Sunday, 30 January 2011

Wild Animals

Preacher: Jane

I’d like to start with what according to Wikipedia is a famous, but possibly made-up, quote. The 20th century scientist and writer J B S Haldane was once asked what could be deduced about the mind of the Creator from studying God’s creation. His reply was “an inordinate fondness for beetles”. This relates to the fact that over a quarter of all known animal species are beetles - around 350,000 species. (And there are probably more as yet undiscovered.)

This is the final sermon in our series on Richard Bauckham’s book Bible and Ecology. Today we’re looking at a specific section of the book, which is actually about wild and domestic animals. There’s also more about animals elsewhere in the book, which other preachers have already spoken about. A more accurate title for today would be “some thoughts about wild animals – especially the dangerous ones – and about domestic animals”. Accurate but not very snappy.

I’ve found the book inspiring and thought-provoking. I particularly like the way Richard Bauckham looks at a range of scriptures, not just the more obvious ones, to show how God’s good purposes are for both humans and the non-human creation. But I’ve found today’s topic difficult to get to grips. I have some questions – for example about suffering and evil in the animal kingdom – which, as Bauckham puts it, are unlikely to be answered “this side of the end of history”. Bauckham points out that “the Bible is a book for humans” and that God has a relationship with the animals that we don’t know about and doesn’t need to be mediated by us. As we heard from Lesley’s sermon on the book of Job, recognising our lack of understanding about God’s creation can lead us to greater humility, and help us find our place alongside the other creatures God has made in the community of creation. Going back to Haldane’s quote, maybe God does have a special fondness for beetles - there are many things we just don’t know.

On the other hand, there are some wonderful things we can learn from the scriptures.

Reading: Isaiah 11: 1-10

This passage focuses on a particular group of wild animals – those that might harm people and their livestock. The background has been pointed out in previous sermons, especially Veronica’s. One of the worst consequences of the fall was ever-increasing violence, affecting both humans and animals and resulting in broken relationships. Following the flood, God makes a covenant not only with Noah but also with every other living creature on the ark. This includes measures that limit violence but don’t totally deal with it – including that humans are for the first time allowed to eat meat, although with certain restrictions, and animals will live in “fear and dread” of humans. It leaves the world a place in which two major fears for people are predation by dangerous wild animals and predation by invading armies.

Broadly-speaking there are two ways the Bible talks about dealings between humans and animals – one realistic, as in what I’ve just said about the aftermath of the flood, and the other paradisal, picturing in various ways a return to Eden or a new creation. Isaiah 11 is one of the most far-reaching visions of a new creation, looking forward to the peaceable kingdom of the Messiah. Through the knowledge of the Lord, the Messiah establishes justice among humans and peace with wild animals. The picture here is of things being put right, first among the Messiah’s own people, then spreading out to encompass all nations in universal peace.

A key feature is the establishment of peaceful relationships between wild animals and people (and people’s livestock). The passage isn’t primarily interested in the relationships between wild animals, but verse 7 makes it clear that carnivores have become herbivores and so that’s likely to make a big difference!

The passage talks about human children and young domestic animals – the most vulnerable - which no longer need fear wild animals. Likewise, wild animals no longer need fear people, as the human dominion commanded in Genesis 2 is exercised as it should be, in gentle and beneficial service, as Bauckham puts it. A little child can lead the wild animals, with no coercion, and they willingly follow.

Bauckham acknowledges the problems for modern readers in thinking about lions becoming vegetarians. (It’s one of the things the Wednesday homegroup has discussed.) It’s hard to see how this could work biologically, as lions and many other species are adapted to kill and eat other animals and can’t survive unless they eat meat. From our human perspective we might also feel that a lion that didn’t hunt other animals would have lost something of its essence, it’s lion-ness. Whilst writing this sermon I realised this doesn’t particularly bother me. On a purely practical level, in a world where scientists are working on making synthetic meat, I don’t think it’ll be too difficult for God to resolve this. And Bauckham reminds us that there are many things about the new creation we can’t comprehend, and it will involve a new creative act of God comparable to the wonders of the original creation.

