On Contentiously Communing with God for Planetary Well-Being – Amy Carr reflects on a deeper asking, searching, knocking.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday July 24-30, Year C (2022, 2025)
Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19)
As you’ve become aware of the catastrophic consequences of our species’ overuse and misuse of natural resources, have you ever wanted to haggle with God about the laws of cause and effect? Even though we know the fruitless outcome in Genesis 19 of Abraham’s own effort to bargain with God in Genesis 18, we might still long to turn around an impending tide of destruction by appealing to the virtues of a green minority.
Isn’t it enough, God, that some of us are doing our part to recycle and reuse at home? Isn’t it enough that some still fewer of us are working hard to understand complex environmental issues so we can lobby for policies like a shift to renewable energy, or an end to using the perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs or forever chemicals) that have seeped into our water supplies (among many other environmental initiatives)?
We can respect Abraham for trying to appeal to the virtue of a few, even if the numbers of the virtuous are not enough to change the ethos of our species overall—a species that has become largely inhospitable to so many life forms other than our own. We have made the planet Sodom and Gomorrah.
But unlike the outcome in Genesis 19, we know that unlike Lot and his family, a personally virtuous few of us won’t be able to escape environmental catastrophe while everyone else burns.
The whole story of the bargaining, though, highlights God’s own sense of our species’ significance in the scheme of things on planet earth. It is not, after all, Abraham who initiates a conversation with God, but God who has come in tri-person form to visit Abraham (Genesis 18:1-2)—and then, as if in a divine aside, an overheard muttering of God’s internal thoughts (Genesis 18:16-19), decides to linger longer in order to share the upcoming plans for Sodom and Gomorrah with this one whom God has chosen to make a great nation in whom “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 18:18, NRSV), and through whom God has entrusted charging his descendants with “keep[ing] the way of the YHWH by doing justice and righteousness” (Genesis 18:19).
And if we stretch our Genesis reading to one more verse—to 18:33—we catch another glimpse of the degree of God’s own investment in Abraham’s efforts to bargain on behalf of an unrighteous people. Listen to Lamsa’s English rendering of Genesis 18:33 in the Peshitta: “And the LORD went his way when he had finished communing with Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place” (George M. Lamsa, Holy Bible from the Ancient Eastern Text: George M. Lamsa’s  Translations from the Aramaic of the Peshitta. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989). [i]
We speak often of spending time in the natural world to commune with God. Being out in nature is itself an act of going to church for some, their holy space for reverence and prayer. We receive the environment around us—the chemical and biological processes in all the non-human beings and landscapes around us—as something we take for granted and something that evokes a sense of grandeur. On one hand, our earthly environment provides the assumed and necessary context for our human lives. On the other, precisely because we depend on it for our existence and survival, the natural world transcends our individual selves and our species as a whole. In cultivating an ecological awareness, we often seek out the experience of being decentered, released from the preoccupations of our particular lives, to sense a greater whole that is there regardless. We experience the holy in being decentered, yet connected to the vastness of all that is. To commune with God through nature is to be in a state of hum with all things, a sense of flow and rightness that deflects the gaze of God upon ourselves: we are gazing with wonder, self-forgetful.
So why would God seek to commune with us, in a disputatious exchange of words at that? And do so as a break in whatever God otherwise does in the rhythms of a divine day—or as a surprise visit with a member of our species before traveling on to tend to something else?
We might notice first that the whole tenor of Genesis 18 casts God as the great initiator of conversation with our species, in the genre of a surprise (and surprisingly manifold) guest who wants a good debate. That’s no small part of what God’s own communion with us is about (in the great Jewish tradition of debating with God and with one another). To be hospitable to God is to welcome God into our homes, take time for refreshment with God—and not hold back from sharing what’s on our own minds with this unexpected holy visitor. God is not seeking small talk that avoids mention of sex, politics, and religion (indeed, God has announced another surprise: that the sex life between Abraham and his menopausal wife Sarah will issue in the birth of Isaac, named for the laughter Sarah emits when she hears this absurd declaration [Genesis 18:9-15]). God wants a human companion keen on co-creating—in divine call and human response—a flourishing world. Inviting humans to hold God to account intensifies human hunger for justice itself.
