Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 † Psalm 25:1-9 † Philippians 2:1-13 † Matthew 21:23-32
Some of the most striking painted rock art in the world is found in the sea caves of Norway’s western coastline. They are located in wild, remote, Arctic areas where peaks plunge into the ocean, hammered by ice and wave actions over millennia.
There are twelve such painted caves, containing around 170 simple stick figures, arms and legs stretched wide as if they are dancing or leaping. These are different that the far more common petroglyphs which have been carved into rock here and throughout the world by the ancients. These are paintings, made using iron oxide pigment, daubed using fingers or brushes some two to three thousand years ago by Bronze Age hunter-gatherer-fisher people who made their lives along an isolated coastline. The art that they made was preserved in remote caves in wild places.
One of the most remote of these painted caves is called Kollhellaren. It is found near the western tip of the Lofoten archipelago, an island chain that extends 100 miles into the Norwegian ocean at 68 degrees latitude. The British author Robert MacFarlane describes his journey there in the dead of winter in his book Underland.[i] Kollhellaren can be reached by one of two ways—either on foot over the Lofoten Wall, a ridge of peaks running down the center of the island chain that can be traversed in winter only by way of a few treacherous passes.
The other way is by boat, rounding the tip of the archipelago and navigating the notorious Moskstraumen, one of the strongest whirlpool systems in the world.[ii] Although he never saw it, Edgar Allen Poe wrote his 1841 short story “A Descent into the Maelstrom” with this at its center. Poe imagined the whirlpool as a portal leading to the core of the Earth.
MacFarlane notes then, that two entrance points to the underland lie close by each other: “a mouth of rock and a mouth of water, locked off by fierce mountains and fierce seas. The ancients who created the art of Kollhellaren more than 2500 years ago took enormous risks just to reach the sites: Before even entering the cave-space, they had to cross powerful landscape thresholds.[iii]
MacFarlane, the good Britt that he is, understands these to be “thin places.” He harkens back to the great naturalistic insights of Celtic Christianity—that these are holy places where heaven and earth meet, where we find a deep connection to our past and are drawn to our future, where time itself collapses.
As he makes his way deep into the cave and finds himself before these ancient figures and in communion with the painters who risked their lives amidst harsh conditions and uncertain survival to let their art dance, MacFarlane notes this:[iv]
And it caught my attention, that it is not only real estate that is thin and fragile and even holy, but time itself. Epochs, as MacFarlane notes, or moments in time on which history turns.
We are, I suspect in a thin moment, a holy moment, a hinge period. The Catholic priest Richard Rohr woke up last Saturday with a heavy heart and a sense of urgency, I suspect, with the same idea. “Every day more and more people are facing the catastrophe of extreme weather,” he wrote:
The neurotic news cycle is increasingly driven by a single narcissistic leader whose words and deeds incite hatred, sow discord, and amplify the daily chaos. The pandemic that seems to be returning in waves continues to wreak suffering and disorder with no end in sight, and there is no guarantee of the future in an economy designed to protect the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and those subsisting at the margins of society.[v]
The moment is thin, and the truth of the moment is becoming harder and harder to unsee. As much as we would prefer to think otherwise, it is clear that our culture values white lives more than black and brown. Our mental and emotional health is in decline. We have “abandoned any sense of truth, objectivity, science or religion in civil conversation.”[vi]
So his intent is pastoral, and a good word for us today. We must curate these moments and our life within them carefully. He recalls the urgent wisdom of Etty Hillesum, the Dutch author who was exterminated in Auschwitz. We cannot equate our time with hers, but perhaps we can draw on her deep wisdom that in thin, apocalyptic moments it is all the more important to live not only purposefully, but sustainably—to “safeguard that little piece” of God in ourselves. To preserve it, and by doing so, preserve ourselves and this wild, holy, beautiful world.
Or, as Ezekiel tells us: “Get yourself a new spirit.”[vii]
Perhaps in doing so, we can more readily remember that this faith of ours is not easily fooled. Jesus seems fully aware that the priorities and values the religious leaders claim are not the ones they actually allow to lead them. He is fully aware of their hunger for power and privilege, and how that so shapes their choices. His question reveals the trap it holds. Then the parable.
True to form in Jesus’ parable it was not the upstanding and honored who entered the Kingdom first, it was the tax collectors and prostitutes with a new heart and a new spirit, who believed, who were the ones who followed the way of righteousness. It was and it is those who seek to live consistently according to the values of their religious tradition, the faith Jesus both proclaimed and modeled.
These are what hold us in and out of season. This deep memory asserts that the world, in its most concrete form, is open to healing and transformation by the power of God.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing has helped me to hold onto this hope—even amidst the maelstrom of politics that has threatened to inundate her memory. She lived a life that rang true to her beliefs. She continued to press on, to “leave tracks” even as the system was pressed against her at nearly every turn.
Some of the wisdom that shines through for me has to do with safeguarding that little piece of God within each of us. Perhaps one of the more famous quotes from Ginsburg is one that, I suspect, inspires most of us at some level:
So hold fast to your dreams, and work hard to make them a reality. And as you pursue your paths in life, leave tracks. Just as others have been way pavers for you, so you should aid those who will follow in your way. [viii]
Justice Ginsburg made those remarks in 2002 in her Baccalaureate address to Brown University graduates. It is good to note, though, that this was near the end of a long list of advice. There was, in fact, another that caught my eye at the top of her address. She credited her mother-in-law who gave it to her on her wedding day.
In every good marriage … it helps, sometimes, to be a little hard of hearing. I have followed that good counsel – with only occasional lapses – not only at home in a marriage soon to begin its forty-ninth year, but in places I have worked, even now, in relations to my colleagues at the Supreme Court. It is important to be a good listener if you are to work with others effectively, but it also pays, sometimes, not to hear – to tune out – when angry, unkind or thoughtless words are spoken.
In this age of daily, if not hourly aggressions and offenses, this may be even more important advice to heed if we are to find sustenance in these thin times.
Ginsburg ended those 2002 Baccalaureate remarks in a way that seems especially fitting to me on this Sunday. Yom Kippur begins this evening several minutes before sunset for our Jewish siblings. Just months after being delivered from Egypt, the Israelites turned away from God and toward a golden calf for hope when Moses’ return was delayed. The day Moses came down from the mountain has since been known as the Day of Atonement, 26 hours of fasting, prayer and forgiveness.
On Yom Kippur Eve, the start of the Day of Atonement, when Jews pray to be entered in the Book of Life for the coming year, Ginsburg told the Brown graduates that these lines are recited in some synagogues:
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps, to wisdom...
So hold on, dear children of God. Safeguard that little piece of God in you. Look beyond the moment to the deep time in which God faithfully dwells, trusting the power of the Gospel and our living into it to mend the world.
[i] Macfarlane, Robert. Underland: A Deep Time Journey. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Drone video images taken from https://youtu.be/9GUyQIS1PKw.
[iii] Macfarlane, Robert. Underland: A Deep Time Journey (p. 256). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Macfarlane, Robert. Underland: A Deep Time Journey (pp. 269-270). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
[v] Richard Rohr. “Some simple but urgent guidance to get us through these next months.” Emailed newsletter written on September 19, 2020.
[vii] Ezekiel 18:31.
[viii] Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Baccalaureate address by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg” Brown University News Service, May 226, 2002. Retrieved on September 22, 2020 from: https://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/2001-02/01-142t.html#:~:text=So%20hold%20fast%20to%20your,will%20follow%20in%20your%20way..
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