A Case of Mistaken Identity

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

The series continued on July 13 with readings from Habakkuk 1:5-11 and Luke 22:24-30.

To see a live view from this cam, visit http://www.pixcontroller.com/eagles/

To see a live view from this cam, visit http://www.pixcontroller.com/eagles/

This morning at 8:30 a.m., there were 269 people watching one of the most popular webcams in the city of Pittsburgh. Since January, computer users have taken nearly 3.5 million opportunities to visit the bald eagle nest on the Monongahela river in Hays. The eagles’ Facebook page has more than 15,000 “likes”. In recent weeks, when I have put my boat in the water, the most frequent request from visitors has been, “Can we see the eagles?”

We love us some eagles, don’t we?

US-GreatSeal-ObverseOf course, the bald eagle clenching 13 arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other is the national symbol of the USA, but did you know that the eagle is also featured on the flags and crests of dozens of other nations from Albania to Zambia? And, as I mentioned last week, the eagle is the number one mascot for sports teams in American schools.Montenegro.svg Mexico_(reverse) Egypt.svg Albania.svg

 

 

 

And, really, what’s not to like or admire about the bird? Oh, sure, Benjamin Franklin famously charged the bald eagle as being a “bird of bad moral character”[1], but he’s clearly in the minority. Those birds are just amazing.

bald_eagle_hunting_by_Ilovevore1The golden eagle has been clocked in a dive at 120 miles per hour. The eagle’s brain is small – about an inch cubed, but its eyes are the same size as yours – and 3.6 times more powerful. Of course it uses that eyesight to find prey, which it will snatch and grab with its amazingly powerful leg muscles and sharp talons. The razor-sharp beak will pierce the fur of a victim and often snap its neck.

As a hunter, the eagle is ruthless and efficient. In fact, many eagles are hunters from birth: the first hatchling in the nest will often murder the smaller, weaker newborn as the parents look on. Eagles will eat and attack just about anything: their diets are varied by species, but around the world you will find eagles who eat fish, small mammals, birds, wolves, and antelope. The Steller’s sea eagle has the ability to carry fifteen pounds of meat while flying. A 1929 newspaper account told the story of eight-year old Jim Meece, who was picked up and carried two hundred feet by a bald eagle on the hunt.[2] In the course of researching this message, I came across accounts of eagles attacking full-grown humans, hang-gliders, and even airplanes.

There is one other tidbit that will tell you how fierce these birds are. One well-known reference book on raptors includes this passage: “They have at least one singular characteristic. It has been observed that most birds of prey look back over their shoulders before striking prey (or shortly thereafter); predation is after all a two-edged sword. All hawks seem to have this habit, from the smallest kestrel to the largest Ferruginous – but not the Eagles.”[3] That is to say, the eagle is sure that nobody – nobody – is going to mess with it.

The F-15 Eagle

The F-15 Eagle

For those reasons, and more, I’m sure, our most powerful and threatening weapons are called “eagles”. There is the F-15 Eagle fighter plane, one of the most lethal weapons ever employed by the US armed forces (and now exported to many other countries around the world). A single BAe “Sea Eagle” missile is powerful enough to destroy an aircraft carrier. The “Desert Eagle” is one of the world’s most common semi-automatic handguns. The “Gray Eagle” drone can carry deadly Hellfire missiles and stay aloft for more than two days.

Eagles – both biological and mechanical – are remarkable killing machines, and we find that fascinating.

Last week we mentioned that the word that is often translated as “eagle” in our bibles, nesher, probably refers most often to the vulture, rather than the bird of prey we imagine. However, eagles themselves do appear in the bible from time to time, and then, as now, they are most often used as a symbol of Empire.

Our reading from Habakkuk, for instance, describes the Chaldean military force as one filled with “shock and awe”, characterized by might and strength. When the eagle does appear in scripture, it’s not usually good news – in fact, it’s often accompanied by the word “woe”. Eagles are fierce, terrible, punishing forces that are unleashed upon those who are powerless to resist them.

But we love them.

We want to be them.

We long to be the fearless titan at the top of the food chain who doesn’t even look back when striking; who will go where it wants when it wants doing what it wants without interference.

