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Worshipping God the Creator: some thoughts from midlife interviews

Thursday June 23 2016

Worshipping God the Creator: some thoughts from midlife interviews

I wrote last week about Psalm 103 and 104. When read together, they give a picture of the God of relationship who redeems and heals human beings and calls them into relationship with him, the same God who created and sustains the physical universe. I am concerned that this balanced view of God has been missing from Christian life in the twentieth century. We are good at acknowledging God as our redeemer, the righteous one who communicates to us through the Bible and calls us into relationship through his son, Jesus. Yet we have neglected to see God’s handiwork in nature as a call to prayer and praise. We have missed something central to the Old Testament understanding of who God is and how God communicates.

Maybe this omission comes from our fear that we will be viewed as pantheists if we talk about God’s hand in creation. Maybe the pervasive emphasis of New Age thinking has made us fearful that we will lose a Biblical perspective if we think too highly of creation. The New Testament doesn’t talk as much about God the Creator as the Psalms do, and maybe we are concerned that we need to faithfully reflect the priorities of the New Testament. Maybe we like viewing ourselves as autonomous human beings who don’t need to depend on God for every breath and every meal. I don’t know for sure what has caused the focus on God the Redeemer while neglecting God the Creator, but I do know that we are missing something wonderful.

When I did the interviews for my midlife books (Embracing Midlife and A Renewed Spirituality), many people at midlife [1] told me about the growing sense of awe and wonder they experience in nature. They feel connected to God as they see God’s amazing creativity in daffodils, elephants, storm clouds, and blazing sunsets. They experience a closer connection to their bodies, a part of God’s creation. This may take the form of smelling roses or enjoying the feel of the wind on their face. It may take the form of new physical activities such as dancing, yoga, or weight lifting. It motivated quite a few interviewees to be more creative themselves. Whatever form it takes, it is consistent with the joy and wonder that the psalm writers experienced when they considered the wonders of creation.

During my midlife years, I observed in myself a growing sense of joy in the beauty of creation. Each spring seemed more beautiful than the one before. When I first began noticing the increased beauty of spring each year, I thought the weather was changing in some way to make the flowers more abundant. Then I realized the change was inside me. Each year, I simply noticed more. God has changed my heart so I saw his hand in nature more clearly.

That increased ability to notice the details in nature is intimately connected with my awareness of God’s presence in my life. I am full of awe that God would lavish such creativity on the variety of rhododendron flowers, the tiny spots on the petals, the subtle variations of color, the overall blast of color when observed from a distance. Surely if God cares so much about plants, he must care for me. Surely if he has taken such care with the design of rhododendrons, he must care about the design of my life, and he must be shepherding me as I go about my daily life. The beauty of nature gives me great comfort because it speaks to me of the abundance of God’s grace.

A contemporary praise song, “Indescribable” by Chris Tomlin, captures this blend of awe at God’s detailed and extravagant beauty in nature and God’s care for me (you can listen to it here):

From the highest of heights to the depths of the sea
Creation's revealing Your majesty
From the colors of fall to the fragrance of spring
Every creature unique in the song that it sings
All exclaiming

Indescribable, uncontainable,
You placed the stars in the sky and You know them by name.
You are amazing God
All powerful, untameable,
Awestruck we fall to our knees as we humbly proclaim
You are amazing God

Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go
Or seen heavenly storehouses laden with snow
Who imagined the sun and gives source to its light
Yet conceals it to bring us the coolness of night
None can fathom

Indescribable, uncontainable,
You placed the stars in the sky and You know them by name
You are amazing God
All powerful, untameable,
Awestruck we fall to our knees as we humbly proclaim
You are amazing God

Incomparable, unchangeable
You see the depths of my heart and You love me the same
You are amazing God

This is the fourth post in a series on worshipping God as Creator. Earlier posts:
     Nature calls us to worship         
     The Creation invites us to join in praise         
     The Bible and Creation         

(This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality. Next week: the good creation. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

[1] People always ask me what age is midlife. Definitions vary. For my books, I defined midlife as 35-55. I am currently supervising a Ph.D. student who is studying spirituality at midlife, and she defines midlife as 40-60.

