December 15, 2017

Back To The Garden

My friend and the associate pastor of my church, Gyle Smith, is accused of starting every one of his messages in Genesis 3. Well, it’s not a bad place to start. After all, we were made for the Garden.

We don’t know where the actual Garden of Eden was—and don’t start a discussion where you say you know where it was, ’cause you don’t (and, no, it’s not Jersey, even though it’s called the “Garden State”)—and it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the fact that we no longer live there. God created us to live in a place filled with Good. Everything he made was good. He turned us loose and said, “There! It is good. Eat. Play. Sing. Sleep. Make love. Explore this good world I made for you. The one thing I don’t want you to do is worry about right or wrong. I’ll deal with that. You just live.”

But that wasn’t good enough for us. We had to know if something really—I mean, really—was right. Maybe what I was experiencing, while good, was wrong. And maybe what I was not doing actually was right. How could we know? The serpent had an idea: Why not eat from this tree here? You will then have knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. So we ate. And thus our eyes were opened, and we knew right from wrong. And the first thing we saw was our own nakedness. We were completely open and vulnerable, and it made us ashamed. We reached for the fig leaves to clothe ourselves and cover our shame and nudity.

We now knew right from wrong, but the price we paid for that knowledge was our own death. We were escorted out of the Garden, partly for our own sake. After all, if we had then eaten from the tree of Life, we would have lived forever in a state of perpetual death. It was God’s mercy as well as his wrath that drove us from the Garden.

And since that day, we have longed to return where we belong.

Artwork, at its truest, allows us to look through a window (however darkly) back into the Garden. It causes us to long for our true home. It is said for art to truly touch the soul, it must address four questions:

1. Who are we?

2. What makes us special?

3. What went wrong?

4. How do we get back where we belong?

It is the cry of us all. Rich and poor. Smart and simple. Jew and Gentile. We want back in the Garden. But those days are now over. That door was locked—and barred by an angel with a flaming sword—when we insisted on knowing right from wrong.

But here is the Good News. The Kingdom of God—the Garden fully restored and made perfect—is here. Now. And available to all. For free. (No, repentance is not the key that lets us in. Repentance is the celebration of the fact that the door is thrown wide open for all with no qualifications other than we enter in.) We are once again invited to come and live. We can once again leave right and wrong up to the Lord. “Come, eat. Drink. Have a blast. Live. Love. All is good. Enjoy yourself.”

I have a friend, a pharmacist, named Jack. Jack collects watches. Big, heavy, funky, fancy, expensive watches. Now, I like watches myself. But I am a Timex or Casio man. I once—when I actually had some money—bought a Citizen Blue Angels Skyhawk watch. Oh, it was cool. I had no idea what most of the buttons did, but it looked good. But I felt guilty for owning it (“Did I do the right thing in buying this? Was I wrong to spend money on a watch?” Oh, the enemy will tie us up into balls of confusion and laugh himself silly doing so.) and soon sold it. Jack knows I am going through a financial struggle right now. He also knows I haven’t been wearing a watch. (He notices things like that.) When he called me last week and asked me to come visit him at his store, I wondered what was up.

I walked up to the counter and waited for him to finish fulfilling a prescription. Then he called me over to the side and said, “Jeff, I believe God has good things for you just ahead. I want to be the first one to bless you. Here.” And he handed me a box with a beautiful Renato watch inside. “This is for you. I want you to have it.” I didn’t know what to do or say. I barely even knew how to strap it on my wrist. I mean, my Casio watch has a rubber strap on it that buckles like a belt. This one has a clasp that takes a masters degree to figure out. “No, it’s really simple,” said Jack. “You just push this here and…”

Your author with his new watch

He put only one requirement on me taking that watch. “I want you to enjoy it,” he said. “This is not meant to sit in its box. You need to wear it and enjoy it. Other than that, it’s yours to do whatever you want with.”

