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The Fluid Edge

THE FLUID EDGE

When I was a child, my parents and teachers taught me about personal boundaries – which I still think of in terms of my “swimsuit area.” Partly because it’s on a childhood trip to the pool that we learn about these boundaries. We change clothes in a room with naked people, probably with one of our parents (who we see naked and never forget it) and we learn not to stare and point at others in their un-tanned vulnerability. Including that one really old dude in every changing room who really wants to be seen. Ladies, I honestly don’t know if there’s any equivalent, and I don’t want to know. In modern times we see notices saying not to pretend to talk on your cell-phone while taking sneaky pictures in the locker-room (wow, I’m glad I grew up in the eighties!). Then we’re at the pool or beach and everyone is in this strange state between dressed and undressed. You’re sort-of in clothes as you step up, but then as you wade or lower yourself in, there’s that moment of yeep! when the water does its, I dunno, the water-version of a handshake greeting and you know the water does not respect your boundaries. The water has known your nakedness.

As children going for a swim, we were told to wait forty minutes after eating before getting in, so that lunch will stay inside the bounds of our bodies. And we sometimes saw clever signs saying something like “Our Ool doesn’t have any P in it.” But kids pee in the pool anyway – for children it’s a chance to experiment with legal boundaries, prohibitions… Will something happen? Will the Olice show up? Nope. Except the person next to you might ask if the water got warmer. And… Not to get disgusting here, but when we actually think about it, we know that all the water in the pool (and the ocean) is urine, every drop has been drank and sprayed by whales and jellyfish, elephants, orangutans, dogs and cats and squirrels and people. All of the world’s water has been urine at some point, and even his imperial majesty the Pope can’t bless that away. Babies get baptized, and that water in the baptismal font has passed through bodies – maybe Jesus, maybe Muhammad, Mother Teresa, Sitting Bull, maybe Madonna. And a tyrannosaurus rex. Any drop of water, or look at a single snowflake, think about where it’s been, it’ll blow your mind. “I was the blood of Caesar, I was sweated out by Muhammad Ali, I was a tear of Harriet Tubman, and I got pissed off by Eminem.”

I’m not here to gross you out – all the world’s water has passed through animals, but nature also cleans the water, with evaporation into the clouds above, and also the water-treatment facilities we call “plants.” Rain comes down, then passes through roots and accumulates in berries, coconuts, tomatoes, onions, nature’s way of purifying the water. I would not drink a cup of rain-water from this area, but an apple grows in my front yard and I’ll eat it, I know nature has purified that water. Ironically, the water in our baptismal fountains has been cleaned by forbidden fruit.

Our bodies also process water – we’re like power-plants, factories, we constantly need clean water coming in and constantly have waste-water coming out. Not just from our swimsuit areas but from every inch of our bodies. Our parents and teachers taught us that our bodies are solid, our skin a boundary between what’s inside us and what’s outside. But none of us here is made out of diamond – our skin is a bag for holding water, and the bag has millions of holes in it. Water is passing through my skin, you are breathing it. Water is passing through your skin, I am breathing it. We are exchanging water right now. When you smell someone, that’s not a supernatural spirit in the air, it’s water from their body carrying flakes of skin into your nose and lungs and blood. Also I sometimes spit when I talk, so if your mouth is gaping open in shock right now you might want to move to the back row.

Our parents and teachers taught us about boundaries, but in a biological sense those boundaries don’t exist – we are all continuous, connected by water. Not just people, all organic life – plants, trees, fungi, bacteria, animals, Keith Richards, cockroaches, fish, that smelly guy you sat next to on the bus (who might have been Keith Richards, I don’t know). The Ojibwe scholar and activist Melissa Nelson wrote, we “are not separate from the environment. We are the environment! …With every bite of food we eat, every drop of water we drink, every breath of air we inhale, we are on the fluid edge of ‘inside’ and ‘outside,’ ‘me’ and the ‘environment,’ the person and the planet, and the individual and humanity.”1 Water respects no boundaries – especially the artificial and cultural ones we make up for ourselves. We want to close ourselves off from nature, but it’s inside us. Rivers don’t care about our imaginary borders, and even if we build a wall against Mexico, those rivers will defy us by still connecting us. We are all from and of water.