Worshipping God the Creator: The Bible and Creation

Friday June 17 2016

Worshipping God the Creator: The Bible and Creation

I’ve written the past two weeks about the way that Creation calls us to worship and praise God (here and here). We are called to praise God, as is the whole creation. “Praise him, sun and moon, praise him all you shining stars! . . . Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created” (Ps 148:3-5).

Psalm 104 is the most extensive piece of Biblical literature that focuses on God as creator and sustainer of the universe. John Stott calls it “perhaps the earliest essay in ecology in the literature of the world.” [1] It opens with the words:

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty
Wrapped with light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
You set the beams of your chambers on the waters (Ps 104:1-3).

The psalm goes on to describe the way God created the earth and the way he sustains it with water and food. The language is amazingly concrete: springs gush forth, grass grows for cattle. Specific animals and plants are mentioned: cedars, storks, young lions, wild goats. The psalmist says all the plants and animals look to God for food in their season. In fact, it is God who takes away the breath of animals when they die, and it is God who gives the breath that enables them to live.

After 30 verses describing God’s hand in nature, the psalmist bursts out, “May the glory of the Lord endure forever,” then continues, “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being” (verses 31 and 33).

Psalm 104 seems to be a partner to Psalm 103, which focuses on God as Redeemer. Psalm 103 and 104, taken together, give a picture of the God of relationship who redeems and heals human beings and calls them into relationship with him, who is the same God who created and sustains the physical universe. Often the psalms flow seamlessly from praising God as creator to praising God for his compassion, his justice, his righteousness.

Throughout the psalms, there is a pattern of God’s revelation in both nature and in his word.  Psalm 19 says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (verse 1). Later in the same psalm, in verses 7-10, the psalmist describes the wonders of the law of the Lord, the written revelation of God. God has made himself known to us through the creation and also through his special communication with humans in the Bible and in his son, Jesus Christ. Nature alone cannot teach us all we need to know about God. Yet when we neglect seeing God’s hand in nature, we miss a powerful call to worship and a deep connection with the humility that comes from knowing we are created beings dependent on our Creator God.

One aspect of that dependence comes from the way that God sustains the physical world, stressed in Psalm 104 and repeated elsewhere:

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving,
make melody to our God on the lyre.
He covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares rain for the earth,
makes grass grow in the hills.
He gives to the animals their food,
and to the young ravens when they cry (Ps 147:7-9).

I love the strong affirmation in Job 12:7-12 that the created order teaches us that we are utterly dependent on God:

But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing,
and the breath of every human being.

Maybe part of why Christians haven’t always put a lot of emphasis on joining with creation in praising God is that we don’t like admitting our utter dependence on the One who sustains our every breath.

(This is the third post in a series on worshipping God as Creator. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality. More on this topic next week. Illustration: Kapiti Island by Dave Baab. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column. All biblical quotations from the NRSV.)

[1] John R. W. Stott, “The Works of the Lord,” The Best Preaching on Earth: Sermons on Caring for Creation, Stan L. LeQuire, ed. (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1996), 82.

Worshipping God the Creator: the Creation invites us to join in praise

Thursday June 9 2016

Worshipping God the Creator: the Creation invites us to join in praise

I wrote last week about how the Creation calls us to praise the One who made it. This has been a theme in Christian singing for centuries. In this post I will give you the words to two hymns that speak of Creation’s praise of God and our invitation to join in.

In 1912 Frances W. Wile wrote a winter hymn, appropriate for us in New Zealand right now, but perhaps not as timely for my Northern Hemisphere readers. The words are wonderful whatever season it is:

All beautiful the march of days, as seasons come and go;
The Hand that shaped the rose hath wrought the crystal of the snow;
Hath sent the hoary frost of Heav’n, the flowing waters sealed,
And laid a silent loveliness on hill and wood and field.

O’er white expanses sparkling pure the radiant morns unfold;
The solemn splendors of the night burn brighter than the cold;
Life mounts in every throbbing vein, love deepens round the hearth,
And clearer sounds the angel hymn, “Good will to men on earth.”

