God, the Goodness of Life and Creation, and Humanity’s Destruction of that Creation through Greed, Selfishness, and Sin

Genesis 1:1-2:4 (NRSV)

1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”
So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.
God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.
God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so.
The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, “Let there be 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,
and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.
God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.
God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,
to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”
So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”
And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so.
God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and 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.”
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.
And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.
And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.
So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

I am not sure that, as Christians, we entirely believe those words. When I write “those words,” I am not referring to God’s act of creation of the world, but I am referring to the multiple times it states in this passage, “And God saw that it was good.” In today’s modern age, with our eyes enthralled and enraptured by the lust of modern technology brought about by a vastly over-industrialized world, we seem to have lost sight of what God has observed regarding his natural creation: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Whether God created this world in billions, millions, hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands, thousands, hundreds, or tens of years, or simply in months, weeks, or days, is not for us to know, and is simply a needless argument which causes unnecessary strife and division. Nonetheless, our small ability to grasp the wholeness of time, compared to God’s creation of time within the endless infinitude of eternity is, I think it is fair to say, rather limited. We cannot forget the astute words of 2 Peter 3:8: “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (NRSV). Moving on, however, my point is to say that God’s labor of love in making this world is that this creation, and everything in it – human, beast, bird, insect, fish, tree, fruit, vegetable, and even the sea monster – was indeed, very good.

Yet, overall, Christians, especially in the “modern,” “western” world act as if we have forgotten these seven words: “And God saw that it was good.” And because we, even as Christians, act in a way that tosses the reality of these seven words into the perpetually growing landfills that litter our planet, it paints and foreshadows an even uglier world for future generations of people we must learn to love, with even more waste covering the world that God has inherently deemed as good. Now, I may get in trouble for writing what follows at the end of this sentence, but by the way we act, especially in the United States, in our over-consumption of natural resources in the wanton destruction of the earth in the pursuit of what can only be called greed, we might as well be giving God, the one who patiently took his time to create this world of sustainable beauty out of love for us to enjoy, the middle finger when it comes to his creation (Whew! Now that I have your attention….).

Yet, epitomizing the definition of irony, the majority of people who call themselves Christians living in the “modern,” “western” world will hike to the top of a mountain, or travel to the middle of a rainforest, or visit any of the other countless natural wonders out there, take a deep breath, and say, “Wow, this is beautiful.” We will then take a swig out of one of probably billions of grossly over-produced plastic water bottles, eat a piece of vacuum-packed processed food made with high fructose corn syrup, return to our manufactured steel vehicle, turn it on, pump pounds of toxic gas into the atmosphere, drive back on one of the countless paved roads in the nation, and return home only to realize that we accidentally left our plastic water bottle at the top of the trail while we were in awe of the beauty before us. We will then toss the wrapper of our high fructose corn syrup “trail food” in the trash, where it will go to a landfill and sit there in a vain attempt to decompose over what could be millions of years; meanwhile, it does not register in our minds that as long as we continue to produce such ridiculous amounts of garbage, that one day even that mountain view will become a landfill that future generations will not enjoy.

This picture is unfortunately a common reality, yet it is a common reality that many of us, including myself, are guilty of. However, it is a common reality that needs to change. The truth of the matter is that a hike to a beautiful mountain peak will often inspire people toward environmental conservation and awareness (sadly, I am also sure that there are some who are uninspired and take beautiful mountain views of creation for granted); I was simply pointing out the tragic irony of the situation (and also pointing out to be aware of where you put your trash during a trip outdoors and to please drink out of a reusable water bottle!).

One piece of trash may seem like a small, miniscule thing, but we often forget that even our smallest actions have consequences; each of those small consequences will build up to, and are currently building up to, environmental disaster. Even if we do not see these consequences in our lifetimes, our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will see them in their lifetimes. It is time that we put a conscious check on what is for many of us a selfishness that we are unaware of, and instead learn to be selfless in being a steward of God’s creation for future generations. Aware or unaware (most of us are aware – we just do not want to recognize how aware we are), selfishness, and selfishness regarding natural resources, is still a sin against God; if we do not change our attitudes and behaviors, it is a selfishness and a sin that will have drastic consequences for future people around the world whom we still have an obligation to show selfless, Christian love for today. We must learn to show future, unborn generations the same type of selfless love that we claim to have for current generations, family, and friends.

