Monday, March 12, 2007

The Burning Bush: it Was Not Consumed

Again and again our scripture shows us an incredible difference between God and ourselves. Humans consume. God gives life. Even when God throws down the shadow of death, God gives life. Spiritual life is set at the crossroads where hope meets despair, where life meets death. We are travelers. At the crossroads, we choose which path we will walk. If we choose life, this choice will have the power, with God's help, to transform our ideas of what it means to human, what it means to live richly and well. We Christians call this transformation salvation. The Buddhists call it enlightenment. Jews find it in relationship to Torah and Mitzvot, the living law of God. Muslims call it Paradise.

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

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