Divine Dance of Forgiveness  
Befriending Good News: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission with Friends Who Live Life on the Margins
World-Altering Good News: Partnering with God to Rebirth Our Communities  
Experiencing Good News: Celebrating the Presence of Christ in Communion Together

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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