Thursday, April 4, 2013

Not Only Visiting This Planet - Creation Care and Christian Escapism

God's Creation is truly beautiful.

The Crab Nebula. Click for a bigger image.
I was greatly honoured to lead the worship in song at church this morning. With just a guitar and my voice, I led the congregation in three choruses, two contemporary, and one classic. It was with the classic I ended the set, the ever popular hymn How Great Thou Art.

Oh Lord My God
When I in Awesome Wonder
Consider all the Worlds Thy Hand has Made
I See the Stars, and Hear the Mighty Thunder
Thy Power Throughout the Universe Displayed

When a volcano and a lightning storm make love.
As I prepared for the service this week, I was repeatedly awed by the beauty the song invokes. Each verse invites the singer to consider the grandeur of Creation, the immensity of the galaxies, the might of a thunderstorm, the peace of a meadow, the song of a bird, the caress of a breeze. From each image, we are turned toward the Great Artist, the Conductor of the Symphony of the Cosmos, and erupt in ardent praise at the inspiration of God’s Masterpiece.

Then Sings My Soul
My Saviour, God, to Thee
How Great You Are
How Great You Are

It’s a good song.

It occurred to me this week that I rarely hear songs of this type written for church anymore. More commonly, I hear new choruses that outline theology. As beautiful and rich as the theology may be, these songs often encourage us to engage the Almighty with our minds first, not the physical world. Most often, I hear songs about us, songs that describe back to God all the good ways we feel personally about divine love and grace. I don’t believe that either of these approaches are necessarily wrong, but I do think we may glean something from the omission of our real, physical world from the church’s creative culture.

There was a time when I weighted intellectual theology even more heavily than I do now. During that season, I attended a wedding where they sang the old hymn, All Creatures of Our God and King. It was beautiful. Nevertheless I remember being smugly judgmental of how little I felt the song explicitly said of "deep" theology (as I understood it). Last week, I returned to this song. I feel much differently, now.

This beloved hymn, (originally called Canticle of the Sun), was written in Italian by Saint Francis of Assisi (for whom the current Pope is named), has been sung the world round for hundreds of years, and is so well known that even the usually indiscernible Mr. Bean can make out the melody and chorus. Like How Great Thou Art, it invites us to allow Creation to turn our hearts to the Creator. In fact, it suggests that Creation itself, in its beauty, is herself raising her voice in praise to the Source of All Life, if only we would listen to her.

If I were an octopus, I'd praise the Lord for my good looks.
All of this is reflected in scripture.

The Eagle Nebula
David said (Psalm 19:1-3),

“The heavens declare the glory of God,
     and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
     and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
     whose voice is not heard.”

And in Psalm 24 (the first two verses),

“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
     the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
     and established it on the waters.”

And in Psalm 92:4-5

“For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
    at the works of your hands I sing for joy.
 How great are your works, O Lord!
    Your thoughts are very deep!”

Here and throughout the Psalms, the most famous of our ancient religious songwriters established a tradition of seeing the glory of God in the Masterpiece of Creation.

But what really got me thinking about this last week was actually an unfortunate line at the end of the hymn How Great Thou Art.In the stanza that once was my favourite, we sing these unfortunate lines:

When Christ Shall Come
With Shouts of Acclamation
And Take me Home
What Joy Shall Fill My Heart

The offending line is the third one. How is it that the writer of this hymn, so enraptured by the splendour of the earth and heavens for stanza after stanza, should be so quickly filled with joy at the thought of escaping them? The simple answer is that he didn’t.

Like Canticle of the Sun and scores of other classics, this song was not originally written in English. It's an old song, from 1885, and was originally written in Swedish.

In its earliest English translation (1925), this is the stanza that comes closest to the one I quoted above.

And when at last the mists of time have vanished
And I in truth my faith confirmed shall see,
Upon the shores where earthly ills are banished
I’ll enter Lord, to dwell in peace with thee.

As is common in the history of hymns, like a folk song this one has morphed and changed and adapted with each new generation, denomination, or artistic interpretation. Like many of our most cherished songs, this one also carries with it the marks of our church's history. As our perspectives and priorities change, our old songs carry the evidence like rings of a fallen oak.

The history of the song has taken many paths. One different branch had this verse at the end, finalized in 1995:

And when at last, the clouds of doubt dispersing,
You will reveal what we but dimly see;
With trumpet call, our great rebirth announcing,
We shall rejoin you for eternity.

This is real. Show of hands: Who wants to turn off the computer and go outside?
I must admit, I prefer the poetry of the classic version. However, I can’t help but be attracted and intrigued by the difference in emphasis this one has. Rather than escape, this verse reminds us of a rebirth, and that after a time of incomplete understanding, toward an eternity of reconciliation of Creation with the divine (see 1 Cor 13:9-13).

