Caring for a Wilderness Toward Life’s Greening

The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east and put there the human he had formed.  In the fertile land, the Lord God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit, and also he grew the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  A river flows from Eden to water the garden…. The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.

Genesis 2:8-10, 15. Common English Bible.

Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him.

Matthew 4:1. Common English Bible.

I live in a wilderness.  We all live in a wilderness world. Jesus lived in a wilderness world. I am tempted, we are all tempted, by “diabolos”—the slanderer, the accuser, the persecutor.  How easy it is to live in the factious undoing of enmity.  Life becomes wilderness in this unraveling of rivalry. We are tempted to dwell in this desert.  Jesus, like all of us, was tempted to be the slanderer, the accuser, the persecutor of love.

And yet… glimpses of another way break into the wilderness, like little raindrops falling on to the desert’s parched ground. There are echoes that whisper of the desert blooming. There are hints of a garden.

I wonder.  What life is possibly emerging within all the deadly slandering, accusing, and persecuting of others that we experience day by day?  What kind of light is dawning in this land of the shadows?  It seems there are hints of life dawning in the desert in the confrontation against the slandering and accusing and persecuting with… with the haunting of a holy Spirit…  whom Jesus names “God.”

In this imagination, the creative Lover of All is the living alternative to the wilderness of the slanderer, the accuser, the persecutor.  Jesus says “Away with you, Satan!”  “Satan” meaning “the adversary or the opponent.”  In the good news we hear in Matthew, the Beloved casts out “the adversary”—the “enmity”—with “kissing the hand.” “Kissing the hand” is literally what “worship” means here in Greek.   Kissing the hand of the God who is Love cultivates a garden overflowing with life.

And so, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus emerges from this testing of rivalry, enmity, slander, accusation, adversity, opposition and persecution—the very actions by Pontius Pilate and King Herod which have now imprisoned John—into a mission of embodying beloved community among the people.  Jesus now cultivates this emerging and greening garden of change:

the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”  From that time on, Jesus began proclaiming the message, “Change your hearts and minds, for the kindom of heaven is at hand!”

Matthew 4.16-17. The Inclusive Bible:

Rev. Marty Carney | March 5, 2017 | First Sunday in Lent

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On Earth as In Heaven

earth-1

One intriguing version of the prayer Jesus taught his apprentices speaks of the “Loving God in whom is heaven.”  The full text of this version is found in the New Zealand Book of Prayer:

 

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope  and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever. Amen

I want to use this beautiful prayer as an opening to ponder what it means to pray, “your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Or in this beautiful interpretation:

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

What might such a prayer, such a hope against hope, mean for us today? This is a time of foreboding. Hints are everywhere that life in this world and all living creatures are suffering from the pollution that we humans have imposed within the ecosystems of this earth.  Beyond the explosion of carbon dioxide which our industrial cultures have spewed into the atmosphere for over a century, everywhere there is one degradation of the earth after another.  We are all caught in this web of destruction.

And so the cries of the earth’s ecosystems, the cries of humans sensing this crisis,              the cries of all living creatures echo throughout the universe.  We pray.  We hope against hope:

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

With the ancients, in this current crisis, we are haunted by the Spirit of Life.  This Spirit breathes within the breath of every living creature. Together we breathe the air that is so polluted and in our aspiration the Spirit breathes within our breath this prayer for the restoration of the earth, for all the living of this world:

Create us by your Spirit, give new life to the earth!

May we listen to this whisper that speaks in every breath we take.  It is a weak breath, a sound ignored and discounted by the loud, by the cacophony of those proud and powerful. Everywhere tempting and evil lies divert our whispered voices of hope into fearful exhaustion and shamed silence.  Breathe in us the word that is life, the breath that is living.  We want to hope against hope.  We want our words and works to move us toward a future that thrives with the abundance of all the living on this earth.   God of life, ground us, root us in this world, for all the living in this world…

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,                   now and for ever. Amen

 

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Create Us By Your Spirit: Ordination Paper for the United Church of Christ

 

Create Us New Life Earth

CREATE US BY YOUR SPIRIT

Ordination Paper for the Northeast Association

of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ

August 13, 2015

The Rev. Martin J. Carney

Love

Life is messy, chaotic, and unpredictably mysterious.  Within this chaos, somehow, impossibly, we humans catch glimpses of the beauty of good emerging and love’s embrace unfolding. “God is love” expresses most clearly for me the relational mysteries of the Source of Life: “Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver” (from A New Zealand Prayer Book, 181).  Or in my word play—Love~Love(r)~Be(Love)d—these images create beautiful narratives which resonate together to imagine the Community of Life which the historic Christian story has named in the poetry of “Trinity” and “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  These historic narratives of human searching and witness to the mysteries of Love have emerged through ancient cultures of humanity.  Most distinctively, my experience within the historic Protestant traditions of Christian faith has engaged me with the nomadic stories of the Hebrew/Jewish people’s quest to embody a covenant of faithful love, and with the writings witnessing to the mission of Love embodied in Jesus Christ among the first Christian communities in the Roman Empire.  Calling this ongoing conversation, this witness to living Love, a “book” or the “Bible,” seems somewhat tame for the wild adventure we are being called to undergo.

