Sunday, October 25, 2009

Story Time...

Let's channel our inner five-year-old.

The book of Genesis mentions how God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of the evening. Adam and Eve were naked, but didn't know shame.

Was God naked?

I've posed this question to almost a dozen people in the last couple of days. Answers have ranged from "some things should remain a mystery" to "why do you assume God was physical?" The general consensus seems to be, though, that he probably was. It took my own son, however, to put a new spin on it. He agreed that God was probably naked, but then he went on. He mentioned that naked often is shorthand for "open, vulnerable, accessible." In other words, God was fully available to man and woman; there were no barriers at that time. So, the lack of barrier was not only physical, but it was also metaphorical and spiritual.

There was a lot more to the discussions that followed the question and immediate answer than I can go into here. Some folks wondered who this "physical" presence of God was? An angel? A "pre-incarnate" Jesus? It was all interesting, and probably says as much about the partners in the conversation as it does about the subject at hand.

At root, though, what the question produced was a sort of abbreviated story, or at least a scene from a story. If you follow up on that scene in Genesis 3, then you find that barriers were erected between God and man--by man's own doing--and there was an unforeseen change of scene for Adam and Eve. A new relationship came about because of their disobedience, one that was much less favorable to them. And that scene really set in motion a long story that we're still living in today.

And that's really what I want to look at in this post.

It has occurred to me that the reason that God created us was to have a different set of eyes.

God created the world--the universe!--and saw that it was good. What kind of being can do this--create out of nothing the entirety of the cosmos just by speaking it into existence? Genesis begins with "In the beginning God created." This is a definitive statement that God was already on the scene, and he established the beginning. He was outside of time, independent of the passage of hours, days, and all the other units that we're accustomed to. He began time.

Moses looked at the bush, with the voice of God speaking directly to him from it as it burned without being consumed. He wasn't quite convinced by what he was seeing and hearing. "Who shall I tell them sent me?"

"I AM THAT I AM. Tell them that I AM has sent you."

"I AM" is not a verb that indicates past or future, in the sense that we normally consider them. Names in the Old Testament were powerful things, indicative of the character of the person named. In some sense, they were identical to the person. God said that his name was I AM. God in essence didn't have a past and he didn't have a future. He surmounted time, encompassing it, being unconstrained by it. His very existence was an eternal present, without beginning or end.

I'm trying to indicate how God apprehends his creation. Humbly I suggest that he doesn't experience time as we do, because he's beyond it. He engages his creation joyously, with all of it immediate. He sees it, all of it, at once and forever.

In other words, God can't experience time in the same way we do.

So what does that have to do with us being here?

I think God created us to tell the story of his creation, because we're embedded in it. We understand the passage of time, beginning, middle, and end. That's the most essential element to a story--the passage of time. A snapshot isn't a story. It can be the beginning of a story, or wrap up the end, but it's not the story itself.

I think God wants to experience his creation in all the ways that he can.

So, he puts us in the midst of it, and equips us to tell its story.

Telling stories is one thing that we're good at. We will build a story even when there's little to no material to start with. We're inherently storytellers--we can't help ourselves.

Of course, a story needs more than merely the passage of time. It needs characters.

And what a rich vein of material we human storytellers have to work from. There are now over six billion of us on this one planet, and every one of us has a story to tell. We have a beginning--we were born. We have a middle--we have lived for some number of years. And we have an end--we will die. So each of us has our own story to tell, and we make that story even better by introducing other characters. We incorporate the actions of others into our narratives.

The interaction between us and the others sets up the next element that a story needs. Tension comes into play, because we have desires and needs and wants, and so do the other characters in these intertwined stories. We have conflict, we have drama, we have struggle. Cain and Abel. David and Goliath. The Israelites and the Egyptians. Jesus and the Pharisees. Peter and Paul. We have the passage of time, we have characters, and we have conflict and struggle. Good story material abounds.

But wait! Is that all that it takes to make a good story?

Not quite. No, we need something more. We need to have an encapsuling, an imaginative re-casting of the events. The storyteller has to process the material he's working with, and invest it with his creative contribution. In other words, we aren't dealing with only a reporter, but with a creator, an interpreter.

And that re-casting can change over time, unlike God, who is changeless, but not in any sort of static, dead-statue sort of way. Like I said earlier, it's all NOW to God.

A little side note here--if God is truly as I'm describing, then the whole debate over free will versus predestination becomes rather pointless. Even as we exist--past, present, and future--in God's eternal moment, we create in our own milieu what forever exists. Yes, there are some things that must remain a mystery--mainly because we can't wrap our time-limited minds around them. At least not yet.

The re-casting can change over time. Here's what I mean.

At the risk of over-simplifying tens of thousands of years of human existence, let's talk about the forest.

