Sunday, June 28, 2009







I.
Some ancient cultures believed that what we inhabit was originally water; even when land came along, there was less land than water. Some cultures worshiped the water; some, the ancient Hebrews among them, feared the water.
Evidently, all the earliest forms of life on our planet began in water. Some life-forms evolved and adapted to life outside the water; many of those remained land-bound creatures, and others evolved back into the seas.
Roughly two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is water. About 75% of the human body is water, and 85% of the brain is water. An average sized-body has about 42 liters of water in it; that’s a little more than 11 gallons. Mercy. Don’t think about that too much at the moment, or we’ll have a rush on the restrooms between the first and second sermon segments. A nutritionist points out that with a loss of as little as half a gallon of our optimum water content, we can experience all sorts of physical and emotional difficulties--some leading to serious disease. Early dehydration can be signaled by our bodies through irritability and nervousness. So, the next time your significant other seems unusually grumpy, before taking the bait and launching into a round of spats, offer her or him a nice glass of cool water. The results could be pleasantly surprising!

Water circulates through the land just as it does through the human body, transporting, dissolving, replenishing nutrients and organic matter, while carrying away waste material. Further in the body, it regulates the activities of fluids, tissues, cells, lymph, blood and glandular secretions (La Leva).


Humans and animals can live without food for several days, but not very long at all without water. Water, therefore, is a central part of all cultures, ancient or modern; scientifically sophisticated or mythologically motivated.
In this sermon series on the elements, I’ve mentioned pollution of parts of our planet several times--polluted air, polluted land, and so on. I won’t neglect to mention the danger of polluted water before we end the series. Seeing sickening scenes of polluted water hasn’t been enough to make us halt our practices that promote pollution. Direct connections between polluted drinking water and certain cancers we ignore, but some research
released in the United Kingdom early this year might be enough of a shocker to jolt us into unpolluting our precious drinking water. And, by the way, some pollutants attack our bodies as we bathe; contamination is caused without our having to ingest the water.
Here’s the news that could change all of this. UK scientists have found a direct link between polluted water and male infertility. Some chemicals polluting their rivers have been described by scientists of hydrology and ecology as “anti-androgens.” They inhibit the functioning of testosterone. Oh my deity!
Not knowing much about fish, I can’t get in my mind what the British scientists mean when they say that the presence of these chemical pollutants in the water feminize male fish. I’ve never been able to tell the difference between a male fish and a female fish by watching how they swim or move. Sounds like a good topic for Forum!
Anyway, with the cost of Viagra what it is--SO I’VE BEEN TOLD!!!--this threat may be just the impetus we need to unpollute our drinking water. We definitely don’t want males in our society acting like feminine fish! If you can get those images out of your mind, I want to ask you to think with me a few minutes about water rituals.
Nun was the ancient Egyptian god who existed before there was form or order to the world. The Nile was thought to flow from Nun, so many regarded its waters as primordial; thus, the very element out of which life originally formed remained a part of life for those in every generation after creation. Some Egyptians believed that immersion in the primeval waters, the waters of the Nile, caused time to run backward; an hour in the Nile reversed time an hour thus gaining an hour of life for the person who stayed in those waters. Ultimately, one could escape death by continuing these water rituals; I’m sure there must have been legends of those who escaped death in this manner, but those who did die, the vast majority of Egyptians, must have died because they didn’t bathe often enough in the Nile.
One of the five pillars of Islam is daily prayer. A devoted Muslim prays five times a day facing Mecca. Before each of those prayers, an adherent is expected to cleanse herself or himself with water--the feet up to the ankles, the hands and arms up to the elbows, ears, nose, mouth, and face. These pre-prayer water cleansing rituals are called Wudu, meaning “ablution.”
Hindus, some of them, also use water to cleanse themselves before prayer. Most Hindu temples have a place where persons entering for prayer may wash their hands and feet before going to the areas where they will pray. Water from the River Ganges is regard as sacred, and though there is no formal ceremony for it the general thought is that one’s sins may be washed away by being in the River.
Buddhists, as there are many kinds of Buddhists, have various water rituals; often water is used as a sign of blessing. For example, in Tibetan Buddhism, when a couple is married, the senior monk conducting the ceremony will, near the end of the wedding ritual, sprinkle holy water on the couple using a leafy branch. When the monk walks away, the couple kneels and holds out their hands open and upward. Family members and friends will come to the couple, one at a time, and pour water over their hands as an expression of personal blessing on them. The water falls over their hands and is caught in a flower-filled basin.
Orthodox Jews have long practiced a ritual bath, a kind of baptism by immersion really, called a mikvah. Remember that Jewish John the Baptist practiced baptism among the Essenes of the Qumran community, and remember also that Jewish Jesus asked to be baptized by John in the Jordan River to symbolize his desire to be pure and wholly devoted to God. John used the baptism when he performed it to emphasize a turning away from the world and a renouncing of personal failures as well. I’ve never been to the Holy Land, but in case I ever need water from the same River in which Jesus himself was baptized, my great friend, Rabbi Cohn, brought me a bottle of water from the Jordan!
In any case, the traditional Jews often used the mikvah to prepare themselves for marriage or for sabbath worship. Non-Jews who converted to Judaism were asked to participate in a mikvah. In order to be considered ritually pure according to the demands of the ancient Jewish law, women, after a menstrual cycle, were expected to have a mikvah before sexual relations resumed. In some more liberal or modern Jewish communities, the mikvah is being practiced because of its potential calm and healing effects. I want to say more about water and healing later.
Though Jesus was baptized, as I’ve said, we have no record whatsoever of Jesus baptizing anyone, not even his closest followers. Until Matthew’s Jesus finally gets a world perspective in challenging those who will carry on his ministry after he is no longer with them, there isn’t even any mention of water baptism except when it is a symbol for human birth. Since Jesus had very little to say about the subject, it’s so odd to me that such an emphasis on baptism ever took hold in Christian practice; it did, though. The book of Acts, which is the earliest record we have of life among the followers of Jesus immediately after Jesus’ Roman execution, has numerous account of baptisms. The most moving of these to me is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who is baptized by Philip. In that case, not only is baptism a sign of the eunuch’s faith, but also it’s a sign of the community’s affirmation of an outsider. Many individuals and cultures looked down their noses at eunuchs because they were mutilated--though generally against their wills. Even so they were looked down on by the majority of people except, perhaps, by those who made them eunuchs such as kings who wanted a safe corps of guards to protect their queens.
A sexually-excluded eunuch would very much parallel today a gay or lesbian person excluded from society or a faith community because of a sexual issue. And here comes broad-minded Philip using baptismal waters to bless him and include him.


