Proper 22A: Poetry, Chimpanzees, and a God Not Hidden

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As you know, I like poetry.

I write poetry,
and I have some published poems.
But I am a hack –
a poet-wannabe that will never achieve
the exquisiteness of language
rendered by some of the poets I love most:
Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton, or Li-Young Lee.

The ceiling on my abilities
is limited by how little I understand about language,
even the language I speak.
I know enough to be amazed by such poets
but not enough to write like that myself.

Therefore, I marvel all the more at Isaiah.

Two thousand, six hundred years ago, in Hebrew,
Isaiah wrote exquisite poetry
with an elegance I can only stutter over.

Check it out.
In Hebrew, a language I do not speak or read by the way,
one of the words for justice, is “mishpat.”

A very similar word to mishpat can mean bloodshed.
It is almost the same, but it is mishpach:
m-i-sh-p-a-ch (“k” sound instead of a “t” at the end).
Mish-pat and mish-pach.

Likewise, a word for righteousness
and a word that means, to cry
are almost the same.
Righteousness is “tsedeqah.”

But a word meaning, a cry,”
is tse’ahqah.
(“ah” in the middle instead of “de” in the middle).

The point is, Isaiah
is playing with similar sounding words
that have poignantly different meanings.
His poem says:
God expected mishpat but saw mishpak,
and God expected tse-de-quah but heard tse-ah-quah.

In English: God expected justice but saw bloodshed,
and anticipated righteousness but heard cries

I once read an article about Jane Goodall –
I have long since forgotten where I read it,
but it described her thirty-year study of chimpanzees.
Her research, of course, is legendary
and had a broad focus.
But this particular article was about the history of events
taking place in a community of chimps
that she observed for three generations.

To bring her study closer to home,
her observation of a particular chimp colony of over time,
would be like someone observing the city of Geneva
for sixty years, and noting what took place
within and among a given neighborhood.

In Goodall’s study, she gives names to each chimp
and identifies each one’s role in the community,
and evocatively describes each one’s death.

Beginning in 1960, Goodall describes
an idyllic community of interdependence
where communal affection and parenting is commonplace,
and care for the aged intentional and well-developed.

Then something changed.

I do not remember if she even knew the cause or not,
but suddenly a war broke out among the chimpanzees.
It was a protracted and bloody war,
with weapons and deadly ambushes and attacks.
The war ended in genocide.

In the end, the conquering group
systematically destroyed every member
of the opposing clan, including infants.
The dead were left for scavengers.

Peace then ensued, for a time.
But then an even more wretched development took place.
The dominant female and her daughter,
began the practice of cannibalism.
Goodall described how the mother/daughter team
would forcibly snatch a newborn from other females,
and eat them.

This new, awful practice of course,
ensured the continuation of only their genetic strain.

The final, sad chapter
of Goodall’s history of twenty-six chimp generations,
was a polio epidemic.
The original community was largely destroyed
and in the end only a few remained.

When I first read this account of war,
and cannibalism
among a species not our own,
I was shocked and dismayed.
I had assumed such carnage was a human dysfunction.
I had always felt that God
was in the frenzied buzzing of bees
and in the undulating chamber of the human heart,
but looking at that chimp story,
I could see atrocities were in there too.
What’s going on?

God expected justice but saw bloodshed,
anticipated righteousness but heard cries

All of that leads us to the gospel of Annie Dillard:
“The surface of mystery is not smooth,
any more than the planet is smooth,
let alone a pine.
Nor does it fit together;
not even the chlorophyll and hemoglobin molecules
is a perfect match…
Certainly nature seems to exult in abounding radicality,
extremism, anarchy.
If we were to judge nature
by its common sense or likelihood,
we wouldn’t believe the world existed.
In nature, improbabilities are the one stock in trade.
The whole creation is one lunatic fringe…”

Oh my goodness, is that so true!
The whole creation is one lunatic fringe!

And yet, we dither around trying to put the pieces together
in some kind of perfect order,
tied into a nice package without a seam,
wrapped with a splendid bow –
as if we can be what no other thing is:
a perfectly smooth life without ruffle or rage.

