On Eden, and exceptions…

On this mountain, the Lord All-Powerful
will prepare for all nations
a feast of the finest foods.
Choice wines and the best meats will be served.
Here the Lord will strip away
the burial clothes that cover the nations.
The Lord will destroy the power of death
and wipe away all tears…

At that time, people will say,
“The Lord has saved us! Let’s celebrate.
We waited and hoped—now our God is here.”
The powerful arm of the Lord will protect this mountain.

The Moabites will be put down
and trampled on like straw in a pit of manure.
They will struggle to get out, but God will humiliate them
no matter how hard they try.
The walls of their fortresses will be knocked down
and scattered in the dirt.

(Isaiah 25:6-12)

_

Maybe on your drive West across this state, you’ve seen signs for the Garden of Eden. If you detour less than twenty miles, just north of I-70 to a town called Lucas, you will come across this cement-sculpted paradise, what’s been called the most unique home for the living or the dead, on earth.

The giant trees, the creatures captured in mid-crawl or -swim or -flight, the Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, the all-seeing eye that peers down from the highest point on the property – it all took twenty-eight years to construct. Samuel Perry Dinsmoor began the project when he was 64 years old. He’d been a teacher, and a politician. He’d been raised in a deeply religious home, and those stories, that frame, that was how he knew to make sense of the world. And then he’d served as a nurse for the Union Army in the Civil War. And after that, like so many soldiers from so many wars, he didn’t really know, anymore, how to make sense of the world.

So he began this project of concrete, and wire, and native Kansas stone, and vision. He bought a lot in the middle of his small town and even when his neighbors tried to run him out he persisted, adding on to his creation until he became blind. On the west side of the property, he built the Garden of Eden, and on the north, he constructed his understanding of modern civilization. He said if anything is wrong about the north, he’s to blame. But if anything about the garden is wrong, visitors should blame Moses. “He wrote it all out,” Dinsmoor said. “I just built it.”

What does your Eden look like? How would you bring that scene to life, or fix it in stone? If you were to imagine a world without a hint of destruction, a reality in which God might say about every corner, every detail, “it is good,” and “it is very good” – what would that be?

I think it’s worth noting that our ancestors – their prophets, even, the poets, the ones charged with visioning a new way – they couldn’t do it. Our passage for today, that really is a grand, sweeping story of the fullness of redemption, some future day when sadness and sorrow and death will be no more – it’s a movement of beauty and rejoicing for all the world that comes to this screeching halt when they stop to remember, ‘Oh yeah – we hate our neighbors. So they can’t be invited. Let’s edit that original vision: all the world, except for Moab. Because, sure, we all trace our roots to Abraham. And yeah, their language is related to ours, and they have a patriarchal clan-deity, just like we do. But we hate them.’

‘Yes, of course we remember that it was in Moab that Moses climbed the mountain to show his people – our ancestors – the land of promise, the place they would call home. And we know that he died and is buried somewhere in Moab. Even still – even with that shared essential story – we cannot, today, imagine a day when we will not hate them.’

And if that’s the best the prophet can do, the people are in trouble.

Who are the exceptions to your Eden? Who can you not imagine sitting next to at a feast like that?

*

Some of you read the devotional I wrote a few weeks ago, about my neighbor. He’s alone in his house now, after his wife and their kid moved a few states away. They moved because he’s an addict, and she, and the kid, grew scared when he got a hold of substances, and when they got a hold of him. The person he became was not one they could share a home with safely. They came to tell us, my boys said goodbye to their good friend, and now only he remains, alone, in that house so close to us.

And I am torn between being angry at him for running off my boys’ playmate, and being a good neighbor to him, because surely he needs one. I’ve been trying to figure out how to invite him over for dinner. It seems like that should be simple enough but it’s taken on these monumental proportions in my mind. I haven’t summoned the courage yet.

And then this week things started to change at that house. By which I mean, a lot of traffic started coming by. Every afternoon, the driveway had a new rotation of cars in it. People would pull in, go around to the back of the house, come back usually just a few minutes later, and drive away. Some stayed longer. In my mind, they looked kind of nervous when they first arrived, kind of relieved, or more relaxed, as they were heading back out. And I imagined….

And one afternoon, a mom pulls up. She’s got a kid in her car. I know this because I’m at my mailbox, and I see her get out of her car, totally frazzled, and open the door to the backseat, but walk away without her kid. He’s still strapped there in the carseat. He starts kicking and screaming. I’m torn, because I don’t want her to leave her kid, and yet, I’m not sure I want him to witness whatever it is she’s sneaking around to the back of my neighbor’s house for, either. …

But she hears, and comes back for him, and as she’s unbuckling him she looks over and sees me. She says, “Oh, hi! What do you think of what your neighborhood has become?” And I thought, “Is she really asking me this?” And then she said, “It’s so nice of him to offer this… I mean, we didn’t really know where to go… Before, we’ve had to go so far…” And I must have looked confused, or, more likely disapproving, when I said, “Oh – I didn’t know he was – offering – uh….”

