Saturday, March 31, 2007
Meeting the Other and learning to love him is only one reason why projective dreamwork has been just about the most helpful skill I have learned for getting along in that world and learning to forgive my hatreds and my fears. Projective dreamwork, like a sacrament, is a way of mediating raw experience, a way of facilitating conversation. It respects the uniqueness of self and it honors the shared world of other.
Even when I live so far away from the songs of the beautiful forests in which, millennia ago, I awoke, whenever I dream, I reconnect with the most primal levels of my humanity. I enter a world which has not yet been tamed with numbers and words. I have before me a wisdom that is so important and so reliable that even in this age of computers, modern medicine and statistics, it continues to teach me what I need to know to live and thrive. When I learn to work and understand dreams, I reconnect myself with a what may turn out to be earth-saving truths.
The first is, that although the dream is mine, and only I can know its ultimate meaning, I am also going to be uniquely and selectively blind to what the dream is trying to teach. I suspect this is because my own symbolic world is too familiar for me to see far into it and when the dream is shocking, I remain so shocked by its manifest content that I get stuck there. Even if I am the most skilled dreamworker in the world, I will still learn more about my dream when I share it with others. This is because human beings are pack animals and the sacred (and dreams are sacred) is less about exulting the individual than it is about creating the best possible community out of the best possible selves. This truth flies in the face of the most carefully constructed gated community of individualism.
The second is that if I am blind to my own dream, neither can I tell you what your dream means. I can imagine that I have had this very dream you have told me and I can filter it through my own experience, my own issues and questions, my own framework of images and from this, offer valuable insights as to what this dream might mean to me if I had dreamed it, but you as you will ever be a mystery to me even if we have known each other for years. My words might be helpful to you; they might not. My insights, however, will almost always be helpful to me, because dreams do arise from common human experience and (un)consciousness. This kind of work is a species of projection. Becoming conscious is an act of projection. As I begin to learn who I am, I do so by learning what I am not. It is very easy to dispense with things I do not like about myself through projection; also things I long to be, but am afraid to become. Mature people do not continue to project. The ancient mind of the dream is very helpful in sorting all this out.
The third is that all dreams come in the service of health and wholeness. That means that even the most appalling nightmare comes in the service of health and wholeness. My experience of my own and others’ nightmares has shown me that nightmares arise from the ancient experience of “fight or flight,” of dealing with an experience that must be resolved so rapidly that I do not have time to think and must, therefore, react. When a dream comes to me in the form of a nightmare, it is because it is so important that it must get my attention. Nightmares are often easier to remember than the sweet dreams. I have encountered confusion about this in therapy, where I often work my dreams as a way of discovering where I am distressed. This is OK, but in every distressed dream also resides the cure, or I would not have had the dream.
The fourth is that dreams do not come to mock me with all the things I cannot do. The mere fact that I have dreamed a situation assures me that I can do something about it. If I am suffering from something even as serious as posttraumatic shock, if I am having nightmares about it, I am engaging in the work of healing. It may take a long time, for the traumas that the violence of the mechanical, poisoned and impersonal world can inflict are huge, but I am wise to remember that spiritual growth happens one step at a time. Dreams guide me not to the world’s false ideas of its and my power, or lack thereof, but awakens my own, which is true, and which will be a gift, not an oppression, to my community. Dreams remind me that the whole human condition, of which I am but a tiny part, is a slow process. As we shall see during Holy Week, humankind has been unable to learn from our mistakes for thousands of years.
Thus the Bible remains a dependable guide. Today, in the face of ecological destruction, multinational corporations, mass hunger and mass corruption, in the face of sharing our home with 6.5 billion people, it is easy to say, “What can I, as one person, do?” When I read the Bible through the lens of my dreams, I realize that the whole of our sacred story is precisely about what one person can do.
Because dreams are stories, not theories, no dream ever has just one meaning. Dreams have many, many meanings. The word is “overdetermined.” In this way, dreams are like scriptures and parables and myths. If history is our current cultural myth, then it might be good to look at objective “facts” as having many meanings as well.
This is helpful as we stand at the Gates of Jerusalem, when a defining event in our spiritual story is about to take place. None of the four Gospels quite agrees about what happened when Jesus entered the city and stood before all the threats of the political world. Some say, as with Moses and the Israelites, that it never happened anyway. Still others look for Jesus’ bones, the equivalent of a Christian skeleton in the closet. There is altogether too much awe and fascination with the power of death. The ancient messages of the dreamers tell me that I may be wiser to remember the awesome world of conscious life, that I have walked this world far longer than I ever dared dream.
Friday, March 30, 2007
We forget dreams at our peril. The Bible is full of them, and not one is trivial or unimportant. Joseph of the coat of many colors, Nebuchadnezzar, the prophets who received the Word of God in dreams, Joseph the husband of Mary, the Magi, Pilate’s wife, troubled by a dream on that fateful day. Of all the visionaries in the Hebrew Scriptures, only Moses was able to receive the Word of God without dreaming, but as I consider his forty days atop Mt. Sinai, like Jesus in the desert without eating or drinking, I know that Moses had achieved a very different order of life than the one I know. Returning, therefore, to myself, for God will always meet me where I AM, if I am the child of a species that did in fact dream language into being and if the Bible is the Word of God filtered through the experience of human beings, at some level, the Bible is a dream.
Many people read the Bible, if not exactly literally, at least as a kind of instruction manual, filled with fables and parables that illustrate how best to live. This works very well in stories like Abraham, Joseph, David, Moses and Jesus. It works less well, as we have seen, in the stories of Pharaoh’s army drowned in the sea and the Canaanites put to the sword in the Promised Land. It is just too tempting to read those stories like 007, God's license to kill. It is just too tempting to say that the commandment given to Moses on Mt. Sinai “thou shalt not kill,” applies to lesser men than I. It is just too easy to forget that the power of evil seeks always to make an exception of itself, to establish itself as a different order of being. Of all the angels, only Satan was too self-important to serve God. What better way to play god than to flagrantly break God’s commandments and believe I have gotten away with it?
The condition of our earth today bears witness to the fact that we have gotten away with far less than we think.
Ever since the horse gave man to power to make war, we have known the power of violence, of slavery, rape, famine and plague. We, who have turned the horse into fighter jet, bomb and tank don’t need the Book of Joshua to teach us the ways of war. What we do need, however, just as the Israelites needed an opening in the sea to give them a path into the Promised Land, is a path through the horrors that we have allowed to happen. God, after all, does not desire the death of sinners, but a banquet of abundance and life.
Thus says the LORD,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
Isaiah does not give us here a paean to a God who murders Egyptians; he sings a hymn to a God who guides us beyond the power of war. His words are a curious mix of literal history and anthropology and symbol, spirit and hope. In the dream of prophecy, whose rules are different than those of waking life, he cannot kill, but he can transform. Water quenches the fire of passion and it is the passion to control, the passion of plunder and possession that drives the engines of war. War is fire, but water can put the fire out. Water erodes and dissolves all things. Water is that through which the Israelites escaped and in which we are baptized. Water is the slowest of the four elements at doing its work of transformation, but when it is done, it can reduce even Mt. Everest to level ground.
Likewise, we as a species are long at learning that the practice of war is not power; compared to the power of God, to the power of our patient earth, war is an impetuous tantrum, a toddler’s expression of pure impotence. The horse and chariot of technology tempt me to trust in external things, in apparatus, while God lives within. God is the dream maker. God can see before my birth and after my death and through God I can sense that I am a child of a quivering, living cosmos, a child who will live forever.
