In Genesis 15 we meet up with an aging man riddled with anxiety about what kind of legacy he is, or is not, leaving in the world. Abram has been the recipient of a divine promise, an impossible promise – that he, an old man, and his wife, an old woman, will be the father and mother of a great nation, a great people who will be a blessing to all creation. But they have no children, and they’re getting along in years. The Lord says to Abram, “Do not be afraid.” Abram says to the Lord, “O Lord, what will you give me, for I continue childless.” Abram is wrestling with the limits of his faith, the limits of his body, the reality of his own mortality.
This is not unlike a conversation I had this summer toward the end of the Sabbatical. I was the speaker at a weekend retreat for St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship, on the theme of healthy sexuality, drawing from the resources and talks that were developed here for last year’s Sextember series. After talking about the importance of overcoming the dualism of body and spirit and seeing ourselves as a unified whole, celebrating who we are as spirited bodies, sexual beings, I was approached by one of the older members of the congregation. He told me that he had been doing a lot of thinking recently about his relationship with his body. His aging body. A spirited body, yes, but a body he was well aware was not going to last forever.
This is not unlike what a friend from seminary is experiencing these days. Heidi-Siemens Rhodes is one of the pastors of Assembly Mennonite Church is Goshen, Indiana and was recently diagnosed with uncurable cancer which has metastasized in several parts of her body. She is 37 years old. She and her husband have three young sons. This is what she wrote on a Caring Bridge journal entry several weeks ago, which she titled, “Waking up Angry.” Just for clarification, the boys that she names are two of her sons. And she writes a line in German which I am sure to butcher. She writes:
“This morning I woke up at 5:24 a.m. (thank you Jesus–needed to take a steroid pill between 5 and 6) after a good night of deep rest (again, gratitude). Last night I was much more restless. After a teeny pill, a small slice of cold pizza to settle it in my stomach, and some water, I climbed back up to bed. My mistake came in peeking in on Adam and Theo, sleeping so peacefully. I hit the bed with my heart heavy and gut roiling–what of this is fair? Das Leben ist so kurz, und wir sind so lange Tot. Life is so short and we’re dead for so long… The tears roll this morning, fast and hot. This is where I need to be right now. No, my friends, I am not resigned. But as they say in one of the silly, over-the-top peasant scenes in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, our laughter therapy last night, “I’m not dead [yet].” (from Sept 25th entry at http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/heidisiemensrhodes/journal )
Jesus once told a parable which has come to take on the title, “The Rich Fool” (Luke 12:13-21). The parable is about a landowner who had abundant crops. He decided to take down his current barns and build bigger ones in order to be able to store all of his crops and goods. But, unbeknownst to him, his life would end that very night. The man is called a fool. Wendell Berry has made the observation that this man’s problem is that “he is prepared for a future in which he will be prosperous, not for one in which he will be dead” (“Two Economies” essay in What Matters? p. 120). And for those of you who are counting, Yes, that is three services in a row in which Wendell Berry has been quoted. We’ll try and give him a rest next week.
Putting our energy into preparing for a future in which we will be dead might not come off as all that hopeful of an enterprise. For good reason, death is not something we care to think about all that much. It doesn’t have a place in our culture’s narrative of being always on the up-and-up. We keep our focus on youthful looks and we prize youthful energy. Death certainly isn’t sexy. But most of all, perhaps, we just don’t know what to do with it, except avoid it at all costs.
These past three weeks you’ve given me the chance to give reflections from Sabbatical learnings – from experiences and thoughts, from having my hands in the dirt and having my nose in books. It’s hard to avoid death on a farm. With plants and animals dying into each other on a daily basis. With topsoil being the arena of constant death and resurrection. Tomatoes sprouting, growing, and dying within tomato cages made by my Grandpa Lehman, who is dead, yet alive in God and in our hearts in ways I don’t pretend to understand.
A significant part of my readings from the summer was attempting to get a bigger picture of this grand cosmic narrative in which we find ourselves. One of the discoveries, which relates to the Abraham text and to the ever present reality of our mortality, has to do with stars. So I’d like to offer somewhat of a thought experiment of how we might begin to think more fully about living alongside our own death as a friend, as a teacher, even as a significant part of our gift to the world, one of God’s ways of being glorified through our being.
