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.

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:




Trying to hide from God


When humans in the Garden of Eden story get sidetracked and start acting like they’re God, they begin hiding parts of themselves from each other. They also start hiding all of themselves from God.

Why is this? What do they fear?

I tend to hide from God for one of two reasons.

First, there’s the fear that getting to know God more intimately will challenge some of my long-held assumptions. The closer I get to the One who offers love and invites me to share it generously and unconditionally, the more my life changes. The way I look at myself and others changes.

Most of us – me included – don’t really care for profound life changes. Instead, we spend much of our religious lives resisting them.

Faith is meant to be a springboard for diving into the pool of divine love. Instead, we often reduce religion to arguing about the size, shape and color of the springboard – and who should be allowed to use it.

Our arguing from dry land allows us to avoid taking the plunge and getting wonderfully wet.

We build doctrinal walls. We try to keep God on the other side of our theological borders. We stay in our “safe” bubbles where we won’t be challenged to grow in wisdom and grace.

We resist being transformed into a person who is more like God.

And what does it mean to be more like God? To borrow from one of Paul’s letters, it means striving to be someone who is more patient and kind; someone who’s not rude or self-seeking; someone who tries their best to avoid envy and anger and boasting; someone who forgives without keeping count of the times others let us down.

Yeah, that.

Instead, we’re tempted to resist such change by remaking God in our own image.

Which brings us to the second reason we often hide from God.

We have a human tendency to create images of God that justify us as we are. We portray God as lacking in love and kindness and forgiveness and inclusiveness. Many of our images are horrid, for lack of a better word.

Images to be feared.

If you’ve grown up with an image of God that makes you want to run and hide, that image is all wrong. If what you’ve been told about God encourages you to refuse to love and serve some people, then you’ve been told wrong.

As Anne Lamott puts it, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Instead of hiding, we need to move past those images and experience the One who, like the father of the prodigal child, wants only to welcome us home with a loving hug and a celebration.

The One who says everything is forgiven. No explanation or apology or penance is necessary. I’m just happy to hold you. All I want is for us to be together.

Don’t be afraid, my lovely child. There’s no reason to hide. Come, join the party. And all your siblings are invited, too. There’s great food and music.

(Photo courtesy of Aidil Bahaman)

Tomorrow: Don’t forget the Garden!

Here’s a 3-minute reflection by Richard Rohr on our images of God.

Hiding from ourselves … and each other

apple in hand

For me, the Garden of Eden story becomes unsettlingly familiar as it describes what happens when we try to play God.

Once the man and woman head down that path by eating the fruit, they suddenly get an urge to hide parts of themselves from each other. Feeling shame, they also start hiding from God. They start blaming others for their own decisions.

Who hasn’t done these things?

This centuries-old story is a cautionary tale about what happens when we confuse ourselves with God and try to create the illusion that we’re the ones in charge.

As part of the illusion, we hide more and more of ourselves from others. We cover up what makes us seem less godly. And we get lost – from ourselves and others – in the process.

We put on more and more layers of protective clothes until we’re so restricted that we can’t even move the way we’re made to move.

It’s a futile venture, this God-playing. It takes an enormous amount of effort, self-deception and misrepresentation. Ultimately, it never actually works because, well, we’re not God.

Like Adam and Eve, we pull away from intimate relationship with one other, with all of creation, and with the Creator who lovingly placed us here.

Like the wizard of Oz who wants to be seen as great and powerful, we don’t want anyone to pull back the curtain and see us as we really are.

But it’s only when we acknowledge, accept and embrace who we actually are that we can grow in wisdom and grace and love.

At church a few weeks ago, we discussed how the power of love is the strongest of all. Love and love alone can heal, unite, forgive, transform, instill life, and fulfill.

And love requires vulnerability. It wants to know and be known. It seeks to create a space where no pretending is necessary.

When we pretend we’re God, we create separation so others won’t see through our façade. We lose intimate relationship.

Instead, we’re invited to embrace who we really are – beautiful, beloved children of a Parent to loves us passionately even when we miss the mark – and let that be enough.

There’s peace and joy in accepting and embracing our natural place in all of this. Imagine how much better that would be.

_ Joe

Tomorrow: Hiding from God, then and now

Finally, here’s a 2-minute reflection by Nadia Bolz-Weber on the hiding games we all play. Enjoy. And just be you — it’s enough.


Remembering who we are … and aren’t

apple in hand

(Note: While services are canceled because of the virus, my church is sharing a daily reflection. I’m passing it along in case someone might benefit from it. Today’s is the beginning of a reflection I’d prepared for Sunday. Be well! And if you need a smile, watch the video linked at the end.)

 Don’t you love a good story? Science fiction, comics, fairy tales – we love a gripping yarn with surprise twists and unexpected endings and themes that apply to our actual lives.

The book of Genesis is full of clever, creative stories that show how ancient people wrestled with the same questions that we do today.

For instance, the different creation stories explore why God made things as they are – with so much diversity! – and how we’re intimately bound to everything else and to each other.

And then there’s that familiar story involving two naked humans, a talking snake and some fruit. It’s a fanciful story that that tries to answer the same question we ask ourselves today: How did things get so messed up?

The story in the third chapter of Genesis was written an estimated 1,000 years before Jesus. It starts by describing how the world is meant to be.

Imagine what things would be like if they weren’t so, well, screwed up.

John Lennon’s “Imagine” asks us to envision how much better the world would be if we didn’t fight over religion or argue over who gets to go to heaven or clash over borders and possessions.

The Eden story provides a similar vision, with the man and woman living in intimate relationship with God and one another and everything in the garden. Nothing is hidden – no clothes required – and there’s no need for shame or fear.

We can be exactly who we are. We don’t need to cover up anything. Nothing is withheld from each other or from God.

Enter the talking snake, and the story gets really interesting.

Some people characterize the snake as evil or devilish, but it’s described in the story simply as crafty or clever. And it knows the temptation that none of us can refuse: We all like to play God.

The snake tempts the humans by convincing them a bite of fruit will make them like God – or, like gods, in some translations.

And this is where everything falls off the tracks and all hell breaks loose, so to speak. Things go awry when we lose sight of our place in relationship and creation.

We’re not the parent in this family, but the children. To put it in a more modern term, we’re not the pilot of this ship, we’re the passengers. When we pretend otherwise, things get badly messed up.

It’s an insight that was relevant thousands of years ago, and for today as well with our ability to impact our world in so many ways. It’s a lesson on the importance of loving, balanced relationships and embracing our intended place in creation.

And it’s a reminder that, as Anne Lamott puts it, “A good name for God is: Not me.”

— Joe

Tomorrow: Hiding from each other, then and now

If you need a smile, check out this wonderful cover version of “Imagine” from American’s Got Talent. And imagine all the people, sharing all the world.