O Thou from Whose unfathomed law the year in beauty flows,
Thyself the vision passing by in crystal and in rose,
Day unto day doth utter speech, and night to night proclaim,
In ever changing words of light, the wonder of Thy Name.

In the second verse Wile evokes the angel hymn to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth, which reflects the experience that I mentioned in the post last week. Nature helps me to put my own struggles in perspective and experience God’s peace and goodness. In the last verse, Wile quotes from Psalm 19:2 and then says that nature proclaims God’s name “in ever changing words of light.” What a call to praise!

“All beautiful the March of Days” is usually sung to a traditional English tune, Forest Green, arranged by Ralph Vaughn Williams. You can listen to it here

Another well known hymn from the same time period invites us to join with the Creation as it praises God. Rev. Mathbie D. Babcock these words in 1901:

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.

In the second verse, again we see that creation praises God, and the implication is that we are invited to join in: “The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.” This hymn, like the first one, talks about creation communicating to us: “to my listening ears all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.” I love Babcock's words, "He speaks to me everywhere." So many people hear God more clearly out in nature than anywhere else.

The concluding verse has always helped me reaffirm that evil will not triumph and that God is still working, even when all I am experiencing is pain. God will have the last word. This is an interesting parallel to the angel’s words at Jesus’ birth, mentioned in the previous hymn, because nature so often gives us the peace and perspective to cope with the sorrow and sadness in our own lives.

“This is my Father’s World” has three more verses that you can find here, and you can listen to the tune here.

I’ll close this post with Psalm 95: 5-7, which mirrors these two hymns and makes a seamless transition from the fact that the creation is made by God to the relational truth that God is our shepherd:

The sea is his, for he made it,
   and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
O come, let us worship and bow down,
   let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
   and we are the people of his pasture,
   and the sheep of his hand.

(Next week: The Bible and Creation. Illustration: Queenstown winter day by Dave Baab. Those of you who are Lord of the Rings fans will enjoy the fact that the hillside in the background of Dave’s painting was the setting for a scene in one of the movies. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

Worshipping God the Creator: the first post of a series

Tuesday May 31 2016

Worshipping God the Creator: the first post of a series

A few years ago, I was talking with a friend from childhood. I asked her about her sense of faith, and she said that she was basically a druid. I asked her what she meant, and she replied that she experiences God in nature. For her, nature enables her to experience a sense of transcendence, and nature is her church. Any worship she experiences is in nature.

I said to her, “I can really relate to that. I often experience God in nature.”

She replied, “Wait a minute. You’re a Christian. How can you say that?”

I answered, “God created everything. When I look at the world he made, I see it as his handiwork. We can learn something about artists from looking at their artwork, and, in the same way, we can experience something of God in nature. That doesn’t mean nature equals God. It just means it reveals something about God because he made it and sustains it. Because nature is so beautiful, it speaks to me of God’s beauty.”

Christians have often been wary of talking too much about finding God in nature because it sounds like they might be pantheists instead of Christians. Pantheism asserts that God is everywhere; in fact, to a pantheist the universe in its totality is God. Christians believe that God made and sustains the physical world, and God is present everywhere through his Spirit, but God is also separate from creation, just like artists are separate from the artwork they create.

Pastor and writer Gordon MacDonald describes the way his grandmother helped him learn to enjoy birds, trees, animals, and plants, teaching him “the things we were seeing were God’s gift, God’s expression of his character, and God’s artistry.” He writes:

"As I became more acquainted with theology, I began to realize that Grandmother had been teaching me one of the most fundamental truths of the Bible: God had created something out of nothing. That creation reflected a signal part of his nature: order, beauty, energy, growth. I saw that the world was a vast sanctuary where one, stimulated by his or her senses, could be caused to worship and behold a primary revelation of God the Creator." [1]

For many Christians, the physical world is a sanctuary that enables us to praise and worship God.

