Sunday, January 26, 2014

Abundance and Pigeons

Urban parable: The Reign of God is like the flock of pigeons that drops to the street at the sight of any dropped crumb and once they've consumed it, they coo, iridescent in abundance.

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Speaking of abundance and pigeons, there's just oodles of pigeons in Houston. Like grains of sand on the beach or hairs on a Kennedy's head. Lots of them. 

I remember as a child, growing up on the farm, pigeons were rare, exotic even. I remember seeing only a couple as a child and I was enthralled with them. They didn't find much of a welcome on the farm. As they are attracted to buildings, the only place they would have found to roost was our barns and our cats ruled those roosts. So either they moved quickly on or were an exotic dinner for Cricket or Patches or Selina or any number of feline barn-tenders. 

But I had a pigeon feather in my feather collection (yes, I had a very small feather collection---I was selective about which feathers I found and kept). Their puffed up grey bodies and iridescent collars would come to mind whenever I looked at my grey and white feather from that elusive, foreign bird. 

Really, I had no idea they swarmed cities like flying, feathered rats. 

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 The above parable came to me as I watched pigeons on a Houston sidewalk from my seat on the train. I often muse at how ubiquitous they are to me now and how excited I was when I saw on perched on the old barn, some 40 years ago. 

Abundance and scarcity are such relative things. They are so much an attitude of perspective, at least in my fairly easy life. For some people, I know, to live my life would be a hardship. I don't own a TV or a car. I'm always watching every dollar spent and never getting ahead on the debt. I've had maybe 3 or 4 years of my life where I didn't feel that sort of pinch, all of them over 10 years ago. 

But there are so many ways that I'm rich. Just today, I had lunch with friends, got picked up by other friends on my way to an artists' meeting, met with artists to discuss an upcoming show . . . all of that after worshiping in a growing congregation, where I received the sacrament that remains so important to me. 

It's a rich, rich life.

I cannot know your struggles, and I'm not that open about mine all the time. But I invite you to look at what you may think of as crumbs around you and see just how much there is. 

The pigeons make a meal of the crumbs and they always look fat.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Come and See

In the first chapter of the Gospel according to John, after John the Baptizer has baptized Jesus, we find two of John's disciples trading loyalties and leaving John for Jesus.

Jesus turns and sees them and asks, "What are you looking for?"

The disciples answer with their own question: "Where are you staying?"

Jesus doesn't answer with an address but says, "Come and See."

So the disciples formerly belonging to John follow Jesus and hang out with him for an afternoon. It's hard to tell if they felt their lives changed in that afternoon or if it took longer for them to understand. But they were excited and they believed Jesus was the one they'd been waiting for, that the fulfillment of a promise was right here in front of them.

One of the disciples, Andrew, went to find his brother, Simon. The gospel narrative gives us the impression that Jesus got one look at Simon and sized him up immediately. "I'm going to call you Cephas." Peter. Rock. 

And so with just a few lines, we find out this much about Jesus.

Show him a little curiosity and he's going to issue an invitation. He may not give you a direct, fact-based answer, but he'll offer an invitation that will send you running to your kin, extending the invitation.. "Come here! Look who we found!"

Then, Jesus might have one look at you and change your name, give you your identity, tell you who you are. 

It's as simple and as dangerous as that.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Baptism and the Beloved Community

Today was the festival known as The Baptism of Our Lord, the first Sunday after the church celebrates the Epiphany. We recount a story from the gospels (today was Matthew's turn) of Jesus being baptized by his cousin, John.

In my congregation, they also use the day to baptize anyone who is ready for the sacrament. Today, we had a little girl---toddler age, I guess---baptized and welcomed into the "household of God" as the Episcopalians say.

Even though I now belong to an Episcopal church (I confess I'm not quite able to say I'm an Episcopalian---it doesn't yet come off the tongue without hesitation), my Lutheran heritage has a strong heritage in daily remembrance of our baptisms. Actually, one of the comforting things in my new denomination has been hearing, now and then, exhortations to remember our baptismal covenants. It feels very Lutheran to me. Yes, I haven't strayed that far from the church of my first 50 years.

But all that's beside the point.

In the baptism liturgy (the work of the people), besides the water and invocation of the Triune God, there are a lot of promises. The one baptized or his/her parents and sponsors make promises to be active in the Christian community. The community gathered makes promises to support the baptized in their faith. We are reminded of God's promises of love and life.

I could recount a few ways the church has failed me since my baptism.

I couldn't begin to recount the ways I've failed the Christian community.

And everyone there could, I suspect, do likewise.

I can also say the communion of saints have kept me alive a couple of times, and helped out in less dire situations. How I've helped the community is not mine to say, but I hope I have helped somewhere once or twice.

