Weekend in the Woods Retreat
August 14, 2016
William G. Carter
If we’re going to spend some time together in the woods, we need to talk about God. We speak of God as Creator.
That’s the first thing that all the creeds and confessions have to say. As we’ll say in a little bit, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Or in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”
However we say it, God makes the world. We didn’t build the trees or construct the sky. We did not manufacture the oxygen or ignite the sun. God did all of this long before we ever appeared on the scene. Long after we’ve turned back to dust, God’s creation will still exist. Perhaps there’s a small corner of this planet that will be affected by our lives and the time we’ve spent there, but it’s just as likely that the world will proceed along fine after we’re gone.
A proper reverence begins with the knowledge that this is Somebody Else’s world. We spend a lot of money building houses, or a lot of time cultivating gardens, but we are always squatters on Somebody Else’s property. It was third grade Sunday School teacher who taught me to keep this straight. She said, “Billy, repeat after me: Know that the Lord is God. It is God who has made us and not we ourselves.”
Our lives were given to us; we didn’t ask to be created. Our planet was given to us; we weren’t given a lot of choices. The atmosphere and sunlight are gifts for human life. The earth brings forth food to satisfy our stomachs. We never had to worry about any of that. God provided for us by making a good creation and setting us within it. The first lesson in life is keeping this straight.
As we heard from Psalm 104, Israel celebrates a Creator of incredible diversity, power, and beauty. There are seven stanzas to the psalm, one for each day of creation. The verses move from the sky (vv. 2-4), to the earth (vv. 5-9), to the water (vv. 10-13), to the vegetation (vv. 14-18), and back up to the moon and sun (vv. 19-23).The section of the Psalm that we heard takes us back down to shore and points to the Loch Ness monster who’s out there dancing around the ships. God has made all of this by sending forth his Spirit, and all creation is renewed as God’s Spirit continues to hover over the earth.
There’s no question that God had a good time when the world was made. “May the Lord rejoice in his works,” says the psalmist. Bless his heart, even Max Lucado says so in one of his books. He says:
Now imagine God’s creativity. Of all we don’t know about the creation, there is one thing we do know – (God) did it with a smile. [God] must have had a blast. Painting the stripes on the zebra, hanging the stars in the sky, putting the gold in the sunset. What creativity! Stretching the neck of the giraffe, putting the flutter in the mockingbird’s wings, planting the giggle in the hyena. What a time! Like a whistling carpenter in a workshop, God loved every bit of it. (No Wonder They Call Him Savior)
And at the very end, when God had every reason to stop, God scooped up a useless lump of mud and began to shape it into something beautiful. And then God did something very surprising: God blew breath – God blew his own breath – God’s own ruach, God’s own spirit – into that mud creature. It began to twitch, and think, and feel, and breathe. And God called it “Adam,” which means “Dirt Boy” or “Dirt Person.” According to the old story, that’s how we began. Ever since, God has always had a good laugh when the dirt people start acting high and mighty, because God remembers where we came from and where we’re returning to.
Psalm 104 portrays a God whose primary characteristics are delight and creativity. To put it simply, God gets a kick out of making things.
Now, there are a lot of different directions that we can go with this insight. We remind our teenagers that, “God doesn’t make any junk.” Not just teenagers, of course, but anybody who’s feeling down or belittled. If God created you, there is some inherent beauty in your being. The psalm would suggest at least that much.
And it pushes us to extend our arms to embrace the world. Like Father Zossima, a character in one of Dostoyevski's novels. He kisses the soil and says,
Love all God’s creation, the whole every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. (The Brothers Karamazov, Book 6, Chapter 3)
The psalm would suggest that, too.
But we are the people of Pentecost, celebrating how the Spirit that gives us breath and awakens our human spirits. What really interests me is the whole issue of God’s creativity. As we experience a world we did not make, it’s easy to think of God as the Creator. At some point, sure, God made all of this, and us as well. But what really intrigues me is to think of God as the ongoing source of imagination, in whose presence and under whose power new creations are generated.
Like most of you, I was schooled in the old Enlightenment ideas from the 18th century. Voltaire, Locke, and most of those other dead white guys had to admit that there was a God somewhere who established the world by a series of principles. Their whole intellectual project was to study these principles, to the point where they could explain the world through them. That way, it could emphasize their own expertise and equip them to manage the world without needing God.