From the Anheuser-Busch logo on our beer cans to the symbol of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle to American Eagle Outfitters to Giant Eagle grocery, we (pardon the pun) flock to this image of power and success and freedom. The way of the eagle is attractive and seductive.

washingFeetIt is a mistake, though, for us to consider that as our identity. Because the way of the eagle, however alluring it may be, is not the way of Jesus. Oh, they tried to make him into an eagle. The Zealots, in particular, sought to make the presence and cause of Jesus into the symbol of their nationalistic pride. Jesus, however, refused to carry that mantle.

He chose to be weak and vulnerable – starting in a stable and finishing on a cross. He called us to measure our power by different standards than does the world.

That’s not to say that Jesus was – or is – powerless, weak, or ineffective. Indeed, I can think of no force greater than that which he embodies and shares – the force that healed the sick, that challenged the mighty, and that opened the grave.

But that is not the power of arms, wings, talons, or weaponry. It is the power of love, service, and vulnerability.

Parents know more about this than most others. What happens when your seventeen year old stays out late and drives the car without permission? You use the power that you have: you throw down the gauntlet and begin to tell that child what he or she will and will not do. If you’re not careful, you get into a spitting contest, as each side in this conflict becomes increasingly entrenched: you ground your son and he goes out anyway; you take the keys and he finds the extra set; you yell “no” and he yells louder.

We know it, we see it all the time – in our own homes, in our neighborhoods, in the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians or along any nation’s borders. Bombs become more powerful. Stones are met with bullets are met with rockets are met with jet fighter strikes. Fences get taller, detention cells get bigger, and the power of ME gets louder and louder.

Martin Luther said that there was such a thing as “right-handed” and “left-handed” power. Right handed power is the kind of power that the eagle uses, the kind of power that we find to be very helpful when pushing a load of barges up the river, or trapping the groundhog that has been tearing up our garden, or pulling a toddler away from busy traffic. But that kind of force is not usually effective relationally. “Because I’m the boss…” is not a great way to build cohesion at work; yelling louder is not usually the best way to “win” an argument, and so on. Left-handed power is intuitive and paradoxical; it is strength that often looks like weakness and force that sometimes sounds like invitation.[4]

Earlier this week I read an account by 20th-century sculptor Barbara Hepworth. In talking about her technique to bring beauty from stone and wood, she said,

Barbara Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth

My left hand is my thinking hand. The right is only a motor hand. This holds the hammer. The left hand, the thinking hand, must be relaxed, sensitive. The rhythms of thought pass through the fingers and grip of this hand into the stone. It is also a listening hand. It listens for basic weaknesses of flaws in the stone; for the possibility or imminence of fractures.[5]

WashingSculptureJesus of Nazareth, of course, is the ultimate practitioner of left-handed power. He modeled, and then called for his followers to adopt, the role of the servant. He made himself the vulnerable one. The Lord of all creation died as he forgave us on the cross.

And I can hear you and our world, and you make sense as you cry out: “But that’s foolish! That’s no way to get ahead! That’s no way to get where you want to get! How are you ever going to stop evildoers, teach someone a lesson, or establish the rule of law with that kind of power?”

You won’t, of course – no more than Jesus stopped those who were asserting their power and strength over him. Jean Vanier puts it this way:

Trusting people are vulnerable and can be easily crushed, as Jesus was crushed. A community which trusts in God rather than in the righteousness of its ‘cause’ can always be crushed, but from that crushing will come resurrection. There is a hidden strength in being vulnerable, open and non-violent, in being a people of the resurrection, knowing that we are loved and that God is guiding us, in all our fragility and littleness. We are not a people who think we are better. We are not an elite. We are people who are poor, but who have been drawn together by God and put their trust in God. That is what a kingdom community is about: a community that knows it has been called by God in all its poverty and weakness, and that God is love.[6]

Just to be clear, I love the eagles. If we’re out on the trail or on the river, I’ll show them to you. They are majestic creatures…but they are not helpful to me as a model of faith or behavior. If I seek my identity in the might of the eagle, I am making a terrible mistake. In her consideration of this bird in the book that has inspired this series of sermons, Debbie Blue hit on one way that the eagle can be a model for those who seek to follow Christ.

She points out that although this ferocious predator has few natural enemies, it was almost wiped out a generation ago by the use of certain chemicals and pesticides. Pittsburgh’s own Rachel Carson was writing about the ways that this avian superpower was vulnerable to forces outside its own control. In the early 1700s, there were more than 100,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous states. By 1963, the species was on the verge of extinction with only 487 pairs.[7] The immense prowess of this raptor was no match for the factors in the world that proved dangerous to it.