That has been my experience in life and faith as I look back on my life’s journey.  In my childhood I experienced both the messiness and the mystery of human love in my family of origin.  It was there that I first experienced this love and began to wonder that God was somehow in the middle of all life’s beautiful disarray.  In my adolescence, at my baptism—that experience of being a beloved child of God surrounded by a community of faith, hope, and love—I continued the adventure of faith in more intentional ways. In all the messiness of participating in church within my world of white, middle-class suburbia, my wondering at God deepened.

Early in my life of faith, I experienced the injustice of being excommunicated from the fundamentalist church of my childhood.  My family and I had moved to a new city and had begun to participate in an American Baptist congregation.  That fundamentalist church judged the ABC community to be outside their understanding of “church.”  So they voted to expel me from their congregation.  My first written sermon, I believe, was a letter I wrote to that congregation.  In that letter I responded to that church’s condemning religion.  I wrote to them with passion: “God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them” (1 John 4.16 CEB).  Through this witness to them, I responded to their “church court” which condemned and expelled me [as an adolescent!] because of my participation in a congregation within the American Baptist Churches.  I expressed my distress and my hope for more life-giving actions from a community of faith, hope and love.

Love(r)

God is passionately in love with this cosmos, the stories tell us, and I experience in my own limited experience of life.  Hovering within life’s chaotic messiness—its continual falling-apart, incompleteness, longing and hurtful injustices—something like a song of songs begins to create form and structure within this void.  The love of God emerges in the midst of the hurts, distress, and destruction that so often freely flow with all else that is the mystery of life.  Our human tendencies to self-destruct personally and socially are named “sin” and “evil” and “injustice” within our stories.  Even within these failures and frailties, the God who is Love creates the promise of love within human culture and calls out for humanity to follow this emerging path of wisdom.  This Lover inspires us humans to imagine and to embody the practices of life-giving love within the multiplicities of our human experiences and human cultures.

Throughout my own life journey, in my young adulthood and now middle adulthood, this mystery of Love has called me out, further along, “into a broad place” at the feast of life (Job 36.16).  After my initial call into church leadership, I attended college and seminary to explore what that could mean for me.  I have personally experienced this Love as a Source for my calling into leadership within the Church, and my participation within the world of art, and in the broadest sense, in the art of living.  After ordination within the American Baptist Churches in 1989, I served two congregation in Ohio as a leader in youth and educational ministries.  I expressed my experience of God’s extravagant grace through creatively engaging children, youth, and their families through a variety of experiences and events of formation into the practices of Christian faith.  For the past fifteen years, I have served as pastor of a small ABC congregation in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin.  In this time of constant transition in culture, within the church and within church leadership, I continue to wonder at all the future impossibilities where the creative and free Spirit of Life is calling me personally, and calling the church collectively, to go.

For the time being, it seems to me that this uncertainty is at the center of my life and, in many ways, at the center of the life flowing from within the communities of faith, hope, and love.  What I can say is that the God who is Love is perhaps leading me, perhaps us, to dare to live wholeheartedly and authentically from the strength of Love which emerges from the very depth, the wellspring of life.  The Love(r) will lead us forward wherever it is we are called to go.

Be(Love)d 

In a distinctive way, in this story of the God who is Love, in our Christian way of telling, we say that this Mystery entered into human experience.   This wisdom emerged within the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  The Spirit called Jesus into a great mission of life and blessed Jesus at the initiation into this adventure: “You are my Beloved, my own.  On you my favor rests” (Mark 1.11, The Inclusive Bible).

Jesus, the Beloved, embodied this blessing through a passionate life of opening health and wholeness to those suffering, of speaking truth in the face of injustice, of empowering the poor to eat and drink with abundant generosity, and of welcoming strangers and enemies with an extravagant grace.  As Jesus created blessed relationships of love, a beloved community began to emerge through teaching and action.  Such a community of peace-making and justice-creating became threatening to the distorting and destroying powers-that-be within the Roman Empire.  In that time and place, the cross was the response of the dominating Empire to those who opposed its power.

Even in such a humiliating and unjust death, Jesus, the Beloved, embodied the blessed community of love, forgiveness, and grace.  Rising in the strength of the God who is Love, the presence of Jesus, the Beloved, the Christ, emerges in communities of faith, hope, love.  These communities themselves are called into being from within the chaos of human inhumanity.  The barriers of fear and hatred are broken down through the practices of such beloved communities. This evolution of life happens as communities relate to others with a Spirited wisdom and an  extravagant welcome in the ongoing flow of our human stories.