God has given each one of us a watch called “life.” And we no longer are to evaluate and analyze it. We don’t have to feel guilty for having it. All he wants of us is to live. “I am Life,” says Jesus. Life Himself. “Live in me,” he says. “There is only one requirement. I want you to relax and let me deal with right or wrong. I want you to enjoy your life. Live.”

And yet. And yet we still insist on sewing fig leaves to cover our shame, shame that exists only because we keep looking in the mirror of the knowledge of good and evil.

12 The next morning as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 He noticed a fig tree in full leaf a little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. 14 Then Jesus said to the tree, “May no one ever eat your fruit again!” And the disciples heard him say it. (Mark 11:12-14, NLT)

Here we see our fig tree once again. The tree we keep going to in order to cover ourselves. Jesus, seeing it was barren of fruit, cursed it and it withered. Could it be, as Adam Palmer has suggested to me, that Jesus was saying, “The fig tree never actually produced fruit that had any lasting impact. And its leaves really offered no true covering for you. The day of the fig tree is over. From now on, I myself will be your covering. And if you will remain in me, I will bear fruit through you.” Where does our knowledge of what is right or wrong fit into that?

“So,” I said to Joe Spann at breakfast one morning, “I know that trusting the Lord is the only way we can please him. But what if what I am trusting him for is wrong?”

“So what,” Joe said. “That is the wrong question to ask. If you are looking at whether you are right or wrong, you are looking at yourself. And Jeff, I hate to break it to you, but life isn’t about you.”

Sigh…Joe really knows how to cut to the heart of the matter.

“Chaplain Mike, do you think that one who embraces his identity as someone who is dead and the life he now lives is the life of the Son of God in him, do you think such a person can actually desire a wrong thing?” We were sharing a pre-Christmas lunch at an Indian restaurant outside of Indianapolis.

“No, Jeff, I don’t. At least, not for long.”

“Sir,” said Caspian. “I’ve always wanted to have just one glimpse of their world. Is that wrong?”

“You cannot want wrong things any more, now that you have died, my son,” said Aslan.

There you have it. Worrying about what is right or wrong is still the temptation of the serpent. We’re invited to live in the kingdom right now. The entry price is something we can all afford: our death. In exchange, we are offered Life Himself. We are each handed a Renato watch and told the only requirement is to enjoy it. Live. Love. Play. Learn. Explore. Laugh. Have a ball. God did not create us to walk around with a stopwatch, ruler and book of rules, measuring every step we take to be sure we don’t stray from right and good. He made us to dance. He made us for Garden living. He made us for true intimacy with him.

We will look at an intimate life this evening.

(Before you work yourself into a lather commenting that I am advocating “anything goes” living, I’m not. Read this essay again. And once more for good measure. Amen.)

Comments

  1. Thanks for these challenging thoughts. I wonder if there’s a polarization with things like Jesus dealing with right and wrong and wanting us to enjoy our lives. There is some truth in both, but his call is also to be willing to suffer and to be equipped to choose between right and wrong ourselves. Or, Life isn’t about you. Well, yes and no. Seems we are called to be responsible, yet to realize that this responsibility is framed by the grace, love, and justice of the Crucified and Risen One. Perhaps, enjoyment and responsibility do not cancel each other out, but form a redemptive nexus that allows for them to be related and distinct in a Kingdom tension of already and not yet. Lastly, I wonder if our trajectory is more connected to being transformed into the image of Christ, that it is to be headed back to the garden. If that is the case, we are now and will ultimately be closer to God than was ever possible before.

    • One of the ways this difficulty resolves itself is that they are really the same thing. I do think enjoying things is a matter of right and wrong- it is right to enjoy things as God has created them. It’s wrong not to. And when we are given a moral choice, it usually helps to look through the immediate decision to the goal of enjoying something more. (“…who for the joy set before him endured the cross”)

      Nate

  2. The same ones who called Jesus a drunkard and a glutton will call you Joel-O Jr. and start gathering the dried twigs for kindling. Your post is challenging and worth several readings, Jeff. It’s a good exercise to ask ourselves if our “good news” really IS good news.