And today at lunch, I heard a woman say, in her current crisis (which is irrelevant here), after a lifetime of church membership, has never been cared for by a congregation as she has in this moment.

Sometimes the community gets it right.

And so tonight I remember my baptism, remember my part of the covenant, knowing I have failed it, am failing it, will fail it some more . . . and ask for the movement of the Holy Spirit, that I might support my community and that I might have the humility to ask for what I need.

That water leaves a mark. I'm still growing into it.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Twelfth Day of Christmas 2014

I'm writing on a computer and what I write will be accessible by other computers all around the world (but probably not everywhere, allowing for some governments possibly blocking Blogger). To get to this technology, someone had to think a certain way and I'm ultimately glad someone did. I do rather love the internet.

At the same time, I also know that to get to this scientific process, we lost a mythological way of thinking. Having lost that, we've lost a way of reading that doesn't rely on facts. With that loss, we also lost a way to read the Christmas story.

Because what Matthew and Luke were up to was not reporting, but explaining to their culture who they understood Jesus to be. They used common Hellenist tropes (like virgin births or stars appearing to denote deity) to tell the world that Jesus was the Messiah.

So when I post about the differences between the gospels or otherwise point out how some piece of the story is probably not factual, it's not because I don't think the stories are true, it's because I don't think it helps us, in our current age, to talk about miraculous stars and virgin births to a world who wants facts, precision, verifiable and repeatable results.

This is where I no longer believe in things like the "plain meaning" of scripture. I'm not sure that speaking of divinity via the appearance of a star brighter than the rest communicates to us in the same way it did to the first readers/hearers of the story. I don't think it calls up for most people the story of a similar event at the athletic games played in honor of Julius Caesar, hence it doesn't connote the information that Caesar became a god after he died, but this baby was God from birth. (Whatever that might mean!)

Reconnecting to the mythological world of the Hellenistic period gives us more insight, I believe, than a plain reading does. Without learning what was informing the writer of the story, it too easily appears as a fanciful tale, easily dismissed by readers looking for science and fact.

But through the eyes of a mythological reading, you begin to see the subversion, the claiming of Jesus being greater than the Caesars. And this can lead to a deeper understanding of why Jesus was killed, why early Christians were persecuted by the Roman state.

A myth isn't just a fanciful tale, with nothing to tell us. It is a way of telling a truth that science and facts may not have the language for.

So I end these twelve days of Christmas with this: However you feel about virgin births and angel pronouncements and bright stars in the sky, I hope you can find your way into reading the stories that brings you the comfort and joy I mentioned a few days ago.

Just because a story isn't factual doesn't mean it's not true.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Eleventh Day of Christmas 2014

Yesterday, I noted the fact that only two of the four canonical gospels speak of Jesus' birth. I think this needs to be highlighted each year as we get overwhelmed with the secular/commercial Christmas. Even more, the earliest Christian writings that we have---the letters from Paul---have no mention of infancy narratives or much of anything about Jesus before his crucifixion.

There's much made each December of how Christmas took over other winter festivals in various cultures. There is no need to be offended by this, certainly no cause to be defensive about it. Christmas didn't exist until the fourth century, centuries after Jesus walked the earth. There's no need to pretend that this has always been a holiday on par with Easter.

That's not to say that it's wrong to celebrate or observe Christmas. The stories from Matthew and Luke give us some significant pieces of our theology, particularly the piece that God became human and lived among us. All the ways we understand the Image of God coalesce into the stories of this rabbi from Nazareth who became dangerous enough to religious and political leaders to be killed.

So this isn't a war on Christmas post. I just think there's some perspective we've lost.

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Interesting things I found while googling around the internet, mostly to back up my memory that Christmas first appeared in the fourth century. 

I knew that the Puritans didn't observe Christmas, but from 1659 to 1681, Christmas was against the law in Boston. Talk about a war against Christmas! You could get fined five shillings for observing the day! 

Washington Irving (of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" fame) might be credited with creating American Christmas with the publication of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent. in 1819. He writes of old customs that he apparently made up, but set the tone for Christmas becoming a holiday of family warmth and feasting. 

Christmas was not a national holiday in the United States until 1870. 

The more you know . . .

Friday, January 3, 2014

Tenth Day of Christmas 2014

Consider Elizabeth and Mary. Both are big parts of the story of Jesus' birth. (Well, Elizabeth is only named in the Gospel of Luke, but then only Matthew and Luke mention Jesus' birth at all so . . . )

One thing that strikes me about this story is that we know nothing of Mary's family except for this older cousin. We don't know about Mary's parents, we don't know where Mary lived---only that she was betrothed to Joseph but they weren't living together. Perhaps Mary lived with her parents. That seems logical to assume, but it is only an assumption. The stories are silent on this.