DUST TO DUST?

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” an old funeral saying goes, but our lives don’t begin with dust or ashes at all. Human life begins in water – we all started out as single-cell organisms in a primordial sea, I mean all life collectively and each of us personally at conception (and the water in a pregnant mother’s womb maintains that same salinity as the oceans at the beginning of life long ago). Then we evolved into a little tadpole-looking creature, then into some sort of frog-like thing, before we started to look primate, except with gills on our ears. And then labor begins with the breaking of water. I love that expression, it sounds so sacred, so sacramental, “water breaks.” (Of course it didn’t seem very sacramental when it happened – I was half ready to say “Send the midwife home, we’re calling an exorcist!”). But the water breaks, a new life begins…and two lives end, the social lives of the parents.

And then, straight away after birth many of us were rushed off for a religious cleaning – having spent ten months in mother-water, we get sprinkled with father-and-son water. I was baptized as an infant, held by a nun who then ran off with a man because she realized she wanted to make a baby. I would like to think of that as the first time I caused a religious conversion. Then I went to seminary-school and realized I don’t believe in infant baptism. When Jackson was a baby, and I’ll never forget it, Elizabeth and I visited a church and this beautiful Episcopal priest, a lady-priest, she beckoned me over to ask about something. I walked over, holding the baby and while she was talking she reached back, dipped her fingers in the baptismal font, and suddenly flicked it at him! As a new parent I instinctively shielded him from the sudden motion and then realized my shoulder was wet. That sneaky priestess tried to baptize my son! Like a JFK grassy-knoll baptism! And accidentally baptized me a second time! So, I don’t know, maybe that cancels my infant baptism out.

Just as water knows no personal boundaries, water knows no spiritual boundaries – water is the common element binding all the world’s religions. They’re all related through water. The Christian baptism (copied from the Jewish mikveh), the ritualistic washing before prayer in Islam, the sweat-lodge of the Lakota, the Hindu wish to be sunk in the Ganges after death, the sacred wells of the Celts – they used to celebrate times of peace by breaking their weapons and throwing them in water, and they would pray for health or luck or fortune by throwing coins to water spirits. The pagan tradition continues in wishing-wells, every semester I ask my college students: “when you throw a penny in a well and make a wish – who are you talking to? Wouldn’t the Christian God be happier if you gave your offering in a church?” At the wishing well you give your coin (a sacrifice) and say your prayer to ancient water-spirits. My college students don’t know that the wishing well connects them with their pagan ancestors.

Water freely flows through all belief-systems, but belongs to none of them. In the Bible, water is there before “In the beginning” – if you read it closely, the book of Genesis does not say that God created the water, it was there before He showed up. Similarly in the Qur’an, Allah creates all things from water, but does not create it. Here in Western New York, the creation story begins with a world entirely covered with water, and a muskrat dives down to bring some dirt to the surface. The Mayan, Babylonian, Egytpian, Greek and Roman creation stories all begin in a swampy chaos, before the gods arrive and start building.

DESTRUCTION

Water is creative, it can also be destructive. Glaciers of ice once tore their way through this land, it was water that carved out the Grand Canyon. It happened really slowly in human time, but in geologic time it was like a bulldozer on rocket-fuel, like Babe the blue ox hopped up on red-bull, roaring through, digging canyons and thrashing up mountains. Now nature gets mad and throws water at us, flash floods that sink whole towns (usually targeting southerners who refuse to believe in climate change). Water can be hurricanes, tidal waves, someday water’s gonna eat California. We’ll have to air-lift our movie-stars to Wisconsin – I guess we’re in for a lot more Thor movies. We used to get these brochures in the mail: you can buy a big chunk of the Florida coast, cheap! And I don’t like Florida, it smells like death, but I couldn’t help looking anyway – where’s the fine print? What’s the scam? But it wasn’t in the fine print, it was in big letters across the top: “Land Liquidation Sale!” Oh! So you’re trying to sell pieces of land that will soon be under liquid.

