Saturday, October 15, 2016

when the hurricane hits

Run for high ground. The hurricane hit land.

We have radars to track these things. We could tell the storm was coming. People predicted it.

But some didn’t want to leave their home. And those that ran for safety are now living in the throes of confusion. When they return home there will be no home. Everything will be gone. It seems that all is lost.

The election is only a few weeks away. Come mid-November a new reality will begin to sink in. But here in these weeks leading up to Decision 2016 it feels like a hurricane. Very disorienting.

What have we built and how did we build it? When the storm passes, what will become of what our hands have made? Will we build more of the same?

I wonder if anyone knows how to build differently. One thing is certain: if we didn’t see the storm coming, we weren’t paying attention.

A conversation. He said: “It felt like the storm would never get here. We watched it and watched it, night after night. On Tuesday the news said three days. On Wednesday…two days. Okay. Well, it’s coming. Thursday: one day.”

On Friday they drove north and west, further than most. By then, traffic was not so bad. Those who were going to leave…left already. Those who decided to stay…stayed.

“It felt like the storm would never get here. It was very slow.”

The system seemed to crawl, so when it hit land, the storm seemed more severe. The winds persisted, the water accumulated. Nearly 17 inches in the space of 10 hours. If you were in your home, you endured listening to the wind beat against the house while the power was out. It was very frightening.

The problem with the hurricane was its speed. It was anything but momentary. It lingered. Still, you could see it coming.

But few prayed for wisdom in the waiting. Decisions were made momentarily for a storm that was anything but momentary.

The news cycle seems to portray the latest revelation about the candidate as if it is, well…news.

It isn’t. You could see it coming, if you were paying attention.

The attempt to control the message should concern us. It’s a manufactured storm designed to disorient and provoke fear, to call forth a cycle of attack and counter-attack.  And the unmitigated hubristic response should concern us. The proud lies cut a swath of terror. Anyone who dares stand in the way of the tempest will be blown to bits.

This is not a place one calls home. This is spiritual exile brought on by the storm.

In exile the lies now enslave us. We hardly notice them anymore. We have come to expect them. We have fact-checkers but our response to their reports bears no weight because everyone is lying. It is simply a question as to whose lies seem less threatening.

But a lie is a lie. A peaceful world cannot be built on lies because lies are chains that are hard to break. This is spiritual exile brought on by the storm and the spin swirls faster. It has become a hurricane. A crisis.

To survive and to break the cycle of lying. It seems impossible.    


But exile has an upside. It becomes possible to shatter illusions when you hit rock bottom. We do not have to kid ourselves anymore. When you are in a foreign land, it becomes apparent you are no longer home.

Here in this strange land, we have stories of home to remember, to relish in the telling. The best one is an origin story. It can orient us, if we let it.

This has happened before. A group of people in exile remembered an origin story and found their bearings. They knew what to do because they knew who they were.

In Babylon, the Jewish exiles put together the pages of their history to remember the beginning, to recall their identity. The storm had hit like a hurricane. Suddenly, their home was destroyed and they found themselves in foreign territory.

Here in this strange place, with no hope of returning home, there were at least two ways of remembering the genesis. And these exiles needed both versions of the story, like grasping bread in one hand and wine in the other.


In one story, there was a God of mystery, hovering over the formless void, unafraid of the dark, deep, wild water. God, unfazed, speaks and says, “Let there be light.”

And the luminous world as we know it, at once terrifying and soothing in beauty, was made: the sky and sea, the land and plants, sun and stars, fish and birds, animals and humans. To be sure, it is a work of such dazzling complexity that it still fascinates us anew millennia later. Last night’s moon made us breathless and today’s red leaves meet death with fanfare. Yes, the creation is dazzling and complex.

Yet, this account of the creation portrays it as a work of simple grace, each part good and necessary, each part exactly what it is without pretense. There are no lies here. Just goodness.

Peace in the midst of complexity. Shalom in the presence of transcendence. That is our genesis.

This world sprang from peace. God, undaunted by the wildness of the abyss, spoke a few restful words and smiled when he beheld what was made.

Thus, when everything was made, what could God do but return to rest? The world as we know it sprang from Sabbath and returned to it. Our lives are ordered by rest. Even God’s work was restful.

That is good news to exiles. After all, what is the one thing slaves never get? Rest.

And restful work is play. God made the world in play and God played when he made the world.

The theologian likes to ask, “Why did God make the world?”

There are many good reasons, no doubt, but the best answer is: because God wanted to make the world. That’s all. It’s an expression of delight.  The world was made in joy.

We like to paint Genesis 1 as a text about God’s power, and it is—but God has no power apart from joy. Why else does Scripture say the joy of the Lord is our strength? If God’s joy is our strength, it is also God’s strength.

Yes, God’s power is joy, the fruit of which is shalom.


