Friday November 13: One of the best nights I have ever lived

This past Friday was one of the greatest nights of my life. I married my oldest daughter to her hometown sweetheart, a noble and heroic young man in the best and oldest senses of the words. The celebration afterwards, full of family and dear friends and dancing and a beautiful venue, was perfect, and I will forever treasure the conversation I had as I danced the father-daughter dance with my daughter, including when she asked me ‘do you remember when I was 8 years old and you told me we should dance to this song at my wedding?’ and I was able to know the very moment, and say ‘yes, I was kneeling at your bed at bedtime, praying and kissing you goodnight.’ As I danced with my wife afterwards, our hearts and conversation were full of contented joy at how happy our daughter is and what a wonderful experience our life with her has been. Speaking of dancing, my 72 year old mother, with purse on wrist and clasping two applesauce cups balanced on a small box between fingers, came out and danced a variety of the Twist with me (which she loved as a girl) and never lost the applesauce cups! She was beaming. (I come from a tradition that frowned pretty comprehensively on dancing in the past; though today I don’t know any Nazarene pastors who would refuse to dance with their daughter at her wedding; how dear it was to see couples married 25, 35 and 50 years, clasp one another tightly, her head on his chest, and dance slowly  and tenderly together during the ‘anniversary’ dance).

Only three months before, we had the same kind of day when our oldest son married his college sweetheart. Like our daughter and son-in-law, they are perfect for each other, it was a  joy-filled, incredible day, and we are delighted for them. In both cases, the families are huge, the all-inclusive family photos are fabulous, something a tenth century BC Jewish family could resonate with. (Later, we learned of the deep sorrow and suffering that had descended on many other families, in the events that unfolded in Paris during those very moments we were celebrating our daughter’s marriage.)

In the Scriptures, family is one of the central blessings of Yahweh on his people. What we call the Old Testament is full of reflection on what shalom means on a family. The New Testament picks up this construct and takes it in new directions with the new family now formed around Jesus (‘who are my mother and brothers?’/ ‘you are grafted in’ / 12 disciples; 12 tribes/ etc) and what God’s Kingdom looks like in terms of the family now breaking out of Jewish lineage, and embracing the nations.

In fact, because what God is doing in the world came through a family – Abraham’s – in the Bible, family is a central theological subject. Our dispersed family arrangements in the Western world (a family where one son lives in Indianapolis, one in Seattle, a daughter in Florida, etc), have caused us to largely forget how to think theologically about family, pared it down to mere reproductive biology, and to a significant extent we’ve dropped the subject from our theological imaginations, now only discussed in the realm of family dynamics, a la James Dobson, et al. I cannot think of a single serious theological work written on the subject in my tradition during my adult lifetime. We could use someone to do for the subject ‘family’ what Wendell Berry has done for the subjects ‘farming’ and ‘food’ theologically and culturally. Or what Anne Dillard did theologically with ‘nature’ back in her first foray Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

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Evangelicals resisting environmental concern

In Genesis, man’s first vocation and directive is to be a steward of the Earth. It’s his job description – tend the garden and take care of it. Manage God’s creatures. It seems ironic that evangelicals, a group with a large number of people clamoring to take the whole Bible literally, (and especially Genesis 1 & 2), have a vocal and popular set of leaders who distance themselves from, and denigrate the idea, of deep concern for climate change or the environment. This is likely in part due to the fact that American evangelicals (and especially their leaders) wedded themselves to the Republican Party machine, and that platform is concerned that overly restrictive environmental regulations would crush American businesses and the economy, jobs, etc.

Genesis tells us humankind was made from the dirt of the ground. Science agrees. My Huron friend has said to me, ‘Calling the Earth our Mother, as my people do, is biblically sound.’ But modern American Christianity seems to have lost our sense of connectedness to the Earth, and acts as if, aside from utilitarian value, Earth is a place that doesn’t matter overmuch because our goal is to leave. (When actually the story that the Bible tells ends here on earth – with God living here with us – not us leaving to live somewhere else with God. Pay attention.)

Today I find it very common among evangelicals to downplay concern over the planet as a waste of time, since our main job should be converting people to Christianity. Considering this is the same group of people who often clamor for us to take Genesis 1 and 2 literally, I find it ironic that they don’t have much to say about  –literally – the only job description for humanity found in those two chapters: caring for the Earth, tending the garden. How in the world did we get to this point?

More, modern evangelicalism has actually spoken quite directly against environmental activism, calling it nature worship. I recently read a comment on a website where someone said ‘I will never send my kid to that Nazarene college because they have embraced environmentalism.’ Fascinating.  Being evangelical has been correlating to thinking human-caused Global Warming is a hoax – which I suspect means a healthy dose of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.  Evangelicals, of course, are people who often appreciate and enjoy the natural world in various ways, but have lost the sense that there is something theological and central regarding humanity and earth. They need to read the Christian farmer-poet-philosopher Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to help them regain the Biblical sense of living in Creation. Thankfully, the tide seems to be turning.  I don’t doubt that a few generations from now, Christians will look back on evangelicalism’s distancing itself from concern for the planet and view us as something strange and immoral like Holocaust deniers or Southern slave owners.

In 1928 Henry Beston spent a year living in solitude in a small one room cottage on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. Reflecting on his experience, he said this:

“It is the meditative perception of the relation of ‘Nature’ (and I include the whole cosmic picture in this term) to the human spirit. Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man. When the Pleiades and the wind in the grass are no longer a part of the human spirit, a part of very flesh and bone, man becomes, as it were, a kind of cosmic outlaw, having neither the completeness and integrity of the animal nor the birthright of a true humanity. As I once said elsewhere, Man can either be less than man or more than man, and both are monsters, the last the more dread” (The Outermost House, 1928; pg. x).