II.
Just when I was beginning to wonder if I wanted to continue keeping up with FACEBOOK, I had confirmation that I did. Late on this past Friday, Jenn Sterling and Dave Forgac announced their engagement to me on FACEBOOK. Congratulations to Dave and Jenn; I am SO happy for them and for me since I get to be the pronouncing preacher at the wedding, which will take place when Dave completes his studies at Wilmington University. NOTE TO CONGREGATION: Don’t push him to finish so that you’ll get to come to a beautiful Silverside wedding sooner than the couple is ready to plan it! Anyway, that news was well worth all my cyber-bumbling and stumbling around to become, not highly competent but, proficient, with the social networking tool. Tomi Morris believes that the proper use of such social networking connections can help us grow our church. So, because of Tomi’s hunch and because of the joyous engagement news as well as a serious theological question raised a couple of weeks earlier, I’ve decided to keep growing with my FACEBOOK learning. The theological question to which I refer, as it turns out, relates to our subject for today.
Carla Walker is a long-time friend of mine. I first knew Carla from my years of being pastor to her parents at the University Baptist Church in Baltimore. Her late parents, Betty and Gordon Walker, were among the dearest friends I’ve ever had in any congregation I’ve served. Dr. Gordon Walker was a pioneer in the field of dialysis and a professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical School. He and Betty had grown up in the Baptist Belt of Louisiana and had, for most of their lives, been as Baptist as their intelligence would allow--which is to say that some Baptists have made some profoundly important and forward thinking pronouncements in their history such as their insistence that there must be separation of synagogue/church/mosque and state along with the vitally important demand for the practice they have called “soul competency,” meaning that each individual not only relates to God on her or his own without the involvement of intermediaries but also is fully responsible for managing that relationship or connection. Naturally, and even those of us who have loved Baptists at their best will admit to this, some Baptists--and, sadly, increasingly all the time--have stood for some boneheaded principles and practices. These are what Gordon and Betty bristled at: a required literal reading of all scripture, the use of the Bible as a science book, the belief that only Baptists or only Christians for that matter have the proper connection to God guaranteeing a heavenly eternity, and the notion that the preacher is closer to God and more informed theologically than any of those who are a part of that preacher’s congregation.
Carla left me a message on FACEBOOK the other day. She’s an early, early childhood specialist presently on assignment and suffering for Jesus in Honolulu. She has found an Episcopalian church there, which she’s been giving serious consideration to joining, and all was going well with that process until one of the rectors mentioned to her that they would love to have her as a member and would be happy to arrange her baptism. Carla was baptized when she was 8 years old in the University Baptist Church, and she thought that was the only baptism she’d ever want to or need to choose. So, on FACEBOOK, I got this message from Carla seeking some guidelines as she pondered the possibilities. She remembered that during one of her father’s, Gordon’s, terms of service on the University Baptist board of deacons, the issue of baptismal theology was raised and led to months-long discussions and ultimately a constitutional change.
The issues were: 1) Is baptism required in order to be a part of God’s family? (None of my deacons believed that, but we in being thorough decided to articulate our negative response to it.) 2) Is baptism required for membership in a Baptist church and in our church in particular? (Some of my deacons thought yes, and some thought no.) 3) If we require baptism for membership, will we accept the baptism of someone who was baptized in another Christian communion before she or he came to University Baptist Church?
I reminded Carla that on the final of these three issues, her brilliant father, a lifelong Baptist, said, “Absolutely!” The deacons decided to continue the long held practice of requiring believer’s baptism by immersion, never infant baptism, for church membership in a Baptist church; exceptions could be made, of course, in cases of age, infirmity, or fear of water. If a prospective member had never been baptized in any tradition, then our church asked the person to be baptized as a part of the membership process. If the prospective member came to us having been baptized in any tradition, including in a tradition that performed infant baptisms only, University Baptist Church, with strong and eloquent leadership from Deacon Gordon Walker, said we respect and affirm the baptismal experience of any other Christian communion.
I wrote back to Carla, on FACEBOOK of course, and reiterated her father’s clear stance on the subject. Baptists never believed, officially anyway, that baptism was required for being in good with God--same position most Baptists have historically taken on the place of communion in the life of a follower of Jesus. Even so, baptism, being a public sign of one’s own free choice to be a follower of Jesus, should be practiced by a Baptist church. Baptists, after all, got their name from critics because of their insistence that baptism of an infant with no knowledge of and no choice in the matter was at best a waste and at worst bad theology; only a baptism freely chosen by an individual could have any impact on the person’s spirituality and connection to God. Thus, mainstream Baptists have said, officially, “You don’t gotta, but you oughtta.”
There certainly have been those renegade Baptist churches--and remember that there are many kinds of Baptists in the world--who have stood at either extreme on the subject of baptism. There have been those Baptists who insisted that baptism by immersion was next to necessary, and there have been those at the other end who have said that baptism doesn’t matter a whole lot one way or another; if someone wants to be baptized there should be provision for it, and if not, forget it.
You can often tell from how a Baptist sanctuary is constructed what that church’s views of baptism and the importance of baptism are. If the baptistry is in a prominent place for all to see every time the congregation gathers, there’s a reason for that; at least there was when the sanctuary was built. If the baptistry is in an out of the way place or if you can’t see it at all, then that says volumes.
I grew up in a tradition and studied in traditions that emphasized the importance and the meaningfulness of believer’s baptism by immersion. Given that emphasis, I’ve never gotten over embarrassing myself and my family when I was baptized. I was 7 years old, and I was so nervous that I took too seriously the important instruction my pastor gave me: “Hold your breath before I dunk you.” The minute I was in position to be immersed, I started holding my breath; that was much too soon because my pastor had a bit to say before the baptism. By the time my face was all the way under the water, then, I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, and when I let the held breath go, big bubbles came up everywhere. Instead of the typical somberness that accompanied a baptism, as I came up out of the water, I heard snickering throughout the Beaver Dam Baptist Church!
The baptistry in most Baptist churches is front, center, and raised. I remember when one of my students got a job as an associate in the church that was known as the most liberal of all Baptist churches, the Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was traveling through there, and he asked me to meet him at the church from where we’d go to lunch. While at the beautiful church, though, he gave me a tour. There was no baptistry in the sanctuary. I’d never been in a Baptist church without a baptistry--though they exist and for several reasons. There I was in that gorgeous sanctuary without a baptistry. That church had a separate very small chapel that Jay told me was rarely used where any who chose to be baptized could be.
If you have been a member of Silverside Church for less than five years and can tell me after church where our baptistry is located, I will buy your after-church coffee for the next month. I’m betting that I’m not going to be out much money.


III.
For who knows how long, certain bodies of water have been thought to have curative powers so water has been associated with healing from ancient times into the present. In the United Kingdom there are hosts of wells that have been thought for generations to have curative powers; these beliefs have been held by pagans and by Christians and by those who fall somewhere in between. There are usually rules to be followed by those who expect to have the best chance to benefit from the waters.
For example, St. Euny’s Well is in the parish of Sancreed in Penwith. For hundreds of years, those who knew of it swore by the healing power of its waters provided the ill person went to the well and washed in those waters on one of the first three Wednesdays in May. That sounds like the rule by which many of our doctors schedule appointments with sick folk.
Baglan Well in Glamorgan had waters with very specific curative powers; they healed children with rickets. Again, the powers were only accessible three days out of a year; in this case, the first three Thursdays in May. The children had to bathe or be bathed in the water at the well site.
At Aconbury in Herfordshire there is St. Ann’s Well. St. Ann’s waters were believed to be especially potent in curing eye problems, and someone with eye difficulties had the best chance of a cure if she or he washed the eyes with water fetched after midnight on Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night is the holiday celebrated in the Christian year on the eve of the Epiphany; it’s the last night of the twelve days and nights of Christmas.
The waters from the Holy Pool of St. Fillan in Perthshire, in Scotland, work very well in the cure of insanity. Now, instead of dreaming about which of your relatives and political enemies you’d like to send off to St. Fillan’s Holy Pool, let me tell you how it worked or works, as the case may be. The person believed to be insane was brought to the pool and led around it three times--once in the name of the Father, once in the name of the son; once in the name of the Holy Ghost. Then the person, dizzy perhaps, was dipped into the water in the name of the Holy Trinity.
In this same area of the world, any body of water over which both the living and the dead passed was thought to have waters with curative powers. An example would be a body of water under a bridge on which the living carried the dead for burial.
Today, the waters of the Dead Sea between Israel and Jordan are widely regarded a source of healing for skin disorders such as psoriasis and for allergies. If you can get there without being shot or blown up by someone who thinks you’re an enemy, you have a good chance at coming home free of allergies and skin disease. There’s a fair amount of scientific evidence to confirm that these kinds of results are not unusual.
There are numerous places around the world where natural hot springs are believed to help cure a host of disorders, but the cures least likely to be disputed by the skeptics are those for various joint and muscular problems. I swam in one of these in Switzerland--outdoor hot springs swimming in the dead of winter. It was amazing, and as you can tell I’m perfectly sane. No wait, the insanity cure is somewhere else. Oh well.
Similarly, in West Virginia in a quaint little town called Berkeley Springs where there is a tiny state park built up around natural hot springs that bubble up to the surface of the Earth and remain the same warm temperature year ‘round. European settlers first arrived in Berkeley Springs in 1740 and found the very smart Native Americans bathing in these waters for purification, relaxation, and healing. Years ago, I spent several days there, and I have never been more relaxed. Of course, I didn’t drink, smoke pot, or belong to a fraternity in college.
There are two healing water stories from the Bible that I love; one is from Hebrew scripture, and the other is from Christian scripture. I begin with the story from the Hebrew Bible.
Naaman was a Syrian general, a very powerful man, who had been a part of a raid on Israelite territory during which some Jewish people were nabbed and forced to be the slaves of the Syrians. Naaman himself found one young Jewish woman to be the perfect maid for his wife. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that President Obama is getting ready to send an Ambassador to Syria after a four year period of having no diplomatic presence in that country.
Anyway, the young slave came to Naaman’s rescue when he was diagnosed with leprosy. That diagnosis was one of those things that could go either way; it could be a short-term rash, or it could turn into full-blown Hansen’s Disease, a modern designation of course, and rot so much skin off your bones that you’d die. Poor people had no choice but to wait and see; people who had some means could try available treatments though there were no guaranteed cures.
Naaman pursued all treatments he could find in Syria, and we have to believe that nothing much was happening to stem the spread of the disease. His wife’s maid, the young Jewish woman living there and serving against her will, was magnanimous in her concern, and she told the general about an Israelite prophet with widely known healing powers. The guy’s name was Elisha, and Naaman asked his king to write Elisha’s king and ask for an appointment with the prophet. Since Syria had just beaten up badly on Israel, the King was happy to comply as a diplomatic
move.
The story is told humorously because when Naaman arrived Elisha wouldn’t even come out to acknowledge him. He sent out instructions through his servants, which made General Naaman all the more angry, but, in the hopes of healing, Naaman’s aides encouraged him to follow the instructions; they just might work.
To make matters worse, and they were bad already, the instructions were that Naaman should jump into the Jordan River and dip himself fully into its waters seven times. The thing was, the Jordan was a very dirty river; the mud never settled to the bottom for some reason.
How could the snooty prophet dare to tell the powerful General to bathe seven times in the dirtiest water around? Well, Naaman swallowed his pride, did what he was asked, and was completely healed in those waters. He didn’t know, Elisha didn’t know, and the biblical writer didn’t know that the mud in the Jordan that wouldn’t settle to the bottom was from clay in the river bed jam packed with bacteria-fighting ingredients.
In Christian scripture is the story of Jesus encountering the man who was an invalid waiting at the Pool of Bethzatha for a miraculous cure to the disease that had prevented him from walking for years and years. The legend circulating at the time was that ever so often an invisible angel came and stirred up the waters in the pool near where the sheep were bathed before being taken into the great Jerusalem Temple to be slaughtered as a part of worship rituals. It was widely believed that the first person into the waters, and loads of people waited there every day hoping to be cured, the first one of them into the water after the angel caused the ripples would be cured of whatever disease plagued her or him. The poor guy was an invalid; he was never first into the water.
Jesus came up to the man and didn’t confirm or deny the legend. Interestingly, Jesus implied that nothing in the water would cure him; there was a more fundamental issue for the man to confront, and this by no means applies to all people who are sick. Here it did. Jesus told the man that if he really wanted to be well, he had the power to be well, and he should prove it by standing up and picking up his mat and walking home. That’s exactly what the man did. It may be safe to say that more people in that time and place believed in the power of the rippling waters than in the power of God working through Jesus to bring them any available healing.
Water is our dominant essence, and if there is any natural substance that can promote healing, surely water is that. Thus, counselors may ask you to listen to sound of the ocean to relax and calm your soul. The nurse practitioner reminds you to drink plenty of water every day. The natural thermal springs ease our joint and muscular pains, and your physical therapist may recommend hydrotherapy to ease back pain and to help increase range of motion for arms, legs, and spine. Minerals in many bodies of water effectively help detox the exterior of our bodies.
Whatever that Creative force was that shaped our habitat--some of you would call that force God and others of you would resist referring to it as God--that force used and continues to use water to promote the wellness of humans, animals, and plant life. No wonder ancient and modern religious groups used/use water to initiate and to bless, to promote healing, and to symbolize spiritual birth or rebirth.
Amen.


