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An excerpt from the Circuit Rider review: "This is a helpful little book. Clergy and laity will find in it much to consider. In a highly consumerist culture, there is a great deal to examine as persons ask questions about what constitutes having 'enough': How much is enough? How do we find rest and peace for anxious hearts? How do we discover a depth of being in a society always bent on 'doing' and 'having' more? For persons who are searching and exploring what the next step in the journey of faith is, this book will provide an instructive pathway to growth by someone who has also "been there and done that." And what they will receive is not an indicting finger but a gentle and persuasive hand." (Click here to read the entire review.)
The Modesty of God
And God saw that it was good.
Don't you find it curious that in the entire creation account in the book of Genesis there's not a single exclamation point? No "Heavens to Betsy!" No "Have a look at this!" Not even a "Glory be!" It goes without saying that the creation account is a story of epic size and scope, drama and dimension, in which light is wrested from darkness, the sun and moon hurled into their everlasting orbits, living things brought forth from earth and sea at the very mention of their names, the great waters shoved back from the land and held spellbound, and, of course, the human creature drafted and crafted from God's very image, mere mud being the medium. Yet in all of this astonishing activity not a syllable of superlative language makes it onto the page.
The closest these accounts in Genesis come to exclamatory speech is—are you ready?—"And God saw that it was good." That's it. Once, in what we can only imagine was a flourish of unchecked enthusiasm, the narrative gives us slightly more: God saw everything that God had made, "and indeed, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31, even the emphasis is mine). We're talking about the making of the universe here, the very origination of who we and the world are, the biggest event history has ever been privy to, and the best God can do is "good" and "very good"? This we could call understatement of divine proportions.
I'm sure you can think of a moment in the creation event you believe might have called for at least a little hoopla, a place where the powers that be might have placed an exclamation point or two—a "totally awesome!" or an "utterly amazing!"— without being accused of getting carried away. What would be your choice? Making the light? Suspending the sun? Fashioning the human creature? Any of these could easily qualify as marquee material. What we get instead is plain print on pastel parchment, posted not under the lights but on the shelf, all matter and no mirth.
Maybe the scribe was low on ink, rationing it for essentials, or reserving exclamatory speech for the possibility of something really big happening later. Perhaps the story had been handled so many countless times, generation to generation, that by the time it was finally put to print it had lost some of its original language of luster and pizzazz, the way the marble feet of a statuary saint are worn away by countless years of kisses.
Or maybe there's something else involved. The creation story might be told in such dramatically undramatic speech partly as a means of showing the reader a way of viewing not only the world and ourselves within it—two things we'll have time to talk about later—but something more: a way of thinking about God, and about the way God thinks.
In these earliest verses of the Bible is a God who is portrayed not as super-Herculean, just suitably capable; not as hyperheroic, but creative; not as melodramatic, but merely attentive. God is not lionized, but simply recognized, accounted for, presented right in with everything else, all without a great deal of flourish. Furthermore, the creating this God does is conceived not by flashing wand or rolling chariot, magic incantation or angelic host; creation is conceived by something far more pedestrian: mere words—the same garden-variety tools available to every babbling child and raving lunatic, every highway billboard and cable infomercial, every starving poet and dime-store novelist.
What I'm suggesting is this: the way we are given the creation account is modest—it is modestly executed (with few words), modestly appraised (with fewer words), and modestly recalled (with a few more words). It's the plainspoken recounting of a good day's work, six times over. What it seems to reveal, among other things, and perhaps more than any other thing, is a certain modesty on the part of God, who is seen here employing mere language to make something out of nothing, without benefit—or more to the point, without need—of either fawning audience or flexing ego, fanfare introductions as it all begins or flaunting accolades when it's all wrapped up. In the tradition of a good utility player, God just gets in there, rolls up the old sleeves, and does the job. Furthermore, once all is said and done, God takes a breather. Now I ask you—did Hercules ever take a breather? This is a modest God if we've ever seen one.
For whatever assortment of reasons, we clamor at times for God to be great, awesome, supreme, omniscient, omnipotent, and a host of other superlative things besides. We can describe this as the need for what Peter Berger once called a "sacred canopy," a way of understanding God that feels safe, strong, and unshakably sturdy. We know, of course, that God can, in some form or fashion, express many superlative attributes— God is often described as great (Psalm 145), mighty (Psalm 50), wonderful and magnificent (Isaiah 28:29), and powerful (Revelation 11:17). But as seems also to be true with people, the God we come to relate to the most transparently and trust the most deeply is not the God whose name we are likely to see in the marquee lights by virtue of being fabulous, stupendous, spectacular, incredible, or totally awesome, but the God who is simply—to borrow a word from the early pages of the GoodBook—good. Safe, strong, and sturdy is the sacred canopy spread over us by ordinary trustworthiness and love.