And she said, “Oh, do you not know? The monarchs are here! They’re right here!” And she told me that, for some reason, those majestic butterflies on their migration had chosen my neighbor’s tree to gather in. And he had been talking about it around town. So every afternoon, photographers and butterfly enthusiasts were coming over, to witness this beauty. And he was leaving his fence gate wide open, so people could come right in.

And in my wildest imaginings, I would not have come up with that.

*

But why not? Isaiah 25 is wild imagining, too. It is situated in a series of prophecies, of verses called the “little apocalypse.” That title means it is full of dreaming, full of the fantastic. And even still, it is limited by what the people think they know; their imaginations are captive to the worst of their suspicions, the hatreds they inherit, the prejudices they don’t even hear weaving their way in, poisoning the feast they propose.

What they said was, “We imagine a world where all people come together to celebrate who God is and what God has done – all people, that is, except this neighboring tribe we have a complicated history with. We’ll just assume that in the end, we’re right, and they’re forever punished.”

And what we say is, “We imagine a world where all people live together in a secure and sustainable peace – all people that is, except the ones we’ll have to kill to achieve that peace. Because while their violence is abhorrent and untenable, ours is qualitatively different – it is necessary, and honorable.”

Hear that difference? Oh, wait – you don’t, do you?

Try this: what we say is, “We imagine a world where all people have access to the same freedoms, rights, benefits, and justice – all people, that is, except the ones for whom securing those rights would mean rethinking some of our own privilege, of course.”

Now do you hear it? Still no, huh?

Isaiah is our prophet, and we don’t do any better than him. We can imagine an idyllic beginning. Maybe not think that’s where we come from, exactly, but in our mythology, in our dreaming, we can get back to an Eden in which there was no violence, no harm, no disease – just life abundant, shared and celebrated. But we cannot get to there from here in our present-day. We have fallen prey to the criticism that says that kind of vision is nothing more than naivete, that kind of imagining could never take root in the real world. We have let cynicism about what is curb our dreaming about what might be, and in so doing we have limited ourselves and our world and our God.

*

Just a few years ago, a team of five moved to Lucas temporarily, and they lived in two small houses across the street from the concrete Garden of Eden. They came because some roots had started to push through the stone, some of the sculptures had seen better days. They came because the Garden of Eden is famous – because even though their permanent homes were scattered as far away as Minnesota and California, they knew who Dinsmoor was. They knew he spent two and a half decades shaping stone into a representation of humanity – naked and unashamed. Blessed and good. On the west, an original vision and on the north, a current reality.

Maybe they each knew something of his struggle – maybe each of them had tried, also, to understand the current reality through the original vision. Maybe the reason volunteers were willing to spend their time shaping a new set of antlers or ears for the deer in the garden is because they were hoping to hear something new, also, from setting these two scenes side by side.

Because – forgive me for how obvious this is, but – Dinsmoor did not invent the Garden of Eden. He just saw a world so distorted from that original story that he tried to build what it might have once been like. In the war, he saw such horror that the only response that made sense to him was to offer his imagination and energy to the crafting of an age-old vision where life was abundant.

And maybe this is our role, too. It’s not that our prophets from long-ago failed us – it’s that they only got us most of the way there. We don’t need a brand-new vision because really, you can’t get much better than an enormous feast with wine freely flowing and food enough to satisfy all who hunger and the whole crowd joined in celebration of a world in which death has had its last day.

We don’t need to start over. We just need to start cooking. We just need to set the table. And we need to head on over to wherever or whoever our own Moabs are, to hand-deliver a sincere invitation to join the feast.

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On Paying Attention & Saying Yes

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.” (Isaiah 43:16-19)

*

“OK. So you’re a pacifist. What would you do if someone were, say, attacking your grandmother?”

This is how Joan Baez, the folk singer, begins a dialogue she constructed between herself and a friend. She’s a pacifist, and she grew tired of people asking, “Oh, you believe in non-violence? Like, always?” Then they would tell her, in that patronizing tone that implied how naïve she was, that of course nobody likes violence, of course everybody wants peace, but it just isn’t practical. So in this conversation, her partner is Fred, and he has the first line. “What would you do if someone were, say, attacking your grandmother?”

And she says, “Attacking my poor old grandmother?”

He says, “Yeah, you’re in a room with your grandmother and there’s a guy about to attack her and you’re standing there. What would you do?”

She says, “I’d yell, ‘Three cheers for Grandma!’ and leave the room.”

