Yesterday, December 21st, was the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice marks the shortest day of the year, in terms of daylight. Which means that from now until the Summer Solstice, the days will be getting longer, and that’s a good thing! Yesterday also marked one year out until the Mayan prediction that the world will end on the Winter Solstice of 2012. No doubt we can look forward to many doomsday movements and predictions in the year to come. Mayan ruins are quickly becoming a tourist destination for next year and Mexico’s tourism agency is already selling the hype.

But some Mayan researchers are now insisting that the prophecy has been misunderstood. Instead of the world ending, they say that the Mayans actually recorded that date as being the end of an era, and that 2012 and beyond should be seen as a time of renewal, not destruction. “The world will not end. It is an era. For us, it is a message of hope,” says Yeanet Zaldo.

That word renewal caught my attention, as I had just run across that same idea earlier in the day. In an article I was reading, the author mentioned that the word translated as “new” in the Bible, is often actually the word “renew.” It has been this mistranslation of Scripture that has led to the belief that God will create a new heaven and a new earth.  In other words, if God is going to create a new earth, then this current earth doesn’t matter much.

But if that word actually denotes renewal, then that changes things.  The world won’t end in apocalyptic destruction.  On the contrary, it will be renewed!

In fact, when you read the New Testament, it is evident that God is currently in the midst of renewing all creation. We can’t always see it clearly, and there are plenty of examples that would seem to support the opposite view, but it is happening.  And God has granted us the privilege of being partners in this renewal.

So if the Mayan predictions are correct – that 2012 marks some end of an era and the beginning of a time of renewal – maybe they aren’t that far off from what Scripture is saying as well. So here is to hoping that 2012 is a time of renewal!  After all, that is what God has been up to for quite some time now.

Gerald Schroeder

This is actually the second book by Gerald Schroeder I have read recently.  Schroeder is perhaps best known for his book The Science of God.  He is a physicist, who attempts to reconcile Genesis with what science is discovering about the big bang and the origins of the universe.  Actually, he doesn’t so much try to reconcile the two, with a forced agenda as many have tried to do.  His understanding of the Hebrew language has led him to uncover many misunderstandings of Genesis on the part of the religious, and to lay bare many of the shortcomings of science.  He maintains that the two are not that far apart when all of the misunderstandings are stripped away.  I didn’t agree with everything Schroeder put forth in The Science Of God, and there were many areas where I had to confess my own lack of knowledge when it came to areas, such as quantum physics and astronomy.  But he did have some very insightful points that call for a fresh understanding of both science and Genesis.  And it lead me to read another one of his books, God According To God.

In God According To God, Schroeder touches on the origins of the universe, but this time from the perspective of a deeper understanding of God.  He examines many ways in which our notions of God do not match up with the Hebrew Bible.  Two chapters in particular intrigued me.

In the seventh chapter, Schroeder examines the nuances in the stories of Abraham and Job.  From God’s interactions with these two biblical figures, he draws some conclusions about God that I imagine would begin to make some uncomfortable.  We have attributed such a high view of sovereignty to God, that there is scarcely room for pain, misfortune, or suffering.  Many today would teach that these things are “God’s will” because God is in control of everything.  But God can still be sovereign and mourn with us when bad things happen, without being the One who willed it to happen.  We are afraid to let God be God.

God has not designed a mechanical ‘vending machine’ world where you put in two good deeds, pull a lever, and out pops the commensurate comfort of a material reward.

Unfortunately, this is what is too often being taught in churches today.  Rather than being a god whose hands are always on the chess board, moving every piece, God just might be more “hands off” than we would like to imagine. But this does not mean God is neither distant nor powerless.  Like Job, God wants us to argue, to protest, and to wrestle.  And at times God will intervene, as it is always in God’s power to do.

Schroeder summarizes his observations in chapter twelve: “There’s no hint of a constant microengineering by God either in the world or in the Bible.”  True, God can intervene when needed.  But often that intervention falls far short of our expectations.  When God promises Israel victory in battle, God also excuses those who are newly married lest they die in battle.  If God promised victory, why the chance people are going to die?  Because God is not a micromanager.  The implication is that we are partners with God in restoring creation toward its intended purpose.

It is interesting that Schroeder closes with the statement, “The God that most skeptics reject, a God with unceasing hands-on control, is simply not the God of the Bible.”  My own observation is that the god the skeptics reject, which is not the God of the Bible,  is also the god that many Christians want to embrace.  The more we are able to attribute to “the will of God”, the less personal responsibility we have to accept for ourselves.  While some may be uncomfortable with the picture of God that God According To God constructs, I found it refreshing, challenging some of my own constructs.

Since arriving back from my trip to Uganda about two weeks ago, I have been unpacking, wading through pictures, and reliving experiences.  It was a wonderful trip.  I have found processing the trip difficult, however.  I am having the same difficulty putting my observations into words as I did when my brother, Mark, asked each of us for our thoughts over pizza on the shores of Lake Victoria the last night of our trip.  I think one reason is that the trip had so many paradoxical aspects to it: it was part missions, part family vacation, part remote villages, part safari lodges, part observation, and part rolling up the sleeves.  Missions trips usually involve a lot of work; fact-finding trips necessitate many meetings; vacations require simply having fun.  This trip was a bit of all three.  So if my thoughts seem somewhat incongruous, the trip was as well.  Let me share three pictures with you.

Picture #1: Each morning at Good Shepherds Fold, I got up early, made some coffee and sat out on a porch overlooking the orphanage.  My brother, J.R., and my mom often joined me in conversation before the day got started.  Each morning I was repeatedly struck both by the unspoiled beauty of the landscape, as well as the poor economic conditions of the countryside.  I would watch people “slash” grass or plant and weed fields by hand for hours.  Children were busy playing or going to school, yet they called Good Shepherd’s Fold their home because their family could not afford to take care of them or treat things such as HIV and malaria.  Sometimes the electricity worked, sometimes it didn’t.  I marveled at the bounty of the gardens yielding mangos, tomatoes, squash, and papaya.  We counted more species of birds each morning than you would normally see in a month.  And all this from the back porch.

