The wonders of decay

Image from the Hubble telescope.

George and Marion have become too feeble to continue to live alone.  They are moving to an assisted living facility in Chico near their son.

The furnishings from their 24-year residence in Oakmont must now be sifted down to match their 800 sq ft. apartment. There is certainly no room for the nearly 6,000 books George has accumulated.

I dropped by and was frustrated by the sheer volume of reading material. I knew that if I took every book, I would never finish them. I doubt that I’ll cover the thirty that I did take.

Out of this frustration, I jokingly asked George if I could simply ‘download’ the memory from his reading of these books.  I suggested that if it was possible to transfer files from old computers to new, why couldn’t we do that with him? He laughed and said; “Because I’ve got a corrupt hard drive. I no longer retain those files.” Not a bad comeback.

When the reading of Psalm 19 proclaims God’s glory in the heavens and the wonders of his creation, we are easily swept into the majesty of the universe and of the microcosm.The beauty in nature and the sun, “coming forth like a bridegroom from his pavilion.” (19:5)

Lunch with Jack and Tim yesterday gave me new appreciation for those wonders when Jack reminded me that so much of our hopefulness springs from death and decay. Because death and decay are part of cyclical nature, we experience new hope when something springs fresh from the result. It’s hard to imagine an ecosystem that continually expands without the consequent death and renewal. Or more simply, what does the virus do in a pristine environment of the garden of Eden?

At Oxford, one of my lecturers suggested that the paradise phenomenon was impossible because the very source of life is found in struggle and re-emergence or the consequences of evolutionary biology.   He implied that we as a race could not expand ad infinitum and still sustain the species. Extinction will be a great gift to the universe. In the meantime, our giftedness comes from the creative spirit which emanates from mortality.

It will be interesting to see what God has had in mind in this regard but until then, “The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” Psalm 19: 7b

Funeral Blues

“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the tea-cup opens

A lane to the land of the dead.

“As I Walked Out One Evening”

~ W.H. Auden


There are some weeks where it is easier to be more circumspect than others.  Then there are times when, as Auden’s poem suggests, “the clocks had ceased their chiming….” Real life gets in the way of quick and easy summary.

The MLK Jr. holiday afforded a beautiful day and drive out to Tomales Bay. In late afternoon the brilliant sky, the incoming fog and the dance between light and dark, color and shadow were our companions all the way to Stinson Beach.  There, we walked the beach in our shirtsleeves then made a dash to the cafe for burgers and tea. A perfect day, yet a day oblivious to the hole that would tear in the fabric of the remaining week.

A local notable had committed suicide the next day.  A friend to the rest of my family and an acquaintance to me,  I had shared dinner with this gentleman’s son the previous Sunday.  This same son, David, would find his step-father hanged in the back yard. One by one my children checked in by phone, anxious to process the chaos that was running through their hearts and souls.  They had grown up with David and there is no family picture of a birthday party without David in it.  For the past ten years, there are few holidays without David’s step-father at the dinner table.

During a time such as this, there is little energy to write of the hope and future that we have.  It’s only possible to hang on to that hope. No blithe summary will do, no psychological evaluation is sufficient.  The Scriptures are full of raw, naked expressions of injustice and hearts crying out to God. Throughout the Bible there are citations of pain, suffering and family tragedy. Today I cling to the hope that the God who made the Scriptures so blatantly realistic is the one who will step in and heal.


Freedom and Bondage, Foxes and Hedgehogs

Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther squared off as both men struggled with the decaying structure of the Roman Catholic Church. Both were zealous for God’s clear revitalization of faith in the lives of people as the Renaissance and Reformation unfolded.  They genuinely liked each other but couldn’t bring themselves to find common ground over the issues of human will.  In 1524 Erasmus wrote a pamphlet entitled, “The Freedom of Human Will.” In 1525 Luther countered with his own treatise, “The Bondage of Human Will.”

Today the same debate is still at hand in Protestant churches.  Is the primary question of our identity in Christ the fact that we were created as the “apple of God’s eye” or are we totally depraved and incapable of creating anything worthy without God’s total Sovereign calling?

I admit that I stand with my former pastor, Bob Hughes, on this one.  When I look at the totality of Scripture, I see equal parts freedom and bondage.  When I look at the news I see the same proportions.  I see heinous actions like the shootings in Tucson and then I experience the communitas of celebrating Congresswoman Giffords miracle recovery. I’m encouraged by the Muslims who are encircling and protecting the Coptic Church while Christians worship there and I am saddened by the Baptist church that wants to celebrate at the funerals of American soldiers.