Second, in initiating a time of communing with us, God affirms our own significance, to God and to the rest of creation. Perhaps we are at our most vulnerable to narcissism and a search for security precisely when we lose touch with this fact. In Muslim theology, what makes us vulnerable to sin is our tendency to forgetfulness—of who God is and of who we ourselves are. Muslims pray five times a day in part to remember the ultimate reality of their existence before God. In both of our monotheistic traditions, we are not God; but we are stewards of God’s creation. By being subservient to God, we are subservient to no one else. Yet the LORD in Genesis 18 (like the God of Genesis 32, where God appears to Isaack’s son Jacob as a divine wrestler) wants to be called to account, to be challenged, and to refine us in the process.
If we imagine God as primarily something to behold with wonder, like the wordless beauty of a sunset, the idea of being seen and visited by God, of God seeking us out for challenging conversation—this might take us aback. Yet it is perfectly in keeping with the recurring biblical motif of speaking to God with a piercing cry direct from our hearts to God’s ear, trusting a response: “On the day I called, you answered me; you increased my strength of soul” (Psalm 138:3, NRSV).
What does it mean to feel and to be heard by God, as—amid so many human sufferings—we take in, bit by bit, the bite of ecocide as well? Sharon Delgado captures it well in her evocation of the last member of a species of frog, croaking all night for a mate (Sharon Delgado, The Cross in the Midst of Creation: Following Jesus, Engaging the Powers, Transforming the World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022).[ii]
Does God hear that frog?
“Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you” (Luke 11:9, Lamsa’s Peshitta).
Long-familiar human theodicy questions have already primed us for the eco-theodicy ones: we don’t always get survival in response to our requests. We are mortal. As individuals, we die; as species, we can and do go extinct.
And yet, God shows up at our door to commune with us human beings, contentiously. We are worthy of divine attention, despite our fragility and inhospitality. And when we raise the point of the extinction of species with God, the failure of Abraham’s own bargaining with God points us to a deeper asking, searching, knocking. If the virtue-signaling of a small minority is not enough, how can we transform the blindly abusive inhabitants of our day’s Sodom and Gomorrah into the actually righteous nations that God envisions being born or blessed in Abraham?
The Lord’s Prayer is tucked into our gospel reading from Luke 11, and there is a telling difference in Lamsa’s English translation of the Peshitta for one of the petitions: “And do not deliver us into temptation; but deliver us from error” (Luke 11:4b).
In our time and place, to be delivered from evil is often to be delivered from factual error—from the lie that an election was stolen; to the lie that Genesis 1-2 can be read literally, and the related lie that the evolution of human beings from earlier primates is not a scientific fact; to the lie that the point of Christian existence is avoiding hell and securing heaven in a future without any creation but human souls. Aggression too often emerges in those who defend these and many other grave lies.
In and beyond lament at the signs of climate catastrophe and ecocide, we can avoid the temptation to deny the truth of things. We can tell the truth, being as persistent with our climate change-denying neighbors as the friend who persisted in asking his neighbor for bread in the middle of the night to feed another friend making (of course) an unexpected visit (Luke 11:5-8). We can insist that our neighbor-friend give us what we and our visiting God need: nourishment by their acknowledgment of the truth of things.
Then we can scheme, more fully together, ways of becoming more hospitable to the earth, our neighbors, and to the God who cares enough to come down and tell us what will happen if we don’t change collective course. That same God blesses us all in Abraham, and assures us: “So if you, who err, know how much to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father give the Holy Spirit from heaven to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13, Lamsa)?
We are called to a piety of emotional and empirical truth-telling. This is praising God with our “whole heart” (Psalm 138:1), a God who communes with us by telling us the truth of consequences, and says “yes” when we challenge God to preserve the earth for the sake of a righteous few—if we can persist in asking our neighbors to break the bread of truth with us, multiplying right perspective about climate change and ways of better caring for creation.
Originally written by Amy Carr in 2022.
[i] Some of my eco-meditations on today’s lectionary texts were sparked by particular turns of phrase that caught my eye while reading the texts in George Lamsa’s English translation of the Peshitta (an Aramaic translation/version of the Bible).
[ii] Sharon Delgado’s book just came out in June 2022. I have not yet read it but heard a moving quote from it about the frog during an interview with the author in a Climate Café Multifaith webinar on June 14, 2022.