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.

Everything starts at home

home plate

(Note: This is adapted from something I wrote for my sister’s wedding in 2000. Joanne worked for the Cleveland Indians. Chris worked for the Chicago Cubs before moving to Cleveland. They have two amazing kids.)

home plate2

On the sixth day, God decided to create women and men. And to give them some helpers.

So God rounded up the angels, who were in the middle of a baseball game spread across the cosmos, and told them of the grand plan. They were intrigued by the idea of having humans as part of creation.

“What will they be like?” the angels asked. “What will they do?”

God thought for a moment and said, “Well, they’ll be like me and you in some very important ways, different in some other ways. What will they do? They’ll start out very small and vulnerable, but they’ll grow up very fast. They’ll learn to love. They’ll form relationships, create families.”

The angels had more questions. Such as: What will relationship and family be about?

“They’ll be a way of coming together,” God said, trying to find a useful analogy, “kind of like forming a baseball team. You cheer for each other, help each other, encourage each other. You console each other on the bad days and celebrate the good ones together You’re there for each other.”

The angels listened intently as God continued explaining, pausing occasionally to find the right words.

“Sometimes you have to sacrifice in baseball so the other person can advance,” God said. “It’s the same with relationships and family.

“It takes patience to play baseball well. You can’t just swing at bad pitches. Family and relationships take a lot of patience, too, overlooking the bad and waiting for the good.

“You get dirty sometimes. You get discouraged and have your bad days, but you force yourself to keep going — just like in baseball.”

One angel asked: How long will relationships last?

“Like in baseball, there’s no set limits,” God said. “Each will be unique. Some will last longer than others. Some will work out better than others. It’ll just be very, very good that they try.”

Another angel asked: “What about bloopers? Will there be bloopers in relationships?”

“Of course!” God said. “That’s why a sense of humor is so important. When you wind up butting heads while running after the ball, the only thing you can do is pick yourself up and laugh.”

God paused for a second.

“One more thing,” God said. “In baseball, everything starts at home. It’s the same with family and relationship. Two or more people will become home for each other, a fixed point for everything else.”

The angels could identify.

“Good!” God said. “Well then, let’s get on with it. Your job will be to help them, to be their guardians. And who knows? You might inspire them enough that they name one of their baseball teams after you.”

And so it came to pass. God created women and men and decided that they were very, very good indeed. And God loved each of them very, very much.

Then, on the seventh day, God rested. After all, it had been a busy week.

And besides, God was scheduled to pitch the next day.

home plate2



Lining up spectacularly

Eclipse photo

Did you pay attention to the eclipse? I enjoyed how people put aside their differences for one day, looked up through protective glasses, and felt a collective sense of awe. I enjoyed all the eclipse photos shared on social media.

For a brief time, the moon and the sun and the Earth lined up spectacularly and we paid attention and went: Wow! Look at that!

And then, after a few minutes, the moon moved into a different alignment, the eclipse ended, and things went back to the usual.

The sun and the moon are no longer big news. I didn’t even pay attention to the moon again until yesterday evening when I spotted it just above the horizon, partially eclipsed by the shadow of earth. It was a different kind of eclipse, but one that’s so familiar that we don’t even look for it or feel a sense of wonder at seeing it.

When things become “ordinary” to us, they’re often out of mind, out of sight.

It’s a parable, isn’t it?

It’s much easier to pay attention when things line up in a spectacular way for a short time. Then when things soon go back to “normal,” we turn our attention to something else and stop seeing the miracle all around us.

Everyday moments of miracle

We overlook the reality that the sun and the moon are still amazing and still right there, just not in the same alignment. The moon is circling the Earth, and we’re circling the sun together, and we’re all zooming through space at a mind-blowing speed along with trillions of other celestial bodies.

It’s all there doing the same thing, just in a different path. It’s all a miracle, even when we don’t recognize it as such.

And the same goes for grace.

Grace is always moving around us and within us, pulling on us and directing us with its divinely gravitational powers. But we forget to notice it working in its “ordinary” ways to produce extraordinary things.

We all know those moments when grace gets our attention and it’s easy to say: Wow, God really is working here! Someone comes into our life at just the right time, or something falls into place in an unexpected way that we’d never imagined.