But there’s another thing that I find more difficult. Science tells us that animals were eating other animals long before humans came on the scene and it’s difficult to square this with God’s command in Genesis 1. After God has created humans, Gen 1 vs 29-31 say “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move on the ground - everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food’. And it was so. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Bauckham says that this picture of animals and humans originally being vegetarian is idealised and should be seen as eschatological – in other words, I suppose, that hasn’t yet been a time that the world God created was very good in the way described here, but that these verses look forward to God’s ultimate plan for creation, a time when there will be no more violence and when all creation lives in harmony with God. I must admit I haven’t been used to looking at the creation accounts in this way and it challenges me to think again.

Mark 1: 9-13

Only Mark’s Gospel talks about animals being part of Jesus’ wilderness experience - “He was with the wild animals”, and Bauckham links this with the passage we heard from Isaiah 11. I once heard a comment about what I’m about to summarise that it might be stretching a point to build an argument from one word - “with”.

This may be a fair point, but I really like what Bauckham says. Jesus is baptised and designated the Messianic Son of God. I’m grateful to Chris for pointing out that the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in the form of an animal – a dove. I’m not sure what all the symbolism of this would have been to the original readers, but Jesus told his disciples to be “as innocent as a dove” and I think of it as a gentle, non-violent image. Then he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to establish his relationship as Messiah with the non-human creation (Satan, wild animals and angels), before he establishes that relationship as Messiah with the human creation. Satan is clearly an enemy, angels clearly friends, but the wild animals are more ambiguous. Traditionally, as we have seen, they are enemies of people. However, the setting here is the wilderness, where the wild animals belong, as Sue pointed out in her recent sermon on wild places.

Bauckham says that the word “with” indicates Jesus’ peaceful presence, and has no sense of hostility. In Mark, “being with” is often used to describe a friendly closeness – for example of the disciples in Mark 3:14 “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach…” and so on. Bauckham sees in Jesus “being with” the animals a foreshadowing of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom. He points out that Mark could have viewed the ideal relationship between the Messiah and animals as being one of domination or of recruiting them to become domesticated – taming them if you like.

The Bible’s original readers would have had good reason to fear wild animals, so the promise of healing of the relationship between people and animals would be good news for people. And of course today in some parts of the world people still have cause to fear wild animals. For instance in the Sunderbans mangrove forests of Bangladesh around 50 people are killed every year by tigers. However, Bauckham points out that there’s been an enormous shift in the balance between humans and animals, and now it is overwhelmingly the animals that are threatened by humans. (Tigers, even those in Bangladesh, are gravely threatened and may soon become extinct in the wild.) But the good news of the reconciliation that Jesus brings is still good news in these changed circumstances. Bauckham suggests the way Jesus is “with” the animals in the wilderness can be a model for us – respecting animals to have independent value for themselves and for God and allowing them to live in peace in their own habitat. Interestingly, in the Sunderbans, there’s work going on which aims both to protect people and conserve the tigers – this seems to me an example of creative and practical peacemaking. One of the things in Bible and Ecology that I’ve been struck by is the recurring theme of violence and peace, and it seems to me that a Biblical understanding of God’s purposes for non-human animals fits very well with our calling to be a peace church. Having said this, we need to be wise. We can begin, in our limited way, to live lives that reflect God’s will for creation, but Bauckham warns people against trying to create utopias, which always fail. The full expression of the peaceable kingdom is for God to bring about.

Can we have our final three verses please?
Deut 25:4
Proverbs 12:10
Luke 6:3

So now we come to domestic animals. There is a wider discussion we could have about people becoming vegetarians, but that isn’t the main focus of the section in Bible and Ecology, and would need a whole sermon, or even a sermon series – so I’m not going to address that here.

Domestic animals are probably mentioned more than wild animals in the Bible – not surprisingly as they lived closely alongside Biblical people and were likely considered almost part of the household. Contrary to the view of some who are interested in animal rights today, the Bible doesn’t suggest that there’s anything wrong with the domestication of animals. In fact it seems to see a distinction between domestic and wild animals as being part of God’s intention. Accounts of the creation, flood, and the post-flood covenant all make a distinction between domestic and wild animals.