And yet, we chose to act. The environmental movement was launched, we learned about the power and danger of synthetic pesticides, we established sanctuaries and protections for these birds. And the species has rebounded, as you can see while walking the South Side on a clear day.

Debbie Blue writes,
Maybe the eagle is a good national symbol after all. Not because of its capacity to do violence or to fight. Not because it’s such a good, strong killer, but because it shows how when we pulled together we helped bring something back from the brink of extinction. It turns out to be the symbol of what we can do when we work together – the resurrective value of cooperation. Maybe we can do this again.
We nurtured what was vulnerable as a nation and brought something beautiful to life again. I say, let’s embrace the eagle as our symbol after all, to represent not our allegiance to power, but our commitment to hope.[8]

We follow a Rabbi named Jesus who said that the greatest people are those who serve, and that love is stronger than death, and that forgiveness is more powerful than our ability to destroy each other. Together, we saved the bald eagle from being wiped out. What if we chose to use the power of love, service, and humility in bringing reconciliation to South Sudan, or the Middle East, or along our nation’s borders, or in our political discourse, or in our own homes? My prayer is that in my life, and in our lives together, we might be found to be faithful to Christ’s call to serve, to love, and to forgive. For the sake of the world, may it be so. Amen.

 

[1]http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/holidays/2013/11/benjamin_franklin_turkey_symbol_why_he_hated_the_bald_eagle_for_the_great.single.html

[2] http://www.somerset-kentucky.com/features/x962125601/A-Harrowing-Tale-that-Indeed-is-True

[3] Hawks in Flight: The Flight Identification of North American Migrant Raptors by Sutton, C.; Dunne, P.; Sibley, D. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989).

[4] Robert Farrar Capon discusses the notion of right- and left-handed power eloquently in The Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdmans, 1985).

[5] Quoted at http://www.quotes-famous-artists.org/barbara-hepworth-famous-quotes

[6] From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press, 1992), p. 51.

[7] http://www.fws.gov/midwest/eagle/recovery/biologue.html

[8] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013), pp. 102-103.

Soaring Toward Life

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

The series continued on July 6 with readings from Isaiah 40:27-31 and John 11:17-27.

What do Auburn University, Boston College, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse and Keystone Oaks High School have in common?

Eagle FootballThey all share a mascot: the Eagles! The screaming eagles, the fighting eagles, the golden eagles… You name the town, there’s an Eagle of some sort close by. There are 74 four-year colleges and an astounding 1223 high schools that use this bird as their mascot, making it far and away the most popular mascot in the country.

And it’s a great mascot! It’s not sexist, it’s not racist…it’s really patriotic, and for a number of us, it conjures up biblical imagery as well, doesn’t it? Can you think of any verses, other than the passage from Isaiah, that talk about eagles?

on-eagles-wings-tara-ellisSure you can! Psalm 103:5 talks about God’s desire to satisfy his people with good so that their youth is renewed like the eagle’s. Exodus 19:4 promises that he will raise us up on eagle’s wings. And there are more.

The eagle is fierce, and proud, and strong, and, well, probably not the bird that is referred to in any of these passages. The Hebrew word that we have rendered as “eagle” in our English Bibles is nesher. I’m here to tell you that a better translation would be “vulture”.

Oh, come on, Dave, that’s disgusting. Nobody likes vultures. Why do we want to look at our faith that way? Why would you do that?

The Griffon Vulture, native to much of the Mediterranean region as well as southern Asia.

The Griffon Vulture, native to much of the Mediterranean region as well as southern Asia.

Well, in Micah 1, we learn that the nesher has no feathers on its head. Job 39 tells us that a nesher eats the bodies of those who are dead, and Exodus 19 talks about a nesher carrying its young as they learn to fly. The true eagles that are found in Palestine do none of these things…but all are characteristic of the Griffon Vulture that makes its home there.

But vultures? They are so…so…gross! What do you think of when you think of vultures? They are portrayed as greedy and predatory; if you call a lawyer or a banker a “vulture”, you’re not paying them a compliment, that’s for sure!

