Dwelling in the Ashes

Ashes
Ashes (Photo credit: ByteMunchers)

Dwelling among the ashes.  It’s such a powerful image.  Being coated in them, letting them smear themselves onto every part of you, turning you into something almost non-human, mono-color and almost naked in that way.

The amazing book on mahood Iron John speaks of dwelling among the ashes as a rite of passage in some societies, a time of giving up, of not caring, of nihlism…  a sort-of state approved slacker life style.

The even more amazing Bible speaks of Job dwelling among the ashes.  When he has lost everything, this is the place he lives.  His friends come and find him there.  It is worth noting, before they begin their mostly fruitless dialogues with their old friend, they spend a bunch of days with him in those ashes.

I was struck, the other day by the poignance this would have held for someone living thousands of years ago.

Begin with the amazing things fire does:

Fire is the light- bringer.  The only light bringer, really.  With out it, all is darkness.  And this is a time when the darkness is not populated only by the contents of our imaginations.  Fear of darkness is a pretty legitimate, rational fear.  Their are creatures, and there are people who are likely to take advantage of that darkness and do great harm.

Fire is the heat-bringer.   There is no central heating, their are no space heaters, electric blankets, little bags of chemicals to squish and activate to keep our hands warm.  Here to, fire is quite literally the difference between life and death.

Fire is the thing that does some wonderful alchemy, turning dead animals (often considered  unclean, certainly a source of discomfort) into life-sustaining food.

Fire is the bringer-together.  It summons families around it in a way a television or board game can only dream about.  It is unique, not just in what it does but also in how it behaves.  The ways those flames dance.  The fact that it has a never-ending appetite for fuel.  How can it not be alive?

This strange thing makes strong things (like metal) stronger.  It purifies that which we could never purify by hand.  It demands our vigilance and care, less we get burned or the fire dies out, or worse tet, grows out of control.

The fact that a fire gone out of control can bring such destruction in it’s wake could only add to the anceint’s sense of the power of fire.  No wonder they worshipped it.

But for all it’s potency, for all it’s magic, for all it’s strangeness, in the end, it was all ashes.  In fact, that’s all you can count on, from even the greatest of fires: it will be ashes in the end.

To dwell in those ashes is an agnowledgement: if this amazing God-like thing is eventually reduced to messy useless, what hope is their for anything.

I have to believe that Job was there, and he was thinking about all the amazing things he had once had, and he realized that they now were nothing, and he found the remnants of a fire, and he thought, “This is my place, among the useless remnants of that which was once wonderful.”

There is a positive spin to this darkness and despair.  When God appears as a fire that doesn’t consume to Noah, it’s easy to zip right through it.  “Yup, yup, fire that doesn’t consume.  Got it.”

To the readers at the time, this must have struck them in a whole different way.

Whirl-fire
Whirl-fire (Photo credit: Loving Earth)

All we see in this world is impermance.  All the great things of this world will be ashes, someday.  Perhaps we are even wallowing in them right now.  Maybe we know that the fire had gone out.  Maybe we are holding on to something with out even realizing it’s usefulness is ended, huddling around a pile of ashes for warmth, thinking it is still a fire.  Maybe it is the ashes of relationships, a way of thinking, a dependence on substrances; maybe these were a fire once.   Maybe we haven’t admitted their ashes now.

But we have the promise of a fire which will not consume.  It will not consume us.  It will burn forever, and never leave us with nothing but a mess.  We can never dwell in the ashes of that great fire because it will always offer us life and warmth. 

 That’s pretty awesome.

The Thing We Expected, The Thing That Surprised Us.

 
English: Baby Moses rescued from the Nile
Image via Wikipedia

Things aren’t always easy.  In fact, there’s times when it feels like God goes out of his way to make things tough.  Some of this, I suppose, is related to the idea that it isn’t really faith if we have it in something we can see.  It only counts as faith if it’s something we have to trust, something we have to believe.

This isn’t easy.  In fact, some times it sucks.  But maybe this challenge is what it makes it all worth it.  We’re invited into an act of courage.  We’re given the oppurtunity to grow.  We’re offered a chance to show our willingness to risk it all.

Last post, I spent some time on the idea that Jesus, on some levels, seems like just the exact opposite of what the Hebrews would have been comfortable with.  In some ways, he seems almost specifically design to put the 1st-century Jews way outside of their comfort zones.

