Here in central Indiana, we are having one of the most beautiful falls I can remember. And that follows an unusually perfect and balanced summer in which we experienced no drought, only short stretches of humidity, and surprisingly few storms and tornado warnings. How kind of God to turn up the dial on beauty and peace in the natural world, while conflicts and fears and viruses rage in our inner ones.
It really does feel like there is a benevolent kindness to the peace surrounding us—at least here in our local area. I know the same cannot be said for California and now Colorado, experiencing terrible wildfires, as well as states along the southern coast, suffering hurricane after hurricane.
But there is a divine thoughtfulness, a planned tenderness, to a quite remarkable degree, when we look closely at any one circumstance, locale, or even species. I’m thinking here of an article I read just this week about zebra finches, who researchers have found sing to their eggs in years that are oppressively hot. It’s a new thing and they think it has developed as the animals adapt to our warming planet. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that singing to their eggs isn’t just something finches do all the time, to perhaps build a sense of comfort and safety or bond with their hard-shelled soon-to-be offspring. Rather the songs of the finches have a specific purpose. When the parents sing to the egg, the result is that the not-yet-hatchling slows its growth so that when it does hatch, it is smaller and more compact than a full-growth baby. Researchers have discovered that the purpose behind this is their smaller bodies are able to keep cool more easily and that the tiny babies have a better chance of surviving if they are able to withstand the heat. The song of the finch parents helps the species survive when changes in the environment grow threatening.
Isn’t that fascinating? Who thought of that? That level of detail, that level of planning, that exquisite tenderness, arranged in advance to protect and support these tiny lives we’ll never see. That can only be God.
And if God is worried about a single baby bird’s ability to withstand soaring temperatures, God’s same all-encompassing, loving thoughtfulness cares about your coping right now, as you live through this difficult, crazy time, and God is looking out for the health and well-being of all our loved ones, and those they love, and those they love. God loves all of this life that he created, and he works—in a specifically intimate, up-close-and-personal ways, to safeguard our growth and flourishing as we go
I love the way the psalmist puts this in Psalm 121, one of my favorite psalms:
“I lift up my eyes to the hills–
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
not the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.”
These verses don’t paint a picture of a deity who created life once, set it on autopilot, and then rules the universe from some distant position in a far-off realm. This is not a removed being but a loving, living presence that is keeping step with each one of us, always, guiding our feet, watching over us through the night, protecting us—like the finches—from extreme heat and minding how we go each day.
That kind of care, that kind of specific and tender attention, comes only when there’s intimacy—a presence so closely entwined in our lives that every single detail of ourselves we experience, from our thoughts and intentions to our plans and actions, everything about us is known to God. And not in a judging, controlling kind of way but as loving, helpful, understanding and insight.
Years ago when I was feeling a call to be a hospice chaplain, I thought it would be a good idea to talk to a few people who actually were hospice chaplains so I could do a little discernment on what felt like a call on my life. Someone suggested I talk to Rick Schoeff, so I drove to Noblesville Friends and sat down for a long and lovely conversation with Rick, some 15 years before I would return to be with you all as your pastor. Right there I get a sense of God’s smile as I look back on the connection God would bring to blossom a dozen years later.
In addition to talking to Rick, I also went to visit a chaplain at a hospice in southern Indiana. He was a lovely, kind man and I’ll never forget an important thing he said me that day. I told him I felt like God had been “hitting me over the head with a 2×4” to get my attention. And he answered, very gently, “You know, I used to think that God worked with me like that, but then I realized something. God is never forceful with me. God just leans close and says, “Here’s an opportunity…no? Okay, here’s an opportunity. No? Okay, here’s an opportunity…”
What a profound thing. Which of those images of God is the loving, tender father who cares about our growth and well-being each and every day? Yes, that’s what I thought too. That difference has stayed with me ever since. God doesn’t use 2x4s to get my attention. God stirs our hearts, and warms our souls, using love to embrace and protect and lead us forward. And whatever our circumstances, God ultimately leaves the choices up to us.
In fact I think part of the secret to our having free will—this incredible, boundless, power of choice that God has given us—is that God loves us and our diversity so much that he would never want to constrain us into being just like anybody else, doing what they do, saying what they say, looking like they look, and fashioning our own lives and spirits on a life already being lived. God cheers us on in becoming uniquely us, a new life unfolding and exploring on its own, with our gifts and talents and shortcomings and blind spots. We are each a completely new mix of energies and ideas of all sorts, shaken together in bodies of different shapes and ages and ethnicities. Our beliefs, our views, our experiences, our practices are the creation of our singular life, not combined in such a way in any other being on the planet. Our concerns, our struggles, our griefs, our obstacles are our own as well. Never to be repeated, by anyone, anywhere, anytime.
You and I and every person we ever see or meet is a completely new creation of life in this world. I think God loves that about us.
