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Becoming Creative and Relational in our Worship and Theology

Rev. Kimberly L. Clayton
Interim Director of Lifelong Learning
Columbia Theological Seminary

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…” I had recited these words from the Apostles’ Creed from my childhood. Not until adulthood, when I took a seminary course in Systematic Theology, did I learn how complex a doctrine lived beneath that brief opening phrase. I learned the classical Christian doctrine of God as Creator, who created the world “for God’s own glory and good pleasure (not out of any need within God), by a sheer act of will.” This doctrine stresses that the world, as real and good as it is, is nevertheless an inferior reality dependent upon and ruled by God. [i]   Hmmm, that learning called into question the theology in a favorite poem, The Creation, by James Weldon Johnson. Weldon begins his sermonic poem this way:

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world. [ii]

Even before “Earth Day” was added to the liturgical calendar and we included “Caring for Creation” committees and worship services in our congregations, there was a need to move beyond the choices of a passive creation and a needy Creator! Terence E. Fretheim’s article offers a welcome and fresh perspective on Genesis 1 and 2 and also for our thinking/acting faithfully in relationship to God and to the environment. Fretheim points out that how we read the biblical texts will shape our language and theological understandings of God, and may well shape our practices in relation to creation. For example, if Genesis 1 and 2 are read as though God works independently and unilaterally, then those created in God’s image can understand their role in regard to creation in the same way—”power over, absolute control, and independence,” with the natural world being “available for human manipulation and exploitation.”  A misreading of the text can result in mismanagement of the world.

Here Fretheim offers an alternative reading and also, therefore, a different way of relating, urgently needed in this time of so much talk (and fledgling efforts) in regard to global warming and other environmental concerns. He begins with a re-examination of the language, the words of Genesis 1 and 2, as the way for people of faith to re-examine and to imagine living differently in/with creation. In this article, he invites us to see God as the One who, “in creating, chooses to share power in relationship.” Even though creatures are indeed deeply dependent upon God for their creation and life, God chooses “to establish an interdependentrelationship with them not only in originating creation, but also in continuing creation.”

Somehow in all my years of studying the creation accounts, I had not seen the extraordinary interdependence; the extraordinary willingness of God to share power in relationship that is evident within the language of the text itself. I had missed how often and actively creation takes part with God in originating and continuing creation. In 1:2, spirit/wind/breath comes together with waters; and in 2:7 even we human beings are made from the already existent dirt and dust of the ground! On day 3, God says, “Let the earth put forth vegetation;” on day 5, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures; and on day 6, “Let the earth bring forthliving creatures of every kind.” It might be well to note that the list of living creatures on day 6 begins with cattle and creeping things before ending with the creation of human beings. While we are made in the image of God, let’s not forget we share the day with cattle and creeping things! [iii]

I am grateful for Fretheim’s lifting up the role ‘nonhumans’ play as God—in divine self-limitation—lets the world create itself, not only in an original sense, but also in a continuing way. Because the natural world is living, still creating, and in constant and complex relationships, Fretheim reminds us, “ever new creatures come into being, mediated by the activities of existing creatures, from glaciers to volcanoes to tsunamis.” This divine sharing of power with nonhumans is risky, with consequences more theological than we often imagine. Fretheim spells out the risks: “If certain creatures become extinct/rare, they would be unavailable to God as agents for further creative acts; the creation would not develop according to its fullest potential.”

From the nonhuman creatures, Fretheim moves to God creating the human ‘in our image, ourlikeness.’ The plural of Gen. 1:26 indicates that God shares this creative power and activity with “the divine council, the heavenly assembly.” No wonder we human beings can be such a mess—we were put together by a committee, albeit a divine one! God, who is creative and relational in forming us, makes us in that same image. So, “creativity and relationality are our most fundamental descriptors” as human beings and are the primary tasks we have been given relative to the earth. Given this fundamental description and primary task, I am struck by how uncreative and non-relational our theological/liturgical language is when we try to give voice to our calling within creation.

In this regard, I want to offer a confession and an invitation. First, a confession: Before Terrence Fretheim gave this address in person during our spring Colloquium, “The Word for a Warming World,” I was charged with organizing the opening worship service. Barbara Brown Taylor was the preacher for that service, and I put together the liturgy and order of the service. While I had no idea what the content of her sermon would be, I knew it would be deeply theological and engaging. So, I set out to organize the Call to Worship and other prayers and the Affirmation of Faith. Though it makes me wince now, I used the word “steward” more than once in the liturgy that night. Phrases like: “Help us to be faithful stewards of all you have entrusted to us…” have dotted my liturgical landscape for years. For the Affirmation of Faith after the sermon, I included an opportunity for people to commit themselves anew to action and more faithful living: “Will we commit ourselves to being faithful stewards of God’s good creation?” the leader asked. And the people responded with: “We will, with God’s help.”