And yet…

And yet, in some deep way, Jesus so perfectally fits the pattern.  Numerous times, the bible tells these stories.  About how people waited.  and then waited some more.  They waited so long that they almost gave up hope.

And then God entered the world.  He does it, time and time again, in these mind-blowing ways.  Bigger, wilder, crazier than anybody would have expected.  He doesn’t just shoot off a couple miracles like Harry Potter trying out some new spell.  He enters into the world in ways that leave everybody’s jaw on the floor.  “God did what?  God did it how?”

Moses built and built at the Arc.  For hundreds of years.  Lots has been hypothesized about what it must have been like for him.  Bill Cosby even built a whole comedian around it, gazillions of years ago.  At the bare minimum, he lived in a desert and they had rarely seen much in the way of water.  Some go so far as to say that it had never rained before in all of history. 

And year in and year out. Moses builds the ark.  The rain begins to fall.  God himself closes the ark door.  He watches over Noah, and his family, and the animals.  He meets with Noah, promises him leadership over the Earth, and protection from future floods.

Then there are folks like Israel and Jacob.  And then their is Moses himself.  Moses pops up after the Israelis have been enslaved for hundreds of years.  They are victims to infanticide.  Mosses survives by only the strangest of circumstnaces.  God leads Moses, and his great power makes a mockery of the world’s preeminent empire of the time.  First all the Egyptian first born children and livestock are killed.  Then God pulls aside the waters of a great sea.  He waits for his chosen people to pass.  And then he allows the waters to rush back in, sending the Egyptians to their deaths.

David experiences waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and then God cames in BAM!  leading him to leadership over his people.  To varying extents Elijah and Elishah wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and then God enters the world again, entering the world just as surely as he had before, and yet each time it is so very different.

Jesus’ time is not so different than Moses’.  God’s chosen people are enslaved to the world’s superpower.  Infanticide is practiced to bring the Jewish population down.  In both cases, the Jews have waited for deliverance for centuries.  In both cases, salvation comes from the most unlikely of places, from a man whose earthly parents are in many ways just so run of the mill.  

God enters the world of Jesus in a way mightier than ever before.  He isn’t just guiding the human… he is the human.   And yet, somehow, he is not, too.

If I were to write a symphony depicting the story of scripture, I would have this theme for God’s entery into the world.  It would be this progression of notes. 

Perhaps this theme would play on a few woodwinds for Noah.  Perhaps the same few notes on brass when it comes time for Moses.  Maybe it would be strings when Joseph, or Elishah came around.

But when Jesus comes?  When Jesus comes, I would have all the instruments rise up, together, in the same progression of notes.  I would invite all the musicians, all the players.  The little, fleeting moments before when we heard those notes, they would be nothing but a shadow before the real thing, nothing but a tiny little fore-echo.  And when Jesus comes, it would be like we hear this for the first time in the glory the notes were meant to carry; we hear it for the first time, and yet with out knowing it, we were waiting for it from the very beginning.

Moses Failed the Test

Moses speaks to the children of Israel, as in ...
Image via Wikipedia

IT’s often remarked on that Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land.   This was the result of his not following God’s commands as he was bring water to the Isrealites.

Given all that he did and sacrificed, it’s hard to not view this as rather petty on God’s part.  But I had this thought today about it.

I’m just beggining to contemplate this; I’m not arguing so much for this as a theological position as I am swishing this metaphorical taste in my mouth, trying to determine if I want to swallow it.

The thing I’m thinking about is this:

There’s an important distinction between punishing someone for an action and using a decision as a sort-of litmus test. 

It’s clear that God was engaged in this profound act of social engineering with the Isrealites.  He was trying to recreate a community in His image.  Anybody, whether they are God, a cult leader, a socialist revolutionary, a genuis or a fool… anybody who is trying to set up a new society has to contend with the fact that we carry our upbringing with us.

It’s like that cheesy adage says: “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.”  In other words, if you relocate the same broken people into a new context, usually they just start replaying their own foolishness.

There ends up being a different tenor to God’s decision to block Moses from entering the promised land if it isn’t so much a punishment as that Moses demonstrated, through this action, that he wasn’t going to leave the old, broken ways behind.