Sunday, June 21, 2009







I.
A NASA children’s book titled The Air We Breathe says it simply and succinctly: “Air gives life to all on land and in the sea, and that includes you and me!” Air is elemental; it is what we breath--mostly nitrogen and oxygen along with small amounts of argon and carbon dioxide with traces of neon, helium, and methane.
Human life cannot be sustained without the proper mixture of gaseous air. One scientist explains that the life spark is based on combustion requiring a constant supply of oxygen; this is why we must breathe. In addition, our bodies have to be consistently surrounded by a certain amount of pressure; otherwise, being of such high water content they would vaporize. The air helps provide that pressure.
Rainforests on Planet Earth are the single greatest source of air that humans and animals breathe. Someone has called the rainforests the lungs of the Planet except that the function is reversed in comparison to human lungs. The rainforests turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, and they provide at least 40% of the Planet’s oxygen.
Rainforests once covered 14% of the Earth’s land surface, but as a result of human destruction, only 6% of those life-giving rainforests remain. The other 8% has been destroyed largely through human abuse. Something like 1.5 acres of rainforest are being destroyed every second primarily by those who want its lumber or who want to create shade so that certain crops will grow and produce much more quickly. Unless the tide turns right away, none of our rainforests will be here in 40 years. How smart is that? Destroying through utter carelessness what we must have to live.
In addition, just for the record, as the rainforests are greedily and carelessly slashed away, our Planet loses about 137 plant, animal, and insect species every day. Whole cultures of people who called the rainforests their home have been eradicated; forced out of the only habitat they knew, they have vanished from the face of the Earth. A team of Brazilian anthropologists say that, in their country alone, European colonists and timber thieves have destroyed at least 90 indigenous tribes since the early 1900’s, and overall in the richest area of rainforests, the Amazon, the ten million indigenous people living there 500 years ago have dwindled to 200,000. Killing people on site and choking out the rest of us, we are further committing global suicide by depriving those far from the rainforests of healthy air.
Historians tell us that humans first experienced air pollution when they built fires in poorly ventilated caves, and until the industrial eras began most air pollution remained in dwellings as the Earth had been able to purify itself of preindustrial contaminants. As recently as 1985, there was a study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency revealing that in most American homes, there were toxins and pollutants in the air THREE TIMES more likely to cause cancers than air in the great out of doors. What should be a relatively simple matter to correct, namely poor ventilation, could correct a huge proportion of indoor air pollution problems that still plague 20%-30% of US American homes and, by the way, a higher percentage of public buildings such as offices and retail centers. We have to wonder how churches fair in that department.
The EPA calls these home and commercial buildings where air pollution is rampant “sick buildings.” Some of the worst case scenarios brought to light some buildings where the pollution was exactly 100% worse than any outdoor air pollution problem.
The American Lung Association continues to insist that some 6 out of every 10 US Americans live in areas where the outdoor air they breathe is actively threatening their health. This statistic is very current--not even eight weeks old. It is horrible news! Only 40% of our citizens are breathing healthily, are breathing well!
The lists of current best and worst air areas are divided into three categories each: short-term particle pollution, long-term particle pollution, and ozone pollution. Here are the results.
The five most polluted cities in the short-term particle pollution category are: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Fresno, California; Bakersfield, California; Los Angeles, California; and Birmingham, Alabama. The five most polluted cities from long-term particle pollution are: Bakersfield, California; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Los Angeles, California; Visalia, California; and Birmingham, Alabama. The five cities most polluted by ozone are: Los Angeles, California; Bakersfield, California; Visalia, California; Fresno, California; and Houston, Texas. It’s good to know that we’re not on any of the top five WORST lists, but we’re not any of the BEST lists either!
The cities most free from short-term particle pollution are: Alexandria, Louisiana; Amarillo, Texas; Austin, Texas; Bismark, North Dakota; and Brownsville, Texas. The cleanest cities in terms of freedom from long-term particle pollution are: Cheyenne, Wyoming; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Honolulu, Hawaii; Great Falls, Montana; and Flagstaff, Arizona. And the cities most removed from ozone pollution are: Billings, Montana; Carson City, Nevada; Coeur D-Alene, Idaho; Fargo, North Dakota; and Honolulu, Hawaii. So, I’ll tell you, if Silverside Church wants to start a liberal mission in Honolulu, I’d be willing to sacrifice and be your missionary there!
Tom Socha tells us:

The industrialization of society, the introduction of motorized vehicles, and the explosion of the population, are factors contributing toward the growing air pollution problem. At this time it is urgent that we find methods to clean up the air.


Easier said than done? Perhaps, but if we ostriches will take or heads out of the sand, can we see any other way to move forward?
There are ways that we can improve the quality of the air we breathe. Let’s think about what we can do individually before we look at what has to be done by government as well as businesses and industries with consciences, and there are a few of those. For example, PNC Bank, which happens to be the church’s banker, has more “green certified” buildings than any business of any type in the
United States, which is why I recently decided not just to get my paychecks from PNC accounts, but to become a regular PNC customer.
Vehicle emissions may be the greatest single contributor to air pollution by individual citizens in this country. We can improve this by insisting on environmentally-friendly vehicles in the first place; then, we can drive less. That doesn’t mean you should reduce the number of times you attend Sunday morning Gatherings at Silverside Church each month! It means that we should car pool to the symphony or the Phillies’ games. It means that we should plan our days so that instead of making several single-errand runs, we do all that we need to do in regard to errands and chores on one run.
Our area isn’t the best for it, but public transportation is much better for the environment than having an abundance of personal vehicles on the roadways. I don’t want to deprive you of the privilege of driving on Interstate 95, but while locally public transportation is really poor here, we do have the benefit of SEPTA trains to Philly and Amtrak trains to New York and Baltimore and DC.
Here’s a simple pollution-fighting step that I didn’t know about until recently. We should gas-up our cars after sundown because the lack of sunlight minimizes how many fumes are burned in the process of fueling. Now, don’t start gassing up after dark in bad neighborhoods and get car-jacked and blame it on the preacher! Be safe about it!
I don’t presently have a fireplace, but I am one who loves a fire on a chilly winter night. Even so, burning fire wood and trash contribute significantly to particle pollution. The experts say that we should have those gas burning fire places if we like fires. Maybe some day soon, some smart person will be able to create the wood smell for a gas fireplace!
We should never burn our trash. We should recycle everything we possibly can and throw away trash headed for landfills as an absolute last resort.
Businesses have to get rid of coal- and oil-burning machinery in their production processes. They, too, have to find increasingly environmental ways to receive and deliver. Business and industry must be vigilant in reducing waste wherever they can. Government must enact AND enforce the laws to hold business and industry accountable for making and keeping our air clean. No entity and no individual has the right to act in ways that diminish the quality of life of humans and animals; certainly, putting poisons into the air that citizens must breathe is a criminal offense. If we keep electing enemies of the environment to public office, you can see exactly where we’re headed in very short order.


