1:1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
1:2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
1:3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
1:4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
1:5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
A lot of people approach passages such as Genesis 1 with a certain amount of dread because in our post-Darwin age, other people like to argue about them. When I first began as pastor of a small church across the river, an elder told me he was a bit concerned about my Southern Baptist background. He was concerned that I might be what he called a “Bible-thumper.” I’m pleased to report that I’ve not thumped a single Bible.
Most of the denominations in America were formed around a certain set of theological beliefs, or opinions. My denomination of the last ten years, the Disciples of Christ, formed in the early 1800s around the idea that there should be no denominations; everyone should just emulate the early church. Of course, no one could agree on what that meant, so the movement to end all denominations gave birth to three new denominations. Faith and church history both require the ability to chuckle at ourselves!
Good theology is helpful. Bad theology can cause harm. But because we all approach life with our own filters and experiences, we’ll probably never completely align our opinions. My own theology has changed over time, and it will probably continue to grow as I grow.
But the first chapter of Genesis is trying to tell us something that goes beyond mere opinions. For instance, this world we live in was created by a loving God, and God declared creation to be good. This God is the source of light and enlightenment. God gives form and substance to our world. Whether you take that literally or metaphorically, it’s a very fertile idea. In the very last verse of Genesis 1, right after creating people, God calls it a day, sits back and pronounces all of creation to be “very good.” That’s a hopeful thought.
In the year of my birth, 1955, church attendance in the United States hit its all-time high. In that year, the highest percentage of people in American history claimed to attend church at least once a month, and nearly everyone identified with some specific religious tradition even if they didn’t actually attend.
Immediately thereafter, however, religious attendance began to go steadily downhill. Many people today, especially young adults, no longer feel the need to identify with any religion at all. To be honest, they don’t see the point. The very word “religion” has taken on a negative connotation in the last twenty years or so.
Those of us who are left in the Church are faced with a crucial question: what is the Church good for? Why would people want to attend? Are we here to get our opinions in order?
If Genesis is correct that a loving God created us and placed us in a good world, church should lead us to be at peace with our place in the world, not passively content, but at peace. When the Church is at its best, it leads us to deal with reality: who and what we really are. Bad religion can blind us to all that. I’ve come to think of it in terms of authentic faith and inauthentic faith, or if you prefer, healthy and unhealthy spirituality.
Unhealthy spirituality simply reinforces our illusions about ourselves – that we’re the center of the universe, for example. It defends our egos. Inauthentic faith allows us to hide behind the masks that we build up, rather than confess and admit even to ourselves what we really are. The Apostle Paul called those masks our “old selves.” The Trappist monk Thomas Merton called them our false selves. Inauthentic faith is dangerous precisely because it uses the trappings of religion to shield us from reality. Unhealthy spirituality is persuasive because it’s easy. It buffers us from the real world instead of dragging us into it.
Healthy spirituality leads us to come to grips with reality by letting go of our false selves – letting go of our illusions about who and what we are. It allows us to live free of the compulsion to defend ourselves. In the language of scripture, healthy spirituality leads us to die to our old selves and be raised to new life.
Authentic faith isn’t about building ourselves up. It’s about letting go, letting go of our need to be the center of the universe, or our need to be right, or our need to be powerful, or even our need to be safe. As we do the spiritual work of emptying ourselves of all that, authentic faith leads us to an experience of God’s presence that was here all along.
Somewhere through the centuries, we in the Church got sidetracked. We acted as though our theological opinions were the main point. Christianity became something that happened in our heads rather than transforming us deep down in our souls. But Genesis portrays a God too transcendent to comprehend with our intellects and opinions.
What we can do – what the Church can lead us to do – is simply experience God’s presence. We can know the love that flows from that presence. And if we do the spiritual work to let go of our false selves, our egos, we can participate in that love – or to use Paul’s favorite phrase, we can live in Christ – to the point that God’s love flows through us and from us out into the others around us.
There are different ways to wake up to God’s presence. For me, what has been most helpful is contemplative prayer, or centering prayer as some call it. It’s prayer that doesn’t need to use words, though words are OK too. The point of this prayer is to change me by helping me become more real, more aware, rather than helping me cajole God into doing what I want. I began to learn about this kind of prayer through the writings of Thomas Merton, who had lived about an hour from where I attended seminary and was friends with one of my professors. Later a little book by Richard Rohr called Everything Belongs turned my spiritual life from anger to hope.
My preferred style of worship is quiet and contemplative. I’ve been in Quaker worship where no one said a single word or sang a single note for a solid hour, and I was just fine with that. For many of my friends, the opposite is true – they prefer loud music, dancing, shouting, and chanting (not the Gregorian kind). Good for them.
The style is not the point, however much we may prefer one over another. Whatever the style, whatever the theology, the point of church is to lead us into an awareness of the presence of the God who created us, the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being. It’s to teach us how to live freely, growing in that awareness over time, rather than living as slaves to our own egos. Good liturgy can lead us to that awareness. Good music can do that. Even good preaching and good theology can do that.
And active ministry can do that. Healthy spirituality requires action as well as prayer. We grow spiritually when we learn to see God’s image in other people and connect to that image in love, especially when it’s hard for us to see that image in people who are different from us. We grow when we give of ourselves, when we see each other as neighbors rather than threats. That quality of connection between the spirits of two people echoes the sense of union that we seek with God.
This is what the Church is good for – leading us to let go of our false selves, emptying ourselves so that we can be filled with divine love. That’s exactly what this world needs. I don’t think there has ever been a time when the world needed what the Church can offer more than it needs us now. We are people who follow a creative God who loves us and thinks we are good.
The job of the Church is to carry that torch of caring awareness into the world. For whatever reason, that’s not the impression most people have of us. But if we do the spiritual work to live out the message of a loving God who created all of us in his image, the message of a Christ who called us to take up our own crosses and follow, perhaps in time that impression will change. I think it’s a worthy goal.
Psalm 29:11 May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace! Amen.