Our desires are more important than our actions
“The kingdom of heaven is not come, even when God’s will is our law: it is come when God’s will is our will. While God’s will is our law, we are but a kind of noble slaves; when his will is our will, we are free children. Nothing in nature is free enough to be a symbol for the state of those who act immediately from the essence of their hidden life, and the recognition of God’s will as that essence.”—George MacDonald, in David Elginbrod
Ben and I had a nice conversation the other day about how the work of Christians is to align our will, our desire, with God’s will and desire. He sent me that George MacDonald quote above; George died today in 1905. Ben said that we don’t become free until we align our will with God’s will, that when our faith is just a matter of right action, it’s a bondage. When we change our desire, or align our desires with God, it becomes about freedom. The Psalmist tells us, “Take pleasure in the Lord, that He grant you your heart’s desire.” (Psalm 27:2, from Robert Alter’s Hebrew Bible). God alters our desire when we commune with God. When we relate to God. When we worship God.
Being created in God’s image means that returning to our desire is a “natural” thing for us. Despite how sin has torn apart the world, Jesus Christ recapitulated that image of God in us in his life and his death and resurrection. He saves us by living like us and showing us how to live. He shows us how to align our will with God’s will, and showed us that it is possible. Jesus became human to redeem humanity; Jesus shows us he loves us by becoming us.
God bless the grass; God bless us
We sang a song on Sunday that reminded me of this. It’s an unusual song that threw me for a moment. It’s called “God bless the grass.” It threw me, of course, because I was thinking of a suburban lawn; a crop that is so hard to grow, it is the most irrigated one in the nation. It doesn’t spread, it doesn’t want to grow, and needs meticulous maintenance. It’s a sign of competent masculinity to have a green lawn. It relates to toxic golf culture and reeks of excess and wealth. To put it mildly, “God bless the lawn”would be a much different song.
Anyway, the folk song from Malvina Reynolds has a few memorable lines that impacted me. She’s singing about the resilience of grass. Resilient how? It’s more resilient than the concrete, which “buckles and it breaks and the grass grows through.” It’s resilient in how it “moves through the ground and reaches through the air.” It is resilient in how it is “easily bent.” It’s resilient because “its roots they are deep, and its will is to grow.”
I think Christians need to act like the grass. We need to withstand oppression (from concrete in this case) so we can grow past it. We need to demonstrate being easily bent to the will of God. It has a desire to reach for new things, reach for the air; we do the same thing. We are deeply rooted in God, so we know our will and we follow it.
Once again, we align ourselves with God’s will to follow God. The grass does it and we follow suit.
Being discipled by a watershed
I was listening to Kristen Snow talk on Sunday, who I introduced as one of my favorite people on the planet. She was telling us about how the watershed discipled her. Her speech was a call to action against the climate catastrophe. With so much of the world evidencing the horrors of anthropogenic climate change, it’s easily to be overwhelmed and alarmed and at a loss at what to do.
Kristen has found hope in following the watershed. In our region, our watershed is the drainage basin of a major waterway. Ours in Philly is the Delaware Watershed. The basic idea of watershed discipleship, as I understand it, is to let creation form us in a sense, to pay attention to where we live and try to see God working in creation around us.
You can’t help but see it in the Bible
This is a very biblical idea. Not just in Genesis, where we see some of the creation myths, but all over the text. Take a look at Romans. N.T. Wright translates Romans 1:20, “Ever since the world was made, his eternal power and deity have been seen and known in the things he made.” What’s the argument here? God is known through what God has made. God is known through creation. Creation is one of God’s disciples, in a sense. And God’s disciples disciple us.
The creation itself is suffering along with us because of the sin condition the world is in. It feels the pain. It groans. Paul again in Romans 8:22 from N.T. Wright, “We know that the entire creation is groaning together, and going through labor pains together, up until the present time.” Verse 19 says creation is waiting, “Yes: creation itself is on tiptoe with expectation, eagerly awaiting the moment when God’s children will be revealed.” Waiting for redemption in eager anticipation. We can follow creations’ lead this way too.
Predicting liberation from captivity, the one that Jesus will ultimately deliver us from, the writer of Second Isaiah writes,
“You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.”
Creation will rejoice at the salvation of God. The One whose will Creation follows returns to save it.
Creation is in sync with God. There is even more evidence in the Bible. Look at Luke 19:40, when their detractors tell Jesus’ disciples to quiet down. He says even if they do, creation will cry out because its met its Maker. ‘Let me tell you,’ replied Jesus, ‘if they stayed silent, the stones would be shouting out!’
I think what Kristen convicted me of and what I am learning is that the watershed, by virtue of its connection to the Creator, can show us how to follow God. Rather than trying to harness it and control it (and exploit it), we are learning from it. We are living in harmony with it. This is what Christian stewardship looks like. We are becoming present to it. That means in our immediate context, too.
Discover God in your immediate surroundings; you don’t need a yard or a national park
In Circle of Hope, we say a primary tool we use to discern God is the creation itself (along with the Bible, the community, and the Holy Spirit). The creation reveals God to us. This isn’t just an abstraction; it means in order to delight ourselves in the Lord, we need to delight ourselves in Creation. Despite my warning about this not just being an abstraction, it is a genuine discipline for me.
I’ve been known to go on personal retreats and just stay in my room and keep my nose in a book or a journal, not even venturing outside. Camping sounds like a nightmare to me. I lamented grilling the other day because I got lit up with mosquito bites. So I don’t exactly like “nature.” But I have disciplined myself to overcome my unnatural proclivities in order to get closer to God. This doesn’t mean I’m moving to the “wilderness.” It doesn’t mean I have to get a damn lawn (the song is NOT “God bless the lawn”). It means I can be present in Philadelphia, right in the concrete jungle, to see creation around me.
You know, cities get a bad rap for not being in nature. Someone told me they wanted to move to the suburbs to get more “green” in their life. I laughed to myself, since we know suburbs’ concrete footprint is massive and that urban living is much better for the environment. For example, urban density and public transit are wonderful ways to combat climate change. I’ll get off my soap box now, but my point is about finding God where I am, finding God in the creation that’s evident around me. Did you know that 93 percent of Philadelphians live within ten minutes of a green space? That’s the highest rate in the country. Turns out I don’t need a lawn contained by a white picket fence to enjoy creation.
And learning to see it right in my immediate vicinity matters. Discerning it locally means that I can’t escape it. It means I don’t need to go to Acadia National Park to experience God in creation. More importantly, seeing creation working itself in the world disciples me to it and to God. Learning from the grass helps me to act more like myself.
Let’s go back to the song. What’s that mean? I learn to grow. I learn to bend. I learn to adapt my will to God. I learn to align myself with God. The truth is that adapting ourselves to God’s will may feel painful at first, but we’ve been so maladapted that it makes it seem so unnatural. But I’m with George MacDonald and the Psalmist, I truly fulfill my desires when I delight myself in God and in creation.