II.
“Elevation,” a poem by Charles Baudelaire as translated from the French by Said Leghlid:

Above the ponds, above the valleys,
Mountains, woods, clouds, and seas,

Beyond the sun, beyond the heavens,
Beyond the confines of starry spheres,
My spirit, you roam with agility,

And, like a good swimmer bracing the waves,

You soar happily into profound immensity

With exquisite male delight.
Fly, far away from these noxious surroundings;

And cleanse yourself in the pure air above,

And drink, the clear fire that fills lucid spaces,

As you would a pure and divine liqueur.
Behind the nuisances, and the vast chagrins

Amassing with their weight our bewildered existence,

Happy is he who can with a vigorous wing

Propel towards the luminous and serene realms;
He whose thoughts, like larks,

Free, in the morning take flight,

— Hover over life, and understand with ease

The language of flowers and silent things!


An excerpt of Sidney Lanier’s poem, “Sunrise,” from “Hymns of the Marshes”:

Oh, rain me down from your darks that contain me

Wisdoms ye winnow from winds that pain me,
-- 
Sift down tremors of sweet-within-sweet 
That advise me of more than they bring,
--repeat 
Me the woods-smell that swiftly but now brought breath 

From the heaven-side bank of the river of death,
-- Teach me the terms of silence,
--preach me 
  
The passion of patience,
--sift me,
--impeach me,
--And there, oh there 

As ye hang with your myriad palms upturned in the air, 
          
Pray me a myriad prayer.

.....

I fear me, I fear me yon dome of diaphanous gleam

Will break as a bubble o'er-blown in a dream,
-- 
Yon dome of too-tenuous tissues of space and of night, 

Over-weighted with stars, over-freighted with light, 

Over-sated with beauty and silence, will seem 
  
But a bubble that broke in a dream,

If a bound of degree to this grace be laid, 
  
Or a sound or a motion made. 

But no: it is made: list! somewhere,
--mystery, where? 

In the leaves? in the air?

In my heart? is a motion made: 

'Tis a motion of dawn, like a flicker of shade on shade.

In the leaves 'tis palpable: low multitudinous stirring 

Upwinds through the woods; the little ones, softly conferring, 

Have settled my lord's to be looked for; so; they are still; 

But the air and my heart and the earth are a-thrill....


Air is sometimes conceived of as alive or nearly alive, and it is considered by some of the ancients as a realm where humans do not dwell; but some beings do. One of the most interesting places where we encounter this is in the writings of Paul to the Christians in Colossae. Here are two verses from the second chapter of the book of Colossians:

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to the Anointed One....If with Anointed One you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? (Col 2:8 and 20 NRSV, adapted).


The references we want to pay attention to are those where he points to the “elemental spirits of the universe.”
Many strands of early Christianity were influenced by Gnosticism. Gnosticism was not an independent religious or philosophical movement, but rather a movement that influenced a number of religious and philosophical movements. Thus, there were multiple strains of Gnosticism; again I say, there wasn’t just one KIND of Gnosticism. Different groups had different emphases. Yet, there were a few points of theology on which most if not all Gnostics seemed to agree.
The reason this is important to bring up when we read some of Paul’s writings is that Gnosticism influenced certain segments within early Christianity, and sometimes--overtly or covertly--Paul is battling Gnosticism, which he found incompatible with his interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.
One of the general points of agreement among Gnostics was that everything about the material world was evil while everything about the spirit world was good. The goal in this life was to gain the secret knowledge necessary to be happily delivered from the material world and to be able to move up as high as possible on the ladder of spiritual realms envisioned as the essential layout of the realm beyond this realm.
Another point of general agreement among Gnostics of all stripes was that there were, in fact, beings living invisibly in the air--in the space separating the Earth from the highest heaven and related beings inhabiting all sky objects such as the sun, the moon, and the stars. Those beings dwelling in the layers separating Earth and God who is the highest good and who dwells in the highest heaven are often called “aeons.” Functionally, many believed that a primary aeon controlled each of those levels or strata between earthly humanity and God, and in order to be given permission to dwell within the realm controlled by that aeon, one had to know what the aeon knew. To know more was to be kicked on up another level, and to know less was to get kicked back down to the previous strata. Since Earth and material things on the Earth were all regarded as evil, the hope was to be as far up the hierarchy as one possibly could get, but all of that depended on how much true knowledge one acquired during her or his earthly life.
The key words in what I read to you from Colossians are “the elemental spirits of the universe” (τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου). Literally, Paul referred to the elements or the rudiments of the cosmos, but the translators have often called them elemental or rudimentary spirits because they were taken to have been alive. The stoicheia, the elements or the rudiments, could also have referred to air, Earth, water, and fire. The word can refer to the sun, the moon, and the stars as well as beings inhabiting them and thought to control their movement.
For Paul, though he got sadly sidetracked with trinitarianism and never recovered, God was one whole entity, and God didn’t share management of the world God had created with subordinates, whether angels or aeons. Nor were sun, moon, stars, Earth, water, or air living independently of God’s directives. The philosophy, which Paul eschews in his letter to the Colossians, was not philosophy in general. Paul was a lover of wisdom himself, which is exactly what philosophy means, but Paul was not Gnostic; and the philosophy and the human traditions he scorches here were those that propagated Gnostic notions.
Air is a wonderful thing, but we don’t worship it; and neither does it have some kind of aeon or god or angel attached to it as the elements tended to have in Greek mythology for example. Hades was the god of the earth as in the ground,
which made him lord of ores and minerals as well as the abode of the dead, since it happened to reside deep down inside the earth. Poseidon was the god of the seas, the waters. Aelos was the god of the wind, etc., etc. Respectful of the Greek way of thinking, Paul rejected those views and insisted that God is one and that God is all powerful. Furthermore, people desiring to be with God, one with God, united with God have no hierarchy to contend with; they simply open themselves to God.
Paul seems to have wrestled with a couple of notions of what happened to people of faith when earthly life ended. He speculated that they slept a while, with no sense of timing whatsoever, and they they’d be raised up to a heavenly life when all human life on Earth was over. Paul also sensed that there was the possibility that death in this world meant instant uniting with God in the heavenly realms. “To be absent from the body,” he once wrote, “is to be present with God.” But not in either scenario did Paul believe for a millisecond that people of faith had any hoops to jump through when earthly life was over.