There are at least six comic book villains named “Vulture”. The birds themselves are often covered with their own excrement, and they eat the excrement of other creatures. When threatened, their best defense is to projectile vomit onto their attacker. Whereas eagles have strong talons suitable for gripping and tearing, vultures have weak feet best suited for, well, walking. Their beaks are similarly ineffective at ripping apart live flesh.

And smell? Oh, wow. Some years ago, my friend Darcy and I were biking along the Montour Trail and we got a whiff of something vile. We assumed that there was a dead skunk nearby. We rounded the corner and found a vulture sitting in the middle of the path, unconcerned about us – and trust me, we were in no hurry to remain. It was almost overwhelming. In fact, the town of Harrisonville, MO has recently had to take action to drive a flock of vultures away from its water tank because residents were sickened by the odor.

So given all this, what business does author Debbie Blue have suggesting that the Bible exalts the vulture and even invites us to consider it an example of faithful living or divine characteristic? I know – you want eagles. Next week.

A Turkey Vulture, native to North and South America

A Turkey Vulture, native to North and South America

I’d like to look at two aspects of this bird as instructive for our faith. First, consider the behavior of the vulture. Have you ever seen one flying? What do they do? They soar. Their wings are not particularly strong, and they do not have a great deal of stamina. In order to maintain their position in the skies, they rely on the energy that is provided from elsewhere: the sun heats air unevenly, and that allows great currents, or “thermals”, to rise. Vultures spread their enormous, if weak, wings and capture the energy from those thermals and use it to glide higher than any other creature. In fact, on November 29, 1973, a Griffon Vulture collided with a commercial airliner off the coast of Western Africa at an altitude of 37,000 feet.

You can tell a vulture when it flies because of the way that it wobbles in the air. Its weak wings are so sensitive to the breeze that the slightest shift appears to shake the entire bird.

Can you hear the Isaiah passage in a slightly different light now? “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, and they shall mount up on wings like vultures…” That is to say, they rest in the Lord, and trust in the Lord’s lifting – not their own. The vulture flies higher than the eagle can even dream about… because he’s not trying to do it all himself. He rises with the air that is given. Hmmm.

VulturesFeedingAnd what is the vulture doing on those great wings? Looking for food. But unlike the hawks or eagles or other raptors, the vulture won’t scream down in a power dive in order to snatch and kill an animal. Just as it depends on the environment to lift it, the vulture waits for food to appear. When the vulture spots something that could be dinner, it will go down to investigate. However, before heading for dinner, most species of vulture will signal to their kind that there is food to be had. The African White-backed Vulture wheels in the sky to alert the rest of the birds about the meal, while Turkey Vultures will circle above the feast until everyone sees it.

Interesting side note: a group of vultures while flying is called a “committee”, a “kettle”, or a “venue”. A group of vultures eating is called a “wake”. I’m not making this up.

When the vulture finally descends to feed, it has to eat as much as it can, because it doesn’t know where it’s next meal is coming from. And because the talons are so weak, a vulture can’t even grip the meat and carry it elsewhere to enjoy later.

So you see, in considering these birds, I am struck by similarities between their behavior and my own. I am not often one to fly boldly and confidently in my own strength; I am more likely to be wobbling around, hoping to be lifted by God’s power to a place where I can get a better perspective. When I am there, I do best when surrounded by others, and am able to eat “my daily bread” because it is given to me. Sometimes, I am able to see something helpful or useful in the world, and when I’m doing it right, I invite you to share it with me. More often, I am blessed because someone else has called my attention to the thing that can sustain me in my day.

As instructive as the behavior of these birds is for me, I am more fascinated by the role that they play in the world. In some cultures, vultures are called “death eaters”. Although the birds are carnivorous, they will rarely, if ever, kill their prey. They eat what others have already killed (just like you and me, to be honest).

And in this seeking out what has already died, vultures provide an incredible service to the world by cleansing the landscape of that which is toxic and lethal. The digestive juices in a vulture’s stomach are so powerful that they destroy cholera, anthrax, botulism, and just about any other virus or bacteria.

The vulture is created to seek out that which is rotting and decayed and thus threatens the living and the whole and neutralizes the dangers that are posed.

This poster warns about the dangers of vulture population decline in India.

This poster warns about the dangers of vulture population decline in India.