Where does that leave us? Perhaps with a slightly different perspective not only on God but also on those said to have been created in God's image, namely, us. If there is a sense in which God can be understood as modest rather than grandiose in character, then our own self-understanding may bear similar reflection. In the chapter just ahead, we'll explore that idea in greater depth. Once again, the trusty book of Genesis will be on hand to help us with that enterprise, painting a picture of a place that includes some surprisingly modest features and yet, curiously, still goes by the name of "paradise."CHAPTER 2
Paradise in the Balance
I've got two tickets to paradise. Won't you pack your bags—we'll leave tonight.
When you hear the word paradise, what comes to mind? Don't we usually think of our ideal vacation—or something like it—palm trees, soft breeze, wine and cheese, endless ease? There may be a chaise lounge in the picture, white sands, perhaps an occasional dip in the crystal-clear waters of the gentle surf, the requisite spa experience, and, of course, an abundance of delectable cuisine. Our favorite people are all there—and in the best of humor. Days and nights are filled with laughter, leisure, and relaxation. Everything is picture-perfect. Ah, paradise!
You'll think I'm crazy, but I've got a question: Is there work in your picture of paradise? Let me rush to my own defense: the question wasn't my idea. Paradise is where you don't work—that's the whole point, right? If we think of paradise as a glorified vacation, well, what is a vacation but getting away—emphasis on the word away— from work? Any mention of the w-word in the context of the paradise described above is likely to get a person scowled right off the beach.
As soon as you're done scowling, listen to this: the garden of-Eden, the place from which we draw our images of the original "paradise," is more about work than pleasure. That's right—there's a time clock in paradise and punch cards. In both creation stories (Genesis 1:28-31; 2:15-22), we are given the idea right from the get-go that work is central to the human creature's idyllic existence. I'm not talking about the "punishment phase" after that little mishap with the serpent. I mean before that, when, as Browning put it, God was in heaven, and all was right with the world. Words about work are sewn into these earliest narratives like buttons on a jacket: "God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion ...'" (Genesis 1:28). "The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15).
That second "paradise" picture almost gives us the idea that we were created with a job in mind! Just earlier in this narrative, before our kind ever appeared on the scene, the humans' advent is anticipated as those who will eventually be on hand "to till the ground" (2:5). Imagine the divine logic: "Hmmm, all these nice things I've created—fruit trees, lovely grasses, flowers, shrubs. They're definitely going to need some looking after—watering, weeding, pruning. I think I'll fashion a creature who can take care of this place. Let's see, something with an eye for beauty and a strong back."
Some paradise! Till and tend; be fruitful and multiply. Work a lot; play a little. That sounds more like real life than paradise! And yet that pattern, or rhythm, is precisely what we find in the first paradise called the garden of Eden: a balance between labor and leisure, effort and ease. What that picture seems to tell us, among other things, is that, to borrow a popular idiom, it's not all about us. We were created not to be indulged and pampered as though we were baby royalty who were plopped down one day into the very lap of the universe, complete with instructions for our care and feeding. Instead, the care and feeding instructions come to us, to wit: Make yourselves useful; oh, yes, and while you're at it, you're free to enjoy both the fruits of your labors and those of the naturally occurring variety. So have at it—get your hands dirty and glory in the good earth that gets them so.
Didn't God also have us in mind in the creating task? I know the psalms say we are the apple of God's eye, but surely creation wasn't all about fruits and vegetables with us as an add-on. Of course it wasn't—we're a unique part of the labyrinth of the created order. It's just that all by ourselves we would make a fairly unimpressive cornucopia. As Madeleine L'Engle puts it in Glimpses of Grace, we are "portion, not pinnacle" of creation. To begin with, we weren't the first thing out of the chute. Things were beautiful and good even before we existed. Secondly, once we showed up, there were limbs to be pruned, and seeing as how the tree frogs didn't come with opposable digits, that left ours truly to operate the lopping shears. If we are cherished by God, we are also charged by God. We may be the apple of God's eye, but the other fruit varieties still need tending.
Genesis, then, gives us a rather different picture of paradise than the one we tend to carry around in our mind's eye. If the Good Book is our guide, then the good life is a life in which we are not only provided for but also providing for—and not necessarily in that order. Paradise appears to be found in the balancing of work and pleasure, others and self, obligation and leisure, belonging and freedom; which is where the notion of modesty comes in. One of the meanings of the word modesty is "middle." Modesty is a characteristic, or way of life, which would situate us in the middle, between extremes of all work or all leisure. This is just where the first human pair found themselves: not enslaved but not pampered, not neglected but not mollycoddled, not underfed but neither spoon-fed, working and resting, tending to other facets of creation yet also feeding themselves, neither heroic nor hedonistic—artfully balanced between the two.
