What’s Missing in Paradise?
Last week in Genesis 3 we got a peek into God’s heart as we saw how the Creator of the whole universe chose to spend the evening walking the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, but that they stood him up.
Rather than fess up to their mess up, Adam and Eve hid from God which pained Him deeply.
You may wonder why God had placed the tree of forbidden fruit – the one thing Adam and Eve were prohibited from having – right smack in the middle of the Garden.
Couldn’t God have planted it out of sight, maybe on the other side of a ridge?
After all, if God had planned His landscaping better Adam and Eve would not have been so tempted.
But no: God plunked it right in their face and then He said, (Genesis 3:3) … you must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.
So, there they were in Paradise, but every day they had to walk past this big, lush but forbidden fruit tree.
It must have been a constant, gnawing temptation for a long time.
Paradise was God’s first choice for us but sin – our choice to distance ourself from God – corrupted the world.
That darned tree planted at the crossroads of Adam and Eve’s life was one thing they couldn’t have, which means that even in the Garden of Eden something was missing.
Let me repeat that: Even in the Garden of Eden, God placed some things that were meant to be beyond our reach.
That means that having everything we want, controlling everyone around us, demanding that life will be “what I want when I want it” is not the ideal that God has in mind for us.
In every garden of life there are things we crave but that are beyond our reach … and just like the tree in the Garden of Eden we may have to brush up against them every day.
For some it might be the dream for a better past – if only I’d had a different upbringing, then I’d be more confident, I’d carry less anger and I’d not be killing myself by trying to please everyone.
For some it might be an achievement that has eluded them all these years.
For others their forbidden tree may be health, financial security, intimate relationships … whatever it is there is something that may leave you thinking, “if only I had that then life would be good”.
So, what should we do with this missing piece of life that God seems to be holding back from us?
Well, we know what Adam and Eve did.
Even though God had placed them in paradise that He called “good,” because of what was missing Adam and Eve called it “not good enough.”
But consider this: maybe God didn’t put the forbidden tree in the middle of Eden to be a constant temptation, but to be a constant reminder.
Maybe the forbidden tree was intended as a totem like ancients put in the center of their villages to remind them of their values.
Maybe God put the forbidden tree in Eden to remind Adam and Eve that He is the Creator and in order to sustain Paradise they would have to live as his creatures.
I know I’ve told you this before, but it bears repeating:
Back in seminary, I heard of a church that grew very quickly so that within a few years it had outgrown its parking lot.
The elders learned that the strip mall owner across the street was a Christian who closed his stores on Sundays, so they approached him and asked to rent his parking lot on Sunday mornings.
He thought it over and finally said, “Okay. You can use the parking lot on Sundays rent free – except for the first Sunday in November. On that day I will lock it up and you cannot use it.”
They were very pleased, but one of the elders just had to ask, “But why are you locking us out on that one Sunday?”
“Because,” he said, “I never want you to forget who owns the parking lot.”
God planted the forbidden tree to remind Adam and Eve that they are not God.
The “Big Lie” the serpent told was that we creatures don’t have to live with limits … that we can have it all, know it all, and control it all.
For most of us, that temptation is the exact lie we want to hear and so it becomes very powerful.
We are surrounded by people who seem to have it all: luxury cars, bigger houses, successful careers, smiling families on Facebook.
That’s when Satan whispers, “Look at your shabby life … but you can have it all” … it is Satan’s best lie.
Once we buy into that, we conclude that we can’t have “the good life” until we have it all.
All unhappiness is caused by comparison, so as we survey our life garden, looking right past the ripe fruit and lush foliage all around us, we obsess on that one thing that has eluded us.
If we could just have the things that are missing, we are sure life would then be good.
The theologian Karl Barth once wrote, “All sin begins with ingratitude.”
If we wait for perfection, we will create hell for ourselves.
Living in gratitude is a spiritual discipline that allows us to be thankful for the garden we have been given.
That means that instead of scanning life for what is wrong, missing or beyond our control, a life of gratitude scans life for what is good, what is a blessing … what is God’s grace.
And that is where today’s special Thanksgiving service comes into play … it’s all about gratitude.
Gratitude is a spiritual discipline that allows us to look around and realize that even though something is missing, it’s still a pretty incredible place to live.
One of the things we got from Diana Butler-Bass’ lecture last Tuesday is that gratitude is not so much an emotion as a choice.
Emotions come and go.
Even if nothing around us has changed, one minute we’re up, the next minute we’re down.
So, emotions by themselves are not necessarily good measures of reality.
But gratitude is a choice, and there are a series of practices shown to increase our attitude of gratitude:
Starting each day with a prayer of gratitude for the new day.
Finishing each day by mentally reviewing things that were good that day.
Keeping a gratitude journal.
Writing a gratitude letter to someone who helped you – maybe even a long time ago.
We also have seen that, over time, those simple gratitude exercises literally rewire our brains.
We’ve talked about those a lot in the past and so I’m not going to go into them again now.
And we’ve looked at well-designed and documented studies that show that as our attitude of gratitude increases, so does our health, our resilience, our happiness and our level of generosity.
Several studies, including MRI studies at UCLA, identified parts of the brain associated with gratitude.
They found that gratitude originates in the higher thinking levels of our brain and can be generated by our conscious decisions, and that there are then downstream effects in other parts of our brain that create emotions of happiness, health and so on.
Gratitude is not an emotion – but it triggers many positive emotions.
We’ve also learned that gratitude acts as a kind of a gate that stops fearful impulses that come from the more primitive parts of our brains … what we might think of as our reptilian brains.
Think of a gate at a railroad crossing that comes down to stop the flow of traffic.
Once in place, gratitude acts like a gate that stops fear and some other negative emotions from flowing from our primitive brain into the higher levels of our brains.
Sensing fear, our reptilian brains scream to fight, flee or freeze, which can lead to bad decisions, stress and unhealthy relationships.
But we’ve found that you cannot simultaneously experience fear and gratitude.
You can flip flop between them, but you can’t hold them simultaneously.
A habit of gratitude – which really is a spiritual discipline – gives you space between the moment fear arises and when you react.
Gratitude opens the space for wiser responses.
Gratitude opens the space for God’s presence to be experienced.
But since gratitude is not just a private emotion, it needs to be exercised and expressed.
As Gertrude Stein observed, “Silent gratitude isn’t of much use to anyone”.
That is why we have today’s special service so each of us can publicly share before each other and God what we are grateful for.