The Way of Love: to LEARN –– Dreaming with God through Scripture
by BFL Spiritual Director, Kathy Staudt
“Why do we always have to hear that story on Christmas Eve?” my husband asks, every year. It sounds like an angry God punishing God’s children – not very Christmas-y at all.” He is responding to the first reading at our traditional service of Lessons and Carols, Genesis 3: 8-21, which begins “And they heard the voice of the Lord God, walking in the garden in the cool of the evening, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God.”
His question actually reminds me of why “Learn” is the second step in the church’s new “way of Love Because my husband’s reaction, typical of more and more folks who are mostly un-churched, reminds me that there are some things to LEARN things that are there to learn about our tradition and our way of reading Scripture, especially in the Episcopalian branch of the “Jesus Movement”.
I have been energized over the years by the invitation to read Scripture as a “whole story” — not as a series of discreet and problematic stories but rather in the context of what the tradition has called “salvation history” – or what one of my favorite theologians, Verna Dozier, has called the story of the “Dream of God: the call to return.” According to Verna, the story of Scripture tells of a series of “falls” away from a God-given vision of people living in harmony with one another and creation, sharing love and compassion, and rejoicing in the good gifts of life. But over and over again, when this new life is offered, humanity resists, or rebels, or turns away. And there is a loss, and a need to be called back to wholeness. We recognize the pattern, don’t we, as basic to our human experience. And there is a long tradition in our Christian past of reading Scripture as what our liturgy calls “the record of God’s saving work.” It’s the whole story that matters even more than the chapters of it.
Of course there are brutal moments in the stories of Scripture, coming as it does out of a patriarchal and often violent tribal culture. We can dwell on other questions of course: wasn’t this an unfair trap? What is all this about pain in childbirth and the sweat of our brow? And those are good questions too – but there is also a tenderness in the story that we can miss – of a parent grieving over children who don’t yet “get” the depth of love on offer for them – that is in the story too. It takes listening and imagination to hear it, but it is there.
So the reason to read the story on Christmas Eve is the way it opens up the rest of the story – not the story of the “fall” itself, which, left without context is indeed what Phyllis Trible has called a “text of terror.” Embedded in the shape of that Christmas service – and of our Eucharistic liturgies – is the sense that we are inhabiting a much larger story about God’s relationship to us. If someone is at the service mainly as a spectator they may miss this, and in our evangelism we have some work to do in learning and teaching this more contemplative dimension of our tradition – so that people do not hear just a series of somewhat disturbing fables from an authoritarian and patriarchal culture big on judgment.
The liturgical setting helps: in the Lessons & Carols service, we hear this story right after an opening Christmas carol (Traditionally “Once in Royal David’s City) and bidding prayers that call on the mercy and love of God for us in all eternity. The story of God’s coming to be among us, as God-with-us, Emmanuel, begins in loss and begins in broken relationships and broken hearts, and moves, mysteriously and over a long time, to a new way of life that we cannot imagine when we are stuck in a place of loss and anger.
One year, when I was a reader at a service of Lessons and Carols, I was assigned this passage from Genesis — and I found myself hearing it in a new way as I read: I heard, not so much the anger and the punishment in the story, but the tenderness: the “Lord God” as a companion to humanity, walking in the garden in the cool of the evening: the broken-hearted questions: “Where are you?” “What is this that you have done” and the little detail at the end, of God providing skins to clothe the man and woman as they prepared to leave Paradise. For months after that I felt drawn to meditate on this passage and to hear the story from God’s point of view, finally finding that despite my resistance to the idea, I needed to write a poem in the voice of God, a poem about what might have been God’s dream for humanity and creation, in that moment before the confrontation that we think of as the “fall.” Over several months I followed the thought of the loving one who “walked in the garden in the cool of the evening, ” and let a poem emerge.
The poem is called “In the Cool of the Evening” – it’s the first poem in my book Annunciations – and I often use it as a way to invite retreat groups into a practice of “dreaming with God.” I offer a link to the poem here – and invite you, when you have the time, to listen to it, and let some of the images and ideas sink in. How might this way of telling the story invite you to “dream with God” – to get in touch again with that original blessing that God desires for us, and to which we are always invited to return?