Telling the Story of Creation
The following submissions are examples of how our authors have preached and taught the doctrine of creation among children and adults. Our writers include Mark Yackel-Juleen of Windom, Minnesota; Pat Schroeder of Overland Park, Kansas; and Roger Timm of Riverside, Illinois.
If you wish to reproduce any of these stories in print and online publications, please contact our editor and we will forward your request to the author.
On the prairies of southwestern Minnesota — my ministry context for the last 20 years — creation is quite literally "in your face." We can watch the sun rise from the horizon and set on the horizon — the actual horizon, without buildings or trees to impede our view. We can see storms approach for miles. Each day I wake and gaze over a landscape of subtle beauty — prairie, farm fields, and conservation land — a landscape that varies from season to season, sometimes day to day. It's also a landscape upon which the cutting edge of 21st-century science and technology hits the ground (pardon the pun). State-of-the-art satellite GPS communication with tractors and combines, the latest in genetic research, biotechnology, chemical research, and bio-fuel technology are all in play in the fields around my home and our congregations. In my ministry, I cannot ignore the intersection of theology and science because of the fact that many of our folks are connected to the production of food, fiber, and now fuel (ethanol and bio-diesel) that employs the most current research.
Fortunately, I discovered early that to be faithful and effective in this context, I needed to be a learner first. My education began on the day of my interview for call, when I discovered that I couldn't recognize soybeans (a major global food crop) growing in the field. I decided I wasn't going to pretend to know things I didn't. Folks still laugh when I tell the story of my first encounter with a combine in the field at night. Along a dark country road between churches, I saw a massive metallic hulk, kicking up clouds of dust with several spotlights pointing to the ground. I was absolutely convinced I was seeing a UFO — any moment the road signs would begin shaking and my car stall. In truth it was a UHO, an unidentified (at least to me) harvesting object — a close encounter of the agricultural technology kind. I learned to have a sense of humor about myself. More importantly, as learner, I discovered things that have informed and deepened my preaching and teaching around creation issues, sharpened my application of law and gospel, and, frankly, have made me a better pastor with and advocate for people in my context.
To begin with, those who farm care a lot about the relationship of science/technology and faith. One spring, I was riding in the tractor with a parishioner who pointed out a large rock pile in his field that he carefully plowed around. He said, "We call that Fox Hill. Every year there's a litter of fox pups born there and I love watching them." I noted that many farmers would remove those rocks so that they wouldn't have to plow, plant, and combine around them (the most economical thing to do). He said, "But foxes are such a beautiful part of God's creation." For many, this isn't just a business; it is a calling — a way of life. There's a strong identification to land and place. Those who farm here grapple with implications of difficult ethical questions in very practical ways.
For example, do I use genetically modified seed so I can get a higher yield? Is there a difference between seed that has been hybridized (crossed with other plant varieties) by human intervention and those that are the result of splicing animal genes into plants and thus intervening even more deeply into the created order? My role as local theologian isn't to answer these questions for people or make declarations about how they should farm. Rather, my role is to help open the depth of our biblical and theological tradition in order that we can ask, and explore, deeper questions.
To do that with integrity, I've had to learn about the science and technology involved, learn the language of their vocation to speak intelligently about it, and demonstrate genuine care for them and their vocation. I'm not there to judge. I'm there to walk with and support them in their efforts to be faithful in their vocation. I'm the first to say, "I'm not smart enough to be a farmer," and I'm serious about that. I don't have all the skills and knowledge they have to do what they do. But if I've done my homework, I can help make connections between their vocation, the Holy Scripture they treasure, and the God and Savior they worship and serve.
Most importantly, I discovered how much God cares. To make the theological connections fully with these issues, I've had to dig far deeper into the biblical record than the New Revised Common Lectionary. The study has been fascinating. Texts in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and the prophets (none of which would fall into anyone's Top 10 list or be lifted up on a sign at a football game, let alone show up in the lectionary) have come alive and relevant for me.
Deuteronomy 22:9 is one small, but interesting example — one we rarely read or just read past: "You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, or the whole yield will have to be forfeited, both the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard itself." What does that say about genetic manipulation — if anything? The capstone text for me is Psalm 24:1 where God claims creation and as near as my reading of Scripture can tell, has never relinquished that claim: "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it."
All of this gave birth to Shalom Hill Farm, a life-long learning center of the ELCA that my spouse and I direct, where we engage seminarians, congregational leaders, and others in reflection on these issues. We use an experiential approach — bringing folks into the rural setting to see the realities, converse with those engaged in the issues, and even ride a UHO. Together, we (myself and those I serve) have learned to integrate a faith that recognizes a Creator God and the science and technology that human endeavor brings to bear.
I've often observed with parishioners, "God is the ultimate scientist." Many folks in this context understand that science and faith aren't mutually exclusive. We don't always agree on how that plays out with every issue, but we walk together in an effort to live faithfully amid challenging questions.
We're still learning.
