"No Small Loves"
The week between Christmas and New Year's is an odd time – a sort of "in-between" time. It's a time to think about things other than the usual pressing business – to imagine, and to dream, and to work things out, maybe make a New Year's resolution or two. And with that in mind, I want to offer some thoughts about the incarnation of God in Christ that maybe we don't think about very much – thoughts that are hard to squeeze into the expected round of preaching and teaching that occupy us on Sunday mornings.
And the first thing to note is that of all major religions, Christianity is the most "this-worldly," especially as it relates to the physical world, the mere matter of the cosmos. After all, the Son of God not only became a human person, with a human soul; he also became a human being, with a human body – a body made up of flesh and blood, of atoms and molecules, of the very stuff of this world.
The idea that God would become one of his own creatures is an astounding one – as if the painter could paint himself into his picture, then have it come to life. But even more astonishing is the idea that the God who is utterly separate from his creation, who has no parts or passions, who is Spirit Himself, and who has been as he is since before all times, everlasting and unchangeable, should unite himself to this material world. THAT betokens a change in the very nature of God: a self-determined change in the otherwise Unchangeable.
Or do you suppose that God went to the trouble of becoming a man and then dying and raising himself from the dead as just a temporary expedient to get us out of a jam?
No, the bodily resurrection of Christ shows that he has kept his body, and that therefore God has entered into a new relationship with his creation – all of his creation, not just with the souls of his children – though that is, indeed, the primary concern of the gospel. And it also shows that God cares about this world. That though it is to be replaced and remade, it has not been REJECTED; indeed, it shall be made a fit vessel for God himself to dwell in. "Not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the raising of the Manhood unto God," as the Athanasian Creed puts it; or as the Book of Revelation says, then "God shall be all, and in all."
God will create a new heavens and a new earth – but he will do so largely out of the remains of this world, and so will demonstrate that no purpose of his can be made void in creating anything he has created. This is what St. Paul is talking about when he says,
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.And this means that we're going to have to rethink how we value the rest of creation.
Paul also tells us that Christ is the "Second Adam," sent to succeed where the First Adam failed. And what were the responsibilities entrusted to that First Adam? Well, Adam and Eve were to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it" – which we have done very successfully, there being now over six billion people on this planet. But Christ, as Second Adam, has set out also – and commanded us to continue – to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with his followers – remember?
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.
AND, remember that First Adam was also set in the garden to tend it. In other words, he was to be accountable – WE are to be accountable – for what we do with this world God has given us, which includes the mineral resources, the air, the water, the forests and plains and cropland, and all those critters that fly or creep or swim or jump or swing along their way. And that means that caring for our environment is a MORAL issue, not just a political or economic one. It means that God cares about how we live in more ways than we are used to thinking about.
I have been an environmentalist my whole life. I see that as an extension of Christian stewardship, and I worry over what we do to the natural resources of the world – and to what kind of a home we make of it. I worry especially about loss of habitat and the extinction of species, for it seems to me that if we are accountable for how we care for God's world, then explaining to him that we let the objects of his care in creation just die out because we thought them of lesser value than, say, building another strip mall or something, is going to be a tough sell come Judgment Day.
However, my environmentalism is not of the knee-jerk kind, and I also recognize that the world's resources have to be managed for the benefit of humanity; and that "Development" is not always a bad word, since it can also mean "caring for your neighbor," which Christ always thought was pretty important, too, ya know. Somehow, for instance, I just don't think it's beyond our capacities to both drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge AND preserve the caribou and polar bears. Surely, we can do that, if we set out to.
Meanwhile, of Al Gore and his kind of environmentalism, I have little to say. His work does not spring from a theological understanding of environmentalism – nor a scientific one, come to that; mostly, it's about politics, and who should get to control the rationing of scarce resources. I try to avoid talking about mere politics. And so, tempting though it would be to call someone a fearmongering gasbag, yet it would be a distraction from the proper use of the pulpit, so I will restrain myself. *cough cough* Still and all, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and so it needs to be said: To care for creation is a divine command, and a godly task.
When Jesus told his followers, "Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows," he was of course talking about human beings. But his assurance of God's love for us should not make us think that the sparrows themselves had NO value in God's eyes. And that brings us to another aspect of the primal commandments to Adam: that he should "have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."
