God in the garden?

An Easter message

Thomas E. Schmidt, Ph.D., writes from Santa Barbara, California.

The reading is taken from the New Improved Genesis, chapter 1: "In the beginning of modern times, about one hundred years ago, Man looked at his universe, and it seemed without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of mankind looked over everything, and Man said, 'Let there be science.' And there was science.

And Man saw the science that he had made, that it was good, and with it he divided all things. He created a science to rule the day, all things he could see, and he called it Natural Science, even unto Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. And he made a lesser science to rule the night, all the darker things about himself, and he called it Social Science, even unto Psychology, Sociology, and Political Science. And Man saw that it was good. And there was morning and evening, and the modern day had begun.

And Man divided all the things he saw into the waters above, the land, the waters below, the grass, the fruit tree yielding fruit, the swarms of living creatures in the waters, the birds that fly above the earth, and moving creatures of every kind that are on the earth, including himself, a higher primate who can be distinguished from other creatures mainly by his ability to destroy and separate the whole creation. And Man saw that all this dividing and classifying was good. It took several evenings and mornings, and that got him up to the fifth day.

And then Modern Man said, "Let us make God after our own image, according to our likeness." And so he did. He blessed God, and he said to him, "Be distant and keep to your self, because we have already filled the earth and subdued it and classified it, and there really isn't much room left for you, but you certainly are a pleasant thought."

And then Modern Man planted a garden, and there he put the God he had formed. And he called the garden Safe, Respectable Religion. And out of the ground of that garden Man made to grow trees that are pleasant to the sight, and flowers, and he put a fine building in the midst of the garden, because good landscaping enhances property values. And the Lord Man took God and put him in the building in the garden. And the Lord Man commanded God, "You may freely look through the windows at all of the trees and flowers of the garden, but don't leave the building, for in the day that you leave it you shall surely die."

Then the Lord Man said, "It is not good for God to be awake; someone might wander into the building and find him and be frightened." So the Lord Man caused a deep sleep to fall upon the God he had made, and he slept. And Man laid him in a box inside the building and put a lid on the box and laid a curtain over it and placed tall candlesticks on top of it, so he could come there from time to time to remember the God he had made. The Modern Man said, "At last, I have expressed fully the mystery of life, and the depth of my mind; I shall call this God Personal, for out of my personality he was taken."

And there was evening and morning, the sixth day, and Modern Man saw that it was very good, because all this was done leaving one extra day in the weekend for recreation.

So ends our daily reading. If we had an equivalent hymn book, we could turn to #372, "How Great We Are."

God in our image

Modern culture and religion deserve such a parody. We may be willing enough to say that God created us, but we all too often live as though we create God. I don't mean in the secular materialist sense of declaring that God is a projection of wishes and superstitions. Few people can be sure of God's nonexistence. We'd rather give Him the benefit of our doubt. But that is the problem. Most of our time is occupied by problems we can get our minds around: finish this project at work, prepare dinner, pay the phone bill by the fifteenth. . . .

It is natural to shelve the problems we can't get our minds around: God is present, but I don't feel anything. God answers prayer but not always with a Yes. God changes lives, but my worst habits remain. Expressions like "get our minds around" and "shelve" imply that within us there are spaces, and ways to divide those spaces, so we speak of ourselves in architectural terms: "I don't have room for this in my life right now," "You are putting up a wall," "That wasn't in her com fort zone."

Where does God fit in all this? The reality we need to get by from hour to hour, to work and eat and pay bills, is a pretty small place; the smaller and more well-defined the better. Some one as big and uncertain as God has to be put outside, we think. But not far outside because, again, we give Him the benefit of doubt. We assign Him a place nearby, a place we can go to when the time or need arises. A place of convenience. A nice place, like a garden.

"I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses," we sing, "And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own." And then what? I presumably leave the garden, go back to my house, and He never follows. What is the alternative? It is terribly threatening to imagine that there really is a God who might invade our spaces, defy our categories, knock down our walls, demand more from us, do more with us, than we are willing to allow.