As I contemplate heaven, I often contemplate a parallel fact.  I can be pretty stupid, sometimes.  If you took me as I currently am, and put me in a perfect place, I would pretty much ruin it.  And the truth is, this is similarly true for nearly every person I know.

So help me decide: should I swallow this idea down, or just spit it out?

Our Daily Bread

Jesus said, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Brian McLaren pointed out that this statement evokes the idea of Moses and Isrealites, hundreds of years before Jesus.  God rained down his bread, called manna.  And they were not allowed to save or stock pile it.  Each day they could only gather as much as they would eat in that one day.

In asking God for daily bread, Jesus seems to be saying that he, like the Isrealites who followed Moses, wants only enough bread for that one day.

I found myself pondering this.  What’s so important about the whole thing of receiving bread from God each day?

The answer that immediately comes to mind is trust.  It’s all about trust.

But there’s a pretty wide array of things that I mean by trust, of ways that this plays out.

One aspect is that it requires us to trust every single day.  If the Isrealites, or Jesus, or us, received a big huge truck delivery of bread, enough bread for the whole year, then we would be able to live off this for quite some time.  Faith would not become a habbit.  It would be a thing that is only necessary occasionally.

Secondly, receiving daily bread requires trusting that God won’t change.  This is an incredibly hard thing to do.  So many of our models of how to deal with God are based on how we deal with other people. 

And people change.  We have a good thing going with somebody, and we have this desire to want to hoard it, out of the fear that the good thing won’t last.  To accept enough to only get ourselves through each day is to say, “I trust that you will not change, and that this arrangement will keep going as long as I need it to.”

Thirdly, accepting my daily bread from God each day is important because it reminds me of where all good things come from.  It is tempting for me to try to draw a distinction between myself and Moses.  There is a part of me that wants to say that I am different from Jesus’ followers.

“After all” I want to say “God never fed me that way; It’s not like I’ve ever seen manna rain down from the sky.  It’s not like I’ve ever watched a few loaves of bread mutliply into thousands.”

And yet?  I eat every day.  And everything that gives me this ability to eat comes from God: the hands that bring it to my mouth, the teeth that chew it up, the abilities that allow me to earn the money I buy it with, the systems which make food so available in our culture… All these things come from God.

And so the real queston becomes: Is there any difference?  Is there any difference between my life and the life of the Isrealites.  Carefully considering the matter leaves me with the realization that in every important way, God has rained down manna into my life, too.

Maybe the most important aspect of trust related to accepting my daily bread is built around Jesus’ miracle of the fishes and loaves.  Both times that Jesus multiplied this food, he did not summon it out of the air.

He certainly could have.  The whole universe had been made through Jesus.  I’m pretty sure he could have managed a couple footlongs ex nihilo.

But he began with the daily bread that was already there.  The meager crumbs, the daily bread, if you will, that was already among them, this was the seed for the feeding of thousands.

Trusting that our daily bread is enough is about knowing that what little we have is all that we need.  Even when we look out and see an ocean of bodies, when we are doing God’s will, whatever we bring, if we bring it in the right heart, it will be enough.

wat’r you doing?

Ubari Oasis in Libya
Image via Wikipedia

The role of water in the bible is pretty intense.  I’d go so far as to say that you can get a half-decent picture of the bible as a whole by simply exploring the stories where water plays a key part.

  Water is basically the fourth “object” mentioned in all of scripture.  God comes first.  Then the heavens are mentioned.  And then the earth.  And then the bible says “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” 

This seems to suggest that the basic state of the universe is water water.

We know that this isn’t literally and scientifically true.  This leads to the question, what does water stand for?

Water stands in for mystery, I think.

 And in Genesis,  water is mysterious; darkness is over the surface of the deep.  But in that strange follow-up phrase, we find something reassuring.  The spirit of God hovers over those waters; it’s almost as if He is bring order, summoning something that our puny little brains can understand.  The very next thing is that God says “Let there be light.”  As if this is the birth of the possibility that mystery might be illuminated.

God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness.

The idea that water is somehow primal and more than that, the idea that water is somehow connected with mystery itself is emphasized by verse 6 in the book of Genesis. 