This is not a new idea, yet it is an idea that was largely lost in the twentieth century church. Over and over again, the psalm writers are moved to adoration and worship because of the splendor of nature. Psalm 33:1-9 calls us to “rejoice in the Lord” and “sing to him a new song” for several reasons: his word is upright, he loves righteousness and justice, and he made the earth. “Let all the earth fear the Lord . . . for he spoke and it came to be” (Ps. 33:8, 9).

The whole creation belongs to God by virtue of the fact that he made it. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers” (Ps 24:1, 2). Everything about it belongs to him: the animals and plants, the stars and planets, even the rhythms of nature. “Yours is the day, yours also is the night . . . you made summer and winter” (Ps 74:16, 17).

The creation helps me put my own life into perspective. “Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you endure” (Ps 102: 25, 26). My own life on earth will end. All the beauty of nature is temporal. Nature itself is definitely not God, because nature will ultimately perish. Only God is eternal.

(This is the first post in a series on worshipping God as Creator, excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Illustration: "Bright rowboats, Lake Alexandrina," a watercolor by Dave Baab.)

[1] Gordon MacDonald, “Foreword,” The Best Preaching on Earth: Sermons on Caring for Creation, Stan L. LeQuire, ed. (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1996), p. xvi.

Praise to the Trinity in four movements

Thursday May 26 2016

Praise to the Trinity in four movements

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday. Here are my words of praise as I reflect back on my life.

1. Late elementary school. My parents take me to church every Sunday but we never, never talk about God at home. Prayers and hymns at church leave me with the idea that God is a bit mysterious in his holiness, and that humans can rest in this mystery and enjoy God’s otherness. The notion of the Trinity enhances this sense of mystery. I love the analogies of water in three forms (steam, liquid and ice) and the three leaves of one shamrock. How can we understand this three-in-one? Why would we want to? Our job is to enjoy God. My childhood heart is lifted up because of this great mystery.

2. My thirties. I am a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, and my favorite professor is Ray Anderson. In his theology classes, he often talks about the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. Jesus, he says, is eternally submissive to his Father, obeying his Father and giving him glory. After the Incarnation, he says, the Holy Spirit is permanently stamped with the personality of Jesus. To experience the Holy Spirit is to experience Jesus. We are invited to obey the Father, like Jesus did and does. We are invited to serve and love in the world like Jesus did and does, through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are invited to join with each member of the Trinity, giving praise and glory to the other members of the Trinity. My heart is filled with wonder because I am invited to join into something so huge and beautiful.

3. My forties. I write several books about congregational issues, and my publisher, The Alban Institute, markets to Unitarian as well as Christian congregations. So, along with my interviews in Christian churches, I also interview numerous Unitarians and visit several Unitarian Universalist congregations. The Unitarians I meet are lovely people: good hearted, caring, deep thinkers. Along with my interview questions about how their congregations work, I ask questions about their spirituality. Later I reflect on the differences between what they say as Unitarians and what I believe as a Trinitarian Christian, and I come to the conclusion the difference is the location and personality of the holy/sacred. Christians believe that the holy/sacred has come to earth from heaven in a person, Jesus Christ, and that through the sending of the Holy Spirit, God remains present with humans. God is here in the Holy Spirit, stamped eternally with the personality of Jesus Christ. God is also in heaven. My heart sings with joy at the generosity of a God who would be so close to us and yet also transcendent, holy and exalted.

4. My fifties. I am hired as a lecturer in pastoral theology in a department with two systematic theologians who have a lot to say about the Trinity. I listen to them, and the graduate students they supervise, as they present seminars and public lectures. The theologians and students emphasize the communal nature of the Trinity, that we are called into relationship with a relational Trinity, who then empowers us to be in human community. I am invited to write a chapter for a book on online community, so I read Being as Communion by the great Eastern Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas, who argues that to be human is to be in relationship because of the nature of the God in whose image we are created. I am stretched by this call to love, and my heart rejoices at the beauty of this communal God, whose three-in-oneness has illuminated my life ever since childhood.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea.
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
(Reginald Heber, 1783–1826)

(Here's an earlier post on the Celtic Christian perspective on the Trinity with some beautiful Celtic Trinity prayers. Next week I will begin a series on worshipping God as Creator of a beautiful world. If you'd like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

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