Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Beauty, again

Today I was reading Exodus 35 and was again struck by the Lord's concern for beauty, and that we participate in it.  This section concerns itself with the provision of materials for the construction of the tabernacle and its furnishings, and provides for the participation of the people in the making of these beautiful things.

It strikes me that the participation was not mandatory, but in proportion to the degree to which each person felt led by his or her heart.  Anyone who felt moved to do so would contribute items of beauty and value to the material needs of the tabernacle: earrings, brooches, signet rings, beautiful dyed clothes and skins and valuable woods.  Furthermore, anyone who found within her a skill (in the Hebrew, the same word as "wisdom") for the making of beautiful materials could participate in that way, by spinning beautiful yarns and weaving beautiful fabrics, by casting and forging the precious and strong metals into beautiful hooks and eyes and rings and implements, elaborating upon the basic parameters given by God to Moses on the mountain.  Both men and women were welcomed into this process.  In a large sense, God is saying to his people, "Here is the overall plan of the tabernacle, and some of the themes I would like to be represented.  Now you gather up all the best materials, as you feel led, and use your creativity, your skills, the gifts I have given you to make it come alive and be a beautiful place, the place where your creativity and eye for beauty are lifted up to me."

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Patience of Moses: Exodus 24

In Exodus 24, Moses is called up the mountain to meet with God, and to receive the Ten Commandments from God's hand.  Together with seventy elders from Israel, he "sees God" and does not die, remarkably.  They ate and drank in God's presence.  Then, Moses makes arrangements for governance in his absence (v. 15), and goes up the mountain to meet with God.  A cloud covers the mountain for six days, and it is only on the seventh day that God calls for Moses. He waits upon the mountain for six days.

I have read this account many times over my lifetime, but only today was I struck by the patience of Moses, and how foreign his experience is to my own.  Consider it in your imagination: You are the chief judge and governor for a huge multitude of people traveling through a wilderness, and you have made some arrangements for judicial coverage in your absence, and you have been called into the presence of God upon a mountain in the middle of a wilderness.  You live a couple thousand years BC, so no iPhones, no white-gasoline Whisperlite stoves, no nylon tents, no communication of any kind with persons out of sight or shouting distance.  You have climbed a mountain, a strange mountain that you do not know.  It has become covered with a cloud, so you do not have a view, you do not see anything in the valley, the world has closed around you, you are completely isolated.  You wait, for hours, and nothing happens, no call from God.  You relieve yourself, you make a fire perhaps and prepare some food.  Still nothing.  Night approaches.  You have to make some sort of shelter, you wonder what else is up there with you on this mountain.  Where is God?  What is the point of this past day?  What is going on in the camp below?  Did you misunderstand God?  Did he want you to come up higher?  Did you do something wrong?  Did you leave something out?  Really, what is the point of this? What are you thinking to yourself as hour after hour of waiting in this fog creeps by?  You make some sort of shelter, you fall asleep, and you awake the next morning to more fog.  You have to prepare, maybe find food.  How much food did you bring?  How long did you expect to be up here?  Another whole day goes by, and no call from God.  No change.  Nothing.  Minute by minute, hour by hour time passes, and nothing happens.  The end of another day approaches.  This happens for six consecutive days.  Yet Moses waits.

I cannot identify, I cannot conceive of doing this.  Six days with no word from God, isolated on a mountain in a cloud.  I would have second-guessed myself any number of times by the end of the first day.  I must have misunderstood, I must have gotten something wrong, surely.  God would not waste my time like this.  What is going on in the camp without me? (a legitimate concern, because Moses' absence does, in fact, lead to the camp taking matters into their own hands and creating the golden calf.)  What kind of faith, what view of time and life allows a man to stay on a mountaintop, waiting, for six solid days?  Is it patience?  Is it humility?  Was the culture that incredibly different from today?  I wish I understood this.  I wish I were the kind of man that could content himself with waiting in the dark, with nothing at all happening, for even one day, without busying myself and making excuses for why I am not waiting upon God, why I cannot wait upon God but must busy myself in the meantime.  I cannot comprehend doing absolutely nothing but what is necessary to stay alive, and waiting upon God for an entire week.  What was Moses thinking?  Really, what was going on in his mind?  I think I need to understand this. How did he occupy his mind, what were his conversations with himself, as he waited upon God?  What did he see in his mind's eye?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Law with a Heart

Today my reading through the Bible using M'Cheyne's schedule took me to Exodus chapter 23, headed "Sundry Laws" in my New American Standard version.  Sounds dry, but it isn't.  I was immediately struck by the high level of personal integrity required by these laws.  One is to do what is right by another person regardless of what everyone else (the "masses" in v. 2) is doing, regardless whether he is rich (this sounds modern) or poor (this does not), whether he hates you, or whether he is a stranger.  You are not to accept a bribe, because a bribe will distort your judgment.  There is a very strong sense here that each person stands before the Lord and must answer for his treatment of another, with no pleading of others' opinions or actions, and no extenuating circumstances.  Furthermore, one's treatment of another is  here linked closely with sympathy and empathy for that other.  One is not to oppress a stranger, not only because it is not right, but specifically because the Israelite should know how it feels to be a stranger, since they were strangers in Egypt. 

The sabbath rest every seven days for man and beast, and every seven years for the land, are likewise explained in terms of empathy and sympathy, not agricultural technique.  In the seventh year, the self-seeded food crop will feed the hungry, who will have to go and pick it.  The seventh-day rest allows refeshment for workers and working animals. 

Finally, God's sympathy for his people is demonstrated in his driving out the nations gradually, so that the wild animals will not grow too numerous or the fields be ruined by too long neglect.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Man's works and God's works

Today's reading included Exodus 20 and Job 38, both involving the incomprehensible gap between God and his works, and man and his.  Exodus 20 is the first delivery of what has come to be called the Ten Commandments; three commandments having to do explicitly with man's relationship to God, sometimes called the First Tablet, and seven commandments addressing man's relationships to other men and their possessions, called the Second Tablet.  (This is the Catholic division; the Protestant division finds four commandments in the first tablet, considering the prohibition of the making of images to be separate from the command to not worship images, and six commandments in the second tablet, combining the command not to covet a neighbor's wife with that requiring us not to covet any of his non-personal possessions.  I like the Catholic division, as it splits the Ten into two numbers that have ancient meaning, 3 and 7, and it does not prohibit the making of images per se, which amounts to the prohibition of representational art, not to mention photography.)   It ends by specifying that altars must be built of earth, or of uncut stone upon which no tool has been used, and have no steps up to them lest our "nakedness" be revealed.  This latter struck me as a bit strange.

In the chapter in Job, God demonstrates his sublime difference from Man by asking a series of questions that amount to, "Where were you when I created the cosmos, and what do you know of the deep workings of the world you live in?"  The answers:  Nowhere, I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.  We moderns might think we can answer some of the specific questions God asks; perhaps we could recite our knowledge of the water cycle with regard to rain and snow. But fundamentally, we still don't understand the most basic aspects of the cosmos we live in.  What exactly is time?  Why is the speed of light unchanged in all frames of reference?  How can it be, and what does it mean, that the smallest "particles" we can discover are not really "things" but rather wave functions?  Why is mathematics, a type of symbolic mental language, the best tool for describing the world "out there"?

We can say that we have barely begun to understand the work of God in creation, and as for understanding ourselves, well, having just finished the bloodiest century in the history of man, in which over 110 million people were killed by their governments, quite apart from wars, it is hard to maintain that we know much about ourselves either.  Before the majestic mind and work of God we stand as ignorant children who have bloodied each other and trashed our playroom. 

Perhaps the rules about altar-building are to remind us of this.  We may build altars, but must make them of the stuff which God has made, without much elaboration on our part.  We may build them of earth, much as a child builds in the sand.  Or we may pile rocks, as a child makes a fort.  Not only may we not build finely carved marble altars, we may not even touch the stones with our tools.  Without our flimsy tools we are unable to change that which God made from nothing.  We must find them, as He made them, and recognize that they become holy not because we have had anything to do with them, but because they are dedicated to God.  To put our own mark upon them with our tools, to shape them according to our liking, is to "profane" them.  

The prohibition of steps up to the altar is also a measure to keep us from forgetting how small and dependent we are.  God's elevation above us, using the spatial metaphor, is so high that no stairs or tower that we could build could begin to be significant, and the effort only makes us ludicrous.  As we build our altars higher, our smallness just becomes more pathetic, and it becomes easier to see up our skirts, so to speak.  No, there is no elevation that can bring us closer to God, there is no elaboration of cut stones that can bring us closer to God.  If He does not meet us here, at our own level, in the world as we find it, then we have no hope.  

Do we do this?  do we meet God in the midst of our day-to-day earthen lives, living in the awareness of His sublime majesty and our evanescent dependence?  "Our Father which art in Heaven" while we are here upon earth.   It is the beginning of wisdom. 

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Dark Years

Reading back in my journal recently, I discovered that for four years I have been feeling depressed and rather directionless.  Four years.  I had not realized it had been that long.  Trying to discover a reason, I noted that it was about four years ago that I abandoned the dream of leaving medicine and teaching college "across the curriculum", at St. John's or some situation like St. John's.  At some level it was a crazy dream.  I am the wrong kind of doctor for that, a master's degree in classical literature is not enough, and when it came down to it I was unwilling to leave my home of thirty years and all the relationships and family ties we have formed here. I could get a job teaching anatomy or physiology, I suppose, but my interest in teaching really lies in demonstrating the interconnectedness of ideas and our understanding of all aspects of life in this world.

Anyway, I am not even sure that that is the reason.  I have also become very much aware of my increasing age and approaching death.  In any case, I have been more or less moping about for several years, not very creative, not very engaged.  Not praying much at all.  Not finishing the reading of a single book.

Well, it has to stop.  I have begun to exercise, to set aside time for prayer.  I have thought about antidepressants, but it seems to me that that may be a kind of cheat for me.  I know what things have to change in my life, and believe that if I begin to more regularly and faithfully avail myself of the means of grace, I shall find joy again.

As regards this blog, one of the activities that I enjoy and have some faculty for is writing.  I have reservations about putting personal reflections "out there" for public review...even this post seems a bit too personal...but perhaps returning to reflective writing will have a therapeutic effect for me as well as holding some interest for others.

I do not want to be overly ambitious, so at first I may simply jot down some reflections on my daily reading of the Bible.  I am using M'Cheyne's schedule of reading through the Bible, so each day there is a selection from the Old Testament, the Wisdom literature and prophets, the Gospels and the Epistles.  We shall see.