The Heron

“Just walk down to the end of the parking lot and you’ll see the path toward the lake. Follow the grass path around the lake. They keep it closely mowed… mostly. You’ll be fine.” These were my directions to find a place to walk while at the abbey for a couple of days. So, I followed my nose to the end of the parking lot. There was the well mown path that headed to the water. I was on my way, on a beautiful morning.

As I rounded the first curve of the lake, I was absorbed in my own thoughts on a solitary exercise. When I looked up, I found I was not alone. There, maybe fifty yards ahead, was a heron standing at the water’s edge (Great Blue Heron, perhaps – but I’m no ornithologist). The majestic, graceful creature stood looking in my direction, then began to walk up toward the path. As I got closer, the heron took flight – effortless, powerful. As the long neck and head stretched forward and the long legs trailed, I could, for just a second, see the prehistoric ancestors of this bird – pterodactyl and such. The great creature landed on the path farther down the line. As I approached again, it winged its way onto a stout tree nearby. Then again, to the water’s edge at a place where the path was less visible – and I was unsure where it turned. The heron, my companion, flew off into the trees ahead. I followed. There I found the  neatly mowed path once again.

“Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.”

Lots of folks might see God in this encounter. Many would conclude that the Heron had been sent to guide me – its presence would be all about me. I don’t buy that for a minute.  More likely, it was fleeing my presence. I had probably interrupted its breakfast. Too often we think that creature and creation are all here for us. We’re terrible narcissists in that way. We don’t see that the Heron exists all on its own, with its own communion with God. It would have been there had I explored the path or not. We need to be careful seeing every butterfly and bird; every tree and sunrise as a message from God just for us. In the same way, we need to see that the resources of creation are more than consumable resources out here for me and you to use.

The gift this beggar received from this beautiful creature was in the transformation of my solitary, self-absorbed walk into a journey with something; dare I say, with someone? The One who created us both? From the moment that bird flew off, I was unable to be alone. The little white and purple flowers were all around. A hawk crossed the path ahead of me. A big green bug in the path and dozens of other creatures were all around. These creatures, made and beloved of God, are not pests, weeds, interlopers or guests in my world. We are, as St. Francis would say, brothers and sisters. Maybe, if we humans would see this more clearly, we would stop, or at least slow, our drive to be the most invasive, viral species to bring death to the planet.

Perhaps this is what theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson is getting at when she says, “Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.”(1) We are called to love God with our whole being and called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Who is our neighbor? Certainly, as the Good Samaritan story tells us, it is anyone in need. Perhaps any-thing in need. On that day, my neighbor was a heron – and hundreds of God’s creations too numerous to count. It is so every day, if we will look, listen and be aware of the neighborhood of life. That is this Beggar’s Take.

© 2018 – Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved
(1) Johnson, Elizabeth A., Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Bloomsbury Continuum) Kindle Edition

Malcontents for Jesus

The news this morning heralded a new high in lows. A lone gunman had broken the U.S. record for a single killing spree: 58 dead, more than 500 wounded. As if I am watching some distorted, despicable, dystopian game, I wonder how long it will be before the record is broken again. There is something deeply wrong with the world.

We are more divided than ever along lines drawn by race, gender, sexuality, political party. Hate and vitriol control even the most mundane conversations. Social media, which was to bring people together, instead tears us apart. There is something deeply wrong with the world.

processional cross

The normal response to something being broken is to “fix it.” So, most discussions about the problems of the world jump to fixing this or that problem, then it will all be well. A little more data, some innovative thinking and we’ll be good to go. Like a car with a bad starter, it just needs a new part. Unfortunately, we are one part of the whole system known as “the world.” We are so enmeshed with what is causing the suffering we can’t just “fix it,” because fixing “it” means fixing us, and we can’t even see the problem clearly.

There is an old Hasidic saying that says, “To a worm in a jar of horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” The worm doesn’t know anything but horseradish, so what is to change? Our world is shaped by violence, hate, judgment, competition, a sense of scarcity, greed and a hundred other things that are not just around us, but in us. The cross of Christ is the ultimate unveiling of the world’s foolishness. The ways of the world murdered God! God gave love, and the world (we) hung love on a tree to die.

Eugene Peterson, in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, says that the first step in becoming a disciple who follows Jesus Christ is to wake up and realize that “the world” that shapes us and causes us so much pain is broken. We have broken it and we are clueless as to how to fix it. He says:

“The first step toward God is a step away from the lies of the world. It is a renunciation of the lies we have been told about ourselves and our neighbors and our universe.”

Discipleship begins when we turn away from the lies of the world and toward the life-giving promises of God in Christ. This is the classic definition of repentance – to turn away from the wrong way to the right way. We need to be malcontents in this world – unsatisfied with the way things are and committed to what can be in Christ. We renounce the world to embrace Christ.

This turning can hurt, at first. It means we leave behind what we know – like the rich man to whom Jesus said “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) The man couldn’t do it. His wealth was too important to him. But, it was that piece of the world that kept him from God’s reign.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this:

“Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

The thing is, once we make the turn, we come to see that all it really cost us is our captivity to the violent, death-dealing lies of the world. What it grants is life in Christ, the reign of God, the peaceable kingdom. As the cross reveals the deathly nature of the world, the resurrection of Jesus reveals that the way of Christ is the only way to life, in this moment and in all future moments. How do you know this for sure? God has raised only Christ from the dead. Caesar, Washington, Lincoln, Rockefeller and everyone else is still dead. So, who are you going to follow? Me? I’m a malcontent for Jesus.

 

copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2017