I can kill an enemy in two ways. I can kill him with the sword, knife, gun, bomb, grenade, cyanide, land mine, small pox infected blanket, agent orange, AIDS, starvation, poisoned air, earth, water, fire, car crash, prison, Zyklon-B, inhuman labor, torture, neglect, or any other of the means we have devised. Or I can make him my friend.
God has been trying to tell me this for thousands of years.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
When her beloved Siberian husky lead dog “Snickers” died of a gastric ulcer near Grayling this year, Karen Ramstead packed up her sled, left the race and went home to grieve with her family. The outpouring of love and support that followed her sad journey back to Canada overwhelmed her. The most indefatigable worker for the love of sled dogs, Susan Butcher, the champion who was legendary for her kindness and the mystical bonds she forged with her dogs, lost two of them when a moose charged her team in the woods. Things happen, but when taken as a whole, the stories of kindness far, far outnumber the stories of cruelty.
But were the Iditarod a safe field of hopping bunnies, policed by a border patrol to keep all danger out, I could not love it. I would not be God’s sled dog if I mushed with my Lord through the flower strewn paths of a perfect world. At this moment, my safety and security is being bought at the cost of countless lives. Beautiful young people are dying in the desert, their souls coarsened by fear, calloused by killing, and shattered by destruction because my nation cannot come to terms with its own darkness. Millions of people languish in prisons so that I can live in the illusion that I am safe. Billions of people live in poverty so that I can enjoy a buffet of distracting consumer goods and manufactured experiences. When a sled dog dies on the trail, I feel all of this. I face my own smallness in the face of so much that I think I am powerless to change. And I hear God calling me from the burning bush of my heart.
Alaska is real. Although parts of it stink with development, there is still land there that lives and breathes and has not been choked under pavement and poisoned with automobiles. I love Alaska because she has both the capacity to love me and to kill me. The One Earth Lent is not only about conservation, about buying green light bulbs manufactured in a China choking in its own coal fired pollution and working round the clock so that it, too, can guzzle petroleum like champagne. The One Earth Lent is about the Earth itself, about living faithfully in an imperfect world, about looking with open eyes at the Earth who loves us and whom we repay not with gratitude but with looting.
I would no more ban the Iditarod any more than I would outlaw marriage because there is spousal abuse. I would no more ban the Iditarod than I would ban the Bible because there is violence in its pages. I would no more ban the Iditarod than I would keep the Israelites in Egypt because it would be stressful for them to journey to their Promised Land.
You must not take
Love as synonym with approval.
For approval is only about you, while love is wide enough
To encompass what you are not. Love knows death.
And a land this wide
Sometimes thwarts you.
To hear the land and the weather speak
Is also to accept their silence.
The grisaille of a receding tide,
The construction site, urgent for the summer is short.
You rise and fall with the mountains
And there is ample space to wonder.
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
In the dream I was a brash spiritual adept who lived on the ground floor of an apartment building. A wise old man ordered me to ride the elevator to the roof and take care of some flying lizards that were dive bombing the roof garden. I said I would gladly do so and took the elevator straight up. When I arrived on the roof, however, I realized that I was literally in over my head. No sooner was I there than two flying lizards, one red and one green, began teasing and attacking me from above, scratching and clawing with such relentless swiftness and precision that I could barely keep myself from being cut to shreds, much less deal with them. Suddenly the old man materialized at my side. Giving me a knowing look, gently and calmly, he captured both the lizards and put them to bed in a corner of the roof garden. There they lay, the red lizard and the green lizard, all cuddled up under their blanket, and they were purring. Then the wise old man handed me a stake and said, “Now kill them.” I said, “I can’t. They’re too cute.” Taking the staff out of my hand, the wise old man dispatched them at once. He looked at me and said, “The rules are different in the spiritual world.”
Perhaps the greatest confusion in our culture today is the conflation of the inner and outer worlds, a tendency to regard the literal as the only dependable truth, to shy from warfare within the soul, but embrace war in the world without. In a way, this is only to be expected. The last two hundred years in Western Culture have been all about flexing the muscles of human power. The Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the triumph of the Machine. We all know how the great discoveries of the physical sciences gave to the material world an authority that it had not previously possessed. The ability to mathematically describe the natural world felt like explaining it, as if all the secrets of nature were now unveiled. Patterns that were once only intuited by storytellers and patient observes could now be efficiently graphed and quantified. Statistics gave men the tools to design according to probability and make the ideal of the greatest good for the greatest number a little more real. At the same time that the physical sciences began unlocking so many mysteries, the traditional spiritual mysteries, the world of symbol, metaphor and multiple meaning grew vaguer and more insubstantial. When the rational disciplines of mathematics and science made possible a single correct answer for all times, the polysemic textures of story seemed only wishy-washy. Dreams were better understood as electro-chemical discharges than as sendings from a Divine source beyond the scope of scientific explanation. Intuition, synchronicity, all those tools of the mystical understanding of reality were increasingly rationalized as mere coincidence. The Bible was perhaps hardest hit, becoming a primitive attempt at historiography rather than a series of ambiguous tales about God.
Joseph Campbell did not like the Bible. In his view, it was not myth, but monster. For him it had an ancient and ruthless authority to enforce repression and violence. It was a set of tribal texts that, in the name of God, cut us off from our own human nature, from a healthy relationship with our bodies, a story that was not fit to enter the future.
Can any of us regulate what will or will not enter the future? Or is the “future” in this sense like heaven, a Tomorrow-land pie in the sky where all will be resolved and revealed?
Consider last Sunday’s passage from the prophet Isaiah:
Thus says the LORD,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
I am fascinated that in this ancient, tribal text, it is the restoration of the natural world that trumps the world of war, that the mighty engines of destruction are mere candles to be extinguished. Therein lies a lesson for me. When I can defeat the enemy within, I may have less need to take on the rest of the world. More tomorrow.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Of course we cannot take a planet and nail it to a cross, any more than we can literally believe that an Ash Tree, Yggdrasil, is the axis of the nine worlds upon which the Father of all Gods hung for nine nights as he sought the Holy Runes, the Logos. With the image of the Crucified Earth, we enter the world of mythology. We enter the world of dream.
Many of us have seen the celebrated PBS series The Power of Myth, in which Bill Moyers interviewed that architect of the contemporary mythic vision, Joseph Campbell, right here in
He was a curious character, both wisdom figure and fully embodied individualist in the modern, American mold. His emphasis upon peak experience and his famous mantra “follow your bliss” would be misinterpreted into an epidemic of self centered pleasure seeking. He didn’t like the boomers, finding us nothing more than babies in diapers thinking we could take on the gods. His love of the storied world of the past often blinded him to the stories that were brewing right under his nose. And yet, he opened up a world of wonder that probably could not have been opened in any other way. Most of us who have fallen under the influence of myths and dreams were inspired by him.
He was a master of epigram. In the second of the Moyers interviews, “The Journey Inward,” the subject turns from myth to dreaming. As he guided us from the outer world to the world within,
Moyers: What do we learn from our dreams?
Moyers: Why is a myth different from a dream?
I italicized the last line, because it, too, is one of
Now history is very literal, very concrete, while dreams are without any material substance whatsoever. Jesus was all these things: literal flesh and mysterious, breathy spirit. He never raised himself above others until he was lifted up on a cross.
