Is Jesus a Vortex? Thoughts on Epiphany

Andrew-Art / pixabay

Andrew-Art / pixabay

This past Sunday many churches recognized Epiphany. This event recognizes one specific story: the journey of the Magi from “the East,” who want to pay homage to a child who has been born the “King of the Jews.” They have deduced this baby-king by reading the stars, and even though they are from a completely different land, the Magi undertake a long journey to revere an infant of another culture and religion. Of course, Epiphany, literally, means some kind of personal revelation of a new concept/realization/experience that has the power to change one’s life or way they look at the world. It’s a massive “aha” moment. Or at least that is how I usually define it, but the word can also mean “the appearance or manifestation, especially of a divine being.” In the case of the Magi, the Epiphany is the first manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles.

During this winter break I went for a walk at Lake Padden with a new friend. She had wanted to swap stories about how we have experienced God in our lives. I had made a comment a few weeks before about having heard God talk to me, and she wanted the particulars. The bonus was that I got to hear bits of her story as well.

I told her about the two instances that I have deemed as God talking to me, and in the telling of those stories, I realized another, and then another, and then another, when it felt like I was receiving pretty clear direction from God. I’m really, REALLY cautious about stating “God told me,” like REALLY, and yet in these occasions it feels fairly safe to restate to others with at least a little confidence that “It certainly felt like God was speaking to me.” These experiences were quite significant in my life, and it felt good to remember them as a group of incidences.

My walking partner relayed stories to me where she had woo-woo experiences that she, in the same cautious way, said were occasions where she thought God was communicating with her directly. The interpretation might be a little sketchy, but her best explanation was that God was reaching out to her, which induced a sense of wonder, gratitude, and mystery.

Two weeks prior I had a lovely phone call with a person who used to attend Echoes but had moved away. They told me that they had had a recent epiphany experience with God. They wanted me to know that God had reached down and revealed God’s self to them, and they were basking in the glow of the love, acceptance, and harmony of that encounter. My skeptical self is usually to be like, “hmm, okay…” It’s possible that the energy behind this encounter will fade, but there’s no point in MY denying that this epiphany really happened. And in the retelling of their story I learned a few things theologically that were really profound. God met this person, and I got to hear the story because they wanted to say thanks that Echoes had given them a safe space to re-envision the church as a place that could be safe. They said, “Echoes led me to the river of God, but didn’t push me in.” After this experience they feel like they are in the river, and that Echoes had a role in getting there. I loved hearing that.

This past week, in reading the story of the visit of the Magi in preparation for Epiphany I was struck by the vortex that was created by the birth of Jesus. Jesus is born and the shepherds are recruited to drop what they’re doing and worship this newborn baby.

Jesus is born and travelers from the East show up because they’ve been reading the stars and they want to locate the “child who has been born the King of the Jews” because they want to pay homage to the child.

Yeah, probably not (pixabay.com)

Yeah, probably not (pixabay.com)

We don’t really know who these people are. Christmas carols would say that they are three Kings from the Orient, we have no idea how large the party was, no idea what their occupation of society position was, nor exactly where they were from. So we cannot confirm that there were three, that they were kings, nor that they were from the Orient. There’s good reason to believe that they were magicians or astrologers, but we don’t know. And if they came from a long way off they might have had a really party with them, maybe men and women. There is so much speculation around this story, speculation that adds nothing of value.

The people presumably had NOTHING to do with Israel. They aren’t Jewish, they don’t need to be in good graces with Israel, and they probably had careers that would be very reviled by the religiously-observant in Israel. But they saw a star, determined what it was, and seemingly could not resist coming to Jerusalem to find this infant who would become the King of the Jews. It’s not like we have stories in the Bible where this is a common practice.

Something about this story, and this baby, pulled them in.

From a long way off.

From a very different cultural context.

From a very different religious context.

From a very different political context.

And yet they came.

Maybe or maybe not on camels, but they came a long distance.

The stories that I have experienced, that the friends I mentioned above have experienced, that these travelers in the Matthew 2 text experienced, plus the shepherds, plus the crowds that gather to hear Jesus preach, plus the millions of people throughout history who have been pulled in, mysteriously, inexplicably, to this Jesus person…it all kind of sounds like a vortex.

And I didn’t really know what a vortex really was, but it sounded appropriate, so I looked it up.

I got, “a mass of fluid (such as a liquid) with a whirling or circular motion that tends to form a cavity or vacuum in the center of the circle and to draw toward this cavity or vacuum bodies subject to its action;  especially: whirlpool, eddy” (Merriam-Webster)

So, something swirling creates a pull towards the center of the swirl by the very nature that it’s swirling.

Jesus seems like this swirl, this vortex. He is born and people start gravitating towards him immediately. Shepherds come, travelers from the East come, and even Herod get pulled in toward him when Herod perceives Jesus as a threat.