The Bible makes it clear that both humans and domestic animals are to benefit from the arrangement. The Hebrew scriptures contain specific instructions about looking after the welfare of domestic animals, such as the one we just heard – while the ox is threshing grain, it should be allowed to eat some of it. More generally, there are passages showing how people can relate to domestic animals in a way which mirrors God’s caring responsibility towards creation. Bauckham points out something I hadn’t seen before - about all those references to good and bad shepherds in the Bible. Although often given to illustrate human or divine leadership, they draw from an idea of a proper relationship between people and their domestic animals. Those passages wouldn’t make sense unless the readers understood what it meant to treat the flock well or badly.

I see Bauckham’s book as mostly about Biblical study rather than the nitty-gritty of our behaviour. But on the subject of domestic animals, Richard Bauckham is uncharacteristically forceful in condemning some of the things we humans do. Here’s one quote: “ …in the modern west, animal husbandry has largely been replaced by systematised brutality and exploitation quite unlike good farming practice in the past and in a different league of evil even from bad farming practice in the past. It cannot possibly be justified by reference to the Bible. Crucially, the Bible does not regard domestic animals as mere objects for people to use, but like wild animals, as subjects of their own lives.” This challenged me as, although I don’t normally eat meat, I eat dairy products and am therefore implicated in this systematised brutality, which I have chosen to ignore. Not many of us are livestock farmers, but by our choices as consumers we are linked to the systems of farming, for good or ill. Bauckham reflects on the Proverbs reading we just heard, to encourage us to use our ability to empathise to help us imagine something of what an animal’s experience might be. This may help us to act rightly towards domestic animals, and with true kindness and tenderness, in imitation of God’s character. There are resources to help us think further about this – for example the organisation Compassion in World Farming.

To conclude - something a bit more personal. Some of you won’t be surprised when I say I really like animals. That’s especially true of the cute and furry ones with big eyes, but I can even find beetles – and of course bats - fascinating. I’m not sure what Richard Bauckham would think of this, but one of the things I like about animals is that they make me laugh. One of my guilty pleasures is (very) occasionally watching television programmes like Planet’s Funniest Animals. But I also have a sense of wonder, of privilege and even awe in encountering wild animals – in real life or through books or films. What’s it like to be this slow loris – what’s going on in its head? What’s it like to be a penguin in an Antarctic winter – or even what’s it like to be the robin in our back garden? I think this is to do with what Bauckham describes as the value of otherness – recognising animals as distinct from us, having their own lives and their own value to God, and their own relationship to God. Contemplating this otherness, Bauckham thinks, might help people towards humility in recognising that it’s not all about us, what we achieve and control – and might also help us towards recognising the greater otherness of God, the creator and reconciler of all.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Wild places

Preacher: Sue

Readings: see below

Today we continue our sermon series on creation and the environment, using Richard Bauckham’s book Bible and Ecology.

Creation - solidarity & care
Veronica started this series with a look at the Genesis 2 creation story. She pointed out that the man is made from the dust of the ground – just as the birds and other animals are a few verses later. Humans and all the other creatures are made of the same stuff – they are all part of the “community of creation” that Bauckham talks about throughout the book. And humans are commissioned to cultivate and preserve the earth – not to cultivate it intensively till it gives way to dustbowl and desert but to cultivate it in such a way that it is also preserved.

Flood – violence, chaos, creation re-made, violence contained
Veronica then looked at the flood and memorably observed that one of the main symptoms of creation’s gradual descent into corruption and alienation from God was that it was full of violence.

Bauckham defines the Flood as a kind of ‘de-creation’, a return to chaos. But at the end of the story there is a ‘re-creation’ in the covenant that God makes with Noah and his descendants and, significantly, with ‘every living creature that is with you’.

Creation – tenants and fellow-fillers
Wayne also talked about the “community of creation” and pointed out that it’s not just humans who are encouraged to “fill the earth”. The birds are also urged to fill the earth and the sea creatures the seas. We have to bear that in mind when we interpret ideas like subduing the earth and having dominion over it – as well as remembering that the earth belongs to God and we are merely tenants.

