Over the millennia of human faith history, God has been patiently training us and leading us along the path of ever-greater growth. All too often, religious people seem to believe we need to flatter and bribe God, thereby “bringing ‘Him’ around” to being good to us. In reality, it is never we who move God, but God who moves us. The Old Testament practice of offering to God the “first fruits” — the very choicest of each harvest — was a means of bringing human beings around, very gradually, to the realization that God wants our best from us. That, as a matter of fact, what God wants from us most of all is the gift of ourselves.
God is “His” own gift to us, and we are ours to “Him”: on and on, in an eternal interchange of give, receive and give back. As odd as it may seem, this is a lot like marriage. That committed, covenanted relationship, held together by romantic love and sexual intimacy, is the bond between humans that best resembles our relationship with God. This is one of the reasons that the persecution gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people get from our antagonists is so diabolically cruel, and why it can so devastate our lives. Most of us were made to be the special person to one other special person; we were created to enjoy that intense bond — and yes, in addition to being physical and emotional, it is spiritual as well.
Those who attempt to deprive us of that relationship — one of the very things that makes us human and makes us children of God fashioned in “His” image — are committing a grave blasphemy. It is only their own degraded understanding of love that makes them behave so hatefully toward us. They are not Christ’s servants, regardless of what they claim. They are His crucifiers. Jesus called those who would follow Him not to harm others, but to lovingly serve them.
Goodies like money, sheaves of wheat, jars of olive oil, goats and bulls were supposed to be the means by which worshipers helped God to take care of their fellow human beings. (“He,” after all, certainly had no need to eat any of it!) Sure, some of what was presented before God’s altar was consumed in a holocaust of fire, but the rest was distributed to the priests. It was what kept them alive. When we give money today, some of it goes to support the church of our choice, including the purchase of the pastor’s groceries, but much of it is used to take care of those less fortunate than ourselves, and to offer hospitality to all who seek a welcoming worship home.
God wants us to help “Him” to love us. This, to “Him,” is at the very heart of genuine worship. And it’s the reason we send in those donations, or put our checks in that collection plate. What manner of Being is this, who considers the greatest act of love we can give “Him” to be the love we share with each other? This, perhaps above all else, is the reason we desire to worship God!
Any supposed conflict between altruism and self-interest is entirely false. Love is the only good of which, the more you give away, the more you’ve got. If only those who wish to run us off the face of the earth would understand that! Had they the love of Christ in their hearts, and the Holy Spirit genuinely dwelling within them, then even if they didn’t think they knew any of us, or weren’t sure just what to think of us, they would err on the side of love. They would welcome and accept us, not on the strength of some pitiful, miserly, shriveled-souled fear that if they make the wrong guess as to what they ought to do, God’s really gonna get ’em (is that not why they are unwilling to trust in love to begin with?), but because they would realize that, far from diminishing the store of goodness in their lives by spending some of their love on us, they would only be increasing it.
My cat, Catwoman, chose her own name. When I got her as a kitten, I was going to call her Dumplin, because she was such a chubby little thing. Evidently she found that insulting, because she would never come to me when I called her that. But from the very first time I jokingly called her “Catwoman,” she’s always come running right to me. It’s far more flattering for her, it seems, being named after a superhero than after a lump of dough.
Some chuckle at the name, thinking it a mighty silly one (as if it were any less ridiculous to call a woman that). Though when I tell people that Catwoman likes to sit in my lap, or that she steals my covers, it makes my love-life sound SO much more exciting. Now, I don’t want anybody out there to get the notion that I’m madly in love with her (“Look at that, Marge…now those Whosoever people are advocating woman-on-cat!”). Folks are perfectly capable of getting strange ideas without my helping them. I am “advocating” nothing more than that we human beings be the sort of “higher species” to whom our adoring little pets may look up.
And Catwoman does seem to look up to me. She follows me around just like a dog. She looks at me, sometimes, with what very much looks like worship. At the risk of sounding immodest, I’m the closest thing to God she’s ever seen.
George, the half-miniature Schnauzer, half-toy poodle who became mine after the death of my father, still misses Dad very much. (After all, he was George’s dad, too!) When, all of a sudden, the object of his puppy affection disappeared without a trace, his world must have seemed a very empty place. Dad loved the little guy as much as George loved him. Right after his heart attack last year, while he drifted in and out of consciousness in the ICU, I told Dad that George was at home waiting for him — and even in his semi-comatose condition, that brought a smile.
We are God’s gift not only to God, and not only to each other, but also to the rest of the world, “He” put us here to till and tend it. I find it nothing short of a marvel that so many of those who insist on teaching their kids that there were dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden (because, don’tcha know, it “says so,” right there in Genesis) can’t figure out that when God gave us dominion over this planet, it was probably not so that we could rape and plunder it. We are on a fragile spaceship in the apparent middle of nowhere, with no rescue shuttles in sight, and this crowd can’t wait to see how fast they can blast it full of holes or blow it to smithereens.
