Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lenten Reflections: Part 2


The rocky edifices of my world are beautiful precisely because they are broken. Their very appearance above ground is the consequence of various geologic cataclysms, a shifting of tectonic plates, a volcanic eruption, or a glacial assault upon the earth. The great rocks themselves are marked by fissures, caves, and niches formed by wind, water erosion, and the insistent wearing of time. These rocks are marked by ages. Their beauty resides in the paradox of strength and brokenness. How can such solidity be fractured? Are the wind and water mightier than the rock? Was the seemingly impregnable stone fortress flawed, concealing secret faults, weaknesses waiting to be exploited? Or is the stone rather personalized by an inner consent to be broken, a submission to sacrifice for some more tender, even more human, inclination? The fissures, caves, and niches not only transform a flat surface of uniform disinterest into a complex portrait of aesthetic wonder, they offer shelter from sun, wind, and rain. Ironically, they shield the more vulnerable living creatures of the desert from the very same forces that break the rocks so that they may afford the shelter.

That the Rock of Ages should be cleft is astounding. If the Rock is cleft by a force superior to itself, that would be the end of faith. It would mean the power of chaos triumphs over order, the power of nothingness (Karl Barth called it, das Nachtige) triumphs over Being. But suppose the Rock of Ages is not cleft against its will. Perhaps it is not subjected to such breakage by weakness but by the vulnerability of its own love. Hesed. “His mercy endures forever.” Suppose the Rock of Ages is not cleft by meaninglessness and chaos, but rather is cleft for a purpose the Rock deems worthy of such a sacrifice. The Rock consents to be broken. What purpose could justify the breaking of God?

“Rock of ages cleft for me.” If the foundation of reality is only strength, then where is the place for my weakness? Where can I hide on the stony surface of such a reality? I need the strength of the Rock to save me with its power, but I also need the vulnerability of the cleft which is its caring, the costly caring, in which I take refuge. Neither power nor vulnerability standing alone will offer refuge. Love and power must be conjoined in the God of my salvation – the God who is both rock and person, the rock with the power to shield, but with a cleft which is his “wounded side.”

God is infinitely more than human. Heaven and earth cannot contain the Lord. He cannot be confined in a temple, labeled with a name, or defined by an image. God is more vast that the universe itself. Yet, God’s greatness rests not in vastness but rather in God’s willingness to become human, to take on flesh, to subject himself to the frailty of mortal life so that we might not be alone. The greatness of God’s compassion exceeds the greatness of God’s might. God opens in vulnerable mercy to enfold us. “Let me hide myself in thee.”

It is my very self I need to hide. It is my very self because that is what is threatened by the world, which is often indifferent, often even hostile to my presence here. It is not just my assets or my reputation. It is my very self that is at risk of being crushed or distorted by demands, manipulations, and judgments, crushed or distorted by fate, ill health, personal calamity. The person God made me to be is in danger of destruction or distortion by a world that wants me to be either entirely different or entirely absent. If I am not sufficient in myself to deliver myself, then where can I turn but to God? And so I do. I recite the words of Isaiah,

Surely it is God who saves me,
I will trust in him and not be afraid
for he is my stronghold and my sure defense
and he will be my savior.
Isaiah 12: 2

Or I center myself with a one word prayer, murmuring the name of God alone, resting in God and trusting that God holds my life in his hand. I would rather hold my life in my own hand, but my hand is too small. It is not strong enough.

There is a poignant solace in taking refuge in the cleft of the rock. God affords me refuge and that is good. But for the cleft to be ther for me, God has must be broken. A rift in God must occur in order to afford me that refuge. I did not break God. Even my sin is not so powerful as that. God is broken open by God’s own love. The Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, used to speak of the heart being “broken open.” Just so, God is broken open by God’s own love to afford me refuge and that makes the place of refuge a place where I know I am loved, where I am valued enough to endure the fracture of mortality. That’s is what God shows me in Jesus on the cross – a God willing to walk into death with me, a God willing to descend into hell to bring me back from it.

I can prostrate myself in awe of the Rock of Ages like a Pleistocene man before El Capitan. But awe is not love. I love the Rock of Ages because it is cleft. When I find myself unworthy to breathe the earth’s air, I find my worth in knowing the Rock was cleft for me.

I wish I were more often moved to reverence and wonder by the glories of creation. But I am not. I am a prisoner of ego. I live in a small world of projects, plans, and petrifications of the heart. God’s glory only occasionally gets my attention and then it does not last. But fear gets my attention. It gets my attention so well, I would not blame God if God threatened me daily. But God does not. I cannot recall once being threatened by God – by preachers of hellfire and damnation, yes. But not by God. And the hellfire and damnation seemed too remote to pose an immediate threat. So whence cometh the fear that focuses my mind?

Life is unstable. Buddha said as much in the 2nd Noble Truth. Heraclitus echoed him in his teaching on flux. Ecclesiastes despaired over it. A forgotten seat belt, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the tremors of the earth or the economy or the emotions of those we love, all these variables can bring a grandiose life to rubble and ruin. Something as tiny as a blood clot or a bit of plaque broken loose from an artery will wipe away the miracle of the human mind. In John Irving’s novel, The World According To Garp, when the hero was a little boy wading in the ocean, his mother would call out warnings to watch out for the undertow. He misheard her, thought she was warning of a malevolent monster “the undertoad.” He misheard her word but caught her meaning. It feels as if the lion prowls, dash Nacthige undoes, the chaos monster scatters the sand paintings of our lives and loves. That is when I need to hide myself in the cleft of the rock. And I do.

Over 60 years, so many disasters have almost happened. God has delivered me from most of them. Others have happened, and God has delivered me through them. I would far rather be delivered from than through. But the point is to be delivered, to see the sky clear and walk the earth again. The storms come. The storms pass by as we nest in the invisible castle, secure in the crag and the fortress of God, powerful as the granite mountain, caring as the wounded side. Like the rocky edifices of Nevada, God is beautiful in God’s brokenness.

Copyright 2010 Dan T. Edwards


Rick+ said...

     I can't wait until I have the chance to sing Rock of Ages again. You've opened up a whole new imagery I hadn't considered. Thank you!

Bishop Dan said...

Rick, thank you. I have been hearing it anew and discovering a richness of paradoxical imagery that the simple music belies.

Average, I am trying to go through the steps to follow your blog but am having a snag with my google account. I am working on it. I am honored you want my poetic advice. But I am a pretty bad poet. My advice would be to practice paying attention to the world around you, take pictures of it using words to make the pictures, and weave in occasional associations of an event or image with another image that resonates in some deeper way -- so as to take it down a notch. Read some books on writng by real poets like Ted Kooser and Kim Adonizio. Try to imagine your way into someone else's heart and write from their instead of your own feelings. That will mature your poetry. I know a brilliant teenage girl who writes balads in the voice of old cowboys and saddle makers. Ck Ferdinand Pensoa who created 3 whole supplemental identities to write from. I have read what is already on your blog and liked it very much. Of course write bad stuff. Lots of bad stuff. Then burn it. Burn 19 out of every 20 things you write. It clears the channels for good writing. Keep at it. About the attention piece, try Zen, Insight Meditation, tai chi, or anything that cultivates your capactity to attend. It starts in the eye.