He says, “No, seriously. Say he had a gun and he was about to shoot her. Would you shoot him first?”

She says, “Do I have a gun?”

He says, “Yes.”

She says, “No. I’m a pacifist; I don’t have a gun.”

He says, “Well, I say you do.”

She says, “All right. Am I a good shot?”

He says, “Yes.”

She says, “I’d shoot the gun out of his hand.”

He says, “No, then you’re not a good shot.”

She says, “I’d be afraid to shoot. Might kill Grandma.”

He says, “Come on, OK, look. We’ll take another example. Say, you’re driving a truck. You’re on a narrow road with a sheer cliff on your side. There’s a little girl sitting in the middle of the road. You’re going too fast to stop. What would you do?”

She says, “I don’t know. What would you do?”

He says, “I’m asking you. You’re the pacifist.”

She says, “All right… am I in control of the truck?”

He says, “Yes.”

She says, “How about if I honk my horn so she can get out of the way?”

He says, “She’s too young to walk. And the horn doesn’t work.”

She says, “I swerve around to the left of her since she’s not going anywhere.”

He says, “No, there’s been a landslide.”

She says, “Oh. Well then, I would try to drive the truck over the cliff and save the little girl.”

He’s silent. Then he says, “Well, say there’s someone else in the truck with you. Then what?”

She says, “What’s my decision have to do with my being a pacifist?”

He says, “There’s two of you in the truck and only one little girl.”

She says, “Someone once said if you have a choice between a real evil and a hypothetical evil, always take the real one.”

He says, “Huh?”

She says, I said, “Why are you so anxious to kill off all the pacifists?”

He says, “I’m not. I just want to know what you’d do if – ”

She says, “If I was in a truck with a friend driving very fast on a one-lane road approaching a dangerous impasse where a ten-month old girl is sitting in the middle of the road with a landslide on one side of her and a sheer drop-off on the other.”

He says, “That’s right.”

She says, “I would probably slam on the brakes, thus sending my friend through the windshield, skid into the landslide, run over the little girl, sail off the cliff and plunge to my own death. No doubt Grandma’s house would be at the bottom of the ravine and the truck would crash through her roof and blow up in her living room where she was finally being attacked for the first, and last, time.”

And it goes on like that.

*

You know this opposition, right? … That says whatever your dream is, whatever hope you have for the world, well, aren’t you sweet. You just wait, though. You’ll grow up a bit. You’ll see – I mean, it’s sad, ’cause that’s a great dream, that’s a grand hope – but you’ll see why it just can’t happen. Go back to sleep.

There’s that voice.

And then there’s the voice of God. The one that says, “No, not yet. Stay up. Look around. I want you to see something new.”

And every once in a while, we hear the voice of God from someone right next to us, saying the same thing: “Stay up. Look around.”

Josh Begley’s voice is one of those. He’s a graduate student at NYU, and he’s trying to wake us up. With this app he’s created for the iPhone. You can’t get it – he’s submitted it three times and each time, the reviewers at Apple have rejected it. The first time, they told him his app wasn’t entertaining. He admits that. The next time, they told him it wasn’t useful. He has some qualms with that. And this third time, they rejected it based on what they called “crude or objectionable content.” This, he says, there’s no way to change. That’s not his design. The app, called Drones+, consists of a map, and each time a US drone strikes, the user is notified, by a text message saying, for example, “US drone strike kills 7 in Waziristan. “ A red pushpin marks that location on the map. That’s it.

Begley said the app “essentially asks the question about what we choose to get notified about in real time.” He said, “I thought reaching into the pockets of US smartphone users and annoying them into drone-consciousness could be an interesting way to surface the conversation a bit more.”

But why would anyone make that choice? Why would anyone choose to be notified every time an unmanned weapon strikes children, for the crime of being unrecognizable as children, from a screen continents away? Or maybe, the weapon works like it’s supposed to, and it kills militants? Or maybe it doesn’t, and it hits their mothers? Why would you want to know that?

*

When the prophet is setting up the words of God he’s about to share, he first introduces God. He says, This is what God says – wait, do you know who God is? – God, the one who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters… So the prophet is calling the people to remember the exodus, calling them to remember the story of their ancestors, who were a captive people, who were caught, but who had hope that their resistance might matter, so they cried out, and their cries were heard, and they found new life. So he’s saying that God, remember that?

And then he mentions all the apparatus of war – chariots, and horses, armies and warriors – and he says those things are done. He says God lays them down. They cannot rise. And after that long introduction, then God says, “I am about to do a new thing. Do not even remember the old – the tools of war are not my tools – this is what I do; when you think there is no way, I make a way. In a dry and desert land – like when it seems like there is nothing that gives life – I will pour out a river, send hope gushing through. When a leader says all options are exhausted, ask him to get creative. When a well-meaning friend tells you your dream is too big, your hope is too grand, your peace is too naïve, stay up anyway. Look around. Open yourself – because the Spirit comes to breathe new life into you, so that you might breathe it out into all the world.”