    Let me know if the watch really works underwater @ 100 meters. = )

  3. I love, love, love the way you write, Jeff! While imparting deep spiritual truths that cause us to ponder…while drawing us inexorably to the Word…you at the same time bring us the gift of laughter. Thank you so much!

    Now, as to working ourselves into a lather, well, that wouldn’t do any good, would it? I mean, the soap would be coming from us and we’re no good at cleansing ourselves! Instead, it is Jesus who washes us in the water of the Word.

    All of Heaven’s best to you and yours,
    Margret

  4. “No, repentance is not the key that lets us in. Repentance is the celebration of the fact that the door is thrown wide open for all with no qualifications other than we enter in.”

    Yes! We do not repent in order to impress God; we repent because we are infinitely impressed with God!

    Incredible piece, Jeff.

  5. Hi Jeff:

    I just blogged spmething along these lines not too long ago. Love your thoughts here. I think so many times we get caught in false guilt and it paralyzes us, Jesus has already settled the right/wrong battle…it is up to us to live freely in Him so that we can reflect that life to others. It is easier to hide behind the fig leaves than go out and live the victorious life Jesus asks us to live.

    byw, that is a cool watch! Lori

  6. what is our conscience?
    what is conviction?
    what is desire?
    what is temptation?
    divine? demonic?
    you are leaving alot of questions & only giving part of the story.
    I did enjoy your analogy of the fig tree & leaves – peace

    • Hmmm…seems to me that Jesus left a lot of questions and only gave part of the story. Seems to me he meant for us not to have all the answers, but to press in to him to know him.

      I will give my thoughts on one of your questions. As to desire, those who delight themselves in the Lord find that they have God’s desires in their hearts. See Psalm 37:4. And God then leads us by our desires.

      As to the rest, I’ll leave that up the Holy Spirit to speak to you as he will…

      • my comments are not that I always disagree w/ you. I’m simply trying to provide push-back on your ideas & posts. Sometimes I feel you don’t give enough push-back to your own claims. I think if we don’t show the tug & pull of life & messiness of understanding God, we do not give our witness justice.
        If we are not careful, our witness for the gospel can become “gospel-babbitism”, or just boosterism, making our gospel message seem un-realistic. Peace

  7. David Cornwell says:

    And here I’ve been trying to figure out which Casio I want! I got one of my grandsons a Casio G Force sports watch for Christmas and he loves it.

    This was a good post Jeff, one that makes you stop and think about a lot of things.

  8. Jeff wrote, “No, repentance is not the key that lets us in. Repentance is the celebration of the fact that the door is thrown wide open for all with no qualifications other than we enter in.”

    I like that, Jeff, and it’s something I need to remind myself of now and then. I read something recently about the death/resurrection of Jesus meaning that Jesus pulls open the prison bars that contain us. We then merely need to step out. This is different than the teachings that have us having the ability to “open the door” ourselves when we hear Jesus “knocking.” I know this is all metaphorical language and that kind of language can only take us so far. But it does seem that the prison reference is a better one than our opening the door to a knocking (even though Jesus does use a knocking metaphor himself in the Gospel narratives.) It also leaves open the possibility of people choosing to stay in their prison cells due to fear, lack of faith, self-pride or something else in spite of Jesus yanking that door from their prison cell. It’s like a bird contained all of its life within a cage may be afraid to venture out even when the door is released for the bird to leave the cage and stretch its wings and explore.

    • The analogy of a prison wrt this post reminds me of a scene from the Phantastes. The hero finds himself locked away in a prison cell by a doppleganger, the manifestation of his own pride and self-centeredness. He stays in that cell, dark and miserable, for what seems like ages; he cannot see the world outside, can barely remember it.

      Then he hears a voice singing about the sun and the the sky and the forests and everything else the world holds, and he gets up, walks to the door, and opens it; it was unlocked the whole time. He was simply too absorbed in his self-misery to even imagine that might be so.

