Psalm 8 – Our Place in the World

Milky Way

Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (NIV)

I adore the psalms. Many years ago, it was the biblical Book of Psalms which helped me come to faith. This little psalm for today is illustrative of why I was moved toward embracing a life with God. Psalm 8 grounds us through dealing with the ultimate questions of human existence:

Who am I? Why do I exist? What is the purpose of life?

The answers to those questions are supremely important because people throughout history and now across the world are asking what meaning their lives really have. For example, depression is ubiquitous in the world as well as the church. It is a large issue. Peeling back the layers of a person’s life, many have a deep sense of not truly belonging, and of being profoundly misunderstood by others. Many depressed persons are very aware of their own mortality and have a disconnected sense of their personal role in the world. In other words, some people have lost their original purpose of being a person and that they belong to the human family in a way that makes a significant contribution to the world.

Living on such a big planet causes some people to feel quite small and wonder how they fit in. With such a large universe, which may at times seem cold and capricious, we may ask along with psalmist:

“What is humanity that you are mindful of them?”

This question forms the center of the psalm. Hebrew poetry is typically set up to have the front and the end of the poem point to the middle where the chief focus is found. So, then, the psalmist purposely wrote this psalm so we would consider this great question of what God thinks of humanity within the scope of this immense universe.

And it is a staggeringly huge universe! To put it in perspective, if our galaxy, the Milky Way, were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup. Even now, two Voyager spacecraft are hurtling toward the edge of the solar system at a rate of 100,000 miles per hour. For decades they have been speeding away from Earth, having now traveled billions of miles. When engineers beam a command to the spacecraft at the speed of light, it takes over half a day to arrive. Yet this vast neighborhood of our sun—in truth, the size of a coffee cup—fits along with several hundred billion other stars and their planets in the Milky Way, one of perhaps 100 billion such galaxies in the universe. To send a light-speed message to the edge of that universe would take 15 billion years.

Out of the billions of galaxies in the universe, what is the planet Earth that God should care about it?  Even on our planet there are billions of creatures. Yet, of all those bugs, animals, fish, and birds, God has a special relationship with us, humanity, and cares for us deeply. We know that God cares for us, according to this psalm, because he has entrusted us with the responsibility to care for creation. We are the only creatures who have the charge to steward all that God has created. To put it another way, we, as people created in the image of God, have a job that is befitting of a king. We as humans are God’s vice-regents in charge of tending and caring for all creation. This incredible job is both a duty and a delight.

creation care

God has us, his people, playing a crucial role in governing and caring for the world he created. Like a parent or grandparent patiently working with a child to teach them responsibility for all that is around them, God teaches us and has entrusted to us this large expansive world we live in. Literally everything in all creation is under our stewardship. Only we as people have the self-awareness and perspective of the world that is needed to govern the world.  So, then, we can only find our true purpose and belonging in the stewardship of creation.

Caring is at the heart of being a person.

The only glitch to all this, and why so many lose their way, is that the world is still living under a curse due to the original fall of humanity. When we allow other dominions to supersede God’s dominion, then we have issues. When the power of money or the significance of a position or job title or the ability to do certain tasks is our basic identity and place of belonging, then we will likely succumb to anxiety because other dominions cannot help us find our true God-given majesty as people created in God’s image.

Living in any other way than being a proper steward of the world is beneath us because we have inherent dignity as God’s vice-regents over creation.  Mother Teresa once said that there is no such thing as a small thing – only small things which are done with big love. Her sentiment perfectly captures the vision of the psalmist – that all people are crowned with glory and honor and rule with God to do all the small things of life with a love that comes from our Creator.

We continually have possibilities of engaging in good stewardship of all that God has given us. We have the chance to be attentive to all the little things of life, whether gardening, building a bird house, working with diligence and care at our jobs, or keeping our community clean and its citizens healthy and happy – it is all important and has a significant place. It brings meaning to our existence as human beings.

We as people, like all creation, are meant for growth. Putting effort into developing our skills and honing our craft, whatever that may be, is what helps us tap into our God-given purpose for being in this big world. So, may we, then, continually improve what we do, no matter what it is, so that it befits us as God’s people crowned with honor. May we realize joy and contentment – knowing the majesty we share with God in his wondrous world.

Lord God Almighty, Creator of the heavens and the earth, words are not enough to express your awesome majesty. My highest expressions of theology are but baby talk next to you. Grant me awareness through your Spirit that you are here with me. May this awareness lead me to approach life carefully. The words I speak, the tunes I sing, the thoughts I think, the joy and sadness I feel – may it all be pleasing to you, o Lord, my God. For, despite the inadequacy of my words and my actions, my life and my worship are addressed to you alone. May you make that life complete, whole, full to overflowing through Jesus Christ, your Son, my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns forever.  Amen.