In the 1990s, a number of countries in southern Asia experienced a drastic decrease in the vulture population. It turned out that a drug that had been fed to cattle was fatal to the vultures that eventually fed on their carcasses, and so millions of the birds have died as a result. In the ensuing decade, the nation of India experienced a dramatic rise in the number of cases of anthrax and other diseases as well as a rabies epidemic brought on by the sharp surge in the number of feral dogs that fed on the carcasses after the vultures died. India and other countries have now outlawed that drug and the vulture population is rebounding – along with the health of the people and animals who live there.  In fact, some regions of India are so keen on helping the vulture that they have opened “Vulture Restaurants”, where healthy animals are killed and left to ensure the availability of safe and nutritious food for the recovering species.

In Consider the Birds, Debbie Blue puts it this way:

The turkey vulture is also known as the Cathartes aura, which is derived from the Greek katharsis, meaning “to purify”; and the Latin aureus, meaning “golden”: “the golden purifier”. Maybe God is something like that – not so much like an eagle – not a fierce warrior god swooping in for the rescue or the kill, but a God who can take everything in and make it clean – a God who can make even death nontoxic.[1]

MayanAs I mentioned earlier, the Mayans considered the vulture to be “death eaters”, and revered them because they, unlike so many of us, are not afraid of death. Rather, they embrace it, they take it in. Death enters them, but comes out harmless. In that way, the vulture can be a symbol of resurrection – of life coming from death.

NekhbetIn the same way, the ancient Egyptians worshiped the vulture. In the Book of the Dead, there is a description of Nekhbet, a soaring, protective, goddess with an enormous wingspan that blanketed the earth. She is the “Mother of Mothers who existed from the beginning and gave birth to all that is.” In fact, the Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet contains a character in the image of a vulture that represents the sound heard in the words “mother” or “grandmother”. So when the Egyptians saw a vulture, they thought of their mothers – they gave thanks for life – life that overcomes death.

I know, this is the Fourth of July weekend, and if I was any kind of American I’d be taking this opportunity to talk about the eagle as our symbol. The good news is that next week the eagle is the bird that is up for consideration; the bad news is that I don’t think you’re going to like it much. But today, let’s consider the vulture.

Do you, like me, know something about feeling wobbly and weak on those days when it seems like everyone around you is soaring effortlessly? Do you know what it is to have to rely on that which has been provided to you out of God’s grace, rather than being the one to call all the shots and make all the rules?

Then maybe these scriptures do make sense after all:

For the Lord’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted inheritance.  In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste.
 He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, 
like [a vulture] that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, 
that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft. (Deut. 32:9-11)

Praise the Lord, my soul;
 all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
 Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,
 who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the [vulture’s]. (Psalm 103:1-5)

Beloved, your nature is to overcome death. Your call and your destiny is to walk through death and to bring life and health to those who are stricken by fright and wounded by the world. I do not see a future wherein the Keystone Oaks Golden Eagles will become the West End Vultures, or the Brookline Buzzards. That’s not important. What is important is that the world sees us as those who are not afraid of what is unclean because we have within us the source of all cleanliness; we are not afraid of death because we know the resurrection; we are able to withstand the evil because we have been shaped, called, and filled with the good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

 

[1] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013, p. 78).

Desire

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

The series continued on June 29 with readings from Exodus 16:1-15 and Psalm 37:1-6.

There are, as many of you know, a number of reasons to love my friend David. He is a wonderful human being. I was struck by Dave’s thoughtful and reflective nature earlier this week, when a large group of people had gathered to watch a World Cup Soccer game. The cameras focused in on Cristiano Ronaldo who is the most highly-paid, and by most accounts, the best soccer player in the world.

David looked at the screen and said something like, “Look, I don’t care what kind a person you are or how you are wired, you have to admit that man is an attractive person. It doesn’t have to do with being gay, but he is just gorgeous.”

What a risky thing to say in a room full of people! Because almost always, when a man says, “that person is beautiful”, the presumption is that is a statement of desire, and if there is desire, the presumption is that the speaker would love to move towards a physical relationship.

As David (who gave me permission to share this story) pointed out, that’s not what he was saying. He was naming the truth: Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, OIH has been blessed with an astounding set of chromosomes. Thanks be to God.