We, in the “modern,” “western” world, are robbing the earth blind; today’s robbery has drastic effects on multitudes of people in terms of sustainable livelihoods such as fishing and farming. Already, there are huge dead zones spanning our oceans, bays, and rivers, brought about by over-fishing and the washing of chemicals into our waters via poor farming practices. Our robbery, our arrogance in what can hardly be called stewardship, will produce arid lands and dirty waters; famine and ensuing sicknesses will sweep across the land. If Christians are going to legitimately claim to love others, and consider the health and well-being of brothers and sisters living today and in the future, then we certainly do not act like it with the gluttonous lifestyles that we live today in the “modern,” “western” world. Consider the child who will be born in half a century, or a century from now, who will be forced to live with the consequences of our current actions. That child will look back in recent history to our over-industrialization and realize just how systematically and culturally selfish our generation was. I would like to think and hope that God will have mercy on us through his prevenient grace, but allowing his people to live with the consequences of their actions is not something new for God. If you have questions about that, read the Old Testament.

I belong to a denomination within Christianity called the Church of the Nazarene which emphasizes Christian holiness. Holiness means living in a way that is obedient to God, but holiness is also a word that is nearly inseparable from another word: love. Both holiness and love are not only meant to apply on an individual basis, but also meant to apply on a community basis. There must be community in order to show true, selfless, Christian love to another; a holiness and love without considering the well-being of others is a selfish view of both. Today, with the proliferation of technology, Christians find themselves in a global community. If we are going to profess to be a holiness people, then we must begin to recognize the consequences of even our smallest actions on people halfway around the world, as well as for the people who will live a century or centuries from now – such as buying a t-shirt made by low wage workers in China, or chocolate made with what is effectively slave labor, or a phone made with minerals that fuel ravaging wars.

Besides the negative impact on the people who are forced to participate in these systems so someone in the United States can buy a new item that they most likely do not need, each of these industrializing systems contributes to negative impacts on the environment somewhere in their production lines (economic growth is good for poorer places in the world, but it should be done in a way that creates jobs that are beneficial to the health and well-being of the people, and is friendly to the environment; one of the keys is education). A communal view of holiness and love is something that not only the Church of the Nazarene is called to, but all of Christianity is called to. Yet it is a view of holiness and love that is conveniently swept under the rug in places such as the United States, where a consumeristic, materialistic culture ravages like a disease, and where responsibility is not something we particularly like.

There is a reason for our (unnatural) nature to destroy life (human and non-human); it is caused out of selfishness and pride, and at the root of it all is sin. It is disobedience to God’s call on our lives for a humble love of all the life that God has breathed into this planet. In C.S. Lewis’ “The Space Trilogy,” the protagonist, Ransom, says we are “bent.” And without God, and the nature of God’s love, we are bent beings. To be bent is to be unnatural. It is to bend what was once straight. A human is now bent and unnatural as a result of sin. Genesis 1:27 states that we are created in God’s image – that image is holy love. That holy love is a human’s natural state, but as a result of sin, that image has been marred and removed. We become bent out of what was once a nature of divine love. There is no way to recover that image of true love except through the grace of God found in Jesus Christ and through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, unbending humans out of an unnatural state of sin, selfishness, pride, greed, lust, and gluttony, and returning us into our natural state of divine, holy love. Our sinfulness only destroys us, tears us apart, and dehumanizes us both internally and externally, from who we truly are – an identity that can only be restored in God. By the grace of God, each one of us must rip sinfulness from our lives and replace it with true, selfless love. Although God entrusted us with dominion over creation, it was a dominion meant to be exercised in God’s image of selfless, holy love.

