Thursday, October 02, 2008

Tending Garden
Genesis 3:1-8, 22-24[1]
The Horse Whisperer is a film about what it takes to heal someone who has been deeply wounded—listening with the heart, being present with a person who is hurting in a way that shows we are paying attention, and above all, spending whatever time it takes. We find those qualities in the person of Tom Booker, a man who has a reputation for healing horses who’ve been injured. When fourteen-year-old Grace and her horse Pilgrim are hit by a truck, Grace loses her right leg and Pilgrim is so traumatized that no one can get near him. Grace’s mother refuses to have the horse put down, and she decides to drive Grace and Pilgrim to Montana in hopes of convincing Tom to help them. In perhaps one of the most profound scenes of the film, Tom sits in a field and waits patiently all day until Pilgrim gives up his fear and walks over to him. As one review puts it, the film “tutors us in the art of slowing down, being present, and quieting the heart.”[2]
We who live in the urban part of our society have a hard time with the concepts of being present, paying attention, and spending time. In our technology-filled world we’re all spinning our wheels faster and faster every year. When I was a boy, futurists predicted that technology would do away with the 40-hour work week. Yep, it did that alright. Now to keep your job you often have to work a minimum of 60 hours a week—if not more! And rather than making our jobs easier, our technology has made life even more stressful. Now we do 3 or 4 things at the same time—talk on the phone, send an email, check the news, schedule the coming week—a phenomenon some hair-brain called “time-deepening.” There’s nothing deeper about the way we spend our time! We’re skimming the surface, just getting through as many tasks as we can.
But I’m not really sure what it is that we are rushing so madly toward—we don’t do any better at being present or paying attention when we’re “off” than we do when we’re working. We are driven by dissatisfaction, impatience, hurry, and pressure. Can anyone in this mad, mad world really stop and smell the roses?
The story of Adam and Eve has something to say to us in this respect. Here are two people who have the privilege of actually living in paradise. How many times have you gone to a beautiful spot on vacation and wished you could move there? Well, Adam and Eve were “born and raised” in paradise, so to speak! More than that, they have the joy of getting to take part in actually shaping paradise because the Gardener who planted it gave them the task of taking care of it.[3]
If you’re like me, you might be thinking, “Wow! What I wouldn’t give to trade places with them!” But the tragic reality is that they were thinking the same thing! They have the incredible prospect of spending their lives caring for and shaping the Garden of Eden, and they trade it away for a pipe dream—the promise of becoming “like God!” As a result, they must scratch out a living from the dirt “East of Eden” and perpetuate the species through painful childbirth.[4] It doesn’t take any divine “curse” to accomplish that, because their own dissatisfaction is curse enough. But perhaps more importantly, the dissatisfaction of our original parents manifests itself in their entire family tree—from Cain who kills his brother to Lamech who boasts of murder to the generation of the Flood who scoff at Noah to the builders of the Tower of Babel who think they can reach heaven.[5] And it continues to this very day! We live among a whole race of people who spend their whole lives looking for something “else,” desperately seeking something “more,” but never quite able to find it.
As Adam and Eve found out, none of us can ever find happiness by trying to “escape” who we are and where we are.[6] Rather, our circumstances become the very means by which we can find a life that is more joyful, peaceful, and fulfilled. The way to find happiness is to do as the Gardener told our first parents—to tend the Garden of our lives!
In Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore shows us in many ways that the best way to find true happiness in life is to embrace life as it is. We cannot do this if we’re always in a hurry. To embrace life we have to pause, we have to take time so that we can enjoy the garden as well as the work of tending it. Living this way means paying attention—even to the mundane routines.[7] It means taking the time to pay attention to the details of our lives—our work and living spaces, what we’re actually thinking about as we go about our day, even our dreams and fantasies.[8]
Like a garden, life is something that takes cultivating if we’re going to find joy and fulfillment.[9] If we give ourselves to the work of tending the garden of life, it will “blossom forth according to its own designs and with its own predictable beauty.”[10] Something as simple as tending a garden may seem impossible in our “rat race” world. So how can we do it? We tend the garden of our lives by paying attention and taking time.
To change the metaphor, we tend the garden when we practice the ordinary routines of our lives “artfully”; in other words, when we do it as a work of art, even if it is “only” the everyday art of keeping house or maintaining a yard or tuning a car or preparing a meal.[11] That means taking the time and paying enough attention to do it consciously and intentionally—“soulfully”— as opposed to “mindlessly.”
To change the metaphor again, living this way means integrating our lives—work, home, play, faith. It means embracing the presence of the Lord God “walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze” (Gen. 3:8)—or at dawn, or in the heat of the day, or at midnight, whenever it is that we are tending our gardens.[12] As we embrace our lives and tend our gardens, we discover that we truly can live in the joy of our Creator.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/28/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat, Review of “The Horse Whisperer,” accessed at .
[3] Cf. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 48; cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.1.235, 254.
[4] Cf. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 89; cf. also William E. Phipps, “Eve and Pandora Contrasted,” Theology Today 45(April 1988):36. He does a thorough job of tracing the origins of Christian misogyny in an interpretation of Genesis that reads the story of Pandora as the one who is the source of evil in the world into the story of Eve, contrary to the Genesis text which lays the shameful deed at the feet of both Adam and Eve.
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.4:310-11.
[6] Cf. Brueggemann, Genesis, 53-54.
[7] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 3-4.
[8] Moore, Care of the Soul, 285.
[9] Moore, Care of the Soul, xvii.
[10] Moore, Care of the Soul, xix.
[11] Moore, Care of the Soul, 289, 300.
[12] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 51-54; cf. esp. 53: “The nearness of God which we perceive in the Spirit make us wholly living from within, and wakens all our vitality”; and 54: “When we are near the living God, everything else becomes ‘green’ and fertile, as it does in spring, said Hildegard of Bingen.”