Monday, March 26, 2007
The Earth Cross
This is our symbol for the One Earth Lent: a blue green jewel of a planet encircled within the Celtic Cross. The Celts were, and are, the great theologians of nature, praising and celebrating the Christ of the sea, the sky, the earth, the trees, and the animals. All Creation is good, our friend, our teacher, and our food. In one of my favorite stories of the Celtic saints, the Venerable Bede tells how the 7th century monk Cuthbert of Lindisfarne went out to pray all night in the North Sea. He kept vigil in its frigid waters, and when he emerged in the morning, a pair of otters came to him and warmed him with their fur.
Since the Celts were, and are, so earthy, it seemed somehow appropriate to place our Mother Earth in the loving embrace of the Celtic cross. Ours is adorned with love-knots which evoke the roots that connect us beneath the surface and with stylized flowers, or four leafed clovers, which grow above. In such wise, we hope that we, too, will grow in wisdom and in grace during the spring season which leads us toward Easter.
The Celtic Cross is a symbol that weaves together both Christian and pagan symbolism, rather as the holy Celts themselves did. Their Christ was not a ruthless Messiah who banned all others for the sake of the narrow road of doctrine, but a generous, great-souled being who sanctified them. This great inclusion is symbolized by the ring around the cross, the aura, the halo, the circle of blessing. Because a circle has no beginning and no end, it is also a symbol of the eternity of God’s love. The cross represents the axis between heaven and earth, life and death, while the circle is the ring of the divine marriage which vows salvation for all time.
Some have said that this cross is also an adaptation of the Hindu lingam (phallus) and yoni (vagina), and therefore symbolizes the constancy of the two as one who make possible new birth.
Moved by all this, we chose the Cross and the Earth as our symbol.
But good legends and good symbols move in multiple ways, and as I was reading this Sunday’s Gospel at our Divine Liturgy, new shades of meaning began to emerge. The Gospel is short, so here it is in its entirety:
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
Suddenly, as I read this, the people themselves became symbolic: Mary with her outpouring of nard became as the earth in the spring, freely offering her fragrant, even flagrant, gifts while Judas shrank into something mean and crabbed, that force which seeks, in the name of efficiency, to reduce all goods to the purse. Judas disguised his greed, even as I do, under the rubric of it being for a good cause.
As I stood with Judas, prepared to betray God for thirty pieces of silver, I remembered that silver, gold and riches belong not in heaven, but are the attributes of the death kingdom of Hades. Mysteriously, as I considered Judas' greed and Mary's gift, the symbolism of the Earth Cross began to change. Beauty merged into pain and I saw her hanging on the cross, betrayed for 30 pieces of silver.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
The story is told that when the Indians sold Manhattan in 1626 to the Dutch for $24.00, they thought they had accomplished a swindle, because as anyone of any sense knew, the earth was not for sale. Which is only to say that possession of the land, promised and otherwise, is a subject that has yet to make us proud.
I love the Holy Scripture. I love these tales with so many meanings that call my soul to new and surprising understandings. I love them so much and believe in their truth so deeply that I actually knelt before the bishop and signed a vow stating that the I “do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” I do not make vows that I cannot keep. I have been saved from many dangers and snares by the words of this holy book and it has given me life.
That said, (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?), I balk at the book of Joshua. If Exodus tells the story of a ragtag band of slaves and their struggle for freedom, Joshua is triumphalism at its absolute worst. It is an orgy of destruction. The Israelites made the Promised Land pure for themselves by putting all its inhabitants to the sword, by slaughtering men, women, young and old, children, oxen, sheep and donkeys, by hamstringing horses, all in the name of “devotion.” Jericho, Ai, the Amorites, Libnah, Eglon, Hebron, Debir, Hazor. The list grows with each new victory. They even killed Balaam the prophet with the talking donkey who had called them the favored of God. No one was spared, except the Gibeonites, who became their hewers of wood and bearers of water. How can I, to paraphrase St. Paul above, reconcile all this to a God who reconciles?
The great slaughter begins after Joshua has a vision. A man with a drawn sword appears before him and says he is the commander of the army of the Lord. Joshua falls upon the ground and worships him and asks “What do you command your servant, my Lord?” The answer is both enigmatic and haunting. “The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so.” Interestingly, although slaughter will follow this vision, the vision itself is about holiness, not death. I ask that we hold this incongruity. There is another as well. As everyone knows, one of the main benefits of violence is plunder and wealth. But the Israelites are not allowed to take plunder. These two odd details have all the feel of a story that even though it has been set down on paper, is still a set of thoughts in progress. Yes, it is possible to attribute such contradictions to the fugue states of war. I, however, like to think of Joshua as unfinished. I will not understand Joshua until I understand how God really wants me to live on the land.
Now St. Paul makes the tantalizing suggestion in his second letter to the Corinthians that truth lies beyond what he calls “the human point of view.” We are territorial mammals, yes, and this is good, yes, but this is not all. For as long as Paul saw Jesus from the human point of view, Jesus was an adversary to all the was truest and most holy in Paul’s belief system. Once he went beyond human belief systems, however, everything changed.
I think that the conquest of Canaan is one of those stories that graphically reveals the limitations of a purely human point of view.
Jesus lived with the book of Joshua. Jesus knew the angel with the drawn sword. Jesus came to help us see what these texts meant in waking life. And when his disciple, (John says it was Peter), raised his sword to defend him on the night he was handed over to suffering and death, Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place. The one who lives by the sword will die by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”
I have suggested that the Bible is not history, at least in the sense that we read history today, as a chronicle of what happened, written by the winners and promulgating the winners’ world view. The Bible is the attempt, through narrative, to understand what it means to be fully human in the sight of God. Thus the Bible contains our worst reptilian moments, because God sees these. It contains our moments of absolute goodness and transcendence, because God sees these, too. It contains what lies between, when I am neither hot nor cold. There are time in my own journey that I must hate things the Bible says, because I am struggling with those very things. There are moments when I will find the very words that make everything clear for me when I have run out of answers. I stand uncensored before God and so does the human condition depicted in scripture.
So what do I do with Joshua? Joshua is not about how I behave in times of scarcity and trial, but about the time of outward abundance, about attaining the dream of security. It is about how I move toward what God wants for me. I enter this book with great humility for it reminds me that from a human point of view, land, territory, power are very dangerous things that tempt me to inflict death, while God’s point of view is all about life. It is in reading Joshua that I realize that not only is the Bible not to be taken literally, but if I am to find its message of life, I cannot take it literally. Not for nothing is Jesus' Hebrew name Joshua.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
The word “prodigal” comes from a Latin verb meaning “to be extravagant” or “to drive away.” These two meanings seem to have little to do with one another until I consider that extravagance is a form of separating myself from others. When I am extravagant I turn others into the instruments of my pleasure. Others are only there to congratulate and affirm my largesse, to catch the crumbs I choose to throw their way.
So there was a father who had two sons. On the surface, these two sons seem very different, the older, righteous one, an upholder of decency and tradition, the younger, the extravagant one who throws it all away. And yet as I have reflected upon these two sons over years and years of reading this parable, Lenten studies of it, Henri Nouwen's wonderful meditations on Rembrandt's painting, these two brothers begin to blur until they are not so much two brothers, but two different sides of myself. I have a great capacity for extravagance. I’m an American, after all. I like good food and drink. I like throwing myself around and taking up space at the airport. But also as an American, which is to say, as the child of a Puritan heritage, I can also be very judgmental of myself when I do this, and fatally judgmental of others who just might get in my way.
