Shamrocks, triangles, and our many-ness

Trinity Sunday was never one of my favorites growing up. We’d hear references to shamrocks and triangles and the nature of God, and I’d wonder: What do any of these theological lessons have to do with me?

 Well, everything, actually!

 Trinity Sunday – celebrated a few days ago – is one of my favorites now, a necessary reminder of who we are, whose we are, and how we’re meant to live together amid our differences. 

The lesson of many-yet-one starts with the truth that the diversity around us and within us is a sacred reflection of our Creator. Each of us is a beautiful piece in a masterful mosaic, one moving body out of many in this collective dance of life.

What holds it all together? Love, of course.

Loving relationship is the glue that centers everything in its perfect place, the thread that binds us snugly together, the gravity that prevents our heavenly bodies from drifting apart. It’s been that way from the start.

Our faith tradition begins with the poetic lesson that diversity is at the heart of the divine nature Itself. God says let us create in our image and likeness. Plurality, not singularity. And it’s all good!

Thus, we get not just one kind of tree, but many. Not just one type of fish or bird or forest or mountain or planet or … you name it. There are countless versions of everything, each uniquely radiating the same divine image.

Plurality, not singularity

So, too, for us humans. There’s great diversity within our human family. Each unique face is another sacred reflection of our multifaceted Maker.

And it all coalesces around love.

In John’s description of the last supper, Jesus prays to God that we, his beloved friends – we the many, we the different – may be one as they are one, living within and through each other. That oneness forms from our many-ness when love is present.

When there’s love, there’s no need for division or suspicion or competition or recrimination or insecurity or fear or privilege or superiority or violence or partisanship.

As we’re reminded, love drives out fear. Relationship grounded in love recognizes diversity as a blessing rather than a threat. It seeks to work with the other for the common good.

Our diversity leads us to our God.

Of course, we’ll never have the depth of love that eliminates all fear and competition and insecurity – not on this side of heaven, anyway. But our call is to work at building and nurturing such relationship in our lives and our societies.

Diversity at the heart of the divine

This work starts by recognizing we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., puts it so beautifully. Our many, varied relationships with God, one other, and nature are intertwined. They can’t be teased apart or separated.

What we do in one relationship affects all.

And, yes, it’s very hard work! We are hard-wired to gravitate toward the familiar and the similar. But the wisdom of trinity challenges us to open ourselves to that which is different and to see God present within people, places and encounters that might seem foreign or even frightening on the surface.

Unfortunately, some forms of religion lead us away from this wisdom. They seek to create “culture wars” among God’s equally beloved children and reject the diversity woven into our very nature.

Our refusal to recognize God’s presence within our diversity causes much of the division, fear, mistrust, hatred, and deep unhappiness in our world. If we can’t accept our many-ness, we’ll never know the oneness of Spirit for which we are made.

 Trinity reminds us of this foundational truth and invites us into this loving relationship.

(Photo courtesy of jmccarthy99@creativecommons.org)

Gardeners, not gods

Writers, artists and composers love the garden of Eden story because it works on so many levels and gets to the heart of who we are as humans. The story isn’t about disobedience as much as broken relationships – with each other, with nature, and with God.

The creation stories remind us we’re made from relationship and for relationship. We’re fashioned within a trinity of relationships — with God, with each other, with nature.

Those relationships are interwoven. If one suffers, they all suffer. Everything unravels quickly if we’re ignoring one area of relationship.

We experience that so profoundly in our world today. Our “original sin” or fundamental failure is refusing to center ourselves within the nurturing relationships that are essential if we’re to be happy, peaceful and fulfilled.

Without nurturing relationship, we never experience love.

Made from relationship, for relationship

The parable of the garden of Eden reminds us of who we are, whose we are, and how we are meant to live in harmony. The story places us in the role of gardener, not the garden owner. We’re meant to “cultivate and care for” God’s creation.

It nurtures us, and we nurture it. God is inviting us to become partners in this holy, ongoing work. And the story warns that if we choose not to accept the role and instead focus only on ourselves, we are “doomed to die.”

Of course, the humans in the story aren’t satisfied with the role of cultivator and co-creator. They decide they’d rather assign themselves the role of God – well, their self-indulgent version of a god, anyway – and do whatever they wish.

They delude themselves into thinking the garden belongs to them.

Once their relationship with creation begins to go awry because of their choices, so do all their other relationships. Their relationship with each other quickly degenerates into pointing fingers and assigning blame. They try to hide from God.

