Tag Archives: Genesis

The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever. (Rev. 22:1-5)

Bible as Canon

The Bible as canon, according to John Dally of Bexley Seabury, provides a narrative arc offering salvation by helping us understand our place in the universe.

My notes from the first of three sessions of Fr. Dally’s “This Dangerous Book: Strategies for Teaching the Bible” are reproduced below.

The canonical story is organized into four parts: the creation of the world, the creation of Israel, the creation of the Church, and the end of the world.

The story begins in perfection, moves through imperfection, and ends in perfection.

Creation of the World

The creation of the world is characterized by intimacy, purpose, and naming.

The Lord God formed human beings and breathed life into us, invited us to name every other living creature, and walked in the garden with us at the time of the evening breeze (Gen. 3:8).

However, sin enters the story when Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We were under the illusion of need, the illusion that the garden and the intimacy and the purpose were not enough.

Humankind is “cursed” by having to leave the garden and earn the knowledge that we stole.

Creation of Israel

Following the catastrophe of the Exile into Babylon, the people of Israel looked back over their history and came to understand their origins in the Exodus from Egypt.

During the Exodus, God freed the Hebrews from slavery and made them a chosen people in special relationship with him. God gave them the Law to guide them in that relationship.

Over time, the people of Israel came to desire a kingdom and anointed first Saul, then David, then Solomon as their kings.

The Temple — built eventually by King Solomon — grew in importance as evidence of God’s presence and as the focus of religious practice.

The simple relationship of covenant with God was not enough. Israel labored under the illusion of need and created a Kingdom and a Temple.

Creation of the Church

Jesus came in opposition to both the Temple and the Kingdom, and the catastrophe of the Cross revealed the depth of their violence.

Jesus spoke of living in direct relationship with God, praying in secret (intimacy with God), and giving away the knowledge that the kingdom of God is at hand.

The Temple fails to bring knowledge of God, and its hierarchy exploits the poor. Likewise, the Kingdom of the world (in Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire) rules through military might and exploitative power.

As the Church becomes linked with the Roman Empire under Constantine, Temple and Kingdom become one. The Church continues to obscure the believer’s direct relationship with God and to exploit the poor.

End of the World

The story begins in a garden, but it ends in a city.

The Kingdom and the Temple (which were never God’s idea) are taken up into “the holy city, the new Jerusalem,” but John says that “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).

In the center of the city are the river and the tree of life, just like in the garden … only this time, “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The perfect creation of the Garden is restored to perfection in the City, and humans are reconciled to God.

“The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”

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Day by day I will fulfill my vows

So will I always sing the praise of your Name,
and day by day I will fulfill my vows. (Psalm 61:8)

Nineteen years ago today, I was ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. About four years before that, however, I really became serious about reading the Bible.

Like most cradle Episcopalians, I grew up in the church hearing Scripture read Sunday by Sunday. I was in Sunday School every week. No choice, really, since my father was the parish priest.

I was six when I started serving as an acolyte, and I was 12 when I first read a lesson in church — the story of Creation (Genesis 1:1 — 2:2) at the Great Vigil of Easter.

I knew from an early age that I would eventually be ordained to serve the Church.

After I married my Lovely Wife in 1989, we attended her Seventh-Day Adventist church on Saturdays with her mother and sang in the choir of my Episcopal church on Sundays. Among the Seventh-Day Adventists I was confronted with the truth that though as an Episcopalian I was familiar with the Bible, I really did not know my way around it at all. I had heard it all my life, but had never really read it.

By 1992 I was in the discernment process that leads to ordination, about a year from beginning Deacons’ School, and that lack of knowledge of the Bible troubled me.

So I resolved to begin reading the Bible in a more disciplined way. The first thing I did to jump-start the project was to read the whole Bible in a year, and two books helped me do that.

The first was Edward P. Blair’s Illustrated Bible Handbook, which includes a plan for reading the books of the Old and New Testament in an order that makes sense of the Scriptural story rather than just beginning “in the beginning.” Though Blair’s book is long out of print, I have found inexpensive copies on Amazon over the years (since I keep loaning mine out and having to replace it!).

The second was the Revised English Bible, the translation recommended by the Book-of-the-Month Club for its readability. The fresh English translation (at least it was fresh more than 20 years ago) makes reading the Bible feel like reading a novel — the stories feel less stilted and reading flows more naturally.

However, the most important Bible reading resource I ever found is The Prayer Book Office by Howard Galley. Sadly, this introduction to the Episcopal Church’s Morning and Evening Prayer is also out of print. Copies are hard to find and precious.

The primary way Anglicans and Episcopalians read Scripture is in the context of our worship. We organize Scripture readings not only for our Sunday services of the Holy Eucharist, but also for the prayer book services of daily Morning and Evening Prayer. The tables of readings that we organize for Sundays and for weekdays are called lectionaries. In the Book of Common Prayer you will find the Sunday lectionary starting on page 888 and the Daily Office lectionary on page 934.