It’s easy to feel God’s presence when everything seems to be lined up in a grace-filled way.

Squint and recognize it

Then there are those common, everyday moments when we have a difficult time seeing grace in the ordinariness and the messiness of life. Things seem to be zooming along without any discernible pattern — discernible to us, anyway.

It’s easy to lose track of grace when we’re going through a difficult time – we lose someone, we can’t find a job, we get sick, a relationship ends, a loved one is struggling, we feel lost and lonely. It’s easy to forget about grace at work when we’ve settled into our daily slog.

Just like the sun and the moon, grace is right there doing its thing. Grace isn’t missing; we’re just less attentive to it.

Grace invites us to pay attention not only to the dramatic eclipses, but also to the everyday moments of miracle. Grace is spectacularly at work in our lives, even when it’s not in our line of sight or it’s lined up differently than we’d hoped.

It’s still right there. We just need to squint and recognize it.

Is she Slovak? A tale as old as time …


I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood, the grandchild of Slovak immigrants. When I started dating, I got asked a question: “Is she Slovak?”

That sounds odd, but it makes sense. Immigrants cherished their cultures and traditions. Their food, their language, their polkas – all were a source of comfort in the new world.

They wanted their traditions to persist and thrive, so they thought it important for Slovaks to stay with Slovaks. And Italians with Italians. And Hungarians with Hungarians. And the Polish with the Polish.

And so on, with so on.

Other relatives had very different question when they heard I was dating. They’d ask: “Do you like her?”

Such different approaches to relationship within one family!

It’s a tale as old as time: Is relationship about love primarily, or about something else? The two approaches have been in a constant tug throughout human history.

Although we enjoy fairy tales about love overcoming great obstacles, in reality the other viewpoint has carried the day most often. In real life, lowly Cinderella isn’t invited to dance with a prince. And Beauty can’t love the Beast.

This month highlights that tug again: Is relationship primarily about love or something else?

Beauty isn’t allowed to love the Beast

Fifty years ago this month, the Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage. Two years ago this month, the court ruled for marriage equality.

We saw that clash of ideas clearly defined in the marriage equality ruling. The majority opinion by Justice Kennedy noted that marriage is an enduring bond that brings people into a deeper intimacy and spirituality.

As part of the dissent, Justice Scalia ridiculed the talk of intimacy and spirituality. He wrote that freedom doesn’t encompass spirituality, and that intimacy is “abridged rather than expanded by marriage.”

Well, what a romantic, huh? In his view, love is more of a prison. And the other dissenting justices argued that law takes precedence over love.

It’s understandable why there would be such a backlash against putting love first in relationship. It shakes things up.

For most of human history, love hasn’t been the essential element in the relationship equation. Women have been treated more as property than persons, unable even to choose their spouse. Royalty couldn’t marry a commoner. Interfaith marriages were opposed by religions. People of different races or ethnic backgrounds met resistance. Gay and transgender people were barred.

Relationships were seen as a way to keep people in their assigned places. Everything else was secondary.

What’s love got to do with it? Well, actually: Love has everything to do with it! Or at least it should.

Love is the starting point for every meaningful human endeavor, the heart of anything truly spiritual and God-filled. Without it, our lives and our relationships become empty voids.

What’s love got to do with it?

As Paul puts it in the familiar passage from Corinthians that’s used at many marriages: We can be the most religious, most amazing, most advanced human being ever but if love isn’t the basis of all that we do, then none of it means anything.

Our lack of love doesn’t diminish our faith and actions; it renders them totally meaningless. And that goes especially for relationship.

Of course, Paul got his ideas from a rabbi who was warned by religious leaders to avoid having relationships with certain kinds people — Samaritans, Romans, Gentiles, tax collectors, fishermen, women, lepers, the poor, the needy, the sick, and on and on. Jesus’ response was to seek out those very people for loving, healing relationship.

He said that love and love alone fulfills the law, not anything else. And his followers must live by the same guideline. Their love must transcend and topple all barriers and limitations.