Every relationship quickly breaks down. Ultimately, they’re not so much driven from the garden as they’ve chosen to leave it by placing greed and self-interest above the garden and all within it.

I wish we could say that religion helps us refocus and re-center ourselves in the truth of relationship, but we all know that’s often not the case. It has too often been used to divide rather than reconcile.

A web of interwoven relationships

Instead of calling us back to our roles of gardener and lovers, religion has been turned into a weapon for cultural, religious and political wars. Loving relationship has been rejected for power and self-importance. The original sin is repeated.

Sadly, religion also gets misused as approval to rape, pillage and desecrate God’s sacred creation. Some “religious” people insist they can do whatever they want to nature because they, as humans, are all that matter.

Destruction and self-destruction result from this horrid theology.

Last week, we celebrated Earth Day, a reminder of our interwoven relationships with all God’s creation. We need reminders of our call to be in nurturing, loving relationship with nature, one another, and God.

Our faith reminds us that we’re not gods but gardeners. There’s a lot of restorative work to be done. It’s time to get our fingers dirty.

The sacred invitation to dive in

My family rented a cottage near a lake each summer when I was a boy. After lunch each day, we’d walk down a road to the lake, peel off our shirts, kick off our flipflops and head for our assigned dock, ready to dive in.

The cold water jolted you the first time you went in. Usually, I needed time – and encouragement from those already in the water – to dive in.

Once wet, I didn’t want to get out.

That dock is a good metaphor for faith.

The Scriptures, traditions and liturgies of our various faiths are a platform to dive into the mystery, the presence, and the deep love of God. The platform always points us beyond itself.

Our faith isn’t about the dock, but where the dock wants to take us. Unfortunately, we can get so attached to the dock that we never dive from it. We never get wet.

Where the dock leads us

Instead, we stand on dock and speculate about the water below. We develop theological terms for the water and argue over which ones are most accurate.

Worse, we fall into the trap of fighting over who’s allowed on the dock and which diving forms are acceptable. Self-appointed guardians try to control access to the dock and reject anyone who doesn’t meet their criteria.

This is one main reason many people are turned off by organized religion – lots of standing around and arguing on the dock, not much actual swimming.

If you’re never going to get wet, what’s the point?

Jesus experienced the same thing. The self-appointed dock guardians of his time tried to keep certain people away – Samaritans, women, children, Gentiles, lepers, tax collectors, anyone who was different from them.

He ignored them, immersed himself in the water and invited others to join. If they were barred from the dock, he told them to wade in from the shore.

People recognized that unlike those who never left the dock, Jesus spoke with authority about the water. He was dripping wet! He swam the depths, experienced the currents, enjoyed the water’s delights.

He shared his experience of the water in such a way that others wanted to dive in, too. He spoke of living water available to everyone. Unlike the bone-dry people who never left the dock, he knew the water.

Everyone into the water

And he told us what it means to dive in.

See someone hungry? Dive into the moment and feed them.

Someone hurting? Dive into the situation and do something to help them heal.

See the injustice of someone being barred from the dock? Offer them a full and unencumbered path into the water.

See someone afraid of the water? Reach out a hand and offer to help them slowly wade in.

Swimming in this water means looking at ourselves, at others and the world through God’s eyes. We plunge into this water, and everything changes.

It doesn’t matter how we get into the water, only that we get wet. Once there, we let the living water comfort us, hold us, refresh us, and wrap us in its love.

And invite everyone else to swim with us, too.

Max and the fifth home

All Max the cat wanted was a home.

He didn’t have one that day many years ago when my daughter discovered him curled up in the corner of a park near our house, frozen with fear and overheating on a scorching summer afternoon.

Max was a house cat – he’d been neutered. But now, he was separated from home. Nobody knows why. Maybe his owners abandoned him. Perhaps Max – who was very inquisitive – boarded someone’s truck unseen and was transported away from his home.

How he got there didn’t matter anymore. Now, he had a second home.

Not that it was all easy for him. There were other cats in the house, one of which didn’t get along with him. Seven years ago, he was outside and got attacked, apparently by a much larger animal.

When I found Max that day, he was bleeding from the mouth and torn up inside. He nearly didn’t make it. The vets recommended giving him one more day and if there was no progress, it would be time to euthanize him.

On the day of decision, Max stood for the first time, took some wobbly steps and ate food. Down to his final hours, he clung to life and began to heal.

Sometimes, the final word is a purr.