After I had read the Bible through in a year, it was the Daily Office that proved to be the mainspring of my spiritual practice.

In the Daily Office lectionary, we read through the bulk of the Old Testament once every two years, the New Testament every year, and the Psalms every seven weeks.

That means in the 22 years or so since I began praying Morning and Evening Prayer regularly, I’ve read through the Old Testament at least 11 times, the New Testament 22 times, and the whole Psalter more than 165 times.

And that doesn’t count all the Bible reading I did for three years in Deacons’ School, or every Sunday since then in church, or for four years now as an Education for Ministry (EfM) mentor rereading the Old and New Testaments with my students each year.

This is honestly not about boasting (as St. Paul might say), but about beginning.

The rector of the parish where I now serve as deacon, St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Menasha, Wisconsin, reminded us last Sunday that you can read the Bible in a year anytime. If you missed starting on New Year’s Day, you can start now, and when February 2 of next year rolls around, it will have been a year!

I simply urge you to read the Bible as much as you can. Perhaps you’ll follow a one-year plan like the Bible Challenge, perhaps your favorite translation is the New International Version or The Message, perhaps you’re not Episcopalian but your denomination also has a lectionary you can follow.

Whatever else may be going on in your life, begin.

Start reading the Bible. Day by day, let the Scriptures work in you. Week by week, make Bible reading part of the rhythm of your life. Year by year, let the Scriptures teach you what it means for you to sing the praise of God’s Name and to fulfill your vows.

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Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Out of the depths

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Glory to you, Lord God of our fathers; *
you are worthy of praise; glory to you.
Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you in the splendor of your temple; *
on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.
Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you, beholding the depths; *
in the high vault of heaven, glory to you.
Glory to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

I’m not sure these were the exact words Joseph said to himself as he looked up from the bottom of the pit his brothers had thrown him into (Genesis 37:12-24).

It’s kind of strange that they’re the words we say (Canticle 13) right after we read that lesson from Genesis at Morning Prayer today.

But it’s also kind of appropriate, this juxtaposition between the bottom of the pit and God’s glory, especially during the season of Lent.

Lent makes us mindful how far we are from the glory God intends for us.

Lent reminds us in Paul’s words that “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:26-27).

This particular Lent reminds me, as I work the steps in my recovery process, that I “could not manage [my] own [life]; that probably no human power could have relieved [my problem]; that God could and would if He were sought” (Big Book 60).

The collect we usually read on Tuesday mornings also feels especially appropriate when we consider God’s goodness — God’s choosing us — in the face of our own sin and the predicaments we find ourselves in.

A Collect for Peace

O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 99)

A baaad soap opera

MidnightDGCinnamon

Picture this: Jacob and his two wives Leah and Rachel are going to flee from his mean old father-in-law Laban. Because he’s mean, they’re going to steal all his stuff, too. Cue the swelling dramatic music as they meet in the field to make the crucial decision. The camera pans onto the worried faces of the wives.

Then Jacob keeps talking:

You know that I have served your father with all my strength; yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not permit him to harm me. If he said, ‘The speckled shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore speckled; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped. Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father, and given them to me. During the mating of the flock I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats that leaped upon the flock were striped, speckled, and mottled. Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’ And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the goats that leap on the flock are striped, speckled, and mottled; for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. (Genesis 31:6-12)

Seriously? In the middle of a soap opera story, in the heightened drama of a theft and escape, Jacob starts droning on about sheep genetics? Boring!

And then, as we finish the lesson from Genesis — “thou shalt steal thy father-in-law’s stuff, and flee with thy two wives, and oh by the way, don’t forget to take the household gods, too” — we sing a song of praise, Canticle 13.

Glory to you, Lord God of our fathers; *
you are worthy of praise; glory to you.
Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you in the splendor of your temple; *
on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.
Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you, beholding the depths; *
in the high vault of heaven, glory to you.
Glory to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.
(BCP 90)

Wait, what?

In one breath we go from polygamous, plotting, sheep-stealing (but capably breeding) escapees … to glorifying God, seated between the cherubim.

Anyone who tells you the Bible is clear and easy to understand is pulling the wool over your eyes.

Get it? Wool? Oh, I kid. Get it? Kid?

On the face of it, this is one of those crazy stories, told and retold time and again, that makes your eyes glaze over every time you hear it.

“Oh God, uncle Jacob is telling the story about the sheep again!”

The lesson, and I promise there is one, is that it’s in the distance between our petty, thieving, sheep-stealing ways and God’s glory that we start to get the point of the larger story of Scripture. The Daily Office serves us well when it provides such sharp contrast between two pieces of Scripture.

The God of all creation, from the splendor of his temple, looks down on us and loves us. Even though we are manipulative tricksters, he loves us. Even though we defraud each other, and marry in weird configurations, and dream about sheep genetics, and run away from our lying, cheating families, God loves us.