The back porch at GSF

There was a constant tension between the natural beauty and bounty of the land, and the socioeconomic conditions that prevented the people from utilizing those resources to better themselves.  My brother and I frequently noted how often good intentions, preconceived notions, and even tangible donations would fail to address the real issues of a place like Uganda.  We did a lot of brainstorming about what might actually address some core issues and make a difference.  I was reminded about my trip to Rwanda in 2007, where we heard aid organizations tell us, “People think that the problem in Africa is a lack of food and water.  It is actually a lack of ways to preserve the food they grow and means to capture and store the water during the rainy season.  Africa does not need more food.”  I was also fascinated by a small but increasingly vocal sentiment that aid from the West is actually doing more harm than good.  I came home and ordered the book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa.  There is a desperate need to be smarter with our good intentions!

Picture #2: On Good Friday, the local village church held a Good Friday service.  I confess that I was not exactly pumped to sit through a worship service that was sometimes difficult to follow and understand.  But the church is closely tied to the orphanage, and it would be another chance to play with the kids, as well as remember the events of Good Friday.  Local villagers made their way to the church. The service was filled with singing, some dancing, and testimonies.  Being the guests, kids often climbed on your lap or wanted your attention.  This was followed by the Easter Sunday service and a meal complete with roasted pig and goat.  The meal was delicious!  It was our last day at Good Shepherd’s Fold before going on safari, so we used lunch as an opportunity to say our goodbyes and get pictures with the kids we had gotten to know during the week.

Good Friday at GSF

I had a moment in that Good Friday service, listening to the singing and watching the locals, where I thought, “Here I am celebrating Good Friday in a small church in a village in Uganda.”  And then the thought struck me, “This place is not out of God’s way.”  I may have had to travel 9,000 miles via airplanes, busy streets, and bumpy dirt roads, but it was no effort for God to be present in that church at that moment.  In fact, God was just as present there as he was in any American church celebrating Good Friday.  Then my mind took it one step further, “I wonder which service Jesus would rather attend?”  I reflected back on some of the big, slick Easter productions that would be taking place in churches everywhere back in the States.  I won’t presume to answer that question for Jesus, but I can tell you that I was quite content worshipping in that little remote village church that evening.  It was a perfect way to celebrate Easter!

Picture #3: The last five days of our trip were spend on safari in Murchison National Park, taking in some of the most spectacular scenery and wildlife you will ever see – early morning game tracks, brilliant sunsets, elephants, rhinos, lions, giraffe, and cape buffalo, just to name a few.  Each day presented us with more than we could possibly take in.  We took an evening hike through part of the park – guided of course, because the park is full of wildlife.  We witnessed a lion with a kill, a hyena making a kill, and giraffes fighting.  Murchison Falls is one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world.  I could go on and on.

Murchison National Park

I have been on a one-day safari before in Rwanda, and I remember a similar feeling of just being in awe.  I will share some of what I wrote in my journal after that experience because it sums this experience up nicely: “I think I understand being in God’s creation a little better now.  I am part of the animals’ world; unlike zoos, I am the one on display; I am confined to a truck on a dirt road traveling through their world.  It reminded me that all I can do is travel through creation taking one moment at a time, never being certain what is around the next corner.  There is no sense of being in control here – it is dangerous.  Living life from God’s perspective would be to live that same way: knowing that I am in God’s world, that I am not in control, traveling with a sense of awe and exhilaration, always anticipating what God has for me around the corner.”

Every now and then, a menial task is illuminated by something I read.  I am working my way through N.T. Wright’s book  After You Believe and came across this:

Humans are to enable the garden to flourish, and to speak words which bring articulate order to the wonderful diversity of God’s creation.

The garden Wright speaks of is a reference to Eden, a microcosm of all creation.  And we are called to reign over this garden.

I spent the summer tending to my parents backyard.  My mom usually keeps up with it quite well, but she spent much of the summer traveling and it was beginning to revert back to its “natural state.”  So the hot summer days were spent weeding, pulling out dead plants, exterminating countless mud wasps (which I finally conceded was a losing battle), and trimming back rose bushes and other shrubs intent on expanding their little kingdoms.  Pots were replanted and flower beds were reclaimed.  A drainage area that constantly held standing water was turned into a water bog garden.  A broken pot my mom particularly liked was renewed to look like an ancient artifact with a new plant growing out the side.  Everything had order and purpose again.

It was an odd summer; much of it was spent in transition.  So often I felt like my career was sinking, my faith was stagnating, and the future uncertain.  All I did was reclaim the backyard for my parents.

But sometimes, when we feel like we are accomplishing the least, we are actually making great strides in the kingdom of God.  I read that quote from N.T. Wright at the end of the summer and it changed my perception of things.  My summer was spent literally getting my hands dirty restoring order to a little slice of creation and allowing it to flourish.

In the Old Testament, the temple in Jerusalem was another microcosm of creation.  It was a picture of what the world would look like when God’s kingdom was fully come.  So what part of creation has God entrusted to my care – to tend to, to reign, and to restore order?  First, our own bodies are under our direct care, and I am discovering that mine needs evermore attention lest disrepair sets in.  Next, there is a relational sphere that I am called to tend and care for.  Friends and family can either wilt or flourish depending on how I might serve and be served by them.  Regardless of the circumstances, my soul also can either flourish or dry up, depending on how I tend to it.

And yes, this summer, God entrusted a small part of creation called my parents backyard into my care as well.