Maybe God IS going to Rapture them up, leaving everybody else behind to suffer in the mess they’ve made. Or maybe “He” will take them out behind the woodshed and paddle them ’til they can’t sit down. Given what we know about God from Scripture, my money’s on the latter. I believe that the entire concept of celebrating the harvest, bringing our first fruits to set before God, implies that we ought to have more respect for the earth from which they came. Not only did God give this earth to us in order to sustain us, but “He” also gave us to the earth to be the caretakers of all the fragile, precious life that abounds upon it.
Again, God gradually (and VERY patiently) moves “His” people, over time, from one understanding — a very primitive, childish one — to another that is much more evolved and mature. We can see this, in Scripture, in any number of ways. And our attitude toward giving back to God is certainly a part of this understanding. Most of us no longer live in an agrarian culture, however, so the idea of “first fruits” is largely lost on us. A new way of expressing it may work better.
That temple priest had no way of knowing, really, whether a worshiper was really giving him the “first fruits” or not. Was that truly the first sheaf of wheat harvested, or the first jar of olive oil pressed? Was it actually the best bull or heifer in the herd, or merely the second-best or third? Worshipers were entirely on the honor system there. It was all a matter of conscience: totally between themselves and God.
What God has been building toward, as we see more clearly in the New Testament and especially the Gospels, is the realization of “His” ultimate desire that we give “Him” the very best we have to offer — that, in fact, we give God our very selves. At the risk of making a very bad pun, WE are the “first fruits” God wants us to sacrifice to “Him.”
We are the very crown of God’s creation, made, as Hebrews 2:7 tells us, “for a little while lower than the angels.” And so it is that God’s heart’s desire is for all of us — gay and straight, black and white, male and female — to give ourselves to “Him.” God deserves nothing less than the very best “He” made.
Let’s not get big heads about this, but it could very well be that when our beloved pet snuggles close to us, for Fido, Fluffy, George or Catwoman, that could be the closest experience to worship that they get. Not that we ought to be confusing ourselves with God (mercy, don’t let the fundamentalists get ahold of the notion that I’m saying THAT, either). But since we are made in God’s likeness and image — and as far as I’m aware, dogs, cats, goldfish and parakeets don’t pray, read the Bible or go to church — then to the degree that the “lower” species are ever able to experience the presence of God, they do so primarily through us.
(Such an insight gives me a whole new reason to shudder in horror at the existence of animal vivisection, scientific experimentation using castoff pets, cockfighting, bear-baiting, bestiality and the like. If all these poor creatures ever learn about God is how we treat them, then what sort of lessons are we teaching? We have an obligation to represent God, at the very least in the “likeness and image” sense, in a way that does not blaspheme against “Him.”)
The “first fruits” symbolized the very best: the “cream of the crop.” If we’re to dedicate our own very best to God, can we possibly do so in one hour every Sunday morning? What about the other 167 of them each week? And again, we are operating entirely on the honor system. Only we and God will know whether we are truly giving “Him” our “first fruits” or not.
God wants us to, as the saying goes, “give ’til it hurts.” Before we start feeling sorry for ourselves under the burden of such an expectation, let’s just remember that this will almost certainly never mean for us what it meant for God’s own Son. If anybody ever “gave ’til it hurt,” it was Jesus.
God gives “Himself” to us in an endless variety of ways. God comes to us in the bounties that grow from the soil, and in the caring hearts of those who welcome us when we seek refuge and comfort us when we mourn. God comes to us even in the very time “He” allows us to live our day-to-day lives. God gave us the life of “His” Son. Who gave not only ’til it hurt, but until it killed.
It really is like a marriage. God and every human being who loves God, joining hands and giving our entire selves to each other. For life. For eternity.
God gave each of us the capacity to love one special other person, romantically and intimately, very possibly to give us one little foretaste of Heaven. In Heaven, we will see God “face-to-face,” and know “Him” with an exhilarating intimacy that beats even the greatest, wildest and most blowout sex we’ve ever had. Love shared with that special other here in earth is a tiny ray of the light Revelation tells us makes it always day in Heaven.
We will win the battle for God because of love. True love testifies on our behalf. The love of every same-sex couple that endures, in joyful tranquility, over the decades is a testimonial to the truth of our lives and the righteousness of our cause. God is love. “The greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Love outshines all, and love will outlive all else.
Our entire life is a harvest: a reaping of the blessings that come from the goodness of God. Which does not, of course, mean that life is always going to be bright and peachy. Sometimes it means sorrow and intense pain. But even out of that pain, God can bring the blessing of loving solace from others and of lessons hard but well learned. Giving our first-fruits to God does, indeed, mean giving back to God the very best of the life we’ve lived.
When my pets offer their own first-fruits, it certainly isn’t always bright and peachy. Every outdoor cat I have ever had has dragged some grisly, headless sacrifice to my doorstep (or onto my living-room carpet). Then, poor kitty stares up at me, in injured perplexity, as I have my hissy and run for the paper towels. So I always have to make sure that, once I have washed my hands at least five times, I thank poor kitty with a great, big hug.