Life as Art

Milwaukee Art
Cornelia Parker’s “Edge of England” in the Milwaukee Art Museum

Art, as I would define it, is the creation of something beautiful and/or meaningful through imagination and skill.  This definition is broad enough to encompass everyone as an artist.  Each person mirrors the Divine Artist in some unique or special way through the ways in which they imaginatively and skillfully live their lives.  Where there is no art, there is no hope.  Where art exists, there are possibility and life.  None of us could have made it this far in the process of our jobs, our families, let alone in life, without making great art.  Art is how we make sense of things and form our views of the world.  Art is both subject and object – being both formed and forming us.  Life cannot exist without art because we as people are both created and creative in all we think, feel, and do.

I say all this mostly because recently being at my local art museum helped me to remember how vital it is to be an artist, and that there is no other artist like me (or you).  The museum enabled me to reconnect with the vast imagination within, as I was reminded how large the world of Tim is and how much that inner world has always sought to make beautiful and meaningful connections with others – to make a difference.

I was also reminded of the ways in which art impacts us.  What is beauty to one is disgust in another; and, what is repulsive to one is awe in the other – and everything in between.  Yet, in every work of art we are likely to find both charm and ugliness.  That reminder helps me to reflect on a recent patient visit I had in the hospital.  His story was not too pleasant to me.  I was repulsed by many of the patient’s decisions throughout his life.  Yet, in the moment, I chose to embrace the whole painting in front of me – which included the beauty and awe of his desire for connection, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  At the time, I wasn’t sure I was doing much of anything – my own art seemed rather imperfect and unseemly.  When the visit came to an ending, the patient remarked, “Thank you for reminding me of my God and bringing me closer to him.”  Into the mix all along was the Divine Artist, creating something gracious between us.  If this was to be depicted in an actual art object, that object would include both strange beauty and repugnant representation.  The question is: Will the eye of the beholder see only one, or see both?  The answer to that question is the answer to whether we are willing and able to see the full scope of any person in front of us.  And, like an art object, we could likely sit for hours staring and observing, finding new awareness and insights, and, thus, new meaning – in both of us.

A teaching I appreciate from my Orthodox Christian friends is that every person is a “living icon,” that is, everyone is a hand-crafted image of Christ.  Even more than that, everyone is still being formed by God into a unique and special icon.  In this view of Christianity, a person’s highest calling is to simply cooperate with the Divine Artist – God is the Potter and I am the clay.  I would describe our part as being “actively passive.”  We neither act as we see fit and just trust God will direct us, nor do we sit and simply wait for God to do something.  Rather we are actively passive.  An artist waits for inspiration – and in the meantime he/she intentionally pokes around for ways to be inspired.  And when the inspiration comes, the work ensues – with a rhythm of action coupled with taking time to step back and see the big picture before engaging again.

What I am suggesting is that God has divine actions and divine reflections in a rhythm of formation and transformation of all human creatures.  God has both given us everything we need for life and godliness in this present age and is continuously weaving life-giving grace into the fabric of our everyday lives.  We are icons, and we are being crafted into icons.  To put it another way, we are human beings and are continuously being made into humans.  The care we receive is the care we give.

Why I Do What I Do

Kierkegaard on life

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards… Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” ― Soren Kierkegaard

Motivation matters.  What gets us up in the morning tells a lot about why we choose to do what we do with our day.  The spiritual care of others out of the overflow of my heart, full of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is the driving force of my life.  It’s grounded in the goodness of God and God’s good creation.

As a Christian, I believe that all spiritual care begins with the God of creation and ends with the God of hope.  The Christian tradition emphasizes that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The apex of his creation, the height of all God’s creative activity, is the formation of humanity upon the earth.  Human beings alone have been created in the image and likeness of God – reflecting him in their care for all creation (Genesis 1:26-27).  Therefore:

All human beings on the good earth which God created are inherently good creatures and deserve utmost respect and common decency. 

People also carry within them a nature, due to the fall of humanity, of brokenness, fear, shame, regret, and pride.  Thus, people are complicated creatures with the capacity for both great good and benevolent altruism, as well as great evil committed through heinous acts, and everything in-between in their culture-making and their civilization (Genesis 3-4).

I have personally found the resolution to these realities of the presence of both good and evil, are resolved in the person and work of Jesus.  In Christ, I was made aware of my own guilt due to things I have done, and things I have left undone; given grace through his redemptive events; and, thus, extend gratitude to God through living into his original design of creature care (this is the structure of the 16th century Reformed Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism).   Therefore:

My identity as a person is firmly rooted and grounded in the soil of God’s grace. 

