Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Jesse Tree, Day 3: The First Sin

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the LordGod formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the LordGod formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that theLord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LordGod among the trees of the garden.
But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.
Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
Genesis 2:2 - 3:24 
The Jesse Tree symbol for today is...drum roll, please...a tree. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Perhaps. The tree of life? Maybe.

I suppose you're expecting me to talk about the first sin as being the setup for the great redemption brought by Jesus's execution on the cross.

That's okay, I suppose.

A lot has been written about "original sin" and such. Entire theologies have been built from such a simple creation story. I would suggest that perhaps, considering the oral tradition that precedes this Genesis account, it might be safe to say that the story makes less of a theological statement, and more of a sociological or anthropological one. No one cares if some misguided couple (misguided by whom? A snake?) ate an apple and were thrown out of paradise at the beginning of time. What we do care about, as we look around us and experience the world as it happens (in "real time," a phrase popularized by Twitter), is why our existence seems so broken, so...off. Why we suffer when we have seemingly done nothing to deserve pain.

The ancient Hebrews had a very different concept of sin than we in 21st century "evangelized" America have managed to conjure up. A closer understanding of sin--to the ancients--might better be described as "missing the mark," or "not measuring up." The second creation story isn't about In Adam's fall, we sinned all. It's about the recognition of human frailty. God doesn't cast the first humans out of paradise because they "sinned." God casts them out because God doesn't want them to attempt to eat from the tree of life and live forever, knowing good and evil. You could possibly take this in two directions: 1) the character of God is jealous of the humans' newfound power and wants to make sure they won't become his rivals, or 2) God sends them away for their own safety. I prefer to believe in the second.

We're still early in Advent--only three days in. Let's get something straight from the beginning: humans are frail. But you already knew that. The story of Adam and Eve reminds us that we are weak, but that God is willing to walk in the garden with us. That we "miss the mark," in our relationships with people and with YHWH, and that we recognize our own nakedness (sometimes more readily on others than ourselves). As we wait expectantly for the coming Messiah, consider what we admire in Jesus: someone who is strong in the broken places, who does not exploit our weaknesses, but instead uses them for the good of God. 

It all reminds me of a cheesy old story about a guy driving down the road when he sees a barn covered in bulls-eyes, each with a single arrow in the very center. The man stops and inquires of the farmer how he managed to develop such solid archery skills. "Easy," the farmer replies. He then proceeds to shoot an arrow at the barn, and then paint a bulls-eye around the arrow.

Forget apples. Forget original sin. Give me a Jesus who paints bulls-eyes.



Monday, November 29, 2010

Jesse Tree, Day 2

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Today was the first day (not counting Sunday) of the Advent season. The Jesse Tree symbol is a dove, or the spirit of God, which moves upon the dark, chaotic waters of pre-creation. In this genesis myth (as opposed to the second, conflicting myth in chapter 2), we find a very structured, orderly creation from nothing. God, in this story, is methodical, intentional, and satisfied with his work. 

I've been taking a Hebrew Bible class at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. It's my last class of the semester for the CREATE program. Next semester, I will join my classmates in March on a pilgrimage to Myanmar, and this has given way to numerous daydreams when I should be paying attention in class. For now, however, I remain stuck discussing historicity, and fact vs. truth. Not that I don't enjoy this. Quite the opposite. 

In studying the Hebrew scriptures, it's helpful to begin at...well, the beginning. Every story has a beginning. And the Christian story begins where the Jewish tradition begins. In many ways, they are (or should be) inseparable. If you're going to talk about Jesus--a first century radical homeless rabbi who performed miracles and taught revolutionary social and religious philosophies--you've got to talk about Judaism. And if you talk about Judaism, you have to talk about Creation. 

The act of creation is fuzed into our essence. The God of Genesis 1 creates because humans create, and this creation is mysterious. Who knows what drives us to create art, to make music, or to appreciate a hilarious piece of nonfiction writing

Most scholars agree that this first creation story was written by a methodical, "Priestly" source; someone who was concerned with explaining--through storytelling--the existence of the world around us, the magnificent transcendence of our Creator, the establishment of the Sabbath. But it also sets the stage for the greater question found throughout the Hebrew Bible: why do we suffer? Weren't we meant for greater things than this? How can we reconcile the existence of pain and sin (Cain and Abel, anyone?) with this beautiful, transcendent deity who created us in its likeness

This is all well and good, but what does this have to do with Advent? Yesterday we talked about how Advent is Hope. Today, likewise, we must realize that Advent is Creation. The very word advent means something akin to "coming forth," or "the birthing of something new." Creation. So as we close out the day, reflect on the fact that the God of Creation is not finished Creating, and continues to Create new hearts within us even now. As Creation groans and suffers through birthing pains, know that it is the advent of something new that we wait for expectantly. The sheer act of creation gives us hope for the Next Big Thing--whatever that may be.



Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent: Week One, and an Art Project

I've been working on a really bizarre art piece in ceramics inspired by a line from mewithoutYou's song, "Cattail Down," from their album It's all crazy! It's all false! It's all a dream! It's alright. Don't ask me to explain the piece, but the text covering the stump (the letter stamps were hand-carved from plaster) quotes the line, "You're everyone else," which is repeated over and over and over again throughout the song (a total of 49 times).

Here are a few pictures. It's not entirely finished. But I took photos because I'm fairly certain it won't survive the kiln.

Also, today marks the first Sunday of Advent. Alyssa and I have been working on our Jesse tree, and tonight's symbol happens to be the tree itself. The scripture comes from the prophecy (albeit out-of-context) that "predicts" the coming of the messiah (ie. Jesus) from Jesse's family.

The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.’ Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.’ And the Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you, and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.” Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.’ Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, ‘Do you come peaceably?’ He said, ‘Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.’ And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, ‘The Lord has not chosen any of these.’ Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.’ And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.’ He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
1 Samuel  16:1-13 

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
Isaiah 11:1-10

I don't really believe that these prophecies are necessarily speaking directly about Jesus. But that doesn't really matter. If you're looking through these prophecies simply to say, "Look! Jesus!" you're missing the point. These stories--in their proper context--are about hope. Hope that God is working out a way to "put things to rights," as our friend N.T. Wright says. 

And so begins the Advent season. The first (and, I would argue, most important) season on the Christian calendar. It is a time of expectation and heartfelt yearning. A time when, according to Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro, we are to serve as midwives for a groaning Creation struggling to give birth to something new. As we enter into this favorite season of mine, I would urge you to follow me in this exploration of what it means to hope for something--even if it is vague or fleeting. 

Alyssa and I have been caught in the doldrums lately. We're stuck in a place where we don't feel very useful or appreciated, and we can't move forward on our dreams of setting up Anavah House until we wrap up what seems like mere busy work here. 

If there was no hope, we would have given up months ago--because it's simply not worth it. We've been so run down by the daily grind ("the refrigerator hum," Rob Bell calls it), that we've had little reason to leave the apartment lately.

But something big is coming. In one of my favorite episodes of M*A*S*H, Father Mulcahy writes to his sister (a nun) at Christmas something to the effect of, "It's hard, Sis, when you're running from one disaster to the next. The trick is to keep moving." 

The hope is in the motion.