His love-first approach wasn’t popular then or now. Let’s face it: It’s more comfortable and convenient to make relationship about something else. And we all have a problem with love and relationship. Our fears, our insecurities and our self-doubt get in the way. Our selfishness and our egos get confronted and directly challenged.

Who really wants that???

But here’s the flip side: Loving relationships take us to places that we can’t go by ourselves. Here’s where I strongly disagree with Justice Scalia: Loving relationships aren’t prisons. Rather, love alone frees us from the prison of our insecurities and our fear and our shame and our self-absorption.

Only love can do that

And this goes not only for our most intimate relationships, but for all of them. It includes every encounter with another person at home, at work, in our faith community, on the street, on social media.

So this is a fitting time to recommit ourselves to making love the starting point and the reason for all our relationships. Let’s ask ourselves the question: What’s the loving thing to do right now? And then let’s try our best to do it.

Let’s make love the measure of all that we do. Love and love alone.

Perfect circles, imperfect people


One of the great challenges of talking about something in public is figuring out what you would like to say. It forces you to think about a subject on many levels and find words that fit your experience and your insight. It’s never easy.

I’ve spent a lot of time the last few months thinking about relationship.

The pastor of my UCC church and his partner, the music director, are retiring at the end of this month. Mike and Vince have been married for 25 years in the deepest sense of the word, but not the legal sense. The marriage equality ruling by the Supreme Court last year gave them the opportunity to remedy that part.

I got to marry them on Sunday at the end of our service – the first time I’ve married anyone.

When Mike and Vince asked me to do the honor, my reaction was two-fold. First, I was deeply touched — they could have asked any number of others. I think I teared up a bit and thanked them and said yes, of course I would.

I don’t marry just anybody

And then I told them of my second reaction: We would have to have some meetings between now and then. I’m not going to go marrying just anybody, after all. I need to know they’re a good fit for one another.

Those words made them a little uneasy, until I laughed and told them I was joking about the meeting part.

As I mentioned at the service on Sunday, we already know that they’re a good fit. Mike pointed out that the marriage service was just a formality, and that’s true. But the more I thought about it, the more I recognized that every wedding ceremony is a formality in a sense. It doesn’t create anything new, per se. Rather, it recognizes and blesses what’s already there, what everybody knows has been there for a long time.

We know what’s there.

In Vince’s case, we all know that he’s given so much of himself to all of us in so many ways. He’s given us his time, his talent, his love. And he’s given us his beautiful, beautiful music, which has touched our hearts and our souls and lives in our hearts and our souls as does he.

With Mike, it’s the same thing. He’s given so much of himself to all of us in so many ways. He’s given us his time, his talent, his love. And he’s given us his beautiful, beautiful words which live in our hearts and souls as does he.

Given to each other first

And we recognize that the reason why they’ve been able to give so much of themselves to us is because they’ve first given those things to each other. That’s what relationship is about.

Love never exists in a vacuum. It takes a village to grow love between people. Love never is confined to just two. The love they give each other makes them grow into more loving people who have more love to give away. Love always gives itself away. And couples need the love of others to help the two of them grow as well.

We all give love and get love from so many people. Love is a perfect circle of imperfect people, trying their best to love how they can on any given day.

Rings are wonderful symbols of that process. Like God’s love, a ring has no starting point and no ending point. We wear it every day. It encircles us and enfolds us in all we do.

We did it together

So after Mike and Vince exchanged rings, we did what we always do in our amazing little church – we did this marriage thing together. And it went like this:

  • By the power vested in all of us by the United Church of Christ, which believes in love always …
  • By the power vested in all of us by the state of Ohio, which charged me $15 to get a license to do this …
  • By the power vested in all of us by the Supreme Court of the United States of America … And we all knew there were many times when Mike and Vince thought they’d never get to hear those words pronounced over them, so it was repeated – by the power vested in all of us by the Supreme Court of the United States of America, hashtag love wins …
  • And by the grace and love of God who is love, we pronounce, proclaim, recognize, bless and celebrate all that they are, all that they have been, and all that they shall be.

And we wished them many, many, many more years of this perfect pairing of music and words, heart and soul, all bound together by love. By their love for each other, our love for them, and God’s love for all of us.

Amen. And woo hoo.