It makes me wonder. It makes me wonder whether, in some manner, the two sons in this perfectly crafted story are not so much two individuals as they are different sides of the same one, a self at different ages and stages. Dostoevsky, that unsparing cartographer of the soul, talked about this as “doubling.” Carl Jung explored the human being as three part invention: ego, the part of myself that I own and which defines my personality, profession and way of being in the world; shadow, all those things I am not, but which I also am, the part of myself that I fear and don’t understand; and self, the being in which all these things are integrated and made whole.
A very famous public figure embodies these two characters with dramatic clarity and results. As a young man, i.e. in his younger brother stage, he was a drunk and a carouser. Later, he “came to himself,” joined the recovery movement and became the older brother, an upholder of tradition and a very powerful politician. Today, convinced of his own righteousness and unable to fully forgive or even integrate the wild man that he once was, he punishes all who would oppose him with an institutional ruthlessness that has not been seen in this country since white men tortured and lynched their dark skinned shadow brothers.
Missing in this struggle between the brothers, and especially in the story of the politician who bears the outward and visible signs of his nation’s psychic wounds, is the self that both seek to become. It is usual when reading the parable of the Prodigal Son to see the brothers as the sinner and the righteous man and the father as God. God who forgives. God who is so glad to see a repentant one that he brings the ring and the robe and kills the fatted calf, the God who is waiting to welcome us home. Because spiritual stories have an infinity of meanings, this is certainly a good way to read it.
But again, I wonder. Perhaps the father is not God, but the Self that the two incomplete and wounded brothers of ego and shadow seek to become. Perhaps the father is the integration of both. A life goes through many stages; impulsive youth, the stern and responsible years of middle adulthood, the wisdom of age. The stages of a fully human life are a trinity. By the time he comes home, the younger brother has explored his shadow side. He has seen what keeping up appearances leads to and he can now embrace a greater fullness of being. He has learned that when the means of keeping up appearances are gone, there is nothing left, for an obsession with appearances, no less than slavery, deprives us of our inner life. The older brother has so meticulously kept up his outer life and duty that he does not know this until his father broadsides him with a robe, a ring and a fatted calf, the material rewards of a life well lived given not as crown to him, but in gratitude for the return of his brother. In this moment, the older brother is revealed as just as obsessed with money as the younger one, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'
The older son refuses to join the feast. He is prodigal, too. He drives away all thought of reconciliation. His doctrine dictates that he must draw a line in the sand and cling to his vision of moral purity, even if he is being invited by God to do otherwise. In the name of his own correctness, he refuses to embark on his journey toward integration. It is clear in some way that this older brother, for all his being obedient and righteous, has refused God.
But where is God in this parable? If the father is not God, but the fully realized human being, then who is God? It was when I prayed this question that Jesus came to me. Jesus who stands between the warring parties. Jesus, who on the night the Israelites and the Egyptians faced off against one another, became the Passover lamb, the firstborn who died with the Egyptians and nourished the Israelites for their exodus. Jesus, who stood between the bulls of Rome and the rams of Judea and became the bread of heaven. Jesus, who when the sinner came home and it was time for the feast, became the fatted calf, that all who feed on him shall have eternal life.
It is not by our righteous deeds, our successes or our failures that God will find and bless us. It is by our willingness to join the feast, even when we feel so shafted that we can barely speak. When we lose community, it doesn’t matter what else we have, for without community, we have lost it all.
Sunday, March 18, 2007
At Redeemer, we have been praying for two young people battling malignant, terminal diseases. One was to have his life support removed Sunday at noon. In the case of the other, a girl hanging on to life with a mere 5% chance of survival, the grief and anguish was so great, that a nationwide request went out, pleading for a miracle. Let my daughter live! Let her fall in love and have a child. Let her watch the flowers grow and the leaves turn. Don't take a life that has not yet been fully lived. Tears welled up in my eyes as I prayed, for I spent last summer watching two people very dear to me waste away from cancer, one of them refusing to take no for an answer until the very end. Why does God seem to answer some prayers and not others? Is death, even for a young person, the worst evil?
If God often feels silent, I will not rush in with words. Prayers are not answered with platitudes. I can only tell you two stories. They both happened on this year's Iditarod sled dog race.
The first story is about this year's winner, Lance Mackey. Lance is 36 years old. His father Dick won the Iditarod back in 1978. In 1983, the year I started following it, his older brother Rick came in first. Both won on their sixth try. Both wore bib 13. In 2001, in his rookie year at age 30, Lance placed 36th. That was an OK finish race wise, but shortly after that, he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma on his neck. They operated and did radiation and with the support of admiring doctors, Lance hit the trail again in 2002, a feeding tube tucked under his cold weather clothes. The tube kept freezing and he was forced to scratch in Ophir, about 100 miles away from the halfway point. Despite his having to drop out, he was given the Most Inspirational Musher award at the closing banquet. He did not race again until 2004, but by then he was a true survivor. In 2005, Mackey won a second grueling sled dog race, the Yukon Quest, 1000 miles between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. He raced in the Iditarod a mere two weeks later, placing seventh. In 2006, he again won the Quest, placing 10th in the Iditarod. In 2007, he won the Quest for a third time, setting an all time speed record.
People said Lance was pursuing the impossible, to try and win two such strenuous races that happen so close together. The dogs could certainly finish both, a number of mushers do this, but to run at top speed? Impossible. But Lance had looked death in the eye and this gives a person a certain kind of courage. He believed in himself and his team. In 2007, his sixth Iditarod, he chose lucky number 13.
Now I happen to be a fan of Jeff King. Jeff grew up here in Northern California. I know him and like him alot. He is capable and kind. His wife is a skilled artist -- I have a number of her prints -- and he is the father of three wonderful daughters. He and his family project zest and they are as loyal to one another as a good pack of dogs. On Sunday, March 11, Jeff sailed into Unalakleet in first place and I shamelessly prayed in church that he would take his fifth championship. But when they interviewed him at the checkpoint, something had changed. "I very much want to win this," Jeff said. "But if I don't I hope Lance does, because it's a real magic story. And I think it would be dull as hell if one of us would win it four times, win it five times, as opposed to somebody who's not supposed to have won it who wants it that bad, who has a magical run. Ok, there's a fairy tale ending. It just doesn't involve me as much."
That as much was the key. Jeff had blessed his own run by blessing Lance. He may not have known what he gave away out there on the coast of the Bering Sea, but I've known saints. I know that kind of gift when I see it.
God remembered Jeff's blessing, and Lance Mackey's fairy tale ending came to pass. That's a picture of Lance and his lead dog "Larry." As Beth Bragg of the Anchorage Daily News wrote, "He's the Lance Armstrong of mushing, a cancer survivor who has endured as much as any athlete in headlines today." Lance triumphed over cancer and uncorked a bottle of champagne under the burled arch in Nome.
The other story takes a very different turn. A year ago December, at the age of 50, four time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher was diagnosed with Leukemia, just as, after a long absence from racing, she had started training again and wondered why she was so tired. She went into treatment and turned up without her hair at the Ruby checkpoint in 2006, signing autographs, cheering on her friends who were racing, and inspiring all of us who loved her and who had followed her career. Susan was the kind of women who made friends with everyone she met and had thousands of other friends, including me, whom she never did meet face to face. She was surrounded by prayer, hope and good wishes, when she checked into a Seattle hospital for a bone marrow transplant. She was a real candidate for survival: healthy and under 55. But Susan didn't make it. During the predawn hours of August 5th, she left us to ride with her team one last time to God's heavenly Nome. I felt her go and it felt like I had lost my sister.