Creation at Ngorongoro
Last year in July, a group of 34 people from Atonement Lutheran Church in Overland Park, Kansas, spent a week building an eye clinic for the Nyakato Health Clinic in Mwanza, Tanzania. When the week's work was done, we spent three days on safari through the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
On July 20 we were at the Ngorongoro Crater, a meaningful location to visit because it is part of the Great Rift Valley. Further north, the Red Sea Rift separates Africa from Arabia, extending up to the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley. We were close to the Olduvai Gorge where, in the early 20th century, Richard Leakey and his wife, Mary, found some of the earliest hominid fossils and fossilized footprints of human ancestors (dated at three million years ago) as well as old campsites strewn with hunting weapons, tools, and animal remains.
By coincidence, the set of daily Scriptures selected before the trip by a couple of participants included Genesis 1:24-25 as the reading for July 20, the day for which I had volunteered to do devotions:
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.
My alternate creation account below is a brief summary of current understanding of the existence of the universe and the development of life on Earth.
In the beginning, God created.
From one very small dot, all forces and all matter started to expand. The universe began.
And a second passed as the universe started to cool. The basic forces emerged: gravity, weak and strong nuclear forces, electromagnetic force. Fundamental particles formed: quarks, electrons, photons, neutrinos. Soon protons and neutrons began to form.
And three minutes passed as simple nuclei formed, and they became hydrogen and helium. And for 500,000 years the universe expanded and cooled. Photons from this period are still observed as cosmic microwave background radiation.
And through one billion years, pockets of gas attracted by gravity grew more dense, becoming stars when nuclear fusion reactions ignited.
And through three billion years galaxies formed, spirals and spheres, and stars collapsed to form black holes.
And through six billion years some stars died when they exploded as supernovas, scattering heavier elements — oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, calcium, iron, even gold, silver, lead, uranium — into interstellar space.
In this time our solar system and its planets formed.
And through a billion years, Earth cooled.
And on Earth, single-celled organisms appeared.
And over three billion years, algae, bacteria, jellyfish, amoebas, worms, and sponges developed.
Then through 100 million more years, trilobites, clams, snails, corals, then starfish and sea urchins grew.
And during 50 million years, land plants, ferns, sharks, boney fish, scorpions, and insects flourished.
And through 40 million years, reptiles, spiders, and then conifers developed.
And in 100 million years, turtles, lizards, dinosaurs, and mammals appeared.
And in another 100 million years, squid, frogs, birds, flowering plants, snakes, modern fish, and a variety of dinosaurs flourished.
Many times extinctions happened, and much of life perished.
And through 40 million years, many more mammals appeared, and grasses, and apes.
And during 20 million years, hominids appeared.
And through one million years, mammoths, mastodons, and Neanderthal flourished, and disappeared.
And through 200,000 years, Homo sapiens developed and still flourish.
These are the generations of the creatures on Earth, their story.
Overland Park, Kansas
Observing Evolution Weekend
You won't find Evolution Weekend among the commemorations listed in ELW, nor will you find lessons designated for that Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary. But you may have heard of "The Clergy Letter," a project initiated by Michael Zimmerman, now professor of biology at Butler University. The letter testifies to the compatibility of science in general, and evolution in particular, with religious faith.
As a signer of "The Clergy Letter," I have observed Evolution Weekend for several years. (For information on the letter and Evolution Weekend, visit the Clergy Letter Project.)
My liturgical consciousness keeps me from disregarding the appointed lessons for the day, but I do put out materials that highlight the compatibility of faith and science. Sometimes the lessons cooperate — this year a healing story for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany lent itself to some comments on scientific studies relating faith and healing. I participate in this annual observance because I think it's important to emphasize that religion and science in general, and creation and evolution in particular, do not need to be seen as enemies. Both religion and science seek truth, even if in different arenas. There are tensions between them, but I believe it is important for the scientists, science teachers, and students in our congregations that pastors affirm faith and science as complementary rather than conflicting.
I believe our most effective and helpful observance of Evolution Weekend came the year that the national news was following the court case in Dover, Pennsylvania, concerning their school board's attempt to mandate the teaching of Intelligent Design in high school biology classes. As you may recall, the judge, a member of an ELCA congregation, ruled that such a mandate violated the nonestablishment of religion clause of the constitution. During that time I asked one of our members who is a junior high school science teacher to collaborate with me on an adult forum on the topic "Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design." I began with a presentation on how the position labeled Intelligent Design is a religious viewpoint not appropriate for a science classroom, even if Christians surely believe that creation demonstrates intelligent design in some sense.
The best part of the adult forum was hearing this teacher talk about how central the theory of evolution is for current science. Most impressive was the pride he showed as he passed around a fossil that he and his family had discovered while on vacation in the South Dakota Badlands. The positive impact of his presentation reminded me of how important it is to encourage lay people to teach and share their gifts in our congregations.
This may be the most valuable way to observe Evolution Weekend — as an occasion to provide the scientists in our midst an opportunity to share their knowledge and skills with our congregations.