That conversation with Dave got me to thinking about the business of desire. Desire is defined as “a strong sense of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.” You could say that Clint Hurdle desires a pennant for Pittsburgh, or that the 1956 Thunderbird was Larry’s heart’s desire.

Desire is key in our lives. As a grown-up person in America, I am astounded at how many times I am involved in conversations where the biggest question is, “What do you want?” Sometimes that’s because I’m down at Hanlon’s and the server is inquiring about my menu choice, but I have asked that question of a couple in a struggling marriage, a woman seeking to overcome decades of addiction, or a child throwing a temper tantrum. “What do you want? What do you wish would happen?”

Billy Graham Preaching, Bible RaisedWhen I was a teenager, my mother was a big, big Billy Graham fan. She somehow obtained a written copy of a sermon he preached in 1972 entitled “The World, The Flesh, and the Devil” and compelled me to read it. I’m not sure what Billy Graham was actually saying, but this is what I took from that message: desire is a simple matter. You can want what God wants you to want, or you can go the other way. I spent most of my teen years desiring all the “wrong” stuff, and was therefore convinced that I was headed the way of “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Just about everything I wanted was pretty darn worldly, and I knew I would burn eternally because of that. It was pretty black and white to me.

For 400 years, the people of Israel languished in slavery. Generation after generation of Jewish children grew up and grew old and died as captives in Egypt. I don’t suppose that old Pharaoh was much for protest marches, but if they had them, I would imagine that the chant could have gone like this: “What do you want?” “FREEDOM!” “When do you want it?” “NOW!” These folks wanted to get out of Egypt. They wanted to live as God’s people. That’s pretty black and white, I think.

DesertSooooo, six weeks after they get that for which they’ve been longing for 400 years, how’s that march coming? “What do you want? “The Fleshpots of Egypt!” “When do you want them?” “NOW!”

Seriously? Six weeks? Six weeks of wandering in the desert, and they begin to long for the bread and the stew that they “enjoyed” while living in slavery?

This story gets told twice in the Old Testament. In the Exodus reading we’ve just shared, God’s response to their complaining is to send them bread and meat. There’s manna to be found every morning, and in the evening, the quail come blowing in and pile up in heaps. “You want meat? No problem, I’ll give you meat,” says the God of Exodus.

The common quail is a simple and easily domesticated bird. Although it can fly, it prefers to walk and scavenge along the ground, and will usually only take to the air as a means of avoiding a predator. Even quail that migrate, such as those mentioned in Exodus, are such weak fliers that if they have to go very far (like across a desert or an ocean), they will wait for a strong wind that’s going in that direction to help blow them along.

The Common Quail

The Common Quail

The first time I saw a quail, I marveled. I admired its plumage, I wondered at its ability to camouflage itself in its surroundings, and I chuckled at the way that it ran amidst the desert grasses. In following Jesus’ command, I considered the quail.

The Israelites of Exodus, though, had no such time for appreciation or consideration. They were hungry, they told God they wanted meat, and the evening breeze brought them a vast ocean of quail – not to wonder at, not to consider, but to eat.

The first time we read about these birds, in Exodus, the implication is that God is lavishly providing for his people. They long for the meat of their slavery, and he gives them the meat of freedom in abundance!

In the book of Numbers, however, the story is told from a slightly different perspective, and for many, the quail become a “last supper”. We’re told that God promises that they’ll eat the meat that they so desire – and in fact, that they will eat it until it “comes out of their nostrils”. Many die after gorging themselves on this quail that has literally been a “windfall”. Traditionally, we’ve understood this to be the biblical way of saying that God is punishing his people for having the wrong desires, as if God is saying, “Look, you miss the meat of your slavery? Fine. Here. BOOM! That’ll fix your wagons.”

OK, I’m pretty sure God never threatened to fix anyone’s wagon, but sometimes, in my head, God sounds a lot like my mom. My point is that we have often read the bit about the quail and the people dying as God’s way of getting even with us for wanting the wrong thing.

And if that’s not confusing enough, a couple of hundred pages later we get to the scripture from the Psalms, which promises that “God will give you the desires of your heart.”

DelightNow, put yourself in the place of a young Dave Carver, who is pretty sure that there are “good desires” and there are “bad desires”, and if you choose poorly, well, that’s an eternal bummer for you… And then the minister comes in and says, “Remember what it says in the Good Book: ‘God will give you the desires of your heart…’”

My response was “Noooooo! That would kill me!”