“All he wanted was a home”

When I was divorced five years ago, Max came with me to his third home and was my companion. I’d arrive home from work and he was there to welcome me and demand attention.

He made sure I never came home to an empty house.

At night, he would jump on the bed and put his paw on my wrist as he curled in for sleep, wanting to feel that flesh-to-flesh connection. It was soothing.

When I moved a year ago, Max came along to his fourth home. He was content so long as he got a little tuna each day and a lot of attention.

After he nearly died in that attack years ago, Max’s need for attention and affection increased and could become annoying. He wanted to be petted nonstop. There were times I’d push him away or tell him to go away because it was too much.

Today, I miss the annoyance.

Max quickly went downhill over the weekend. He was 14 years old. Renal failure. It happens. Only one humane option left.

“Paw to wrist, heart to heart”

The vet gave him a sedative as he lay on my lap. I cradled Max’s head with my hand, reassured him everything was going to be OK, told him I loved him, and promised we would remain connected always.

He reached out his paw and touched my right forearm, maintaining our connection with his final breaths.

Gloria and I brought him home and buried him in the warm and welcoming shadow of his fourth home, even as he takes up residence in his fifth.

I believe the Creator of Life would never abandon a beloved creature or push them away. No, the God of Love cherishes and wants connections with us and among us: paw to wrist, hand to hand, heart to heart.

And home. God provides a loving home to all, no matter which number it is – first, second or fifth.

Welcome home, Max.

Burning rivers and God’s garden

Cuyahoga pollution

The Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, blazing for two hours and focusing attention on my hometown. That moment became a flashpoint in the environmental movement.

Since the 1800s, industries had set up along the river and used it as a dumping ground for hazardous waste. The river turned orange and caught fire more than a dozen times. Many other polluted rivers in the Midwest caught fire as well.

Burning rivers weren’t the only issue. Steel mills released chemicals into the air that stung the eyes and left an acrid taste in mouths – I remember it well.

And it wasn’t just a Midwest problem. Cities around the world were trapped in a brown, deadly haze of smog. Rural areas had groundwater contaminated by dumped chemicals.

We’d made a mess of the world.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a good time to remember our connection to each other and all creation and to recommit ourselves to doing the job God has given us.

What is that job? Our faith traditions are clear. We’re tasked with caring for all creation and each other.

Genesis reminds us that diversity and relationship are expressions of the divine nature itself.

One parabolic story reminds that we’re created from the same stuff as the earth and each other, so we must never think of ourselves as separate from anyone or anything else.

Creation is seamless.

The Eden story depicts God putting humans in the garden and giving us the responsibility “to cultivate and care for it.” The garden isn’t ours; we’re just the gardeners.

As the story also reminds us, when we refuse to accept our role and we instead act as though we own everything, we commit the foundational sin and everything goes to hell.

The story of Noah’s ark reminds us that we’re responsible for caring for the animals, which are part of God’s all-inclusive covenant that endures today.

Fast-forward to Jesus, who clearly loved creation. He went into nature to hear God’s voice. His stories compared God’s kingdom to seeds and plants. He marveled at the flowers and birds.

We experience God through creation, so long as we recognize its innate holiness and treat it with the required reverence.

Sadly, we’ve often done the opposite. Self-absorption leads us to monetize everything. People are treated as commodities to be manipulated for gain or sold as slaves. The earth is parceled and plundered and used up, then discarded.

Everything becomes disposable, including the garden we’re meant to tend and the animals we’re meant to protect and the people we’re meant to love.

No! Those who hear God’s invitation to be gardeners must respond.

After the Cuyahoga caught fire in 1969, people responded. The EPA was formed a year later with strong bipartisan support, and laws were passed to provide clean air and water.

Some people want to turn our rivers orange again, make the air brown, and pollute the ground with toxic substances. They’re willfully ignorant of global warming’s damage.

Our faith requires us to act. This month, we not only celebrate creation, we also recommit ourselves to working with God to nurture it and protect it from further harm. It’s our assigned job.

As Pete Seeger puts it: “God’s counting on me. God’s counting on you.”

(photo from Cleveland Museum of Natural History)

Our fixed points

Starry sky

Last night gave us a gloriously warm spring evening. We lit a fire as the sun set and poured a glass of wine. One by one, the stars and planets began to dot the deepening sky.

Saturn appeared first, a bright point in the southwest sky hanging above the treetops. Soon, Orion made its appearance. Eventually, the sky was filled with all these dots of light.