When aging and fearful Abram encounters God, voicing his anxiety about having no future through physical offspring, God takes Abram stargazing, telling him his offspring will be as numerous as the stars. Abram looks up at the stars, tries to count them, no doubt loses track of the enormity of what he is seeing, and, as the text says, a statement that becomes a cornerstone of New Testament teaching about the centrality of faith, “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
Stars, for the most part, are nothing but big clumps of hydrogen. This is the most simple of elements, with one electron and proton, produced, scientists believe, very early on in the original flaring forth of the universe, when energy cooled into matter, at the beginning of time. As the universe continued to expand and cool, the scattered hydrogen atoms began to congregate together, drawn to each other by the force of gravity. Stars are various congregations of hydrogen atoms, which makes each star something of a church, a gathered body, giving glory to God. As hydrogen atoms are drawn to the gravitational center of a star, they get closer together and heat up. When they get hot enough, something new happens. Fusion. The congregation of atoms becomes a place where new elemental forces are created. Hydogen atoms fuse together to create Helium, which has two electons and protons, and, in the process light energy is given off. This is what our sun is doing as we speak, what it has been doing for the last 4.5 billion years, and what it will continue to do for the next several billion years. Our star does not, cannot, hoard its wealth. The hydrogen is giving itself away, and in its dying it provides energy which is the life of our planet. When all of the hydrogen is used up, if a star is big enough, the helium will then begin to fuse together to form higher elements – including carbon and oxygen, some of the building blocks of life. It will create the elements all the way up to Iron and nickel, all the way up to 26 and 28 electrons and protons together in one atom. But these elements don’t fuse, won’t play along in that chain reaction game, have their own creative plans in mind. As iron and nickel build up in the core of a large star, the center gets heavier and heavier, and hotter and hotter as lower elements keep fusing together. Eventually, it crosses a tipping point of weight and heat and the star collapses in on itself, then explodes in its final gift to the universe. The death of a large star is a supernova, which, in its great heat, creates the higher elements that can’t be created within the regular progression of fusion. And, in its glorious death throes, it scatters these gifts to the universe which become available for other creations. The entire periodic table has a story, has a birth place. All of the higher elements are created in each Community Church of Hydrogen Fellowship, gifted to the world. The number of these fellowships, stars, is billions upon billions more than would have been visible for Abram to count with his eye.
These are the elements that make up our earth, make up our atmosphere, make up our very bodies, the food that we put in our bodies, the clothes and jewelry we put on our bodies. What this means is that the atoms of our body were once stars. You and I are made out of the stuff of stars. The gold or silver in the ring on your finger was forged in the supernova of a distant star. This is not spiritual mysticism. This is hard science, as best science is able to discern the story so far, (which, interestingly enough, the more you get into it, the more it starts sounding like spiritual mysticism). Apparently there’s a joke among cosmologists that optimists believe we are made of star dust, and pessimists believe we are made of the nuclear waste of stars. Same way of saying the same thing. Either way, the atoms of our bodies, these aging, fragile bodies, are a gift from the stars, made possible by their giving themselves away.
So, in the Abram story, we have the remarkable situation of a man longing for descendants to come from his body, looking at the heavenly bodies whose very descendant he is. God takes him outside to show him his ancestors, and promises him that he himself will someday be an ancestor, whom others will look upon, like we are doing today.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggmann, when he speaks to liberal audiences, has said on a number of occasions, tongue in cheek, that the promises in the Bible are so wonderful that it’s too bad we don’t really believe them anymore. Liberal people who accept the findings of science have a difficult time reconciling these truths with biblical text, those texts that tell of God making promises to people, and, us, being no exception.
I wonder if revisiting the idea of God’s promises through the story of the stars, might offer us a fresh way of accepting the promises of God for our future and in relation to living with our personal death as an ever present reality. Might we see inside the life of a star a promise, a seed of possibility for offspring and descendants beyond number? From the star’s perspective, it would be hard to believe what could come out its life and death, burning hot and flaring out, unable to see the results of its own life. But here we are, a fulfillment of that promise, the offspring of the stars. And what leads us to believe that our offspring, our legacy, our enduring gift to the universe, will be any more predictable than this? We don’t know the purpose or effects of our own life and death, don’t know what all will come out it, but can there not also be within us, just as within Abram, a divine promise, that the fragments of our lives that go out from us will be gathered together into a new creation? This happens through our physical bodies and offspring, but what also of the stuff of our souls? Might our faith be that presence within us of a burning core, allowing ourselves to burn hot enough for God to make within us new creations that then become available as gifts to the world. This is, after all, how the New Testament interprets the real gift of Abraham to the world, the way that we become his descendants. Not because of a direct blood line through his body, but by faith, that transformative process that happens within.
In order for fusion to happen, a star must cross a threshold of generating enough heat to kickstart the process. We in this congregation draw closer to one another and burn hot enough to start such a process in our midst when we are rushing together toward the gravitional center of love, of the Christ. As we do this we become a creative expression of the very energy of God, and our gifts are generously scattered about for the good of the world. If we do not do this, we will just coolly co-existence without a whole lot of sparks.
And might we not imagine the life and death of Jesus as being something of a spiritual supernova? Through the way of love that he lived, and through the cross, there is also a resurrection, an explosion of spiritual energy not previously seen in creation, now making available in the cosmos these dynamic and weighty elements of love and forgiveness and abundant life previously uncreated?
At this point, one of my best answers to the gentleman from St. Louis is to suggest that growing old carries with it an invitation to walk down a mystical path. To begin to see one’s body as being more than just the collection of atoms that happen to currently constitute one’s body, and happen to be more and more a source of increasing aches and pains and failures. To begin to recognize one’s body as being a much larger part of communion with creation. In a literal physical way our bodies come to us from the earth, from the air, from the animals and plants, and from the stars. Over the course of one’s life, as more and more atoms cycle through our bodies and are replaced with other atoms, more and more of what has been our body is out there around us, and so old age can lend itself to accepting our bodies as more than just the current arrangement of matter that we are. Our bodies can be found as a part of other bodies, near and far.
And for my friend Heidi, I’m still working on a best answer. Part of it is to mourn with her and her family and to try to join her in gratitude for each day. And to watch and listen as her faith becomes a furnace within her generating elements of love, hope, patience, and joy, and flinging them out into the world for everyone to take into their own lives. And to pray that she can live as full and long a life as she is able. And to trust that the deep mystery which is her being, her soul, is held lovingly within the eternal promises of God, something that no cancer has any power over.