III.
I’m guessing that Paul must have been a sportsman, and my own hunch is that he wasn’t just a fan in the stands, but that he in his younger days had been an active competing jock. Sports metaphors and images fill the writings we have from Paul to the early Christians and the early Christian communities.
One of these apropos to our subject today is boxing. I had no idea boxing went back that far, but it goes back much further. There is evidence of boxing at the time Homer was writing--700 plus years before Jesus was born. By the time Paul knew boxing in the Greek world, it was a long-established sport.
Paul makes the point that there’s a big difference between swinging and striking one’s opponent and swinging and hitting nothing but air. In fact, it looks rather silly when a boxer goes to hit her or his opponent and ends up hitting nothing but the air. All that energy directed to a target you miss completely can make you fall on your face!
The same kind of thing could happen in practice with a punching bag. There is, believe it or not, an ancient Greek word for punching bag; it’s korykos (κορηκος).
In writing to the Christians in Corinth, Paul was talking about how seriously he took his mission to share the good news about God that he had learned about in the teachings of Jesus. He told them that he would do whatever was necessary to get a hearing with any group of folks with whom he had an opportunity to speak.
He knew how to identify with people. He had a Jewish background so even though his main ministry was with the non-Jews over in the Aegean area, he could still talk to a Jew about Jesus’ take on God.
Paul once said that he’d had poor times and rich times in his life, and he’d learned from both experiences. In addition to learning to survive, though, he had learned what it was to experience life as other poor people did or as other rich people did. And, again, he believed that he could bring his experience of having been one of those people to the table when he decided to talk about God to someone who was poor or someone who was rich. Any experience that he could possibly draw on to help him understand how someone might think about things of God he would use to help him know how to share. Again, this was a confirmation of how completely determined he was to share God’s good news with anyone and everyone who would give him the opportunity to share his insights and concerns.
To illustrate his point to the Corinthians, he said his determination to get a hearing for the gospel was every bit as intense as an athlete training for a big match--maybe even for the Olympic Games. It doesn’t get more serious than that, does it?
Paul said that in a race, the most serious runner will win--the one who has trained the best and the one who after such training keeps her or his focus on the finish line.
Paul asks the Corinthians to remember what’s at stake for a winning athlete. There’s the honor of having won, and there’s a laurel crown that will die in a few days. Paul says look at what athletes are willing to do for some applause and a few flowers. (Things have changed considerably since Paul, of course. There are fees for public appearances for winning athletes. There are product endorsements--everything from oatmeal to running shoes to lawn mowers.)
Anyway, Paul says look at what the athletes of his day and before were willing to do to win. For no big money and no prestige off the track or out of the ring, they’d give it their all, and Paul said to the Corinthians that the example of such dedicated athletes was exactly the pattern for those who knew the good news and who might earn the right to share what they knew if they cared enough. Besides, what was at stake was more than temporal.
If they did care enough, every aspect of the contest mattered. No false steps or strides for the runners, and the boxers certainly couldn’t afford to miss the target and wind up boxing pointlessly into the air.
Wind is air in motion. Air could symbolize nothingness or pointlessness, but it could also suggest in scripture what is of utmost importance. “Wind” is a strong spiritual metaphor.
One of the greatest musicals, if not the greatest musical written for Christian young people was “Celebrate Life.” These musicals were of major import to the Christian youth movements of the 1960‘s and 1970’s, and this one has outlasted them all. It’s still sung. My home church had a large youth choir, and we did several musicals. I’d already left Beaver Dam Baptist Church and Halls Crossroads by the time “Celebrate Life” debuted in 1972.
If you’ve ever heard the song, “In Remembrancer of Me,” often sung at communion services, then you know at least one selection from “Celebrate Life.” Buryl Red wrote the beautiful music, and Ragan Courtney was the lyricist. They are what you could call “Baptist moderates.”
Years after I’d heard the musical performed many times and had many of its songs in my head to stay, it turns out that Ragan, his wife Cynthia Clawson, and their two kids joined the same church that the four Farmers attended. It was fun to know them and consider them friends in those years--the whole family dripping with talent.
After finding out from Ragan that he’d written the words to “Celebrate Life” shortly after he’d seriously contemplated suicide, the songs had a much more powerful impact on me. One I can still sing at the drop of a hat is, “He’s the wind I soar on. He’s the grass I run through....He’s the mountain I climb to when I want to reach a new high....Jesus my Lord.” I would now say and sing that the wind is God. It’s a beautiful and moving image for me very much related to “breath” in “On Eagles’ Wings”: “And God will raise you up on eagles’ wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of God’s hand.”
Not surprisingly, as I’ve pointed out to you before, the word for “spirit” in Hebrew and Greek is exactly the same word that can be translated as wind or breath. They are completely interchangeable, and often a double meaning
may be implied.
The conversation that Jesus is reported to have had with Nicodemus while it leads to the famous verse, John 3:16, is very troublesome for a number of theological conservatives who think they have God in a box, to command and to control. So Nicodemus, a leader among the Jews, came to Jesus by night--probably because it would have been terrible for his campaign had he been seen with Jesus in broad daylight. Think of Senator Barak Obama knowing that Jeremiah Wright was going to cook his goose if he publicly associated with him, but still believing that Jeremiah Wright had some important spiritual insights for him, for Obama. Before the election, if something like that had occurred, it would have to have taken place under the cover of darkness.
Nicodemus might be head of the Sanhedrin some day if he kept his nose clean and his name out of the negative spotlight. Thus, he comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness in the days before there were paparazzi, and he has this profoundly moving conversation with Jesus about how he can be sure he’s right with God.
Nicodemus liked what he’d heard from others that Jesus taught, but he, like Jesus, came out of a very strict Jewish law tradition, which taught that there were very specific ways people were supposed to live and promises that, if they did, God would behave toward them in very predictable ways. Being surprised by God wasn’t exactly on the agenda.
One of the ways Jesus taught, which modern westerners try to play down because it irritates them so much if they face the truth, was to make pronouncements and to respond to questions with his infernal riddles. When we want a direct answer that can’t be confused, here is Jesus tossing out yet more double talk.
Well, my dear friends, Jesus did that on purpose--both because he was a product of his culture and because many spiritual realities defy concrete descriptions. Try this little exchange on for size.

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the Empire of God without being born of water and wind of God, breath of God, spirit of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of wind is wind, or of breath is breath, or of spirit is spirit; or of wind is spirit; or of spirit is breath....The wind or breath or spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit or of the wind or of breath.”


Nicodemus then asked him one of the most important questions in the whole of Judeo/Christian scripture: “How can these things be?”
How can these things be indeed! God is no more predictable than the air is. God is no less dispensable than the air is; we need it to live, but trying to describe what God looks like is the same as describing the appearance of the wind. And trying to predict what God’s next move is is just as pointless as claiming to know where the wind will blow next or if it will blow at all at this time.
Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2009










I.
From the Native American Earth Wisdom Foundation:

Mother Earth can no longer filter our pollutants. She is choking to death while we continue to pour more and more toxic solvents into her body. Earth is a living being. She is alive and breathing, yet we continue to treat her with complete disrespect and irreverence.

A young Indigenous American said this about care of Mother

Earth:

Our ancestors lived in physical and spiritual communion with Mother Earth. Respect for the land, love of every form of life--human and non-human, harmony between humans and nature. We as well as all other creatures were given birth by the Creator and grew and were sustained by our common Mother, Earth. We are therefore kin to all living things, and we give all creatures equal rights. Everything on Earth is loved and revered....There are only circles in nature, which is life. That means there is no beginning, no end, everything is interrelated and interconnected. There is only a center, and the center is everywhere. If you are the center, you have the power of the Creator when you do good for the people. Each person has that same power, and when all the people use that strength together they can help restore Mother Earth, and everything will benefit.


John of Damascus lived from 675 to 749. He was named a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church because of his scholarship
and the influence of his writings.
His words related to our subject for today remain compelling: “The whole Earth is a living icon of the face of God.” That is a beautiful thought to me. St. John is highly regarded in both the Roman Catholic as well as the Eastern Orthodox branches of Christianity. For a time, he worked as the chief administrator for the leading Muslim calif in Damascus.
John defended the use of icons in worship at a time when there was an active movement to rid the church of icons since, as enemies often said, icons lead inevitably in idolatry. Not so, insisted John of Damascus. It is fascinating that he chose to use the icon image as a way of describing God. For him, the beauty and wonder and power of Earth came together to shape an icon that showed the very face of God.
St. Francis, St. Francis of Assisi, crazy old St. Francis. In the early 1200’s in Italy, he renounced materialism, and to make his father understand that he meant business when he said he was giving up all reliance on materialism, Francis stripped naked in public and walked away from his clothing. How much confidence can you place in such a nut case? Or is it not often a fact that those who resist or reject the status quo actually do understand what is really going on and have lost the capacity to play an everything’s-alright-just-the-way-it-is game?
He said he married Lady Poverty, and he gave himself fully to trying to help relieve human suffering. St. Francis felt an intimate connection with nature. Various aspects of the created order were his family members:

All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing.

O brother wind, air, clouds, and rain, by which all creatures ye sustain.

O sister water flowing clear, make music for thy Lord to hear.

Dear mother Earth, who day by day unfoldest blessings on our day.

O praise ye! Alleluia!


Teresa of Avila also was named one of the Doctors of the
Roman Catholic Church in 1969--long after her death--because of
her learned writings. St. Teresa lived in Spain in the 1500’s. She
was known for her visions; she was also known for her efforts to reform her nuns’ order, the Carmelites.
Like St. Francis, she took a liking to poverty, and giving herself to prayer, reform, and writing, she had plenty of opportunity to concentrate on discovering what really mattered in life. The care of the Earth came out high on her list. She told her devotees:

If we learn to love the Earth, we will find labyrinths, gardens, fountains, and precious jewels! A whole new world will open itself to us. We will discover what it means to be truly alive!