Look around, and you can see that that’s how God creates—each form of life totally unique and beloved, different from any other created being on the planet. Study anything in nature and you will find this to be true. No two stones are the same, no two bushes, no two blossoms. Clouds don’t copy each other’s shapes. Even the colors of the leaves on the trees are unique, some with more yellow, some with red, some with brown spots, round, thin, curled, flat.
American philosopher Eugene Gendlin, wrote in his book, A Process Model that
“Logic, math, and graph paper are quintessentially human creations—nothing natural comes in equal units that can be substituted in logical slots. Every leaf and cell is a little different.”
Stones in the wild may be of many different shapes but the pavers you by at Lowes are uniform, almost identical in shape and size. Humankind does that—perhaps for efficiency and expediency and economy’s sake—reducing the wonder of the individual element (have you ever spent time just admiring a lovely stone?) to an object we use and stack and discard when we no longer need it.
It is evident that God loves the delightful and boundless creativity of the life—God’s life—that shines through all his children—person, plant, animal, and mineral. And as much as it is given us to be uniquely ourselves, individual and special and doing what we can uniquely do, it is also true that there is a common nature that connects us. Dee Hock, the former CEO of VISA, long-retired now, wrote just yesterday on Twitter,
“In all the universe, no two things are entire the same, entirely different, or separable.”
What a fascinating thought that it. We can look around and see that it is true that no two things are entirely the same, unless they are made from some kind of cookie cutter mold (and even then there are likely to be some differences). But no two things are entirely different? How might we see that in the world around us?
First, all living beings, from single-celled organisms to galaxies of galaxies, have growth and change in common. There is movement, presence, beingness in the life that brings about change. But even closer to home, research has been done that shows that humans and bananas shared 41 percent of the same DNA. And humans and chimps: 95 percent. With a cat, we have 90 percent in common; and with a mouse, 85 percent.
What’s more, in the early 1980s, astronomer Carl Sagan hosted a PBS series called “Cosmos,” and in one of the shows he famously said, “We’re made of star stuff.”
At the time, people thought that was a bit of a mind-blowing and poetic statement. But across the years, that has proved true. The professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona said that Sagan’s statement sums up the fact that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies…were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. He added, “Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff.”
So even though we seem infinitely different from a star born billions of year ago, we don’t have to go far to find evidence of Dee Hock’s idea that no two things are entirely different. We share the same stuff with everything ever made. We are many, but we are one, joined by God’s loving spirit of life.
Our New Testament reading today captures why it is important to keep both of these realities in mind. We are each uniquely and individually precious to God, loved in our particulars and valued and encouraged in our choices and our growth. The Light helps us with this, in fact, if we are paying attention, leading us forward in our lives as way opens. Love, if we’re listening, will show us the way. But we also fit together in a divinely appointed way—there is a larger purpose to the way we’re made and equipped with the talents and views we hold. And none of it is mistaken or wrong or random. Everything and everyone, altogether, is part of the unfolding and ongoing, emergent kingdom of God.
We each have our part to play. As Paul writes to the Corinthians,
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”
So often in our world we feel pressure—inside and out—to be like others, whatever that might mean. We wish we were thinner, richer, more accomplished, better connected. We look at some peoples’ talents and feel bad about ourselves because we can’t do the same thing. We are continually comparing ourselves and the way we are in the world with others and the way they seem to be.
But this very human tendency is also based on that cookie-cutter mentality—that we should emulate a pattern we see in the lives of those we admire. And that tendency makes us feel we should be pavers—made from a mold—instead of beautiful, polished, unique natural stones that God creates over tens of thousands of years. We miss the value of our individuality; we forget that we—just as we are, right now, flaws and wrinkles and all—are precious, precious to God. We overlook the priceless value of all our life experiences—whether they were good or bad—and judge ourselves for not measuring up to some artificial standard that’s not what God would want for us anyway.
I love what Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote about the preciousness of our uniqueness to God. He told a story of a man named Rabbi Zusya, who said,
“In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?”
God has given each of us unique views of the world, as well as personal experiences, backgrounds, talents, and perspectives that govern how we see and relate to others in our homes, in our church, and in our community. Getting to know “that of God” in each other requires that we find the space within to consider the preciousness of our own divine spark. We can marvel at what we’ve done and forgive ourselves for what we haven’t. We can enjoy the things that make us, us, even if they get us in trouble once in a while or aren’t already appreciated by everyone around us. Each of those things are part of the unique song our souls sing in this life, a song that’s meant to be our own, as we do what we can to bring light into the darkness.
In closing I’d like to share a lovely quote from writer Anne Lamott. I think this might just be how life will feel when we’re able to recognize and appreciate the infinite uniqueness and preciousness of all the life God loves:
“Try walking around with a child who’s going, “Wow, wow! Look at that dirty dog! Look at that burned-down house! Look at that red sky!” And the child points and you look, and you see, and you start going, “Wow! Look at that huge crazy hedge! Look at that teeny little baby! Look at that scary dark cloud!” I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world – present and in awe.”
- OT: Psalm 121
- NT: 1 Corinthians 12: 12-18
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Bird_by_Bird