In the classic Greek tale by Archilochus the character of the fox has many strategems and tactics while the hedgehog has one big idea.  The fox is frustrated by the hedgehog’s simple approach to life and no strategy can be used to trick the hedgehog into becoming vulnerable.  They are, therefore, forced to live in harmony in the forest. This is a source of immense frustration to the wily fox.

Most modern philosophers, encouraged by the contemporary citation of this tale by Isaiah Berlin, applaud the virtues of the complex fox while giving simple credit to the plodding hedgehog.  But returning to the question raised by Erasmus and Luther I simply say; can’t life be both simple and complex? Is it possible to be humanists and reformed in our thinking? Can’t we live in a world that is a daily miracle and also subject to futility? (Rom 8:20)

In the Christian life there will be times when our stewardship requires exploration and the revisiting of foundational precepts. Questioning prayers and doubts voiced.   I love the unified faith that Dante possessed while admiring the complexity that Erasmus envisioned.

Karl Barth exemplified a thinker who would be one day “fox” and the next day “hedgehog.”  When he felt the need to reduce his situation into one big idea, he was known to sit down and utter;  “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.”

An Invitation into the Heart and Mind of God.

Perhaps the most stunning juxtaposition of the Christian message is the invitation by a Sovereign God to humankind to join Him in the redemption plan. Isaiah 42 reminds the reader that the God who holds all things together invades the creation and seeks out his people.

During Epiphany, I will be exploring the process of healing the rift created by man’s fall and God’s rescue.  The lectionary readings of Psalms will be the leading document to track this arc of story. As such, this week’s Psalm, Psalm 29, begins  with “Ascribe to the Lord….”

A recent article by Dr James Sanders of Claremont School of Theology says it better than I ever could. So I offer it for your edification and insight.

Divine Transgressions

James A. Sanders



Fr. Richard in his homily the First Sunday in Christmastide spoke of the closing of the gap between human sinfulness and God’s righteousness.  He rightly celebrated God’s coming in Christ precisely to close the gap.

It caused me to think of the best critical interpretation of Genesis chs 1-12.  The first eleven chapters of Genesis are aptly called “universal history.”  They deal with the condition of all humans as understood in Jewish antiquity.  The first two chapters offer two quite different views of creation, especially the origin of humans; but they complement each other if we focus on what they suggest about God.

The first (Gen 1) celebrates the ineffable majesty of the One God of All who by divine speech creates all that is.  Rabbis in antiquity noted that the items mentioned in the six days of creation fail to cover all that we know in creation and therefore suggested that “on the sixth day between the evenings” God created everything else necessary.  In doing so the rabbis were admitting what we can ourselves see through philology, that is, by comparing Gen 1 with other accounts of creation in semitic antiquity.   The literary form of Genesis 1 is that of an ancient theogony, that is, an account like the Enuma Elish of Ancient Babylonia of the origins of the gods.  Each day in Gen 1 recounts the creation of the symbol of an ancient deity: light, darkness, the firmaments, fertility, sun, moon, stars, etc.  In doing so Genesis 1 in effect states that they were not gods but simply created items like us humans and therefore could not represent various deities since there is but One God.  It in effect ridiculed the Enuma Elish, denying its main points by imitating it and using its own liturgical rhetoric.

The second (Gen 2) recounts a totally different view of creation.  Here God creates the Garden of Eden, a kind of oasis, in which God places the first humans.  God, far from ineffable and distant, is in Gen 2 on the contrary a pastoral figure who calls on his first parishioners in the garden in the cool of the evening, the time when the sun sets each day.  By including the two quite different accounts of Creation Genesis makes the clear statement that God is both transcendent and immanent.  They give clues about the nature of God.  And it is important to keep both in mind in reading the rest of the Bible.

God in the second account introduces a moral code  forbidding the couple to eat of certain fruit in the garden.   In typical mythic style the serpent tempts the couple (Gen 3) and they disobey God’s very first law.  Disobedience to moral code brings consequences and the couple are banished from the Garden to make a living in the harshness of the desert or wilderness.  They had eaten of the tree of the “knowledge of good and evil,” learning the meaning of having been naked.  Upon being banished the couple were forbidden access to the other tree in the garden, the “Tree of Life.”  This time God sets up barriers to the path back to the tree, cherubim and a flaming sword constantly turning this way and that to prohibit entrance.  Humans had gained some knowledge about good and evil by the first disobedience, but God makes sure they cannot get back to the other tree, the Tree of Life.