As Lance was mushing to victory in Nome, another team was on a different journey. Setting out from Nenana, the place from which the original mushers set out with the serum in 1925, Susan's husband Dave Monson and their older daughter Tekla, drove the family dogs and Susan's ashes on a pilgrimage to Old Woman Cabin, a place between Kaltag and Unalakleet where the Interior begins to look toward the Bering Sea Coast, a place that Susan, who knew that coast better than any musher back in the '80's, had loved. They arrived in Kaltag right between Jeff King and Martin Buser.
Yesterday, they got to Nome. "Your mom's smiling down on you right now," someone said. Eleven year old Tekla said, "Yeah." The first one to hug them was Jeff King.
The LORD said to Joshua, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.
While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
Be careful of what you pray for, say the wise ones. For it might just come to pass.
With the fourth week of Lent, our story takes a surprising turn. Up until now, we have been dealing with narrowness, loss and uncertainty: Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Abram’s wanderings in it, Moses’ exile beyond its fringe. We have pondered the Passover, the parting of waters, the mysteries of chaos. We have been wanderers on the face of the earth.
And now, suddenly, our wanderings are done. Egypt, the narrow land, lies behind us, and at last we enter the “good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” We have come into the country that God promised to Moses on that strange and lonely day beyond the wilderness. All the disgrace of slavery is rolled away. Not only are we free, but we’re rich. Not only do I no longer need God to feed me, my dad has enough money for me to take my trust fund and go off to a far country where I may recover from the stress of success.
In this spirit, the fourth Sunday of Lent is sometimes called "Laetare Sunday" - from the first word of the traditional antiphon appointed by the Catholic Church for that day. “Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad for her, you who love her; rejoice with her, you who mourned for her, and you will find contentment at her consoling breasts.” On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we come home. The manna from God ceases and we eat the produce of the land. Our eyes are opened anew, our hunger is satisfied, and our forced wanderings cease.
This is the moment in fairy tales when we read, “and they lived happily ever after.” And were the Bible a fairy tale, that is precisely where it would have ended, with the Israelites going happily over the Jordan, which also parted for them, into the beautiful kingdom promised them by God. But the Bible is not a fairy tale. If it is not precisely human history, which it cannot precisely be since its main character is God, it is not sparing in its depiction of the human condition. It shows us, those who lived in the ancient Mediterranean and those of us descended from them, exactly who we are, from the wisest and most tender, to ourselves at our most vile, believing, in our guise of the Roman empire, that we can get rid of God by simply executing him. Although today’s entry into the promised land is relatively quiet, it won’t be for long. Compared to the few Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea during the Exodus, thousands now perish by the sword as the Israelites take possession of what is theirs. From the very beginning, the promised land will be a place of war and slaughter, a place where Israel experiences terrible conflict with their neighbors, with themselves and with their God.
This is not to say that the Israelites should be singled out for censure. Biologically, human beings are territorial mammals and territories must be defended. Israel expressed its territoriality as a God thing. Our God is a jealous God and the purity of our worship must not be tainted by idolatry. Therefore, to spare us having to deal with your idolatry, God has ordered us to kill you all.
Questions of the land, questions of territory have haunted us for centuries. Who is entitled to live where we do? Just because God gave us the promised land, does that mean we own it? Is God a heavenly realtor handing out title deeds? Does being in a place give us the right to keep others out, to declare some people legal and others illegal? Just what does the land mean? Are the gifts of God there for us to use in any way that we want? Are we doing the right thing when we set ourselves apart from our neighbors?
Or as the Pharisees say, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them," as if the only way to live in distressing times is to declare some people correct and designate others untouchables, undocumented, unclean -- every age has its own way of expressing it. The only way I can be absolutely sure of what I am in troubling times, is to tell you what you are not.
So Jesus told them about a prodigal son.
Friday, March 16, 2007
In ancient mythology, the universe itself was a conversation between order and chaos, often contained in a single figure, like the sacred serpent monster that held it all in its cosmic coils. Dealing with chaos, therefore, is one of the great tasks of theological life. Drew University theologian Catherine Keller writes in her book Face of the Deep, that God did not create ex nihilo, out of nothing. There is no creativity in nothing. Nothing, as we shall later see, is death. Rather, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” This suggests not hands conjuring matter out of nowhere, but creation as awakening, as formless matter receiving form and sense, as a great gathering together that awakens and becomes conscious, God as mind. To be fully awake, therefore, is to somehow make this journey from formless chaos into conscious life, from our beginnings as liquid in the womb, through our material life in the body, to our full spiritual formation as the people of God.
In the Passover, the people were born again, from the slavery of a purely physical life to a new, spirit filled understanding of themselves and the universe. Passover is the mystery reenacted in the baptism of John when people are submerged in the waters and death passes over them. Passover, as was earlier said, was the meal Jesus shared with his disciples on the night before he died. Because we Christians think of Passover as part of our watery mystery of baptism, it is good to remember that Passover does not refer to the passing of the Israelites over the sea. They had already been saved from death by the time that happened. Their passover happened when the angel of death passed over them on the night of Egypt’s final plague. Their passover was when their firstborn were spared and their lives could continue. Their passover was assured by the lamb's blood on the lintels of their houses, for God ordered them to kill a lamb for each household as nourishment and to use the blood as a mark so that the angel of death would know them as God's chosen that night. That night marked their journey from death to life, just as the Cross would mark Jesus’, just as baptism by water and the spirit marks ours.
When the Israelites emerged from the Red Sea, they completed a process of re-creation from the chaos of the world they left behind and were literally made a new people. In like manner, in the ancient Church, the weeks leading toward Easter was the season in which those seeking to become the people of the Christ entered deeply into preparation for their baptism. In the ancient church, baptism involved stripping down to utter nakedness, as Christ was stripped for the cross and being submerged beneath the waters three times. Emerging from the waters, the new Christian was clothed in white and fed a first meal of milk and honey to celebrate that person’s arrival in the promised land of eternal life. The old life loosed, its old clothes strewn across the past, the new life was bound in the love of God become human in Christ. All these mingled tales and mysteries deal with a place beyond fate and fear, and during Lent we spend time with the mysteries of fate and fear because it is hard to experience deliverance until you know what it is you are being delivered from. Lent is the season when I face what enslaves me. Lent is the season when, with God’s help, I seek my own shape and form in the midst of my life’s chaos.
“I Will Sing to the Lord, for He Has Triumphed Gloriously; Horse and Rider He Has Thrown into the Sea.”
This happens to be a very good question. One approach to it, of course, is that God has very different ideas of life and death than we do. If I am really able to believe that God is pure life and God is pure love, then I will know, at least at some level, that what we call death is actually birth and that the Egyptians were not killed, merely received. Unfortunately, this answer is not likely to satisfy a fifth grader, nor did it satisfy the Israelites.
The Lord is a warrior; (sang Moses to his dancing people)
the Lord is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea;
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power—
your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.
At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
This is not the poetry of resurrection! Perhaps it was the Egyptians’ fault to pursue the Israelites when it was clear that the receding seas were giving way to an incoming tsunami. So blinded were these men by their obedience to earthly power that they did not even notice what was coming. Therefore, the Egyptians congealed in the heart of the sea serve as a reminder that it is better to pay attention to the world than to attempt to overpower it.
