“The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the LORD is his name, who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.”
Amos 5:8,9 (NRSV)
It was a prophet named Amos who told that to us. I suspect others have said it before him, but his words are the easiest for us to find. The difficulty lies not in the matter of finding it or reading it, but in the fact that we no longer listen to any prophets. We no longer listen to any prophets, and we no longer welcome the Powers that lie behind them.
But just because Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen piss in the Jordan doesn’t mean the water isn’t sacred anymore.
I am sitting on a donated commemorative bench resting crookedly atop a weak sand dune awaiting its inevitable reclaiming by the sea. I am wearing a suit and tie, an old, battered, ill-fitting and inexpensive black suit I purchased nearly a decade ago and trot out for every wedding and funeral and unfortunate court appearance that comes my way. My tie is wrinkled despite my half-hearted attempt to iron it early this morning, and the knot holding it together bears only tenuous resemblance to a proper one. I can’t actually do a proper one. I ask other people to do it for me, and then I just never untie it for as long as possible.
This is Plum Island, a forever shifting barrier island, which is basically to say it is a glorified sand bar that is long and thick and almost semi-permanent. It lies between the storied tip of Cape Ann and the carnival that is the little chunk of New Hampshire coastline. Here by the newly bolstered stone jette, on the northern tip of the island, from my slightly elevated perch, I oversee a grand natural intersection. To my left, on one side of the jette, the Merrimack River, one of New England’s two integral rivers, opens itself out to be embraced and absorbed by the Atlantic Ocean, which rages on the right side of the jette and out in all forward-facing directions to the horizon. At that horizon, the sea intersects with the sky, the waters above and waters below of the Genesis story. Right in front of me, beneath the rough pounding of the jubilant spring waves, the great ocean meets the great continent.
I know God is here. He is everywhere, here. This is the Hebrew YHWH, and it is also the Hebrew El. This is the Aramaic Alaha and the Arabic Allah. We call Him a ‘He’, but this is not a bearded man in the sky. This is the being we know formed at the juncture of the Mother Earth and Father Sky (Gaia and Saturn), the dual opposites transcended into One. Here is the Great Spirit, Great Mystery of certain indigenous groups.
I know the Divine is here. I know it not because of my faith, which is typically shaky at best, but because all the magnificent intersections in front of me make the Divine easy to see. That’s right, I know it’s there because I can see it – not with my eyes, but with all of the other ways in which we can see things sometimes.
Now is not a moment of prostration or of ostentatious humility or half-sincere, over-the-top worship-flattery. This isn’t a guy “up there” revealing himself in all his terrifying and awful glory to a weirdo in a suit “down here.” God is just here in this place, and we don’t have to tip-toe around each other or engage and prescribed procedure or even make a big deal out of anything. I’m here, and so is God. It’s as though we nod at one another and say “Hey” while the dogs run free below and the high tide waves continue to crash. Nothing to exaggerate, nothing to blow out of proportion. It all just is.
Yet in such moments of spontaneous solace and eccentric harmony, especially at such holiness-filled points of juncture, it is also easier to see other true things. For one, there is nothing significant that makes this day so different from any other – sun rising, sun setting, bunch of stuff in between. For another, I know well but can’t ignore that, much as I may love this specific place, on this high-flying bench, there is objectively nothing to differentiate this place from any other. Not as far as God is concerned. The intersections of God are infinite, they are everywhere, in all places.
I know these things to be true, and it has almost nothing to do with my weak and shaky faith. It comes from what I see and what I understand and what can be obvious to anyone who chooses to look and perceive in a certain way. But in the face of stark contradiction, even my non-faith is known to be shaken. You see, all of this truth and holiness is boldly challenged by the place I’d normally be on this day and hour, if not for personal days and court dates.
Truly I say unto you: we expel the divine and reject the truth at our own peril.
Of course, the fence isn’t just to keep Jesus out. Not just Jesus, not just Mohammad. Not just Yahweh above, or Buddha down here. Lao Tsu is not acknowledged here, and the door is not opened for the respective pantheons of India, Greece, Rome, the Celts, or the Norse. Signs are posted, the kind of signs our eyes can’t see, that dissuade the approach of the Great Spirit, Father Sky, and Mother Earth. On the wall by the reception desk, they keep photocopied pictures of Rumi and Osho on the wall in case they try and sneak in. The only ones with a shot of making it through are Zoroaster and Baha’u’llah, but that’s only because no one knows who they are.
This is the office, and we don’t want their kind here. We aren’t actually criminals, here. We’re not investment bankers or low-wage prison guards or sweatshop facilitators or a diamond cartel. We just wholesale retail products, buying truckloads to store in warehouses and sell to retailers. A classic middleman operation, to be sure, but it could also be said to be benign capitalism at its finest. My job isn’t malevolent. To summarize it in a sentence, I am to avoid running out of product and avoid having too much product. You can find a simple eastern mystical sort of meaning in that, to be perfectly fair.
Simplicity devoid of spirit is cardboard set aside for the burning.
