Sunday, March 22, 2009

Crows and Songbirds

Proverbs 12:18 “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

While out walking yesterday I heard a very strange bird call. It sounded almost like a human trying to imitate a crow and another human calling back. The call was “caw, caw” but not in the raspy tone of crows…more like a conversation between two human actors trying to make their point understood by saying the word “caw” in different tones. It’s hard to describe. As I searched for the source, however, I discovered that it was not people saying “caw,” but actual crows. I found them and watched and listened to the two of them “talking” to each other. No harsh sounds, no raspiness.

Hearing that made me remember a number of years back when I lived in Dover, NH and had birds and critters of all kinds on my back deck. It was there, for the first and only time in my life thus far, that I heard a crow actually sing. It was a song as lovely as any traditional songbird, and it drew me to the window to see what new bird had come to bring such a melody. And there, on the deck railing not ten feet from the window, was a crow…singing. I had heard that it was possible. Crows are known to imitate other birds and even the human voice. But in thousands of encounters with crows in the wild, I have now heard something different than a raspy caw only twice.

Thinking of that made me remember that a key theme in the book of Proverbs is the use of the tongue. Actions may speak louder than words, but words reveal the heart and can get you in a pile of hot water. Whether you’re talking about lies or gossip, angry words or just mindless blather, Proverbs comes down on all of it, contrasting the fool with the wise as in the passage quoted here.

In this season of Lenten discipline, I am remembering the crow. The bird who usually just makes a harsh racket but yet is capable of beautiful song and gentle speech reminds me that I, too, am capable of both. For which type of speech am I known? Do others so associate my speech with harshness that they would call a lovely song a rarity? Do I whine more than encourage? Is my speech a sword thrust or a healing balm?

It’s easy for us sometimes just to claim we’re not songbirds…that we don’t have the gift to make our speech a soothing melody. No, they are the songbirds and I’m the one who has to convey the harsh reality. I’m the prophet crying in the wilderness until my voice is raspy from the effort. Perhaps. But I will never forget the day I heard a crow sing.

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Church in the Cross-hairs

Luke 13:10-13 “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”

Coming home from the office last week I passed an elderly man carefully finding his way down an icy sidewalk. He walked with a cane and was so bent over that if you wanted to look him in the eye, you would have to lie down on the ground and look up. It has to be incredibly hard to live that way. I went home and took more calcium.

Jesus met a woman with such an issue, something she had suffered with for almost two decades. And he healed her so that she stood up straight. Her response was gratitude and praise to God. But remember that Jesus is in the middle of teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath when he does this. Here’s the next verse: “But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”

It’s notable that in the Gospels the people who come off looking the worst are the religious leaders. Ironically, they are the ones who either can’t or refuse to understand the mission of Jesus. They are the ones too invested in the institutions and structures that give them power and authority in society. But I don’t believe the Holy Spirit preserved this story so that we could rail against the legalistic insensitivity of a first century synagogue leader. It’s here so we can try the shoe on our own feet and see if it fits.

Jesus put aside regular Sabbath worship and teaching to give priority to helping a woman stand up straight. Think about that for a minute. Wouldn’t many if not most of our churches object to turning a Sunday morning service into a mission day? Plenty of other times for that. If someone has spent two decades in poverty, what’s one more day? We’ll set up a different time that doesn’t interfere with our worship service. Anybody who wants to be part of that can come then. As an aside, you can guess how many turn out for those sorts of mission days.

But it’s not about the numbers present. I think Jesus is making a statement about what the gathering of the faithful is for. He is saying that the mission of an institution representing the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is to help those who are bent over to stand up straight. And he is saying that there is in fact no better day than the Sabbath to put that mission into action. He did not actually interrupt his teaching that day, he simply taught through actions rather than words.

Suppose a church took that seriously and made the primary gathering each week a time to actively help those who are bent over in any number of ways and set other times for people to come for teaching or to hear the choir. Suppose people received Jesus’ broken body and shed blood in their jeans rather than their Sunday best because the rest of the morning would be spent setting the broken bodies of others free. Every week. In prime time. In place of the regular worship service. As THE main activity that defined what it meant to be a church.

This passage is not about the woman. It is about the nature and purpose of the people of God. The passage right before this is a parable about a fig tree that does not bear fruit and the limited amount of time the gardener gives it to produce. Immediately following this story are a number of short sayings about the nature of the Kingdom of God. I think the message of the story about the bent-over woman is that a church that reserves the Sabbath only for their own comfort and edification is no church at all.

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