Lesley looked at some passages from Job which remind us that we are simply a small part of God’s creation, a part about which God cares, no doubt, but part of the community of created beings, who are not less important. Our task is to respect them, to accept that God is working ultimately for our good (however painful and puzzling life may be at times) and join the divine resistance against the forces of chaos and destruction.

Sharing the earth
Then I looked at Psalm 104 and Matthew 6 which describe a community of creation which is abundant, ordered but diverse and beautiful. There is enough for every human and every creature as they all depend on a generous God and none takes more than they need. And the animals relate directly to God, they don’t have to go through humans as a kind of dominion-wielding earth-subduing middleman. God is at the centre here, with humans dependent on God just as the other creatures are and animals as creatures in their own right and “subjects of their own lives”.

Praising and mourning together
Chris echoed this when he spoke on the community of creation and how all creation praises & mourns together. He quoted Richard Bauckham: ‘all creatures bring glory to God simply by being themselves and fulfilling their God-given roles in God’s creation’. Chris described the rest of creation as not only a neighbourhood but also as neighbours – and fellow worshippers.

Chris gave examples of the obvious concrete interconnectedness of all creation, for instance in the way that greedy land use, intensive agriculture or overfishing on the part of humans have disastrous environmental consequences. But he also touched on the more puzzling question of the spiritual connection between human choices and consequences in the natural world. He highlighted the danger of talking too simplistically about these connections, for instance saying that hurricane Katrina was the consequence of the easy availability of abortion in America. Bauckham mentions the deep connection between physical, moral and spiritual orders in the biblical world view. But he doesn’t talk concretely about quite what he means by this – at least not here, but we’ll come back to this…

Alpha to Omega - the cosmic Christ
Veronica reminded us of the temptation to substitute “humanity” for “creation” as we hear or read Colossians 1, so that Jesus Christ is not the creator, firstborn and reconciler of all creation as the text tells us but just of all humanity. Bauckham talks about human fantasies of a world in which we have subdued nature, maybe even become completely independent of it. The vision of Colossians is the very opposite: all creation is integrated in Jesus Christ.

And Veronica’s sermon offered one way of dealing with Chris’s struggle with the questions about the fallen-ness of creation and what that means. According to Bauckham, the Bible does not really attempt to answer this question fully, but simply prophesies that through Christ the creation will be liberated from the evils that it now suffers. The bible focuses on the creation’s future, not its past.

Alpha to Omega – Jesus and the renewal of creation
Judith preached on Jesus and the renewal of creation, drawing on passages from the gospels, Philippians 2 and Revelation. Bauckham talks about Jesus’ calming of the storm which echoes God’s calming and containing of chaos at creation and the way God continues to confine chaos to create stability for creation, as seen for instance in Job and Psalms 89 & 104. It also gives a foretaste of transformed and peaceful relationships between humans and t non-humans in the renewed creation.

Judith reminded us that this will be a renewed not a replaced creation. She drew attention to the parallel with Paul’s words in 2 Cor 5, “So if anyone is in Christ – new creation! The old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new!” When someone becomes a Christian they are transformed and renewed now in the same way as the whole of creation will one day be transformed and renewed.

Wild places
And so we come to today’s theme, wild places. Jane will be preaching our last sermon in this series at the end of January when she will look at wild animals.

Let’s start with a reading from Genesis 2:1-15.

The garden of Eden
In this passage we are far from the extremes of wilderness we’ve just been thinking about. We’re in the garden of Eden, gentle, luxuriant, fruitful, beautiful. Bauckham suggests that in the bible a garden is usually a vegetable garden or an orchard, and with all the trees mentioned here, presumably this is an orchard. According to Bauckham, as they toiled away at ploughing, sowing and reaping, Israelites dreamed of being able to live from vineyards and orchards alone – much less hard graft, digging and bending involved. So in some ways this is the ultimate fantasy for an Israelite – a beautiful orchard planted by someone else with a little light pruning and maybe some gentle irrigation to be done from time to time and plenty of time to hang out enjoying the cool and beauty of the orchard. But there is more about this garden that is special.

