Category Archives: Creation

Bless the Lord and the Wild Things

KCGuestPostDanHertzler300x300x72The writer of Psalm 104 had an appreciation for wild things. I have a somewhat limited appreciation for wild things. If they threaten my garden, as do woodchucks and raccoons, I go after them. If they are only passing through as wild turkeys, I enjoy them.

As our environment unravels and the wild things are threatened, Psalm 104 catches my attention. The psalm is one of what William P Brown calls “the seven pillars of creation.” The other six are Genesis 1 and 2, Job 38-40, Wisdom in Proverbs 8, Ecclesiastes and Isaiah 55. Verses 24-35 of Psalm 104 provide the essence and deserve reflection.

The second creation account in Genesis tells of a man and a woman in a garden. They had what they needed but were expected to take care of it. The story tells us that they blew it. The history of humankind follows this pattern.

Whenever people get organized they seem to do one or both of two things: 1) beat up on somebody or 2) trash the environment and the wild things. The psalm writer observes that the wild things look to God “to give them their food in due season.” But evidently the food they needed was not always available.

At the end the writer puts his finger on the human problem and hopes “that sinners be consumed from the earth and that the wicked be no more.” That’s too much to hope for. Somehow we need to acknowledge our own sinfulness and recognize that having “the wicked be no more” is too broad a prayer request.

But more than the psalmist could recognize, we know we depend on the environment and that we may be in the process of destroying it. Indeed it could happen that not only the wicked but everyone and all creatures could be no more if present trends continue.

Our psalmist lived in the time of the Fertile Crescent. There was power at each end of the crescent—Egypt at one end and Babylon at the other end. Palestine was said to be a land of milk and honey. It was also to be a land of political instability because the power people would go through it to get at each other. They would go through the crescent since they could not cross the desert.

But the psalmist is not concerned with politics. It is the wild things that get his attention. The earth is full of them and they are sustained by the hand of God. It is amazing to see what niches some of the wild things have found.

Take the monarch butterflies. These butterflies overwinter in Mexico or California. When Mary and I were in California in 1980 we saw a cluster of them wintering in California. In the spring these butterflies start north. They take three generations going north. They lay eggs and soon die. The next generation hatches, grows up, and continues the journey. These larvae feed on milkweed. Milkweed is poisonous, but the monarchs can handle it, which is good because then birds hesitate to eat them.

The fourth generation makes the trip south in one generation. I saw several monarchs on my flowers one year. I suppose they were on their way south. But now monarchs have a problem. They feed on milkweed and farmers especially in the Midwest use Roundup to kill the weeds. Then monarch larvae have nothing to eat. I noticed three milkweed plants along the edge of my lot last summer and left them there. Whether or not any monarch larvae had fed on them I don’t know, but I left them there.

As I say, a typical human tendency is to cut and slash But once in a while we find an example of someone who works at restoration. I used to get a magazine called Westsylvania. In autumn 2004, it carried an article on how the wild turkeys were brought back. According to the article, wild turkeys had just about died out through overhunting, but in the 1950s a program was devised to try to bring them back.

There were still some remnants in the Bedford County mountains and the program devised was to clip the wings of some turkey hens and put them in an eight-foot-high fence. Wild gobblers came in and mated with them, the eggs were collected, and then the hens were put in the pens again. “The breeding program proved so successful that it ended in 1955. By then, even the game-farm raised turkeys—who by then carried just one-sixteenth tame genes—had become too uncontrollable.” By 1968, Pennsylvania began the spring gobbler hunting season.

Recently I saw a flock of 20 turkeys in the field across the road. The best thing about turkeys is that I can’t see that they cause problems in my garden.

We have gotten caught in what is coming to be an environmental disaster. After Edwin Drake drilled an oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, oil became plentiful and as time went on more and more uses were found for it. Especially in transportation. Today we are trapped in our cars.