Whatever her living arrangements, she finds out she is pregnant from an angel, who also tells her this older cousin is also pregnant. Mary goes straightaway to Elizabeth.

I can't help but think of the stories I've heard about American teenaged girls "in trouble," from before the sexual revolution, and how they often disappeared to go live with an aunt or some other vaguely defined place while her "trouble" came to fruition. I don't know any of these women personally. I wonder about their relationship with their aunt (or whoever). What passed between them, if they sang hymns of joy to each other. I suspect not so much.

But Mary finds out she is pregnant and learns her cousin in pregnant and she goes to see Elizabeth. I suspect there must have been a relationship there already before the visit, that maybe they were already close, but it's more assumption. We only know Mary went to Elizabeth and Elizabeth knew without Mary telling her that she was pregnant. "Women's ways of knowing" or the Holy Spirit? Is there a difference? Does it matter? Elizabeth greeted her younger cousin---young Mary who was betrothed but had no business being pregnant yet---and they rejoiced together. Then Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months. I do wonder what it was like for Zechariah, a priest, to have this pregnant young woman in his house, but he was struck silent by an angel, so maybe he didn't have anything to say about it. Why three months? Is it fair to speculate that Mary stayed there that long for her own family to cool down and warm up to the idea that she was pregnant? Assumptions.

While Elizabeth's story appears only in Luke and any infancy of Jesus appears in only two canonical gospels, Elizabeth's child, John the Baptizer, appears in all four gospels and has a prominent role in them. John is the one who is at the beginning of Jesus public ministry.

So these two men who get so much attention in this story, come from two women who shouldn't have been mothers at that time in their lives. Elizabeth was too old. Mary was not married.

This is the kind of God we deal with when we deal with the God of the Gospels. The best things come from places they shouldn't. "Shouldn't" according to biology/age or "shouldn't" according to status/societal expectations.

There may be reason to pay more attention to the shouldn'ts of our lives

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Ninth Day of Christmas 2014

Just to briefly follow up on yesterday's post about the naming of Jesus.

It occurred to me that the the Incarnation has a name. The law-giving cloud on the mountain avoided the question of naming.

Of course, a baby needs a name, of course the cultural environment of the Moses story and the Jesus story have some big differences that would influence them.

But as a bit of eisegesis, I'm going to go with the notion that the naming of the Son of God is not so much a elevation of the Christ, but further evidence that our fleshiness, our incarnational aspect, is important, not only because God took on flesh and lived among us, but God also took on a name.

Maybe put another way, God taking on a name is just another moment of humility from the God who will not lord godly power over us, but pour out the godliness, becoming like us, taking on a name that gave other people power over the Messiah.

I'm just musing, not making a dogmatic statement.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Eight Day of Christmas 2014 The Name of Jesus

Today is traditionally the day we commemorate the naming of Jesus. In Jewish custom, a male child was circumcised and given his name eight days after he was born. Hence this day becoming the feast day in many (not all) liturgical traditions.

I'm terrible with names. I know I'm not alone in this, but I usually have to hear a person's name multiple times before it'll stick. I count this as a personal failing and I hope to improve on this. Perhaps this might be a New Year's resolution.

I also try very hard to learn a person's name, no matter how difficult I initially find it to pronounce. I don't know if other English speaking cultures do this, but Americans are particularly bad at expecting people of other cultures to adopt a "pronounceable" name when they move here. This embarrasses me as an American. My initial inability to make the right sounds does not mean I can't work at it and learn it. I've found it's usually a matter of listening to how a name is pronounced than trying to learn it from looking at how it's spelled. I briefly worked with a woman with an Asian name that, on paper, didn't look how I would try to pronounce it, but once I learned to pronounce it from listening to her say it, it was both easy and beautiful. Sadly, she'd given up trying to make most Americans say her name and had adopted a simple Anglo name. I guess it helped her function in our society without making anyone "uncomfortable," but I feel badly that this is something we do to immigrants.

In the Bible, names are important. There are names that are changed because the life has changed, or a role has changed (Jacob to Israel, Saul to Paul, to name only two), and God is particularly cagey about giving a name because it's too important to let people just throw around. "I am who I am" was a roadblock to giving a name---and it became the name the ancient Hebrews used, but sparingly. Saying a name is not something to take lightly.

So on this first day of 2014, I've been thinking about names, the importance of learning new names, the care with nicknames and the like. I'm not setting hard and fast rules about any of it, but reminding myself on this Feast Day of the Holy Name of Jesus, that names are important, should be used with care.