Sunday, November 19, 2006

On the Road to Peace

Tom Waits has a new boxed set coming out next week, and a few songs have been released online already.

One is “Road to Peace,” an unusual (for Tom Waits) literal reading of current events. It talks about Henry Kissinger, the New York Times, Hamas, George W. Bush and re-election, and bloodshed in the Middle East.

As the song winds down, he sings:

If God is great, and God is good,
Why can’t he change the hearts of men?
Maybe God himself is lost and needs help
Maybe God himself needs all of our help

It’s a nice twist on a refrain entwined in Christian liturgy: “I will, with God’s help.” The affirmation gets used in different places; maybe the best example is the Episcopal baptismal covenant, wherein the service leader asks a series of questions about whether the audience (or the person being baptized) will behave themselves: Will you persevere in resisting evil? . . . Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? The answer to each of these questions, one after another, is “I will, with God’s help.”

The repeated vow implies an understanding that these are not easy tasks for any person to promise. No matter our good intentions, we all backslide. But we will do our best to do our best, “with God’s help.”

So the notion of God needing our help strikes an intriguing note.

Many years ago, at a synagogue on the outskirts of Jerusalem, I heard an engaging young rabbi (Levi Weiman-Kelman) address a Sabbath congregation. Speaking of Adam and Eve and God, he asked us to pay attention to the first question God asks Adam in Genesis: “Where are you?” A few sentences later, the first question God asks Eve is “What have you done?”

Why, the rabbi asked us, does God ask these questions? God in this story is all-knowing and all-seeing. God must know where Adam is. God knows what Eve has done. Why ask?

Any parent of a child is probably ahead of me with the answer on this one: If God’s not asking to enhance his own knowledge, maybe we could imagine that he’s asking Adam and Eve what’s going on because he wants them to think about the answers. God wants them to pay particular attention to these questions. He could tell them, but he wants them to come up with it on their own.

And, as you’d expect in the very first pages of a text that has arguably had more impact on human culture in the last 4,000 years than any other, they’re pretty good questions for all of us to ponder. In the Bible, they set a theme that recurs again and again: Where are we? What have we done? Is God asking Adam and Eve to pay attention to what they’re doing, not just right now but always? A text this rich has many layers, but I think that’s one fair reading.

I thought of this as I heard Tom Waits singing that maybe God needs our help. The song uses it ironically: How could an all-powerful being need help from us earthly grubs? But I think back to that scene in the garden, where God, who knows the answers, wants the humans to work it out themselves.

As Bob Dylan sings, "You never ask questions when God's on your side."

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