Another lesson of seeing Christ as the One who surrounds and fills our lives comes from the Psalmist’s invitation to imagine this ever-present One as shaping our days, when they write,
“In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.”
At one time I really pushed back against these words. I had heard them again and again used to justify a kind of divine fatalism. Bad things happened because God planned. God planned our lives like we were puppets on a string or characters in a book. So when a relative of mine got diabetes, and another mental illness, God chose for them to have this. When my first (and so far only) wife of a dozen years died, God took her. Ultimately everything, from the Holocaust, to the AIDS crisis, to the famines in Africa, get chalked up to something God has done in order to forward Her or His plan.
I have hard time with this idea, still, but I actually think it is kind of stretching the meaning of the Psalms.
When one reads through the Hebrew Scriptures, one does get the sense of something bigger than ourselves at work. Genesis tells the story of humanity with God as an active agent in it, calling certain people, teaching certain people, guiding their lives.
There is a sense in which you could talk about God even having a plan at work. There is some bigger reason hinted at in those pages for why God made each of us, made our world, got life moving forward. In fact, as things continue, God not only calls individuals but their descendants, who become nations like Israel and faith communities like the Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and Christians to do specific work in the world. All of this suggests an active God, who is at work bringing about a story and in a certain sense a plan.
But these same Scriptures show a God who isn’t simply pulling our puppet strings.
No, again and again, we contribute to the story.
In Genesis, God acts genuinely surprised or curious at what we will do. God watches intently to see what names the first people will give the animals God made. God intentionally leaves off that act of creation – naming the animals! — for humans to take care of. God also leaves tending for and shaping the garden in which humans are placed to human beings themselves. God is shocked by the actions of human beings who choose to take part in the violence of Cain in escalating levels before the flood. This shows again God does not write this part of the story, but leaves it up to us.
So the Psalmist’s words are poetic. God has not written out our lives in some book of fate that predetermines what we do.
God is at work with a plan of sorts, but that plan is more of a mission.
My late rabbi friend B. Z. Jernigan used to talk with me about the Jewish understanding of God’s purpose. People of faith and good will were called to engage in tikkun olam, mending or perfecting the world. God created the world good but not yet perfect. It had the goodness of a new born babe, beautiful and innocent yet, like a baby, immature. Like a baby has to grow up, learn, grow, and mature so our world must mature, growing to full-flower. Part of these growing pains can cause damage so that our world must not only become full-grown, but also mended in the places that are broken.
Catholic scholar, paleontologist, and priest Teilhard de Chardin, spoke of this not just as a bringing to full-flower but actually a process of evolution. The Cosmic Christ to Teilhard is present in all of creation, helping guide its evolution to an Omega Point in which the whole universe will, when fully mature, completely reflect the image of God found in Christ.
For Teilhard, this was no blind process nor simply inevitable. As humans, we have a part to play in partnering with the work of the Cosmic Christ in evolving humanity and all creation. He described our part at one point like this, “The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.” (“The Evolution of Chastity,” in Toward the Future, 1936, XI, 86-87)
This is what 2 Corinthians, Colossians, and Ephesians keep talking about when they say that God is working to reconcile all of creation in Christ.
So God’s mission of mending the world, perfecting the world, evolving the world to a point in which it reflects the lovingkindness and compassion of God in all ways, is always the way in which God is engaging our world.
But God does not do it by forcing things to happen, by waving a wand and magically moving the world forward. No, love can only be freely chosen. Compassion must grow out of the choices of the heart. To lead the world of living creatures and each of us to the point we have evolved into reflections of God’s lovingkindness and compassion requires us each to be free in our own way.
And so we are called to be partners with God in the work God is doing, taking our place within God’s story not just as ones being written but as actors, co-creators with God in our lives and world. This partnership with God is what the Bible is talking about when it introduces the idea of covenant, a relationship in which God invites us to join in a mission bigger and broader than ourselves.
Next time I want to talk a little about how all of these concepts connect to our own lives and the stories we have inherited, but right now I want to focus on what this calls us to.
God has called you, called me, to not simply be passive people who watch the world go by. We are called to look deep into ourselves, to discover the gifts, talents, and shape our unique personalities and life experiences give us. To ask, how can we place these, which is really placing all of who we are, before God? How can we join God’s hand in the work of guiding creation, of healing what is broken, of reaching out with compassion to the hurting, and of justice that levels those places where there is no level playing field?
This is what it means to join God’s story. The way we each will do it differs from person to person. And none are called to do it all. But working together with each other and with God as partners, which is what covenant is about, we can all help move forward our lives and world in beautiful and healing ways.
Let us do so together.
Your progressive redneck preacher,