*

It is hard to hear news of the world. We already know that. We are secretly thankful to the reviewers at Apple for sparing us. Can you imagine if you were out to dinner with friends and you got a text message, and you checked, not to be rude, just sort of casually, ‘cuz it might be this other friend who’s gonna meet you later, and it’s not, it’s a note letting you know that a drone strike just took three lives in some town you can’t pronounce? Can you eat after that?

It’s hard, because it’s not just a harsh reminder of all that we choose to ignore. It’s not just a jolting back into a global consciousness when we want to retreat into ourselves. It’s a call to remember our neighbors around the globe, and so it forces us to think about our neighbors closer to home, too. And we know too well that our need for peace is not only a far-flung vision, not only our hope for the wide world. Because when we admit that we ignore what lives at a distance from us, we also have to ask ourselves: what is it we do not notice, what is it we refuse to hear, where we live?

Can we even look at each other?

*

Marina Abramovic, a performance artist, set up a table with two chairs, at opposite sides, facing each other, in an atrium at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She called her experiment “The Artist is Present.” And she just sat there. And people came – people started coming to sit in that other chair, across the table from her. And she looked at them. For however long they stayed. Some stayed seated across from her for two minutes, some twenty, some longer. And she looked at them. And they looked at her. Mostly they looked at her. Some closed their eyes. Some buried their faces in their hands. Many of them cried. … Sometimes she did, too.

Halfway through the exhibition, she removed the table. That last barrier between the artist and the participants. And then, even more of them cried. At being really, finally, seen. ….  The artist sat at that exhibit for seven hundred and fifty hours, over three months. People spent their days waiting in line to sit across from her. A teenage boy sat for forty-one minutes. A woman completely veiled, except for her eyes, sat for thirty-three. Some people came back, a second and third time. One man came twenty-one times; she never knew why.

What was she offering them? Is it a new thing, that we might really see each other? Without hurry, or judgment, or expectation? That we might just stay up, and look around, and take each other in?

Because if we could do that, if we could see each other, then maybe we could see the new thing God is doing, too, the new life the Spirit is breathing into our world.

*

Pedro Reyes did this kind of looking. He looked hard at weapons. At the 6700 guns he had, just a fraction of what had been seized in Cuidad Juarez, part of the Mexican drug cartel violence. He thought about the lives that had been taken with them, the families destroyed. As he looked, he began to hear in his head a sort of requiem for all of that loss. And so he began transforming those guns into the instruments you can see here. He says the project is not just a protest, but a proposal. He said it occurred to him to make music, because music is the opposite of violence, and he wanted his project to illustrate the sort of transformation he hopes for the world.

It’s not the first time he’s done a project like this: Four years ago, he melted 1527 donated weapons to make that same number of shovels to plant that same number of trees. A vision as old as our prophet Isaiah, who said that one day, we would beat swords into farming tools; one day, we would end our study of war. Again, not protest, but proposal – a model of bringing life from death. Hope from despair. Rivers in the desert.

What if it’s not swords or shovels that make our gardens grow, but the creative energy invested in transforming them that seeps into the soil, too, and brings life out of it? What if it’s not that guns actually make beautiful music, but that the sorrow of the memory those guns carry can finally be heard, as someone holds the instrument gently, and calls those tones out of it? What if in everything, in everyone, there is a story that needs to be told, a soul that needs to be seen?

*

We’ve been talking a lot about protest – about saying no to violence in our language, in our liturgy, in our neighborhoods, in our investing, in our relationships, in our theology. And this is important, and it’s a practice that makes sense, given the season we find ourselves in. Many of us do a lot of saying no during Lent. But we mentioned early in the season that Lent is not about sacrifice for its own sake – it’s about orienting our lives to the life of the community, as an act of solidarity, so that we can really be with and for each other. Saying no to violence is only part of it. Saying yes to one another, to creativity and possibility and divine imagination – that’s the life-giving part.

So, instead of protest, here’s a proposal: Let’s stay up, and look around. Let’s try to listen hard and see deeply. The only exception to this will be when someone tells us that peace is impractical, that hope is naïve. When that happens, we’ll turn to practical matters. We’ll ask: If we look deeply, what can we discover? We’ll ask: What in our own lives can be transformed? If guns can become flutes, can hurt become compassion? Can anger become energy? Can fatigue become stillness, or doubt, openness, or clutter, generosity?

There is a new way, even now springing forth. It is as ancient as the prophets. And it is desperately needed now. With all the faith and courage we can summon, may we embrace it.