Friday, March 30, 2007

Crowded House

It's not only the name of a popular Kiwi pop group. It's also what we could name our new back porch!

A few weeks ago, the wind blew our birdfeeder so hard that it knocked it open from the top. I was planning to go out and fix it, but before I had the chance, I noticed that a pair of birds were starting to scope it out as a possible nest site. Sure enough, within a couple of weeks, a very opportunistic set of house finches had constructed a nest inside of it. We decided to leave it alone to see if they'd carry through on raising their young. We were a little concerned because this feeder (now house) hangs just 3 feet from our kitchen window. The door to our back porch is directly next to it, and our grill is right under it. We figured we might disturb them since we have to use that door in order to take our garbage out. As you can see from the picture, they couldn't care less that we're here. Last night the female sat undeterred on her clutch of eggs while I went back and forth between the kitchen and the grill.

Then, this morning, as I was watching them, my eyes were drawn to another spot of nest-building activity just beyond them. Sure enough, in the tree that stands closer than 10 feet from the bird feeder (now house), a pair of robins is now building their nest. We are going to be able to watch two different species of birds rear their young from our own kitchen window. This is all the more fortunate if you consider that our yard--if you even may call it that--is about the size of a postage stamp. The one tree--if you even may call it that--that officially stands in our yard is so close to our neighbors' property that it's difficult to ascertain who actually owns it. All three of our houses come together very close in the back yet there is a little cluster of shrub-trees that manage to squeeze in there. It's all very crowded, yet somehow the birds find it to be prime real estate!

What a perfect image for the way that the grace of God's kingdom surprisingly breaks into the world around us, often where we'd least expect it to make a beachhead. We should be so foolish to think that God can't find an entry point for new life and forgiveness where things look rather bleak and, well, crowded.

"He also said, 'With what can we compare to the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." Mark 4:30-32

Monday, March 26, 2007

Stupid Poverty

When Mary pours out her precious perfumed oil on the feet of Jesus in the presence of his disciples (John 12:1-8), Jesus rebukes Judas' reprimand of her extravagance by saying, "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me." I have always found this remark of Jesus' to be slightly peculiar, especially since we (especially in this day and age) are prone to associate Jesus' ministry so closely with the liberation of the poor. I understand how John uses Mary as a kind of foil to the Sanhedrin and Judas as well as an ironic segue to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but is Jesus suggesting something more by contrasting devotion with him to devotion to the cause of the poor?

One thing I've recently wondered about in association with this particular text and Jesus' comment is the motto for the ONE campaign ( "The campaign to make poverty history." Several denominations, including my own, have subscribed to the ONE campaign by encouraging members to sign up on the website and look for ways to mesh gospel imperatives with the objectives of the campaign. I am a big fan of Bono's, the chief architect and spokesman for this campaign, but I have always felt there might be some conflict here: namely, how can we presume to "make poverty history" if Jesus himself tells us that the poor will always be around? Am I splitting hairs?

In Michka Assayas' book, Bono in Conversation, Assayas takes Bono to task on this. Granted, he doesn't use a scriptural or religious basis for his line of questioning (he's an atheist or agnostic, I think), but he offers critique of Bono's moral crusade to stamp out poverty (especially in Africa) on the grounds that it can be patronizing to the poor and deaf to their real needs. It is the typical critique most wealthy celebrities with ventures in poverty-striken places receive. I can't find the exact point in the interview, but at one point Bono clarifies the objective of his campaign. He concedes that there will always be poor people around but that we have an opportunity and obligation to do something about the "stupid poverty" (or stupid level of poverty) that now exists in the world. He goes on to define "stupid poverty" as the people who are living in regions with no clean drinking water, who are dying of diseases for which we've long since had cures or treatments. I think it's a compelling delineation. I realize that evidence of disparities of wealth and general human welfare exist aplenty in the Bible (e.g., Lazarus and Dives), and there is a certain degree to which we may say disparities will always exist. We can't boil down the gospel, in other words, into justification for social democracy or communism or the objectives of an NGO, etc. While we care for the poor, we probably shouldn't equate our love of Jesus to something like "do whatever it takes to eradicate poverty." The church's minsitry to and with the poor is much more complex than showering them with possessions and money and technology.

On the other hand, Bono has a point: there now exists a level of poverty in the world in relation to the rest of us that humankind has never before experienced. In Jesus' time, Lazarus (of the parable) had the same chance to die from cholera or smallpox as Dives did. There was a disparity in personal wealth in Jesus' context, but riches and general living circumstances could not keep a dismal, short existence at bay as much as they can now. Look at how indiscriminately the Black Death killed off a fourth of Europe's population in the 14th century. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel talks a good deal about this and how certain societies, in being able to eradicate or develop immunities to certain diseases, substantially elevate their ability to increase their standard of living and overall power relative to other societies who can't or don't. In short, I suppose what I'm suggesting is that when Jesus says that "we will always have the poor with us," he may be have in mind a completely different concept of the poor than we do now.

We may not be able to completely "make poverty history" on this side of the resurrection, but maybe we in the global North do have a moral obligation to sell our fancy communion ware (a la Ambrose) and do something to reduce the amount of "stupid poverty" around us.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Momma Jesus

The gospel reading for last Sunday (Lent 2C) featured the only Biblical reference that I know of where Jesus uses an animal metaphor for himself. Lamenting the wayward Jerusalem, he pictures himself as a mother hen who wishes to gather her brood of chicks under her wing. It is an endearing image. I myself have never had the privilege to witness this common barnyard sight, but I've read a few stories about hens of certain species that have an innate sense to gather chicks--whether they're their own offspring or another's--under the protective embrace of their wingspan.

Plenty of hymns use language that I suppose is borrowed from this image. "Thy Holy Wings, O Savior," by Caroline Sandell Berg (who also gave us the intricately worded "Children of the Heav'nly Father, safely in his bosom gather"), and "Now Rest Beneath Night's Shadow," by Paul Gerhardt are two favorites that come to mind which speak of Jesus' sheltering wings. But why, I wonder, is the image of a hen found so rarely in the symbolology of the church? The lamb gets featured quite a bit, most likely because of its obvious Passover connotations and the numerous times "Lamb of God" is referenced in the New Testament. But if Jesus himself uses the hen as a powerful visual comparison for the way he longs to gather his people close to him, why don't we see more images of a hen with chicks in our stained glass and woodwork in the way we see, say, the vine and the branches or the shepherd?

Is it because the Church is somehow uncomfortable with such an ordinary and dirty farm animal being associated with Jesus? Is it because the hen is just too feminine? Is the one biblical reference too thin upon which to build an elaborate metaphor? I don't know why, but it sure would be nice to be reminded as often as possible that Jesus longs to gather us together and pull us in to safety. I like the thought of a "momma Jesus," a warm figure who is chiefly concerned about protecting us from the dangers of the world and from the dangers we bring upon ourselves through our own flawed attempts at self-assertion. Those of us who have wandered off are probably more likely to run back if we are greeted with welcoming wings of mercy. The repentance and judgment and instruction can come later. At the first, I need the promise of shelter. The Prayer of the Day for last Sunday said it perfectly:

Heavenly Father, it is your glory always to have mercy. Bring back all who have erred and strayed from your ways; lead them again to embrace in faith the truth of your Word and hold it fast; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.