Fight Like Hell, Love Like Heaven

Alphonse Mucha, Design for June cover (1899)

Springtime glories round us teeming,
Fill our hearts with joyous cheer,
Sunshine brightly o’er us beaming,
Makes all nature glad appear;
Lovely season bright and vernal.
Ever welcome to our clime,
Emblem of a growth eternal,
And of destinies sublime.

–– Shaker hymn

 

The First of June. This morning’s cloudy sky and cool air cannot refute the calendar. The sun gains strength daily, and the blooming riot of spring yields to a more tranquil verdancy. Summer is i-cumen in.

Half a century ago, Hal Borland reported the news from the natural world for the New York Times. His descriptions were local to the northeastern United States, but not so singular as to prevent translation into our own habitats. His June dispatches are a canticle of praises sung at summer’s dawn:

June is really a time of relative quiet, serenity after the rush of sprouting and leafing and before the fierce heat that drives toward maturity and seed. June’s very air can be as sweet as the wild strawberries that grace its middle weeks, sweet as clover, sweet as honeysuckle.

The rasping that is July, the scraping of cicadas and all their kin, is yet in abeyance. June doesn’t assault your ears. It flatters them, then softens the sound of frog and whippoorwill, and is a joy.

These things we know each June. We learn them all over again in the first week, and we wonder how we ever could have forgotten them. For June is peonies as well as roses. June is the first kitchen-garden produce as well as flower beds. June is a happy memory rediscovered and lived again.

June is cornflower blue and day-lily gold and white lace of daisies in the field. June is bridal wreath and mock orange and the scent of sweet peas on the garden fence.

June is strawberries, red and juiceful and tantalizing …. June is peas in the garden, late June, for the favored gardener. June is first lettuce and baby beets, and string beans in blossom and susceptible to both beetle and blight. June is corn, both sweet and field varieties, pushing green bayonets toward the sun. June is scallions.

 Now come some of the pleasantest nights of our year, nights when you can almost hear the grass growing and the rosebuds straining at their seams…The world has a green, growing fragrance, a hundred odors mingled into one. A late Spring rushes into full leaf and opening bud, and June comes over the hills in the moonlight.[i]

Our hawthorn tree – one of my friends to love and protect.

This is the news we absolutely need to hear. This is the day which the Lord has made. Let’s go outside and see what’s happening in the garderns, fields and woods of our own neighborhoods. It’s time to pay more attention.

In Borland’s entry for June 1st, he delivers a homily on the meaning of the season:

June and Summer bring the undeniable truth of growth and continuity. Each Summer since time first achieved a green leaf has been another link in the chain of verity that is there for understanding. Every field, every meadow, every roadside is not rich with the proof of sustaining abundance, evidence that the earth is essentially a hospitable place no matter what follies [humanity] may commit. June invites [us] to know these things, to know sun and rain and grass and trees and growing fields. It is a season for repairing the perspective, for admitting, however privately, that there are forces and rhythms that transcend man’s particular and transient plans.[ii]

I want to believe that. I really do. But we live in the shadow of apocalypse. Does nature still have the capacity to transcend human folly? Will the earth remain a hospitable place?

After writing that last sentence, I checked HuffPost to see whether the White House had issued its expected decision on the Paris Climate Agreement. This is what I saw:

HuffPost headline (June 1, 2017)

 

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain in the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.––Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning . . .[iii]

Is Eden doomed, soured by sin? Must we begin to lament its inevitable destruction?

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement makes little economic or political sense. The rest of the world understands the stakes, and a clear majority of American voters know we need to get serious about climate change. Even oil companies are against abandoning the agreement. So why does Trump refuse to give in to the growing consensus––and life or death urgency––on this planetary crisis? Is it simply his inability to admit any error? That is no doubt part of it. But the scale of his suicidal ignorance is so vast that I have to wonder: are we witnessing a performance of pure, unadulterated evil?

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is enraged to find that he is not the One to whom every knee on heaven and earth should bow. Rather than live in a created order where he is not the center of attention and worship, he chooses to be the lord of hell and chaos––no mere servant in heaven–– and dedicates himself to “study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield” (1.7-8).

If Satan can’t rule creation, he will destroy it to satisfy his infantile rage against everything good, true and beautiful. If he can’t have victory, he’ll settle for revenge.

And now
Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way….
Directly toward the new created World,
And Man there plac’t, with purpose to assay
If him by force he can destroy or worse,
By some false guild pervert; and ashall pervert
For man will hark’n to his glozing lyes [flattering lies]. (3.86-93)

Sour with sinning, indeed. Let every American feel the shame and horror of what the Faither of Lies has done this day. Let us weep and wail as we must. Let our anger and disbelief erupt in fierce and unrelenting action.

But do not forget the other news––the news right outside your door. Do not forget to cherish the beauty of this day, this June, this “wild and precious life.” Always remember why this God-given world matters so much. Whatever responses and actions we commit ourselves to on this Day of Infamy, let them come not from hate or fear, but from love.

Obsessing over evil will only suck us into the dark vacancy of its chaos. Everything we do to protect and preserve Creation must be grounded in the divine Love without which nothing at all would exist. Fight like hell, but love like heaven.

 

 

 

[i] Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons: A Selection of Outdoor Editorials from the New York Times (Philadelphia & New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1964), 78-83.

[ii] Ibid., 78.

