One of the things that I learned quickly about this congregation and community is your no-nonsense, can-do attitude. When there’s a problem that needs to be solved, someone will make sure it gets solved When there’s a project that needs to be completed, people are going to show up and put in the work so that it’s done. We don’t like to talk about it, we just want to make sure it happens. I’ve come to appreciate your pragmatism, the matter-of-fact way that you deal with what needs to be done.
It’s not just the business of the church that we deal with practically. Everything we do is done though the lens of practical concerns. When we read the Scriptures, we do so to get the information we need related to our salvation. We want to know what God requires of us (and other people) to be right with God. We want to know what behavior is and is not acceptable. We want to know how we should think rightly about God. When we come to church and Sunday school, it’s often to get the information we need from the Bible so we can just get back to work and do what needs to be done. Whenever the conversation moves beyond those practical issues, it can feel like we’re missing the point and splitting hairs.
The Bible is full of practical insights that relate to how God wants us to live as God’s people. The first few books of the Bible give us concrete rules, the prophetic books tell us how to turn back to God when we’re stuck in sin, the Psalms give us words to pray, the Gospels tell us the very words of God-in-flesh, and the Epistles give specific instructions to the church. We hear the words of these Scriptures loud and clear and we understand them without much interpretation.
But what do we do with the things that don’t fit that mold? Should we just ignore the Scriptures that don’t speak directly about God, that don’t tell us specifically what we should do?
What do we do, for instance, with the “Song of Solomon?” What do we do with this romantic poetry?
Should we be satisfied with a quick reading that is boiled down to the truth that God loves the church like a husband loves his bride?
The downside with our practical reading of Scripture is it can inhibit our ability to be fully present with the God who speaks to us through Scripture. It stunts our ability to truly enjoy our sacred Scripture. It causes us to miss the real signs of God’s goodness around us.
At the extreme, our religious pragmatism, our idolization of practicality, can lead to spiritual death.
C.S. Lewis describes this work of evil in The Screwtape Letters, where the senior demon Screwtape scolds his demonic understudy for allowing “the patient” he was charged with tempting the smallest experience of pleasure—walking in a beautiful place, enjoying tea, or reading a good book purely for enjoyment (“Liturgy of the Ordinary”, 129). As Lewis imagines it, the devil doesn’t want us to be allowed any personal taste, even about trivial things. Because enjoyment brings “a sort of innocence, humility, and self-forgetfulness.”
The evil one would rather that we demean enjoyment and fall in line as a cog in the great machine.
But the good God of creation even takes time to enjoy! As God created, he took time each day to declare the creation good! Why else would God create to begin with? God didn’t need creation—God is perfect in Godself. But God created the heavens and the earth to enjoy them and so that creation might enjoy God.
The rhythm of the world may seem monotonous. After all, we’ve seen it all before. We’re no longer like children seeing the fall leaves for the first time or anticipating their first snow fall. Just imagine how many times God has seen these creative rhythms! Do you think God gets bored by the beauty of creation? Think of how many changing of the seasons God has witnessed!
But G.K. Chesterton imagines that God “is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that every morning God says ‘do it again’ to the sun and every evening, ‘do it again’ to the moon.”
God, according to Chesterton, “has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old [and tired of God’s beauty], and our Father is younger than we.”
God doesn’t get bored by the simple joys. Instead, God finds beauty in the monotony of every morning and evening.
You noticed when we read from Song of Solomon 2, didn’t you, that it’s a different kind of writing from the Prophets and the Gospels. It describes for us the longing of a woman for her beloved. God isn’t mentioned directly. It would seem to us that without these verses, without this book even, our Scriptures would be complete. Without the Song of Solomon, we’d come to a saving knowledge of God. The Song of Solomon isn’t a pragmatic Scripture. It’s a book that we don’t often read in church because it’s about something we don’t normally talk about in church! It seems indulgent—a book solely about the joy that one experiences in love with another human being.
