The Sun by Edvard Munch
It’s been one of those weeks.
You know, the kind with too many hurried mornings to get to school before the bell rings and too few slow afternoons to help you remember why you hurried in the first place. The kind of week where the laundry will get done and the bills paid and the children raised and the home kept and the dreams stoked. The kind of week where all those true blessings felt a little like burdens. The kind of week where the questions about faith and fact break across my eyes in the morning and sift like so much sand into the the creases of my dreams at night. The kind of week where I overreacted to the kids fighting and undercooked the pork chops…again.
And yet. And yet, in the quiet of the night, with music humming across the room and the windows open, I can’t help but rejoice in the ever present and ever persistent Love of God.
When we first find God in Genesis, They are the Hebrew Elohim. Elohim, derived from the Hebrew Eloah, is a plural word for God that, in the context of Genesis 1:27, implies the presence of both genders. This seems fitting, as the love of God is surely the love of our two Heavenly Parents.
The Love of God.
It’s a phrase we hear often from our primary days on. Ask any child in an LDS congregation if God loves them and I think one for one, the kids would proclaim, “They do love us!” And you know, our kids would mean something really gorgeous when they affirmed the love of our Heavenly Parents. They’d mean the kind of love they’ve learned from their Earthly Parents. They would mean the love that teaches them that a new bicycle, a thing that seems at first like a tool of abject fear is really a tool of liberation. They would mean the love of a soft voice that calls for them when they’ve lost their way. They would mean the love sewn about the arms that pick them up every time they fall…no matter how many times their knees skid across the hard, dry ground.
Children may have much to learn, but when it comes to love they pretty much understand the program.
I think if you asked any adult in an LDS congregation the same question, they would one for one, say, “Yes, surely God loves me”. But for many of us there would be some hesitation there, some qualifications, some niggling doubt. Because Brothers and Sisters…we’ve grown up. And we’ve learned that not all things we fear become tools of liberation. That there are times when we are lost we can’t hear a voice call out to us no matter how our hearts and ears strain. And that sometimes when we fall we just don’t know if there is a pair of arms that could ever reach far enough down to pick us up from the places we’ve descended.
God knows this about us, so They reach out and reassure through revelation, scripture and symbol.
We become pretty well acquainted with Lehi’s vision of The Tree of Life early in our religious education. You and I can list off the main points by memory. The man in white. The straight and narrow path. The brothers and sisters that cling to the iron rod. Those that plumb the depths and those that climb false heights. We know that many reach the Tree of life and partake of its fruit. That some remain in its light, and some retreat into the mist. We know The tree of life and its fruit represent the Love of God.
As westerners, when we read the text, we read it as if everything is happening left to right, in a chronological fashion. We embrace a linear interpretation. Many of us have been taught that life is one long walk through the darkness, clinging to the rod with the hope of a final reward…someday. We believe standing under the fanning limbs of the Tree of Life while feasting on the Love of God is something that only happens after we travel and travail to the end of mortality.
Leland Ryken, a noted scholar in the field of the Bible and apocalyptic texts, said that when reading visions we should put aside “looking for the smooth flow of narrative,” and should rather “be prepared for a disjointed series of diverse, self-contained units.” Lehi’s dream is a visionary text so it really has a kaleidoscopic structure. It should be understood in a round with the Tree of Life in the middle. The vision isn’t about someday, it is about today. Throughout our mortal existence, we are all constantly traveling through dark and dreary waste, finding the fruit, retreating, plumbing the depths, climbing the false heights and returning again to the tree. The Love of God is not some distant point we may reach on some distant day on some distant horizon. Holding to the iron rod is not the point of mortality, it is merely a means to get to the place we are meant to reach again and again while we still breathe. The Love of God isn’t held away from us. Rather, it is held up for us. Their Love is available to each of us now, we simply need to approach and reach up and partake.
As we grow up, our parents give us little sayings that echo through our lives even after they’ve left us. Little totems we carry about that recall the sound of their voices when we are afraid we’ve forgotten them and re-teach our hearts the lessons they taught while they were here. My dad gave me dozens of those little phrases before he died, but the one I heard the most as a child was his directive to “Spend more time at the Tree.” He’d say it with hope and awe and great relief. I can still hear the catch in his throat when he said it. We had that phrase engraved on his headstone. When his marker was set, I ran my hands across the words he spoke so many times. Feeling them cut into granite turned a lovely thought into a tangible act.
It’s a beautiful, sacred and healing truth.
And yet…even with an understanding of our access to God’s love, life can be, often is, very, very hard. There have been so many times over the past year when I wished I could talk to my dad. So many moments I’ve ached to tell him, “I’m tired. I hurt. And I’m working to spend more time at the tree. But sometimes, as I wend my way back to it, I worry I won’t be able to taste the fruit because my tongue is bitter with the hurts of mortality.”
I think we identify with the linear interpretation of the Tree of Life vision because sometimes life feels like a long walk to a bright place we can’t quite see.
When I feel that way, I think of the beginning of our mortal journey. I think of Mother Eve and her faithful, Adam. I have so much empathy for them, holding hands and walking out of Eden for the first and last time. Onward into a wilderness that promised pain and eventual, assured ultimate glory. I remember holding my husband’s hand as we walked out of the temple after our sealing. Despite the waiting crowds and party that night, I felt very distinctly that we had just left Eden and would spend the rest of our lives facing the wilderness together…it was a thrilling and terrifying thought for 21 year old me. Nearly ten years later, I am still thrilled and terrified by the prospect. When my husband and I left Eden, we went to a reception center. When Adam and Eve left Eden, they walked east.
I find great peace in the symbolism of the word ‘east’ in early scripture. In ancient times, the point of orientation was east, rather than our modern day north. That understanding is built right into the word itself; to orient yourself was to point yourself towards the orient, or east. The east was before you, rather than to your side. Eden was placed in the east, facing east, guarded from the east. Beginning with Adam and Eve, east became the direction one went when walking away from the direct presence of God. But the east is also where the sun rises. And in Revelations, it is the place where God offers salvation. Again we are met with the gorgeousness of a God who loves…even when we can and must walk away from God’s presence, They are just ahead, waiting for us. With a saving grace as consistent, inevitable and universally sanctioned as the rising sun.
We understand God’s Love best, when we work to understand Them as our children understand us. After all, Their love is the type upon which all our imperfect loving is based. When we lay our fears at Their feet, we find liberation. We may feel lost, but with God we are in fact always found. And there is no fall deep enough to thwart the arms that threw open the curtains of creation, the hands that shaped the stars and the atom and our hearts. We will be lifted again and again, no matter how many times our knees scrape against the hard, dry ground.