Living in the Expansive Kingdom of God

 test 002The other night, after spending an rare hour at the gym followed by another hour at the supermarket, I was standing in my kitchen putting away the last of the groceries when I heard a quiet “woof” at my feet. I looked down and there were two enormous brown eyes staring up at me longingly saying “Daddy, please take me out!” It was Britches, our 6 year old, black and silver poodle, who we adopted into our family a year or so ago. I looked up at the clock and realized that it was 10 p.m. I’ve learned that whenever Britches finds me and asks to go out, he really needs to go, so I got the leash, snapped it on him, and headed out the front door.

It’s always interesting walking at night, for a quiet comes over our street and it’s a good time for reflection. I looked at the houses around ours, the sounds of the latest TV hits drifting from the windows, and began to think about how amazing our neighborhood is. The houses are typical of the contemporary version American dream, two story brick homes with open floor plans and twenty percent more floor space than our parents grew up with. Our street like so many in Nashville ends in a cul-de-sac, and the property behind most of the homes hasn’t been developed yet, so there is a certain rural feeling even though we certainly are in the middle of suburbia.

However, none of that is particularly unique. What is more unique are the persons who live in these houses, for here, living in these $200,000 homes in South Nashville, are African-Americans, Asians, and even a few families of European descent. Our street represents a mix of colors, nationalities, and backgrounds, a mix that was impossible just a few years ago.

Recently I had a chance to visit the “Nashville Banner Room” of the downtown public library. The Nashville Banner was an influential newspaper in Nashville’s history, but lives no more. In the center of the room is a bronze statue of a newsboy shouting out the latest headlines as he tried to get folks to buy the papers. The boy reflects a time gone by, a time represented by Jimmy Stahlman, the publisher of the Nashville Banner, and a staunch opponent of civil rights.

Stahlman cut a big figure in my hometown for a lot of years, and his paper certainly represented the views of many Nashvillians. Stahlman wouldn’t have called himself a racist, but rather would have suggested that he believed “in a certain order of things that shouldn’t change.” “Mr. Jimmy” didn’t have bad relationships with people of color . . . as long as they stayed in the enclaves set up for them through city zoning and a judicious use of railroad right of ways. That system had been in place for a long time, and many thought that there was little reason to change. It was reflected in the nature of the bus system in Nashville, which based the entire schedule of routes on getting black maids and cooks from their homes in these enclaves to the upper crust neighborhoods of Belle Meade. It was reflected in the practice of local banks to “redline,” that is, to refuse to build branches or fund building projects in “those” neighborhoods. It was a system that allowed the powerful to stay powerful, and the less powerful to languish dutifully behind. So the notion that black, white, Asian and Hispanic people could live together in a community was completely foreign to Stahlman and his contemporaries.

And yet, something happened along the way. The world began to change. Through the movement for civil rights, children (through policies of integration) began to attend school with kids who were different, living in other communities. These relationships led to a change in the dynamics between their parents, since they were no longer simply employer and employee, but now also colleagues in parenting as they worked together at band booster events, mowing the football field, and all the work necessary for educating our kids. Of course, those who were unable to cope with change fled, moving farther out and taking their children to different schools, but as they did, this freed up housing for folks from the so-called bad neighborhoods to move into the nicer suburbs. The definitions of where one was “allowed” to live expanded farther and farther, to the point where I could look up and down our street and realize that miracles had indeed happened.

As Britches and I walked that night, we headed to the gate to look out on the dark farmland behind us. I looked up, and spread out before me was the vast array of the heavens, star upon star, shining brightly against the sharp black of space.

They are moving away from us, these stars. Astronomers and cosmologists tell us that the universe has been expanding outward since the beginning of time. We, like all stuff in the cosmos, are moving at a constant rate away from the explosion that set all in motion. In the beginning, according to these scientists, there was matter – unorganized, compressed, and not useful in any way. The storytellers that told us the origins of creation in the scriptures say this matter resided in the midst of chaos (or what John Hayes, my former Old Testament professor called “the hodgepodge”). Others suggest that there was nothing but a tiny dot of compressed matter (leading to the notion of creatio eh nihilo). But in any case, in this time before time, something happened.