Embrace Life

Genesis 1:1-2:3[1]

Some of you know that I planned on starting a sermon series today on the topic “Embrace Your Life.” In light of the events of the last 10 days, I must confess that I wondered whether I should go ahead with my plan. What I realized is that, just as the force of a hurricane dredge up all kinds of debris from the Gulf, so the stress of displacement and disruption uncovers what we have buried within ourselves because it is too hard to face. I decided that I would go ahead with my plan—what better time to try to learn to embrace the life we have than when we’re all struggling with the residue of our lives in the wake of disaster.

The idea for this series came to me from reading what I consider to be one of the great self-help books of all time. I’m referring to Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore, a Christian Psychologist. His message is that instead of the obsessive pursuit of “Your Best Life Now,” or a “Better You,” the best way to find true happiness in life is to embrace life as it is, with all its wonderful complexity: good and bad, joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, fulfillment and disappointment.[2]

Moore uses ancient myths to make the point that we don’t find fulfillment in life by trying to “make” it better. Stories like the “Odyssey” or “Tristan and Isolde” remind us that we don’t find happiness by trying to get rid of whatever is causing us pain or frustration or discouragement. Rather, our “problems” become the means of motivating us in the very ways that make life more joyful, peaceful, and fulfilled. [3]

The ancient stories help us remember that life is wonderfully complex. There is a bewildering diversity about it. There is a frightening unpredictability about it. Behind every cloud is a silver lining, but behind every “silver lining” is also a cloud of darkness that we would rather not have to face.[4] Love includes the joy of being intimate with another human being as well as the pain of distance and the sadness of bereavement.[5] Work can be incredibly stimulating and it can also be numbing in its boredom.[6] Then there are families—many of us are positively frantic to escape the influence of our families, only to discover that we might as well try to escape from our own shadow![7]

Moore argues that the ancient wisdom about life depicts life as a tapestry that includes both light and darkness, both joy and pain, both happiness and sadness.[8] Trying to remove those threads that don’t fit our schemes only unravels our lives. A different approach is to step back and learn to recognize the beauty of the whole fabric of life—all of life, life just as it is. Those threads and colors and patterns that we initially want to remove or change may in fact lead us to a deeper appreciation of life in all it’s complexity—and therefore become the source of joy and fulfillment in life that is more complete and lasting.

