Friday, June 20, 2014

Wonderful Concepts

Last week was Trinity Sunday on our liturgical calendar. Today, we pretty much take the concept of God in Three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as a given.  It is something most Christians agree on.  There was a time, however, when this was not the case.  In the first few hundred years after Jesus lived, a number of competing concepts of God emerged and there were disputes—and sometimes bitter conflict—over which concept was orthodox—or “correct”.  In the end, the concept of Trinity came to be widely accepted.

For the most part we no longer debate Trinity today.  However, we certainly continue to have intense disputes over what the orthodox position on other issues should be—e.g., homosexuality.  Sadly, clashes over concepts of God still lead to bitter and divisive conflicts in our churches.  When facing such disputes, we should always remember that, when it comes to finite creatures describing an infinite Creator, concepts carry us only so far. 

While we can and should have a firm sense of who we are and what we stand for, we must always maintain an openness to others whose concept of God may differ from our own.

At the end of the day concepts must always leave room for wonder; certainty about God must always yield to mystery in God’s presence.  We must never be so arrogant as to think we’ve got God “figured out”.   Like a Child on Christmas morning, we must always come eager to receive new gifts and new wisdom from God.

Gregory of Nyssa was a fourth century theologian who is credited with helping to develop the doctrine of Trinity that we now accept as given.  He spoke some wise words that I think we would do well to remember today as we try to faithfully wrestle with our position on today’s divisive doctrinal issues:

Concepts create idols, only wonder understands anything.  People kill one another over idols.  Wonder makes us fall to our knees.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Listening for the Dove's Call

A mourning dove
Occasionally I spot a mourning dove fluttering around my yard, usually flying low to the ground looking for cover.  Much more often, I don’t see them at all but rather hear their distinctive call: oo-ooo-hoo-oo in the trees around my house.  (It sounds kind of like a distant owl—especially since I often hear them early in the morning and late in the evening.). 

When I hear the dove’s call, I usually don’t know exactly where it is, but I know it is near.  So it is with the Holy Spirit—God’s invisible, but real Presence in our lives.  After Jesus ascended, God could not be confined to a precise location.  As the old hymn says, in the rustling grass, we hear God pass; God speaks to us every day.  Our job is to develop eyes that see and ears to hear, so we can recognize God’s call and respond.

When John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit is symbolized as descending like a dove—see Matthew 3:13-17.  The Scripture is cited as one of the stronger images we have for the theological concept of Trinitythree Persons (Father, Son, and Spirit) combined in one Being (God).  There are three distinct Persons present in this passage: Jesus is being baptized; a voice speaks; a dove-like Presence descends. In artwork depicting this scene, the dove is often depicted as pure white.

Two turtle doves…
I don't know if they are perched on a pair tree or not. :)
Chances are, the doves flying in the skies of Palestine when Jesus was alive were probably not pure white. An example, cited several times in Scripture, is the turtle dove (see photo), which is still common in that region today.  It was given as sacrificial offering by Jesus’ parents (Luke 2:24), used to symbolize true love (Song of Songs 2:12), and offered as an example of faithfulness by the prophets (Jeremiah 8:7). 

In a time long before custom bred white pigeons (a.k.a., rock doves) used in release ceremonies today, a white dove would have been fairly distinctive as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

While on one hand, the Holy Spirit's manifestation seems worthy of a more rare and exotic bird, on the other hand, the dove is the perfect choice. There are more than three hundred species of dove flying over the Earth’s surface; chances are we are never far from a dove.  Likewise, the Heavenly Dove is always nearby, ready to descend into our lives and show us the Way.  The dove image has become a universally known symbol of peace and love.