Humans and nature – made for each other
In verse 5, there is no-one to till the ground. So God makes a man. Then God plants a garden, full of every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. And then he puts the man in the garden, to till it and keep it, and gives him permission to eat from all the trees but one. It’s a marriage made in heaven: the garden gets someone to care for it and protect it; the man gets a ready source of easy and delicious food. As Bauckham says, the garden and the man are made for each other. There’s a harmony and mutuality here that are lost with the man’s expulsion from the garden. Ever since then there’s been a potential tension between human beings taking care of themselves and taking care of nature. As technology becomes more powerful there is more and more scope for neglecting the care of creation as we seek to take care of ourselves.

Fear of wilderness?
So we have in Eden a clear illustration of the harmony and mutuality intended between humans and nature, but don’t we also find in the bible some more negative views of nature, in particular of wilderness? Indeed, Bauckham reports that some critics of the bible consider that its negative view of wilderness has contributed to our ecological crisis. Certainly the wilderness is the place where the Israelites wander frustrated for forty years, desperate to get away from its perils and into the safety of the promised land (Deut 8:15) . And the wilderness is what takes over after the disastrous fall of a once great city, the ultimate sign of failure and God’s judgment.

Before we go any further, I’d like to ask you to think for a moment about a favourite wild place – or if you don’t like wild places, a favourite place where you experience nature. Imagine yourself there. What is the weather? Who else is there? What else is there? What is it you like about it? Is there anything about it that is frightening or threatening? Now picture it in its extreme of bad weather – driving rain or snow and wind, storm & high waves, flood, extreme heat. How do you feel about it now? What do you long for in these extreme conditions?

And now let’s think a bit more about wildernesses and wild places in the bible. We started with a garden, God’s garden which for a time is also home, workplace and larder to the man and woman. As well as gardens and orchards we find in the bible arable land, land that can be grazed but not cultivated, forests, deserts and wasteland or wilderness. Bauckham suggests that anything other than garden or arable land is frightening for the Israelites, a place where they might encounter wild – and dangerous – animals. That some of us apparently feel differently reflects perhaps that over the centuries (particularly in the UK) we have “tamed” the wilderness and also live at a greater distance from it, often exiled from wild and raw nature in lives lived in paved streets, supermarkets and largely weatherproof homes. But for an Israelite the definition of wilderness is largely to do with survival: wilderness is desert where lack of water makes it hard for humans to survive and forest, where a hungry wild animal could also make it hard to survive…

So it’s not just expulsion from the garden that opens up a rift between humans and non-human creation. The Israelites’ pattern of agriculture also creates a division between hospitable productive land and inhospitable barren land. (Interestingly this isn’t quite a division between humans and non-human creation – in the hospitable productive portion of the land, domestic animals are included along with the humans. They too rest on the Sabbath and they too, in Nineveh (Jonah 3) are expected to fast and wear sackcloth as a demonstration of the city’s repentance.)

So in many ways the negative views of wild nature are a logical result of a life lived close to the land – and quite close to the edge too. Bauckham picks out a number of passages where the wilderness is described as an eerie threatening place but also one rich in other life, particularly bird life. Let’s hear an example.

Is 34:8-17

Celebrating wilderness
But I think we can also read this as a real affirmation of wilderness, one that it is important for us to hear today. The wilderness is not good for human beings – but that’s fine because they are not meant to be there. There are other creatures who do belong there and the wilderness is meant for them. I think this is a salutary message for a culture that all too easily thinks all the earth is there just for us.

Psalm 104 gives a similar picture. God gives different habitats & has different creatures in mind to occupy them. So for instance “the high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys”. I think that’s important to hear in an age where human activity is destroying habitats directly by building on top of them or indirectly through climate change, pollution, fragmentation and so on. It challenges us to ask whether difficult-to-cultivate wildernesses are a technical challenge to be overcome by ingenious agriculture or development or are actually areas intended for other creatures to enjoy.

