Sunday, August 11, 2013

Faith, Doubt and The Lord God Bird (probably my next tattoo...)

The ivory billed woodpecker has been extinct for at least 60 years.  This woodpecker used to be very common in The Big Woods, a span of 24 million acres from Tennessee to Arkansas.  When people saw it, they’d be so surprised by its beauty and its large size, they’d exclaim “Lord God!” and, so they say, that is how it got its name, “The Lord God Bird.” The Lord God Bird, the largest woodpecker in North America was gone, completely extinct, along with most of The Big Woods, by the 1940s. Hunting and clear cutting were the main causes.   All that’s left is 500,000 acres in Arkansas, dusty stuffed woodpeckers in taxidermists’ back rooms, and some gritty, fuzzy recordings of the bird’s call from 1935. The Lord God bird was no more.

And then on a gloomy day in February, 2004, a guy by the name of Gene Sparling was cruising through what is left of the swampy Big Woods in his canoe. And then, he says, “A large woodpecker flew into the channel from above the canopy. He was headed straight towards me." At first, he assumed it was the pileated, a large woodpecker that has similar features to the ivory bill, but this one had much more white on its wings.  After vaguely mentioning the sighting on the internet, two men, Tim Gallagher from Cornell and Bobby Harrison, a college professor from Alabama, rushed to Arkansas to find the bird.  With help from Sparling, they too, found the bird.  "And then this bird just burst across in front of us at close range," Gallagher says. "About 65 feet away. And right in the sunlight. … And it was just, I mean, I dropped my paddle and almost fell out of the canoe. I mean it was like getting slapped in the face."

They knew exactly what they were seeing when they saw it - The Lord God Bird.
Could this bird have come back from extinction?  Back from the dead?
These three men were convinced this was so. 

The original audiences in our Epistle and our Gospel readings today were expecting Jesus to come back any minute.  And they were waiting.  And waiting.  Generations have passed. They’ve buried those who knew Jesus personally. They are riding on dim memories twice removed and repeated stories told around the campfire. Luke was written something like 50 years after the death of Jesus. The temple has been destroyed.  They are being persecuted.  Things are falling apart, and they’re still waiting. 

The dating of Hebrews is a bit contested, somewhere between 60 and 90 AD, but whatever the case, they, too, are anxiously awaiting Jesus’ return.  They, too, are being mocked and ridiculed for worshipping a Jewish peasant who was crucified by the Romans for sedition.  For both communities, things are getting uncomfortable.  They’d suffered prison, the plundering of their possessions, and much hostility from their surrounding culture because they followed this humiliated, crucified Jesus.  They are actively being forced out of what was once their native habitat.  And Jesus is supposed to be coming back any minute now.  ...  Any minute now... 
Jesus could come right now...then I wouldn't have to finish this sermon...

So both writers are trying to encourage their communities to hang on a little bit longer.  A little bit of faith is all they need, a kind of trusting, waiting, a readiness for the unexpected.  “Be sure of what you hope for,” they say, even when you are being ridiculed and feeling lost and disillusioned by the world around you.  “Don’t be afraid,” they say, “for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Be ready, “be dressed for action and have your lamps lit” and the master will come home and you’ll be blessed.  Hang on a little bit longer, and you’ll be home, God’s kingdom will come, you’ll be back in your natural habitat.  You’ll see what you thought was forever gone.

Easier said than done.

These passages have, so often, been used to ridicule those of us who supposedly lack faith.  If you just had a little bit of faith, they’d say, you’d realize that losing your job or your house or your relationship was a good thing, something God wants, what’s best for you.  You’d realize this if you only had a little bit of faith. You know, the mustard seed and the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and all that.  If you only trusted.  If you only got rid of your doubt. 
‘Cause see, the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour to snatch up all the good ones, the faithful ones, and you’re gonna be left behind.  So we buy bumper stickers that say things like, “at the event of rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned,” “Know Jesus, No Fear, No Jesus, Know Fear” and “Jesus is coming, look busy!”  We put our faith into trite sayings and quippy slogans to prove to ourselves that we’ve got “enough” of this thing called faith.

But then I think about these men who encountered the “extinct” Lord God bird.  

They don’t have any pithy proclamations or bumper sticker slogans about what they hope to find or about their bird or about what it’s going to take to find it.  When the bird was first rediscovered, the man wasn’t even looking for it, it just came to him.  And when they did see it, they don’t even share the news. They entered the wilderness.  They kept quiet.  They watched and waited.  They hoped that they’d see something.  And when they didn’t, they came back out the next morning and tried again. 

Meanwhile, maybe they enjoyed the way the oars felt as they sliced into the swampy water.  Maybe they noticed the way the bark on the last of the first growth forest trees are patterned just so.  Maybe they watched how the sun reflects and the way the shadows arc and the how rings expand when a dragonfly lands on the surface of the water.  Maybe they were encouraged enough by these things to come back again tomorrow.

