Wednesday, September 6, 2017

fear of the Lord (and the forest) is the beginning of all wisdom: creation sunday one

This Sunday we're entering into the new/old liturgical Season of Creation. It is, of course, much older than the Church, or any of the organized religions, having been observed by creation in all its forms since the beginning of time. It has roots in our heritage in ancient Judaism, too whether that is the lunar festivals or feasts and fasts built around the harvest cycle. The Celtic and Norse earth-based holidays have a home in the Season of Creation as do the wisdom traditions of Australia. In this, it is a very old practice.

In Christianity, however, the Season of Creation began when the Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I of Constantinople declared September 1 to be Creation Day. The European Christian Environmental Network "chose the four Sundays of September to be an appropriate time to celebration creation and to come to terms with the current environmental crisis." (The Season of Creation Preaching Commentary, p. 7) The Catholic Bishops of the Philippines joined ranks in 2003 and the Episcopal Church began to explore participation, too. Our small faith community joined the festival four years ago - and I cherish the chance it gives us to move beyond anthropomorphism and all its subtle lies.

This week we are listening to the wisdom and gift of the forest in creation. One of the appointed texts is the start of the second creation narrative in Genesis 2. Two of the insights that have come to me in trusting the forest to be a font of holy wisdom include:
+ First, how the very enormity of our ancient, old growth forests teach me never to sentimentalize the heart of the Lord.  Encountering the forest in all its wild darkness is akin to Rudolf Otto's writing about the numinous as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans—a mystery before which we both tremble in awe and find ourselves fascinated by – a living reality of power outside of ourselves that both attracts and repels us. This mystery is simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. It is enormous and beyond our ability to comprehend.  And as the Psalmist and wisdom master of Proverbs reminds us, such fear is the beginning of all wisdom. Yirat Adonai, in Hebrew, is not a cringing or cowering fear, it is a respectful awareness of a power greater than our comprehension. Yirah – translated as fear – is much more about sacred devotion before the mystery of the holy. The Jewish sage, Maimonides, taught that yirat was more a fear of greatness, analogous to respect for an exalted person, who would do us no harm. He categorized the fear of God as a positive commandment, as the feeling of human insignificance deriving from contemplation of God's "great and wonderful actions and creations.” I love entering the head of a forest but the rest terrifies me - with good reason - as the forest teaches us to take fear seriously.

+ Second, the forest and its trees are part of the Genesis 2 creation myth.  Most of the time when we read this story, the concentration is on Adam and Eve and sin. Some Biblical scholars, however, suggest that this is too self-absorbed. There is a larger story being told about the creation of the entire world. And what really grabbed me this week is where the story says that God made us all of the same substance to be part of the same family of care and awe. When God creates human beings it is not in isolation: no plants had yet been formed and no other life existed SO… God created humans from Earth’s fertile soil – from the same arable land that the plants will soon grow within – to nurture one another. Human beings, in this ancient creation story, are not only connected to plants by their nature and substance – humans from the hummus – but we have a shared vocation. 

 “The first mission God gives to humans, before the command to love the Lord or our neighbors, is to care for the plants. We are to till the garden, care for it, keep it and protect it."  How do we put it in the Ash Wednesday and funeral liturgy: ashes to ashes, dust to dust? Note that the dust from which we came and to dust we shall return in Hebrew is aphar or top soil. Now, if our first calling it is to care for creation’s plants, our second is to do so in a way that advances the image of God. Theodore Hiebert puts it like this: Our English words farm and till the ground again are incomplete. "The ancient Hebrew avad literally means to serve rendering caring for creation as a unique and compassionate partner." To live as a servant is the very core of Christian formation. Jesus is not subtle when he makes a connection between ripening in faith and servanthood. When asked by his disciples at the Last Supper, what then shall we do? Jesus replied: you will love one another as I have loved you. And the context for this command was the Maundy Thursday foot-washing.

While hiking in the woods - not the forest, mind you, but the woods - in Quebec recently, I came upon this:  a green man. It was on the way to a hidden water fall. The next day I came upon another.  Clearly, the time is now for me to honor with holy awe the way of the Lord as revealed in God's first word of creation.

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