In that artful balance, the story of the first paradise tilts slightly in favor of output over input, rather like the durable saints I mentioned in the introduction—needing little, offering much. There's a line perhaps some of our grandparents used to dish out if we were ever lazing around getting in the way of someone else's work: "Make yourself useful," they would say. It's close to what happens here in Genesis, only with God doing the making and us doing the useful.
We have other options, of course, such as pretending all of this isn't so—that for us, at least, paradise is all about bonbons. We'll see directly just how quickly a cottage industry grew up around that particular fiction. For the time being, however, we should at least agree that the picture of paradise painted in the earliest pages in the Bible is one which foresees at least as many blisters as bonbons.
We'll have a look next at how things turned south—actually, east—from that original modest paradisal arrangement. For that purpose, we turn briefly to the second narrative in Genesis, a story involving a serpent, a man, a woman, and a certain tree known for its low-lying fruit.CHAPTER 3
What We Need Is Here
In America it is difficult to achieve a sense of enough.
I claim to be no expert on the little dalliance recorded in Genesis 3 between two humans and the snake. From what I understand, the episode has to do with good and evil, limits and liabilities, greed, naiveté, and some serious myopia, all more or less played out in a couple of sidewinding conversations. On this one Genesis story countless books have been written, scores of sermons preached, and infinite lectures given, including, in the latter case, of the homespun variety, just before the car keys are handed over or just after they're taken away. As with all the good stories in Scripture, this one reads us like a book, and since it is always more difficult to make sense of ourselves than of somebody else, we tend to hem and haw as to its precise meaning for our lives.
What seems clear enough is that, in something of a dismissal of the proverb, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, Eve and Adam were enticed to the tree in question in part because it promised something more than what they had. And who could blame them for thinking of paradise the same way you and I tend to do; that is, if a little pleasure is good, then more is surely better. Watch this tantalizing logic rise like pastry in the oven: "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that is was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise ..." (Genesis 3:6, emphasis added). With its alluringly luscious language advancing a rather attractive fiction as to how life might be lived, there's one thing we can say for sure: When this series of unfortunate events unfolded, Eve definitely had all her senses about her. Pure pleasure had come to call.
What Eve and Adam soon learn is one of the plainest and yet most elusive of all of life's truths: pure pleasure never is. If we don't learn this axiom from our scholarly studies of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and the girl who would eat nothing but chocolate, or from the early pages of Genesis, we learn it from that other unfailing source of instruction—life itself. Experience teaches us that genuine pleasure always comes in packages in which other items appear higher in the list of ingredients— items such as work, effort, responsibility, reasonableness, self-forgetfulness, and attentiveness to others. As with curry powder or habanero sauce, a small amount of pleasure goes a long way.
Just as true and doubly odd is that inordinate attempts at pleasure usually leave us bereft rather than blissful. Much of what the serpent promised the pair was already theirs, until they reached for more, at which point it all evaporated, and they were left chafing in their fig leaves. Listen for the familiar: "God knows that when you eat of [the tree that is in the middle of the garden] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." Let's take these enticements one at a time. "Eyes opened"? Maybe the serpent was employing poetic license here, but we know the pair can at least see the serpent, and we've already been told that the tree under discussion was a "delight to the eyes." "Like God"? It's already been chronicled that the two were made in God's spitting image— the creation story says so four times over (1:26-27)! "Knowing good and evil"? This one's a little tricky because getting our minds around the meaning of the phrase "good and evil" is about like a dog trying to bite a basketball. In the sense that the words mean right and wrong, these two are definitely there before the big bite. Eve has already explained right from wrong to the serpent earlier in the conversation: "We may eat" of all these trees. That would be right. "You shall not eat" of one particular tree. This fits into the category known to professional ethicists and little mischief-makers alike as wrong.
To be sure, when the pair went ahead with the taste test their eyes were opened, in a manner of speaking, and a certain sense of good and evil was attained. We might even say they became more like God, in the sense of learning what it means to ache for a world that has squandered its original freedom. In any event, their "acquisitions" were nothing to write home about, for in a single instant the pleasure was all mined. The peak, as it turns out, was in the imagining, not the satisfying, of their interest. Keats said it well: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter."
Excerpted from Longing for enough in a culture of more by Paul L. Escamilla. Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Posted December 10, 2007
One of the best books I've read this year - an inspiring and accessible approach to the spiritual discipline of simplicity. Best yet, this is a book that is still being written as I found myself frequently having to go back and reread because I had become unconciously led into reverie and meditation. Funny, poignant, thought-provoking - a fantastic book!
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