We tell this story as the Jews in Babylon told it. In exile.

The dissonance between our present reality and our origin story is apparent. It unsettles us even as it orients us.

The choice to remember the story when all seems lost is the choice to hope. By remembering the story, we declare our intention to persist in the pursuit of peace.

Such persistence is hope. Hope is a quiet rebellion, the choice to believe when everything is out of whack. Because it believes, it needn’t coerce. The strength of hope is its dogged but unforced persistence.

We persist in the pursuit of peace, no matter the circumstances.

And so the Jewish people were told by God to seek the peace of their place of exile. They were told to build homes there, to pray and work for the prosperity of…Babylon. That word from God came through the prophet Jeremiah.

And that bit of instruction shocked them. But it makes sense. To remember the origin story is to seek peace in every place, since the origin story is a testament to a world where peace enjoys complete dominion in every place.

The alternative is to despair and give up on the origin story.

The Jews in exile have another story about what happens when we give up on our origin. It is a story in a place called Shinar. There, the people had given up on the origin story so they had no recourse but to make a name for themselves. They decided to make a great city with a tower. We know the place today as Babel and the Jews in exile knew Babel as Babylon.

I believe there are too many instances today where we see this story in action, where Babel’s blueprints are dusted off for another round of building.

After all, the political banter feels like…babbling.

“We want to make a name for ourselves. Let’s build something everyone will admire so that if they are lucky enough to live here they will thank their lucky stars but if they are one of the nameless multitude on the outside they will wish they were here. But there is only so much room here. So just let them go on wishing.”

 That is a narrative borne of despair. It is only told when we give up on our genesis. It is the ultimate alternative to hope.

Hope remembers our origin of peace. It is not America’s origin. It is our common human origin. It is a narrative for everyone.


Because God made everything in play, God made it freely and God made it in freedom. You cannot play if you are forced to play a certain way.

This is the crux of the second origin story: freedom.

The world was made in delight, in dazzling complexity and gracious simplicity, blessed and good—united in diversity, colorful and rich, fruitful and pulsing.

And the world God made is good because it is free.

Now, the scandalous grace of this freedom lies in the fact that God limits the exercise of his power so the human creation has space to exercise its power. It is real freedom.

This is the God who walks among us and needs to ask, “Where are you?”

Modern day evangelicals do not like that question from God. It doesn’t seem very godlike. What kind of God has to ask where his pots are? Doesn’t he know?

“Of course he knows!” the Christian says. And then they conjure a reason that this particular question appears in the text.

But the text doesn’t record such a reason. You have to reach back or forward to get the reason. Taken on its own, the second origin story makes God seem like he really needs to search for us.

And the writer wants us to let that sink in. The God of Genesis 1 who knows everything chooses to be a God who seeks the truth, as if he needs to discover it.

“Where are you?”

Yes, it is real freedom. We can go where we wish. Depending on where we go, God has to come chasing after us, looking for us, seeking us.

That’s God’s mission. To win at hide and seek, to find us because we chose to run away.

It’s a story. Don’t get uptight about the theological errors that disturb you in this discourse. The errors are meant to disturb you.

Or comfort you.

Depends on if you’re lost or found.


This origin story orients the captives by remembering that even in exile there is a greater freedom. No one can take away your freedom to do the right thing. No one can take away your freedom to trust God at his word. No one can take away your freedom to love. We can care for the world. We can “name” the animals. We can work the ground. We can choose to give our heart to others. We can give and share, drink and laugh, tell stories and dance. We enjoy innumerable freedoms.

This origin story reminds the captives that the highest freedom is continuous with God’s dominion. In fact, the only boundary in this freedom is the boundary that marks the land outside the place of God’s dominion.

Thus, the paradox of this origin story is that the boundary itself does not lie north, south, east or west of the human locus. After all, you can’t outrun God by going in any given direction. The only place you can outrun God is at the center. 

That’s right. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is “in the middle of the garden.”

Yes, that is a direct quote. The story says it.

And the story says this boundary tree is placed right next to the freedom tree; that is, the tree of life. The freedom tree is also in the middle.

The story says it.

The tree of life is a tree that represents the ultimate liberation: freedom from the boundary of death itself.

Now, because the human creation was made in freedom, humans are presented with a real choice.

Some think it unfair and unwise of God to put a so-called tree of temptation right in the middle of the garden.

But, consider: it wouldn’t be fair of God to make us free and then deny us the freedom of real choice. That’s not freedom. The play of God necessitates our choice not to play. That’s freedom.

So, the freedom tree necessitates a boundary tree. And both lie at the center of the situation.

Thus, real boundaries are not crossed by walking. They’re crossed by wanting what God doesn’t want.

Since God made us in freedom, when we want what God doesn’t want, we experience our new freedom as alienation, pride, envy, suspicion and greed.

We are still free but the quality of our freedom is corrupted and subject to decay.