But not all our songs are so old. In my tradition, I was hardly ever even introduced to a Christian song written any earlier than the 1960s. This was the decade of the Jesus People, the powerful new emerging voice in the North American church that began changing the culture of our faith as the Baby Boomers reached voting age. As these hippy Christians got older, their perspectives became the new norm for North American Evangelicalism. Theirs has been the strongest force shaping the culture of the church since the sixties, even until today. For Christian music, movies, politics, and televangelism as we know it today (and it is that new), we should consider this hippy generation largely responsible.

I must confess that I actually do love the music of the early Jesus People movement. A longtime favourite of mine has always been Larry Norman.

Shown here holding his head down so his mind isn't blown by that picture of the Crab Nebula.
His first major studio album, Only Visiting this Planet, was put together with the help of Beatle's producer George Martin at AIR Studios, and it is fantastic. I especially recommend the songs Great American Novel and Six'o'Clock News.

This classic early Jesus People album is aptly named, and can give is a hint of some of the major cultural paradigms for this emerging generation. In one song, Larry Norman uses the famous phrase, "This world is not my home, I’m just passing through”. This statement became a central one for the Jesus People, and is still used today, sung in folk and popular songs (including Tom Wait's great recent album, Mule Variations), referenced in sermons and passed about on the Internet. The classic old Christian folk song I Wish We'd All Been Ready was introduced to the world on this album. The song eerily describes a future event when all Christians may be whisked away from the earth, rescued just in time before it's all burned away. The words "Left Behind" are repeated in every chorus, and have since become internationally omnipresent, inspiring a hugely successful book series and franchise by the same name.

Hundreds and thousands of young people came into the evangelical fold in Larry Norman's time, bringing with them a vitality and excitement long lost to the old faithful of their day. Their desire for a real, active, personal, and miraculous faith revolutionized the church. They believed and preached an imminent return of Christ. This urgency and focus on personal relationship with God harmonized well with the drop out culture and hedonism of the post-hippy era. At its best, it revitalized a religion gone stale by tradition. Unfortunately, at its worst, it replaced the me-first hedonism of the hippies with a me-first religion that turned God into our all-powerful buddy, and the drop-out culture with a Christian escapism that no longer need be concerned with the plight of the world.

And this unfortunate reality witnessed widely within the culture of North American Evangelicalism today.

While I truly welcome a personal faith in a loving God, many Christians of my generation have grown tired of an overly personalized and simplified gospel that has grown stale. And for many outside our faith, what was once a vibrant new attractive movement has become as offensive and irrelevant as the dry traditions were to the baby boomers before us. People who don’t believe as we do should rightly be offended at the idea of us looking forward to being whisked away from an earth as they're left upon it to burn away. But is that what our faith is really about? If not, for what hope should we live?

Pictured above: One of many reasons to live.
In the first chapter of Genesis, God said Creation was “very good” multiple times. We Evangelicals do tend to focus on the corruption of the Fall because of its centrality in the doctrine of salvation. But let us not forget how intentionally the Bible describes the creation of the Earth and all of the cosmos. The story in Genesis does indeed show the Creator condescending to invite humankind to participate, first in the command to be fruitful and multiply (the same command given to every living thing, multiple times, before mankind was Created) and have dominion (a command that invokes stewardship of another’s property, not subjugation), but also following that by inviting active participation asking the first person to name all the animals. Notice that nowhere in the text does it say that the Earth was created for humans. The Earth and everything in it, humans included, remain the Creator’s alone, by and for the glory of God.

Pictured above: Glow-in-the-dark fungus. Hanging out. Glorifying God.
This did not change after the Fall.

Genesis 8:21-22 (ESVUK–God speaks to Noah, after the Flood)
Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.

How long shall the earth remain?

Genesis 9:11-16 (ESVUK)
I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

Sometimes we can use the reassurance.
Some do argue that God left a loophole in the covenant, since it only mentions water, and not other means of destruction, such as fire. I believe such interpretations unnecessarily regard the Creator as a somewhat deceptive lawyer character, when the text very clearly says that an annihilation of the earth even as destructive as the Flood will never again occur. And this covenant is not only with humanity, but with every living creature.

The earth, and life upon it, will continue.

Ecclesiastes 1:4 (ESVUK)
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains for ever.

Psalm 104:5 (ESVUK)
He set the earth on its foundations,
    so that it should never be moved.

There are places in the Bible that do, in fact appear to describe the earth as passing away or being destroyed (2 Peter 3:7-13, Hebrews 1:10-12 and Malachi 4:1, for example). But the word describing the passing away of the earth (aperchomai) is not utter destruction, but a change from the old way of being to follow after something new, of departing evils and sufferings. We believe the same thing about God’s redemption of a human being.

2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESVUK)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
Bullfrog. See also: Butterfly. They used to look different.
Of course, we don’t interpret this to mean that a person literally burns to a cinder and is replaced by a new individual when they put their faith in Jesus. We needn’t place this interpretation on God’s redemption of the earth, either.

