August 25, 2019

Original Goodness

Passage: Psalm 103: 1-8; Philippians 4: 4-9

Synopsis: Coming across a stand of Joe Pye Weed covered with butterflies in a recent walk, I was reminded  that “the world is filled with the grandeur of God.” In one of his Sabbath Poems, Wendell Berry also meditates on “the long age of the passing world” and of “resting in a keeping not my own.” Likewise, Richard Rohr speaks of creation as the “original goodness.” Authentic spirituality is to deliberately practice having a grateful heart.


On a recent Saturday morning Ruth and I went for a walk along a wooded path near our house before going to the farmer’s market. The sun was already rising in the sky and we could feel the approaching, sultry August heat. It promised to be a sweltering hot day in a late summer determined to have its way before bowing to approaching cooler fall weather.


All around us were the sights and sounds of deep summer, crickets were singing, the air was heavy and still, the tulip popular trees were beginning to drop their first leaves, and squirrels were harvesting the ripening nuts of the hickories. Then at a clearing, by a flowing stream we came upon a patch of Joe Pye weed covered with beautiful butterflies hungrily sucking nectar in their short lives. It reminded me of the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” And that “nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”


Earlier this summer, as Fei Hung and I were studying in preparation for his baptism one Sunday morning, we decided to go outside and sit at the picnic table by our church woods. As we were walking there, we noticed a snapping turtle digging a hole and laying eggs on the steep slope by the road. We later went to check it out but couldn’t find the turtle anywhere. We did find numerous holes on the slope and some broken turtle eggs. It appears that some other creatures love eating them. I suspect the crows. I regularly spot turtles on our church grounds in the early summer when they leave their home in the nearby pond to lay their eggs. Several years ago, I was able to take this picture.


I’m still learning about how snapping turtles fit into our eco-system. They’re both scavenges and hunters that eat plants and other creatures like small fish and sometimes young ducklings. Foxes, herons, and crows, in turn eat their eggs and hatchlings. I’m fascinated by how far away from our stream and pond they travel to lay their eggs and wonder how any hatchling can survive and find its way back to the stream or pond. I once saw one on our parking lot so I assume some must survive.


Another intriguing part of creation here at our church is hornets. Last year I saw a huge nest high up in a tree by the road. This year they decided to build their nest on the frame of one of our church windows. They’re beneficial insects that pollinate flowers and eat pests. They help our garden and I’m glad they’re here. You may want to point out the nest to your children when you leave but don’t get too close. Hornets have a nasty sting but generally don’t bother people unless they’re disturbed.


The Apostle Paul told the church in Rome that part of what can be known of God is revealed in creation (2:14-15). Farmer, naturalist, and poet Wendell Berry helps us appreciate this. Though he’s a devout Christian he admits that he feels closer to God in nature than in Sunday morning worship services. He, therefore, regularly spends Sunday morning exploring nature in the fields and woods around his Kentucky farm that has been in their family for generations. One of his books of poetry is titled A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems. Listen meditatively as I read one of them and contemplate how nature can reveal God to us:

The sky bright after summer-ending rain,

I sat against an oak half up the climb.

The sun was low; the woods was hushed in shadow;

Now the long shimmer of the crickets’ song

Had stopped. I looked up to the westward ridge

And saw the ripe October light again,

Shining through leaves still green yet turning gold.

Those glowing leaves made of the light a place

That time and leaf would leave. The wind came cool,

And then I knew that I was present in

The long age of the passing world, in which

I once was not, now am, and will not be,

And in that time, beneath the changing tree,

I rested in a keeping not my own.[1]


The phrases, “And then I knew that I was present in the long age of the passing world” and “I rested in a keeping not my own” are wonderful expressions of God’s presence and care that we experience through nature. All keeps changing yet fits together in the cycle of life. Therefore, to paraphrase Paul’s words to the Philippines, “I don’t need to fret or worry. Instead, a sense of wholeness, and that all somehow comes together for good, will settle me down.”


Franciscan friar Richard Rohr says that Christian theology went astray with Augustine’s focus on original sin. I agree. That’s why I don’t regularly include a confession of sin in our worship liturgy.  Sure, it’s right and appropriate to confess that we fail in many ways—that we commit sin. However, to make this our central focus in our liturgy every Sunday morning obscures a more important truth that God created a good world and this includes you and me. Richard Rohr therefore talks about an original goodness:

Creation—be it planets, plants, or pandas—was not just a warm-up act for the human story or the Bible. The natural world is its own good and sufficient story, if we can only learn to see it with humility and love. That takes contemplative practice, stopping our busy and superficial minds long enough to see beauty, allow the truth, and protect the inherent goodness for what it is—whether it profits me, pleases me or not. Every gift of food and water, every act of simple kindness, every ray of sunshine, every mammal caring for her young, all of it emerged from this original and intrinsically good creation, Humans were meant to know and enjoy this ever-present reality—a reality we too often fail to praise, or maybe worse, ignore and take for granted.[2]


Rohr therefore concludes:

The only way, then, to increase authentic spirituality is to deliberately practice actually enjoying a positive response and a grateful heart. And the benefits are real. By following through on conscious choices, we can rewire our responses toward love, trust, and patience. Neuroscience calls that “neuroplasticity.” This is how we increase our bandwidth of freedom, and it’s surely the heartbeat of any authentic spirituality.[3]


Several weeks ago, in my sermon “Uncertainty and Faithful Trust,” I talked about my memories of walking with our child to wait for the bus for the first time. As I recalled, “Uncertainty and fear were jumbled together with hope and excitement.” This week is the beginning of a new school year and, in recognition of that we will recite a blessing later in our worship service.


As I approach retirement, I now see more clearly that our mixed feelings of anxiety and hope never go away. It’s part of who we are as finite beings. Psalm 103 is one of my favorite psalms because of the way it gratefully responds to our creator God and addresses our hopes and fears. I especially love the poetic way it begins, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.


One of the ways I conceptualize God is as the ground of being in everything that exists, including you and me. Psalm 103 identifies the central attribute of God with the Hebrew word hesed, which is best translated as steadfast love. The psalmist tells us that this love “is so abounding that it fills all time and space.” The first part of the psalm recites the benefits for my soul. These are not separate items but held together in one redemptive process. God’s steadfast love envelops my whole being, renewing my strength, forgiving my failures, healing my diseases, redeeming me even from the specter of death, and crowning my existence with love and mercy.


The second part of the psalm proclaims that our God of steadfast love works justice for all who are oppressed. Again, the items mentioned are not separate but part of an overarching redemptive process that expresses the very core of the ground of being in our universe. That’s why Martin Luther King Jr. could be so sure that “while the arc of the universe is long, it bends toward justice.”


Finally, as I get older I more clearly see the deep wisdom in recognizing my human finitude. This is good! We really wouldn’t want it any other way. I like the way Wendell Berry expresses this as “the long age of the passing world, in which I once was not, now am, and will not be.” Furthermore, I appreciate the figurative way that the psalmist expresses this, “The days of a human life are like grass: they bloom like a wildflower; but when the wind blows through it, it’s gone; even the ground where it stood doesn’t remember it” (15-16).


There was a time when I thought such sentiments were morbid but now—when I recognize them from the perspective of the original goodness of God’s creation and God’s steadfast love—my perspective is transformed. Again, I love the way the psalmist expresses this, “But the Lord’s faithful love is from forever ago to forever from now” (17a). We cannot go where God is not.


[1] Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998), 111.

[2] Richard Ruhr, The Universal Christ (New York: Convergent, 2019), 57-58.

[3] Ibid, 64.

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