Struck by Lightning


This week a headline caught my attention: “Lightning Strikes Creation Museum During Kentucky Storm.” How ironic is that? The American Atheist Convention goes off without a hitch and the Creation Museum gets hit with lightning. Like a comic book made in heaven just for me. “Atheist churches” have opened across the U.S., apparently ignorant of the meaning of the word “church”: originally from kyriakon, Lord’s house.  It’s like they have “Irony” tattooed on their foreheads. “Creationist scientists”  limit science to Genesis 1 – 11, blissfully dissing the “scientific method.” My mind is spinning with the juxtapositions. Like a spiritual whirly-gig. 
Behind my enjoyment is, of course, the conviction that these people, atheists and creationists, are all very peculiar and I am quite normal in my approach to God (or not-God).
An astrophysicist once said, “We can’t really prove that Venus is not carried around the sun on the back of an angel.”  What a refreshingly quirky observation. Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Fairy tales? How can Einstein insult our intelligence like that? And a physicist admitting he can’t PROVE there are no angels spinning us around in the solar system?  These are two great examples of science and myth walking happily down the road hand-in-hand.
We humans, however, lust after certainty, any certainty. We’ll grab at one like a merry-go-round brass ring. Zen Buddhism is harshly honest about certainty: “Forget about it! Nothing is certain.”  No brass ring. Which sounds decidedly uninviting.
Learning about the world from myth and from science and from literature and from people and from cooking Delicota squash and from the pain in my piriformis muscle, is more confusing and much richer than pinning down the nature of God (or not-God). So where does religion fit in? An atheist recently wrote an article called, “Can atheist churches make unbelievers nicer?” I’m inspired to write one called, “Can churches make believers nicer?”
On August 25th, another headline caught my eye:  “Pope Francis to Atheists: ‘Just Do Good’.” No argument there.

The Garden at the Center

Members of the Church of Latter Day Saints believe that the Garden ofEden was originally located in Jackson County, Missouri. Mormons have taken a lot of ribbing recently, so I won’t give my opinion on the likelihood of that being true. However, research continues, trying locate the exact spot where Adam and Eve screwed everything up. Major consensus is that the Garden was located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in ancient Mesopotamia.The Garden of Eden was very likely in or around Baghdad, Iraq.

Of course the Garden of Eden may not have been at all. However, more important than where it may have been, is what it may have been. When I think of the Garden, I see two naked people trying to hide behind a scrawny bush. But how did the authors of Genesis see it in their mind’s eye? What did the Garden of Genesis look like? Streams and waterfalls? What trees, fruits, flowers, animals did the authors and listeners imagine? What birdsongs, rushing water? The smell of rosemary? We know about the apple tree. Probably figs and olives and nuts, pomegranates. There would not have been waves of grain; that happened after The Fall.

The Garden stories look back to the time when we transformed ourselves from hunter-gatherers, eating what was given, into agriculturalists, toiling to coax food from dirt.

Simply gathering all the food we need from trees and bushes sounds great. No worries about draught or tomato blight or Japanese beetles or grubs or frost. Paradise.

When my friend Ladda was a girl, she walked to school from her home in Bangkok, plucking breakfast off fruit trees on the way. Now Bangkok is a congested hell of pollution and traffic. In many areas walking is impossible. Our friend Koi was killed in a rickety open cab used by people who cannot afford cars, a common occurrence. “Pave paradise, put up a parking lot,” says Joni. Or worse.

We know the life of hunter-gatherers was no picnic, but we do look back, long for, the beauty and harmony of a life we imagine existed before everything went wrong.

Genesis was written by Jews exiled in Babylon. The Persians had been building gardens there since 4000 BC. The authors heard about those gardens of ancient Persia: cool oases of trees, flowers, walkways, and graceful buildings built for royalty. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon is called one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, if it existed. Is that what they imagined, envied,  as they wrote in exile the story of their beginnings?

In Goshen (this Goshen, not that Goshen) we are struggling to build a garden on the steep slope on the south side of our barn. We wheel in dirt and leaf compost from other parts of the land, patch together holding walls of stone and logs, experiment with drainage. Plot the size and shape of each step. We drag a hose over to water plants, we weed, we build a fence to keep deer out and put row covers to keep birds off. We read seed packets. Not what I think of when I think of paradise….until. As the summer ends the slope is green, illuminated with the colors of flowers and vegetables. The smells of rosemary and tomatoes and dirt. We eat peas out of the pods; the cherry tomatoes are eaten before they get to the kitchen. We eat pickled beans and beets in winter.

Our garden is a rarity in the history of the world; if it fails, we go won’t starve. When we imagine Paradise, we are the royalty; we are not the hungry slaves cranking water from the Tigris up the steep slopes of the Hanging Gardens.

Did the Garden of Eden exist? What grew there? How did Adam and Eve spend their time if not weeding?

 If it did exist, it is a rubble of rock buried in desert now. What matters is the Garden those writers passed down to us. The longing for the beauty and harmony that was snatched from us. And that its loss was somehow our fault. The only thing that Adam and Eve had to do in the Garden was NOT eat an apple.  That’s like saying, “Don’t think of an elephant.” What a set up!  The odds were against us from the beginning.

We inherited the sense of its loss, and the hope of reclaiming that harmony. So we dig and plant, weed until our fingers hurt.  Because the Garden is here somewhere, if only we had eyes to see.

Despair is a Funny Thing

I once had a tee-shirt that read, “Boredom is an interesting thing.” A new one is in order: “Being down-in-the-dumps is a funny thing.”