We have a future hope for a renewal of all things to God’s original intended purpose. And the hope is not described in the Bible as a handful of righteous Christians being whisked away from the corrupted earth in the nick of time, but rather a beautiful picture of heaven itself coming down toward earth.

Revelation 21:1-5 (ESVUK)
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

The promise here goes the opposite direction of Christian Escapism. God does not return to whisk us up off the planet, taking us away to some other home. The end of the story instead shows God coming down to earth to be with the Creation, with humanity, and for it all to be redeemed according to its original purpose. Revelation does not say that God will make all new things, but that God will make “all things new”. The earth is certainly not as it should be, but if we believe God may create everything from a void in Genesis 1, certainly God may make things new from the substance in which we now live.

Consider these beautiful words concerning the glorious future awaiting not just us, but all of Creation, as we wait for God to fully consummate the just Kingdom.

Romans 8:18-25 (ESVUK)
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
The Red Rectangle Nebula. Yes, it's really called that.
Just as we hope for our full redemption, spirit, soul, and body, when we put our faith in Jesus, so also may we hope in the redemption of the whole of Creation.

In the famous Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, Jesus says that those persecuted for righteousness (v10), and those poor in spirit (v3) are blessed for “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. That’s a present reality. In contrast, he says in verse five that “the meek shall inherit the earth” (v5). That’s a future reality. In verse thirteen, Jesus describes his followers as “the salt of the earth”.

We are not salt in an earth that is quickly spoiling, but in the earth we will one day inherit.

We are sent into the earth as ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven, the realm of God’s authority and rule that exists today. The Kingdom of Heaven is alive and active among us right now, and a material, physical, incorruptible human being, Jesus, is King of that kingdom. The Kingdom of Heaven was inaugurated on earth by the completion of Jesus’ mission when he defeated sin and death by his death and resurrection. And in this hope of our future resurrection we now live in faith.

And that resurrection is not for us alone, but for all of this Creation. Revelation 21 and 22 tells us the story not of Christians being rescued from a dying earth into heaven, but of all of Heaven coming down to an earth redeemed and restored, incorruptible, and in God’s perfect plan. Plants, animals, and geological formations still exist for eternity, and we with it.

And until then we live in the reality of his kingdom rule as it grows in the earth all around us. Our faith is active and physical and real.

As citizens of Heaven, we do not long for the day we will be rescued and taken home. We live as citizens of Heaven in a land not our own, but making it ours by proclaiming the truth of the new king’s rule, and demonstrating the culture of the kingdom is now in place. We are ambassadors. We are intercessors, praying on behalf of a world that does not yet entirely know its’ king.

The Earth Is Our Home.
We Are Not Just Passing Through.

1 Corinthians 15:54-58 (ESVUK)
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

   “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
   O death, where is your sting?”

 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.


This is our hope. This verse says that our labour now on earth, this beautiful earth of God’s loving Creation is not in vain because Jesus has conquered death, and because we know we will be resurrected to live imperishable on God’s good earth. Our work here on earth will last in eternity, not just in a heavenly history book, but as a real piece of God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Just as Jesus carried in his flesh the marks of his death, our works done in faith for God’s Kingdom will be seen in the New Earth that God makes, from this one.

Until then , we continue to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.

We pray because we long for this to be true, and we act according to the authority of the righteous king of whom we are ambassadors. Our prayers do not stay in the closet or on the floor by our bed. We see them evidenced in our life as we not only tell the groaning world in darkness of the truth of the light of Christ, but we show them it is so in our actions and by our lives. We live humbly and generously, as Christ before us who gave his all. We speak out for the oppressed and the imprisoned. We live for justice for all of humanity that is made in the same image of God as we are.

We need not be bound by every culture and paradigm of the religious generations before us. It is no heresy to recognize the weaknesses in our own faith and belief. Let us write new songs. Let us foster a rich, deep theology that encourages us to participate in the works of justice and renewal and rebirth that are happening on the earth all around us, today. Let us not be tempted by the neo-pseudo-gnostic culture of inaction and apathy to the plight of Creation, the Earth and all her creatures, that has become so widespread among our brothers and sisters. Let us spread good news, of real, tangible, measurable change because of the cross, the empty tomb, and God’s living spirit in the world. And let us show in our actions that we really believe that this earth, the plants and creatures upon it, and every human are God’s alone.
Let us be moved again with awesome wonder by the beauty of all God’s hands hath made.

Let us get our hands dirty in the soil of Creation, our home, and participate together in its redemption back to the beautiful, sustainable, just, peaceful garden God always intended it to be.

Starting Next Week (April 9-17ish) – Ephesians - Theology as Poetry

Most of these images are public domain, and came to me from this Cracked article and also this Cracked article.

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