The Flaming Sword East of Eden

Growing up the son a minister had far more advantages for me than the disadvantages so many associate with such a lot in life. Hide and seek in the sanctuary. Access to the staff breakroom. And knowing everyone really well. A distinct one is familiarity with the holy book. Far from contempt, the longstanding relationship I’ve had with this book has bred a fascination on into middle age. And across the years I have not only been fed by those passages which make up the bone and marrow of knowing God and man but also by those I have sat staring into with wonder.

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There are places in the sacred writings I seem to never get at.  They are the door of escape in a dream gone bad or the brass ring, which is always out of reach. These passages cannot be fully grasped and answers never satisfy. One of those places has been a favorite since I was a kid.

He drove out the man, 
and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim
and a flaming sword 
that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. 
– Genesis 3:24

So Adam and Eve eat the fruit and the pristine relationship between God and the height of his creation is broken, shattered like your grandma’s prized vase on the Linoleum. And so he kicks Adam and Eve out of paradise to keep them away from the tree of life so they won’t live forever. And then, get this…he sets up an angel to guard the tree with a flaming sword. A. Flaming. Sword.

And I just have one question.

Is it still there?

I mean, is there still an angel ready to go all book of revelation on intruders with a flaming sword wherever Eden was…is? I mean, there once was.

There is a part of me hoping so. The 10-year-old in me, who likes to still think in terms of Indiana Jones and likes to stare into the sky and dream of Narnia, wants it to be true. I want the tree of life to still be standing there majestic, unspoiled by the fall and all its hellish effects. And in its shade, one of the mighty and holy cherubim, with no less power and energy than the day he began his charge, standing sentinel to take down any who come close to his keep. He is able to elude all who do not threaten but when no other option is available, the flaming sword is wielded with holy fury. There he is placed till the end of days and the beginning of time undone, reminding us all of what was lost and has been promised to be regained.

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Actually, it’s a fairly sad picture, epic though it is. This soldier of the heavens was positioned just there all because the height of God’s creation declared war on God. Did he think it was familiar? Were there whispers of another coup among the heavenly host? This was not the first time God had moved defensively in response to an act of war. So while the boy in me is mesmerized by the idea of an otherworldly being clutching a flaming sword, its presence was…is an echo of the curse that made it all so necessary. Perhaps that is why it sounds so sad when Emmylou Harris sings,

I have seen the flaming swords,
There over east of Eden,
Burning in the eyes of the Maker.

The result of him being on guard there is death. Death was the great punishment for the insurrection in the garden. As it were, death guards life. And does so with fiery ferocity.

So every time we face the final effect of sin in the face, we are looking into a pair of eyes set like a flint on limiting the length of our time here east of Eden. The sharp pain of every sickness threatening future health is the piercing of sharpened steel forged in the fires of eternal intent. Every spouse who looks in the eyes of their beloved after getting the news of cancer is staring down into the unfathomable depths of a sheath emptied in opposition to forever knowing.

For those who believe, death ushers us into the great hall of reversal. A world where the sword has been beaten into a plowshare. A world where sharp-edges bounce off skin and pointed tips are no longer pointed at those who have sinned. Sin is no more. Death is no more.

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Maybe it’s a mercy he was situationed there. Adam and Eve and everybody else’s passion to be like God should be squelched as much as possible. Adam and Eve had already procured a knowledge forbidden them, to their great detriment. So as an act of mercy, the severe kind, a sword burns bright. Even now.

I’m Thinking About Dying

I’m thinking about dying.

Not suicide. I like living. And that is why I’m thinking about dying. I guess it happens to everyone around my age. I’m 38, which isn’t old but I do turn 39 this year. And that feels old. Actually the only thing I really don’t like about getting older is the dying part. And diapers, which I actually fear more than death, itself.

Getting older has many advantages. The distance between now and High School is ever growing and for that I am thankful. Wisdom does come with age. And you have money. People call you ‘sir.’

But dying is the hard part.

When I was a youth pastor, I was into dying. You know, making kids feel bad because there are martyrs in China and “all you want to do is drink beer and play ball.” I probably said that. So we talked about death a lot. Dying to self. Dying to sin. Dying one day soon…”sooner than you know.” I probably said that too. All these are important subjects but I was obsessed with the idea. And I admit it was because it got their attention.

Driver’s Ed was the coolest non-class I ever took. Not sure why, but there were two teachers and I guess they gave us grades but I remember mostly sitting in the classroom teacherless and some guy flicking pennies at me. This hurt but I preferred this treatment over a real class with work. And a teacher. I do remember driving around in an American me-maw car with a brake in the passenger floorboard and then going through drive-thrus of fast food places on Roebuck Parkway. I liked fast food.

The creepiest part about the ‘class’ was the pictures shown to us of mangled teenagers in mangled cars. Polaroids. Slides. Flannelgraph. Blood was the common theme. The point was to scare us into driving slower and more careful and without alcohol. But the teachers seemed to love this part of the class the most. I remember boredom on the part of the instructors being the consistent tone. But when they brought out these pictures the room was electrified…like driver’s ed porn.  Maybe it would have scared kids from the suburbs in the ’80s but all my friends were watching Faces and Death by this time. Most of the guys were not grossed out or freaked out in the least. They were entertained.

I was the ministry equivalent of the driver’s ed teacher in High School.

So I used videos and stories from books about martyrs who put the paltry faith of my hormonal teens to shame. It worked sometimes. I kept their attention. They were even entertained a little.

But back to me. I know Paul says dying is gain and all but something inside me tells me that I should not be in a hurry for it. I like it here. When I wake up in the morning and my wife is beside me…well, that’s what I want to happen everyday. Death is the end of that. I know we have the promise of something greater. But, I’m mot sure I am supposed to want it more than waking up next to Bethany.

For many, I have just finally proved to be a carnal person. But, I mean, if we are supposed to just want to go to heaven above all things, how come we eat? Wouldn’t it just be OK to stop feeding our bodies and then eventually die? I know it sounds painful but we are also supposed to move toward suffering too, right?

I think that cover on the spare tire of my teenage next door neighbor’s jeep is right. Life is good. And Death is not good. No one celebrates cancer and heart attacks and strokes and fatal car wrecks (well, my driver’s ed teacher really liked showing us those pictures). We may be glad someone has gone on to be with God. That’s certainly pretty great. But death? It’s a reminder of how bad things really are.

Death should revolt me, and not only because I don’t like the idea of someone else marrying my wife if I die sometime soon. If my neighbor’s tire is right and life is good, then death is a problem.  It ends marriages, friendships, puts holes in communities. It creates fatherless children and mothers with holes in their hearts the size of a toddler bed.

So my thoughts about dying are not the romanticized notions they once were. There is a lot to leave behind. Sure, I know God is greater than life. And I know the promise of the gospel is that death has been conquered. But he gave us life and he placed me where I am for a reason. He’s smart that way. Guilt should not be the result of being in no hurry to go. We all have those folks in our life who can utter, “I’m ready to die and be in heaven.” And they mean it. I always feel guilty on the inside because lunch is coming and I like lunch. But I nod on the outside and I make that sound all Baptists learn at an early age to show we agree with something really spiritual and profound. You know, the sound you made a few paragraphs back.

So there’s a tension. We should live while we are here. Be present and faithful where we are. All the time recognizing that Death is not the way things were meant to be. But also realizing that death has no more sting. It is now because of Another’s death, death is the next great adventure. Either Dumbledore or Gandalf said that. I can’t keep the two apart.