Monday, February 27, 2017

Blowin' in the Wind: Lent, Loam and Life

("Blowin’ in the Wind" is a regular feature on my blog consisting of an assortment of nature writings – hymns, songs, excerpts, prayers, Bible readings, poems or other things – pieces I may not have written but that inspire me or give me joy. I trust they’ll do the same for you.)

It has been some time since I shared a “Blowin’ in the Wind” column, guess I’ve found it more meaningful of late to post writings of my own. But, with Lent looming this week, I’m thinking today of a Walter Brueggemann* devotional recently shared with me, courtesy of my colleague and friend Scott. Scott says that Brueggemann is one of his favorite thinkers, and since Scott is one of mine, that means something to me.

This week our church will offer an Ash Wednesday worship service, which traditionally includes the imposition of a smudge of ash on the worshiper’s forehead marked in the sign of the Cross, and accompanied by words such as, “Remember you are dust (Psalm 103:14),” or, “From dust you were made, to dust you will return (Genesis 3:19).” It’s a service that more and more of those from my Christian tradition are recovering from the larger, ancient church. Some think it’s only about penitence and self-denial, a reminder of our groveling position before God. Brueggemann would disagree, and does the exegesis in the devotional to support his thesis. He insists it’s also about remembering the Source of our life -- the breath of the Holy Spirit -- about the Creator’s act of breathing life into our heretofore inanimate frames.

Here’s the excerpt I wanted to share with you today. If you’d like to be directed to the whole article, message me and let me know. He has previously referenced Genesis 2:7 (Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being...), and the quote draws attention back to it:

This is a crucial and well-known text for understanding and articulating a biblical notion of human personhood. This formula affirms four matters: first, the human person is fundamentally and elementally material in origin and composition, genuinely an "earth-creature," subject to all the realities and limitations of materiality. Second, because the human person is an "earth-creature," it belongs with, to, and for the earth, and all other creatures share the same qualities of life. Third, this mass of earth ("dust") is no self-starter. In and of itself, it remains inanimate and lifeless. "Dust from the ground" by itself is no human person. Fourth, the vitality of the human person depends on God's gift of breath which is freely and graciously given without cause, but which never becomes the property or possession of the human person.

Thus human persons are dependent, vulnerable, and precarious, relying in each moment on the gracious gift of breath which makes human life possible. Moreover, this precarious condition is definitional for human existence, marking the human person from the very first moment of existence. That is, human vulnerability is not late, not chosen, not punishment, not an aberration, not related to sin. It belongs to the healthy, original characterization of human personhood in relation to God. This is what it means to be human. This rather elemental and straightforward physiology marks the human person as a creature who lives by the daily, moment by moment generosity of God.

You and I are enlivened by the generous wind of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps I should not have titled this Blowin’ in the Wind post “Lent, Loam and Life.” Maybe a better title might have been, with a head nod to a favorite old rock band, “Dust in the Wind.”

~~ RGM, February 27, 2017

P.S. And speaking of beauty from dust, if you’ve got an extra five minutes, take a listen to Gungor’s “You Make Beautiful Things.” It speaks the same language in a differently-poetic way than Brueggemann.

*(Walter Brueggemann [b. 1933] is a Nebraska-born author and retired seminary professor, considered one of the preeminent Old Testament scholars and theologians of recent decades.)

Monday, February 13, 2017

From My Nature Journal: ‘Perpetual Wildness’ and the Human Heart

A few months ago I finished a book my son Jarrett had recommended, one I finally ended up borrowing from my Chicago brother John, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. (Which reminds me, I need to return it!) It’s a fascinating read, and chronicles the impact of the three named things on societal development down through human history, and, ultimately, their ongoing influence on world politics and culture, even geography, to the present day. I am jazzed by history, both human and natural, and Diamond did not disappoint. It’s a fine book…

As might be imagined, Diamond also addressed prior steps in societal and cultural development that made possible the eventual impact of guns, germs and steel. Of course, the recruitment of fire as a manufacturing method was a necessary advancement, making possible the refining of metals. Another was the development of agriculture, which brought people together to settle in closer proximity with others, in contrast to those societies in which independent and widespread hunting and gathering predominated in family groups. This sped up further social evolution: with farmers now able to produce more food than they could alone eat, simple market economies developed, allowing in time the establishment of such things as specialized guilds, skilled artisans, even civic leadership. Few things, however, had the technological ability to advance a settled ancient culture more quickly than the domestication of animals. And we’re not just talking horsepower.