I would suggest this is also the wisdom of the Bible regarding our lives. Our fundamental Bible stories also encourage us to embrace life in all its imperfection. The stories of Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah and their family help us to appreciate the beauty of life—which includes both “good” and “bad.” The story of Creation is where it all begins in the Bible. Though it is doubtful that it is the first story to have been written in the Bible, the Creation story serves as a basis for much of the way we view our world and our lives.

Other creation stories of that time portrayed the deities as capricious and malicious. Creation was intended only to serve their every whim. Human existence was an afterthought or even a nuisance to the gods.[9] In stark contrast, Genesis reveals a God who broods over creation like an artist over a great painting or sculpture.[10] The idea here is that what comes from this intense creative work is something that is beautiful and of immense value to the artist.[11]

And the result of this creative brooding is not only a world that is ordered according to the Creator’s design, but also an incredible diversity of life in all colors and shapes and sizes! The waters of the deep are instructed to “swarm with an abundance of living beings” (Gen. 1:20, Inclusive Bible)! The earth is to bring forth “plants that scatter their own seeds and every kind of fruit tree that bears fruit with its own seed in it,” along with “all kinds of wild animals, and cattle, and everything that crawls on the ground” (Gen. 1:24). And at the end of it all, “God looked at all of this creation, and proclaimed that this was good—very good” (Gen. 1:31, Inclusive Bible).

When we look at the world of nature today what do we see? Do we see a thing that can be used to benefit us? Or a beautiful web of life that includes us along with all nature? Many look at the world of nature and ask why God would have created so many different kinds of living creatures—there are over a million identified species of insects! A scientific answer might point to the way the great “circle of life” is deeply connected. A more biblical answer might simply suggest that God created such diversity because it was necessary to make creation “very good”!

One of the most important lessons from the story of Creation is that our obsessive compulsion to change everything, to “make” everything into something else (more appealing, more attractive, more profitable, etc.) fails to recognize the inherent beauty in all of creation.[12] The biblical view of creation is that God has filled everything with life and beauty. An outlook that is consistent with this not only views all of creation with reverence, but also sees beauty in everything and everyone.[13] The Bible’s story of creation encourages us to say, “Everything is beautiful, in its own way!”[14] It encourages us to embrace our life just as it is, with all its wonderful complexity.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/21/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, xii, xvi-xvii, 4, 14.f

[3] Moore, Care of the Soul, xv, 9-10, 16, 18-21.

[4] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 16-17.

[5] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 89.

[6] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 180-89.

[7] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 26-27, 31-32.

[8] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, xix, 19.

[9] Cf. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 12-13, 24-25; G. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary, xlv-liii; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 72-73; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.1.89-90, 243-44.

[10] cf. Gen. 1:2, The Inclusive Bible: “the Spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the waters.” Some scholars would interpret “Spirit” here as a great wind! Jürgen Moltmann argues that in a very real sense the Spirit of God still broods over creation—“Everything that is, exists and lives in the unceasing inflow of the energies and potentialities of the cosmic Spirit. … Through the energies and potentialities of the Spirit, the Creator is himself present in his creation.” Cf. Moltmann, God in Creation, 9; cf. also ibid., 10-16, 96, 99-100, 258. Contrast Barth, Dogmatics, 3.1.56-59, 106-110, who insists that it is the “Word” that brings creation out of the “formless and void” chaos of the primeval world, whereas the Spirit “hovers and broods over it impotently because wordlessly” (p. 108)!

[11] Cf. Brueggemann, Genesis, 36-37; cf. also Moltmann, God in Creation, 75-76, where he presents creation as the communication of God’s love, and therefore the communication of God’s goodness to his creation.

[12] Cf. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 277-280; he defines beauty (p. 279) as “the quality in things that invites absorption and contemplation”; i.e., beauty is a source of imagination that allows us to appreciate the sacred in everything around us.

[13]Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 48-50.

[14] Ray Stevens, “Everything is Beautiful,” Barnaby Records, 1970.