Water can be dangerous big, and water can be dangerous small, even in little trickles. My wife’s got potted plants, they leak on the floor. She loves dogs, they leak on the floor, she sprouts babies, they leak on the floor – one of these days I’m gonna walk in, “Honey I’m home,” and fall through the floor because of all the water damage. Given enough time, a little trickle of water can split a whole mountain in half.

Water can drive you crazy – it’s been used as a torture device for centuries, dunking witches, Japanese drip torture, water-boarding. Water has suggestive power too, deep psychic powers of suggestion. Like I say “Imagine Niagara Falls, envision all that water flowing, tons and tons of water crashing down…” And now everybody feels like they have to go to the bathroom. Sorry, I’ll try to get to the ending of this soon.

Water – what would we be without it? A little pile of dust and bone. And each of us has water sources that are sacred to us, maybe just the bathroom sink where you ritualistically begin and end your day by brushing your teeth. Maybe the shower where you go to recharge your electricity and collect your thoughts, or sing like nobody can hear you. Maybe a toilet. Maybe the kitchen fawcet where you wash dishes and mumble about the injustices in the world. Maybe a river or lake where you like to walk and talk to yourself, or with someone else. Maybe an ocean where you get a sense of perspective. All water is sacred, and all water is part of all of us.

And we are all part of water. It connects us with all living things, not just across personal bounaries and cultural boundaries, not just across species boundaries, but also across time: Water knows no boundaries of time. The past, present and future are all coexistent in water. The fluid in our bodies today will not be the same fluid there tomorrow. But the water we borrow and carry at this moment has been the life of creatures past and will be the life of creatures yet to come.

1Nelson (2008) p. 9

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GOOD? (A Sermon)

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GOOD? (A Sermon)

When Elizabeth and the kids and I moved into our neighborhood, there was a a short, squat house nearby, surrounded by trees. The house as been empty as long as we’ve been here, so we’ve considered those trees our neighbors. Trees make the best neighbors – they aren’t loud, and more importantly, they don’t complain about us being loud. And they never borrow your weed-whacker and bring it back broken, claiming it was broken to begin with.

In this last couple weeks, someone sent a big machine with a long arm and a claw…with a mechanical thumb…to demolish that old house. The machine played with the house, like a big cat toying with a wounded animal, or like a toddler playing with a stuffed animal. This machine shuffled down this house like it was made of playing-cards, then it started crunching – steel and glass, plaster and wood, brick and concrete and when we looked the next day, there was nothing where that old house used to be, just flattened dirt strewn with straw (presumably planted with grass seed). And I thought, “this is alright. That old abandoned house wasn’t doing any good for the neighborhood, now in a few months it’ll be a grassy clearing surrounded by trees. Instead of worrying about meth-heads using the house as a drug lab, we can worry about pot-heads using this forest glade for singalongs.”

It was nice, with that old abandoned house out of the way, to imagine that the land would belong to the trees again. When the people are away, the trees will play. They’ll just play reeeeeeeeally reeeeeeeeelly slowly. “Man, I thought those people would never leave – I’m gonna grow an Afro, maybe branch out, see if I can get a little of that sunshine over there and watch my favorite soap-opera, ‘Chasing Tail,’ starring the neighborhood squirrels. We can sit up all night telling scary stories. This one’s called… ‘Leave it to Beaver…’” “Don’t tell them that, they’ll have nightmares and leak sap all over the place.” “Nah, it’ll put vines on their chest.”

Of course it wasn’t the trees that had bought the property – trees don’t sign contracts, they just stare at the paper and say “His name was…Spruce…and you cut him down in his prime…beat him to a pulp…flattened him out and stapled him.” A couple days after the house was demolished, the machine came back for the trees. It clutched them by the trunk and pulled them up, then tapped them on the ground to shake the dirt off the roots. Like the trees were cigars, it tapped them on the ground. And Elizabeth said, “If God made the trees in His image and likeness we’re in big trouble.” And I looked around nervously “This is Christian country. If they hear you say that they’re gonna cut you down and use you for firewood.”

