Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Romans 8:18-28) transports me to the rainforest of southern Mexico, near the Mayan ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilan, where I spent a few days in a village of Lacandon Mayans in 2003. The Lacandon were for many centuries among the most isolated people of the world, resisting and avoiding contact with the outside world in an effort to preserve traditions. It was a fascinating few days, and one of the most fascinating experiences was hearing our guide describe how a group of Japanese tourists had visited the village, and lo and behold, the Lacandon and the Japanese could understand some of what each other were saying. Their languages had some similar vocabulary and grammar. The guide explained how, in the last ice age, when the tectonic plates had shifted and the ocean depths had lowered, what is now the Bering Strait was Beringia, a land mass bridging the continents, crossed by Asian travelers. Some of those travelers eventually made their way south, where centuries later they were able to escape Spanish conquest and maintain their way of life by fleeing deep into the rain forest. My mind kept going back to that ice age era, that time when the earth’s fault lines were shifting and tectonic plates were moving and continents were merging and history was being made by a resilient people walking thousands of miles to create a new culture, but preserving some of the vocabulary from the old culture. The deep movement of the earth mirrored the surface movements of people creating social changes with implications reaching far into the future. The people of Asia must have been groaning and longing for a kind of different life, and the earth matched their groanings.
Paul seemed to have a grasp of this mirrored connection between the deep movements and longings of the earth, and the movements and longings of humanity. In one of the more beautiful passages in all of scripture, he writes about the present sufferings common to both creation in general and humanity in particular. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves groan inwardly. And it is not just creation and humanity; Paul says that the Spirit itself intercedes for us with wordless groans. We could say that cataclysmic geological movements, the kind that cause fault lines to shift and tectonic plates to reposition themselves and continents to divide or merge, are examples of the earth groaning as in the pains of childbirth. And as the earth moves under our feet, there is an equal movement in our hearts, a painful longing for the suffering and bondage and decay of the world to be transformed, for something new to be born in our culture, something with more grace, more mercy, more peace. Paul is hopeful that this is indeed what will happen, that the emerging glory will far outstrip the suffering. There may not always be evidence of that, but he says hope is not hope if you can see the evidence.
This past summer the earth groaned again like a woman in labor, with two massive earthquakes under the Indian Ocean, the largest of their kind ever recorded. The geologists tell us that these 8.7 and 8.2 magnitude strike-slip earthquakes demonstrate that the tectonic plates are separating, creating new boundaries and new fault lines. Who knows, this might be one of those epoch times in geological history where the continents will be restructured, dividing and merging along the new lines. What interests me about this is how the earth’s groaning seems to be mirrored by the groaning of humanity, which is undergoing major shifts in long-established cultural fault lines of religion, sexuality, and economy. We can hope with Paul that whatever cultural continents emerge from our labor, the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory about to be revealed. We can also take heart, in the midst of the suffering and violent upheavals, that in all things God works for the good for those who love God, who are called according to the divine purposes. Whatever changes happen, wherever we land, I suspect that we will, like the Lacandon, carry a language with us into the new culture as we cross our Beringia Bridge, with the vocabulary of grace, and mercy, and peace, and love intact.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc. Note: If you mouse over the artwork, information on the painting/photo will pop up.