Life-giving Paths

Sunday, April 21
Fourth Sunday of Easter

Focus Theme
Life-giving Paths

Weekly Prayer
God of comfort and compassion, through Jesus, your Son, you lead us to the water of life and the table of your bounty. May we who have received the tender love of our Good Shepherd be strengthened by your grace to care for your flock. Amen.
Focus Scripture
Psalm 23

God is my shepherd,
   I shall not want.
God makes me lie down in green pastures,
   and leads me beside still waters;

God restores my soul,
   and leads me in right paths
for the sake of God’s name.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of God
   my whole life long.

All Readings For This Sunday
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Focus Questions

1. When have you experienced “green pastures,” and “the valley of death,” as well?

2. How does our environment today express those contrasting images?
3. How do you respond to reports, for example, of the Mississippi River bottom disappearing?

4.  How do we give voice to the humans who are “backgrounded” as well as to the listening landscape and ebullient creatures of the seas?

5. In what surprising new path is God leading you today?

Reflection by Dr. Christina Hutchins and Dr. Riess Potterveld
Pacific School of Religion

Biblical images of natural landscapes, the seas and the air, together with their myriad, living inhabitants tend to be presented as one of two extremes, thriving or distressed. Often there is either fecund nature, bursting with abundance and splendor, or drought-ridden, destroyed or devastated nature, in which the springs have dried up and the myrtle trees have been transformed into thorny bushes that bite and tear at clothing and human flesh. Fig trees are either barren, withered, dead, or they are restored, begin to flower and produce fruit once again.

There are some powerful biblical narratives, too, that integrate human ethical failures with calamitous consequences for the environments and ecosystems that sustain all life on earth. Of these texts, Hosea, Chapter 4, is one of the most clear and chilling in its brief recitation:

“… God has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land;
There is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery;
They break all bounds and murder follows murder.
Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish,
And also the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air;
And even the fish of the sea are taken away.”

This text suggests that what we humans do to one another has consequences even beyond our humanity, and our misdeeds are consequential, are etched into the landscape like toxic footprints. In our present era, we use many means of measuring whether we perceive the world and/or humanity as improving or declining. The human measures by which we apprehend progress toward justice for those oppressed: percent of people living in poverty, infant mortality rates, unemployment rates, crime rates, prison populations. There are also local and global environmental measures by which we mark improvement or decline in our era: number of species that have gone extinct, how many have been pulled back from the edge of extinction, rates of shrinkage of glaciers and polar icecaps, sea-level risings, loss of arable land, and the scarcity or abundance of resources key to economic systems and to human life. 

“The living that spills toward the future”

Hosea does not separate the human measures of distress from the environmental measures of decline and destruction. It is ethical failure among humans that brings the land to mourn and all who dwell in it to languish. It is our ongoing failure to comprehend our inseparable interrelations, and the failures of our kindness by which even the fish of the sea are being taken away. What is truly awful about this text is its reality as a mirror to us this day. The destruction, the disappearance from existence, occurs not primarily to those who behave with greed and corruption, but rather, the effects land on others around and coming after them: the voiceless, the vulnerable, the precarious. The text suggests that to love God and walk in covenant “with God in the land” is to attend to relations with all that lives, and to notice and to value that which may be in the “background” of our lives but which is vivid, essential, irreplaceable. That the destruction comes after destructive human behaviors also suggests that to love God is to value the living that spills toward the future, toward those who will inherit the lasting consequences of our habits of living.

Psalm 23 is one of the texts given to our consideration on this Fourth Sunday of Easter, the day before Earth Day 2013. Because this favorite poem of many is often read at celebrations of life and at memorial services, readers and hearers tend to focus on the warm and reassuring movements between a pastoral God and a broken human figure in need of solace and protection. The images of the divine as a shepherd and as the host of a banquet are echoed in New Testament texts.  

Behind the actors in Psalm 23, however, there is the backdrop of the pastoral scene, which is again presented as two scenes of nature in dramatic contrast or opposition:

“… makes me lie down in green pastures; … leads me beside still waters” (vv.1-2).

“… walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” (v. 4).

Safety and ease, danger and desolation

The extremes of nature are the background, the immense, not-human landscapes that quickly orient and place the hearer in a zone of safety and pleasurable ease, or a zone of danger, grief, and desolation. The poetic language and vividness of the images heighten the felt intensity of two diverse human conditions that mark “blessing and curse.”

For both the early 20th-century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, and for late 20th-century feminist theologians, the process of “foregrounding” that which is in the background is necessary in order to notice relations and lives that dominant modes of thought and religious practice may obscure. The significance of women’s lives, and the lives of other marginalized people, are obscured by the androcentric contexts that frame most biblical texts. In a similar way, the significance of plants, animals, algae, and insects, the powerful beauty of oceans, the dynamic geologies of earth, tend to be obscured by the dominance of God-human relations in biblical narratives. Our tendency to focus on the actors in this Psalm may lessen our sense of the landscape as a literary device for displaying the ways new (human) life may emerge. In addition, the actual presence of the natural environments, themselves webs of relation, declares a mutuality of wellbeing with humanity. We don’t even know if the valley of the shadow of death is the very same valley as that of the green pastures. Is it one place in two different seasons? Are they two different natural environments, both precious? Is the grass-blooming valley a return to what had been previously demolished, the way that nature, when we let it, with time and a cessation of active destruction, heals itself and may heal us?

While Psalm 23 seems to look beyond the human condition to a sacred agency whose intervention will make the difference between an individual or community triumphing in dangerous or grief-stricken conditions, the message of Hosea is different: a clarion call to humans to act differently, to be responsible for the ways we conduct ourselves, to remember the responsibilities we have covenanted with our God to perform as we walk together. Hosea’s is a prophetic voice reminding the hearer or reader that the broken world in which we live bears and will continue to bear the marks of our own unjust and sacrilegious behaviors.

A mirror of us today

The images of contrasting nature in both texts flash as mirrors, reflecting back the images that humans have etched into the glass. Globally, we are beginning to ponder the gross abnormalities occurring in the biosphere that are persuasively linked to the activity of a small percentage of human beings, among whom many of us, with our consumer-driven habits, belong. There is clear evidence that 2012 was the hottest year on record, worldwide, since records have been kept. In the U.S., drought has lowered the Mississippi River to the point where “river bottom” has appeared and burst into gardens. Barges must be loaded with significantly less cargo to allow passage. Such disruptive events are not only problematic because they are abnormal and change patterns of commerce, but they also act as threatening harbingers of a frightening and erratic future for our humanity and for the non-human relations that grace this irreplaceable planet.

To read about these advancing changes and disruptive events with the intention of “making a difference,” of being people committed to “change-making,” is to respond to this information, not as neutral data, but as a call to radically changed behaviors: as individuals, churches, organizations, educational institutions, governmental bodies, and global alliances.

Life from death in the Book of Acts

Psalm 23 is paired with the healing and raising of Tabitha (Dorcas). Tabitha, who in Acts 9:36 happens to be a “disciple,” this being the only occurrence, anywhere in the New Testament of the feminine form of “disciple” (mathetria), had the distinction of taking care of widows. This rings a bell for the reader, because in Acts 6, the Hellenists “murmured” criticism against the Hebrews for neglecting the widows in their daily distribution of food and other necessities. Tabitha is valued for her “good works and acts of charity.” The expression, “acts of charity” is better translated “almsdeeds”; in other words, Tabitha is a valuable member of the early Christian community as a philanthropist. And the widows who are keeping watch over her, the ones who love Tabitha as the maker of their own tunics and garments, are ushered from the room by Peter. Why are they not present for the drama of raising Tabitha from the dead, this scene with which the author of Acts establishes and bestows on Peter the inheritance of the healing power of Jesus? Don’t we need all of us, all together, to participate in the healings of humanity and of the environments, plants and creatures of our world? Who were those widows, and what power did they hold in early Christianity? As feminist biblical scholar, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, writes in Bread Not Stone, “It is important to note that the redaction of the Gospels and of Acts was undertaken when the patriarchalization process of the early church had begun.” When women characters appear in New Testament texts, “they are like the tip of an iceberg, indicating a rich heritage now lost to us… we must carefully read the clues of the text pointing to a different historical reality, part of the submerged traditions of the egalitarian early Christian movement.”