I wonder if love of wealth and privilege blind us to the ability to see what is of true value in this world, and by wealth and privilege I mean having food to eat whenever you want it, and a place to live that both comforts you and keeps you consistently safe. Who is fighting most vigorously against Al Gore for telling the inconvenient truth about global warming? It’s the people who have the most vested in the way life is for them right now--a way they have created by abusing, however unwittingly, the Earth. Plenty of people have grown wealthy by abusing the Earth. The richest businesses are often excused from having to adhere to environmental standards that the rest of us are supposed to follow. How much sense does it make to let Big Business pollute when citizens near the pollution sites are barred from polluting? I mean, every little bit helps to be sure, but the real difference would be made when commerce as well as private citizens are required to tow the line in terms of keeping their particular corner of Mother Earth free of pollutants.
The so-called Global Warming Bill, which has been circulating long enough to find plenty of supporters and plenty of adversaries, will formally come before Congress in a few weeks. President Obama is enthused about the bill and praises it both because of the environmental healing it will help initiate and because of the jobs it will create; however, it’s hard to keep up with supporters and opponents because some groups are taking positions opposite to what many of us thought they would have taken.
For example, many environmentalists are saying that the bill does too much to protect industry polluters and that it doesn’t go nearly far enough in requiring immediate and long-range change. In contrast, one conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, is protesting the bill even before Congress begins formal review of it by charging that if the recommendations of the bill become law, there will be a sizable increase in energy costs passed on to the typical American family in the neighborhood of $1500 annually.
How radical is this? The bill dares to challenge, require, beg for the reduction of greenhouse emissions by 15% before the end of year 2020. And the big polluters who just can’t comply can plant trees to offset their inability, their refusal to stop polluting the Earth. Again I say, until everyone has to stop polluting, there will still be pollution. Brilliant deduction, don’t you think?
I haven’t exactly figured out how all the former Vice-president's concerns can be tossed aside as nothing more than Chicken-Little-nonsense; though he clearly has an abundance of detractors who will tell you in a heart beat that he’s just trying to stir people up.
Here’s an excerpt from the book, An Inconvenient Truth:

The climate crisis is, indeed, extremely dangerous. In fact it is a true planetary emergency. Two thousand scientists, in a hundred countries, working for more than twenty years in the most elaborate and well-organized scientific collaboration in the history of humankind, have forged an exceptionally strong consensus that all the nations on Earth must work together to solve the crisis of global warming....Global warming, along with the cutting and burning of forests and other critical habitats, is causing the loss of living species at a level comparable to the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That event was believed to have been caused by a giant asteroid. This time it is not an asteroid colliding with the Earth and wreaking havoc; it is us.


In the realm of American religion, only recently have some few Christian conservatives admitted that their movements had allowed their theologies of the immanent end of time convince them for generations upon generations that the world would be ending so soon that to worry about care of the Earth would be a laughable waste of time--like washing your car when you’re certain it’s about to rain. Some of the leaders among the Christian fundamentalists have gone public in saying that their groups will repent and take up doing what they should have been doing all along: caring for our Habitat.
A student from the University of Buffalo, Amanda Garcia, who evidently sees herself as a part of the religious right, nonetheless, makes an absolutely on-target observation: “...it doesn't make much sense that people who believe in the theory of evolution express more concern for the environment than we who believe that God intricately designed the heavens and the Earth.” Well, you go, Ms. Garcia!


II.
In beginning, said the ancient Hebrew storytellers, what we now call Earth was originally a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep. Water and darkness dominated the space on which, in which, humans now live. Who knows how long the space had been a dark, watery void?
That began to change, said the Hebrews, when God’s breath or God’s wind or the spirit of God Godself swept across the dark waters. God’s creative force at work in the divine breath or wind brought into being the first identifiable entity besides water, and that was light. When the light shone it was daytime, and when the light didn’t shine and darkness overtook the space as had been the case for aeons before God’s handiwork began, it was nighttime. Water, darkness, God blowing across the formlessness, light, day, night. The storytellers told their ancient audiences once that much had been accomplished, once there was both darkness and light in the space, night and day alternating dominance and duty, the first day of creation came to a close.
Next, God’s wind blew into being a dome that pushed waters upward and downward at the same time, preventing them from coming back together again. When the dome, the firmament, was in place, the second day of creation was completed.
Third day. If the opposite of darkness was needed to tame the darkness and keep it from ruling the whole space, then the opposite of wet would have to be created in order to keep the water from ruling the space. Once the dome or firmament was in place, dry could come into being, and it did; wet couldn’t prevail at all times and places any longer. This accomplished, the dry land appeared. From where we don’t know, but it appeared--perhaps from under the waters being tamed now. Eventually, there was both dry ground along with the water in the first living space. God called the dry land “Earth,” and God called the bodies of water surrounding the dry land “Seas.” Day three’s work was hardly over.
God called on the dry land, the Earth, to grow vegetation and trees; this vegetation and the trees would be capable of helping protect the dry land and would be self-propagating through seeds that they themselves would produce. God called the work on the third day or all the work accomplished so far “good.”
With the creation of Earth and the establishment of some of its functions, the creation of the world was nearly halfway complete. There would be three more days of work and just a tad to polish up early on the morning of the seventh day before God took a rest. One of the storytellers explained it this way, “On the seventh day, God finished the work that God had done.” After that, God rested. Perhaps that is a subtle reminder that there can never be a complete holiday from caring for the Earth.
Another of the ancient Hebrew storytellers, or a whole community of them, had a very different idea about how the created order came into being. They said that on the very same day when God created the dry land and the skies, all at once, God also created male humanity. A steam rising up from the dry ground kept the soil moist in most places most of the time. But at a dry time and a dry place, God formed an image of a man from dust; then God breathed into the nostrils of this dust-man, and when God did that the man came alive, becoming a living being. Utterly fascinating.
The man was to care for his new habitat; and he was to eat from and otherwise benefit from whatever the Earth grew with the exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So much to live for!
Later the first woman would be created from the first man’s rib, and together they would rebel against God’s one rule by tasting of the fruit that grew on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When that happened the God who had created woman and man and Earth told them that there was no such thing as bad choices without inherent consequences.
The man who had been molded out of the dust of the ground, the dust of Earth, would have to struggle with the Earth that heretofore had been his companion. The punishment that came to him for disobeying God was an antagonism from Earth. Whereas, originally, the Earth kept producing great foods for the man and woman to eat and beautiful plants and trees whose beauty they were to behold always. The Earth produced all the man needed in paradise without any effort on the man’s part; all he had to do was to enjoy it.
That came to screeching halt. The man and the woman would have to leave paradise, and away from paradise the ground, the Earth, was not as friendly. In fact, the once divinely blessed Earth was cursed by God because of God’s displeasure with the man. Too bad for the Earth, which seems to have been entirely innocent in this scenario. Still, some of the storytellers told their children that this was God’s curse on the man:

In toil you shall eat of [what Earth produces] 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.


That’s a powerful and a poignant cycle. God created the
ground, the Earth. God calls forth tasty and beautiful plants and
trees from the Earth for human benefit. The man is shaped from the Earth’s dust; the woman is made from man, in this story. The man and the woman violate the plan, and suddenly the God who created humanity and the skies and the Earth is saying to the man, “It’s a different world now. To get anything to eat from the Earth, you’ll have to work the ground. Sometimes it will produce well, and sometimes it won’t. And after a lifetime of struggling with the Earth to feed yourself and your family, you’ll die, and when you do, your flesh, which for a time was enlivened dust, will return to Earth as breathless dust and become, again, undifferentiated formless dusty Earth.”
Many ashes later, the year was 1662, and the British divines revised old Cranmer’s original Book of Common Prayer. When they did, they gave these instructions to funeral participants: “...the Earth shall be cast upon the Body by some standing by.” And as the Earth was being dropped into the grave a fist full at a time, the Book of Common Prayer gave an officiating priest a script from which he, always a he in those days among the Anglicans, was advised to speak. Here are the words given to the priest to read or recite:

Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; Earth to Earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.


My dear friends, the Earth itself will not last forever, but it is much more permanent than any human life or than any movement or empire. Humanity’s cyclical shaping out of the dust of the Earth only to return to dust after an all too brief animation is a constant reminder to us, or it should be, that we are never more than pilgrims here. And while many of us have much to enjoy during our sojourn, others will surely come after us; we owe them a world, an Earth, at least as nice as the one we have inhabited.


III.
A couple of months back, the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales Ayma, addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. The exact date of his speech was April 22, which had been declared the International Day of Mother Earth. He said boldly and insightfully, maybe even prophetically:

If the twentieth century is recognized as the century of human rights--individual, social, economic, political and cultural, the twenty-first century will be known as the Century of the Rights of Mother Earth, of the animals, plants, all living creatures and all beings, whose rights must also be respected and protected.


President Morales Ayma’s expectations for the proper care of Mother Earth include:

the right to life of all living beings;

the right of the Planet to the regeneration of its biocapacity;

the right to a pure life, because Mother Earth has the right to live free of contamination and pollution;

the right to harmony and equilibrium with and among all things; and

the right to connect with the Whole of which we are part.


Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is head of Eastern Orthodox Christianity or as that tradition describes him, first among equals. He is to Eastern Orthodoxy what the Pope is to the Roman Catholic Church. Fairly recently, Bartholomew attended a symposium on religion, science, and the environment in California. This is part of what he said in a speech there:

How we treat the Earth and all of creation defines the relationship that each of us has with God....To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation...for humans to degrade the integrity of Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wet-
lands...for humans to injure other humans with disease...for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances, these things are sins.


One of the psalmists wrote this song to be sung when the faithful gathered to honor God:

The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for God has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers (Psa 24:1-2 NRSV, adapted).


Was it the same or other psalmists who echoed in additional worship songs the intimate, intricate connection between God and the Earth?

Be exalted, O God, above the skies. Let your glory be over all the
Earth (Psa 57:11 NRSV adapted).

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the Earth! (Psa 8:9 NRSV).

Be still, and know that I am
God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the Earth (Psa 46:10 NRSV).