It was big . . . really big. Astronomers and physicists call it the “Big Bang” while theologians describe it as the moment that God spoke. Bill Bryson describes this moment of creation this way:

In a single blinding pulse, a moment of glory much too swift and expansive for any form of words, the singularity assumes heavenly dimensions, space beyond conception. In the first lively second (a second that many cosmologists will devote careers to shaving into ever-finer wafers) is produced gravity and the other forces that govern physics. In less than a minute the universe is a million billion miles across and growing fast. There is a lot of heat now, ten billion degrees of it, enough to begin the nuclear reactions that create the higher elements – principally hydrogen and helium, with a dash (about one atom in a hundred million) of lithium. In three minutes, 98 percent of all matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe. It is a place of most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too. And it was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich.[1]

From that first moment of creation, the cosmos has been expanding outward. The rate of that expansion isn’t fixed. Astronomers like Slipher and Hubble discovered many years ago that the rate of expansion increases the farther one moves from the point of creation. Simply put, the limits of the cosmos expand at a faster and faster speed the farther those limits get from their beginnings. The matter that makes up the Earth has been speeding away from the center of creation since the beginning of time, and the farther we travel from that event the faster we move away from that defining moment.

While the storytellers who gave us the book of beginnings we call Genesis don’t explain the physics of the cosmos, they too understood that something big happened at the beginning. They didn’t understand the nature of matter, atoms, or particle physics, but they recognized that there was a moment when time began, an event which set things into motion. In their view creation was a story offered by the master storyteller who spoke all things into being. Theirs was a narrative, moving through time, expanding as time progressed. It began with light and dark, moved to day and night, and before God knew it, suddenly there was an order to the world, light arising out of the darkness.

These early storytellers weren’t especially concerned about the how of creation. They knew what they knew and what they didn’t know. Their concern was with the “who” and “why” — who set everything in motion, and why do we exist? These were the important questions. The technical explanations mattered less than describing this relationship between creator and created.

And yet, even though they didn’t have an understanding of the expanding universe, they realized that this on-going story was expansive as well. The narrative of history was and is progressive, moving forward. As we move from the event of creation, the rate of change in the story seems to increase. Just consider what we have experienced in the first eight years of the 21st century. Change seems to increase exponentially, often leaving us breathless.

This is how the world is created. We may long for a static universe. We may hope for a decrease in the rate of change. Certainly, I find myself longing for the day when life slows down and I can cruise along in low gear. That, I think, is part of God’s design in Sabbath, the intentional time for rest and reflection. Yet, the rest of our time is filled with unending change as the story we call life marches on in a progressive fashion, expanding outward at an ever increasing rate.

This expansive universe isn’t simply limited to matter bursting forth from creation, or the progress of history through the ages. If the universe as God designed it is expanding ever outward, might it not be possible that everything that is a part of God is likewise expanding and growing? Is not growth an inherent part of God’s creation? If we, who are created in the image of God, are people of growth and learning, might it not be possible that ALL of God’s creations are infused with the capacity for expansion?

According to the story of the scriptures, the boundaries of God’s love have been expanding since the beginning. The story began simply, with a creating parent loving the newly birthed children, named Adam and Eve. The story was about a family – a loving parent struggling with the tendency of children to go their own way. The love of God was limited in the story to the two newly created beings.

Later in Genesis, we see an expansion of God’s love. The world has become corrupt, and God is led to start over again through destruction by a flood. But there is a family that God loves. This family is led by an old man named Noah, the one man in the world who has been faithful to the creator. Whereas God’s boundaries of love had been limited to individuals in the story of Adam and Eve, we see God’s boundaries expand to include all that Noah loves – his family. There is no indication that the children and grandchildren were especially faithful to God, but they loved their dad and that was good enough for the creator.

The story continued on. A man named Abram was the head of a tribe of people, some blood kin, but others who were probably not. God, the storytellers tell us, approaches this man and offers a special blessing upon the tribe, promising Abram descendants outnumbering the stars. God’s relationship with Abram is expanded to include all the tribe, and God’s own name becomes (for a time at least) connected to that of Abram, his son Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob.

This expansion of God’s boundaries of embrace continues on and on throughout the story. Where God’s concern was tribal in the story of the patriarchs, it becomes connected to a confederacy of tribes in the books of Joshua and Judges. Later still, under the guidance of the great kings – Saul, David, and Solomon, God’s embrace extends even farther to represent a nationalistic understanding of inclusion. Where God began with two, God now holds an entire nation as God’s own.