God looking like a tree – the very idea is preposterous. The Bible proves that, not only in what it says, but also by what it is, paper, a bunch of ground-up wood. Surely if God had some special interest in trees, He wouldn’t allow such a massacre of them to produce copies of a book for us to read. And right there on the first page it clearly says: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

Ah, it’s so reassuring, such a relief to hear those words – to feel like God’s special love for us is tied up in God’s love for Godself. “How can I stay mad at you, when you look so much like me?” We want God to look a nice bearded old man – like Santa Claus, except wearing white and He’s eaten less Christmas cookies. We want a God who will watch us all the time, keep a careful list of all the bad stuff we do, and then throw out the list and give us the goodies anyway. And most important, Santa may be watching us all the time (a little creepy? A fat old man spying on your kids when they’re sleeping and awake?) he’s got the supernatural surveillance but he’s always somewhere else – he’s far away where he can’t interfere. He’s got the CIA spy-gear and the jackboots but he never comes kicking in your door to put a black bag over your head, he just slips in through the heating vents, plants the toys and goes back to base (I checked the toys last Christmas, by the way, they’re not manufactured in the North Pole anymore – apparently Santa Claus has moved his operation to Taiwan where the labor is cheaper, and his sleigh these days is called “Amazon Prime.” I should start calling my car that. “Amazon Prime.” I should call my wife that too. She’d love it).

MAMA

We have a powerful desire to humanize God – to make Him more like Santa Claus. We try to humanize nature too – “Mother Nature.” “Mommy nature, we’re sorry,” because we know mothers can’t resist empty apologies, our moms think we’re so cute. “We won’t do it again,” we already called, our friends are on their way over so we can do it again. That’s why we don’t say “Uncle Nature,” because when we make an environmental boo-boo we don’t want to hear “You ordered your bed, now sleep in it.” We want a Mommy to accept our hollow apologies and clean up our mess for us, “Oh, bless your heart, don’t worry, we’ll sweep it under this carpet called…the ocean.”

In Christianity it’s a sin to believe in “Mother Nature.” But if you just happen to have a statue of Mary in your garden, and your roses just happen to prosper? That’s innocent, right? I mean, what could be more innocent than an unwed teenaged mother?

We want nature to love us, and nature does love us – and not just for feeding the mosquitoes and hosting her beloved flu virus (“Thanks for the ride!” “Freeloading hippie, get a job, flu virus, you bum.”) but also for just being ourselves, adorable little rug-rats, critters, animals. Nature loves us, but nature doesn’t love us best. She gives us the same rules as every other species – “I want you to have friends, but keep the party small and don’t make a mess of the place.” Because when we let our population boom out of control she’ll send us to bed without supper, and if we trash nature’s house she’ll clean it up with tidal waves.

I love nature but I don’t really like nature. Nature is mouths and thorns and mosquitoes and animal crap on the ground when you’re walking and feel the sun on your face and your heart is beating and your problems seem inconsequential and… Aw! Aw man! Who left this here? Now all my problems seem insurmountable and I’ve gotta scrape this nature off my boots.

And nature communicates with us in feelings, instincts, mostly from our bellies and our swimsuit area. She doesn’t get it that we’re the nerds of the animal high school, we want our instructions clear. How do I pass this test? Couldn’t you put it in writing? And so we cling to our religions, which give us study guides for the final exam – a syllabus. For example, the Bible is divided into two Testaments – “Testament” meaning contract. And right there at that start of the first contract, God creates the world in a certain way, and begins telling people about how they should interact with it.

THE STORY

According to the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, God dictated the formation of skies and land in six days. A seventeenth century bishop used Biblical chronological data to calculate that this process began on October 23rd, 4004 years before the common era. The land was flat and the sky was a hard, solid dome on top of it – if you can imagine one of those plastic bubbles that gumball machine toys come in, that’s the world that gets created in Genesis One. And the sun and moon chased each other around inside this bubble, and God made plants and animals and sea-monsters and birds and then little figurines of Godself. Once these little figurines, people, are in place, the whole structure can finally pass inspection, “Very Good,” and then God subcontracted human beings to oversee the whole business.