But this answer did not impress Hamon Berryman any more than the death as birth move. As it happened, we were having this part of the conversation during actual flood conditions as we hiked up to Mirror Lake in Yosemite in the pouring rain. There’s something especially vivid about drowning Egyptians at the very moment I discover that my waterproof gear was only rated for 45 minutes of dryness and that I’ve hit minute 46. As minute 46 turned into minute 50 and the clock crept toward a drenched 90 minutes, the conversation grew ever more interesting, wandering, as conversations with Hamon usually did, from Exodus to a series of fantasy novels set in the underworld that all the kids were reading that year. It was still raining when we arrived back to a completely flooded camp. By then, we were willing to entertain that there might be fates more evil than being drowned in the Red Sea. Who says that you can’t experience the Biblical on a school camping trip?
The next day dawned in the insouciant way days can dawn after rain, beautiful and sunny, and for a time all thoughts of the Red Sea dissolved on the trail. We were on our way to the top of Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail. It had only been opened several days before and at some places the rapids flowed mere inches from our path, roaring and sweeping over the rocks while we navigated the narrows and looked down over double rainbows from the dizzying heights. One of the boys froze with fear and had to be brought up the back way, but that did not exclude him from the story. It just gave him a different path.
The truth of Egypt, as Joseph Campbell writes in his book The Masks of God, is that it understood the “secret of the two partners,” the truth that life and death are part of a great continuum, that female and male are not opposite sexes but different paths to the same place, that animals and humans share a great and sacred continuum. To walk through the temple at Luxor is to be surprised by the divine in all things: in cobra, crocodile and jackal, in ibis, hawk and lion. To meet a goddess of the sun and a god of the moon, to contemplate the scales of Osiris and the justice of Ma’at, to see human and divine fused in the person of Pharaoh whose job it was to maintain this sacred balance.
But, as we’ve seen, Israel found the gap between the two partners, because Israel was not allowed to participate in this measured and stately world. Someone, after all, had to clean up after the Gods. So God, who thinks we should all clean up after our messes, let the Israelite slaves go. If this is the foundation story of the Jews, it cannot be verified from any other source. If we refuse to believe Torah, then the story becomes pure myth. If the Exodus literally never historically happened and is in fact a symbol of something else, no Egyptians died pursuing them across the Red Sea, and you may accept that answer if you like.
After forty years, the Israelites attained the “good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” that God in the burning bush promised Moses. Which leads me to ask. When Israel became its own great kingdom, would it become just as intolerant and exclusive as Egypt? Yes, it would. Would God get mad? Yes, God would. Is the story over? No it is not, for Israel and Egypt are still fighting. Does that make one right and the other wrong? No, because the point is not rightness. It has never been rightness. It is been about a partnership large enough to include us all. The theological word for this is reconciliation.
So let us modestly return to my student’s moment, remembering that it is not the only moment. But at that moment, according to our story, the Egyptians failed at their own best game. These so called masters of the Divine failed to see the Divine when it appeared in their own back yard. On the shores of the Red Sea that day, they saw only that their labor force was getting away with something, which is not a very spiritually noble observation. Immigration of the working class is not supposed to happen in reverse. They are supposed to be grateful to be our gardeners and our cleaning ladies and to pick our fruit and build big box homes they will never inhabit. Right? The Egyptians in all likelihood pursued for no other reason than economic interest. And caught up in their assumption that they held understanding and authority over heaven and earth, they did not notice that offshore more than a metaphor was rising, that the path was no longer before them, that their workers had escaped and all that was left was a raging sea. The waters swallowed them, and they left the Kingdom of Egypt for the Realm of Osiris. Were they lost? For a time, perhaps, but since the God who hears the cries of the slaves and their wasted lives is all about making sure that lives aren’t wasted, we must assume that these lives were not wasted through any fault of their Creator. Or as Hamon finally concluded, "Death isn't always a bad thing, is it?"
The Israelites or, if you prefer them, the Egyptians, may still represent all our deepest, unanswered questions, our desire to wrap things up once and for all and tell the world definitively what God is and is not. I do not know. I do know, however, that by the time we arrived at the top of Vernal Falls we had come through our own Red Sea. The white water behind the falls leaped over a rock like chariots drawn by wild horses. Rainbows colored the sky as in the days of Noah. And while we stood watching it, we knew that we had faced fears within ourselves and had come through them, deeply and vibrantly alive.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
“God said, ‘Okay. Heaven’s for everybody.’ God never left anybody or anything out.”
-God Goes on Vacation by Edwina Gateley
New things begin as answers to very old questions. This is only one reason why it is unwise to forget the past. The other is that God never leaves anybody or anything out.
For all that Egypt had rejected him and enslaved his mother’s people, Moses was still an Egyptian and would have understood the divine in Egyptian terms. Egyptian mythology is deeply beautiful. In it, God is just as likely to appear as an ibis or a baboon as she is as slender Isis or the gentle cow-eared Hathor.
Egypt is a rainless land where fire, in the guise of Ra the sun, is sacred. The cobra and the cow guard the sun, the cobra in his hood, the cow between her brancing horns. Every night in cloudless Egypt, the sun is swallowed by Nut whose body was decked with stars and who gives birth to the sun each morning. The sun’s night-sea journey became for Carl Jung the incubator of dreams, where our conscious mind descended into the waters of the unconscious, and drew life from the blood of the feminine.
Should we be surprised, therefore, that when Moses met God it was a light shining through the branchy horns of a bush and his staff coming to life as a cobra? Is it blasphemy to see the burning bush as another variation of the unquenchable feminine force of life? Cow and cobra would become part of Israel's legend, too. Each would appear in the desert, each in its own time, each with its own lesson. And yet, there was something different in Israel's experience as well. By becoming not symbol, but being in itself, the fire that did not consume, God deepened our understanding of life beyond cow and cobra, ibis, baboon and human to the very elements that fashion us. Not only the creatures, but the earth also, lives.
The Golden Calf was probably not some bull of Assyria, but Hathor, the great mother goddess of Egypt. Hathor the cow is a very ancient being. Daughter of the sun god Re and the sky goddess Nut, friend of cobras, Hathor’s name means House of Horus and for a time, she was considered the mother of the falcon Horus until that honor passed to Isis. Horus, like the cobra, was a protector of Kings, god of sun and manhood and far vision, one eye the sun, one eye the moon, the speckles on his falcon breast the stars. He rests on the neck of Pharaoh, shielding him with his wings in a way that reminds me of something Moses himself said,
As an eagle stirs up her nest,
and hovers over her young;
as she spreads her wings, takes them up,
and bears them aloft on her pinions,
the Lord alone guided him; (Deut 32: 11:12a)
The way I experience the Divine will differ the way that you do, but that does not necessarily make one of us wrong and the other right. Who is anyone to name the infinite? That is only one reason why, in Judaism, God is simply Hashem, the Name.
Even as I worship One God, I worship the One who embraces, not excludes. I remember that Jesus, too, knew serpent and cow. Born in a manger, he later foreshadowed his death from an image from the Exodus. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
To look at Moses and the burning bush, to meet Hathor and Horus, to remember the tender moment when the cobra king raised its hood over the head of Prince Siddhartha to shield him from the rain, to see the cross as the serpent that heals us from all poison, is to go far from the world as we know it. It is to enter a truly storied world of wonders, a world that mere fact cannot contain. Which teaches me that to live as sacred beings on a sacred earth is ultimately to let go of everything I know.
