What is first?
In the beginning when…
I’m part of a writers’ group. We meet weekly, supporting each other and critiquing our work. Occasionally new people join. At some point Ms. or Mr. Newbie shares for the first time and I usually ask—no surprise, I’m one of the loud-mouthed members—if they’re reading from the opening of their work-in-progress.
The 1st Sunday of Ordinary Time – for June 19, 2011
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” (Genesis 1:1)
Openings matter. The first sentence and paragraph and page are where a reader’s hooked, especially if the book is by an “unknown.”
Genesis is the Bible’s hook. Was it the first written of the 39 books of the Old Testament? Most scholars would say a loud, thoughtful “NO.” Others were composed before Genesis. Along with Genesis, all were written by many scribes over a period of years. Multiple minds, hands and agendas influenced every first, middle and last sentence in the Bible. But at some point (and please read others smarter and more interesting than me to find out about that “point”) Genesis became the Bible’s official hook.
With Genesis, readers plunge abruptly and magnificently into the Creator creating. The universe. The stars. Water and earth, sunrise and sunset. Plants and animals and humans. In the opening verses, goodness and blessings abound. In the opening verses the reader was and is overwhelmed with God’s extravagance, and intimately aware of the bold stroke of being created in God’s image. In part the continuing hook of this story of goodness and abundance is declaring the reader/believer as a reflection of the divine. Whoa!
I have spent some of the best parts of my ministry honoring and being indebted to Genesis’ brash first verses.
As I write these words, I’m approaching the 34th anniversary of my ordination as a United Methodist clergy. I have become what I once observed with distant amusement: an old geezer pastor who attended seminary when the faculty talked about Martin Luther in the present tense. My personal genesis as a clergy seems a long time ago! And yet it will surprise no one who knows me where and how I began ordained ministry. My debut clerical act wasn’t preaching, worship leadership, baptism, communion (though Eucharist came second), a hospital visit, celebrating a wedding, or conducting a funeral. Nope, I didn’t even plop onto an unbalanced folding chair for a “first” committee meeting.
In a June ordination service, the bishop laid his hands on my head and blessed me, a reminder of God’s blessing of Genesis’ first humans. A few days later, I arrived at the parish where I’d do a yearlong student internship. Soon after my arrival, I led a backpack, tramping into the wilderness, into ongoing genesis, with the church’s youth.
Yep, my first job: show teens the “lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years…” (Genesis 1:14) Well, I probably said words closer to, “Let’s go get dirty in the mountains!” Then I gestured toward the trail. I hoped they’d experience the glory of God’s earthbound story, of granite and trees, wild things and refreshing streams, of individuals forming community.
And it was good.
And it was awful. These were teens, after all. And, like you and me, being made in God’s image never prevents foolishness and failure.
A young man decided he didn’t like the available grub (yum, freeze-dried food) and would only eat what he caught with rod and reel. It wasn’t until the third day of the five-day trip we discovered the fish weren’t biting…and neither was he.
A young woman refused to head into the forest (with others or alone) to—I’ll be polite here—“relieve” herself. I later learned she literally held “it” in for the backpack’s duration.
Another teen became ill and never told anyone. A fever gripped him on the final night. Twice, under starry skies while others slept, he stumbled from his tent and out into a mountain meadow, sweaty and bewildered. Both times we had to find him and bring him back.
Creation unfolds and enfolds us. In my first actions as a pastor, I witnessed how those made in the image of God react to the divine gift of creation. The kid who refused to eat so desired to be in control of everything he did (just like me). The woman who never used her toilet paper feared bears, shadows, creeping things…well, just about anything her mind conjured might be lurking “out there” (just like me). And the sick young man reminded me, reminded everyone, that good health one day guarantees nothing for the next.
We were a motley crew. On our last day, we shared communion, using stream water for wine and oyster crackers for bread. My first sacramental act as a pastor.
And it was good.
Good to be reminded we humans always struggle with control and fear and illness. Good to be reminded the One who first created, still creates; first blessed, still blesses us.