In the last few centuries, preachers and scientists have been playing tug-of-war over the logistics of this story, and we’ve generally come to agree that the world is more than six thousand years old, it’s round (we’ve all seen the photographs) and probably revolves around the sun. But there are other elements of this story that our culture has a harder time letting go of. The story tells us that Creation was complete when humanity appeared. It tells us that the human being is the final, the ultimate creature. The finished product. Well of course we are! History begins with us, everything before humanity was just prologue of bumbling bacteria and dimwitted dinosaurs, and history will end with us, if humanity ends there will be nothing but cockroaches picking at our trash. “Hey Keef, we’ve struck gold! A Twinkie, we’re set for life!” The world was made for humanity. Many of us here are not Biblical literalists, and yet many of us here still believe that the human race is the culmination of creation, and that when we’re finished the story is over forever.

We do love to debate about who made humanity – was humanity made by God, all at once? Or was humanity made by the world, gradually formed and refined by evolution and natural selection? Did Adam and Eve have furry tails and swing from trees? But our cultural debate about natural selection has nothing to do with monkeys. I mean, sure, it might be embarrassing to say you’re related to primates who play with their own feces, but anybody who’s ever raised a toddler can come to terms with that. The hardest thing about accepting natural selection is letting go of Supernatural selection – a promise from God that we as humans are exempt from the laws and limits that govern the survival of every other species. We are taught to believe that humanity is “too big to fail,” and that if we as a species crash, God will bail us out. And if we let go of that, our cherished cultural belief in a manifest destiny of expansion and renovation will be exposed as a reckless binge, an intoxicated rampage fueled by delusions of indestructibility.

In Genesis 1:28, God is reported to say, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over…every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Our culture is built on dominion over the earth, changing the land to suit our needs. And eliminating any creature that gets in our way. We might debate about whether or not it’s America’s God-given responsibility to police all the nations of the earth, but few of us would debate whether or not it’s humanity’s God-given responsibility to police all the species of the earth. Mark Twain observed, “We hunt the fly remorselessly; also the flea, the rat, the snake, the disease germ and a thousand other creatures which [God] pronounced good, and was satisfied with, and which we loudly praise and approve – with our mouths – and then harry and chase and malignantly destroy, by wholesale.”

As we debate the mechanics of the Genesis creation story, we can forget to look at the message of the creation story – God said each part of creation was good. Before people started messing with it. Maybe the story is telling us – before we charge in to filling, subduing and dominating, we should always take a look at creation and consider: “God said this was ‘Good’ as it is – are we really going to make it better?” Because many of our big box stores and parking lots are not an improvement (and all this bulk-buying and driving isn’t doing our figures any favors either). Civilization did not begin with some group of people ten thousand years ago saying “Hey! We’ve got a great idea! Let’s destroy the earth!” No – it began with some group of people ten thousand years ago saying “Let’s perfect the earth!” For ten thousand years, groups of people have been trying to perfect their environment, not to wreck it but to make it better. To make it easier to provide for themselves and their children.

Decades ago, I don’t know how many, someone stepped onto a plot of land in my neighborhood and said “I know what will make this perfect. We’ll clear a few of these trees, and build a small, humble house here.” And months ago, someone else stepped onto that plot of land and said, “I know what will make this perfect. We’ll knock down this old house, clear some more of these trees and…” How they intend to improve the neighborhood remains to be seen, but I’m told that they’re going to build a parking garage. That’s our modern idea of perfection – easy parking.

An eighteenth century French exile who called himself Voltaire composed a short novel called Candide, about a young man’s quest to make some sense of life. The search for meaning drags poor Candide like a rag-doll across the planet, making him witness and victim to countless atrocities born of nationalistic and religious fanaticism. By the end of the story, Candide has no illusions about countries or creeds, and when someone attempts to draw him into a philosophical discussion about life’s meaning, Candide calmly says, “We must tend the garden.”

We live in a time religious and political fanaticism, ideologies clash like clanging cymbals drowning out the noise of destruction around us as our culture attempts to perfect the world by turning it into a parking lot. And in all this noise we can easily miss that calm voice: “We must tend to the garden.” The garden needs our help, it’s true, but we must also let the garden tend to itself, because it is good. And when we acknowledge that the garden is good, we can stop trying to perfect it and let the garden tend to us.