 And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the expanse “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

Land is connected to light and the things that we can know.  But just as the Earth is more water than land, so to the universe is more mystery than that which can be known.  We can stand on the land, and we can shine our lights down, and into the water.  This light can illuminate, some.  But it will never fully penetrate the depths.  It will never explain all that lives beneath.

Twenty Fifth Meditation

It is near the fascinating portions of the bible which tell the tale of the tower of babel that we are introduced to the story of Noah.  In other words, it is around that time that man, in his arrogance, thinks he can use technology to reach God that God uses water to wipe out nearly the entire human race.

Twenty Sixth Meditation

Baby moses is not killed, despite the Pharoahs orders.  He is placed in a water proof basket and “sailed” down the Nile.  That infant moved into mystery itself: a whole new world. 

Moses would later lead his people across the Red Sea, as God parts the waters to let the Israelites pass.

A meditation on God hovering over the waters

We have prayed

(so foolishly)

That You would part the waters for us

again.

We have looked upon our enemies.

We have declared them Egyptian chariots.

We have watched them thunder toward us.

We have pounded on those closed doors.

We have railed against our missed oppurtunities.

We have wailed about our lives, and the ways they have hemmed us in.

We have declared them the ocean.

We have watched the army thundering upon us.

We have stood ankle deep in the water.

And we have cried,

Part the waters, as you did for Moses.

Part the waters, as you did for Elijah.

Part the waters, as you did for Elisha.

We have longed

to walk along muck that has never been dry.

We have longed

to be taken through.

And,

if we are truthful

We will admit

We have longed

that the waves might come crashing down

on those who chased behind us.

But We are promised so much more.

Than the impossible water seperating for us

We were made for so much more.

Than waves crashing down on our enemies heads.

We lay down into water with Him into death.

We lay down into water with Him into New Life.

Everything has changed, now.

Let us walk atop the waves now.

He will use our voice,

as we call out to the chariots.

“It has all changed.  Step out, step here.

With me.  Through Him.”

The ambivalence of Elisha

Anybody who thinks that the bible is easy and shallow hasn’t actually read it or hasn’t thought very much about it.    I love how deeply I can find myself immersed in scripture.   Each time I come back, it’s got something new for me.

Tomorrow, it’ll be my privilige to speak at Fellowship Church about 2 kings chapter 2.  This is the point when the prophet Elisha takes over from the prophet Elijah.   I’m focusing on how Elisha seems to grow up as his mentor leaves him.  And as I was preparing to speak, I just got blown away anew by how conflicted Elisha seems to be.  You don’t have to look very deeply to see how intensely he seems to feel in two quite opposite directions.  It’s simply brilliant writing.

“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and J went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”

It begins with them alone together, presumably preparing for Elijah’s departure.  The things that jump out at me from this verse is the word “together” from the first half, and the word “seperated”  in the second half.  The two opposites really intensify each other, in a way.   It’s also pretty amazing how simply and quickly it all happens: Blam!  They come down!  Wham!  They are gone.  Scripture continues:

12 Sh saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Sh saw him no more.

By calling him father, Elisha emphasizes how close they are.  But he focuses on the fact that they are the chariots and horseman of Israel: these are not the messengers of any random God, these are the soldiers of the God who has declared himself Lord over the people of the two Elis.  In a way, it’s like Sh is saying, “We are so close, and I will miss you, yet I am with joy because of who is coming to get you.

Scripture says:

Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them apart.

13 He picked up the cloak that had fallen from J and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 Then he took the cloak that had fallen from him and struck the water with it. “Where now is the LORD, the God of J?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.

The bible is filled with people who tear at their clothes to show their sorrow, rage, and distress.  But this is a fairly unique riff on that theme: tearing at clothes, and then putting some one else’s clothes on.  Sh’s old identity no longer fits him.  The person he was is left in the past.  He is stepping into the role that J was grooming him for.

And what a profound moment.  Underneath the question, “Where now is the LORD, the God of J?” is the question “Is the Lord, the God of J, still with me?”

As the waters part, Elisha recieves his answer.  He walks through parted water.  Not only in the way he did a few minutes before, when Elijah parted the water, but also as his ancestors did, all those generations before, when Moses lead them.

(A note on the title: in the technical, psychological sense, ambivalence is not when a person does not care one way or the other; on the contrary, ambivalence is when a person experiences intense emotions in two opposite directions at the same time.)