I had the privilege of spending a long weekend these past few days in western Pennsylvania under the kindness and hospitality of my girlfriend and her family. It’s a place that is hard to describe without falling into cliches of big sky, clear air, and bright stars. It’s near the area that Johann Jacob Burkhardt, my first ancestor in America, settled in 1754 after sailing from Germany and landing in Philadelphia exactly a week ago today. I made almost the exact same trek as Johann and his family, from the rivers of Philly to the rural countryside of unsettled Pennsylvania.
Strangely, in the rest of Pennsylvania that I have seen, the trees are still mostly green and just starting to turn for the Fall. But here, this weekend marked the peak of that beautiful transition. The pictures above and below should testify to this (click them for larger versions). They were taken only a couple of days ago–with my phone (fun fact: the picture directly above this text was taken from Mt. David, the highest point in Pennsylvania).
I can’t express to you the beauty my eyes and soul were able to behold.
In the city, amid all the skyscrapers and people, you can easily feel smaller than you actually are, but it’s in a way that makes you feel more significant. You find yourself dwarfed by the beauty around you, seduced by the whisper that you are in the middle of civilization’s cogs and machinations, convinced that this is where the proverbial cultural hurricane-inducing-butterfly makes its fateful flap.
Here, though, it’s the complete reverse. Amid the true “bigness” of sky, tree, and mountain, you feel expanded and made bigger than you actually are. Whereas the city’s beauty swallows you and sweeps you into the rage of its current (a thrill to some, drowning to others), here, you seem to expand until you are in all and all is in you. You feel both huge and small all at the same time. It’s “humiliating bigness”, you might say.
It’s easy to see why nearly every religion history has known has turned to Nature to find its gods. Even the most ancient of peoples never worshipped man-made things as man-made things, but only as representations and sacramental mediations of things in and above Nature itself.
But as we drove back to Philly yesterday, after feeling the car scream like Sisyphus trying to push its weight up mountain after mountain, we then got to lower the gear and coast down the other sides, seeing from our vantage point the nearly endless sea of patchwork trees. I kept saying all weekend that it looked like God had laid a giant plaid shirt over the whole world.
A little bit into our drive, I looked over at Rachel and I said, “it feels so weird that God has made a world that gives us both this beauty and genocides–all existing in the same place.”
This thought continued to occupy me for a while afterward.
How many cancer-ridden bodies have stared at the same beauty I was looking at? How many people died on that road which offered such opportunity to stare into the complexities of God’s grace to us? How many couples had loudly and painfully fought in the car while driving through those valleys, ignorant of the depths calling out to their own souls?
In my Bible, I have a page from a National Geographic that I tore out a few years ago and have kept it in there ever since. It’s of a small, three-day-old Ethiopian infant, whose every single bone in his body you can see because of the malnutrition and lack of food available to him. The caption says that this child would not live for more than a few more days. This crying child, captured in vivid detail in the hand of his mother, walked into and out of life in less than week.
I keep that picture in there to remind me that this world is still broken–still (as the ancient articulation goes) Fallen. No matter how many autumn beauties that may grace my eye, there are still war-torn, famine-stricken, genocide-infested, sex-slave-producing parts of this (hear this) Creation.
We can’t forget that. These things all exist in one Creation, art-piece, display, tapestry, “design”–whatever metaphor you want to use. But before we despair, let me ask you this:
What feels most like “home”?
I know, I know, this won’t be very satisfying to all my rational atheist friends out there: it’s an appeal to the “subjective”, “immeasurable”, and “untested” human faculties, but work with me here. When we look at our own versions of that magazine page, and our own versions of the autumnal visual orchestra, do they not produce different reactions within us?
Doesn’t something not feel “right” about that Ethiopian child dying in less than a week from entirely preventable circumstances? But also, doesn’t something feel exactly right about that fall bouquet pictured above? Does one feel more like the way things “should” be, even if it’s not quite the way they “are”?
And further, even if you’re not quite ready to put a moral or value judgment on those subjective reactions, what story of the world seems to encompass this all? Now, I’m not necessarily asking “what makes sense of it”, or “answers the most questions”, or even “explains the most of it” (I don’t know that Christianity even does this). I ask simply this: what story of life, the world, and the universe merely contains the space to hold these paradoxes within itself without denying nor destroying itself.
My contention would be that the Gospel–the Christian narrative–is that story.
And (for all you Christians), for the moment forget the whole Garden-Fruit-Serpent-“Aha! That explains how it all got this way!”-part. “The Fall” is not the Gospel. The Garden is not what holds life in itself. Sin is not our Story. (And “Sin Management” is not our salvation.) Rather, it is the Cross itself. The place where God forsakes God, bringing doubt, alienation, exploitation, death, and suffering into the divine experience, thereby making all of those things part and parcel to our story and not alien aspects that do damage to it.
(As my pastor beautifully articulated a couple of weeks ago) In Christianity, God looks at those expressions of “The Fall” and says that yes, he hates them too, and has also done what was needed to begin knitting the world together to rid the earth of them. In the alchemy of the Cross, God has now turned those things most ugly into the very conduits of the World To Come.
And so, to live in a world such as this, is to live in a world in paradox and in transition. A world that, in a sense, is moving from “The Fall” to fall, in order to usher in Paradise, our Home.
Having beheld these beauties and meditated on these thoughts, these prophet’s words have never been clearer to me:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.