Our “bent” sinfulness takes on a variety of forms; all too often, corporate and big-business America plays a part in promoting our “bent-ness,” primarily by putting the value of money in front of the incomprehensibly greater value of a human being, as well as by placing a higher priority on a dollar bill over the other forms of beautiful life that God has created on this planet. More-so, this plays out in the politics of our nation and other nations around the world, where Christianity is misused, manipulated, and made a mockery of, by politicians whose main motivation is also not the love of life, but the love of the dollar bill, and whose love of the dollar bill is cheaply veiled by the term “economic growth.”

One of the big businesses whose love for money over love for life is vastly apparent is the monopolized agricultural industry. Corporate agriculture promotes cheap farming practices with produce that is forced to grow by harmful chemicals. The chemicals and fertilizer wash into groundwater, contaminating it, washing into rivers, destroying aquatic life in those rivers, bays, and oceans, further destroying coastal peoples’ ways of life. The reason is our dependence on products like high fructose corn syrup, an alternative to sugar whose cheap proliferation is directly contributing to our epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Another reason is our gluttonous desire for inexpensive beef; the cattle are fed unhealthy corn, leading to cut-rate beef in our food systems, and also contributing to the epidemics of obesity and various heart diseases. What can you do? Support your local small farmers instead of big-business agriculture. Do not buy products with high fructose corn syrup. Eat less meat products; when you do eat beef, demand grass-fed beef, where the cattle are allowed to roam freely like the wild beasts that God created them to be. One of the reasons for the Jewish Kosher law is so that animals are not systematically treated horrendously in order to feed gluttonous societies like ours in the United States. And if you reread Genesis 1:29-30, it is perfectly scriptural to become a vegetarian.

Just recently we have seen the introduction of “fracking,” a last-ditch effort to feed our (also gluttonous) energy dependence and addiction in the United States. Politicians again claim “economic growth,” but all it is is simply feeding a corporate and personal lust for money while the fracking process contaminates groundwater reserves with unnatural chemicals never meant to be introduced inside a human body. What can you do? Write a letter to your senator, congressional representative, and president, and tell them that we have had enough and that the cost of people’s health and environmental destruction is not worth it. Call your energy provider, complain, and tell them that the cost of people’s health and environmental destruction is not worth it.

Again, there is a horrible irony in this situation: we are destroying our clean water supply so that we can turn on the air conditioner when it is only 75 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Meanwhile, there are children struggling to get clean water around the world as their families sit in wooden huts with dirt floors with temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There is something wrong with this picture; what is wrong with it is Americans and our ridiculous lust for more of what we do not need.

Not to mention the destruction of rainforests, the abundant varieties of life that are being killed, and the indigenous peoples’ ways of life that are being desecrated, all in the name of making another dollar. Again, it is a horrifyingly ugly and blatant lack of respect for the life that God has blessed his creation with.

I realize that some may challenge that climate change is a myth; all I will say to that is scientists are not idiots, they are incredibly smart, and I think that they have got a pretty good idea of what they are talking about. A branch of Christianity known as fundamentalism has somehow spread this myth that climate change is not real and in the process, has hijacked American Christianity; little do they know that they are unwittingly being the pawns of the big-business corporations that are putting the value of money before the value of humanity. Nonetheless, even if you say climate change is a myth, you still have an obligation to care for this creation, if for no other reasons than that God has created it and God saw that it was good.

Fundamentalists spread a Calvinist influenced theology that says we do not need to take part in conserving and respecting this earth, because the course of history has already been determined down to the last minute detail until the end of time. The truth is, in fact, that in the pre-deterministic sense, the kingdom of God is much more liquid than rigid, and out of love God calls us to participate in the shaping of this kingdom; being considerate to all the life that is a part of this creation is not simply an option in being part of the kingdom of God, it is the fundamental (to put the word fundamental back in its proper definition) responsibility of anyone who claims the label of Christianity.

Moreover, many Christians, fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist alike, have fallen prey to gnostic influences on theology, an ideology the negates the inherent goodness of God’s creation, and states that the earth will disappear forever and only a spiritual realm will remain; it is an ideology that was deemed heretical by the Church within the very first centuries of Christianity. If you continue to study the New Testament, you will learn that scripture speaks of creation being made new again, and heaven coming down to this new earth at the end of the age. Just as God continues to sanctify us through the work of the Holy Spirit, making us into new creations, God desires the sanctification of all creation, seeking to make it new again with the residual effects of sin finally removed. This sanctification of creation is yet another absolutely critical aspect of the kingdom of God, which God, again out of love, calls us to participate in.