      Outside, he meets a woman whom he once had harmed. He finds that even that evil he did to her had worked only for her higher good; they went separate ways, and he discovered what a joy it is to care nothing for oneself.

      That’s a very poor summary, but I don’t want to make this post overly long. The original deals wonderfully through metaphor what exactly imprisons us; the fact that the only thing keeping us in the prison is our own stubborn will; and how we escape from the prison and what that means for us.

    • David Cornwell says:

      Revivalism and long altar calls produced a lot of knocking and clanging on the cell doors and people begging for salvation but not finding what they were looking for. People would go to the kneeling rail and try to “pray through” but it was work and crying and praying and trying to figure out what one had left undone. In the end it piled guilt on guilt. I remember when I was about 11 years of age I’d gone to an altar at a revival. But later I was never sure. Was I saved or wasn’t I? I really worried about burning in hell because maybe I hadn’t done it right. No, repentance won’t necessarily get you out of that prison. But once you are in your father’s arms…

      • Andy Zook says:

        I remember doing that more than once in my early teens…boy was that rough…in many ways it was very self-centered and consequently miserable.

  9. This is a good post and I think it puts the gospel in a framework that people don’t often hear, but need to. At the same time, I do think it conveys an ideal that we can realize (and I really pray many more do), but unfortunately not with great frequency. Even St. Paul struggled with doing the things he didn’t desire and not doing the things he did.

    And I’ve seen my share of Christians who insist they are trusting the Lord and completely in His will and proceed to make some truly horrendous choices and decisions.

    None of this negates the points made in the post, but I think the practical outworkings of God’s radical grace aren’t always so clean. We are fallen and incredibly messy creatures. The old selves that we were doesn’t die so easily. We screw up. God loves us anyway.

  10. Jeff, I really like this post. A lot of what occupies my headspace these days is the role and nature of myth – that is, what are myths, what do they mean? And what impact do the myths we tell have on how we act and how we see the world?

    I’ve never been able to make much of the ‘Fall of Man’ myth in Genesis (to be clear, when I call it a myth I’m not saying anything about whether or not I think it’s ‘literally’ true; things can be both historical and mythical). But I think this post helps me a little; it ties the ‘knowledge of good and evil’ concept with the concept of Satan as the Accuser. We now know what good and evil are, and so that gives him a foothold to always be whispering to us: “this is good. This is bad. Don’t do this. You should do this. You are failing.” And so we focus so much on what we should and shouldn’t do, we never get around to learning about the good world that God made.

    Robert Capon says in ‘The Supper of the Lamb’ that the truly cardinal sin is to not enjoy ourselves. G.K. Chesterton said that suicide was always considered a terrible sin because it basically said that all the world – everything God gave us – was not worth our attention. Nowadays people tend to think of the devil – if they think about him at all – as a force that tempts you to do bad things. But it’s always seemed that what he wants us to do is not ‘bad things,’ but nothing at all. If he makes us hedonistic, it is only so that we don’t discover what we are missing. If he makes us cruel, it is only so we don’t learn anything about love. He is not trying to make us immoral; he is trying to take away the faith and the hope that great things have come to pass, and greater still await.

    I think the greatest triumph of the demonic in our time is how timid we have become of risk, of failure and even death. So many people are so terrified of failing they cannot move. They cannot try anything new, go places they’ve never been. Believe me, I know.

    • Lucas, you have said all this much better than I. Thank you. “He is not trying to make us immoral; he is trying to take away the faith and the hope that great things have come to pass, and greater still await.”

      Amen.

      Cold hearted orb that rules the night
      Removes the colours from our sight
      Red is gray and yellow, white
      But we decide which is right
      And which is an illusion

      Why not instead let God decide which is right and which is an illusion. And in the meantime, we can look to him, who is All Color Himself…

      • Dude….I ask you , where else can we get our afternoon fix of Moody Blues quoted redemptively ?? If I had a tall sumatra, cream and sugar, this would be a perfect lunch.