The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the Earth from the rising of the sun to its setting (Psa 50:1 NRSV).

Make a joyful noise to God, all the Earth (Psa 66:1 NRSV).

The heavens are yours, the Earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it—you have founded them (Psa 89:11 NRSV).

O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the Earth (Psa 96:1 NRSV).

The Lord is Sovereign! Let the Earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! (Psa 97:1 NRSV, adapted).

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the Earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises (Psa 98:4 NRSV).

For as the heavens are high above the Earth, so great is God’s steadfast love toward those who awe God (Psa 103:11 NRSV, adapted).

The skies are the Lord's skies, but the Earth God has given to human beings (Psa 115:16 NRSV, adapted).


Huh? God did what to whom? There it is, right in the Bible, my
dear friends. Those places way up there somewhere where God was thought to dwell, human beings are supposed to leave those alone--not that anyone way back could have imagined how to get up that high anyway, except for those failed stairsteps at Babel. No sense ever trying that again, but the Earth is a different story. One of the psalmists had the ancient people singing in Temple worship an inspired song in which God is said to have handed over the care for the Earth to humanity’s keeping. There were hints of such before maybe understood as limited liability, but who knew that the whole job had fallen by divine decree to us? And the gift of the Earth was not given to us so that it would end up abused.
Environmentally-inclined poet, Wendell Berry, is alive and well although someone confused him with Father Thomas Berry and announced Wendell Berry’s death on the first of this month. It was 94 year old Father Berry who had died. Ironically, the Reverend Berry was also zealously involved in Earth love and Earth care. He was the first or one of the first to be called an Eco-theologian. Back to poet Wendell for a moment, following up on the stunning psalm that squarely dumps responsibility for the care of the Earth in our laps. I want to read a part of Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Clearing Rests in Song and Shade”:
We join our work to Heaven's gift,

Our hope to what is left,

That field and woods at last agree

In an economy

Of widest worth.

High Heaven's Kingdom come on Earth.

Imagine Paradise.

O Dust, arise!


Father Thomas Berry called himself a “geologian.” Eco-theology and eco-spirituality were the foundations of his work and his personal life. Several years ago in an interview, Father Berry observed:

We are at the terminal phase of the Cenozoic, the last 65 million years. We are not just passing into another historical period or another cultural modification. We are changing the chemistry of the planet. We are changing the bio-systems. We are changing the geo-systems of the planet on a scale of millions of years. But more specifically we are terminating the last 65 million years of life development. Now a person would say, “Well where do we go from here?” To my mind we go from the terminal phase – if we survive it – into a really sustainable world. We will be passing from the terminal Cenozoic into what I call the Ecozoic. And the primary principle of the Ecozoic is that the Universe--and in particular planet Earth–is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. If we don’t learn that, nothing is going to work. Whereas all this beauty of the universe that we see about us came into being without human consultation. From here on the universe will never function that way again.


That indescribably courageous and creative seer John who dreamed the dreams that became the great drama now called the book of Revelation imagined that at the end of the world as it is, there would not be a quiet, cold planet bereft of all life including human life; neither does the world come to an end. What happened in his visions was that as the present order of heaven and Earth fades, a renewed order eases into place, and what he saw has yet to be fully considered even by those who claim to believe every word of the Bible. Listen!


Then I saw a new heaven and a new Earth; for the first heaven and the first Earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God Godself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev 21:1-4 NRSV, adapted).


Amen.

Sunday, June 07, 2009







I.
In ancient times, we have been led to believe by the studies of archaeologists and anthropologists, many people scattered across the Earth considered fire one of the basic elements of the universe: fire, earth, air, and water. A sermon series on these four elements begins today and keeps our attention throughout the month of June.
One of the first facts we need to emphasize is that fire can be a friendly and a comforting thing, as when it provides heat to people who are cold or light to people who would otherwise sit and wait in darkness. Yet fire can also be dangerous and deadly, racing and leaping like a living being consuming everything in its path. It can be a cleansing entity or a purely destructive reality.
We all know that humans benefit from and struggle with fire because Prometheus stole fire from the head Greek god, Zeus, and shared fire with humans. Zeus was livid. It all happened because Zeus gave Prometheus the responsibility for creating human males. Prometheus did what he was supposed to do in that regard using water and earth (which gets us to two other sermons in this four-part series), and he ended up being much more fond of the men he created than Zeus ever was. Being the forward thinker that he was--indeed, his very name meant FORETHOUGHT--Prometheus realized that the human males needed fire for their well-being so he stole fire created by some of Zeus’ bolts of lightening. Prometheus concealed the fire in a hollow stalk of fennel and delivered it to the men he’d created. Zeus would eventually punish Prometheus for the theft.
The Apaches, some of them anyway, had a very different idea about how humans first began to be able to use fire. Long, long ago, they told their children, there was no fire in the world; it was a time when animals and trees talked to each other. In a very intricate turn of events, fox stole fire from the communal fires kept by the fireflies and had a cedar tree catapult him away from the fireflies.
Fire was sacred to the ancient Celts. Communal hearth fires were never allowed to die out except when extinguishing and then rekindling the fire were parts of a ritual.
The Druids used fire for divination. To seek answers to their questions they would watch carefully how the smoke clouds
ascended and the forms they took on their way up out of the fire.
In Norse mythology, in the beginning there was a great chasm. On the one side of the chasm was fire, and on the other side there was ice. Eventually, the fire and ice met, and the water that resulted formed a giant named Ymir and his cow named Audhumbla. You’ll have to check with Else Miller for details, but somehow Ymir sweated the first woman and the first man from his left armpit.
Natural causes of fire include lightening, sparks from falling rocks, volcanos, and spontaneous combustion of plant and other organic materials. By far, the most prevalent cause of fire from natural causes is lightening. Barbour, Burke, and Pitts have shown that lightening strikes the earth over three billion times a year. Not infrequently, fires result. This, naturally, has been going on since ancient times, and if WE aren’t always sure what to do with the fires caused by lightening, women and men living in ancient times surely weren’t. Destruction and devastation can result, and they often do.
Many people think the present earth will end in fire, and part of the reason they think such a thing is because of their familiarity with the ancient Hebrew myth of the great flood. As you know, those stories collected in the early chapters of what is now called the book of Genesis intended, as all myths in all ancient cultures did, to explain how the world came into being, how the world will end, and/or why life is the way it is.
The best scholarship I’ve been able to uncover--which means those scholars whose teachings match up nicely with my views!--confirms that there was a great flood in ancient Mesopotamia. The flood did not flood the whole world as several of the groups living in Mesopotamia thought, but it did cover all the world they knew so that’s how the flood stories from their respective cultures were told. In the Hebrew scripture story of the flood, God promises the only humans left after the flood kills all the rest, that the world will never again be destroyed by flood; and as the story goes, God puts a rainbow in the sky to remind God Godself--not humanity--of this promise.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh (Gen 9:8-15 NRSV).


So, this wonderful story attempted to explain why there was a great flood, and the answer was human rebellion against God. It also explains given the extent of the flood from their perspective how any humans or animals survived, and finally it tells us why rainbows often appear after a major rainfall.
With flood ruled out as a way the world could end, fire comes up as a strong possibility for the way the Earth will meet its ultimate demise. The prophet Zephaniah offered this chilling word on how the world would comes to its end; he thought what I’m about to describe to you would occur in the relative near future from the time he spoke it:

The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath; in the fire of divine passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end God will make of all the inhabitants of the earth (Zeph 1:14-18 NRSV).


Well, the fact is, according to a number of astro-scientists quoted in one of last month’s issues of TIME magazine that the
Earth will not end in fire. I quote from Time.com:

Tens of billions of years from now...the sun will have shrunk to a white dwarf, giving little light and even less heat to whatever is left of Earth, and entered a long, lingering death that could last 100 trillion years—or a thousand times longer than the cosmos has existed to date. The same will happen to most other stars, although a few will end their lives as blazing supernovas. Finally, though, all that will be left in the cosmos will be black holes, the burnt-out cinders of stars and the dead husks of planets. The universe will be cold and black.



II.
Robert Frost’s famous poem about fire and ice may not have much at all to do with literal fire.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.