In fact, he loves us so much that he works out his plan of salvation using us and our efforts.

If it weren’t right there in Scripture, plain as can be, we’d say that was a baaad soap opera.

By the oaks of Mamre

Icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev

Icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev

Today’s readings provide an object lesson in the power of the Daily Office to trigger associations in the Christian imagination.

We begin with the Old Testament reading from Genesis in which Abraham is buying some property from the Hittites in order to bury his wife Sarah in a cave in a particular field facing Mamre.

So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, passed to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, in the presence of all who went in at the gate of his city. After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. (Genesis 23:17-19)

The canticle which follows, the Song of Moses, is one of the songs we sing at the Easter Vigil, when we recount Christ’s resurrection from the tomb and his victory over death.

So we have this association between the Genesis story and the resurrected Christ. Sarah is laid to rest in a cave; the cave where Christ was buried is empty when the disciples arrive there on Sunday morning. Every cave reminds us Christians of the cave which could not contain Jesus.

But the association goes deeper.

Just as Sarah’s tomb faced the oaks of Mamre, where she and Abraham laughed with the three travelers who were really God (Genesis 18), so we rejoice in the garden outside of Christ’s empty tomb and worship him as our risen Lord.

The chain of associations triggered by today’s readings — and by every day’s readings — helps us see Jesus throughout Scripture, from creation through the appearance to Abraham and Sarah, to his incarnation and passion.

We come to see and name him as one of the persons of the Trinity, as “Christ, the king of glory, the eternal Son of the Father” (BCP 96).

 

 

Surpassing human understanding

My God It's Full of Stars

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

In my Education for Ministry (EfM) group at St. Thomas Church is a priest who was ordained in 1955, about thirteen years before I was born.

He has embraced a sort of “second beginning” in his retirement, studying Old Testament all over again last year and now the New Testament this year. He has even gotten a scholarship to sign up for an online course in Biblical Hebrew!

In our reflections yesterday afternoon he shared his sense of wonder that the God who created everything that is — the universe, galaxies, stars, and planets — is present to us in the person of Jesus. “I’m having a hard time taking it all in,” he said.

After the Gospel reading at Morning Prayer today, we responded with Canticle 19:

O ruler of the universe, Lord God,
great deeds are they that you have done,
surpassing human understanding. (BCP 94)

It was in the light of this sense of wonder that I read Rabbi Daniel Brenner’s article about Bob Pollack, a Columbia University professor who teaches science to clergy.

The clergy in his class get restless and agitated when Pollack describes the universe’s origin “in a tiny particle fourteen and a half billion years ago,” but he responds with a lovely reflection on the second creation account in Genesis (2:4-25), which we also read this morning.

Look at Genesis. In Genesis the entire universe is made from words. The earth and sky and every plant and animal are made through God’s speech. But humans are not made in this way — God synthesizes humans from nature, from dirt, from a mix of organic and inorganic. In other words, we are made of live things and dead things. And we are the first example of chemistry and of transformation. As a result, we are the first species to have developed the ability to understand the bio-chemistry of the natural world. For this reason we are called “in God’s image.”

To the clergy’s objection (which I share) that understanding the natural world isn’t enough, Pollack also asked, “So what knowledge other than scientific knowledge do we need to thrive as humans?”

We also need, as we usually pray on Mondays at Morning Prayer, God’s help to “drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks” (BCP 99).

We need each day to reconnect to the God whose “ways are ways of righteousness and truth.”

May your sense of awe and wonder at God’s creation also lead you day by day to seek God’s help, and “may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (BCP 339).

Juxtaposition

The interplay between Scripture readings and the prayers and canticles in the Daily Office sets up resonances in the biblically educated ear.

Take, for example, this morning’s Old Testament lesson and the canticle appointed to be read immediately following.

In the reading from Genesis, we have a vivid picture of murderous jealousy. Joseph, the dreamer, is stripped of his cloak and thrown into a pit by his brothers who “saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, … conspired to kill him” (Gen. 37:18).

After saying “The Word of the Lord; Thanks be to God” we turn back to the service of Morning Prayer and see that Canticle 13 is appointed for Tuesdays.

Glory to you, Lord God of our Fathers; *
You are worthy of praise; glory to you. (BCP 90)

What an enormous gulf there is between our jealousy and God’s glory! The abrupt transition brings that truth home.

The regular patterns — Scripture readings over a two-year period and canticles day by day — mesh in surprising and illuminating ways.

The same thing happens with the New Testament reading: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by the world’s standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:26-27).

The Office continues with Canticle 18:

Splendor and honor and kingly power *
are yours by right, O Lord our God.
And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain, *
for with your blood you have redeemed for God,
From every family, language, people, and nation, *
a kingdom of priests to serve our God. (BCP 93)

How little we deserve to be juxtaposed with God’s glory. How little a detail in the Daily Office drives home that truth.