(Be)Love

As I ponder serving within the United Church of Christ after twenty-seven years of ordained leadership within three congregations of the American Baptist Churches, I believe it is the Spirit of the Beloved who compels me in my desire to make this transition to serve more wholeheartedly within Christ’s mission of love in this world.  There are many resonances between the UCC and the ABC.  Both emerged from the free spirit of the European Protestant Reformation (in particular, both share strands of history from the Reformation in England).  Both characterize themselves as being organized within a “free church” and “covenantal” polity of “associational congregationalism.”  Though in my experience of their differences, the UCC tends to focus upon the covenants of “association” and the ABC on the freedom of the “congregational.”

With my years of experience in creative leadership, I believe that I am evolving as a leader and a follower of Jesus who is becoming more deeply open and alive in the ongoing wonder of life.  In the extravagant ways of the God who is Love, and who is “still speaking,” I want to more authentically embody this Love, and this evolving into the Mystery, in my own frail way with communities of abundant grace within the chaos of our world.  As an artist/leader who desires to empower others in their diverse callings, I see that this open and affirming Love is the all-embracing sacrament of life within all our life journeys.  It is the Mystery calling within the multiplicities of life from birth to death and beyond death.  I desire to lead a beloved community to “be love” within its life together and within its neighborhood in all the stories and practices which embody this Love.

In our Protestant communities, shared with the wider beloved communities of Christ, baptismal formation and the celebration of the Eucharistic feast are the practices which lead us to embody and energize this love most clearly.  My prayerful desire is to relationally embody these practices so that the mystery—the mission—of Love may perhaps resonate among human communities within the diversity of our contemporary world:

Create us by your Spirit, give new life to the earth!

adapted from Psalm 104.

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Wondering in the Daybreak Colors of Life

New Day Sunrise 2012

“New Day Sunrise,” 2012, 24×48, oil on canvas.

With each new day, I am amazed to catch a glimpse in some small way that “God is love and those who live in love live in God…” (1 John 4.16, NIV).  When life opens up within the light of love, we are living in the “daybreak colors” of God’s new day.   Within these dazzling colors of God’s creativity, I am astonished at the beautiful diversity of life that moves all around us and within us!

From the colors of a new sunrise, to the birds sheltered in the evergreens, to the rabbits hopping around my backyard, from the infinite sparkling shapes of even the tiniest snowflake–not one is alike!—life upon this earth and apparently throughout the cosmos is extravagantly and, well, queerly, strange and wonderful.

For me, this amazing life overflows from the Source of Life, who is love, a many-splendored love.  I confess that I often stand trembling and afraid in the face of this new day of love.   I confess the frail and limited, weak and shadowed reality of my love in the bright light of love that I see in the face of Jesus, the beloved of God.  Even so, I am constantly evolving in this dance between shadow and light.  And the good news as I experience it is that love delights in even this very messy evolution into deeper and richer lives.

Over the years, again and again, I have experienced the Spirit’s invitation into deeper love, into a broader space where there is no cramping for me or for others.  It’s a constant learning and growing and changing.  This evolution of life is painful and wondrous all at the same time.  And I want to continue to learn what it means to “live in love” and so, to “live in God.”

Those constantly changing colors of life and love call me outside the cramping spaces of my own fears, hatreds, prejudices, condemnations and alienations.  I am learning from people of differently colored skin, differently colored perspectives and differently colored sexual orientations.  I am learning from others colored with different lifestyles and ages and cultures and abilities.  For me, this learning is life and it is love.  It is the provocation and the invitation of God.  And so, I invite you into this spirited adventure with all the colors of life!

The Colors of Life 2011

“The Colors of Life, 2011, 24×12, oil on canvas.

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Erotic Desire, the Body and God

Risen.Christ.01_Snapseed

Recently I’ve had the distressing experience of being harassed and even stalked by a church member with mental illness.  With her particular form of illness, her brain takes her through various and confused worlds of sexual, romantic and religious fantasy.  This has become quite a burden for me and has lead me to ponder erotic desire, the body and God.

Living in 21st century America, all of us, it’s seems to me, can’t help but live in confused worlds of desire.  Our culture is steeped in endless images and messages of erotic sexuality.  But the truth is, we are erotic creatures.  We are beings with bodies.  Being human means we are bodies with desires.

Contrary to much religious rhetoric, as I listen to the Biblical texts, I hear that erotic sexuality is at the heart of being human.  In the stories of humanity’s purpose, God breathes Spirit into the lifeless bodies, and humans move with the energy of life (Genesis 2.7).  Scandalously, I also hear the celebration of erotic love throughout the entire poem called “Song of Songs.”  Here is one of the texts that is a favorite in many wedding ceremonies I’ve performed:

Set me as a seal over your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is as strong as death,
passionate love unrelenting as the grave.
Its darts are darts of fire—
divine flame! (Song of Songs 8.6).