In his book Terra Nova, Eric W Sanderson says that we will need to get away from oil, cars, and suburbs. He says we need to live more closely together and go back to trolley cars and trains along with walking and bicycles.

When Mary and I built a house three miles from town we didn’t think about the implications of all the driving we would do. Also, Scottdale was a marketing center with grocery stores, clothing stores, and a good shoe store. Today with Walmartization all of those have gone away and Scottdale is basically a bedroom community of the big box stores at its edges. Yet those who live in town are less dependent on oil than we in the country. I have noticed that all of my grandchildren live in town.

Whether the changes can be made in time to save the environment from disaster remains to be seen. In his fantasy, Sanderson sees basic transportation changes as early as 2028. That does strike me as fantasy. However, I was interested to see in the September 29, 2015, issue of the Connellsville Daily Courier that a “Transportation alliance” is forming to represent all of our local counties. What this means I’m not clear.

In the meantime it is possible to do something about the problem of electricity generated by fossil fuel. I have signed up with a company called Ethical Electric which uses environmentally friendly generation. I noticed that the first bill based on this new system cost two cents more per kilowatt hour. I think I can handle that.

As an old farmer, I still like a place in the country, but I see that without recognizing it I have become dependent on a system that needs to be changed. I do not look forward to giving up my place in the country. But to maintain it I have an automobile, a pickup truck, a tractor, a garden tiller, and two lawn mowers. If I were to move to town I would need only the car and maybe a lawn mower.

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Daniel Hertzler and a spruce tree he had photographed by Maynard Brubacher as part of an effort to sell it. But so far there has been no market for it. Dan reports that “Mary planted the tree about 1960 and it keeps growing. What can be done with it remains to be seen.”

The writer of Psalm 104 had no idea what would come to pass in the era of oil, suburbs, and automobile transportation. I can only believe he would support efforts to save the earth for the wild things as well as for our descendants.

Daniel Hertzler, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, is an editor, writer, book reviewer and occasional preacher. He retired in 2015 as an instructor for the correspondence course, Pastoral Studies Distance Education. He is author of the memoir On My Way: The View from the Ninth Decade.

Mindfulness, Death, and the Bald Eagle

EagleKCPost-MAKThe grandmother’s response seemed almost the last straw to these grandparents. The van pulled into the gas island behind where I was pumping gas. The woman jumped out of the driver’s seat and ran her credit card through the pump. The little boy sat in his car seat. “Grandma,” he called out cheerfully. She whirled on him. “Would you be quiet! Let me pump this gas! Why can’t you ever wait for anything!”

We had spent much of the weekend mourning death, angry at a country and a world that seems unable and unwilling to band together to choose life.  Angry that the very systems that energize and organize our world seem to be destroying us. Angry that consumerist frenzies leave some addicted to making and taking millions of times more wealth than they can ever enjoy while millions to billions of others barely have any. Angry that across the globe mounts the evidence that we could destroy the very viability of Mother Earth and of our grandchildren, if not even ourselves, if we don’t change course. Angry that some believe the solution is to just free ourselves up to do more of what has gotten us to this point.

And then also angry because of course we’re not perfect and we don’t have all the answers but now all of us together, whatever our perspectives, have  brought ourselves to such an impasse that even to speak of our dreams for a better way forward is to unleash more death, whether spiritual or literal. What is to be done when what I think will heal, you think will foment hell? What is to be done when as death stalks schools and nations and cultures and religions we seem only to know how to double down on the views that have brought us to this point?

I don’t know. I’ll just report this: After the grandmother yelled at her grandson to shut up, I got back into the car and in, yes, anger reported what I’d heard to my wife Joan. I said how can she do that to him? How can she take the treasure he is and be so unmindful of it? How can she be so ready to add yet more ugliness to the world by not seeing the beauty sitting right there in that van waiting to be cherished?

We had just come from church. We had been asked to be open to a different way. We had sought to open ourselves to each other through communion and through footwashing and handwashing as symbols of our readiness to be servants to each other as Jesus is servant to us.