Then Jesus comes, the manifestation of God’s power on earth. While the vision of his ministry seemed to be limited to that of his own people, the Jews, in fact Jesus represented a further expansion of the boundaries of God’s love. As Simeon prophesied about this child in the temple, this one is the salvation of God, “…prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”[2] Jesus expanded the boundaries among the accepted practices of the day, welcoming women, Samaritans, gentiles, lepers, prostitutes, and even tax collectors into his midst. This scandalized the religious authorities of Jesus’ time. Who was he to embrace these “sinful” people? Who was he to push on the standards of who was in and who was out? Yes, his ministry may have been directed toward the Jews, but all along the way he brought others into the presence of the holy, and that made those who thought that they were the keepers of the commandments angry. Ultimately, this anger led to accusations, charges, intrigue, persecution, and death. But, in the triumph over death offered by Jesus came a call to expand the boundaries even more. “Go to all the nations,” Jesus said, “and bring all folks into a relationship with God.”[3]

And that is what the church did. It began on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came and the Galilean fisherman who followed Jesus began to speak in all sorts of languages. It continued with Peter ministering to Cornelius, and Philip preaching to the Ethiopian eunuch (a man who was both of a different race and who was untouchable due to his status). It was institutionalized by the missionary Paul, a former Jewish leader who was ultimately led to spread the word of God throughout the Roman Empire. The boundaries of God’s embrace expanded outward until Paul could write that in Christ all distinctions were cast out. The limitations of the former system were thrown aside in the desire to expand the boundaries of God’s love.

The story of the church throughout time has been one of expansion. There would be those who would limit God’s revelation to the few, only to see the revelation opened to a new group with mighty results. In America this impulse was seen in the coexistence of a variety of Christian expressions – the Roman Catholics of Maryland, the Anglicans of Virginia, the Puritans of Massachusetts, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, the Baptists of Rhode Island, and Methodists all over the place. Yet, even in this hotbed of Christian pluralism there were those who would hold back the love of God, excluding the slaves who had been brought to this country against their will. The battle over slavery went on for almost a hundred years, until finally it became clear that God’s love was not limited to those of our same skin color.

This notion of an expanding vision of God’s love makes some nervous. After all, isn’t God unchanging, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow? Does suggesting that God’s boundaries of love are changing through time erode the stability and constancy of God? And, isn’t revelation fixed in the Word of God, the scriptures?

The answer to all the questions above, like most of the questions of God, is yes . . . and no. Certainly the scriptures bear witness to the possibility of a changing God (just ask Jonah!). Yes, God is our rock and fortress, but even rocks and fortresses change gradually through the eons through the interaction of wind, sand, and waves. Yes, the scriptures are our reference, the standard of faith and praxis, but Jesus promised and gave the gift of the Spirit to guide us and help us know the reality of God in the world.

But the belief in an expanding universe of love has much less to do with God, and much more to do with our own knowledge of God. God speaks in ways that we can hear, in language that is appropriate to the time and culture (which is why the name changes from “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” to “I AM”). But as importantly is our ability to understand the ways of God. As the apostle Paul reminds us, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”[4] Our understanding changes with time, as we experience life, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and interpret the scriptures.

Isn’t that what happened with the issue of slavery in our country? If you were to poll most Americans today, they would clearly reject slavery as outside of the will of God. But 150 years ago, good Christian men and women would have believed that slavery was a part of God’s order, based on the witness of scripture. The scriptures never changed. The words are the same today as they were back then. There was constancy in the writing. What changed was the condition of our hearts, as we considered the whole of scripture and realized the contradiction between the ownership of other humans and our own understandings of creation and love. Metanoia, the transformation of the heart promised by Jesus, happened. We were made into a new people who were no longer able to understand God’s call of love as exclusionary of slaves. Through time, we took to heart Paul’s teaching to the church at Galatia that there is “…no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus.”[5]

The heavens remind us of our place in the cosmos, for we are not the creator but the created. And as the stars move and change, as clouds of gas come and go, we remember that the universe isn’t static, but always growing, moving outward into new territory and space, boldly traveling where no person has traveled before.

And with those thoughts, I realized that I might be able to catch a re-run of Star Trek, so Britches and I headed back to the house.

[1] Bryson, Bill (2003). A Short History of Nearly Everything. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

[2] Luke 2: 30-32, NRSV

[3] Matthew 28: 16-20

[4] 1 Corinthians 13: 12, NRSV

[5] Galatians 3: 28

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