I freely give grace to congregants, patients, and others because Jesus Christ freely gave to me.  My Christianity has the practical effect of acknowledging that each person on planet earth is inherently worthy of love, support, concern, and care.

20180708_120645

Furthermore, as a Christian, everything in my life centers (ideally) around Jesus.  As such, I take my cues for how to extend care to others from him.  For me, Jesus is the consummate caregiver.  He entered people’s lives and their great sea of need with the gift of listening; a focus on feelings; and, the power of touch.  Christ was able: to listen to others because he first listened to the Father; to be present with others because he was present with the Father; and, to give love to others with the love he enjoyed within the Trinitarian Godhead (John 14).

This does not mean that I act as God acts; it means I love as Christ first loved me.  I am human, a creature.  God is divine, the Creator.  I do not have the role of God.  Rather, I emulate the caring practice of Jesus in his earthly ministry.  I embrace my human role to listen, establish empathic connection, and offer a supportive spiritual presence.

It is God who is active in giving the grace of healing and mending broken bodies, damaged souls, and fractured lives in his own good time and benevolence. 

In short, I embrace the process of care, and God brings about the outcome of transformation (1 John 4:7-21).  I am neither, therefore, responsible to change a person’s feelings nor involved to fix their broken body and/or spirit.  I am there to wed competency with compassion, detachment with support, and discretion with comfort.

Listening to, acknowledging, honoring, and inviting the communication of feelings is what I did, for example, with a healthcare patient named Esther (not her real name).  Esther was being surly and mean to staff and threw her food in defiance.  When I entered Esther’s room she yelled and complained of not being cared for.  I came and knelt beside her bedside, took her hand, and simply said, “Tell me what’s going on.”  A cascade of emotions came pouring out of Esther.  No one had the time (nor, perhaps, the desire) to listen to her.  Esther shared her frustration of chronic illness, a deep and hurtful wondering of where God is, and a profound pessimism that anything would ever change for her.

The only other words I offered Esther was: “I hurt with you.”  I was present, I listened, and I sought to live into what the Apostle John said: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action” (1 John 3:18).  When I left Esther’s room, after I had stayed with her until she was calm, another dear woman was waiting for me, sitting in her wheelchair, outside of Esther’s room.  She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said with heartfelt declaration, “You are my Pastor!  A few weeks ago, when I was sitting alone after an event, you came and asked me if you could wheel me back to my room.  That’s not your job, and I know you are a busy man.  You didn’t have to do that, and I am so thankful you are here and giving kindness to an old woman like me.”  And she began to break down and cry.

In these visits, I believe I am emulating the compassionate presence of Jesus because:

People’s stories of joy and pain, laughter and sorrow, certainty and wondering, are sacred narratives – continuously being written and revised in the heart, trying to make sense of life and faith. 

Patients in need, residents in care facilities, those with disabilities of body and/or soul, and all who are the other side of the spiritual tracks may not be able to fully give themselves to their own motivations; yet, they are still full-time human beings who need the emotional connections which a caring and supportive person can provide.

Christ’s very pastoral response to nearly everyone he encountered was not to explain evil and trauma, but to confound and confront it with love. 

Christ with others

Jesus did not walk around performing unsolicited healings, but dignified people with asking them what they wanted, and if they desired to be made whole. “Do you want to be made well?” discerns that others need to explain their situations and their stories and does not assume that someone wants a change in identity (John 5:1-9).

The craft of caring for others is not only objective clinical-like work directed toward another person; it is also profoundly, personally, and subjectively transforming for the caregiver.  Every person, no matter who they are, is precious and carries within them the image of God.  The personal journey and discovery of God-likeness within each person is an emotional adventure worth taking.  Perhaps the greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century, the Protestant Swiss Karl Barth, believed that we are not fully human apart from: mutual seeing and being seen; reciprocal speaking and listening; granting one another mutual assistance; and, doing all of this with gratitude and gratefulness.  Barth used the German term Mitmenschlichkeit (co-humanity) to communicate that we are not human without the other.  In other words, human flourishing requires mutual giving and receiving.

Only in relation to each other, including those in need, do we thrive as people.

Christianity is a fellowship with God and one another, and not an isolated odyssey.  Thus, any kind of care-giving, for me, is a symbiotic relationship between the care-seeker and the caregiver, within the foundation of Trinitarian love, expressed with grace and hope given by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The person in need not be Christian for this to occur, since all share the common human experience of birth, life, and death as people distinct from all other creatures, worthy of compassionate support and spiritual uplift.  This is the reason why I do and feel what I do and feel, as a believer in and minister for Jesus Christ.