Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back to the Garden

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

                        Genesis 2.15

Half a Million Strong

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in life, work, and what’s going on here, a major milestone passes before I realize it. Such was the case last weekend with Woodstock’s fortieth anniversary. Although I was a few weeks from 10-years-old when it took place, the three-day festival set off reverberations that echoed through my youth and resound even now. Something happened at Woodstock, the likes of which the world had never seen and may not see again. People set out from every corner to celebrate a culture they created and nurtured. While the world watched with (not unwarranted) trepidation, the crowd united on borrowed farmland to prove it lived by the peace, love, and harmony it extolled and demanded. This wasn’t Woodstock’s intended purpose; it was conceived for profit. But as a metropolis of 500,000 sprang up with breathtaking speed, a common mindset seized the crowd. Removed from civil services like law enforcement, emergency services, and basic utilities, they displayed a portrait of civilization finer than any empire. “By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half-a-million strong,” begins Joni Mitchell’s immortal song. Anyone who was there, wanted to be there, watched from afar, or—like me—grew up in its pearly afterglow most likely agrees: the people of Woodstock were nothing if not strong.

Before Knowledge

Joni didn’t get to Woodstock. She stopped off in New York to appear on TV and by the time the program ended, the roads were closed and the crowd had grown too dense for safe helicopter landings. She watched the coverage with the rest of us. But these were her people and when she put pen to paper, she tapped their collective yearning: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” Without articulating it as eloquently as Joni, Woodstock’s people intuitively retrained their focus from partying (though they did do that) to establishing a temporary Eden, free of hatred, violence, and crime. They riveted the world and earned its admiration with their ability to live together in peace and care for one another without judgment and law. They created a safe place that resembled Creation before knowledge, before we disrupted its balance and flow with our stolen sense of good and evil.

You may scoff. Before you do, though, consider this. Despite perilously meager provisions and a woefully inadequate staff, Woodstock ended with only two deaths, a traffic fatality and a heroin overdose. That’s a 0.00004% accidental death rate. No American city one-fifth Woodstock’s size came close to it that weekend. Statistically and theoretically, this made no sense. But why should it? Woodstock’s crowd rejected logic to take care of one another. For three days, they set aside personal preferences to unite in purpose. There were no good people and bad people at Woodstock. There were only people, every one unique and all of them the same. When Joni Mitchell saw this, years of growing up in a small-town church guided her understanding. Going to Woodstock was going back to the Garden.

Exceeding Our Purpose

Genesis says God put us in the Garden “to work it and take care of it.” He endowed us with governance—i.e., oversight and superior intelligence—yet nothing in Scripture suggests God intended us to govern in a legal and moral sense. That came later due to our inability to govern ourselves. We were placed for reasons having nothing to do with law and justice. God chose us as His gardeners to till the Garden’s soil and tend to its upkeep. Yet all it took was a whispered promise about knowing how to discern good from evil to turn God’s paradise into a living hell. Our irresponsibility forever burdened us with more responsibility than we could manage. We exceeded our purpose. Instead of tending the Garden for common good, we took it upon ourselves to deprive a few for the benefit of many. Majority rule ruled the day. Survival of the fittest justified crushing the weak. Conformity was rewarded; non-conformity was punished. “Right” was praised. “Wrong” was condemned. Meanwhile, as we tried in vain to groom one another, the Garden went to seed.

Sacred Mountains

“Right and wrong” aren’t synonymous with “good and evil.” History is knotted with nations marching headlong into evil, believing they’re right. Every war starts this way and ends with each side hating, wounding, torturing, and slaughtering one another for “what’s right.” Yet when is destroying God’s creation ever good? It’s evil. The same holds when we engage in personal conflicts. Overconfidence leads to becoming too self-righteous for our good. As Solomon says in Proverbs 14.12: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” Destructive action against another becomes evil by usurping God’s judicial authority. He alone sees who’s right and wrong. When we decide to decide for Him, when we say we speak for Him, we exalt ourselves above Him.

According to Isaiah 41.13, Lucifer made the same mistake: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain.” Like the Tempter, we’re over our heads when we boast in our knowledge. We weren’t made to tend to God’s affairs. He put us here to care for His world and everything and everyone in it—to make things grow, not to tear them down. Destroying lives is easy; nurturing them is hard. It demands great strength and commitment. It takes strength to climb off our sacred mountains. It takes strength to forget what we know and remember what God placed us here to do. It takes strength to care for others first and us second. But it can be done. Woodstock, of all places, proved this. We've got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

Back to the Garden: Joni Mitchell sings "Woodstock."

(Tomorrow: Tenure Troubles)


genevieve said...

Tim, I remember Woodstock vividly. I was 21 at the time. I didn't go but knew a few who did. Had some of the greatest musicians and songs of all time.

I have gone back to some of the gardens of my youth. The serenity of an empty church, a stroll in the park by the river, and a church courtyard. They are free of the tensions, hate, and lawlessness of our world. Many people are wanting to get back to the garden. It's 40 years later and I now understand the true meaning of that rainy, August weekend.

johnmichael said...

This is beautifully written! Thank you!

Tim said...

Thanks to both of you, Genevieve and JM.

Genevieve, you're so right. There are gardens beyond Woodstock--each of us has experienced them, and it's a lovely idea to go back to them from time to time, to feel the draw of innocence on our hearts.

JM, your enthusiasm and kindness always lift my spirits. Thank you.

I'm currently stranded at Newark Airport, trying to get home where I can get back to real work. You both have brought much light and joy to what has been a tough evening!

Thanks and blessings always,