I remember when my youngest son was in fourth grade,
he had a science project to complete.
I think the assignment was to pick a problem to solve
and provide an original solution.

First of all, please understand
that when I took an aptitude test once,
I scored in the bottom three percent
for mechanical aptitude.
My son, in fourth grade, had already surpassed me.

Anyway, his idea was to make a hanging rod for a closet
that a short person, or someone in a wheelchair,
could lower and use to hang his or her coat up.
I was dutifully impressed with his idea,
and purchased the supplies he thought he needed:
dowel rod, pulleys, and twine.

He finished it and it worked.
I watched him demonstrate it and immediately,
I wanted to show him how to make it look better.
Never mind that it worked just fine.
I began telling him my ideas and as I did,
I noticed that his whole face seemed to glaze over.
It was as if he had said, “You’re making me tired, Dad.”

That is how I imagine God looks at us
when we fret about our obvious imperfections,
or even our gaping failures, for that matter.
God looks bored,
as if to say,
“You’re making me tired,
go look at the lunatic fringe I created.”

I love Annie Dillard’s brilliant understanding:
“If creation had been left up to me,
I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the imagination or courage
to do more than shape a single,
reasonable sized atom, smooth as a snowball,
and let it go at that.”

Oh, so true.
Smooth, clean, and orderly
is an imprint of perfection with which we are obsessed.
Even if we have the creativity and imagination
to mix and match,
and play with color,
chances are we will still be driven
to get it just right.

All of us
have an idea of the way the world is supposed to work;
that our lives are supposed to be lived;
and the way we will know when we have done enough.

We have a tyranny of ideas
imposed upon us from above, and within,
built up over time like dead skin forms a callous.

A tyranny of ideas
about the way we are supposed to look,
about the way we are supposed to act,
about the way we are supposed to think,
about the way we are supposed to succeed.
None of it, I suspect, even comes close
to the rough and peculiar surface of mystery.

Instead we have a mania for management, machinery,
and refinement
rather than the abounding radicality
that is the lunatic fringe we call creation;
that we call God.
In fact, rather than see God through the lens
of creation’s lunacy,
we imagine God as a singular, smoothed out atom.

Blaise Paschal wrote that any religion that does not
affirm God is hidden, is not true.
But God is not hidden by creation:
creation is rather, a sacrament
that reveals God –
that opens up to show us
the hand of the Creator in all its marvelous,
terrifying, incredible, and lunatic elements.

God is hidden, instead,
by our penchant for perfection
and our ideal for smooth, orderly, progression –
or worse, our presumption of God
as wedged into the past,
preserved in our precious temples
and place under the glass of time.

But nothing could be farther from the truth.

God is hidden behind our blinders,
the ones that would have us cast the world
in our own image –
and not even our actual image,
but an idyllic projection of ourselves
we have built up and expanded
into something monstrously dangerous.

It seems to me, that we need to intentionally dismantle
the OZ-God projected in human image
on the big screen of our imagination,
and instead, peer into
the exquisite details, even
beginning with just the surface of the Creation.

If we look upon the atom and molecule
we will see traced the great mystery.

Everything about life –
from drunken chlorophyll soaking up light
to the sucked-dry blemished wrinkles on our own faces –
reveals God,
holds God,
is tinged and tangled with God.

We need to turn our gazes away from perfection,
maniacal penchants for orderliness,
and lust for smooth outlines to life,
and get wild with God.
We need to turn away from our unreal ideals
and fantasy images
about our lives
our bodies
our minds
and ourselves.

Instead, we need to turn toward the faint tracing
on the surface of our lives
that point to God,
a god who is present in every moment.

Instead, we need to turn toward the roughness,
the blemishes,
the goofiness and crazed thinking,
and all the strange and peculiar things
about ourselves that tell the real story,
and reveal the real God.

If the question of agnosticism is,
“Who turned on the lights?”;
and the question of faith is,
“Whatever for?”;
then the question of spiritual practice is, “How?”

How can we learn to see the presence of God
here and now,
in life and in ourselves,
as we really are –
instead of how we wish the world
and our own lives were?