That means, as C.S. Lewis put it, that everything that a human being does to an animal is either a lawful exercise of – or an intolerable abuse of – a divine authority given to humanity over the rest of our fellow creatures. So we have to make distinctions: like when we say that it is okay to hunt, and to manage wildlife populations through hunting, but that the person who kills for the thrill of killing is not someone the other sportsmen respect. And again, when we say that it is right and proper to eat meat (though no one's forcing you to), but that even animals destined to be food for human beings must not be treated cruelly. And when we speak of keeping animals for work or companionship, then we need to remind ourselves of what God expects from the human masters of the animals we live with.
When we acquire a pet or train a work animal, we take on a responsibility, a charge given by God himself, and he will expect an account from us on that score, as indeed he will on all things he has made us responsible for. And about now, somebody's probably rolling his eyes and thinking I'm going to equate pets with people, but no, that would be too easy.
For what we have to learn is to value the world as God values it. And to love as he loves, therefore, is to give to each person, each creature, each THING within our reach the right kind of love – in the right degree. These are called "ordinate" loves.
There is one kind of love which is proper toward our spouses (and nobody else). There is another which is proper toward our children. And another which is proper toward our parents. And another which is proper toward our neighbors. And another which is proper toward the animals in our care. And another which is proper toward the earth. And we could go on to talk about love of country, and of church, and of heirlooms and legacies, and so on.
"IN-ordinate loves" are always possible, too, of course. If we love something MORE than it deserves – or LESS than it deserves – or slight something more important to value something less important, we are not valuing things properly, and we are out of synch with God, who loves each thing he has made in just the right way.
But this is why the keeping of animals is sometimes so important: by caring for them, we learn how to care for others; by loving them, we learn how to love. This is particularly true of children, I think: many of us made our start in learning how to care for others by investing ourselves in the care and love of a pet or a working animal on a farm.
So: just as different circles are of different sizes, but all circles are infinite, so there are greater loves and lesser loves, but there are NO SMALL LOVES, for each proper love partakes of the nature of the God who is Love; is, indeed, a gift from him, and a means of knowing him more deeply and joyfully.
When our dog, Sassafras, was about a year old, we noticed that she would run around the back yard and then collapse, exhausted, her flanks heaving for a long time. It was very scary. So we took her to our vet, who told us that she had been born with a malformed heart and wouldn't live very long. He began also to talk of the need to put her to sleep at some point.
We weren't comfortable with that, and asked many questions. But he was very sure of his diagnosis; of course, he said, if we wanted to spend the money, we could go to a specialist on the other side of Cincinnati – spend a couple hundred bucks or more – and probably just be told the same thing.
Well, we talked about it. And prayed about it. And it wasn't a question of sentiment. It was a question of what our responsibility was. We wanted to care for our dog in the right way, to the right degree. And we thought, yeah, if it was thousands of dollars, well, there's a point beyond which you don't go for just a dog. But a couple hundred bucks? I've spent that much on sillier things; we thought we could spare that much to get a second opinion, just to be sure we'd done right by her. That's what I mean by an ORDINATE love: what do you owe to this creature, in this situation?
We decided we owed it to her to go one more step, and took her to the specialist. He did an ultrasound and other tests, and said her heart was just fine, but her bronchial tubes were scarred. In effect, she had asthma! So he prescribed steroids and a bronchodilator. This fall, she turned seven years old, and is still going strong, though she doesn't do well in hot weather, and has to take pills every day. But if we'd done nothing, she'd be dead by now – and maybe would have suffered a lot before dying. As it is, she enriches our lives and we bless God for her.
Meanwhile, in my Sunday School class, we pray for whatever is on the students' minds, which means we pray for pets a lot. And that's OK. Once again, it's not about sentiment; it's about teaching the students to love, and to pray, and to value things properly. And so the pets have their place, even in the holiest of settings. For when we are made right with God, it will show itself in many ways, including our relationships with the rest of creation.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.
The Son of God was born into our human family, to raise his brothers and sisters with him into a new life with God. And when he accepted the form and matter of a body, he accepted a union with all of creation, to raise it to a new kind of existence in the kingdom which is to come. As Second Adam, he shows us the right way to use – and love – all things given to humanity by their Creator.
Let all that has breath praise the Lord. Amen.