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What is prayer? The most basic answer says that prayer is talking to God. Sometimes we talk to God through singing. Sometimes we talk silently with words that are not actually expressed. But, for most of us, most of the time, prayer is talking to God.
Yet, there are times when our words fail us. These may be times of ecstasy when we cannot find words to communicate our joy (for example 1 Peter 1:8). More commonly, we run out of words in times of turmoil and struggle, times when we feel discouraged and hopeless. Can we pray in times like these, without words?
When I was a young Christian, I remember hearing that a wife was to be a “helpmeet” to her husband. I thought that sounded strange and I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. In my juvenile understanding, I heard the word as “help-meat.” Perhaps wives were to help their husbands by preparing the meat for dinner. At any rate, I did get the sense that “helpmeet” meant something like “junior assistant.” The “helpmeet” wife did menial labor under the authority of her superior husband.
In my boyhood, I did not know that the odd word “helpmeet” comes from Scripture, from Genesis 2:18, in fact. The King James Version of this verse reads, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” When “help” and “meet” are blurred together, you get “helpmeet.”
As we have already seen, Genesis 2 tells the story of creation in a different way from Genesis 1. One main difference is the way in which the creation of human beings is portrayed. In Genesis 1, God creates humankind in God’s own image as male and female (1:27). The text suggests, but does not require, that man and woman were created at the same time. In Genesis 2, however, God creates the man first, adding the woman later. If we were unfamiliar with Genesis, this might be a bit surprising.
But far more surprising, in my opinion, is the way God sets up the creation of woman. One of the main emphases in Genesis 1 is the goodness of creation. Six times God saw what he had made as “good.” Then, after the creation of human beings, God saw “everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (1:31). Yet, in the narrative of Genesis 2, the first time God evaluated creation he noted something that is “not good” (2:18). This is what God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”
In yesterday’s devotion we began to consider the gracious prohibition of God. God told the man that he should not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, not to spoil the man’s fun, but rather to protect him from death. In this sense, God’s prohibition was an expression of God’s grace.
Today, I want to reflect a bit more on God’s prohibitions. I begin by noting that in many Christian traditions, the “don’ts” of God greatly outweigh the “dos.” Following Jesus turns out to be mainly a matter of avoiding behavior considered to be sinful. This approach to discipleship distorts God’s call, putting far more emphasis on the negatives than the positives. Scripture includes plenty of “don’ts,” to be sure. The Ten Commandments supply a prime example of this. Yet, the biblical vision of life is a fundamentally positive one, based on the grace of God and shaped by the kingdom of God. Christian traditions that major in the “don’ts” miss the major point of biblical revelation.
In the narrative of Genesis, God has given human beings many positive instructions, either explicitly through commands or implicitly through story. We are to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (1:28). We are to eat the fruit produced by the earth (1:29). We are to “till” and “keep” the garden in which God has put us (2:15). All of these instructions, both the explicit and implicit ones, are positive. They tell us to do certain things, opening up vast areas for discovery, productivity, and delight.
In Genesis 2:16-17, for the first time God gives a negative instruction, a prohibition. The man may “freely eat of every tree of the garden,” except for “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The fruit of this tree is forbidden. Eating it leads to death.
There is a tendency among readers and scholars of Genesis 2:16-17 to focus on the prohibition of verse 17: “but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” Indeed, this is a crucial limitation and we’ll examine it more closely in tomorrow’s devotion. But, today, I want to pause to consider with you verse 16: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden.”
Many of us work without thinking much about it. We were raised to be workers. We were schooled to be workers. We know that work is necessary to pay for food and shelter. Many people in our lives count on us to work. So we work. We work without taking much time to reflect on the nature of our work or how our work relates to God and his intentions for us.
But, increasingly, this unexamined life of work fails to satisfy. Many in my generation (Boomers) are looking for greater significance in life and are wondering how work may or may not be a part of this picture. Folk from younger generations than mine often assume that their work should have value beyond professional success and financial gain. They want work to be personally meaningful and socially beneficial. Thus, people from various generations are thinking about work, what it is, why it is, and how we should do it.
As I mentioned in last Sunday’s Life for Leaders edition, I recently attended my son’s graduation from college. On a bright and breezy day in New York City, my wife and I joined with tens of thousands of other parents to celebrate the accomplishments of our children. They had finished college and were ready to “commence” their new life (at least that’s what we were hoping). In Yankee Stadium, where the ceremony was held, there was abundant joy.
We have spent the last several days focusing on the first of the tasks that God gave to the man in the garden of Eden. This task, as you recall, is tilling, or, if we render the Hebrew more literally, serving. As tillers in our work, we labor with considerable effort so that the world might produce the fruit God intended.
The second of the tasks specified in Genesis 2:15 is “keeping.” The Hebrew verb translated in the NRSV as “to keep” is shamar. In the Bible, this verb has various meanings, including: “to keep, guard, preserve, observe.” It will be used in the next chapter of Genesis to describe the action of the cherubim who “guard” the way to the tree of life, keeping human beings out of Eden (Gen 3:24). The sense of shamar in 2:15 is captured well by the CEB rendering, where God places the man in Eden “to take care of it.”
The “Why work?” question was once answered in a striking manner by Dorothy Sayers, the influential, twentieth-century English writer. In 1942, she gave a lecture that was later published with the simple title, “Why Work?” (You can find this piece, with many other fine resources, at the website of the Center for Faith & Work of LeTourneau University.) Sayers’ answer to this question was a reaction, in part, to those in the church who devalued work, seeing it as second-class service to God, or seeing its value only in how it helps the community. Sayers contended that the work itself matters, that it can be a means for people to honor God.
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