As followers of Jesus reflected on his embodied mission of love,  they witnessed the good and vital energy of the Spirit who gives life.  For example,  here are two various expressions of that embodied action through the human life of Jesus who is energized with the wisdom of God:

Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
and he reconciled all things to himself through him-
whether things on earth or in the heavens.
He brought peace through the blood of his cross.            (Colossians 1.19-20).

“We announce to you what existed from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have seen and our hands handled, about the word of life” (1 John 1.1).

I hear that there are good and life-giving ways for our bodies to move with the energy of life (that is, “erotic” energy or desire).  There is wisdom for acting to cherish and love and to bless others with this energy.  For those of us whose brains are functioning somewhat well,  the responsibility falls to us to imagine such blessed actions.  Of course,  our imagination will be a mixture of shadow and light.  We are always on a journey of learning. But even so,  even with an inkling of such blessed imagination, compelled by that energy of life, we might dare to move our bodies to bless God’s creation in our little corner of the world in whatever way the Spirit of wisdom may guide us.

At least that’s my hope.

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Here We Go

“When Jesus arrived on the other side of the lake in the country of the Gadarenes…” (Matthew 8.28).

As I was pondering my calling over the past 25 years and wondering about where God will take me into the future, the first image that came to my mind was my painting several years ago, “To the Others’ Side”. In it I imagine the scene of Jesus taking his followers across the storm-tossed lake of Galilee, toward the Gentile area, toward “the others’ side.”

And so that is where I imagine Jesus is taking me, us, now into this future that seems to me so uncertain.  Here we go…

image

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“Don’t you think that’s too erotic?”

“Don’t you think that’s too erotic?”  was the response to my statement of faith by one of the pastors on the ordination committee.  It was a sunny afternoon in a stuffy board meeting.  I was sitting in the “hot seat” at the end of a large conference table.  I sat there with my statement of faith and a glass of water as the committee of about 12 mostly pastors grilled me about what I believed.  All this was to test if I was really called into the ministry of leadership within the church.  I guess a trial-by-fire is a good way to do such things.  It’s important this testing.  And so, 25 years later I give you the words that raised such a question.  Well, I’ll not bore you with the full-length version.  Here’s a shortened and yet essentially intact statement of my faith… then and now…

THE LOVER

 

God is passionately in love with this world! 

 

Face to face we meet this love in Jesus Christ, the Beloved of God.  Heart to heart, through the Holy Spirit, God connects with human beings as Lover.  God’s word of love is communicated through the human words of Holy Scripture.

 

Through Scripture, we hear that God the Father has lovingly created “the heavens and the earth” (John 1:3).  And within creation, the beloved human community is created to live in a special and intimate relationship with their loving Creator (Genesis 1:26-28).  God faithfully sustains and renews creation with powerful and enduring love, bringing light into darkness, peace and joy into suffering, forgiveness into rebellion and alienation, life into death.   God’s loving activity moves this creation toward the great banquet when the Lover and the beloved will celebrate the liberating new creation of God.

 

THE BELOVED

 

Even so, we humans continually rebel against this overflowing love of God.  Our rebellion produces untold suffering and destruction for ourselves and all creation, and ultimately leads to the death of separation from the creative love of God.

 

God the Father sent the Son into this rebellious creation to liberate us from our captivity to sin and death.  The life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth embody the liberating love of God which had drawn near to us in the beloved Son.   Yet, so near to the Beloved, at the heart of our humanity, we crucified Jesus Christ. 

 

In victory over our sinful rebellion and all that destroys our humanity and creation, God the Father raised Jesus the beloved Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Through death on the cross and victory over that death, Jesus Christ made peace between God and rebellious humanity.  God the Father disarms the seductive and distorting power of sin and evil through the humble and sacrificial love of God the Son (Philippians 2:8-11).

 

THE BELOVED COMMUNITY

God the Holy Spirit confronts rebellious humanity with the renewing and transforming love given through the beloved Son, crucified and risen.  Drawing near to the heart of humanity, God longs for the beloved.  God invites all humanity to turn from our sinful and rebellious ways and turn toward Jesus Christ and God’s loving and life giving way.  In our response of faith, we are reconciled to God, to one another, and to all creation.

 

Within this relationship of reconciliation, the Holy Spirit creates a community, beloved by God the Father, and shaped by the crucified and risen Son.  This beloved community is the Church, the people of God.  The people of God passionately communicate the Good News of God’s liberating and transforming victory–even as we continue to live within our own distorted and broken world.  We look forward to the Day when God’s new creation will come in all its wholeness and peace.

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