The primary distinction between humanity and deity in antiquity was immortality.  Humans die. God lives, has life and gives life, even immortality.  There is no other way.

Before the next failed effort humans make to attain unto immortality on their own we are given an interpretation of what we now know is a list of ancient humans who claimed to have immortality—the Khorsabad King List.  Genesis 5 is a long list, parallel to that list of ancients, who it says lived long lives even up to 965 years, but they all died.  The only exception was Enoch who was taken by God so that “he was not.”  Because of this exception a massive Jewish literature was generated in Early pre-Christian Judaism about Enoch and his ventures.  But the thrust of Genesis 5 was to say that no matter how immortal the Khorsabad List claimed the ancient kings to be, they all actually died.

Next comes the Flood Story (Gen 6-9), and it is very fruitful also to compare it with similar stories in antiquity.  There have been four so far discovered, in Sumerian, Akkadian, Old Assyrian and Babylonian.  And they are all similar to each other, even in details.  Comparison makes clear the point of the biblical story, just as comparison to the Enuma Elish did in the case of Genesis 1.  It is most helpful to compare the biblical with that in the Babylonian Story, the Gilgamesh Epic.  To make a long, fascinating comparison short, Utnapishtim and Mrs. Utnapishtim who, because the ark they had built survived the death-dealing waters of the flood, were apotheosized (made immortal) by the gods as a reward for their accomplishment.  By contrast, Noah finally lived 950 years “and he died,” the last verse of Gen 9—the very refrain that accompanied the account of the lives of the ancients in Gen 5.

The final effort Genesis recounts that humans made to attain immortality on their own was the building of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11), in sum another human effort to become immortal, this time by mounting the tower up to the abode of the gods (the firmament) and hence earning immortality.  On the contrary, not only were they condemned forever to mortality, in due course to die, but this time also sentenced to speak many different languages so that humans wouldn’t make that foolish effort again.

So, whether it be by trying to regain paradise by the path to the Tree of Life, or building an ark to attain immortal life, or constructing a tower all the way up to heaven, all such efforts, indeed all efforts by humans to become immortal on their own are doomed to fail.  Salvation is unattainable by human effort, or even by human obedience.

It is the Bible’s constant message that God has life and loves to give life.  So how can this insurmountable gap between God and humanity be closed?  You guessed it.  By God alone.  And so the next chapter in Genesis introduces the story of a couple and God’s plan for them for the sake of all humanity.  Genesis 12 tells of God’s approaching the couple in Ur in Babylonia with a plan.  He tells them that if they were willing to go on a trip with God they would become a blessing so that “all the families of the earth would be blessed.”  It is a trip with no itinerary; they wouldn’t know from one day to the next what they would encounter, but there were two things they could be sure of and that was that God a) was with them and b) intended to make them the vehicle by which all creation should be redeemed from the curse imposed in the Garden.  Thus humans could not earn immortality but could by God’s grace be blessings for others.

Karl Barth, a great theologian of the first half of the twentieth century, suggested a poignant way to understand the story at this point.  He drew, like a teacher on a whiteboard for a class, a vertical line. On the left side of the vertical line is God and God alone, the One God, Creator of All.  On the right side is all else, all creation, all humans, all God’s gifts.  Any and all efforts on the part of the created order to cross the line from right to left is sin, or transgression into the realm of God, indicated in the story by the path back to the Tree of Life, the building of an ark, or the building of a tower.  Such a crossing would indeed be idolatry, the effort to make of anything created into a god, the perpetual human tendency and temptation to love God’s creation, or indeed the love of money and power (the right side of the line) instead of God.

But God’s crossing the line to come to us from left to right, on the contrary, is the opposite of human transgression, or grace, a sort of divine injustice.  Fr Richard aptly celebrated Christmas in his homily by extolling God’s coming to us humans in the Christ child, or as we might say, God’s own transgression of the line.  The story of “divine transgression” actually goes all the way back to Genesis where the Christmas story is adumbrated and anticipated in the story in Gen 12 that tells of God’s first crossing of the line to ask Abram and Sarai to go on a journey with him from Ur to Canaan, for the sake of us all.