In the Garden

It has been observed many times that we humans have three basic spiritual and emotional needs: Belonging, Purpose, and Transcendence.

  1. The need for belonging is the need for community with other human
  2. The need for purpose is the need for making a difference in other people’s lives, so that our time on earth is meaningful.
  3. The need for transcendence is the need to experience a relationship with a higher power who transcends our existence but grounds us in who we really

The iconic story of the garden in Genesis puts in place the scaffolding for the whole Judeo-Christian tradition and addresses all three of these primordial needs, which I’d like to explore just a bit as sort of an introduction to this year.

Community…

Jenni’s children’s message is a good reminder about how Genesis addresses belonging and purpose, and especially belonging.

Let’s unpack what we learn here. God said, “It is not good the for the man to be alone,” and so, a woman is created. A couple points about this. First of all, the language here is that the man needs a “helper,” which has often been interpreted to mean someone subordinate or inferior. That’s not what this means. It means an equal partner.

Secondly, it’s also worth pointing out that in the previous chapter of Genesis that the final act of creation (after the first day, second day and the like) is the crowning glory: man and woman. With this pattern in mind, it could be argued that that last one created in this telling is also the crowning glory, namely, the woman. Sorry, fellow men. I’m not just sucking up!

But clearly this story means to also establish that it takes two to perpetuate the species. It affirms the gift of sexuality and a life-long partner. However, it doesn’t mean that a person who does not marry or have a sexual partner is wrong. And here’s why:

Jenni covered this in her children’s message. When God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” this means more broadly that a person, any person, needs other people.

But interestingly, in this story, God didn’t arrive at human community right away. God was trying to find a partner for the man, an equal, so that together they could communicate and work together as a team that takes care of creation. And it seems that God first tried out various members of the animal kingdom for this role! Now, this is not normally read as comedy, but it’s actually pretty funny.

Think about it. Let’s pretend Nick is God, I’m the lonely man who was created. And God starts sending animals to be my partner. “OK, Mr. Cow, I’ll oversee the vegetable garden and you keep the lakes and rivers clean. Understood?” Mooooo. “You got this, right?” Moooo.

“Is there someone else, God?”

“OK, Mr. Lion. I’ll handle the agriculture and you look over all of the hooved animals.

Sound good?” Roooaaar!

“Not sure that’s going to work. We might be on different wavelengths. Anyone else?”

Oink.

“Hi, Mr. Pig. I’ll handle dinner tonight and you’re in charge of cleanup, OK?” Oink, “Sure you can handle clean up?”

“Any other ideas, God?”

As a matter of fact, God did have another idea. Someone much closer to home, flesh of my own flesh. It’s not good for a person to be alone. We were made for companionship and for community. This is where we learn the greatest power in the universe: love. This is where we learn to identify our gifts together for the purpose of taking care of creation and each other.

Relationship with God…

But we were also made to be in relationship with someone else: God. In Genesis 1, we learn that we, uniquely, are made in the image of God. So, we are not God, but like God, and we were made to share God’s purposes for creation: the flourishing of life in all its forms.

But being made in the image of God is yet another reason we need community: we see God’s reflection in each other, in our neighbor, in the children who are still in cages on our nations’ border. We can more deeply experience God through each other as well as be reminded of the significance of all God’s children.

In Genesis 2, there is a different picture offered of our relationship with God: that we are just dust, animated by the breath of God. Every breath we take is really God’s breath. This is what we need to remember when we think we are self-sufficient and don’t need anybody’s help – namely, that we are dependent on God. That’s what the forbidden fruit is all about – munching down on the idea that we don’t need God, that we can know enough on our own and be our own command center. But then things get really messed up.

Now, God wants us to use our gifts to the fullest, to learn as much as possible, but to know that we are creatures who are dependent on our creator, dust that is dependent on the breath of God. And so, God asks us each to trust the one who made us, who has given us life and good things, who will continue to give us what we need, and even more! All this as unmerited gift.

We were made to be in relationship with God and to behold with childlike wonder the glory of it all! How do you nourish your relationship with God?

Purpose…

And finally, purpose. Genesis 2 is full of purpose. Before we were made, God had our role and purpose in mind: someone to till and keep my garden, which means creation. So, we were deputized by God to be curators of life in all its forms, to manage God’s assets. Not to ravage creation for our own purposes, but to care for it. Not to use creation like a supermarket to go shopping, but to tend to it as the living eco-system it is. This, of course, includes the human race. How do we care for each other, work together, celebrate our diversity and differences, etc.? Those are questions right out of Genesis.

That is our purpose and calling.

And yet, today, many people struggle in their lives with a lack of meaning. “What difference does my life make?” we wonder. “What does my faith have to do with my daily grind, which seems kind of pointless?” And so, we are haunted by meaninglessness. The message of Genesis 2 is that everything we do has meaning and makes a difference in one way or another.

This week my heart is heavy because my dad died on Labor Day. And as I’ve been thinking about the legacy of dad, it really fits with Genesis 2, because I’ve never seen anyone who embodied this sense of the daily meaning of life more than my dad did. He lived life driven by a sense of purpose and calling.

In my early years as a pastor, I would sometimes read him a draft of my sermon, and he would often ask afterward, “What do you want me to do as a result of your sermon?”

“I don’t know. Isn’t it enough to make some good points and sit down?” This question always annoyed me. But that was my dad in a nutshell. He wasn’t foolin’ around in this life. He believed to his core that God put us on this earth for a purpose, that God was up to something with us and through us to make a difference in someone else’s life. So, what are we supposed to do next? What’s the work? he didn’t want to waste one second of his life or let me waste a second either!

One time when I was reading a novel, he asked me how I had time to read novels. I said, “Dad, we’re on vacation. We’re supposed to have time to read novels.” OK, he could go a little overboard.

But it was never because he was trying to get points in heaven or something. He lived with a profound sense of God’s gift of grace to him. It was more that he felt a responsibility to live out the role to which God had called him – to tell the good news of God’s love and to nurture life in this world.

And so, as a pastor first, then a research psychologist, he gave his life to learning what young people were going through in their faith development so that we could help them. This led to the founding of Search Institute.

Having gone through intense grief himself over the loss of a son, he wrote a book on grief to help others in grief.

Observing that a new family had just moved into the neighborhood, he made sure we invited them over for dinner.

And he understood that nothing was more meaningful than caring for the life of your own family. So, my memories are filled with dad playing basketball in the driveway with us, hiking in the mountains with us on summer vacation, telling us Bible stories in his own words, being there for me when I hit a rough patch, having long discussions about faith and life.

If anyone wonders why I’m teaching the course called GPS, that’s why. This world and what we do is filled with meaning and the presence of God. We need to help each other and guide each other in using our gifts and responding to our callings.

Help us to till the garden of life, God. Bind us in lifegiving community with one another. Turn us to you each day in childlike trust. Amen.

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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