And there is affirmation in the bible of another form of wilderness too, the forest. The garden of Eden, the ideal garden and the place of perfect relationship between God and humanity and nature, is, according to Ezekiel 31, not only an orchard but also a forest planted by God. So God’s garden is also wild nature, in Bauckham’s words “the original, glorious heart of wild nature”. Along with Psalm 104 I think this tells us that however unnerving wild places may have been for the Israelites or may be for us, God delights in them. And, in the chapter where Isaiah imagines God’s people returning from exile, the blossoming of the desert wilderness is described in terms of a majestic forest growing up. Let’s hear the passage – and you’ll need to know that Lebanon and Carmel are famed for their lush forests and woodland.

Is 35

Notice the very strong echoes in verse 2 between the glory of the forest of Lebanon and the majesty of the woodlands of Carmel and Sharon and the glory of the Lord and the majesty of our God.

So all in all I think we can say that the bible is full of positive messages about wilderness. In God’s garden the man and the woman and comparatively wild nature dwell harmoniously together, each made for the other.

With the loss of this harmony, humanity’s relationship with nature becomes more fraught as people are haunted by fear of the wild animals which may roam wild places, but they still affirm the value of those wild places to God and to the animals to which God has given the wild places. And in visions of God’s future rescue of his exiled people one wilderness – the desert - is transformed into another wild place – the forest. So I think we can take from that a challenge to safeguard wild places as the rightful home of the species that live there and as parts of God’s much loved garden. And a calling to value wilderness for its place in God’s heart, for its value to other species and in its own right, not just for our enjoyment or recreation.

Gen 2:1-15
1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. 4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7 then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 11 The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12 and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

Is 34:8-17
8 For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of vindication by Zion's cause. 9 And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulphur; her land shall become burning pitch. 10 Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it forever and ever. 11 But the hawk and the hedgehog shall possess it; the owl and the raven shall live in it. He shall stretch the line of confusion over it, and the plummet of chaos over its nobles. 12 They shall name it No Kingdom There, and all its princes shall be nothing. 13 Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses. It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches. 14 Wildcats shall meet with hyenas, goat-demons shall call to each other; there too Lilith shall repose, and find a place to rest. 15 There shall the owl nest and lay and hatch and brood in its shadow; there too the buzzards shall gather, each one with its mate. 16 Seek and read from the book of the Lord: Not one of these shall be missing; none shall be without its mate. For the mouth of the Lord has commanded, and his spirit has gathered them. 17 He has cast the lot for them, his hand has portioned it out to them with the line; they shall possess it forever, from generation to generation they shall live in it.

Is 35
1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you." 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Praying the In-Between

Preacher: Phil

I said this Sunday that my reflection was a 'sermon in a suitcase'. Like a lot of UK Methodist preachers (I was a Methodist before I became a Mennonite) I learned my craft from William Sangster whose idea of sermon preparation involved lengthy incarceration in the study. With my books in boxes and hours of worry about mortgages and removals my head was clearly not in the 'zone'.

But in a way the past weeks have been fruitful. Prayer has been hidden in the detail. Sometimes we talk about experience as if we could fast forward between one certainty and other and conveniently omit the messy middle part. Often the journey is as important as the destination. The way a decision is made is usually more important than the outcome. All of us know about the in-betweens. Degrees of homelessness. The frustration of hope. A lapsed friendship. The bundling together of life and death. Silence between the notes that create music. The pauses that make sense of a sentence. A mid-life crisis. Work left unfinished. Malachi to Matthew. A boat in a storm. The gap between 'our Father' and 'Amen'. Cross to Resurrection.

On Sunday it was Psalm 23 that was our in-between reflection. The Psalmist rejoices in the table of hospitality and the cup of life but this is a feast in the teeth of fear. It is a meal celebrated in the dreadful valley and in the presence of deadly enemies. The rod and staff offer further support but they are good for walking and hardly for standing still. Wilderness is the in-between place, but not a dwelling place. Only at the end is the in-between resolved in the Psalmists' tantalising, exhilerating 'forever'.