We fumed. We drove toward home. Beside a field several cars were stopped, right in the middle of the road. I prepared a heartfelt homily on this latest evidence that we’re all idiots on the path to perdition. Then Joan said, “Pull over, pull over!”

I did. The cars were stopped because a majestic bald eagle was sitting just a few car lengths off the road, pulling flesh off a large rack of bloody ribs, likely a deer. We walked partway back. A driver of a pickup pulled up and said if we kept walking we’d probably scare it off but it seemed not to mind if people watched from their cars.

So we started to turn around. By this time there was an incipient traffic jam into the middle of which suddenly drove a township police car. But the officer, apparently as startled  as the rest of us, didn’t arrest anybody or even urge resolution of the jam. He simply slowed down and finally drove off. Soon we were parked near the bald eagle. He knew we were watching; he kept watching us. Then he’d pull again at the meat.

Even though it was ultimately the most earthly of activities, it was to us humans increasingly so cut off from our environment an unearthly sight. We watched some more. We did what humans do these days: We took photos. We watched.

Just as we started to drive away, the bald eagle took flight. It was breathtaking, the sight of that amazing denizen of God’s creation rising, rising, up from death into a gray sky.

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“Why didn’t you take a picture of the flight?” I asked Joan. “I didn’t think to,” she said, admitting failure. What twenty-first century technophile doesn’t know point phone camera first, think later? Then she caught herself: “Maybe it’s better that way. We were forced to see it directly. We were forced to be mindful. And isn’t that what you were saying that grandmother, and maybe all of us, no longer know how to be?”

—Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary and vice-president, Eastern Mennonite University; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

Imagining God’s Imagination, by Barbara Esch Shisler

KCGuestPost-BarbaraShislerI begin with my own small imagination. I have a blank piece of paper, a pen, and an idea for a poem. I write, cross out, rewrite, edit, and throw it in a folder. I get it out again, read, reread, rewrite, put it in the computer. Eventually I may have created a poem.

But of course, I have created nothing. I already had language, a vocabulary, images, experiences, memories, stories, dreams, and more, to work with. What I did was assemble a poem. God created a universe from nothing.

So who is this incomprehensible Creator God?

Here again, imagination is what we have to look through, a different window than hard facts. The Bible is rich with images of God, each describing some aspect of God. We all have our favorites. When I try to imagine Creator God imagining the cosmos into existence, this is what I come up with:

A force field of energy so enormous and powerful and beyond description, Huge . . . throbbing with pure love and joy and growing, swelling, ballooning, until the energy becomes so volatile it explodes with a whopping Big Bang, and flies into tiny bits of divinity that set off the process of creating a universe saturated with God’s life.

Now, it’s billions of years later and a fabulous universe exists, and a teeny pea of a planet with human animals are somehow miraculously worthy of God’s embodiment in the flesh. . . . Wow.

How can our little minds absorb this? It takes more than mind. It takes body, soul, spirit. Thank God we have five senses to try to take in the evidence of what God imagined into being:

Color astonishing enough to make us cry: name the sunset, rainbow, fall maples, fresh snow on spruce, cardinals, daffodils, monarchs. Name the sounds: music, wind, waves, frog and bird and locust. Name tastes of ripe tomato, sun-warmed peach, mint and basil. Name smells, name the touch of rain, grass, fresh-turned soil, the fur of a kitten, the cheek of a newborn baby. The universe is a marathon of feasts to glut our senses. We might well be saying “Wow” all the time.

When God’s creative energy let loose during the Big Bang it found its way into our human DNA and set off an innate longing to imagine and assemble new things, whether it’s art or machines, medicine or philosophies. The most beguiling and thrilling thing about this for me is that it all came about because of love.