Imagine this scenario: you pour out your energy and your love in creating a masterpiece of art; it may be a painting, it may be a sculpture, it may be a carving, it may be a beautiful piece of handcrafted furniture, it may be a poem, it may be a story, it may even be a vibrantly colorful and exquisitely landscaped garden. Whatever it is, you put every last ounce of your creativity into it, even exhausting yourself to the point where you simply have to rest after you have finally finished creating it. But you did not just make it for yourself, you created this masterpiece of art for a loved one, so that they too may enjoy it. You give it to your loved one with the understanding that they will take care of it and that they will be a steward of it; they are in awe at how beautiful your creation is.

Now imagine that they do not take care of it, but take it for granted, misuse and abuse it for other things, and they tear and cut pieces off here and there so that they can use those pieces for other, less meaningful projects. You realize that your painting, sculpture, piece of furniture, or garden will soon be destroyed if they do not change their attitude toward it. Among the other emotions going through your mind, body, and soul, it makes you feel that this loved one does not care for you because they do not care for the gift you have given them.

We must learn to show our love for God by showing our love for the creation he has blessed us with. That begins with being responsible stewards of this world, its resources, and by being aware of the consequences that each and every one of our actions has on the environment and the people who live in the various parts of the world, today and in the future. It means exercising holy, “unbent” love over God’s creation.

If we are living in the United States, or in any other part of the world that could be considered “modern” or “western,” there is a good chance that we are guilty of taking part in the systems that contribute to the degradation of the environment and to the degradation of various people groups around the world, future and current; I am unfortunately guilty of contributing to these systems as well. However, we are not helpless to change; if we call ourselves Christian, then we are part of a kingdom where change, no matter how impossible it may seem, is possible – Jesus Christ, after all, rose from the dead. But it begins with you and me taking responsibility in our roles in God’s kingdom on earth. Christ gave us an example of selfless love through his death thousands of years ago; we are reminded of it every time we partake of the Eucharist. Perhaps we can start to embody that selfless love to all of creation and the future generations of people that will also inhabit this creation; we must give them an opportunity to enjoy it just as we have enjoyed it, give them an opportunity to be responsible stewards of it, and bless them with a healthier creation than what we even have. For many of us, it may mean changes in our lifestyles; it may be a sacrifice, but God calls us to sacrifice. There is no definition of love that does not include sacrifice.

Maybe it means driving the car less and considering other forms of transportation, such as your own two feet that God has blessed you with, or a bicycle, or public transportation, or carpooling. Maybe it means staying local.

Maybe it means putting down your devices that consume energy and electricity, such as your cell phone, computer, or television, and doing an activity that does not require the use of electricity, such as reading a book, or playing a game with friends, or going outside to enjoy what God has created. Maybe it means turning off lights when they are not in use.

Maybe it means being conscious of how much water you use during the day, and trying not to use so much.

Maybe it means being aware of how much waste and trash you produce, and consuming less so that you produce less garbage which will take up less room in a landfill. Maybe it means recycling and composting more. Maybe it means that you buy less plastic water bottles, and only buy one reusable water bottle that will last you for years.

Maybe it means not being consumed by an insatiable greed for more (of everything). Maybe it means consuming less material goods. Maybe it means that you do not need the newest technological product. Maybe it means buying refurbished or used instead of brand new. Maybe it means you should stop playing video games. Maybe it means not taking things for granted and taking care of the products that you have now so that they will last longer. Maybe it means learning to be more content with less.

Maybe it means that you choose not to consume products with high fructose corn syrup, which will tell the monopolized, over-industrialized agricultural businesses to stop destroying our land and water in pursuit of another dollar bill. Maybe it means supporting your local farmer instead.

Maybe it means becoming a vegetarian, or limiting the amount of meat products that you eat, or considering following Kosher law.