So the next time we hear a dove's call in the distance or the flutter of wings as they pass, let it be a reminder to us to open ourselves more fully to the Holy Sprit's presence and to listen for God’s call in our lives.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Living Between Ascension and Pentecost

The Ascension of Jesus kind of leaves us in the middle hanging.  Part of it has to do with the fact that it literally is in the middle: 40 days after Easter, and 10 days prior to Pentecost on the Liturgical Calendar.  However I think it also has to do with what happens on that day.  According to Luke (Luke 24:44-53/Acts 1:1-11) the risen Jesus is taken from the disciple’s midst and they are given instructions to wait in Jerusalem for further instruction (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4, 8).  Jesus has told them that something or someone else is coming after he departs (e.g., John 14:15-31, 16:4-15) but they don’t really didn’t know exactly when or where, and only have a vague sense of what is coming.

That kind of ambiguity is disheartening to me.  (I like a more clearly defined plan.) Wouldn’t it be nicer if Jesus hung around long enough to make things more clear?  Couldn’t he at least wait for the promised Holy Spirit to arrive before leaving his poor disciples again? (Okay, it only ended up being ten days; but they didn’t know that at the time.)  That would make for an easier transition.  A modern analogy would be the “old employee” staying around until the “new employee” is in place, trained, and ready to assume authority.

But then again, I suspect the way Luke’s story actually unfolds is true to reality. More often than not, despite our best efforts, human life has a tendency not to unfold on the schedule we set up. 

Often in life, Ascension and Pentecost don’t line up.  

Sometimes new life comes rushing in before old can fade away; other times old life holds on to the bitter end, holding back the emergence of something new.  Usually, before something new can come, we must be willing to let the old pass, yet we have no guarantee how fast that birth will take place after the letting go.  Sometimes it takes much longer than we would have preferred. 

There can sometimes be a chasm between now and not yet that seems impossible to cross.

I am a writer.  I believe it is a gift God has given me and calls me to pursue.  Many have affirmed this talent of mine over the years and encouraged me to pursue it.  I partially live out my call through my vocation as a writer/editor for NASA.  I realize that not everyone does that, and try to remember that and be thankful.  However, I also admit a frustration.  You see, there is a dimension of my writing I can’t explore fully at work—namely, the faith dimension.

For a several years, I explored the faith dimension of my writing by contributing articles on a monthly basis for my church’s newsletter reflecting on issues of theology and spiritual formation.  I also had articles published on other on-line or print journals.  Recently, however, the church newsletter changed format, and other venues that I used to post material either no longer exist or no longer publish my work for one reason or another. 

Even beyond changes in publications, the type of writing I feel led to pursue has evolved.  In the past year or so, I have taken a couple courses in Creative Nonfiction, which is much more about using stories from our own lives to connect to larger Stories as opposed to simply presenting facts. The result of all this is that I am not writing as much as I did (outside of work) and, since I call myself a writer, I find that a bit disconcerting at times.  Sometimes I just don’t seem to feel much motivation to write. 

My writing seems to be in that uncomfortable middle between Ascension and Pentecost.  The old has withdrawn; it seems stale and no longer fits who I am.  The new, on the other hand, is not fully formed yet, but I feel it pushing me out my familiar patterns of writing to explore new possibilities.  This feels risky, but in a good way.  Still, I naturally hesitate to give it full expression.  I don’t want to rush it but I also don’t want to hold back for the wrong reasons.

What I long for is for the two halves of my writing persona, that have been so long divided, to be joined.  I want to find a place where science and faith can freely come together on a regular basis.  That would seem to offer the possibility of a Pentecost for my writing life.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Becca is Six Today!

Is it possible that my Becca May is six today?!  Wow.  I know there has been lots of living taking place in the ensuing six years but it seems like just yesterday we held her our arms as an infant.

May 2, 2014

May 2, 2008
Today, we celebrate Becca’s life.  She is so excited to have a Princess Party with all her friends in attendance.  She will be queen for the day—and shouldn’t it be that way on your birthday. Costumes and tiaras will be worn; pizza and cake will be consumed; too many presents will be received.  In many ways, it will be like any other six-year-old girl’s birthday party. 