The poem brings up another image of a possibility for how the world could end, and that is through ice, another Ice Age. Again, though, Frost probably isn’t speaking literally of how he or others may expect the world to end.
Both fire and ice in this famous and widely-quoted poem are destructive forces. None of the positive possibilities of fire mentioned earlier are taken into consideration in any way by the poet. Each force is capable of the ultimate destruction, the destruction of the Earth itself and all its inhabitants. Indeed, if the
Earth is gone, all of its plants, animals, and humans are as well.
Without ruling out the literal destruction of the Earth, potentially, by one of these two forces, Frost rather quickly lets us know that they represent for him less obvious means for bringing human life and habitat to a painful ending. For the great poet who helped inaugurate President Kennedy, fire is a symbol for desire--not desire in a good sense, but desire in negative sense; desire that incinerates everything in its pathway on its way to whatever it deems it must have. For fire, whatever it wants cannot last because it too will be consumed. Unbounded desire, then, will destroy individuals and families and nations, a world and a planet. It is fire.
Ice for Frost is hate. Hatred freezes people into rigidity so that any movement at all, any attempt to move or adjust will break them. It isn’t hatred itself that kills; it’s what the hatred does to the people who are overtaken by it, who are frozen by it.
Either will do the trick. Either given full power will kill off humanity long before the Planet on which we live is deprived of
the sun’s warmth and energy.
Judeo-Christian scriptures, I think, do something interesting things with the image of fire. One very powerful image is of the refiner’s fire, which even if you know nothing at all about the Bible you’ve heard sung at some singing of Handel’s “Messiah.” Well, Handel in that oratorio was using biblical words primarily, and regarding the refiner’s fire the passage he has his singers singing is from Malachi, chapter 3:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to [the] temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, God is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of God’s coming, and who can stand when God appears? For God is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; God will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver and will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years (Mal 3:1-4 NRSV).


It’s a rather rough image, God as the refiner’s fire, but as hot as that sounds there is a redemptive element in the prophet’s mind. God is not destroying or throwing out God’s people; instead, God is taking away all the impurities so that they may be purer precious metals, silver and gold.
I didn’t count for myself, but I’ll betcha if Tom McDaniel were preaching this sermon he would have! I’ll pass along to you, on some other scholar’s authority, that fire is referred to some 500 times in the Bible, the compilation of Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Of those 500 references, about 90 of them are connected to God in some kind of way.
In a passage warning the ancient Hebrews not to worship idols to other deities, the writer of the book of Deuteronomy portrays God as a jealous God, certainly not the only time God is described in that manner, and the image for jealousy used by the writer in Deuteronomy 4:24 is “devouring fire.”
There’s a fascinating claim made by the prophet Elijah that the true God answers by fire. Now, there’s a specific context for that claim; it doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. I still find it both chilling and fascinating, but the story in which it appears is a bloody one. The prophet Elijah is in a contest with the prophets of Baal, and the rules were that each side could pray, plead, payoff--whatever they wanted to do--to get their deity to set fire to an animal sacrifice. With a flair for the dramatic and a confidence that Baal was dead while his God was alive, Elijah even had water poured on the altar before he prayed for God to act, the water making it even more challenging for God to respond.
By and by, Baal did nothing, which didn’t surprise anyone on Israel’s side because they knew that Baal was a deity that existed in name only. When God answered, God did, in fact, answer with fire. God sent fire to ignite the soppy wet altar, and Elijah won. Too bad he couldn’t have just been happy with his victory, but no. He had to have his challengers in the contest slaughtered to emphasize his big win.
When the presence of God is written of in much of the biblical literature, fire is a sign of God’s presence.

*When Moses was called by God to become the leader of the enslaved Hebrews who would get them free of Egypt’s overbearing domination, God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, the bush that burned without being consumed. What an amazing image!

*When God was said to be guiding the children of Israel through the wildernesses for forty years, the storytellers taught that God’s presence was evident in the pillar of cloud that guided the people by day and the pillar of fire that guided them by night.

*When God came down from heaven, as the cosmos was conceived in prescientific times, to meet with Moses on Mount Sinai, God moved in fire, and when God arrived smoke went up.

In the book of Revelation, that amazing book typically misunderstood and almost always misused, the visionary John who wrote the powerful drama, told about one of his visions--this one of his first glimpse into God’s abode.

At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God... (Rev 4:2-5 NRSV).


God doesn’t have seven spirits. God doesn’t have one spirit. God IS spirit. Since every image, number, and color in the book of Revelation is symbolic--meaning among other things that no image, number, or color can be taken literally--we are clued in to the fact that the torches of fire must mean something other than whatever literal torches might imply.
Seven is the perfect number. You get the number 7 by adding together the divine number 3 and the number for human or worldly completion, 4. Thus, the symbols proclaim that God is completely a spirit, and the fire of God purifies.
Fire in the book of Revelation can be quite rugged. It destroys wicked people on Earth on the way to the re-creation of the Earth, which is what happens in the book. A new heaven and a new earth finally merge in the realm we know.

III.
Oh my. How could we have a sermon on fire without getting around to hell? Many, certainly not all, Christian groups have taken great delight in teaching about hell as a place of eternal punishment for those who don’t hold the right views of God and/or Jesus. This despite the fact that Jesus never used the word “hell.”
He talked about the plight of those who distance themselves from God as like being thrown into the city of Jerusalem’s garbage dump, the Valley of Hinnom where by spontaneous combustion trash and unclaimed bodies and the bodies of executed criminals burned. This would have been the disposition of Jesus’ body had his few real friends not claimed the body and taken it to the borrowed cave for entombment. There was no word for “hell” in Jesus’ vocabularly.
Clearly, Jesus had no sense that the souls of people could burn after physical death; nor did Jesus have any sense that God surprised someone with an unexpected sentence of damnation. He did remind his listeners that those who cut themselves off from him as God’s vine would die from lack of spiritual nourishment and eventually be burned up as garden debris. This image was not a hell-threat; it was rather a reminder that people without spiritual nourishment wither and die.
To revisit the book of Revelation again, there’s a much used passage--because the literalists love it--that refers to those whose names are not listed in the book of life being thrown into the lake of fire where Death and Hades are also thrown. First of all, a lake of fire can’t be literal; water itself can’t burn. Second, if Death and Hades are destroyed in this symbolic lake of fire, there is no more death, and there is no more place of separation from God. The only way to have one’s name taken out of the book of life is by distancing oneself from God; if one’s name isn’t in the book, it’s no surprise. In any case, here, the idea is that those who do not choose to be with God when the new heaven and new earth merge and become one are not required to. Everyone’s name is in the book if she or he has ever lived; it’s the book of life, after all. Only if a person, symbolically, wants death rather than life have the last word about or her him can the name be blotted out of the book of life. It’s a simple reminder that God does not overtake us in this realm or the next against our will.
Honestly, we get more about hell from sources such as Dante’s “Inferno,” than we do from the Bible. “Inferno” is the first of three parts of Dante’s epic poem titled “The Divine Comedy.” The nine concentric circles of hell is not a biblical image, but the kinds of suffering and punishment Dante observes on his tour match up well with literalized biblical symbols. There’s an inscription on the Gate of Hell, and the last line of it instructs: “Abandon all hope, you who enter here!”
Coming into the presence of God or confronting the God within, or meeting God face to face as it were, these synonymous efforts to describe a very direct experience of the divine, have largely not been taken in the literature of scripture or the literature of Jewish or Christian devotion outside of scripture to be a happy experience. Profound, yes. Meaningful, yes. Worthwhile, yes. Joyful in retrospect, maybe. But fun and games and giddiness, no way. And, by the way, not frequent either.
It’s not that the God we glimpsed through Jesus’ experience wants us to feel fear or be driven to self-deprecation when we confront the divine--not at all. But when we come into the presence of utter goodness and complete love, we may be more aware of where we fall short than we have to think about when we avoid the divine reality or the divine presence. So, First Isaiah’s vision of God as “high and lifted up” makes sense given these facts.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of God’s robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above God; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of divine glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the Sultan, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa 6:1-5 NRSV, adapted).


Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher who lived between 1623 and 1662. His philosophical speculations were decidedly Christian. He was a person of great piety, and he is remembered as one of the most influential mystics in Christian history. Yes, you’re right if you wondered how a serious scientist could be a mystic, and while that is surely possible it is rare so after Pascal’s most life-altering spiritual experience he gave up, for the most part, his work in science and math to concentrate on his spiritual investigations.
One particular experience stirred him to the bone, and he never forgot it. Yet, he told no one about it as far as historians know. The life-altering event was written up and kept. When Pascal died, just barely 39 years of age, a servant found two documents detailing this experience sewn into the lining of his coat. It was an experience with God that Pascal described with one word: “fire.” Not everyone would describe her or his experience with God in such an unsettling manner, but Pascal’s encounter with God made him a soulmate of sorts with First Isaiah. Unlike First Isaiah, though, there were moments of joy in this two-hour nonstop encounter with the divine presence.
These are Pascal’s words:

The year of grace 1654
Monday, 23 November, feast of Saint Clement, Pope and Martyr, and of others in the Martyrology.
Eve of Saint Chrysogonus, Martyr and others.
From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.

Fire “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,” not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
“Thy God shall be my God.”
The world forgotten, and everything except God.
He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Greatness of the human soul.
“O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.”
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have cut myself off from him.
They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.
“My God wilt thou forsake me?”
Let me not be cut off from him for ever!
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I have cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him.
Let me never be cut off from him!
He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Sweet and total renunciation.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.
Everlasting joy in return for one day's effort on earth.
I will not forget thy word. Amen.