Maybe it means writing a letter to your politicians and telling them that as long as they are motivated by money, they will no longer get your vote.

Maybe it means that we really just do not need to rape our earth of its natural resources and murder its natural, God-given beauty so that we can satisfy our lust for more. Maybe that means that we really do not need everything, right now so that future generations can enjoy this earth.

Maybe we can slow down the mass extinction that we as humans are causing to countless species around the world.

Maybe it means rooting out every last selfish behavior, thought, and tendency from our lives.

Maybe it means that we as Christians begin to act as if we believe the words, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

*In writing and publishing this post to my blog site, I fully realize that there may be many who disagree with the words I have written. It is okay to disagree, but please do so respectfully and lovingly; I reserve the right to delete any response that may not be loving in nature. You may call me a hippy, you may call me a tree-hugger, you may call me what you like – but, please, call me a Christian; and I sincerely hope that if you call yourself a Christian, you will recognize the necessity of legitimately loving and taking care of this inherently good creation that God has made for us. To take care of creation, and to take a stand for the good health of our creation, is an act that will lovingly benefit humanity, show others the love of Christ in a real way, and is a beautiful act of worship that glorifies God’s name.

“subconscious wanderings”

A short article I wrote several years ago after my experience racing in the 2009 Missouri River 340:

Beacons of hope – in college, that’s what a friend and I called our kayaks. The yellow and orange boats stood out in the parking lot, sitting head and shoulders above all the other cars. In that world of academia, as students endlessly studied within the campus confines of the limestone walls, these kayaks were symbols. They were a chance to get away from the academic stress that students too often unnecessarily put on themselves. When people saw those kayaks, and when they see your kayak strapped to your roof as you drive by, their imaginations are captured by the boundless possibilities of adventure that could be had within that very same boat. Their minds subconsciously wander to what could be as they sit in traffic, on their way in to another day at office. They begin to think about some far off body of water with the sun shining down on them, wearing sunglasses, and exploring the unknown. A symbol, a beacon of hope, that’s what a kayak is.

Three months ago I was sitting in my boat on the Chesapeake Bay, tired, weary, and frustrated, screaming and cursing at the wind as it laughed in my face, mocking me, blowing against me and sending waves crashing over my boat. A friend, the same friend from college, and I were on the last day of a six day journey. We paddled from the heart of Pennsylvania and our goal was a point about halfway down the bay, 190 miles from where we started. And on that last day the bay itself was fighting our attempt, questioning our willpower, almost ridiculing us as we struggled on. And it could have thrown so much more at us, but it didn’t; it was only toying with us. As I sat there, tired and beaten down, a thought flashed through my head about this race I had signed up for in August. Would I be able to do it? I would have to paddle almost twice the distance and do it in half the time. I didn’t know if I could do it.

The hazy orange glow of the full moon began rising over the horizon. The warm, humid air settled over the river. Forcing my eyes open as wide as possible, I knew I had to stay awake. I was on my own. If I looked far off in front of me at just the right angle, I thought I could see the dim light of another canoe or kayak. Then it would disappear again. If I looked backwards, it was the same case. Every so often I thought I heard a voice. Maybe it was from a boat, maybe it was people on the shore, and maybe it was in my head. I didn’t know. As I looked at the river bank, straining my heavy eyes in the darkness, the trees began to take shapes. My sleep-deprived imagination took over. Dinosaurs chased other creatures that were half rabbit and half dog. More animals appeared in the trees. Snakes, something from the Chronicles of Narnia, and wolves stood static, yet ready to attack if I strayed too far from the moonlit path down the center of the river. A log floated by, but my eyes only saw the head of an alligator coming up to scan for food. I heard the sound of machines working in the cliffs overhead. More voices. Something was lit up. Were those even people up there, or some kind of underground beings that only came out during night to mine the hills of Missouri for some strange element they needed to survive? There were more lights in the distance and I began to wonder who built a parking garage out in the middle of nowhere, right on top of the Missouri River. I needed to sleep, but I couldn’t. If I closed my eyes for more than a second, I didn’t know when I’d wake up again. I’d end up leaning over, tipping over in my kayak, and it was more than possible that I’d just sleep through it. Even with my life-jacket on, the consequences were something I didn’t want to think about. I put the paddle in the water and just kept going. A few more hours and I’d be at Cooper’s Landing. I could sleep there. But for now I was on my own and I had to stay awake.