The forest primeval was dark and frightening, a place where the unknown was a tangible presence. Disaster awaited the unwary who wandered into its shadows.

One plucky soul ventured in, and survived. He found that there was material in there that could be used to build a shelter. He could live in the forest, or perhaps at the edge of it, and survive. The canopy of trees helped moderate the climate. The animals in there could provide food and clothing. He found that he was in possession of a resource that he could use to live a good life.

Other people discovered this, and sooner or later, the forests were being consumed to make housing and cleared for cultivated land and used for fuel and all sorts of other things that people needed.

Then one person realized that the forests that he saw now were nothing like the forests that he had seen as a boy. Land that had been shrouded in the mists of the forests of his boyhood was now filled with rows of corn. Something occurred to him--was the forest going to continue to get smaller and smaller as mankind filled the land with more houses and more fields and more people?

He began to worry that maybe fifty years or a hundred years in the future, there would be no more forest. He could imagine a time when there would be no more logs to build with, or shaded groves to go to in the heat of the day. He could see a time when wood for fires would be hard to come by, or maybe not be there at all.

He began to think that maybe there needed to be some care taken to preserve the forest for future generations even as it's used to meet needs today. He began to think of being a steward of the forest, so that it would continue to be in its own right even as it continued to benefit people.

People first were frightened, then saw themselves as possessors, and at the end found themselves to be stewards and managers.

So there's a story about mankind and its realization that we are on a finite planet, a home that we need to care for if we're going to continue to be able to live on it.

This is really a modern story. Creation care is a new idea to many evangelicals in the Christian community. I'm not sure why it should be. God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, and to subdue the earth and rule over it. He did not say to rape the environment or to desecrate his creation. Strip-mining Eden wasn't the command.

There's one more element to being the storytellers of God's creation that we do. We sometimes weave a story from incomplete or partial facts. As often as not, this is to make a point. If we included every little fact about what we're narrating, the story would falter and the point wouldn't get made.

That's what's at the root of the "inner-five-year-old" question posed at the beginning of this post.

Genesis doesn't really say that God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of the evening. That idea is there by implication, but it's not explicitly stated. God was "walking in the cool of the day" when he discovered the great sin that Adam and Eve had committed.

Yes, they were naked. Until that moment when they ate the fruit, they didn't realize that was any big deal. At that point, they realized they needed to put up barriers, because they had betrayed God by not obeying him. Suddenly they had something to hide.

A gracious creator allowed them to hide that way, even as he knew everything that they hid. He fashioned coverings for them from skins. He also escorted them out of the garden, because it wasn't a place where they could live any more. Before there had been no barriers, and now that was no longer true.

And that's where we find ourselves today, telling the story of God's creation, each in our own unique way. We observe the passage of the time in which we live, we tell about ourselves and the other people in our lives, we go on about the struggles we endure, and we re-cast all this into a tale that only we can tell.

Was God naked?

I think God is still naked, meaning that he's still open to us, still accessible to a full communion. The only barriers are of our own construction. God has certainly shown that he made himself vulnerable. He had his own son come to us, and we killed him.

God had the last laugh, though. You already know how that story ended, or at least that last chapter.

What story are you telling for your creator? And how naked are you prepared to be before him?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Pax Obama

This is a short post to celebrate the award of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to our American President, Barack Obama.

The award of the prize to him seems to have taken everyone by surprise, even the White House itself. The President says he was humbled by the committee's vote. Responses to this announcement from around the world have been largely positive.

Negative comments have come from the predictable places. The Taliban, through a spokesman, said that President Obama had done nothing to bring peace to Afghanistan. Considering that they're at war with NATO troops and Afghan army and police forces in various parts of that country, that's not too surprising. The only way that they would say that peace had been brought to that country would be by the Allied forces laying down their arms and surrendering. I don't see that happening. Sorry, mullahs.

Yes, negative comments came from the predictable places. That includes many members of the Republican Party. What they had to say sounded more like sour grapes than anything, since the words of the Nobel Committee announcement sounded like a pretty direct slap at the last American President in the White House. The most responsible thing that I heard any member of the GOP say was from Mike Huckabee, who said that conservative politicians need to moderate their criticism of the decision, because it will sound like "right-wing whining."

All in all, this honor is as much for the attitude change that the Obama administration has brought about in our relationship to the rest of the world as it is about the agenda that the President has set out. We here in the United States seem to be oblivious to how much of the world sees us. We need to realize that too often we view the world through a set of very provincial lenses, lenses that don't serve us well to see the world as it really is in all its complexity and variety.

Congratulations, Mr. President. You've done us proud!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs...

America, America...

There's a billboard on a stretch of Interstate 70 near Blue Springs, Missouri, that exemplifies what I think is wrong in this country today.

It's composed of a red background, with a large hammer and sickle on the right side, and the following message in yellow:

They are coming for you! The Taxpayer.
1st & 2nd Amendments are in jeopardy.