[iii] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Spring”

 

Dies Irae

Biblical prophet at Moissac Abbey on Le Chemin de St. Jacques

Biblical prophet at Moissac Abbey on Le Chemin de St. Jacques

Mr. McCleery, my seventh grade Latin teacher, had us memorize verses of the Dies Irae, a medieval chant describing the Last Judgment in strikingly lurid language. Most boys in junior high do not walk around chanting Latin poetry about the end of the world, but I rather enjoyed it. The tune was catchy, and those terse rhyming triplets beat time like the sensuous energy of a drum circle.

Dies irae, dies illa, 
Solvet saeclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.

Day of wrath, O day of mourning,
See fulfilled the prophet’s warning,
Heav’n and earth in ashes burning.

The text of Dies Irae is inspired by the first chapter of Zephaniah, which was one of the eucharistic readings last Sunday. I sometimes wonder what churchgoers think about when asked to consider “a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom.” In Syria or Ukraine, it’s just the latest news. But for those of us not living in one of history’s infernos, Zephaniah might be dismissed as a colorful crank carried away by the thrill of his own hyperbole.

The effect of the Bible’s more fiery rhetoric is often muted by the flat, inexpressive way it is usually read – or worse, mumbled – in the typical liturgy, as though no one really means it. Readers of prophetic texts should be given bullhorns. They should walk among the people as they shout, looking them in the eye.

I will bring such distress upon people
that they shall walk like the blind;
because they have sinned against the LORD,
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
and their flesh like dung.[i]

The church growth people might have something to say about that sort of messaging, but there is no denying that the prophets are working hard to get our attention. And in these last weeks of the Christian year, both the Sunday lectionary and the daily liturgical readings resound with the trumpet blasts of biblical warnings. People get ready. History’s chickens are coming home to roost.

Those prophetic rants have sometimes been read as endorsements of sacred violence – angry outbursts of a moody and unpredictable god – but God’s best friends have long rejected that crude picture as a tragic misreading of the divine. Nevertheless, there is no denying the violent imagery woven into some biblical texts, and we must find a way to make sense of it.

Walter Brueggemann explains that the prophets “speak in images and metaphors that aim to disrupt, destabilize, and invite to alternative perceptions of reality … [They] speak in outrageous and extreme figures because they intend to disrupt the ‘safe’ construals of reality, which are sponsored and advocated by the dominant opinion makers.”[ii] In other words, prophets blow up the old paradigms in order to make room for the new. They take seriously the power of language both to enslave and to liberate.

Zephaniah targets those “who rest complacently on their dregs,” who are blinded by their illusions, who assume divine indifference to the damage they do to the poor, the vulnerable, and the whole interdependent system of life on earth. We can find similar voices in our own time.

German writer W. G. Sebald’s apocalyptic poem, After Nature, is as harrowing as anything in the Bible. As he contemplates the dark and barren landscape of Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion, painted in 1505, Sebald finds a predictive warning of the planet’s own death unless we change our ways.

Here in an evil state of erosion
and desolation the heritage of the ruining
of life that in the end will consume
even the very stones has been depicted.[iii]

Today the United States Senate came just one vote shy of approving the Keystone XL pipeline, a massive fossil fuels project to enrich a few people at the expense of the whole earth. The effects of exploiting the Canadian tar sands, according to climate scientist James Hansen, could well be of biblical proportions.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.[iv]

Hansen concludes that Keystone and its aftermath “will be game over for the climate.” The apocalypse was defeated today in the Senate, but there will be another vote early next year, when many of the “no” votes will be out of office. Alarmingly, the next head of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will be a climate change denier who believes in a god who would never allow earth’s climate to be affected by the actions of mortals. If the senior senator from Oklahoma were to study his Bible, he might find that God takes human freedom far more seriously than he does. We do have the power to destroy God’s creations and disrupt the fragile balances of life.

The prophets are trying to make us renounce that power before it is too late. When Zephaniah warns of “a terrible end” he isn’t simply condemning us; he’s trying to save us. The “day of wrath” will not be an arbitrary vengeance from the sky, but the sum of innumerable bad choices here on earth. Zephaniah and his fellow prophets hold before us a chillingly graphic picture of where those choices are headed. What has been called the wrath of God is really something bearing our own signature.

Will God ride to the rescue? In a poem called “Emmanuel’s Nightmare,” African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks wonders what it might be like if we were simply left to our own devices. She imagines the Second Coming of a Christ who would “clean the earth / of the dirtiness of war.” But the Savior finds himself thwarted. Humans love war too much. It is “what they lived for.” So God’s Son gives up and goes home. Mission not accomplished. “He had not the heart / To take away their chief sweet delectation.”[v] 346

The prospect of being abandoned to our own suicidal impulses is not a happy one, but – thankfully – it is not in fact the story we tell. God has destined us not for wrath but for salvation.[vi] The means of that better destiny will turn out to be quite surprising, not at all like the terrible clamor of the Dies Irae. But that is a tale for another day.

[i] Zephaniah 1:17

[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 625

[iii] W.G. Sebald, After Nature, q. in Colin Riordan, “Ecocentrism in Sebald’s After Nature,” in W.G. Sebald – A Critical Companion, eds. J.J. Long & Anne Whitehead (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 51

[iv] New York Times, May 9, 2012

[v] Robert Atwan, George Dardess, Peggy Rosenthal, eds., Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 346

[vi] I Thessalonians 5:9