Revelation tells of the 144,000 sheep, but here, where we only have 342, we are easily forgotten. That’s 342 people in 342 tiny three-foot cubicles scattered across the landscape of one long, wide cattle pen of a room. Above us, lining the ceiling, are the kind of massive iron pipes that usually like to live out of sight, and from them hang the domed lights that silently buzz a kind of death at us as they rain down a light seemingly cleansed of all light’s redeeming qualities. 342 is not as big of a deal as 144,000, but we aren’t the only ones in this land penned into corrals by little aluminum and felt dividers, packed together and encircled on three sides by the offices of those In Charge. We’re just the only ones in this office. 342 good, worthy sheep grazing in a pasture into which entry is denied to all shepherds. Not a shepherd in sight. Plenty of managers, though. Managers and directors to ensure effective motivation and ever-increased productivity. Managers and directors and vice presidents to save us from ourselves.
This is the office. All office work is weird, and all office people are weird, and the only people who really understand it are the people who live through it.
Does this mean Jesus and Moses and Amos can’t understand it, having never been allowed in? Hopefully, it doesn’t matter, but I suspect it does.
The assumption that it’s secularization that keeps the holy out of this place is an easy mistake to make, because most don’t realize that this place isn’t secular. There’s an official and compulsory religion here, and part of the religion is that nobody is allowed to call it that. The god here is not Mammon, that familiar greedy golden calf. That would be dangerous for the managers and directors, who serve as substitutes for a priestly class. How would they ever be able to handle 342 howling hyenas red-eyed with all-consuming greed. No, the idol before us is a more cunning and nebulous god, and his name is Work. The reason we awaken in the morning is Work and the rest we are able to claim for ourselves on nights and weekends is for the purpose of rejuvenating us enough for the Work to come. The goal is for us to be Productive Workers, the highest possible virtue, especially when we are known to be lucky, so lucky, to even be able to Work at all in such lean times as these. It’s a privilege. To some, it is a sacrament.
To be a faithful follower of Work, one does not do one’s task and be satisfied. There must be more tasks, because Work is the kind of god who’s entertained by a circus and competition, and supremely entertained when the circus is a competition.
“In the house of their god they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.”
Amos 2:8 (NRSV)
They dole out information and rig the game so that we are cut off from one another in what we imagine to be a zero-sum setup, but they also make us disjointed internally with forced self-competition. No success is sufficient, there is no sufficient, there is only continued improvement. Continued growth. The graven golden Work is a ravenous kind of god and only occasionally will he demand a sacrifice, a termination which will be carried out with calculated and terrifying public ritual and spectacle. There’s no blood, but it’s just like something Mel Gibson might come up with.
If the prophet is killed by flying rocks, who will remain to speak the words of the true God?
Work is demanding. Work is jealous. Work permits no other gods before him. Those who do not put on the show and worship Work in the office are castigated pariahs until they depart in one way or the other. Those outside the office who do not put on the show and worship Work are dangerous heathens mooching off of our suffering, and shouldn’t they suffer if we have to? Shouldn’t everybody be sweating? Isn’t life hard, and centered on laboring?
And like all gods, Work has his favorites. Some people, he just likes. Those people tend to do all right with everything. Other people, he tests with greater challenges, so to speak. They struggle and sputter and they make it, usually, but only when their existence is reduced to a perpetual sprint to avoid being left out in the cold when the barn door is closing. That’s how Work likes them to be.
“I brought you up out of the land of Egypt…and I raised up some of your children to be prophets.”
Amos 2:10,11 (NRSV)
Perhaps…perhaps there yet remains hope that the disguised child prophets have been able to sneak through the fence and walk among us in these times, and perhaps they will again be able to lead us out of our bondage.
Here I am, sitting by the shore in my suit and tie. I always wanted to be a revolutionary, some kind of urban subversive saboteur or rural guerilla setting up the seizure or destruction of the power apparatus. Sitting here by the shore in my suit and tie was not what I had in mind in the midst of those daydreams, and neither was the daily reality of the spirit-banished office.
But I have never strayed far from the heart-tugs and mind-pulls of sunshine and revolt, and sometimes, it’s as though I can hear the plants on my desk whispering and maybe laughing, laughing like the angels laughed when Herod failed to murder the baby Jesus.
“Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.”
Amos 5:11 (NRSV)
I am the agent of the cloud-shrouded mountain, the messenger of the sea’s crashing waves, friend of the heavens. I am all of those things, and yet I have been allowed inside the fence.
I must not be killed by flying rocks before speaking the Word, but neither shall I waste the time I have been granted.
The kind of revolution that rises like a mythic dragon to battle the cold deity Work perhaps involves not guns and explosive fire. Perhaps what is required is a fierce motion in the opposite direction. Perhaps if I can be calm, if I can broadcast the right kind of energy, and if I do it without violating any of Work’s policies – avoiding open rebellion or insubordination – I can create a small pure light that can sit on my desk with my whispering, giggling plants, a growing light that Work can’t kill or even precisely pinpoint, because it’s subtle and distilled and can so easily be spread and hidden across the land.
If – and only if – I have that kind of light at my disposal, the light shall be for all people, and specifically for any of the 342 fellow sheep who might be sitting in darkness and isolation and need it.
“The time is surely coming, says the LORD, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, the trader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people.”
Amos 9: 13,14 (NRSV)
The words fall about me and everyone else like thunder in the early summer sky, and we can hear them with the right kind of ears and even see them with the right set of eyes. For whether I am killed by brutal stones or survive to 95, the fences of today shall be the bonfires of tomorrow. So, truly, says the Lord.