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Kingdom Come: Jesus and the Environment

Bathroom Sink Cross

Last week, Interfaith Action and the United Religions Initiative in Hendersonville NC presented an interfaith panel discussion about religion and environmentalism.  There was a Rabbi, a Muslim, a Wiccan Priestess, and I spoke about Christianity.  The main question was – what do our faith traditions tell us about how people are meant to live in relation to the rest of the community of life on earth?  Writing about Christianity and environmentalism proved to be too daunting and depressing, so I wrote about Jesus instead.

 

KINGDOM COME

 

In Genesis 1:28, God writes humanity a blank check from the bank of creation “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Is this how Christians are meant to live in relation to the environment? What would Jesus do? As far as we know, Jesus was not fruitful, he didn’t increase a number of little Jesus Juniors, he didn’t own land, he didn’t build a plantation, and though he may have called himself a “Good Shepherd,” he doesn’t have any sheep during his ministry, so if he was a literal shepherd he must have been a bad one. More likely it was a metaphor. Jesus called farmers, fishermen and herders to quit their day-jobs and become a small tribe of nomadic foragers.

Jesus never says that God wants us to “rule the earth and subdue it” – actually he says the exact opposite: “Our father…your will be done on earth.” Instead of God telling humanity to tear the world apart and put it back together for our own comfort and convenience, Jesus taught his disciples to pray that humanity would give that dominion back. Instead of looking at nature and saying “What a mess, how can we make this better?” We’re supposed to ask “What was God’s intention here, and how can we cooperate? How can we fit in?”

Well that’s a really tough one, since Jesus our teacher hasn’t left any instructions for two thousand years. And his proteges, the disciples, could never understand him. But if we listen carefully, we find that Jesus did recommend teachers we can still listen to: “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them… Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these… And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:24-31)

Jesus wasn’t telling us to rule the birds, he was telling us to learn from them. He wasn’t telling us to have lawns three quarters of an inch high in suburbia, he was telling us that we can learn from the plants. And most important, he wasn’t telling us to destroy this planet in a desperate grab for food, water and clothing – he was saying that when we look at God’s creation and agree that it’s good, and look for how humanity can fit in, we’ll have these things! And we don’t have to wait until after death – he says that when we cooperate with creation, we’ll have what we need to survive.

Of course many of us here don’t speak Raven – it’s not that hard actually, the word “caw” is like Shalom or Aloha, it means “hello, let’s eat, goodbye, whatever.” But if we really can’t learn from the birds and plants, Jesus recommended other teachers: In Mark 10:14 he says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Children will surprise you with their clarity of vision – this is good, this is bad, this is right, this is wrong. And we spend billions of dollars and hours teaching them shades of gray, teaching them that the world is more complicated than it looks. That they need to work hard, get stuff, pay bills, drive a car. I know my children would be much happier if their teachers were deer and bears and their classroom was a forest. Well that’s what education was, until people started this mutiny for world-dominion. Maybe someday instead of giving our children sit-still pills to crush their instinct for an eight-hour school-day, maybe someday we’ll give them God’s Kingdom instead, and let them teach us that the world is simple when we cooperate – it’s impossible we try to dominate.

Nature hates a makeover – reshaping this world is like the struggle to get a squirming toddler into church-clothes on Sunday morning, and yet we feel it’s our sacred responsibility to drag this world kicking and screaming into one of our utopian fantasies. Christian doctrine says not to get involved, to be “in the world but not of the world,” whatever that means. But when a crime is committed in plain sight, there’s no such thing as an “innocent bystander.”

John 3:16, maybe the most famous passage in the New Testament – mostly because of a belief that if you write this magic spell on a sign and hold it at a sporting event, it’s guaranteed your team will crush their enemies. I’m not going to recite the whole verse, but those first six words: “For God so loved the world.” Maybe it’s time we stopped destroying God’s world, maybe it’s time we stopped hating God’s world and waiting for a divine evacuation, maybe it’s time we forgive God’s world for being so savage and primitive and childish and “earthy.” God so loved the world – it is not a sin for Christians to love it too.

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