    • ” If he makes us hedonistic, it is only so that we don’t discover what we are missing. If he makes us cruel, it is only so we don’t learn anything about love. He is not trying to make us immoral; he is trying to take away the faith and the hope that great things have come to pass, and greater still await.”

      Love this

    • Lukas db: consider fleshing out your post into a book or sermon series or something. I think you are onto something really woderful and life infusing. Feed that thing.

      GregR

      • Thanks, greg r and everyone else, for the encouragement. I am writing a book right now, mostly about (as my post alluded to) the nature of myth. But I have another book on my short to-write list that’s more about this kind of thing. They’re both fictional, but message-heavy. I hope to write, and to finish, it sometime in the not-too-distant future.

        • Please tell us the name and publication information. I for one would like to read them.

          • Damaris, if such information ever exists I can try to get it across. I’m still working on drafts; the strange and unfamiliar world of publishing still lies ahead of me.

  11. Jeff Dunn is a gentleman and a scholar and he receives my suspiciously and mysteriously accredited “seal of approval.”

  12. I loved this.

    I remember reading Rousseau and feeling like I was being hit with an entirely new and exciting way of viewing the Fall. Of course Rousseau is crazy, but you don’t seem to be, which is an excellent start 🙂

    • Don’t make any hasty judgments about my sanity, Marie. I’m sure Gyle, Joe and Adam would all have something to say about that…

      Thanks…

      🙂

  13. I’m having trouble reconciling the recommendation here not to worry myself sick over whether what I’m doing is right or wrong … and then the post saying that I shouldn’t have sex with another woman. It seems for every step saying that it’s in God’s hands and not mine, there are two more steps going in another direction saying I should or shouldn’t do something. And people wonder why I’m going crazy.

  14. conanthepunctual says:

    Thank you for reminding me of where I find myself. I’m reminded of the refrain we read many times in the Bible when someone supernatural shows up: do not fear.

  15. From the named rivers (two of which no longer exist), the authors of Genesis apparently intended to situate Eden just off the coast of what is now Kuwait. The Mormons say Missouri.

    • Those two missing rivers have, supposedly, been located by infrared satellite photography. They are long dried and are now merely traces in the earth. They conjoined the Euphrates and Tigris at what is now the tip of the Persian Gulf. There all four flowed into the gulf, and not the other way round as Genesis states. That would put Eden just off the coast of Kuwait in the depths of the Persian Gulf.

      Reliability factor??? …I’d give it about 60%. The History Channel never lies. : )

  16. This post speaks to the concept of faith. You are saying ‘just live’. When Peter stepped onto the surface of the water he walked in faith. When he began to fear, he sank. Jesus sounds a little dismayed and perhaps a little peeved when he asks Peter why he doubted. We know that God is love and love has no fear. Love has no doubt. Love is forward. Love is outward. Love is ahead. Jesus, oddly enough, was not introspective in the way one who has sinned is. He didn’t live life, as most of us do, second guessing or regretting. He never had to turn back (repent).

  17. …and I always thought Jesus cursed the fig tree in a fit of pique. Actually, I still do. It’s the kind of verse I suspect has an historical and cultural context that we miss. Nice try though, Jeff. : )

    Looking at the photo, it appears you’re left handed. I KNEW there was something I liked about you!

  18. Ah haa …your fig tree analysis was right on (almost). A bit of (horti)-cultural background:

    The tree was likely a species of early-bearing fig tree that still grows in Israel and produces a kind of fig known in Hebrew as “page’ “. Those figs become ripe only after pollination by a specific kind of wasp, usually in late March. Turns out this particular fig tree had leaves and the promise of its typically early fruit, but not yet the fruit itself. Jesus used the tree as a symbol of the hypocrisy of the temple priesthood and hierarchy …all appearance and no substance (he had just finished clearing the temple of money changers).

    This becomes apparent when, the next day, Jesus and his disciples pass by the now withered tree. Jesus tells them to “have faith in God”, an encouragement to the disciples that faith in God is a better choice than the old sacrificial system that Jesus came to dispense with and replace, perhaps now symbolized by the withered tree.