How do we give voice to that which has been lost, to that which is being lost now and that which will be lost as we continue to behave in ways that corrupt the diversity of life, human and non-human, that is the imagination of a divine creativity? How do we give voice to the humans who are “backgrounded” as well as to the listening landscape and ebullient creatures of the seas? Former U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin frequently writes elegies for a disappearing natural world, for the great, gray whale “we are sending… to the End.” His poems bear an urgency we need.

“I want to tell what the forests
were like

I will have to speak
in a forgotten language.”

We are grateful to Tat-siong Benny Liew, Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at Pacific School of Religion, for suggesting, too, the possibility that the paired raisings by Peter of a man Aeneas and a woman Tabitha may also be an act of compensation for the harsh acts of destruction in Acts 5 when Ananias and Sapphira, husband and wife, fall dead at Peter’s accusation that they have not given as they ought to from their own resources. That is, they did not turn over everything!  If we read this text in the pattern that we have been developing, then the regeneration and raising of Tabitha may be a moment when Peter, as an individual, commits to actions that reverse death and loss and unjust outcomes for humans and for all that lives. We can say it is miraculous when people express courage and act to reverse that which would otherwise be a cause for lamentation.

“The languages of the background”

And, still, we need to be singing and speaking the languages of the background! How do we love what has been relegated to “backgrounds”? Can we shift our habits of behavior, as Alfred North Whitehead writes in Process and Reality, to raise “elements to shine with immediate distinctness,” which “in some circumstances,” in a culture’s prevailing values, otherwise “retire into penumbral shadow”?

We conclude with an 1895 poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” in which the background is raised to shimmering, “like shining from shook foil,” a phrase that musically sounds like its meaning.  Likewise, Hopkins’ “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod,” carries the rhythm of repeated habits, the sound an icon of the motion that footstep by footstep wears out the fragile world. And yet, Hopkins, like the Psalmist, does not give up the new moment provided at the break of day, each morning. He draws an image of the “Holy Ghost” as a bird on her nest. There is a process, given time and an abatement of active destruction, that can be trusted in its regenerative power. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Here is the poem in full, a sonnet:

God’s Grandeur
By Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

“And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

For further reflection

Haruki Murakami, 21st century
“Not just beautiful, though – the stars are like the trees in the forest, alive and breathing. And they’re watching me.”

Albert Einstein, 20th cen

“Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”

E. B. White, 20th century
“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for [us] if [we] spent less time proving that [we] can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”

Sylvia Plath, 20th century
“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.'”

John Keats, 19th century
“The poetry of the earth is never dead.”

Our guest writers this week for Mission 4/1 Earth

The Rev. Dr. Christina Hutchins, Lecturer in Theology and Literary Arts at Pacific School of Religion, holds a BS from the University of California at Davis, an MDiv from Harvard University Divinity School, and a PhD from the Graduate Theological Union. She teaches process theology/philosophy and courses on poetry and theological imagination at the Pacific School of Religion. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, she ministered to a northern California congregation, and her interdisciplinary dissertation drew on Alfred North Whitehead and Judith Butler to read the agency and value of events through the radiance of time.

The Rev. Dr. Riess Potterveld, the President of Pacific School of Religion, holds a BA from Trinity College, an MDiv from Yale, and an MA and PhD from Claremont Graduate University. While earning his MDiv degree, Potterveld became interested in process theology and went on to Claremont, where he studied with one of the field’s key figures, John Cobb, and earned the MA and PhD in philosophy of religion. In 1986 Potterveld co-founded and served as president of the Valley Shelter, a large non-profit, multi-service shelter for the homeless in the San Fernando Valley. He returned to PSR as president on October 1, 2010.

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