When we act according to desires that aren’t God’s we become free to manage the anxiety that comes with such a choice. Thus, the second origin story tells us that having children and rearing them well becomes a source of angst. Working becomes stressful as we strain and groan to make a livelihood and retire well. We begin to fear the non-human creation and make it subject to us. We rape the earth. We begin to fear one another, which leads to violence. The violence has a mimetic quality to it. We see that a measure of power and security may be obtained by force of will over another. So, the violence escalates. To put others in their place we need to kill and we worry if we are making the right decision to attack or appease aggressors.

The storm swirls. It becomes a flood. We are going to drown in it. We hope that somehow our anxiety will be laid to rest if we just work harder at it and try to manage the hostilities in this unsafe world.

And, as we scheme solutions, the storm continues to swirl. It becomes a hurricane. We are caught. It seems to linger. We wait for it to pass. But it is not moving on. And once it has moved on it will only be for a time. But, wait and see: it will come again. This time with a new name.

It's still the same storm. It just has a new name. And it will be just as devastating.

This is our freedom.

This origin story is as instructive as it is disturbing. The Jewish exiles told it, I believe, because there is at least some comfort in explaining the existence of pain. It helps us make sense of how things got to be the way they are today.


Storms are generated by pressure. Two forces collide and the sky can’t contain it.

Many experience the campaign season as a storm because of this. The irony is: both sides employ a singular force to generate the storm. One force comes from below and claims democracy will end if the other force wins. The other force comes from above and claims democracy will end if the other force wins.

It is the same force coming from opposing locations. The competing narratives create confusion and anxiety but the storm is our own making.

We tend to lean towards one force or the other in an attempt to calm the storm. We feel our side is the magic side that will put everything right. But our mentality is complicit in creating the storm.

Besides, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every power-move on one side, there will be another pushing back. And the storm will do nothing but continue to grow in strength. The pressure will increase. The opposing force will not diminish by force.


The two origin stories describe well the reality of forces that stand in tension with one another.

In Genesis 1, we see a transcendent God. In Genesis 2, God is immanent.

The Genesis 1 story speaks to the storm and says, “Nothing ends without God’s say so. God started everything and nothing will be finished until God’s work is finished.”

The second story speaks to the storm and says, “Humans choose their own ends.”

The first story shows God’s action; the second story shows restraint.

We are troubled by the two stories because they feel problematic to us presented side-by-side. The transcendent God of Genesis 1 does not act in Genesis 2-3 when we most need him. We need a God who is imminent, but immanence without transcendence is limited. The second God asks where we are precisely at the moment when humans are most in need of his omniscience and presence. It is as if the two stories presented side-by-side are the human way of asking, “And where are You, God? Weren’t You supposed to be here? Weren’t you supposed to know what we would make of ourselves? Weren’t you supposed to save us this heartache?”

But what troubles us even more is the tension presented by the paradox that the first story tells us we are good and then the second story tells us we are not. Which is it?

That is why we have a storm at all. We are good and we are not.

We look around and we see the image of God in one another, so we know, deep down in our soul, that we are spectacular in holiness and mystery. The very breath of God fills us with life. We are sacred and creative. We are capable of sublime music and ponderous art. We possess in our collective humanity an infinite expression of form and color. There is something of God in us.

And we are free. Free to choose the good, but also free to choose death. We are equally as capable of generosity as we are of greed. We can envy or exult in another’s success. We can serve or dominate. We can consume or generate. We can trust or suspect. We can illuminate or obscure.

That is why we have a storm. God would call out the best in us—and we would call out the best in each other—but we choose not to do so.

Fortunately, even with the limitation God places on God’s own action in the second story, the first story is still told first for a reason.

Throughout the course of history, the textual editors could have reversed the order. They could have started with a God who knows not where we are.

But the experience of God by the people of God never warranted such an edit. The experience of God by the people of God in exile confirmed that, in spite of the evil so prevalent in the world, God’s fundamental nature is unfazed by the chaos we perpetrate.

Still today God hovers over the wild, dark water and calls forth life. God’s voice is more persistent than ours. God’s voice is hope and joy even when life feels threatening. The imprint of hope in the human spirit is not ours; it’s God’s. God hopes more than we do. His word is a word of hope. His life is a life of joy.

That is why the first story has always been told first and always will be told first. We are made for more than our faulty choices. We are made to begin again.

And when that finally happens, the storm will be over. There will be rest, fullness of rest and joy. There will be play and worship forevermore. Work and family life will not be accompanied by anxiety. The creation will flourish. Our mouths will be filled with laughter and those who have sown in tears will reap with songs of joy.

Whatever happens with the storm these next three weeks, let us remember there is a God above the storm and we are made for better things. Let us live as the people of faith did in exile long ago, remembering whence we came, whose we are, and who we are free to become.  All is not lost.

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