It describes something that most of us experience at one point or another in life. But it’s something completely unnecessary. It would be perfectly functional for us to make decisions about relationships and marriage out of purely practical concerns. (Some people talk about marriage that way, trying to make a case for it’s importance based on the economic security of married couples over single individuals.) But it doesn’t happen that way. We fall in love. We find joy in each other’s company. We decide to make a commitment to another person out of love, not just because its more efficient.
Love isn’t a means to an end. It’s something that’s good in itself.
The Song of Solomon helps us reflect on that love we can experience with another human being.
Just as we’re not really only ever concerned with practical concerns, God isn’t just concerned with our salvation, our relationship with God — but with every detail of our lives. This Scripture reminds us that God cares about our joy. And these experiences of joy can become metaphors of God’s own love of us.
As we’re captured by the beauty of these indulgent words we notice that this joy takes place in a place. Just think about it—what would you get if you removed creation from the book? “The voice of my beloved! Look, there he stands. He speaks and says, ‘Arise, my love, and come away.’” That’s it! In the poetic imagery of this love song, creation plays a prominent part. The beloved comes leaping over mountains as the flowers appear on the earth, as the voice of the birds is heard, as the fig tree bears its fruit.
When we think of our own lives and experiences of love and relationship, we remember that they are tied to a place. We remember the place where we met our best friend for the first time and the places where we have drawn closer. We remember the place where we got engaged and married and what the weather was like. The place is inextricably connected to the memory.
To give a fictional example, think of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings or Lewis’s Narnia. What would be left of Frodo’s adventures had there been no Middle Earth? What if Lucy had never gone through the wardrobe and into Narnia? Well, none of the important stuff would have happened! The setting is so important to the story that it takes on a life of its own.
The same is true, not only for Solomon’s beautiful love song, though it may be more noticeable here. It’s true of the entire Scripture. God called his people Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness into the promised land. Jesus was born among the animals in Bethlehem. Revelation describes the place, the New Jerusalem, where all of God’s redeemed people will be gathered together.
Could Jesus have simply preached out of a heavenly cloud rather than actually being born on Earth? What if God just dropped the Bible out of the sky? Why even bother to create the heavens and earth anyway? Wouldn’t God be perfectly content hanging out eternally with Godself?
Such questions seem nonsensical even though the way that God chose to save us isn’t practically necessary.
Just as the lover in Song of Solomon watches as her beloved comes near to her from a distance, we’re reminded to God loves us in our place, our little corner of the world. Christ was born in Bethlehem, sure, but he also is present with us in Eldersville. God created this place and formed it over millennia. God pursues us and comes leaping over the mountains to this place and the valleys where we live.
We love this church and care about it, the way that it is, because this is where we experienced important moments of faith. Some of us were around as this building was built, as people did the practical things that were necessary for us to have a place to encounter God. We have been here as couples have been married, as babies and adults have been baptized with water—maybe even our kids or ourselves.
God loves us and reaches out to us in our place.
And the flip-side of that is we pursue God through the joy of creation. We go for walks and marvel in the beauty of the mountains and valleys. We look at the flowers and animals with which God has populated the earth. We may even look through telescopes or microscopes to see both the largest, most majestic parts of creations beauty as well as the tiny parts we can’t see—even the cells and atoms that make up everything in creation.
As the Psalmist says, “when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have established…” We see the beauty of creation. We see the majesty of God. And what else?
We realize—“what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Both the Scriptures and the scientific consensus tell us that we humans are a relatively recent addition to the created order. There may be billions of us, but we’re hardly the most majestic thing that God has made.
We sin. We turn away from God. Meanwhile, the animals just keep doing what God created them to do! Why would God bother with us? Aren’t we human beings more trouble than we’re worth?
This is one of the reasons taking time to enjoy God’s creation is so important. We realize how small and insignificant we are. We realize how much of a gift it is that God would be concerned with our affairs, that God would be mindful of us. It reminds us how much of a gift the creation around us is.