Gene saw the bird.  He wasn’t even looking for it.  It was extinct, after all. And with no proof or witness testimony from an expert, with no iPhone recording of the event, Tim and Bobby drop everything, come from miles away, to try to find it, too.  They enter the wilderness - what is described as “one of the most exotic and most inhospitable environments in America, a vast primordial ooze, a place so wild, that the Big Woods have been called this country’s Amazon.” And they catch a glimpse, a tiny glimpse.

And with the report of these two sightings, people began donating millions of dollars to search for this bird without any significant, scientific proof that it existed.  All they had was the testimony of a few dirty outdoorsmen armed, not with surveillance cameras and infrared scanners and night vision goggles, but with some trail mix, some beef jerky, a canoe and a couple pairs of binoculars.  And with that they formed teams that have spent over 15,000 man hours looking for this bird. A photographer spent 241 days in this wildest of wildernesses before he saw the bird, and still didn’t get a good shot. Finally, after all this work, they got a four second, blurry video of the bird in flight.

And there are still skeptics out there who don’t believe them. People who will never believe them unless they see the bird with their own eyes.  And maybe they will.  Maybe they’ll go out into the wilderness themselves and wait and float along for days and finally, finally see it. Or maybe they’ll get out there and spend 241 straight days in the wilderness and experience nothing but sore canoe butt and arms and legs full of mosquito bites.  Or maybe they’ll stay put in their air conditioned offices, completely content to deny the bird’s existence. 

The question is, what do we do with this four second blurry video of the bird in flight?  

What do we do with these two-thousand-year-old testimonies, often blurry, often perplexing, of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection?  What do we do with the hope that Jesus will come back again, and yet the distinct, pestering realization that Jesus is really hard to see around these parts, that maybe Jesus really is extinct, that those who claim to see him are all hallucinating and delusional?  We have the hope of all that we wish is true, and the stark, depressing reality of the world around us.  How do we carry both of these things together? 

What do we do with a four second, blurry video of a bird that is supposed to be extinct?

Jesus tells us to not be afraid. To light lamps.  To put your treasure in the things that will lead to the kingdom.  To be dressed for action.  Be ready to open the door as soon as God comes and knocks. Go out into the wilderness, put your oar in, pull out your binoculars, listen and look hard. Maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of the resurrected Christ.  

And yet. There are people like John Fitzpatrick, who is a leading authority and expert on North American birds.  He has spent his life studying birds.  He has worked countless hours to help protect the landscape and to learn more about the ivory billed woodpecker.  He has written politicians and raised funds and studied the evidence and searched and searched himself for this elusive bird.  And he’s never seen it.  Never spotted a glimpse.  And yet he still works for its protection.  He believes that it exists.  He fights to protect its habitat.  And all he’s gotten in return is a four second blurry video.  

Asked if he is upset that he has never seen the bird for himself, he says, "I don't really get frustrated at that. Right now I would love to see this bird. I can't lie at all. I'm so glad that other people have," says Fitzpatrick. "I mean, I've wept at stories of people describing it. It's an extremely emotional thing, this bird. I could happily go to my grave and not see it if we could find out what's going on and save it."

We could do everything Jesus calls us to and still never catch a glimpse.  We could believe and believe and believe and never be fully sure.  We could have been given a glimpse and never truly be certain about what we have seen.  Never - at least - in our lifetimes.

But could we “happily go to our grave and not see it if we could find out what’s going on and save it?” Could we be content with the forever searching and seeking and waiting for Christ?  

I can’t think of a better thing to wait for.  

These men - and these early followers of Jesus -  entered the wilderness.  They were quiet.  They watched and waited.  They hoped. But they didn’t really know what they were looking for.  They lit some lamps and got up early and some of them spent 241 days in the wilderness before they saw a glimpse. They came out bruised and and dirty and tired.  Or they are still waiting to see a glimpse.  
In the meantime, the scientists and birdwatchers are fighting to protect its natural habitat.  They’re working for the preservation of these wild, exotic, dangerous lands where the Lord God bird finds its home.  They’re telling their story again and again to anyone who will listen - partially to encourage others to believe in this strange, unlikely encounter, partly to convince themselves of what they’ve seen. 

And the Early Christians were doing the same.  They lived together.  They shared what they owned.  They struggled and suffered and were victims of their own harsh landscape.  They shared meals and told the stories of their own encounters with God.  They reminded themselves over and over again of the one whom they were seeking. They’d tell their story again and again to anyone who would listen - partially to encourage others to believe in this strange, unlikely encounter, partly to convince themselves of what they’ve seen.