I found this race online months ago. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to do it. Three hundred and forty miles in 88 hours. Paddling across the entire state of Missouri. The longest non-stop continuous race in the entire world. Even today, it still doesn’t quite register that I’ve completed something with the words “longest” and “in the entire world” in its description. Rivermiles was right – this was the stuff legends were made of. I had my kayak for about a year and a half, and had done some pretty cool trips, but nothing like this. This would test my entire body, my endurance, my strength, and my willpower. It was challenge and I wanted to see if I could do it. As soon as January 2009 rolled around, I signed up. Besides, I’d be moving to the Kansas City area to begin seminary in the fall and it would be a good way to get acquainted with the Midwest.

The morning of the race I woke up to the sound of rain against my window. The wind was blowing, thunder roared, and lightning lit up the sky every few minutes. I ate a bowl of Cheerios, double checked the kayak, got in my car, and went to pick up my mom from the hotel. Somehow I had convinced her to be my ground crew; she was pretty apprehensive about it at first, but by the time the informational meeting was over, she was ready to go.

We waited out the storm at Kaw Point and after an hour and half delay, the race began. There was no turning back. I was in my boat, surrounded by a hundreds of other people ready to tackle 340 miles. We were all ready to go. Helicopters flew overhead as news agencies covered the event. I glanced over to the shore one last time. The guns fired. I put my paddle in the water, leaving the great Kaw River behind and crossing over into the muddy Missouri River. Fifty miles to the first checkpoint. I could do it.

An intense blunt pain consumed my upper right arm as I awoke at the Herman checkpoint. I could barely move my arm. Paddling nearly 270 miles continuously had finally caught up to me. I felt as if someone had hit my arm with a sledgehammer over and over again, pounding my muscles into a painful pulp. This would be the last day of paddling; I was nearly there. I had to finish, but it crossed my mind that it may not be a good idea to keep going with this kind of pain. My body was telling me something, something more than the fact that it’s not natural to paddle 340 miles in three and a half days. I went back to sleep; maybe it’ll go away, I thought to myself. I still had another hour before I needed to wake up. At the very least, I knew that I’d definitely have to take some ibuprofen that day, something I avoided for most of the trip.

“Finish Line.” I looked up and read the bright red letters on the banner. A crowd was gathered at the boat house in St. Charles. Someone sounded an air horn and the group that was assembled on the shore cheered loudly. For a second I was confused. What were they all cheering about? Then I realized that they were cheering for me, and for all the others who pushed themselves to the limit in this race. And it wasn’t just a random group of people either; it was fellow paddlers, ground crew, and race organizers, people who experienced the pain and difficulty of the race, who knew you just had to keep going and put the paddle in the water one more time. Despite the pain in my arm, which had gone in and out most of the day, I forced my paddle victoriously in the air and smiled. Moments later the tip of my boat hit the shore of St. Charles, Missouri and my mom greeted me at on the bank. I was finished.

There were only a few times the river tried to fight the paddlers with wind, but God quieted it after it had gone on long enough. I was tired and weary, but there was no frustration. There was a celebration. There was food, sleep, and showers. There was a mutual respect and admiration for everyone who participated. There were new friends that had been made. There was the completion of a true adventure as dirty and muddy canoes and kayaks lined the boathouse lawn. Here were those beacons of hope, embodying the journeys that so many people long to take in their lives. And here is where people actually challenged themselves to take that journey. And though they may not know it, this is where people’s minds subconsciously wander when they see that car driving by with a kayak strapped to its roof rack.

“paddling in perseverance toward Christ”

This is the last sermon that I will preach at the Kansas City Rescue Mission. K.C.R.M., it’s been fun. May God continue to bless your ministry to those in need.