Gregory Boyle, a Franciscan priest who works with gangs in Los Angeles writes in Tattoos on the Heart about God’s gladness and delight in human beings. Boyle’s ability to see God’s pleasure in tough, mean, dirty, drug-addicted gang members, to believe in their preciousness just as they are. This takes some imagination on my part. I get stuck in how God must see the ugliness, cruelty, suffering and sin in our world. How are we then creatures of beauty and goodness? Proverbs 8 says that God’s wisdom rejoices in the inhabited world, delights in the human race. Is God grieving or delighting?

Richard Rohr says that spiritual maturity means being able to hold two opposites as true at the same time. God suffers and God delights. I need to grow into a better balance of God’s joy and gladness even when I get stuck in God’s disappointment and sorrow with all that has gone wrong in creation. (Actually, I’m hoping to fall overboard someday into an ocean of God’s joy and gladness)

Brian Swimme is a specialist in mathematical cosmology, author of a book called The Universe is a Green Dragon. Here’s what he says about allurement and the universe:

Love begins as allurement. Think of the entire cosmos, 100 billion galaxies rushing through space. The dynamics of the universe is the attraction each galaxy has for every other galaxy. Each part of the universe is attracted to every other part. The result is the creation of community. Love is the word that points to this alluring activity in the cosmos.

Swimme acknowledges in his book his indebtedness to science, art, and religion but especially to the Mysterious Source of these realities.

Two poets of the 1700 and 1800s give me words to describe the holy mystery of creation.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a wild flower—
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour.
—William Blake

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here root and all in my hand.
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.”
—Lord Alfred Tennyson

 Mysterious, profound, extravagant words . . . but what it all comes down to is one simple word we all know: Love.

A song we used to sing says, “It’s about love, love, love. Everybody sing and shout ‘cause that’s what it’s all about. It’s about love.”

Barbara Esch Shisler is a retired Mennonite pastor and spiritual director, active in her Perkasie Mennonite congregation. Her life as wife, mother, and grandmother is filled with friends, gardening, dogs, movies, books and much more. Reading and writing poetry have been a lifelong joy and learning. She is author of the collection of poems Momentary Stay (Cascadia/DreamSeeker Books, 2015).

Hope as Church Unravels? Part 6: Present at the Big Bang

MHKC2015postMy granddaughter has been holding me spellbound as she alerts me that even the faintest gusts of love or laughter, of dismissal or devaluation, have amazing power to form or deform. She teaches me that even as so much unravels, any of us open to it are participating in the miracle of becoming ourselves as persons made in the image of God.

Here then, drawing on this week’s Eastern Mennonite Seminary convocation presentation, is the sixth and final post in the six-part series introduced in “Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, The Unraveling” on a.) ways the church, denominations, concepts and patterns of ministry, theological training are unraveling and b.) how we might work at weaving and reweaving. Here I want to ask how, in deep and primal ways, our lives in community with each other form us, weave and reweave us, individually and jointly, as the selves God invites us to be.

Present at the Big Bang

On November 6, 2013, I dreamed of an impish little girl. I’d been gathering trash in a leaf bag. I knew it wasn’t sanitary, but I thought it wouldn’t kill her when we both seemed drawn to putting her in the bag, closing it around her shoulders, and playfully carrying her around. Although she couldn’t talk yet, in the dream I sensed her interests and thought Well, her parents won’t be too excited but probably won’t catch us. We had a high old time. As I pondered the clues—aging me, baby too little to talk, parents to be outwitted, so much giggling to be done—this, I concluded, was my granddaughter.

I reported the dream to my daughter, who was celebrating that an ultrasound had allowed her to see the heartbeat even of her blueberry-sized embryo, whom she too thought was a girl. My daughter welcomed any more dreams and commented that “This one was magical, even if you were putting my daughter in an unsanitary situation.”

Seven months later the blueberry was born. I had carried her mischievous magic in my heart with both a smile and a sense of kinship with gospel writer Luke’s report (2:19) that after Jesus’ birth, mother Mary pondered these things in her heart. As my granddaughter seemed, eerily and wonderfully, precisely the girl I had already met, I was reminded also of Jeremiah. The Lord says of him (1:5), “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, / and before you were born I consecrated you. . . .”