They’d remind themselves that Jesus told them to be ready like servants waiting for their master to come home from a wedding banquet.  They’d remind themselves of the stories of their fathers and grandfathers: Jesus told them that the master would serve the servants. That Jesus would be back, and just as they served each other, Jesus would serve them. They’d remind themselves that Jesus himself didn’t even know when he’d be back, or how it’d happen.

And here we are. Longing to see a glimpse of this Lord God.  Aching to find some meaning in this boggy wilderness of violence and materialism and judgment.  Here we are trying to believe, amid all our doubts and fears and amidst all the evidence to the contrary, that Jesus is real and God is True, and that Christ is resurrected and will come back again.  
So, we try to protect God’s landscape - those places in the world where God’s will is truly being done, those times in life when we get a speck of meaning and understand just a tiny bit - who we are and who we were created to be.  We are forever searching and seeking and waiting for Christ.

We tell the story - the Good News of Christ among us as well as the Christ who came before us, who has been since “before” the beginning of time. We see that we are part of that story.  We sit quietly and listen to where we are being called to extend the story.  We ask others to enter in to the story.  We celebrate what we find, even if it is just a blurry four second video of a life, death, and resurrection of an unlikely God in our very midst.  

Is there anything better in this life to wait for?

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

We've All Got a Little Reflux...

Hosea 11:1- 11:11

11When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. 3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. 5They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. 7My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
8How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. 10They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. 11They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

LUKE 12:13-21

 "Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’"

My two month old son has some nasty reflux.  It’s pretty common for babies. At least human ones. Although many animals are born ready to walk and eat and face the world, babies are some of the most helpless creatures on the planet.  They can’t hold their heads up, they can’t control their bodies, and in my son’s case, he can’t even nurse without spewing half of it back out onto the comforter, the couch, my third shirt of the day.  It’s a mess.  And I’m forever grateful to have a washing machine and dryer in my basement. On several occasions, I’ve picked him up to kiss him on the cheek, and as his eyes get big and his smile gets wide as we come nearer, surprise! A nice little present right in the eye. I’m one of those nursing moms who just isn’t phased by baby puke. I probably should take a look at my shoulders to double check that I’m not covered in it right now.  

And I don’t even know if my son knows if I exist.  I mean, he knows when he’s hungry, and he knows that some lady with dark hair and glasses comes and fixes that.  But does he really know that I’m the same person who fed him just twenty minutes ago?  Probably not.  He doesn’t have object permanence yet.  If he can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.  So if he can’t see me, then I must not exist.  It’s pretty rational, really.  So, I question, does my son “believe” in me? Probably not.  He’s a Momma atheist.  An “a-motherist.” Or at least an agnostic. 

Our Hebrew Scripture passage for today is simply amazing in this way.  God describes Godself as a tender mother - one who teaches Israel to walk, who takes them up in her arms -- she kisses their boo boos, and stocks up on Buzz Lightyear bandaids, and swaddles them with love and kindness.  She is “to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.” She bends “down to them and [feeds] them.”  Does Israel even realize what God has done for them?  If they are infants, they won’t even remember.  They have no idea where their care is coming from.  They just know what they need, and they cry out when they need it.

This passage is a description of God’s very nature.  Who is God?  God is like a mother.  A mother who cares for her children and raises them up herself.  A mother who chases her kids even as they run away from her.  A mother who, although it’s painful, lets her kids make choices that will hurt them.  And a mother who grieves every time she sees Israel destroy itself.  And finally, God is a mother who, like a lion, will roar so fiercely that her children will not be able to help but come back to her.  Even if her children have no idea that she exists.  Even if they have no idea where their milk comes from.

This is an intimate God.  A God who feeds and teaches and swaddles and chases.  A God who is embodied. A God who gets puked on.  

There are some days when I feel like throwing my kids out the window.  Just a few nights ago, around three in the morning my son was crying and crying.  I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.  I’d try to nurse, and he’d refuse.  I’d rock, and he’d cry even harder.  I changed his diaper, still screamed.  I found myself wondering why in the world I signed up for this - again.  My nerves were frayed.  I was exhausted.  I was tapped out.  My heart was pounding, I was breathing hard and fast, sweating from the stress. Luckily, I’m not in this alone, and Dan was there to take him and bounce him and give me a break.  

But, God, God’s not like this. God’s a much better mother than I. God’s got patience. Enough patience to drag an entire people out of Egypt, even as they wander through the desert whining and complaining and demanding to go back to slavery.  God has enough patience to call after them, even after they worship other gods.  Enough patience to hold them in her arms and nurse them and lift them to her cheeks, even while Israel is yet to develop “object permanence.”  