It was very soothing to do something that we humans have done as long as we’ve been around – light a fire for warmth, look up at the sky for inspiration and wonder and a sense of connectedness to our vast and amazing universe.

People have done the same thing since our earliest times. We’ve gathered and gazed up during the most horrific times in human history – wars, natural disasters, pandemics.

We’ve looked up at the stars from all regions of Earth, including the vast oceans and lakes, where stars are necessary to navigate — fixed points in the darkness that lead us where we need to go in unsettling times.

Times like now.

May we be reminded to look for the fixed points in our lives – the people who love us, the faith that directs us, the miracle all around us and within us that inspires and reassures us that we belong.

Let’s also aspire to be fixed points for one another, helping each other get through the times, just as we always have.

As Alexis Castle put it in her graduation speech: “There’s some people who are so much a part of us, they’ll be with us no matter what. They are our solid ground. Our North Star. And the small clear voices in our hearts that will be with us always.”

Through their voices we experience another Voice, the One who creates fixed points to guide us. Our role is to look for the light and listen for the voice.

(photo courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/@philippedonn)

Being scared … and courageous, too

cowardly lion

When I was young, my mom turned our annual visit to Santa into a big day. She, my younger brother and I would take a bus to downtown Cleveland and visit the Sterling Lindner department store. We’d sit on Santa’s lap and then eat at the lunch counter.

One year, I remember standing in a long line to see Santa. “The Little Drummer Boy” was playing on the sound system. When it was my turn to sit on Santa’s lap, I got scared for some reason.

I remember my mom saying, “It’s OK. I’m right here.”

Hearing her voice made everything OK.

That memory came to mind today as I read about the upheaval in our world because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s scary stuff. The virus is dangerous. People are losing jobs. Events we’ve eagerly awaited are being canceled. Every aspect of our daily lives is in flux.

We don’t know how long it will last, or what the new normal will be when we emerge.

At times like this, everyone’s scared in different ways, to varying degrees. They should be! It’s our natural reaction, though it’s important to avoid getting trapped and frozen in our fear.

We need to be courageous, even when our legs are wobbly.

Courage isn’t an absence of fear – the two usually coexist. The question is which one we’ll choose to guide our response to whatever’s going on.

The cowardly lion in “The Wizard of Oz” was a scaredy cat, literally afraid of his own tail. Yet when Dorothy needed him, he tucked that twitching tail into his outfit and went to help, in spite of his fear.

We can acknowledge our fear without letting it hold us back from doing what’s important.

And when we feel frozen in place, when we get that shaky feeling, we can remind ourselves to listen for our loving Parent’s voice reminding us: “I know this is scary. It’s going to be OK. I’m right here with you. Always.”

Artwork by Michael Scott Murphy
http://michaelscottdesign.com/

Tending the garden

hand with leaf

We wrap up our visit to the garden of Eden by noting the most neglected part of the story, which comes very early. We’re placed in this beautiful garden and given an important role in God’s ongoing act of creation.

As the text says, it’s our responsibility to “cultivate and care for it.”

God could have done all the cultivating, of course. But God enlists us as full partners in nurturing her precious creation.

God provides parental guidelines to help us do our part properly. We’re told that we’re free to enjoy the garden and share its fruits, but not all of them.

We don’t have a blank check to do anything we want. There are limits.

It’s not our garden, after all. We’re beloved guests extended a divine invitation to enjoy it, take what we truly need from it, and roll up our sleeves and care for it.

This is one of several powerful and poetic stories early in scriptures that tell us we’re made from the same stuff as everyone and everything else, and we must live accordingly. We’ll all interconnected. What affects one part of creation affects all of it.

When we lose sight of this truth, we go off the rails.

When we think we’re God and can do whatever we wish, everything breaks down at the fundamental level. We withdraw from each other and from God. We damage our relationships. We destroy the garden we were meant to tend.

We fight over land and water and air, which should never be divvied up possessively. We hoard things that were meant to be shared.

We monetize beaches and forests and other natural resources for personal gain. We ignore the destruction caused by our policies.

Instead of protecting God’s creation, we desecrate it for profit.

The Eden story is a cautionary tale from centuries ago that applies to us today. It’s a reminder that we have a role to play, but it’s not the role of God.

It’s not our garden. We’re only the gardeners. And God’s counting on you and me together to do a good job.

(photo courtesy of Daria Shevtsova)

A couple of songs that remind us that we’re living in God’s world: