Water Monsters

Chaos is a monster.  More than personal opinion, that’s a biblical view.  If, like many modern people with theological training, you’ve been taught that Genesis narrates a creation out of nothing, you’ve become a victim of this monster.  You see, although ancient Israel had no “systematic theology”—the Bible can be quite inconsistent if you’re willing to read what it says—the view that chaos was constantly lurking outside the ordered realm of creation was a common one.  One of the more intriguing episodes in Ugaritic mythology involves a broken text where the god Hadad, aka Baal, refuses to allow a window in his palace.  The reason?  Apparently he feared chaos (in the form of Yam, the sea) might slip in and kidnap his daughters.

More than a theological statement, the story of creation was actually a singular episode in Yahweh’s ongoing struggle against chaos.  Step outside and look at the sky.  If it’s blue it’s because there’s unruly water being held back by a great dome over our heads.  If it’s gray, it may be raining, or it probably will be soon.  Stroll to where the land ends.  What do you see?  Water.  That water is lapping at land, trying to take it over.  Although the ancients didn’t have geologic ages (the Mesopotamians came close, with ancient kings living thousands of years) rivers eroded land and they had tendencies to flood.  The thing about chaos is that it makes you start again, from the beginning.

One of the many unfortunate things about biblical literalism is that it loses sight of this biblical truth.  It exchanges something everyone can understand for a theological abstraction that makes no sense in the world that we experience.  Ancient belief held that the human role in the world was to fight chaos, not to get to Heaven.  In fact, in the Hebrew Bible there’s no concept of Heaven at all.  Instead, the commandments were all about order.  You can’t build on the water.  What you do build water tries to wash away—Israel has a rainy season, and one of the characteristics of such seasons is the occasional violent storm and heavy rains.  Although we need the water from the heavens, heavy rains cause, well, chaos.  In ancient thought, this was the monster hiding in plain sight.  That blue sky is a reminder that a dragon awaits.  Rather than starry-eyed Heaven-gazers, the ancient biblical person was a monster-fighter.  And that’s the biblical truth.

Childhood’s End?

Writers are agents against chaos.  Those of you who read this blog frequently know that chaos has been one of my themes lately.  Moving, which is a process that takes months and months of time, is pure chaos.  Whenever I settle down to write, yet another moving-related task comes to me—this box needs to be unpacked, that gap in the fence must be mended, where did I put the toolbox?  Mundane things.  Writers like to think the world conforms, somehow, to their inner lives.  In reality, things are far more complex than that and don’t seem to be getting any easier.  Starting to learn about house ownership is something best left for the young, I suspect.  Every question (where should we put the television?) leads to a daisy-chain of other issues (but first we need to move that hutch, but it’s too heavy for either of us to lift, etc.).

In ancient times water symbolized chaos.  Before we left on vacation, the main issue was to get all boxes off the floor in the garage.  We haven’t had time to move them safely inside yet, what with planning for vacation and all, so plastic became the order of the day.  We do need, however, to get things inside eventually.  A slow process for two middle-aged people with full-time jobs, even without jet lag.  Writing feels like a luxury item, for what is most required is time—time to move things to their proper places.  Time to figure out what those proper places are.  Time to go to work again.

Had we thought this through, we might’ve used vacation this year to unpack.  We bought our plane tickets, however, before we bought the house.  This latter transaction is one of chaos embodied.  Who knew, for example, that the grass had to be cut so often?  That all roofs leak?  That chaos is constant, and not intermittent?  In biblical times, one of the signs of God’s greatness was the ability of the Almighty to hold chaos in constant check.  The waters were always lurking, looking for any opening—except when you need rain and it just won’t come.  Sitting here writing feels like the giddy irresponsibility of childhood where there’s so much to get done and so little time in which to do it.  And neighbors don’t appreciate the lawn being mowed before the sun is properly out of bed.  The renter pays a price for living with, for at least some stretches of time, chaos-free maintenance.  The home-owner quickly learns that any time left over for writing feels like being irresponsible, and a little bit divine.

High Places

I have gotten me away unto an high place.  No, that’s no biblical, but it sure sounds psalm-like.  Part of the anxiety I felt about the literary loss over the past few days is that it happened just before a long anticipated, and paid for, vacation.  As Thursday dawned, I knew I had only two days to try to rearrange the undamaged books and try to salvage what I could of those that were soaked.  And I had to do it quickly and then leave, only to see the results when I returned.  Not yet having met any neighbors, and not really being in a position to prevail upon their presumed good will, it was a test of personal endurance.  Our garage has an upper floor that remained dry.  I made well over an hundred trips up those stairs, book boxes in hand.  One cares for ones friends.

For now, however, I am at my favorite high place, in the mountains.  On a lake.  I’m having to reconcile myself with my old foe H2O, for here it is placid welcoming.  It stays outside the cabin and we remain friends.  And truth be told, there is a kind of idolatrous element involved in my visits to the lake.  You see, I covet peace.  Since childhood violence and bullies have led me to a quasi-monastic life—Paul Simon reflected that perfectly in his early song “I am a Rock.”  Even Superman had to have his fortress of solitude.  Some fear being alone with their thoughts.  Although I struggle with them, they are, like my books, who I am.

Dawn’s early light; and it only got worse as the day went on.

Prophets and deuteronomists railed against high places.  Such were locations where the God of Israel grew jealous of the attention lavished on other deities.  Perhaps religious promiscuity comes naturally to people, but we need our high places to regain perspective.  To breathe pine-scented air and feel the chill of a July morning at altitude.  Yes, even to reconcile with the splash of water that is here to make life possible rather than to destroy that which you have worked to acquire.  Ironically some of the destroyed books had been with me since college—theological classics such as Niebuhr, Gutiérrez, and Tillich, lying on the unmown grass beneath a healing sun.  Perhaps they were trying to warn me of the idolatry of such retreat.  But here I am, reflecting on loss and hope, and praying that somehow we might just all get along.

Prelude to Chaos

Liquids are the enemy.  Don’t let the cuteness of this little guy fool you—there’s collusion here.  For as well as creating life, and being necessary to sustain it, water destroys.  Creator, annihilator.  We moved during a time when neither of us had vacation and we told the over-tired movers that it was okay to put our boxes in the garage.  We planned to move them soon, but, you know, work.  Then the rains came.  Not just sprinkles, but downpours.  The garage isn’t water-tight.  Boxes were soaked.  Many books were damaged.  This wasn’t a flood that can be claimed on insurance, it was simply rain pooling where people usually park their (normally waterproof) cars.  In their place sat our books.

We both worked the day after the rains.  When we discovered the damage the next evening, it looked manageable.  I had to work the next day, of course, and a few breaks sufficed to get the many, many boxes of damaged books out into the sun.  It was carnage.  We don’t have much in the way of material goods; we spend a bit of money on books, however.  Now they’ve become the victims laid out on this altar of home ownership which, at the time, seemed like a good idea.  We needed a house for our books.  We needed time to move them from the garage to the house.  Yes, old friend Morpheus, “Time is always against us.”  

Job sat upon his ash-heap and pondered why he’d paid the movers so much only to have his moved goods destroyed.  And in a manner in which insurance assessors are trained to point to the fine print.  Those who store their goods in the garage reap the wrath of liquid.  You see, when water reaches cardboard, or paper, the wood pulp sucks it up.  Carefully dried, the paper remembers the compelling nature of water.  Too little, and you die.  Too much, and you die.  No wonder the ancients thought that water was a deity.  It claims all—tries to get in through your roof.  Lays insouciantly on your basement floor.  And the garage—yes, who thought of the garage when the immediate concern was to shut the windows to keep Leviathan out of the house?  I spent weeks carefully packing those books against shipping damage.  Used up my vacation days doing so.  Chaos has claimed them.  I would weep, but that would be collusion with the enemy, even if nobody sees.

Seeing Thinks

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a dude! What what is it? It’s actually a cloud. I enjoy the entries on Mysterious Universe, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It seems like decades since I laid down on the ground and looked at the clouds, seeking shapes. The sky is nature’s cerulean canvas and although they’re just water vapor, clouds take on endlessly fascinating shapes. Since religion has historically been projected onto the sky, many people take signs in the sky as somehow divine. The photo on Mysterious Universe is of a cloud that some thought was Jesus and others thought was Mary. Herein lies the rub of pareidolia. You see what you want to see.

There is, in traditional Christian thought, a world of difference between Jesus and Mary. You really don’t want to mix the two up. I mean one is divine and the other is only venerated. Don’t want to cross that line into worship because idolatry leads to all kinds of trouble. So who’s in the sky? Someone that we should perhaps think sacred: water. In a world quickly running out of fresh water (of course since now, officially, there is no global warming we’ll have to find another way of explaining our disappearing ice caps) we should all perhaps worship our clouds. The harbingers of fresh water. It won’t last forever.

I, for one, complain when it rains too much. I suppose that’s because I’ve lived most of my life in the rainy climates of the eastern United States and Scotland. Days can pass without a glimmer of sunshine. I get depressed and truculent. Yet the freshwater falls. Water tables are replenished. In much of the world—indeed, in much of the United States—it is not so. Water shortages are bad and are growing worse. We use far too much and when the ice caps are gone, the largest reserves of freshwater on the planet will be empty. Then again, capitalists have never been too keen on saving up for the future. Most of us alive today, at least in the rainy climes, will have our lifetime supply. The future, however, looks pretty hot and thirsty. So who is it in the sky? Could be either gender—wearing robes makes it hard to tell at this level of detail—but whoever it is, let’s hope they’ve brought plenty of friends with them.

Look like anybody you know?

Look like anybody you know?

The Reign of Rain

I’m on vacation for a week. My job is such that taking vacation is becoming a rare commodity, what with precious few allotted days and move-in, move-out schedules of a collegiate child, and so on. And also company policy about keeping employees in the office between Christmas and New Year. Anyway, now that I’m here I should be kicking back and enjoying the beautiful lake and getting out to do the things inmates of the city seldom do. It has, however, rained every day that I’ve been here. Not all-day rains, of course, but just enough that plans have to be interrupted or changed at the last minute. I end up sitting in the cabin playing Solitaire when I should be out getting some fresh air. So it goes.
Ironically, I am staying in the drought-stricken west. The western United States, I learned when researching for Weathering the Psalms, has been ensconced in a decades’ long drought. In fact, prior to my family trip here it hadn’t rained in quite a while. Our arrival with the clouds was, after all, mere coincidence. Still, it’s hard not to take the weather personally. I know that the weather is larger than any one person’s needs or desires. I also know that water is a commodity even rarer than vacation days, largely because of our misuse of the limited supply that we have. California’s plight has been in the news. We have large cities in water-challenged environments and people treat water like there’s no end to its abundance while the opposite is the case. Just thinking about it makes me thirsty.
There are many things a person can go without, some of which feel absolutely essential at the time. Many vacations, I know, are extravagant. Fancy hotels, high-priced entertainment, exotic locations. Work can feel so crushing that vacation my become the one island of sanity in the midst of a hostile ocean of obligation. For me, vacation is time with family in a stripped-down, natural setting. Of course, we do indulge in some of the comforts of home, but having nothing in view outside the window beyond that which nature dictates is a transcendent experience. From where I sit, I can see nothing of human artifice. I do see clouds, however. I know that more rain is on the way. And I know that it is a gift, complain as we might, of the highest magnitude.
  

Ice Church

Eternity is a concept closely associated with religious thought. It bears a freight that phrases such as “steady-state universe” and “Big Bang” lack. Indeed, the foundations of Christianity and Islam involve the belief that eternal life can be had for those who play by the rules. Great cathedrals and mosques were erected to last forever, or at least until the end of the physical world. Perhaps that is the reason I find the idea of a church constructed out of ice so engaging. Annually for the past several years, a church has been built of ice in the Romanian Alps. Accessible only by cable car, the church is a temporary structure in a land where varieties of Christianity (let alone other faiths) are openly hostile to one another. As the globe slowly wobbles back to a northern inclination, the church will melt and disappear. Still, in its brief time in the world, baptisms and marriages will be performed there. Eternal vows in a temporary structure.

A theological message is inherent in such an institution. We are trained from our earliest days to be consumers. We are to acquire goods and desire more. Were we ever to be satisfied, capitalism would crash to the ground like an ice church left out in the heat. The secular world in unrelenting in its message that we are born to eat, buy, and use. The more expensive, the better. And the more quickly obsolete, the more profitable it will be. The towers of our cities are constructed of concrete and steel, and yet, I have watched new buildings grow and supplant those that have seemingly stood forever but which, in reality, have existed for less than a century. Indeed, all of our towers ought to be made of ice.

IMG_1252

Ice is cold and hard, but it is still water. An article in The Guardian notes that some pastors see this as a kind of baptism frozen in time. Shape given to that which follows the contours of its container. The water, however, will ultimately follow its natural order and rejoin the oceans of the world. While humans are naturally disposed to collect, to save up against lean times, we have to be taught to be consumers. Some of us are content with relatively little, knowing that elsewhere our fellow human beings have nothing at all. Their churches are made of ice, and our corporations are eager to reach even them, to teach them to covet what the more “affluent” have. And the world slowly warms, turning all into liquidity.