My grandparental gaze had already been trained by my first grandchild, about whom I had also had a primal dream: Grandson and Grandpa crossing a sand dune above a mystic ocean. I had learned that one grandparenting gift is to cherish grandchildren from above the action.

I dearly loved my own baby daughters. I’ll never forget when the mischievous mother of my mischievous granddaughter played the song “Baby Beluga” 50 times while supposed to be asleep before cheerfully reporting, “I done with nap now, Daddy.” But amid many treasured memories, when I try to remember details I often see a crazed blur of daughters and parents trying to figure out how to get enough sleep or milk or fun but not the too-much fun of keys in outlets or cars dodged in a street crossed at the wrong time.

For a grandparent, the blur slows, like reliving a marvelous baseball play in slow motion. As I’ve experienced this with a granddaughter I felt bonded with from blueberry on, watching her grow has seemed like gazing, spellbound, as God hovers over what is formless and void before with a Big Bang calling forth light and sky and ocean and all living beings.

What I’m awed to glimpse, and it’s awe before the holy, is a person in the very act of being formed, formed through relationships with others, self, and ultimately God. As we laugh and tease each other and read books and put paper bags over our heads and laugh some more, minute by minute I learn her rhythms and loves and dislikes and longings and she mine.

So when I enter the room I know to expect large eyes waiting to see who it is. Then the “It’s Grandpa!” smile appears. Grandpa goes bonkers. A shy head leans into her mom’s shoulder. Patience required. At what she deems just the right moment her arms stretch out to melt my heart.

Theories about what’s happening here are valuable. The stories told, often in their conflicting ways, by Freud, Jung, Mead, Mandell, Piaget, Erickson, Bowen, Bowlby, and more have influenced my grandparent’s gaze. What generates my deepest awe, however, is that sense of observing a human emerge in real time.

Seeing just how powerful even tiny grandparent/grandchild interactions can be also underscores that things will go wrong. Sometimes it’s just an accident, the fingertip graze of a baby’s eye that turns giggles into outraged sobs. Other times the delicate dance of human formation is profoundly violated.

Watching the intricacies shaping my granddaughter second by second, I think of what I know of my own infancy. The story of my missionary parents taking me at three months on a ship from Miami to Havana and my being the only one not throwing up on heaving decks. The photo of my mother hanging laundry on the roof of the first Cuban house we lived in, where she said I cried almost constantly. Sitting in my crib while in the kitchen, on the other side of the thin wooden wall, my parents wrestled with their missionary work—and thinking, though I can’t be sure such an early memory is reliable, You are all alone in this crib; you’ll need to take care of yourself.

Or go back a generation. In her final weeks, my mom, even with a mind strokes and Parkinsons had frayed, still ached to make sense of her relationship with her own mom. She showed me written fragments she had labored over in which she wrestled with loving a mother who, emotionally distant, had largely had another woman raise her.

In his last days, my dad sought to heal wounds going back to those Cuba days. When I was two, his depressed father checked himself out of treatment and ended his life. A photo in my seminary office shows me and my dad in his Cuba office soon after his dad’s death. Am I imagining that his face looks haunted? What’s going on in him? In me?

One day I accidentally brushed the photo to the floor. The frame’s glass shattered. The shards spoke to me of how easily during becoming ourselves we fall and break.

They hint at the Genesis 3 account of Adam and Eve evicted from their primeval garden, their return barred by an angel’s flaming sword. We aren’t shaped only within a flow of innocent love, laughter, play. We’re also born into shattered glass going back to the dawn of time.

Even a dream of mischievous girl holds dangers. How in seeking what I dreamed do I deform as well as form? When am I twisting her into my rather than God’s image? How did my imperfect love for my own daughters help shape both their best and broken selves even as how my parents loved me, in turn shaped by how their parents loved them, both tore and treasured the person I was to become?