How often have you thought, “Thank God I didn’t get what I thought I wanted back there!” How often have you been willing to choose the thing that would kill you if you let it?

Think about that: what if you ate everything that you wanted to eat? What if you watched or surfed every show or site that attracted you? What if you actually said everything you ever wanted to say?

Do you see? It might be alcohol, it might be driving like a maniac, it might be doing mean things to your spouse with a stick – but there are times when we really, really desire and crave and want things that will just crush us. We long for things that will cause us and those around us great damage…and we want them anyway. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not just Israelites who long to be Pharaoh’s slaves.

So how are we to understand the promise that God will give us “the desires of our hearts”?

Let’s remember the whole passage. It starts with some commands: “Trust in the Lord!”. “Live right!”. “Live where God sends you.” “Do what the Lord wants you to do.”

Too often, we wake up in a world where we are taught to believe that our desires and our wants are the most important thing – or at least the first thing. We think about what we want, and then plan our day after satisfying that on our own terms.

But the scriptural approach seems to be the opposite: we wake up and we decide that we’ll let God order the universe and our lives. We’ll seek to be attuned to the things that God has or will do, and then, when we’re in that kind of rhythm, God will give us the desires of our hearts.

Listen: the world is filled with people who are as beautiful as Cristiano Ronaldo or George Clooney or Taylor Swift or Scarlett Johannsen. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that amazing! Can we praise God for beautiful creatures?

And the world is filled with delicious foods, and tasty beverages and shiny objects and gorgeous art. Again, wonderful! It is right and good to notice, to admire, and to appreciate beauty where you encounter it without presuming to manipulate that beauty or to allow your noticing of that beauty to lead you to an unhealthy wish to own, control, or use that beauty in a way that diminishes the creatureliness of either you or the other.

What do you want? And how will you get it?

Here’s a young mother who is stressed by the demands of her full-time at-home job and her part-time gig at the grocery store. The boss was yelling before she left work, the kids are crying now, she’s got a headache to beat the band, and she passes by the liquor cabinet. She wants a drink so bad that she can already taste it. Why?

Because she’s so tired of hurting and feeling inadequate and incomplete. What do you want, mom? I want to feel like I can do it. I want to know I matter. I want to experience life without thinking that someone is squeezing it out of me.

Those are huge wants, and deep desires. You know that a couple of shots of Tequila aren’t going to satisfy them, right?

Here’s a man who finds himself sitting at a meeting next to a stunning woman. She is beautiful, and his thoughts begin to drift towards all the ways that he might use or enjoy that beauty. He imagines a conversation – and more – that is based on how badly he “wants” her. Why?

Because he’s stressed. He’s a man, after all. He has needs.

And he does. He needs to know that he is not unlovable. He wants someone to tell him that he is not old or fat or ugly, and if someone that attractive would want to be with him, well, then he would, in fact, be attractive, beautiful, or worthwhile himself.

And when he stops to think about what he really needs, as opposed to what his first impulse is, he might realize that that’s a lot of pressure to put on a woman to whom he’s never even spoken before.

What would happen if either of these people would look to God and ask God to help them understand who they are as his children? What would happen if you or I were to look to the Creator, not a creature, to offer self-worth and validation?

In her excellent book that inspired this series of sermons, Debbie Blue points out that in the Bible, quails are signs of both God’s extravagant provision and the fact that our desiring and wanting need to be transformed and renewed.[1]

Today, in our celebration of and remembrance of baptism, we acknowledge the truth that we don’t always know what we want. Too often, we look in the wrong places, or we use a beautiful creature in the wrong way. As we baptize these infants, we name the truth that God’s grace is here, and that it has been since well before you or I knew to ask for it. As we baptize them, we indicate to them, and we remind ourselves, that there is a new way of living – there is a way to trust that God will give us what we need.

Beloved, the God who created and called and claimed you knows who you are, and he knows what you need. Bring God the things that you want. Ask God about what you want. And ask God to help you to identify the need that is behind that want. God in his grace is already there, helping you to transform the desire and appreciate the beauty that is present. Move toward and into that grace. Relax in that grace. Grow in that grace.   Name and celebrate all the beautiful things you see in your world, and ask God to give you the ones that you need. Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

[1] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013).