Monday, March 12, 2007
The Bible suggests that the Israelites lost God during their 430 years in Egypt. Sometimes I wonder whether the same thing has happened to me. As I trace my own history back 430 years, I discover interesting things. In 1577, Queen Elizabeth was on the throne. My Anglican faith was new, but born from a terrible and bloody struggle with Catholicism, as if religion were an armament of war. European explorers, including Sir Francis Drake, were off seeking treasure and bringing disease to the New World. Galileo would celebrate his 13th birthday in Italy. As I ponder life in 1577, I see, not so much a re-birth, a Renaissance, but a birth, the birth of the world I inhabit today, a world where many human beings have come to find God unnecessary. Now since God is life and God is love, to find God unnecessary is, at some level, to find love unnecessary. It is, at some level, to find the lives of others unnecessary. And the result of that kind of forgetting is that life and love and the earth cease to be sacred. The work of community feels less important. And when human beings begin to drift away from the bonds of love and obligation that create community, the result, almost always, is that human beings turn into objects. I wonder sometimes whether I love the Exodus story not only because it is a good and important and sacred story, but because it is my story. I stand in Egypt and I seek to remember God.
You may ask why the nature of the Israelites' slavery is an important question. After all, the Moses story looks far more toward deliverance from slavery than a detailed exploration of its conditions. Except for the most blatant forms of bondage like that of the Africans in the New World, slavery can be a fluid concept. What was once honorable labor can, imperceptibly, evolve into a hell of stress and exploitation.
The lives of the Israelites and the Egyptians had been intertwined for centuries in ways far beyond divisions of labor. In the days of Joseph, to labor for Pharaoh was a sign of honor. Joseph saved Egypt and Egypt saved Israel. This mutual dependency probably continued even to the time of building cities. It is likely that the Israelites, if they were ever even there – this is sacred story, after all, and sacred stories often take place off the map – were recruited into the building trades because of their skill and engineering. But at some point along the way, what had once been technological success became dehumanizing. Somewhere along the way, the Israelites appear to have lost their inner lives.
As Rabbi Lavey Derby of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon pointed out, when Moses came down from Midian and brought to his people God’s incredible promise of deliverance, the Israelites could not even hear him. They were exhausted from overwork and squeezed by a “shortness of spirit.” Slavery had reduced their once rich souls to a series of irritations and distractions. They could no longer breathe. In Hebrew, the word for spirit, “ruach” is the same as the word for breath. One can be remunerated quite fairly and still be a slave if one is so distracted and short of breath that life is reduced to mere survival.
Now, not all the Israelites were so lost, or they might not have had the breath to cry out. The midwives were brave. Moses’ mother put her child into a basket which sailed down the river to Pharaoh’s court. We’re not certain about the rest. The important thing to remember about their story is that the search for God is also a search for another way than the world's way. Freedom is one of the important signposts of that spiritual life formed at the crossroads.
By contrast, many churches will tell you that obedience is the primary practice, or strict fidelity to dogma, or the fact that you are stained by original sin, or that you face the possibility of hell. All these can be helpful at the appropriate time, but if they do not lead toward freedom, they are probably just another word for slavery. God does not need slaves to maintain order. God is order. In getting to know God, one begins to make connections that had heretofore been invisible.
None of this is easy. This may be one of the reasons the Israelites spent forty years in the wild complaining about comfort and convenience and pampering their own sense of fearfulness. God had amazing faith in these people. God thought they could get their act together in a mere forty years.
Thousands of years later, in my own Promised Land, I’m still trying.
Sometimes I wonder whether I have confused survival with life. At funerals I hear people say things like, “He gave up the fight.” When I took a course on cancer, I heard the phrase “give up,” all the time, as if allowing my body to die were a great act of laziness, or, worse yet, defeatism. As if who I am is entirely about this body, about keeping this body going at all costs. All costs is not mere metaphor either. In 2004, almost 15% of the American GDP or $1.55 trillion was spent on keeping the body going medically.(1 If you add the gyms, the exercise machines and equipment, the diet industry, and all those other industries that capitalize on maintaining our health, that figure would be far higher. We are working harder, living longer, and are more anxious than ever. Where is God in a wilderness of treadmills? What happens to all those calories I work so hard to burn?
Beyond the wilderness, Moses turned aside to see a bush that was burning and was not consumed. Fire is the alchemical symbol of transformation. Water erodes, earth decomposes, wind blows apart, but fire consumes. In physics, fire corresponds to energy, while earth, air and water are matter.
The Burning Bush does what fire does. It transforms. It is easy to confuse transformation with death and consumption, but God wants Moses to look beyond appearances. For all its being a miracle, the Burning Bush actually reveals an essential truth about nature. Nothing in nature is ever really consumed. It may be radically changed, but it doesn’t go away. My dung will become food for beetles. My body, when I am done with it, will be reabsorbed into the earth. Sperms and eggs will merge and turn into new creatures. Trees fall and their trunks are transformed into soil. Sea creatures become reefs of brilliant coral. In a healthy ecosystem, there is no waste. The bush burns and new life begins. Creation, when left to its own cycles and rhythms, literally will not run out. Life in the body is sacred, yes, but so is the body’s change.
The same is not true in our culture of consumption. What does it mean for creation that we have become a consumer society? To be a consumer means to buy products and burn calories. We measure our wealth by what we are able to use up. In contrast to nature’s cycles of growth, decay and rebirth, the production and consumer waste cycle is not reabsorbed into the earth. Manufactured waste requires yet another industry to break it down, recycle it, or haul it into the landfill where much of it will remain inert and unchanged for millennia. Many of the by-products of the consumer society are actively poisonous. Developed to promote human health and well being, certain pharmaceuticals are now attracting attention as a potentially new class of water pollutants. Such drugs as antibiotics, anti-depressants, birth control pills, seizure medication, cancer treatments, pain killers, tranquilizers and cholesterol-lowering compounds have been detected in varied water sources.(2 Petroleum, the life blood of the consumer world, is one of the most toxic substances known. When there is a fire at our neighboring refinery, automatic locks shut all the office staff within doors lest they go outside and be made ill by the waste.
Instead of transforming what we don’t use or cannot metabolize into life for some other creature, consumerism creates mountains of waste: metallic, plastic, packaging, obsolete electronics, things we’ve grown out of or gotten tired of. There are ravaged ecosystems and ravaged lives in the third world that I will never see that have been created by my need to consume. Consumerism, with its emphasis upon things is a world view that discourages relationships, not only because I measure my wealth in things rather than in people, but also because my power resides in my ability to manipulate a so-called impersonal world. But what if the world isn’t like that? What if there really is a God who cares, who loves us, who wants us all to live?
William H. Willimon writes in The Christian Century, “Stanley Hauerwas says that our culture is built on the fear of death. He thinks this explains our health care system, our economy, our government, Gold's Gym and all the rest. I am now fond of saying that this culture is built on an even greater fear -- the threat of being raised from the dead.” What if I, like the bush, were to burn and burn and never be consumed?
1) “Health Spending Rises to 15% of Economy, a Record Level” by Robert Pear. New York Times, January 9, 2004
2) Arizona Water Resource, July-August, 2000
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."
One of the books I used to read to my school children was a delightful and perfectly silly story called God Goes on Vacation. In the story, God leaves heaven for a week in Florida, where he takes many forms, befriends a crab, a spider and a worm, and curls his, and sometimes her, toes happily in the sand, turning everything into very, very holy ground.
