The Sea Was No More
February 27, 2005
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the business God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into the human mind, yet in such a way that we cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for us than to be happy and do good as long as we live; and it is God's gift that we should all eat and drink and take pleasure in all our labor. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken from it. God has done this so that all will stand in awe before him. Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God calls back the past.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
They will be his peoples,
And God himself will be with them;
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
Mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
For the first things have passed away.
And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." He also said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."
Reading from Swedenborg
I have talked with angelic spirits about the afflictions of the faithful. It is well-known that they suffer these as much as, if not more than, the unfaithful. I was told why some of them are allowed to experience these trials: it is so that they would not attribute good to themselves. If they were free of trials, they would chalk it up to their own goodness, claiming merit and justice for themselves.
To keep this from happening, they are allowed to experience the usual misfortunes, so that they experience just as much grief as others do regarding money and possessions. If they were of such a character that they would not attribute good to themselves, they would more often be spared the usual misfortunes. So there are hidden causes at work.
It is well known that when disasters happen, many of the faithful think about their goodness, believing that they should be spared because of the good things they have done. Yet if they were spared, they would brag that it was because they were such good people, and would taunt the wicked with this, and thus claim goodness for themselves. (Spiritual Experiences (Minor) #4630)
It has been a devastatingly sad week, with horrific images coming to us from the nations fringing the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.
I had taken this as a holiday week, as I do every year, and wrapped myself in the comfort of my family. It was a break, too, from my near-addiction to news radio. Stories about the disaster did begin to filter through to me; yet I held the news at arms' length for a while. As the numbers began to swell at an alarming rate, I am ashamed to admit that I still tried to keep the reality at the periphery of my awareness, lest it spoil my vacation.
But the holiday has passed and the horror has come crashing in, albeit in only a minuscule way from my safety on the beaches of California--where I can guarantee that there will be no more jokes about "tsunami beach parties" for a very long time.
Nobody, but nobody, has to explain to the people of Sumatra, Sri Lanka, India, and all the other countries affected by this event the truth of Qohelet's ("the Teacher's") wisdom: "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep . . . a time to mourn." We pray along with them that some day they will find again a time to laugh and to dance, as the Teacher says they will.
Who can say how and why such calamities occur? Geophysics offers the driest answer. It is a simple matter of plate tectonics: the Indian plate slid under the Burma plate along a six hundred mile fault, the sea floor was displaced, and water moved around in response. It's just that there were a lot of people in the way.
Curiously, we often call events like this "acts of God"--which technically means that there is nobody we can haul into court for restitution. There is an element of deism to this: the idea that while there is a divine Creator, the Creator completed her work--the great Clockwork of the Universe--and now leaves it spinning without hint or hope of intervention. Natural law reigns supreme. We hear echoes of Deism in Intelligent Design arguments that the irreducible complexity of the Creation points toward a volitional engineer of all things. Although Intelligent Design makes no suggestion whether or not the engineer might still be at work, conventional science rejects the theory because it leaves that door open.
We, of course, reject Deism, for all of its logical appeal. Belief in Jesus Christ absolutely repels any notion of a God who does not or will not intervene in the affairs of the world. The teaching of the New Church is that God's purpose in assuming human form was to beat back the progression of the hells in this world, and reestablish the proper order of Creation, thus providing for humankind's salvation.
Fancy words. Even when we try to express these ideas with the most pedestrian vocabulary, they still seem highfalutin' in the face of the recent tragedy. Nice thoughts and grand sentiments did not stop one tectonic plate from slipping under another, and smashing huge waves into millions of people.
Where, then, do we see God in this? Did God cause this to happen, if only through some design flaw in the original architecture? Does God commit evil acts as a prerequisite to some greater lesson we need to learn? Let's take these questions in reverse order.
First of all, God does not commit evil. God cannot. God is truth, God is love, God is good. Evil stems from the activity of humankind when we come to love what is false. Goodness loves truth; evil loves falsity. This is the definition of evil: it is that which loves falsity and therefore wills (or loves) to act from what is false. I suppose one could make an argument that this is a fault in God's gift of free will to us. But one could only begin to take up such an argument as a result of that selfsame free will.
