Lightning split the sky open in a long streak of white, and thunder echoed like the whole earth cracked within its depths. My brother and I stood outside to watch as rain pattered against our hoods and soaked through our shoes.
At the end of the storm, a cloud drifted across the shining street and above the house, moving with speed and glowing orange and white and silver tones. It looked like it was painted with curved brush strokes. It looked so close we could touch it, but even if we could ever reach so high, we would touch only particles of water. We could never grab hold.
I thought of the story in Exodus of God going before Israel as a pillar of cloud in the wilderness. Is this how he seemed to them, so close but so out of reach? So breathtaking, yet completely unknown?
Kathleen Norris says in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith that the Hebrew word for “salvation” means literally “to make wide” or “to make sufficient.” She tells the story of a friend on a destructive path who got out; he “recognized that the road he had taken was not wide enough to sustain his life; it was sufficient only as a way leading to death.”
I went to a small group this week where the theme was Christ as Victor. We talked about the meaning of the resurrection, and it was said that death was not a part of God’s plan, and I wondered. Death is a subject that has been on my mind this summer. I read Annie Dillard and was reminded how rampant death is in nature, and I’m not entirely sure it’s a bad thing. Our skin cells are dying every second to keep us new. Death in the earth makes fertile ground, so plants and trees can thrive. This itself seems to me a sort of rebirth.
Genesis does not read as a scientific account to me, so I’ve wondered what Eden might mean in light of what is known about our planet’s history, the billions of years of life and death and more life. In the story itself, the death promised to Adam and Eve is not a literal one. God says in the day they eat of the fruit of the tree, they shall surely die, but they don’t die. Not physically, for many years. What change might sin have wrought upon the world? What could be the meaning of death without sin?
Perhaps I am losing my more fundamentalist readers who believe Genesis is a literal account and I am ignoring God’s clearly written word. I would say to you only that I love the story of Eden. I think it is beautiful and true, but I think truth comes in different forms. We could have a long discussion about the genre of our oldest scriptures, about truth and myth, but that’s not what this post is about.
Sometimes I find the Bible incredibly unsatisfying. I am reading the parts of the Israelite history I don’t know very well, and to be honest, they’re parts of the Bible I usually try to avoid. The God of the Old Testament seems so often fierce and unforgiving. Last week I read Joshua and cried for Achan’s and his household, the women and children all stoned to death for this one man’s sin. And so many people of Canaan similarly struck down with swords. No prisoners allowed– total destruction in the name of the Lord.
Theologians offer explanations for this violence. The people destroyed by Israel were corrupt, they say. We all deserve the same death, they say. If we’ve forgotten that, we’ve forgotten the gospel.
I can’t argue with them, but I’m still uneasy. It doesn’t seem like God gives everyone the same chance. How can people be held responsible for the cultures they are born in, for the things they are raised to believe?
In church today, I got a little teary-eyed over Pontius Pilate.
Sometimes I think I am the weirdest Christian ever. Most of the time I think I am the worst Christian ever because I don’t feel excited about God very often and I doubt a lot of things and don’t feel like I love Jesus like I should.
Instead I worry and sometimes cry about long-dead people.
Pilate didn’t want to kill Jesus. He wanted to wash his hands of the whole matter, and then he was just trying to not be killed by the Roman Emperor, and I don’t know if I would have done any different in his place. I find that heartbreaking.