Tuesday, November 15, 2016

consider....

Image result for flickr wild lily
Image from Flickr
I like to go for walks in my neighbourhood. Getting outside and engaging in some exercise is a nice change from my desk, but walking through the park and along the pond does more than get my blood and limbs moving; it also invigorates my spirit and my mind. When I am a bit depleted, tired, confused, discouraged, or fearful, going for a walk is really good medicine. Because looking at the birds, the grass, the flowers, the kids playing in the park, the trees, and the sky lifts me out of my self-absorption and places things in perspective. The feast of beauty available to my senses outside my front door invites my small and fearful heart to be still, to take it all in, to swell with gratitude and wonder and playfulness.

Beauty is something which attracts us, which causes us delight, and captures our attention. When one stands before a great work of art, the concern is not first about what sort of paint the artist used or the exact measurements of the canvas. One simply takes it in. One lets the beauty of the work saturate the senses and speak to the soul. Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar suggests that doing theology is like gazing upon a masterful work of art; in other words, theology is not primarily an intellectual exercise. Like Moses who was mesmerized by the burning bush, our first task in theological encounter is not to question, but to stop and wonder.

Let's talk epistemology for a minute, okay? Epistemology is the theory of knowledge; basically, it addresses the question of how we come to know something. In our schools, we learn mostly through reading, listening to experts lecture, doing research, writing essays, and working on projects. In our modern world, knowledge is closely related to reason and empirical data. In other words, we link knowing things to verifiable facts and logic. These are valuable ways of knowing, but they are not the only ways. There is also revelation (we come to know people when they reveal themselves to us), experience (you can only know if a cup of coffee is good by tasting it), and participation (learning how to perform surgery or play the piano).

So what does epistemology have to do with beauty? The two come together in Luke 12 where Jesus is talking to his followers. One man complains that his brother is cheating him out of his due inheritance, and he asks Jesus to make things right. Jesus cautions the man against thinking that life is about possessions and as a further instruction, tells a story about a rich man who builds large barns to store all his surplus grain. Having secured his future with this storehouse of wealth, the man believes he can now eat, drink, and be merry. Jesus ends the story by saying that the man's life will end that very night and all his riches will do him no good. Jesus then tells his disciples not to worry about matters like food, drink, and clothing. Instead, he asks them to consider three things: the
crows, the lilies, and the grass. In other words, Jesus is asking them to rethink their epistemology, to reconsider where they turn to in order to learn about how to do well in life.

"Think about [consider closely, take note of, discern, contemplate, understand fully]  those crows flying over there: do they plant and harvest crops? Do they own silos or barns? [like the rich farmer?] Look at them fly. It looks like God is taking pretty good care of them, doesn’t it? Remember that you are more precious to God than birds! Which one of you can add a single hour to your life or 18 inches to your height by worrying really hard? If worry can’t change anything, why do you do it so much?" (Luke 12:24-26, The Voice)

Image result for crow
Image from Live Science
So let us consider the crow, let us stop and wonder at the crow for just a bit. What can it teach us? In general, we don't think kindly of crows. They are seen as scavengers, nuisances to farmers, and, as evident in the plural designation, "a murder of crows," they have been traditionally linked to superstitious, morbid activities. But let's look a little closer. Crows are communal beings, gathering in large groups around food sources. [1] Crows are very intelligent birds, and this is exhibited by a variety of communicative calls (not every kaw-kaw is the same), their ability to engage in play, a capacity for episodic memory, and the uncanny know-how to make and adapt tools in order to procure food.  They even have the ability to count! The tale goes like this: a farmer was annoyed by the crows who were eating his grain, so he decided to hide in a hunting blind and scare them away with his gun. However, whenever he entered his hunting blind, the crows flew away and did not come back until after he left. He decided to trick the birds by entering the blind with a friend, then having him leave. The crows were not fooled. The farmer invited more friends to join him in the blind and then exit, leaving only the farmer behind. They crows were a smart bunch, and it was not until they reached 17 people that the birds lost count of how many were still in the hunting blind. I would probably have lost count earlier. Jesus asks his followers to consider the crow, one of the most intelligent, resourceful birds on the planet, and learn about the care and attention of the creator.