Nobody seems to know who's behind the sign. It was reported on a local TV station October 1, and picked up by various national blogs just days later. The tag line isn't new; there are plenty of places where you can get coffee mugs and other merchandise that parrots the same sentiment.

So what's wrong with this expression of free speech anyway? Can't people still freely express themselves in writing?

You betcha! And there isn't even an obligation to get your facts straight. Never let it be said that people expressing themselves need to be limited by the world as it really is!

And that is what I'm talking about. What's wrong in this country today is that we're living in a fantasy land.

Look at these things, and see if you agree.

In the current recession I've heard that over five trillion dollars of wealth was lost in the fall of the stocks and bonds markets. Is that real wealth? Really? If it were something tangible, what would be required to utterly destroy five trillion dollars worth of it? That's not wealth--it's a phantasm, an illusion of wealth. If I were viewing it from a pathology standpoint, I'd say it was a delusion, at best.

Barack Obama and the Democrats carried the 2008 national election. They won by substantial margins in most cases. People like the sponsor of that billboard are in denial about this fact. They don't believe that the electorate of the United States actually said what they did--that the last eight years had gone badly, and that it was time for a change in leadership. They will not accept the decision of the majority of voters. Sorry, but that's the way that a democracy works--you know, the will of the people and all that.

The sponsors of the billboard moreover are living in a wonderland of their own, by imagining that the President is a communist. Or a socialist. Or a member of some group they don't like. That last part may well be true. Obama's opponents do not like him or the groups of which he's part. Those groups may be Democrats, liberals, educated people, people of mixed race, or whatever. Whatever the name of the group in question, these folks don't like it.

I need to ask very pointedly if these opponents of the current administration really know what a communist is. Or a socialist, for that matter. There has been a government presence, to one degree or another, in our national economy and our national society for decades now. It is not going to end because the opponents call it "socialist" or "communist" or any other disparaging name.

More to the point, what these folks oppose is that very government presence. I thought we had settled all that shortly after the ratification of the Constitution. I guess I was wrong. Every generation we have to learn anew that the tree of liberty is best planted in the soil of a nation, not in the desert of libertarian anarchy.

Do I sound too hostile to the ideals of libertarianism? I probably do, if you're a libertarian. Frankly, I've examined libertarian philosophy, and I find it laughable that people think you could build a viable society on its principles. Human beings are social beings--that means that we live best and most comfortably in groups. Groups need organizing principles and some degree of regulation to function best. There is always a tension between the rights of the individuals and the rights and requirements of the group. That tension has not been eliminated in the twenty-first century, and I doubt if it ever will be, as long as we humans are human.

But, to return to the issue at hand, we in the United States are too often living in a fantasy land of our own construction. For instance, it might be good to remember that the economic stimulus bill was passed under the aegis of a Republican administration, to address circumstances that were exceptional to say the least. And to some extent, those exceptional circumstances were the direct result of other delusions that we had allowed to come into common acceptance, delusions like thinking you could have what you want, when you want it, and not have to worry about paying for it. Delusions like thinking that at one and the same time you could criticize the government for being too governmental and depend upon that same institution to fight terrorism and protect you and this nation. Government in this delusion is seen as both the great problem and the only solution. That's more than delusion, actually; that's insanity.

We sing the National Anthem, about the "land of the free, and the home of the brave." Are we really all those things? We're hardly free--we're slaves to our illusions about the world, to the debt that we incurred on our own heads, to our hatred for any other person, even another American, who is different from us. Are we really brave, or are we cringing in fear at the possibility of having to change the way we live? We have the terrorist threat level; that's a great measure of the bravery we all feel. We're driven to a frenzy by fear mongers on the left and the right. Shame on them! We deserve better than this.

This country has had periods in its past when we had to look unflinchingly at the world as it was, and take dramatic steps to address the crises that we faced. We went through the Civil War to keep our Union together. We survived the Great Depression by united and concerted action. We instituted the Marshall Plan after World War II to keep Europe from descending into another death spiral that would ferment and bring about World War III. We have acted on principle in the past--are we still a people who can do that now? Well, are we?

Even in those times of crisis, there were those among us who were timid or worse, who refused to meet the challenge bravely, but instead preferred to snipe and badger and try to derail the efforts underway. Some of these people earned the name "traitor." Whatever they were called, though, the result was the same--they were on the wrong side, and they lost.

I view the world through the lens that my Christian faith provides. I don't believe that there is anyone in the world today, or at any time in the past, who was perfect or the answer to all problems, with one important exception. And we humans nailed him to a tree and watched him die. We're a messy bunch, and always have been. Sometimes, though, we have moments when things click and we get important things done. We're facing opportunities like that now. Are we really up to the challenge?

What do you think? Post a comment, and share your thoughts.