What exactly does it mean, anyway, to give the best of ourselves to God? First and foremost, of course, it means to love God “with all our hearts and all our souls and all our minds.” In practical terms, it means giving God the very best of our time, talents and treasure. We don’t budget our offerings to God frugally; we give from the top of the heap, never from the bottom.
My own “first fruits” are, primarily, my writing works. The happy confluence of my ability and inclination to write seems to be the best I have to offer God — as it seems, to me, to have been the very best that “He” has given to me. One of the main ways we know that we are giving what we have to God is that if is being used to help others. Giving to God almost always means giving to others: giving them the very best of ourselves. When I write for the edification and the strengthening of others — helping them to give the best of themselves to God and still others — then I am operating at the optimum level to which our Creator made me capable, and truly living for the glory of God.
In the sanctuary this All Saints Sunday, mounted on silver-white ribbons streaming down the walls all around, were posted the names of all the departed loved-ones we in our congregation especially wished to remember. This year, for the first time, my dad’s name was there. I hadn’t expected the service — especially the music — to hit me as it did, but just as, at the previous week’s Reformation Sunday, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” had stirred me more than ever before (a powerful reminder of Dad, as we had sung it at his memorial service), this week we sang another from that memorial: “For All the Saints.” And I’m afraid I must admit that I absolutely lost it.
In my head, I have already shifted gears and accepted the reality of Dad’s passing. But I don’t think my heart is quite there yet. Seeing his name up on that wall, and hearing those words from Revelation 7:17, “God will wipe every tear from our eyes,” I found myself wishing that God would come and wipe away mine.
For most of the service, I could hardly see. Somebody would reach over and squeeze my shoulder, and somebody else would pat me on the back or hand me a Kleenex, but I was unable to pull myself together until well after the service was over. Even the pastor had noticed, and she offered her own consolations as we filed out.
Afterwards, at our annual Stewardship Luncheon, once again, people were especially comforting. I loosened up considerably, and pretty soon I was cracking “stewardship” jokes right along with everybody else. Pastor Renee offered the message kindly, but this is clearly an urgent need. My congregation refuses to compromise on the issue of full inclusion for all people, and while this has gained it many new members (including me), it has also meant the loss of more than a few others. If ever there were a church for which I would give ’til it hurts, it is this one.
How sorry a state the Body of Christ is in, that the more welcoming a congregation insists upon being, the more “good Christians” it scares away! I feel a special calling to help the Church Universal get its head and heart in gear with the true, loving Gospel of Christ. If I can do my part in making inclusiveness to all God’s children the priority in the Church it ought to be, then I really will be offering God the choicest sheaves from the harvest of my own life.
While sitting at my writing-desk later that afternoon, I had a usually unwelcome visitor of my own. Ordinarily, I keep the door to my office closed. Otherwise, Catwoman is constantly in my lap, lying on the desk in front of me or standing up between me and my computer screen. I guess, however, I must not have closed the door all the way, because open it popped and in she came.
Now, I had been working on notes for this very essay, and I’m afraid that at the mention of the morning’s service, the water-works had begun anew. My first impulse was to regard Catwoman’s visit as a most untimely intrusion. But before I could shoo her out of there, she leaped gracefully up onto the desktop, blocking out what little of the computer screen I had still been able to see.
Pets don’t seem to need to speak our language; they have a sort of sixth sense, enabling them to understand exactly how we feel. Catwoman plunked down before me, rolling over and nuzzling close. What choice did I have but to slide my keyboard-shelf under the desk — to keep her from contributing to the essay in her own (*&^%$#@!) way — and give her a cuddle?
So darned if she didn’t manage to make her contribution anyway, because here she is – giving her own “first fruits” – the very best of the harvest of her own, kitty being to me. I am God’s gift to Catwoman. And she is one of God’s innumerable, and very precious, gifts to me.
“Catwoman!” I could almost hear Dad chuckle in his old, curmudgeonly way. “Of all the dumb names for a cat!” Even though he swore he didn’t like cats, he always had a soft spot for this one. She has a special knack for getting around people’s defenses.
“She loves her Grandpa,” I would tease him.
“Now, at being her ‘Grandpa,'” he would growl, “I’ve gotta draw the line!” But then, of course, there she was, leaping gracefully into his lap. And there he was, cuddling her just like any grandpa would.
Up ’til the moment she had burst into the office, I had been feeling utterly and inconsolably alone. But now Catwoman and I were anything but alone together. I could feel Dad’s presence even more powerfully, then and there, than I had that morning in church. We were gathered in our own, little corner of Heaven. And, all around us, the celestial choir sang.
One day, we will all cast down our crowns before God’s throne together. The circle, as in the words of one of Dad’s favorite hymns, will be unbroken. And again, just as Revelation promises, God really will wipe every tear from our eyes.
A self-described “Libertarian Episcopalian lesbian,” freelance writer and the author of Good Clowns, a young adult novel published in 2018, Lori Heine published a blog called “Born on 9-11” and was a frequent contributor to the website Liberty Unbound. A native of Phoenix, Ariz., she graduated from Grand Canyon University in 1988 and spent much of her life in the insurance industry before turning full-time to writing as a freelancer, blogger and author.