Jesus goes on: "Think about those beautiful wild lilies growing over there. They don’t work up a sweat toiling for needs or wants—they don’t worry about clothing. Yet the great King Solomon never had an outfit that was half as glorious as theirs!" (Luke 12:27) Take a minute right now to look at [consider closely, take note of, discern, contemplate, understand fully] the picture at the top, a wild lily. What does it tell you about the great creator and designer?

Finally, Jesus asks his followers to look at the grass: "Look at the grass growing over there. One day it’s thriving in the fields. The next day it’s being used as fuel. If God takes such good care of such transient things, how much more you can depend on God to care for you, weak in faith as you are. Don’t reduce your life to the pursuit of food and drink; don’t let your mind be filled with anxiety. People of the world who don’t know God pursue these things, but you have a Father caring for you, a Father who knows all your needs." (Luke 12:28-30)

Let us consider grass. Grasslands take up over 40% of the earth's land, and grass is absent only from Antarctica and parts of central Greenland. Grasses (poaceae) are the most economically important plant family on earth, providing staple foods from edible seeds (corn, wheat, rice, barley, millet), forage and building materials (bamboo, thatch, straw), and food for animals (cows, sheep, horses). Grasses grow from the base and not from the stem tips, which allows them to be cut or grazed without severe damage to the plant. Grass stems are hollow in order to allow water to be drawn up through the blade. A cross-section of a grass blade shows its intricate interior.
Image result for grass cross section
Image from Quora
Grass provides its own food through photosynthesis (converts light energy into chemical energy) and the waste product of this process is oxygen. So every time you see grass, thank it for the air you breathe. Stop and wonder at the grass. Learn about the integrative nature of creation, how one part is necessary for the nurture and life of other parts. This interconnectedness tells us something about the the creator and how we are meant to live on the earth.

Now that we have done all this considering, we are ready to hear what Jesus says next: "Since you don’t need to worry—about security and safety, about food and clothing—then pursue God’s kingdom first and foremost, and these other things will come to you as well. My little flock, don’t be afraid. God is your Father, and your Father’s great joy is to give you His kingdom." (Luke 12:31-32)

I have often heard this last verse (perhaps more familiarly, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you") used as an equation. Basically, if I earnestly exert effort to work for the good of the kingdom of God, to be more righteous in thought, word, and deed, then God will reward me with the good things in life. But that is pretty much the opposite of what Jesus is saying. He is asking his followers to consider the intricate beauty of birds, flowers, and grass, not giving them a formula for success. We are not to look to the wealthy farmer or businessman for keys to success; we are to open our eyes to the fullness and joy all around us in creation. Jesus is not telling people to try harder to be good, to get their priorities straight once and for all, he is asking them to look at the simple things, to see how they have been marvelously created to be resourceful, communal, creative, playful, beautiful, and generous. All of creation declares the glory of God. All of it speaks of God's extravagance, God's tender care, God's concern with detail and his attention to the universe in all its complexities. God reveals himself and his character in the beauty of the world around us. [2] This means that we, too, should learn to trust God and not worry about the future. Jesus is telling his worried, anxious, fearful followers that they, too, are in God's good care. They belong to God. Stop and wonder.

In Luke 12:32, Jesus reminds us that the kingdom of God is not something we have to strive for or a righteous standard we have to attain, but it is the Father's great joy to give to us. And what is this kingdom? Romans 14:17 says: "The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." Instead of being obsessed with material goods like the wealthy farmer in the story, Jesus invites his followers to seek, to turn their attention to, joy, peace, and righteousness. These are the true riches.

Jesus spoke words of comfort to a group of people worried about food and drink, clothing, safety, security, and societal norms. Are we any different? Like the birds, the flowers, and the grass, we are invited to graciously relax (not laziness but a restful abiding) into our unique vocations as part of the integrated glory of creation. How do we learn to do this? 

Do not worry.
Do not fear.
Consider the simple things around you, things not of your own making.
Stop and wonder.
Know that the Father cares for you. 

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[1] You can read an interesting study on the communal aspect of crows here.
[2] By beauty, I do not meant that which is merely pleasing to the eye or symmetrical. Theologically speaking, beauty is defined by Jesus which means that it encompasses glory, weakness. fullness, suffering, death, and resurrection. In Jesus, we come to see that beauty is that which is infused by love.

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