There are probably no words dearer to the One Earth Lent than “holy ground.” Take off your shoes. This is holy ground. Mingle your toes with the earth under foot. Draw strength from the land you stand upon, the dust from which you were made, the you that God breathed life into. More than anything, Earth theology is all about the holiness of our life in the body; it is all about honoring the dust from which we were created and the dust to which we will return. It is about loving the strength of youth and bowing to the wisdom of age. It is all about conservation, not as the project of the Sierra Club, but as the project of God. Conservation is a word that combines the Latin roots “with” and “servant.” God comes to save the lost: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the people who have lost their way in the wilderness, and God comes to serve them as well.
This week we move in a new direction, away from the wilderness, for Moses does not meet God in the wilderness. Unlike Jesus, who went into the wilderness to be tempted, unlike Abram, who left the city of Haran to sojourn in the wilderness, the Bible says explicitly that Moses went beyond the wilderness when he encountered the burning bush. In the Moses story, the foundation story of the Jews, the foundation story of Jesus, God was found beyond any familiar assumptions of nature and culture, past the theologies of paradise and sin. God looked down from a holy mountain that is on no ones map, that is sometimes called Horeb, and is sometimes called Sinai, and you may chalk that up to the different source theory if you like.
But perhaps it means that God’s conservation is not limited by human geography, that no one has a monopoly on the place where God is, that it is neither wild nor tame, but having embraced and enveloped them both, will take us places we have never been before.
When the Moses story opens, the Israelites are no longer wanderers and herders. They have mastered the arts of civilization. They have become builders, skilled in technology, constructing the supply cities of Pithom and Rameses. It may have been wonderful to learn the skills to do all this, but by the time we meet them, 430 years after Joseph settled his family in Egypt, they are feeling overworked. “But the more they were oppressed,” the story goes, “the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.”
This story has a deeply contemporary ring. A great country. A great many skilled and successful workers, their successes rewarded not with leisure and grace but with even more labor, more stress, a fear on the part of management that those who produce for them might rise up and claim the fruit of their labor, side with the company’s enemies. Supply cities, the urge not for sufficiency, but for surplus, wealth at any cost. But even though they multiplied, even though they were good at stress, good at mastering whatever task you set before them, the Israelites at this moment had the sense to say enough! To call out to a God they remembered from somewhere in their past. But even more importantly, “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”
This is a pretty bold statement. We spend so much time as faith communities practicing God’s presence, that rarely do we ever bother to consider God’s absence. But here it is. Here is God, remembering his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Here is God taking notice. Does that imply that God might just from time to time leave us to our own devices? Do we as a species behave as if that just might be so? That is, of course, the unspoken theme of God Goes on Vacation, that God is not always around, at least in ways we expect. Because God Goes on Vacation is a happy children’s book about the beach, we manage very well in God’s absence, serving one another with kindness and good deeds, finding the God-magic in our hearts. Perhaps children are natural conservationists. Perhaps children are naturally kind and giving. I know that my daughter was not born a consumer. She had to be taught.
Nor is Exodus a happy children’s story. Exodus is about a people who are being consumed. They are lost and enslaved. The Exodus story suggests that if we let God go on vacation, we’ll get into great mischief indeed. To maintain our feelings of power, humans will enslave one another. When God is absent, servanthood becomes humiliation and disgrace. Death and domination will overpower the gift of life. Hence the cry of the Israelites, groaning under their slavery, being told to kill their baby boys. What that slavery was really like was a complex question and one that I will take up later this week, but for now, let us just say that the Israelites had been reduced from humanity to instruments of productivity. They had no life outside work, and feeling that they could not go on, they cried out to God. And God answered them by appearing to Moses in the form of a burning bush that, unlike slaves, products and supply cities, was not consumed.
"Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."
Saturday, March 10, 2007
Our own Jeff King left Eagle Island at noon today, just five minutes ahead of Martin Buser. Cheer on this wonderful Marin County native who is our friend and who so kindly welcomed our Caribou last summer! You can check his progress on the Links, above. If he wins this year, he'll take home his 5th championship.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Next Year in Jerusalem, say my friends around the Passover Table. Jerusalem is the city that is holy to three faiths. It is the axis mundi, the city of spices and music and narrow streets in its old quarter, a city that, at least according to my friend Dorothy who lived there for awhile, speaks with a music all its own. It is also a city where much blood has been shed, the city where, at least according to Jesus, prophets go to die. Perhaps it is the city that brings us face to face with our truth.
There can be no One Earth Lent without a stop in Jerusalem. At the very least, Jerusalem raises the critique that many enviromentalists have laid at the feet of the Judeo-Christian tradition, that we are an urban faith, that we worship a God who wants to lift us off the earth rather than guide us in its ways. St. Augustine did not locate God in nature; his magnum opus was The City of God. Our Israelite forebears were less otherworldly, but for them, too, excepting Abraham, the wilderness was a place of travail. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the City of God was Jerusalem, the city conquered when David and his troops entered the water shaft via trickery, and which became the capital of the undivided kingdom:
On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken of you,
O city of God. (Ps. 87)
Many of us are troubled that war rages in a land called holy, that Israelis and Palestinians shoot each other’s children and most of the Christians who once lived there have fled. Many say that this war is an indictment of religion itself. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing.” Jesus does not yet live in the world of St. Augustine. Augustine, watching the Roman empire fall all around him, dies in thrall to what he believes is God's vision of Imperial Law and Order. Jesus, on the other hand, just comes to earth and walks around and proclaims that we’re all in this together, a clutch of baby birds, terrified of anything that does not look like us. Therefore, we may be reading the city wrong. The city is not a negation of nature, but a gathering place for scattered and frightened life.
Fear and bad assumptions may what ail Jerusalem. Robert Putnam, Harvard sociologist and author of the well known study Bowling Alone, discovered a very uncomfortable statistic. In a survey of 26,200 people in 40 American communities, it turned out that the more racially and culturally diverse the community, the lower the level of trust. Needless to say, certain interests who oppose multi-culturalism were happy to hear this, but I think they may be a little hasty. Statistics are not the same as conclusions.
Jerusalem is a city of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Far from being disturbed by this, I wonder whether God wants it this way, not as a sinful locus of conflict, but as a sacred classroom of trust. To live well with those who are not like me requires that I work at it. To live in a diverse world calls me to work on community. In homogeneous communities like the affluent suburb I inhabit, our sameness allows us to pursue our private lifestyles without much regard for what others might think. We don’t smoke. We all drive expensive cars. There are no grizzled prospectors among us who failed to stake their claim, so we need not look failure in the face. But biology favors diversity. Creatures that are forced to contend with the Other grow wiser than those who don’t. Cities, according to essayist Jay Walljasper, are human ecosystems. “In terms of the environment, cities clearly offer the most earth–friendly lifestyle. A resident of an inner–city neighborhood who takes public transit to work, walks to local businesses, and shares a modest home with family or friends imposes far less damage on the environment than most Americans do.” (1
The story of the Bible begins in a Garden and ends in the Heavenly City. We should not confuse either of these places with the sorry state of our world today. Even as our world may be falling apart, both the Garden and the Heavenly City are masterpieces of collaboration. Both contain all the means of life. As Chicago New Testament professor Barbara Rossing reminded us at this year's Trinity Institute Lectures in New York, in Revelation’s Heavenly City we taste, at last, of the Tree of Life, the Tree whose fruit we were not ready for in the beginning. The Tree bears its fruit in due season and all of its leaves are healing.
Perhaps we should think more carefully about eating peaches in January. Perhaps the decay of the inner city is an outward and visible sign of the decay of our own inner lives.
(1 Toward the Liveable City, Emilie Buchwald, ed. Minneapolis, Milkweed Editions; 2003, p. 243