How tempted are we to commodify the creation, to turn it into a product that can do something for us? To do so is really quite practical! We do, after all, need what the creation can give us. But our Scripture reminds us to indulge by spending time in awe and wonder.
Have you ever spent an evening just looking up at the stars, taking in the work of God’s fingers? Sometimes I do. I look up at the stars and I consider the fact that I’m a human being on planet Earth, which is spinning around in an orbit of the son at millions of miles an hour. And you realize that we’re all just precariously floating in space. Do you ever realize it? Whenever I do that, my stomach drops in my chest. I get a bit disoriented considering the grandeur of creation. As the Psalmist says, “what are human beings that you, God are mindful of them?”
When we look at God’s creative work with awe and wonder, we begin to recognize our own place within the creation. When we spend time enjoying God’s work and delighting in its simple gifts to us, we realize how precious this gift is.
When we get a fresh tomato or strawberry from the garden… there’s nothing like it! When we go to the farmers market, or taste all the things that can be done with apples at the festival in Hickory, we realize what a gift we have been given.
Sure, the food of the garden provides us with nourishment to get through another day of work, but these days we can just drink a protein shake or something, right? But we don’t, because eating isn’t just about our practical needs. It’s about enjoying what God gives freely to us.
Where does all of this reflection on the extravagant joys of life leave us pragmatic Methodists of Eldersville? Well, it certainly gives us an excuse to take some time for joyful indulgence! That’s one reason why God gave us the Sabbath—not just to take a break from work, but to enjoy the fruits of our labors—to spend time outside basking in the beauty, to savor that coffee or cup of tea rather than just drinking it for energy, to spend time with the people we love.
My charge to you, not just for this week, but even as the seasons change and the harvest comes upon us, is to spend time celebrating God’s gifts, take time to be joyful!
Remember what they accused Jesus of, among other things: Jesus came eating and drinking and celebrating the reign of God and people said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard!” (Mt 11:19). I’m not saying we should overindulge, but would people around us even think of accusing us of having an overabundance of joy?
While everyone around Jesus was taking time to marvel in the human ingenuity that built the great religious buildings, Jesus took his enjoyment in what God had created—plants, animals, and people. So let’s take time apart from the cheap imitations of God’s creative glory and spend time enjoying what god has made!
Keep your eyes attentive to the good gifts of God around us. Spend time in the creation with those you love and all our neighbors (deer and turkey included!).
But the simplest way that we can remember to be joyful and grateful is to return to a simple practice. Many of us stop and give thanks to God before and after our meals. At least, when we’re out in a restaurant together or when we have a meal at the church we pray for blessing. But what if we prayed those simple prayers over ever gift God gives us during the day—if we stopped to thank God for the rain and the sun that allows the plants to grow, the morning coffee that gives us the energy we need for the day, the dinner which is not only nutritious, but pleasing to the tongue.
In one of his encyclicals, Pope Francis invites Christians to return to a full expression of this practice, because when we stop to thank God for our blessings, we are reminded of our dependence on God for life. It strengthens our gratitude for the gifts of creation. It acknowledges those whose labors provide us with the goods. And it reaffirms our solidarity with those who are in greatest need—those, for instance without food, or whose lives hang in the balance because of our changing climate.
When we pray for even the little, stupid stuff, we are drawn into joy to God as we enjoy what God has given us.
The Russian novelist Dostoyevsky says in one of his works, “Beauty will save the world.” We all know how much suffering and pain is in our world, even in our own lives. But when we see the beauty of the world, we begin to see the potential for redemption and the goodness of what God has created.
Maybe such glimpses of creation’s beauty are fleeting. Maybe the darkness of sickness, pain, addiction, and violence will have the upper hand for the moment.
But all we can do is make a decision for ourselves—will we take time to enjoy and protect the beauty of what God has given to us in this place? We know that beauty will save the world eventually—what is more beautiful than the final coming of Christ? But in the meantime, enjoyment of God’s beauty might very well end up saving us from ourselves.