Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Firmanent in the Midst of the Waters

And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters,
and let it separate the waters from the waters.”
And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.
And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven.
And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

People who know my story won't be surprised if I say the passage above has fascinated me since I was four or five years old. When you grow up going to church, in a church that believes in teaching while young minds are fresh and can absorb easily, you start thinking about these kinds of things early on.

And when your daddy gives you a Revised Standard Version of the whole Bible when you are six years old, and you have already become a lover of words and reading, you start reading Genesis, because it is, well, the beginning. And the words that appeal to you stick in your mind. And words like "separate the waters from the waters" appealed to me, as did "firmament." It was just fun to say and to think, with the two m's and then the n near the end. To say it was almost to sing it.

And that word "firmament" just always fascinated me. Partly because for many years I never heard it anywhere except in this passage. And I remember conversations at school and church when we would talk about what it could mean to separate the waters from the waters, and how much of that was reflective of scientific thinking and how much was more poetic. (These were later classes, not in first or second grade, I'm sure.)

I suppose the next time I encountered the word "firmament" was in high school chorus, when we literally sang that so-singable word, as in, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork," in a setting composed by a professor at our local college, Dr. Bill ("Doc") Hollaway. I remember it well.

This past Sunday I drove back to my hometown for the funeral of Marilyn Allen, who was one of my earliest Bible class teachers. We moved to Searcy when I was four; I had to have been four or five when she taught us, because we were in an upstairs classroom where the youngest children went. I remember flannelgraph stories. I remember her husband coming to our class dressed as Abraham or Paul, sharing his story and answering our questions. I remember having memory verses and putting stickers on charts when we recited them aloud. I remember Elsie Huffard coming to visit us all the way from "the holy lands" and telling us what it was like to live where Jesus had lived.

While I know that some people have unpleasant memories and even strong negative feelings about their experiences of growing up in a church, my memories of church are among my most cherished memories. I had wonderful, dedicated teachers like Mrs. Allen who loved us and loved God and taught us from the grounding of both those loves.

One by one, I am saying goodbye to my teachers--school teachers, teachers from church, piano teachers. Mrs. Allen was not only a teacher but also the mother of my friend and classmate. And she was in the same nursing home that my mom is in. Saying goodbye to her was more than honoring a childhood Bible teacher. It brings many thoughts and feelings to the surface.

I took these photos the day she died. As I was looking at the reflection of clouds on the surface of the water, I thought how the waters above and the waters below were coming together to create such beauty. And as painful, terribly painful, as death and separation are, the longer I live the more I sense that it is a temporary separation and that something very real still connects us after death to those we were truly connected to in life. Just as in the Genesis account, the waters above and the waters below were apparently considered to be one before the firmament was created to separate them, the oneness we have in Christ is there before death and continues after death. Some refer to the mystical body of Christ. While that isn't a phrase or concept I learned in my church growing up, the more I've heard it and thought about it, the more I think it should have been.

For now, we wait. For the new heaven and the end of the separation. One thing my church gave me was a love of music. We didn't sing this, but because of growing up where I did, I grew up to sing it later in another church setting:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.


skyhookt said...

When I read those verses from Rev 21, I know they joy Lewis described.

Tom said...

I suppose my overall memories of growing up in church were ones of fear and failure. Yet I do remember the magic of words as they were taught me. They seemed to fill my being with a sense of 'otherness' that belonged to a spiritually advanced world for which I longed. That sense of longing still remains, but is only achievable - it seems to me - by refusing to be overwhelmed by all that which gave pleasure as a Christian child. The result is a great loss, but also great gains. The loss is finite, the gains approach a sense of infinity.

Lucy said...

So glad you had such luminously enriching people and words in your early life.

I have a rather unexpectedly long e-mail in the writing to you, I got caught up reading up on Fabrice Hadjadj!

Sheila said...

Tom, I have so many friends who share your memories of fear and failure. Interestingly, some of them grew up in the same church and school that I did. So it would seem in the case of my friends and me that factors beyond just what we saw and heard were at work. Life is such a complex thing.

I find it interesting that even as you write about this giving up you are doing, your language fits with what Jesus said, that we must lose our lives to find them. I heard a monk one time say we must be willing to give up our very idea of who we are in order to find truth and meaning.

Sometimes I am concerned that I may come across as, I don't know, glib or superficial in the way I write from my faith perspective, because at least when I write on my blog, I tend to write on the assumptions of Christian faith.

Maybe I should someday write about all the study and struggle that has occurred since those days of growing up in church and where I am today. Because there has been that, for sure. Epistemology class at age 17 (not in my church-related school) would be part of that story, as would several more relational/personal experiences.

Sometimes I think "that sense of longing" you write of may well be the most important ingredient, and it saddens me greatly that many people's experiences with and in church do not heighten that sense but may even kill it. I'm glad that your longing has stayed alive.