We all face such questions, whether grandparents, grandchildren, parents, the children each of us once were, or participants in this seminary community or any formational setting. Here we learn to minister and be ministered to. We invite each other into sacred spaces. This includes not least the core of who we are, how we became who we are, who we’re yet to become. This can mean going down, down, down into the layers of our selves and stories, our laughters and joys, our traumas and tears.

It also means gazing out—out across the large social, environmental, climatological, and global forces shaping our most intimate beings. To see, for example, how sensitive a grandchild is to a minute shift in gaze or voice is to grasp that the merest external breeze can twist our formation.. Even the slightest gusts of violence actual or threatened, of abuse, of racism, of marginalization by poverty, sickness, low-status occupations, having our identity viewed as abomination, can distort your and my ability to embrace that great gift—being formed in the very image of God.

In seminary, university, church, or other communities informed by faith understandings, we’re invited to wrestle with how to understand, confront, and transform the forces that twist us. We’re called to root ourselves in that amazing inaugural dream of Jesus. Grasping matters at levels more profound than we ever will, he launched his ministry with a vision of what it would take to re-form his followers, to gather their shards of glass back into panes through which the holy could shine into their very cores. As Jesus put it in Luke 4:18-19,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Here we are—in shards. Here we also are—able to exchange with each other something like a grandparent’s gaze through which to see and treasure in midstream that Big Bang of creation—our becoming the persons we’re meant to be.

This is why some of the most amazing moments in seminary life are the stories seniors tell in graduates’ brunch of arriving lost and departing found. This is why one of the most awe-inspiring things any of us can do is to participate in the miracle of becoming ourselves.

Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post has roots in a September 1, 2015, EMS convocation presentation.

Spellbound

ShMHKC2015poste was spellbound. As I watched her, the spell stretched over to bind and bless me too.

We were flying away from a week that had included hurt and sorrow for many. Our denominational convention in seeking to strengthen the ties that bind us in Christian love had sometimes achieved this but also sometimes torn the threads.

Soon enough she’ll need to be finding her own path through all the ways we wound each other. In fact, because she was born into this flow of pain going back to the very beginning, back to the angel with the flaming sword barring the return to Eden, she too is already wounded. All of us who care for her are already in ways known and unknown shaping her not only through our love but also through the frailties our own births into the brokenness have formed in us.

But right then she was spellbound. I imagine she couldn’t even grasp the concept of flight; I doubt she understood that she was in a vast airborne bus and that what she was seeing was thousands of feet below her. Yet as the plane descended, quickly now, toward the runway, the houses and trees and cars were turned golden by the setting sun and at the same time the lights of approaching night began to flick on all across the landscape. She can’t talk yet so I don’t know precisely how her brain was relaying the magic to her. Yet the wonder of it did seem to have caught her attention.

In turn, she caught my attention, this dear granddaughter reminding me that there are more primal ways to experience the world than my grizzled, aging self, too caught up in life’s complexities to see much more than the burdens, often manages. And witnessing her spell then opening myself to it did envelop me in grace.

My granddaughter’s spell took me back to those first days of creation, when God hovered over the face of the chaos, over all that was formless and void, and spoke into being light and dark, mountains and valleys, dry land and heaving seas, trees and flowers, amazing animals, cool bugs and irritating but needed critters, birds singing and getting their early worms (or hopping around Amtrak’s 30th Street Station gobbling noodles, as happened on Sunday), women and men and children in all their endless varieties. I remembered that God looked upon all this and marveled at how good it was.

I saw that my granddaughter, though lacking the words or concepts to explain it, was present to it. In her wordless way, she was treasuring it. Even amid the grief and pain that was still much with me and will long be with us, gratefully I joined her in the worship.

—Michael A. King is blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; and owner, Cascadia Publishing House LLC