Picture it. A helpful canine companion for the hunt, or feline friend for rodent control... Ox power in the field… Reliable milk and meat in the pen or shelter… Wool and skins for clothing… Surefooted and seemingly inexhaustible steeds for travel… But interestingly, animal domestication also came with a drawback. Coupled with the greater proximity of people in close settlement with each other, it was intimate animal contact that also brought about the development of serious communicable diseases, the germs part of the triumvirate. I guess some bitter almost always comes with the sweet.

But back to animal domestication, my subject of interest du jour. Historians are united in their agreement that the first animal to be domesticated was the dog, bred, of course, from wild wolves and dingoes. This had already long taken place by 10,000 BC, with the date of domestication difficult
to pin down with precision. What followed then was the domestication of what has been called the ‘ancient fourteen,’ the great, domestic, herbivorous, utilitarian land mammals, in the following likely order and timing:
·      sheep, goats and pigs by 8000 BC
·      cows by 6000 BC
·      horses, donkeys and water buffalo by 4000 BC
·      llamas and alpacas by 3500 BC
·      camels by 2500 BC
·      reindeer, yaks, gaurs (oxen native to India and Malaysia) and bantengs (oxen native to Bali), dates unknown

Cats were in there somewhere, likely by about 8000 BC, though this is also more speculative. But I’ve never been sure they’re really domesticated anyhow. They just let us live in their house. Perhaps, in their way, they have domesticated us…

Other attempts have been made at the domestication of additional mammals, but without success. Individuals can be tamed, of course, even carnivores, but bred domestication is something else altogether. It doesn’t matter how tame a wild animal has become: some of the wild remains in it, and its offspring will be wild. I recall an interesting article in National Geographic several years ago about efforts established in Russia over a century ago, and still ongoing, to domesticate the fox, but it has not yet been successful. No doubt successful domestication took much longer than a hundred years. Who knows how long it actually took? And thousands of additional years have passed since, breed upon breed developed in some cases. Can you just imagine both Chihuahuas and St. Bernards from the same ancestors?

But here’s what I wanted to get at. I found a couple of comments in reference to domestication that were fascinating -- obvious, but fascinating, and thought provoking in relation to my nature and Christian spirituality blog. Jared Diamond says that there were animals that “…presented insuperable obstacles to domestication.” Insuperable. That means ‘impossible to overcome.’ Diamond quoted British scientist Francis Galton as putting it this way: "It would appear that every wild animal has had its chance of being domesticated, that a few… were domesticated long ago, but that the large remainder, who failed sometimes in only one small particular, are destined to perpetual wildness.”

Destined to perpetual wildness. Insuperable obstacles to domestication.


“…Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love…” is the way the hymn writer said it.  The Prophet Jeremiah, speaking forcefully within a deeply degraded culture, put it much more severely: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and exceedingly corrupt. Who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9)" Or elsewhere in Genesis 6, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Can my wildness, my proneness to wander,
be softened, tempered, or at least tamed?
How ‘destined to perpetual wildness’ am I?

Hmmm. Evil continually. Can my wildness, my proneness to wander, be softened, tempered, or at least tamed? How ‘destined to perpetual wildness’ am I? Are we? Lord, have mercy. Jesus:

Purify my heart. Touch me with Your cleansing fire.
Take me to the cross: Your holiness is my desire.
Breathe Your life in me. Kindle a love that flows from Your throne.
Lord, purify my heart, purify my heart.

~~ RGM, February 13, 2017