That’s how modern science developed. Somebody realized, for instance, that if you toss a rock into the air, it might come back down and hit you on the head. The principle is called gravity. Isaac Newton named this as one of the divine principles for how the world works, and eventually somebody dropped the word “divine” so that they wouldn’t get in trouble for mentioning “God” in public school.
In short, all of those principles are created, fixed, and settled. They were a done deal, or so we thought. And then Chuckie Darwin sailed off to the Galapagos Islands, and discovered in that isolated environment that the Creator has kept creating. That perhaps, through the creative work of the Spirit, the creation continues to evolve.
Well, you know what happened. Some of the Christians went ape (so to speak). They had been spending all their time defining God with the same kind of scientific thinking as the philosophers. They were certain that God could never make something that didn’t fit their categories. They were convinced that God had made the world way back then, and that was that. God was supposed to be unchangeable, unmovable, immutable, and inscrutable.
What does it mean that God might be a creative artist who is still making something? We’ll have to talk more about that tomorrow night, because there are a lot of people who would like to keep God in the past tense rather than in the present tense. It reminds me of that time when Jesus got some serious criticism when he said, “My Father is still working, and so am I.” (John 5:17). The Gospel of John says they tried to kill Jesus when he started talking like that. It’s a lot safer to keep God in the past, or as a principle or a feeling, than to confront a living God is free to act right here and now.
God is the creator. Not only “was the creator,” but “is the creator.” Remember the very first verse of the Bible? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s the English translation. Actually you can also translate the Hebrew words to say, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth...”
The point of all this is to suggest that creativity is a central attribute of God. God is creative, and God takes delight in making the world. Not only can God make things happen; when God makes something happen, it’s often something that we wouldn’t have expected.
You see it in church on that miracle day when our babies get confirmed. You see these kids, and you remember when they were born, and here they are, standing up, and preaching, and praying, and acting mature. And you realize that the faith entrusted to us is now taking root in our children. Now, how did that happen? God is still making it happen.
Somewhere early in the story of creation, the Bible says we bear the image of God. When we were made, God put holy fingerprints all over us. In each one of us, there is some resemblance to our Maker. I want to suggest that divine resemblance may be reflected in our creativity. By definition, God is creative; and in making us, God gives us the capacity for creativity. That’s part of what it means for us to be made in the image of God.
You don’t have to be a painter or a composer or a poet to be creative, although I do think more of us could be painters, composers, and poets if we gave it a try. Maybe you are good with numbers or electrical circuits or sewing machines. Everybody in this room has to solve problems every day, whether it’s repairing a shoelace to making a cake without a measuring cup. Bringing our resources to bear on the situations before us is a creative activity, and when we come up with a solution to a problem, it usually feels pretty good.
But it need not be so. Look around this place, and you will see what just a little bit of encouragement can begin. The church can (and should) encourage creativity and the arts, because our God is creator. We don’t need to always do the same old thing in the same old way, because God makes all things new. When we are surrounded by ugliness or mediocrity, we don’t have to settle for that, because we have a God who takes delight in beauty, color, and excellence.
I guess I’ve been thinking about this sermon for a long time. I have a mother who paints watercolors and had a father who fixed things. As children, we were always encouraged to create, and it’s only dawned on me recently what a profoundly spiritual activity that is.
Today we worship a God who creates a world . . . and another, and another, and another… What a blessing it is, to have some measure of God’s own spirit within us. Many different cultures talk about the Muse, that is, some supernatural presence that teaches and enlivens the human imagination. We hear it when somebody says, “I didn’t know what to do, and then suddenly it hit me…”
It’s worth asking what that means: “something hit you.” Was it a breakthrough in human insight? Was it a dose of the Holy Spirit, the hidden breath of God? For my money, I’d bet on a blend of both. I have come to believe that the human imagination can, and should be, the domain of the Holy Spirit. When something “hits us,” it might very well be through the dotted lines between God’s creativity and ours. And quite frequently that is a moment to be honored, savored, and explored, particularly if it benefits the world and leads others into the delight of God.
Something of this is what it means for God’s Spirit to dwell among us. As we live in the light of Pentecost, we claim how the many ways that God’s Spirit has come to us. God’s Spirit infuses our life. God’s Spirit enlivens the life of this church. Above all, God’s Spirit testifies that the Holy One of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is an imaginative creator. And maybe the first way to understand this God is by creating something ourselves. The second way is just we are doing: stepping outside to enjoy the home God has created.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.