Hebrews 12:1-3 (NRSV)

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

On August 4, 2009, just a little less than three years ago, I was sitting in my kayak at Kaw Point, where the Kansas river meets the Missouri river. I was participating in the Missouri River 340, one of the longest river races in the world. It is a canoe and kayak race that stretches between Kansas City, KS and St. Charles, MO. The race organizers describe it as “340 miles of wind, heat, bugs, and rain,” and you only have 88 non-stop hours to complete this distance. A large number of people who sign up and start the race at Kaw Point drop out somewhere during those 340 miles. They face dehydration, heat exhaustion, or simply, exhaustion. The record for the course is 36 hours and 48 minutes, set in 2010 by a tandem team. The record for a single person completing this race is 37 hours and 46 minutes, set in 2008 by the man who currently holds the Guinness world record for the longest distance paddled in 24 hours.

There I was, sitting in my 14 foot kayak in the murky waters of the Kansas river (during later visits to Kaw Point I have even seen snakes swimming around, poking their ugly heads several inches out of the water as their bodies trailed behind them), about to embark on one of the first real adventure races I have competed in. I did not know exactly know what I was getting myself into. I was somewhat nervous, but was prepared. I had a little over three and a half days to paddle a kayak, by myself, for 340 miles down a river I had never been on before – yeah, I was a little nervous. Somehow, I had even convinced my mother to come out and be my ground crew for the event; she would meet me at the various mandatory checkpoints along the way, helping me with food, water, and other supplies.

As the days passed by on the river, I was sure to drink plenty of water in the stifling August Missouri heat, sun, and humidity. You and I know that summers can get more than a little warm and more than a little humid up here. I made sure that I was eating plenty of food; I needed the energy. Ever so slowly the mile markers passed by. Even at the first checkpoint, 50 miles into the race, people were already dropping out due to dehydration and other issues. However, I looked ahead, thinking about the next checkpoint, and focused on making it there. To tell the truth, I did not want to think about the end of the race; I could not think about 340 miles all at once. It was overwhelming. I only thought about the distance to the next checkpoint, whether it was 50 miles, 27 miles, 36 miles, or whatever it might have been. The goal before me was the next checkpoint on the river.

Each day, I paddled over 100 miles and did not stop until it was four or five o’clock the next morning. And even then I only stopped for a short meal and a few hours of rest. During the entire 340 miles, I only slept for about eight hours; for that first major ultra-marathon endurance race, my ultimate goal was simply to finish within the allotted time and to make it to each checkpoint before the cutoff time so that I would not become disqualified.

During the day the heat and sunlight kept me awake; during the night I had to force my eyes to stay open. Closing my eyes just for a second might mean falling asleep and being swept into the debris that is so abundant on the muddy Missouri. Even worse, I could tip over. The river has barge traffic and sand dredges all along it; if I allowed my exhaustion to get to me, it may have meant losing focus and coming too close for comfort to one of these. I had no desire to be swept under an oncoming barge or through a sand dredge.

On the final night of the Missouri River 340, after waking up from only an hour of sleep at a city park in Hermann, MO, my right shoulder suddenly felt as if someone had beat it to a pulp with a sledge hammer. That moment was the first time I truly considered dropping out of the race; I was in so much pain that I could barely move my arm. I told myself that if I felt okay by the time I left before the sun rose, with one more hour of sleep, I would continue the race. Thankfully, by the time I was ready to leave and finish the race later that day, and with the help of a few ibuprofen, the pain had dissipated.

Furthermore, paddling in the darkness on the water, my constant state of exhaustion played tricks on my mind. Trees on the riverbanks suddenly looked like dinosaurs from “Jurassic Park”; I thought I was seeing construction on bluffs where there was no construction. I thought I saw parking garages that were built right on top of the Missouri river at three o’clock in the morning. It was a difficult race, but it was a race that I had to persevere through. It was a race that was in no way easy for me, a beginner to the sport of ultra-marathon endurance canoe and kayak racing. But I had a goal, and that was to make it to each checkpoint on time and to ultimately finish the race that was before me.