Why? I just finished listening to “The Confederate in the Attic,” a disheartening book about the legacy of the Civil War in the U.S.  Now I’ve started chapter two of Bill McCabe’s “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.” Its conclusion: global warming is now irreversible. And I have a toothache, and I’ve pickled too many beans.

            Buddhist practice advises us to watch the constant change of one’s own emotions. On a car trip to Connecticut, I listened to a CD by Mary Chapin Carpenter.  When she sang a sad song, I felt sad. When she sang a wistful one, I felt wistful, etc., etc. For an hour, Mary Chapin was in complete control of my emotional life. And I don’t even know her!

I live with someone who tells stories that make me cry from laughing so hard. The same night I’m convinced that she’s Satan because she’s vacuuming at 11 p.m.

At this moment, the end of the natural world as we’ve known it (McKibbon) and another bag of beans awaiting pickling are bringing me down. The sun is shining in the south windows and this afternoon we’ll finish painting the barn doors, so I feel a faint stirring of cheer. Who’s in charge here? Bill McKibbon? String beans? The sun?

The point of observing my emotions is to make me see the never-ending change of all things. And to begin to enjoy the ride. I have emotions, but I am not my emotions. We are bigger than just our emotions, so there’s no need to get attached to them. Just realizing that is enough to start to lift the doldrums.

This practice is considered to be the ability of the Buddhist practitioner of “ordinary capacity.” A practitioner of “great capacity” will look deeply at the essence of an emotion, realize its true nature and unlock the wisdom within it.

“ It is like placing a tiny spark into a heap of dry hay: it will immediately burst into flames and be completely destroyed. Although the original spark is tiny, it can burn away any amount of hay. Similarly, just one tiny spark of wisdom can burn away completely all the mind’s confusion and the emotions associated with it, until all that is left in the mind is ultimate reality.” (Lama Gendyn Rinpoche)

Jesus put it in a more prosaic way: When someone hits you, turn the other cheek. He’s advising us not to react, not become attached to anger and resentment. Not to let them own us.

We turn away in order to see and experience those emotions’ true power on ourselves. Turning the other cheek must be the most difficult and most illuminating of Christian practices.  We can interpret it as “doormat” submission, or as denying our emotions, or as an excuse not to act for justice. If we don’t take his advice as a wisdom practice, we may miss the point.

No pickled bean has smacked me in the face…yet. It just feels that way.  So the advice is the same. Being of exceedingly “ordinary capacity,” I watch the play of emotions with curiosity. I see that despair, annoyance, physical pain can lead to ultimate wisdom, but I’ve a ways to go before fully stretching out to my fullest Buddhist and Christian capacity.

Excuse me, I’ve got to go call the dentist now.

The New Color-Coded Bibles: Just for You!

In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare’s  Antonio warns us, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”  That puts reading the Bible into the danger zone. The Catholic Church of my youth took the warning seriously and simply forbade the faithful from reading it. (I suspect because there is too much sex.) The Bible is a thick, complicated and contradictory book, on occasion offering questionable advice, i.e. wives should be subject to their husbands.

Thanks to the Avery Dennison Corporation, inventor of “Hi-Liter”, we are now in the age of the “highlighted Bible.”  No need to struggle with all those contradictions, just don’t highlight them.

 We can now choose a Bible highlighted by people we agree with and skip all those inconvenient passages. We do not have to read or wrestle with anything we don’t like, thank God.

For instance, I gravitated toward The Poverty and Justice Bible.  On the cover is the face of a child and a broken chain. Here’s what the marketing says:

poverty bibblThe publishers of the Poverty and Justice Bible went looking and highlighted almost 3,000 verses in the scriptures to show that God has something to say about injustice and oppression. With bright orange highlighting, a quick glance is all you need to see that God cares about the poor a lot.”

Good thing the highlighting is bright orange, I might have missed them. And I only need to commit to a quick glance to convince myself that God cares about the poor “a lot.”

 I flipped through The Green Bible. It is ecologically correct, and here is the reason to buy it:

green-bible “The Green Bible will equip and encourage people to see God’s vision for creation and help them engage in the work of healing and sustaining it. With over 1,000 references to the earth in the Bible, compared to 490 references to heaven and 530 references to love, the Bible carries a powerful message for the earth.”

  Guess what color ink for the favored passages?

 Three thousand references for poverty and justice and only one thousand for the earth. Poverty wins  by two thousand! Love loses; heaven comes in last.                  

amer patriots My personal favorite is The American Patriot’s Bible. It has the most eye-catching and colorful cover: the American flag waving, the founding fathers signing something, the Washington Monument. The publishers of this Bible are the most ambitious of all. This one proves that the Bible is actually the story of America. This one isn’t actually highlighted. In columns next to the text, the story of America is told, beginning with Adam.

“The American Patriot’s Bible reveals how God has been and will continue to be a part of this great nation.”   -Ralph Reed

This helpful trend is not limited to print. According some websites, Adam was white. Not satisfied that God was clear enough on this point, someone added a passage to Genesis stating that Adam was indeed white.  Unfortunately, highlighting in white makes the words invisible, so it may not make it to the bookshelves.

            Our town had a littering problem recently. Supremely white people threw what is politely called literature  on lawns. Those anti-Semites really know how to make a mess. My English-language classes were reading two books at the time: a  biography of Anne Frank and one about Rosa Parks.  In my head that week, anger and hope wrestled with each other, like they do in the Bible.

This may catch on. I like the idea of Moby Dick highlighted. With a few swipes of a blue highlighter, we could have The Fisherman’s Moby Dick: a short guide to catching the big one.  The possibilities are endless.

Right now I can see Dorothy Day and Jerry Falwell fighting over a highlighter in the afterlife.  Whichever one wins gets into heaven.