Moving Toward a Zimzum Life

We’ve reached a significant point in our Creation account from Genesis 1 as God calls forth into existence humanity into the beauty of the created world. A reminder of how we arrived at this place. First, at the very beginning, only God existed. As such, God withdrew into God’s self out of love in order to form the space into which God could create. This idea—called zimzum—shows us that the Godhead’s first act was one of self-giving love. God contracting, withdrawing, humbling Godself in order for there to to be room for something else to come into existence. The Triune God loved so much—and a reminder, the Trinity is probably best understood with the words as Lover, Beloved, and Love—that God created a type of womb into which all of the cosmos could emerge.

A sermon on Genesis 1.

And what a world it is! Last week we talked about how vast and beautiful the created order is. From the two trillion galaxies to the billions of insects. There’s also the amazing connection between the plants who provide sustenance to all the animals who in turn help flora of all kinds to flourish. It’s all very symbiotic and based in community—much like the Trinity, of course. Nothing exists in isolation in the created world. Every being no matter how small or large exists—and depends—on others in relationship. There is so much beauty out there to behold and enjoy.

Our poet—the writer of Genesis 1—continues on this sixth day of creation, writing that the Godhead took a moment, and seeing everything that was already good, declared, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” And then we read, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The writer of Genesis 1—ever the elusive one—doesn’t spell out what it means that God creates humanity in God’s image. As such, a lot of speculation about what it means for all human beings to bear God’s image has emerged. The ideas include the immortality of our souls, the ability for us to walk upright on two feet and gaze upward, the lordship of humanity over creation, and the marriage relationships we enter into. 

These ideas about the image of God—the imago dei, as scholars put it—have one thing in common, according to 2oth century theologian Jürgen Moltmann: they all begin by looking at human beings first to determine what about us seems unique and then turn to God. They try to make an anthropological case rather than a theological one. He writes, “If we start from God’s relationship to human beings, then what makes the human being God’s image is not [one’s] possession of any particular characteristic or other—something which distinguishes [them] above other creatures; it is [their] whole existence.” All of what makes us us, the ways we think and live, how we work and play, all of it is how we bear God’s image. There is, however, one important clarification from Prof. Moltmann: “Likeness to God cannot be lived in isolation. It can be lived only in human community…. The isolated individual and the solitary subject are deficient modes of being human, because they fall short of the likeness of God.” God, as Trinity, exists in a mutual relationship of love, and, as those made in the image of God, we best show forth that image in community with others. 

What neither Prof Motlmann nor I are saying is that you have to be in a marriage relationship to bear God’s image. There are many different ways to engage in community in our world, with neighbors, people we work with, organizations we participate in, connections with those who share our faith. The point is that we cannot go it alone, which is why these past many months have been so painful, especially for our young people and our kids. We all yearn for social engagement with one another. In good relationships, we become less focused on ourselves and engage and focus on the other people we are with, and in the process become more of who we are.

In this way, a significant part of how we can exhibit God’s image is by embracing zimzum ourselves. Just as God choose self-limiting love in order to bring life to the entirety of the univers, so we are called to practice zimzum by making space to bring life and love to others and to all of creation. We are called to live a zimzum life. We—you and I—bear God’s image when we create space in our own lives for others to flourish. 

And, friends, we live very anti-zimzum lives. Rather than creating space in our lives, we fill up every nook and cranny. We can see easily this on display through all our stuff. We buy things. It’s what we do. Actually, it might be better for me to use the industry’s terms: we consume things. We are regularly described as “consumers.” At Big Box stores you can find retail space designated for “consumer electronics.” Electronics designed to be used for a season, and then discarded when something better comes along. In our house, I’ve got some remnants of these now-forsaken devices—a laser printer from the late 1990s, and a couple of external hard drives from the time before the cloud. There’s the old iMac on a closet shelf, and a couple of no-longer-functioning iPod shuffles in a drawer. And what I have most of all is cables and power cords that I hold onto in the event that I need to one day recharge a Motorola Razr. And friends it’s not just electronics.

A 2019 report shed some light on the issue of space. Empty warehouses consisting of self-storage units have exploded across our country. With over 2.3 billion square feet of space, these businesses make over $38 billion a year, and are projected to grow at nearly 8 percent every year. 1 in 11 Americans pays about $91 a month—nearly $1100 a year—just to store items they have purchased. The report declares, “But what’s interesting is that 65 percent of them already have a garage at home, and 33 percent have basements. Seemingly, it’s more about having too many possessions instead of not having enough space.” And before we get a little smug and shake our heads if we don’t rent a storage unit ourselves, let me call your attention to a little fact: The average floor space of a new home in 1950 was 983 sq feet. It was 1500 sq ft in 1970, and in 2014 it was over 2650. If we had to move all the stuff we’ve got in the rectory—with its more than 3000 square feet of living space— into a home with less than 2000 square feet, I’d be in a world of hurt and a storage unit might begin to look exceptionally appealing. 

But it’s not just all the things we own that deter us from a zimzum life, it’s also our calendars. While we had a glimpse of what a more open calendar might look like for a couple of months early on in the pandemic, a packed schedule has come roaring back. I’ve had days with 6 hours or more of Zoom meetings in addition to the actual work that needed to be done. Teens stay up late trying to get homework done on top of sports commitments, community service, and working jobs, and they compare notes back at school about it. When people retire, they often report that they are busier than they ever were before. It feels like a constant scramble just to get the laundry done, or running the car in to get serviced, or squeezing in a vet appointment for the dog.

Is this why God formed us at the beginning? So that I could be zipping around running errands, buying more stuff, and going to bed overly tired from my packed schedule hoping that tomorrow will somehow be different? Is this what it means to be created in God’s image?

Friends, there’s a much better way, but it starts with making space in our lives. We know this, of course. We sense that we could be so much more, and we get a glimpse as we cherish times connecting with others and giving of ourselves. We enjoy being in relationships because we bear the image of the Triune God. God’s first act in all of creation was of self-giving love. Of making space by self-limiting, withdrawing, and becoming humble. And while our instinct is to say that we have neither the time nor the room for that, just look at what happened when God did this at creation. Contemplate the expanse of the cosmos that came forth, the diversity of trees and flowers, the breadth of so many creatures, and the broad spectrum of humanity. It all began with God making the room for something else. God knows that love is generative. That it never runs out or gets used up. There is always the possibility for more. 

So let us begin to embrace the way of zimzum as well. Let us choose in small ways to make a little more space, buy a little less stuff, and open our hearts up a little more for others. It might not feel like much at the beginning, but the world didn’t come into existence in one day either. We—you and I—were created in the very image of God. May we know deep in our souls of God’s every present love, and let us live in relationship with God, with others, with all of creation, and with ourselves, knowing that it is when we practice zimzum that we most fully bear God’s image. Amen.

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