This is not the "flaw in the architecture" I meant when I asked if God somehow caused the calamity to happen. I meant it on a more basic, mineral level: the physical world is constructed in a way that allows for natural disaster--for earthquakes and tsunamis, for hurricanes and tornadoes, for wildfire and flooding, for disease and famine. This structure that God called "good"; this stage on which we are all merely players . . . it is not perfect. One even has to question the "intelligence" in "Intelligent Design." The Designer must have goofed not to have foreseen so many opportunities for tragedy.
But God doesn't see tragedy in the same things we do. I can tell you this with absolute certainty: God loves dearly every one of those souls--how many hundreds of thousands we may never know--that was gathered in from this cataclysm. To us these people appear as if gone because they exist only in the spiritual world now. But from the beginning they were always intended for that world, and now they continue as the angels they were meant to be--or in some sad cases, as the demons they made themselves into while in this life.
God's will is that we come to her, and God's will is done; but this does not mean that God has willed the method. Our spiritual lives are immortal ones, but not so our natural lives.
So where and how is God acting in South Asia?
What have our eyes and ears told us thus far? Combined with the incredible images of destruction and loss, we are beginning to witness a relief effort the likes of which the world has never before seen. Granted, the commencement of it was slow in coming. I wasn't the only one trying to hold onto the peace and rest of the holidays. But now every report, every agency, every expert calls the international response "unprecedented."
The organization of the effort is, to be sure, still chaotic. The infrastructure of the affected countries was Third World to begin with . . . and much of that has been swept away. Supplies are available--in fact, they are backing up--but they can't get in. Local authorities are still so overwhelmed with the immediate imperative of locating and disposing of the dead that in many cases they still have not seriously addressed the needs of the living.
But the weight of human compassion and concern begins to push back with a force almost equal to that of the sea. Over two billion dollars have been pledged by the world's governments, and that does not include the efforts of dozens of NGOs, with workers in many cases already on the ground. And yes, we should not forget nor underestimate the very significant arrival of our aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, with its one dozen monstrous Sea Hawk helicopters, beginning to overcome the nightmarish logistical bottlenecks that have hampered humane efforts thus far.
Surely more must be done. The need is unprecedented. But by God, the world is rising to the challenge. For a week now our headlines have most assuredly been dominated by tragedy, but also by the power of our species turning over heaven and earth to try to save millions of nameless brothers and sisters. For a week, the evil that we do each other--insurgencies, crime, greed--has been chased off the front page. As the new year is ushered in, we find humankind at its finest. Go and tell John the Baptist all that you have seen and heard (Matthew 11:3-6; Luke 7:19-23).
Certainly there are times in life that we have doubts; surely harder days lie ahead in South Asia. But people will work hard, work together, shoulder to shoulder . . . and the indomitable power of the human spirit will prevail--the immutable spirit that comes from the Source of all sources. This tropical paradise will not be lost.
We may be working so hard that we do not take notice that eternally, inexorably, the new Jerusalem descends--the church of humanity that God has always intended. Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has called the worldwide effort to race to the aid of the region "a manifestation of global unity." Yes, we know our sad history, and no one will consider it cynicism to remind ourselves of "two steps forward, one step back."
Yet clearly the Revelation of John is no mere fantasy. "The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them. . . . He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more . . . for I am making all things new."
John goes on to describe the holy city, the new Jerusalem, and the river of life that flows through it. On either side of the river is the tree of life. We have not seen nor heard of that tree since the end of the third chapter of Genesis (that's page 4 in my Bible), when the cherubim and a flaming sword are set at the gate of Eden to guard against Adam's return to it. And here, right at the very end of our Christian Bible, in the last chapter, on the very last page, it comes to us again. All that lies in between is about our loss . . . and then, by God's grace, our salvation.
But do you see the difference that time has made? We first encounter the tree of life in the garden, enjoyed only by a solitary couple, and by God, walking in the cool of the evening, as befits the Near East. When the tree of life returns, it stands in the midst of the holy city, in community, in the church, new Jerusalem . . . not because God drove us there, but because we finally made it. We made it. Thank God, we will make it some day.
Dearest Lord and Savior, we thank you profoundly for your loving and compassionate presence with us, both in our greatest joys and in our greatest tragedies. Open our eyes to see your providence working in this world. And open our hearts, so that our hands may be your hands, bringing comfort to all the afflicted. Amen.
Rev. Doug Moss