This is a God who is slow to anger - literally, in the Hebrew, God is “long in the nose.”  Now, it’s a common Hebrew idiom that describes divine anger as being “hot in the nose,” or God who has a “burning nose” -- and God’s divine patience is described in the length of God’s nose.   In the Hosea passage, God says, “I will not execute my fierce anger” - literally, my “charone api” -- “my burning nose.” Our God breathes slowly and deeply.  Our God is “long in the nose.” Even God’s patience is embodied, expressed through nostrilled fleshiness.  
This is an interesting contrast to verse seven. And you might need to crack the spines of those ancient pew Bibles and check out the verse in order to see it. It says, “My people are bent on turning away from me.  To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.” Wait.  I thought God was the Most High?  But not in this passage.  That which is “Most High” are the Ba’als, the false gods, the ones whose shrines are way up in the mountains.

See, we want the far away god - the one who is “Most High,” the one who is up in the clouds or on a mountaintop or in a skyscraper who won’t meddle with us and our choices.  We want the god who is distant and unconcerned.  That’s why we worship things like money and success and stability and ignorance and others’ approval and the easy choice.  These things will never lift us up to their cheeks.  They will never swaddle us with love.  Never bend down and feed us.  We want the gods we have to reach up to, the gods we can climb to, the gods we earn, not the vulnerable, fleshy God who wants to lift us to Godself like a mother lifts her child.  We are terrified of a God whom we spit up on.  We don’t trust that God will love us anyway, will love us because of all that puke and soaked-through diapers and snotty noses and tears and temper tantrums and all our unconsolable late nights. 

We don’t trust that God, who gets fiercely angry with our choices because God fiercely loves us, will forgive us, gather us back into her arms, set us back on our feet to try again.  Ours is a God who wants to lift us up, who comes down to us -- not a god who demands that we climb our way up.  God wants to return us to our homes, bring us back to where we are meant to be, give us rest from all this striving for what is way up there, for what is “Most High.”  
The Israelites are threatened by the Assyrians and are at risk living in an occupied land, and they’re letting themselves be occupied.  They are buying what the Assyrians are selling them. They are doing what the Assyrians are doing: they are worshipping the far-off gods that are up on the mountains, and forgetting about the God who has nurtured and cared for them like a mother cares for her child.  And the rich man in our New Testament passage is doing the same thing.  These far-off gods, whether they be the Ba’als, riches, security, status, degrees, political clout, whatever, they are not going to lift us up to their cheeks, they are not going to feed us and teach us to walk and call us back home.  

Sounds familiar, yes?  All around us are ads and articles and movies and cars and buildings and bank accounts that tell us that we aren’t where we’re supposed to be.  We need to work harder, be more disciplined, buy whatever they’re selling, or just give up and let some substance or ideology or political perspective or broken relationship take us over and define our lives for us. We are so afraid of the mess, of being vulnerable and out of control, that we just build bigger storehouses in which to store our gods.
But God is a wild, chasing God, a God who roars us back to herself, and we cannot help but return home at the sound.  God is a God who wants to grab us by the scruff of our necks and take us back where we belong.

Does it matter if we “believe” in such a God?  I don’t think so.  Even if, like my son, we lack object permanence, we know when we are getting fed.  We know when we are comfortable and safe.  We are familiar with God’s smell and the curve of the crook of God’s arm and what it feels like to be swaddled in God’s bands of love.  We recognize the soft, furry, scruffy touch of God’s cheek against ours.  We will know we’re home when we’re in God’s arms, even if we don’t understand who holds us, or if we can’t see more than twelve inches in front of our faces, or even if we forget what we’re doing twenty minutes later.
And we’ll puke on God.  We’ll have colic and unconsolable nights.  We’ll stray away, and hurt each other, and suffer the consequences.  We’ll worship those things that are far away from us because we are so terrified of God’s intense intimacy.  But like a lioness who licks her cubs clean, almost knocking them over with her gruff motherly care, God will call us back home.  Like a Momma Bear who grows fiercely angry, full of her fierce love when her cubs are in danger and going the wrong way and bats them back in line with her big paws, or when some predator comes and threatens their safety, God will do the same. 

This is an intimate God.  A God who gets messy with us.  A God who bleeds and nurses and has a long nose.  A God who is vulnerable enough to die a humiliating death.  A God who calls us back home, again and again, who lifts us up to Godself.  Not the gods of the “Most High” who demand that we strive and climb and sweat up a mountain to get to some demanding, expecting, hollow and mechanical god, but a God who bends down and feeds us, who lifts us up to her cheek. 

We are infants in God’s arms.  Helpless. Messy.  Crying. Weak. Most of us have some nasty reflux. And God is our mother whose infinite patience brings us back, sets us back on our feet when we fall, and who longs to lift us to her cheek, not so that we can “believe” the right way, or have perfect knowledge of God, or act the right way, but so that we can feel the comfort of God’s touch, so that God can rejoice in us, delight in us, we whom God has made.

Thanks be to God.