Admit it. How much more attractive would God be if He were the God in the garden, if we could keep Him in a place of our own imaginative creation, where He walks around quietly blessing flowers and bunny rabbits and small children. We could let Him out, or let ourselves in, when we feel the need of a word of reassurance or a warm hug, or when we are grieved or depressed or guilty or frightened. But those aren't constant needs, of course. The real world is investment portfolios, kids who must be taken to practice, a vacation to plan. Most of this world we have created is not a place for God. Keep Him inside the garden wall, or His box.

Easter, especially the Resurrection, is about God's refusal to stay in a box.

Another garden

A long time after the story of the first garden, the one in Eden, there was the story of another garden, and Jesus, who didn't fit into the world of that time. So the people killed Him, put Him in a box in a garden, and put a lid on it; in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. There they laid Jesus.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the opening to the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and "the other disciple" (John 20:2, 3, NIV), who came running to see for themselves.

After they left, Mary remained and stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him." After saying this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Who is it you are looking for?" Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to Him in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which, translated, means teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, "I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God." Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that He had said these things to her (see John 20:11-18).

The curious and important detail in the story really is the main point: Mary didn't expect Jesus to be where she saw Him and thus she did not recognize the risen Jesus until He called her by name. When God comes out of the box, out of the garden, when He decides to defy our expectations, to break out of the limitations we have placed on Him, He does it in the most intimate manner possible, and then He follows up with a frightening demand.

The risen, glorified Christ calls Mary by name and commissions her. A woman in a time when the word of a woman wasn't worth much. A former prostitute in a culture where one's past was unforgivable. Jesus calls this woman by name and com missions her to be the first witness of the greatest event in history, an event which, by the way, may not be that easily believed by those to whom she is sent. A God who shatters our conventional stereotyping of Him asks us to communicate a message that is everything but stereotypical.

What kind of God do we expect to find, anyway? What Jesus have you planted for yourself in the garden? And what is the nature of the message we are called upon to proclaim? Us? It couldn't be!

Discovering Jesus

So imagine yourself Easter morning in a garden, like Mary, alone with your bewildering thoughts, weeping about something that you think should be there but isn't. We all have some pain, some personal trauma. We have confusion. We may be thinking, "I thought the direction of life would be clearer by this time. I thought I'd know what I'm good at and others would appreciate me and there would be a straight path to the future. Instead, there is just this big empty road with no signs on it, and I'm still not sure where I'm heading. I'm lonely. People have let me down. People die, people change, people leave, people stay but don't have time for me or don't care how badly I need them. People don't notice me, or they've stopped noticing me. Life has unexpectedly turned out something like a Picasso painting; the kind you walk up to and ask nervously, 'What is it?'

"I am guilty. I've done things I regret, but not enough to make amends, and I'm not even sure how to go about trying if I wanted to. I hold most of it inside myself, because I would only repulse people if they knew what I really am inside. My bad habits are ingrained, and my good ones seem too likely to dissolve into nothing. I don't want to get used to myself being this way, but neither do I seem to have the power to change. Nothing is as it is supposed to be as I expected it to be."

Where is God in all of this? Where do you go to find Him? Where are the answers? Not in a garden with some sentimental stained-glass image of a God we have created for our convenience. That Jesus isn't big enough or powerful enough to deal with our deep-felt hurt, confusion and guilt.

The glorious news and the frightening news of Easter is that He is not here in this garden grave. He's alive. And He is standing behind us as we sit in that chair reading these words, while we sit in our office, or even in front of the television.

And He is speaking your name, calling you out by name, whispering, "You cannot find peace until you find me here behind you. You cannot rest in Me until you begin to understand what it means to follow Me. And you cannot follow Me sitting there trying to figure it all out, attempting to manage your life in your own way. Something's got to give."

You are about to finish this article. Then what? Most likely you will leave this quiet place of contemplation, this garden, to take up a more demanding activity. Go to work, tend the children, pay some bills. That's life too. But in the quiet moments punctuating the hubbub, remember when you leave that you did not leave alone. Jesus will not stay buried for you here any more than He stayed buried for Mary Magdalene. You will find him unexpectedly even in the most devastating moments and places of life. It is not only true that "they follow the Lamb wherever he goes" (Rev. 14:4) but that where we are there He is also (John 14:3).

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Thomas E. Schmidt, Ph.D., writes from Santa Barbara, California.

March 2001

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