The author of Hebrews tells us the same thing about following Christ. While they did not have the sport of canoe and kayak racing during the time of Christ (Christ, however, did spend a lot of time on boats, so if they did have canoes and kayaks…. Well, who knows….), one of the popular sports of the day was running, such as in the original Olympic games from ancient Greece. The author of Hebrews tells us that the Christian life is like a race, and we must run it with perseverance, looking the entire time to Jesus Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Each of us knows that in following Christ, and in responding to God’s abundant grace, and living as a disciple of God’s law of love, fulfilled and manifested in Christ himself, this race is not an easy one to run. Each of us knows that we may go through difficulties when we put Christ first, many of those possible setbacks coming from the world around us.

We may become tired and exhausted as we face apparent obstacles before us. We may become discouraged or our worries may bog us down. There could be any number of things that appear unexpectedly in our lives. As a result we might be tempted to put a halt to this race that we are running (or paddling) toward our goal in Christ. Just like the huge barges that appeared unexpectedly during the day as I paddled, tired and exhausted, with blisters the sizes of dimes and quarters forming on my hands, I had to maneuver my way around them, keeping the goal of the next checkpoint at the forefront of my mind.

Each one of us, through everything we are facing in life, cannot become discouraged; we must keep the hope and the promise that is found in Jesus Christ as our focus and as our goal!

On Friday we will remember the death of Christ; he died on a cross so many years ago so that each one of us, and all of humanity, would have an opportunity, through our mediator Christ, to be reconciled to God. Christ was an atoning sacrifice. The author of Hebrews tells us to “lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely.” These weights and sins distract us from our goal in Christ and from our fulfillment in Christ. Today, I would ask each one of us: what are the weights and sins that are pulling us down? What are the sins that are clinging so closely to you and separating you from God? Are we putting our faith in something, or someone, besides God? Are we not demonstrating a love and respect for our neighbor that is true to the example of Christ? Ask yourself: what is weighing me down? What sins are clinging to me that I can cast aside in order to run freely to Christ? Just as Christ was put to death on a Friday so long ago, today we must put to death the sin that is separating us from our goal in Christ!

However, death was not the end for Christ. On Sunday, Christ rose from the dead! He conquered the death, despair, and destruction that sin leaves in our lives. Remember the hope that we have in a risen Christ! Remember that we are running a race toward a Christ who is alive and who is working in our lives today! Remember that Christ has already conquered death and sin and we can hand our worries, our doubts, our anger and hate, and our idols over to Christ! And through Christ, these things will no longer be in our lives, but through our resurrected Savior and Messiah, we too are resurrected out of our death and our sin; we have a new existence in Christ. We have new life as we run this race toward Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” and we run this race without the weight of our sins burdening us down!

Christ: “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” Christ has already endured the cross and taken his seat beside the throne of God. Christ endured the hostility of sinners, so that each of us may not grow weary or lose heart! I realize that truly following Christ can be difficult, but again, do not grow weary or lose heart! Christ has been there and has experienced it; with Christ as our goal and as our focus, even with all of the distractions and the difficulties of this marathon, we too “may not grow weary or lose heart!”

Each of us must remember that we are not alone in this race. The author of Hebrews tells us that, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….” In this race we need the encouragement and the support of the community that is found within our friends who will cheer us on when we struggle or doubt, or whatever else it may be. Many times, these encouragers are our family and friends. A lot of times they are people that we find in the Church, there to help us grow, and encourage and challenge us to become stronger in our walks, runs, marathons (and even paddles) with Christ. I could not have finished all 340 miles of that first ultra-marathon endurance race in only three days if it were not for the encouragement of those fellow racers who paddled their canoes and kayaks next to me in the exhausting darkness of the humid night, or during the miles of windswept river with the wind blowing against me; I could not have finished without the encouragement of my mother when I met her at the checkpoints, or the motivation that other race volunteers gave me along the way. Each of us, in this race towards Christ needs one another. We need the support of community from other believers who are persevering through this same race, who also have Christ as their goal.

It is Easter; remember that Christ has risen. Remember the race that is set before us and run it with perseverance and encouragement. Run it without the weight of sin. Run it and do not grow weary or lose heart. Christ has already conquered death and sin; know the hope of Christ and the goal that is before you in Christ!