But, although most will not be aware of it, someone is missing from today’s festivities. Of course, I’m talking about Becca’s twin sister, Hope Marie.  Today is her birthday too but most probably won’t remember.   Rest assured however, that while Laurie and I don’t choose to make it a point of focus, we are keenly aware of the missing presence today— and at every birthday Becca has. 

The cliché is true: Time does help heal wounds.  The problem is the scabs over this kind of wound never get very thick and it doesn’t take much to open them.  Something triggers a memory and the Great Sadness wells up within me all over again.  In my minds eye, I cannot help but picture what might have been if Hope had lived—e.g., two princesses would be twirling around my living room today in costumes and tiaras.

While we can be sure what Hope would’ve looked like (we say that in Rebecca we always see Hope) we’ll never know who she would’ve been. I think, over the years, that is what I have mourned the most. I get to watch Becca blossom into a beautiful young lady seemingly before my eyes (she is only six but sometimes she seems so grown up already!) but I was denied that opportunity with Hope.  She never even got a chance to draw a breath in this world on her own.  Our only surviving images of her are with tubing and machines keeping her alive.  My last memory is of holding a sick infant as she passed from life support to life eternal—and being powerless to keep her safe in my arms.  

One of our few photos of Hope Marie.
This image haunts me even today. Though my faith compels me to believe that she is safe in the arms of one far greater than I and that some day we will be together again, there can be no denying that the separation has been hard.  

I suppose in some ways the fact that Hope “remains an infant in my mind” is good.  It allows Becca to “grow apart” from shadow of tragedy that surrounds her birth.  But even this grace is laced with tears, for we can never experience a milestone for Becca (e.g., birthdays, school accomplishment) without thinking of the one not here to live it—it is inevitable. While we live out our days and sometimes go a while without thinking about it, there are moments when all of us—even Becca—become acutely aware of how much we miss Hope and how much we all miss because she is not with us. Every time I see a set of twins somewhere I am reminded of the one that is not with me.  Though most people can’t see it, there will always be a missing space in the Ward family photo.

When Hope died we knew we had to make a choice about how we would live.  Would we let tragedy make us better or bitter?  From very early on, we determined to focus on living.  I think it’s actually a series of little choices we’ve made.  At first it was very hard, but with time it becomes easier.  I can’t say that bitter has never won the day, but I hope better is emerging over the long haul.  I left that hospital a different person because of what I lived through those three days.  I’ve spent the past six years trying to figure out exactly what that change means for me.

While six years later, I can say that I have healed and I can even point to good that has come from some of what we lived through, I suppose if I lived 1000 years, I would never forget the events of May 2-4, 2008—I don’t think I’m supposed to. 

Our story testifies, that by God’s grace, even an awful circumstance can become an instrument for good.  I trust in the truth of Scripture: While mourning may last for a night, rejoicing comes in the morning.  

Sometimes the night may seem as if it will never end, sometimes the sun stays hidden for days, but we cling to the promise that even in the darkest night, the Son always shines.  There will be a day when the clouds part and all darkness and sorrow will be gone—forever.  In the meantime, we try and live our days in anticipation of that “morning” that is coming. 

From early on Becca’s life has been resurrection for us; her presence forced us to focus on life in those early days after Hope died, and every day since her strong and free spirit has been a beacon of God’s light and life in our lives, continuing to give us glimpses of that coming day when all things will be set free to “dance” to the music their original created glory.  So while we cannot NOT remember Hope today, our focus is on celebrating the life of Rebecca May. 

It is an awesome responsibility to be responsible for shaping young lives, one that I do not take lightly and cannot hope to fulfill alone.  (I think the feeling is more acute when you have lost a child as we have.)  I work together with my wife, my partner on life’s journey, and we both rely on God to guide us as we raise our children.  The good news is that the responsibility comes along with the great privilege of watching our children grow up.   I am so thankful for days like today when we celebrate their lives. From the moment she was born, Becca has taught me much about fatherhood and I presume that “education” will continue for both of us as we “grow up” together.  

I am forever grateful to God for the gift of Rebecca May Ward.