‘Stewardship’ is a good church word. It is the language I have heard and used almost exclusively in worship services and theological discussions regarding the role human beings have been given in relation to creation. We are to be good ‘stewards.’ I have recited it as unquestioningly as I have recited “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…”

It always seemed like a perfectly adequate word, that is until Barbara Brown Taylor preached that night. She said that we use the language of ‘stewards,’ meaning divine servants, caring for creation until the Master comes home. Creation has been ‘on loan’ to us and we’ll be held accountable for our stewardship one day. While ‘steward’ is an improvement over ‘despot,’ she noted…it is still too utilitarian. It sounds too much like we care for creation because we have to, out of duty, but not out of love. And then Taylor said, “We will not fight to save what we do not love.” [iv]

Then, in a series of creative, increasingly relational words, Taylor moved us toward using new language, and therefore toward acting in new and more creative ways in relation to creation. She suggested the word ‘priest’ as a creative, relational alternative word for our descriptor and primary calling within creation. The earth of God’s good gifts laid out on an altar; waiting for someone (us) to hold them and lift them up as a blessing back to God. Next she moved us into another kind of relational word, ‘neighbor,’ as in “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But one does not have to wander too far from the Gospel to know that some of us will want to know, ‘Well, who is my neighbor? Taylor said we will ask, “Do only the two-legged ones qualify? How about the four-legged ones with fur or fins?”

After ‘neighbor’ she suggested ‘kin.’ She noted that we humans were the late-comers to creation…the little kids, evolutionarily speaking. Introducing the notion of family, kin to creation is certainly speaking with deeper creativity and relationality than we often exhibit, but Taylor was not quite finished.

Her final suggestion was ‘lovers.’ We are made, after all, in the image of the divine lover. And the only dominion we can possibly exercise is the dominion of love—unconditional, grace-full. We are here, she reminded us, to love as God loves what God loves…”

I sat there that night wishing I could change the Affirmation of Faith already printed in the bulletin. After her sermon ended, we were back to: “Will we be faithful stewards…” How about “Will we be creative, faithful lovers…?!” How might that reading of the text, that use of liturgical language, affect how we think and live and act in relation to creation…how we think and live and act as people made in the image of God?

So, I’ll end with an invitation that has grown out of Terrence Fretheim’s article and Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon: Let’s move beyond a utilitarian reading of biblical texts and use of language in our worship and theological discourse in regard to creation into more creative and deeply relational ways of speaking and acting. A review of most prayers, hymns, and sermons will show that we have been far too comfortable and content to be stewards rather than lovers of creation, made in the divine image, committed to love as God loves what God loves. As Fretheim has so engagingly shown, God seems to believe that such sharing of power and interdependence in love is worth all the attendant risks because the creative capacities of creatures, and the genuine engagement of human beings in moving the world toward its fullest potential, can be so beautiful.

Questions for Reflection

  1. In what ways do/could we, who are made in God’s image, share power with nonhumans in creation?
  2. Discuss the phrases “stewards of creation” and “stewardship of the earth.” What are the strengths of the language of “stewardship” in relation to our role in creation? What are its weaknesses? What other relational language do you find most helpful?
  3. Below are some hymns that may be found in your hymnal. As you read these hymns texts, what understanding of God is conveyed in relation to creation? How are human beings described in relation to creation? “All Creatures of Our God and King”

    “All Beautiful the March of Days”
    “For the Fruit of All Creation”
    “I Sing the Mighty Power of God”
    “God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens”
    “O Lord of Every Shining Constellation”
    “We Plow the fields and Scatter”
    “Thank You, God, for Water, Soil, and Air”
    “Let All Things Now Living”
    “We Give Thee but Thine Own”


[i] Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 153—in a description of theism.

[ii] James Weldon Johnson, God’s Trombones (New York: Penguin Books, 1969), 17.

[iii] On this detail, I am indebted to the sermon Barbara Brown Taylor preached, “The Dominion of Love,” for the Opening Worship Service during the Colloquium on “The Word for a Warming World.”

[iv] These remarks are from the sermon noted above by Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Dominion of Love.”