If Jesus really is a vortex, how are we pulled in?

In the conversations that I had with the people I mentioned earlier it was helpful for my connection to God to consider how and when I had been pulled in by God.

This being Epiphany, and it being the beginning of a new year, I’m wondering of the many ways Jesus might still be a vortex. In the course of discussing this concept at a weekly clergy gathering today, someone said something like this: “Maybe it’s simply a fact of realizing that we’re in a vortex toward Jesus. That in itself might be the Epiphany.” Maybe so.

- Charis Weathers

Advent: Hope for Unfulfilled Loonies

Photo by Gareth Harper on Unsplash

Photo by Gareth Harper on Unsplash

We are well into Advent. Less than a week until Christmas, actually. And yet I continue to reflect upon the BEGINNING of Advent season. At the start of each Advent, in the lectionary (the three year cycle of Bible readings used by a whole whack 'o churches), the gospel reading is about Jesus coming back. It doesn't contain any of the details about the story that culminates in the birth of baby Jesus, and instead propels us into the future - the future when Jesus comes back down out of the sky, after a 2000+ year hiatus. This year the reading is Mark 13:24-37. 

The word “Advent” means the coming or the dawn of something – like the advent of the wheel, or the advent of ultra light backpacking gear, or the advent of bipartisanship.

But there’s more to the meaning of “Advent”. The Latin root of Advent is “adventus”, which is the Latin translation for the GREEK word, “parousia,” and “parousia” is the word in the New Testament that refers to the second coming of Christ. (Oooooh, right?)

So Advent has a few layers – it looks back at the FIRST coming of Jesus, and Advent looks forward to the SECOND coming of Jesus. Thus the passages about the second coming of Jesus to start out the Advent season. In this Mark 13 passage, Jesus himself is talking about his second coming. In other parts of the New Testament others talked about his second coming. He says some odd, contradictory stuff, like “Don’t even try to predict when this is going to happen,” alongside, “Study the fig tree to know when this will happen.” The overall gist, though, is fairly obvious that Jesus states unequivocally that he will be coming back. And, it appears that Jesus says he will come back within the same generation as the Biblical writers.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

But…Jesus hasn’t come back. We celebrate his coming back every year at this time, and he’s still not back.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of writing a sermon on this topic, I was explaining the concept of the second coming to someone who did not grow up in church (like, at all). My words sounded so strange even to me: Jesus, this guy who died and came back from the dead eventually ascended into heaven, and he was going to come back and everything, all things, would be okay again. Seriously, this sounds loony.

For 2000 years our faith has held this. Two thousand. When it was first prophesied there were no cars. There were no flush toilets. No one had any idea the world was round. There had been no popes, no wars between Protestants and Catholics, no vaccines for common diseases, no knowledge of distant continents, no synthetic fibers or eyeglasses, and only 3-10% of the population could read.

I wrote that paragraph for the sermon and thought, “am I crazy to stay in this faith?” TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO this was prophesied, and they had no clue about rationalism or psychology or historical criticism. I began to think the sermon had taken a really bad turn…

And then I started thinking about astrophysics. (Because, of course, duh.)

I’m in book club, and we’ve started to read this super-nerdy book by Neil DeGrasse Tyson called “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.” It’s supposed to be a beginner’s book for astrophysics, but geez, so much of it floats at least one pool length above my head. What I am understanding, though, is that two thousand years is barely a drop in the bucket. (And no, I haven't finished the book, but I hear the last chapter is awesome.)

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

In one millionth of a second after the big bang the universe had already grown the size of our solar system. One millionth of a second. By one, full second it was already a few light years across. One second. A lot can happen in a small space of time.

And when did the big bang happen? Scientists estimate 14 billion years ago. It took nine billion years of universe expansion before our own star, the Sun, was even formed.

Two thousand years? Pffft.

DeGrasse Tyson states that scientists do not know what was before the big bang, how the big bang got its start, nor how “organic molecules transitioned to self-replicating life” in the oceans of planet earth.

He doesn’t seem to have much patience for religious persons saying that it was God who started this whole thing off, but it makes sense to me. deGrasse Tyson completely reasonable to say that we *might* find an explanation for these mysteries some day, but I'm going to fall back on the insane number of mystics in history who have communed with some semblance of the divine and chalk it up - with a large dose of humility - to God.  

Jurgen Moltmann is an awesome, influential theologian. He was drafted into the German army in 1944, so he fought for the Nazis. Moltmann surrendered to the first Allied soldier he saw, and then dealt with his complicit guilt in the war while in a prison camp. His seminal work is titled, “The Thelogy of Hope,” in which he says that eschatology, or the study of the end of all things, is THE cornerstone of the Christian faith. He writes, “the eschatological is not one element of Christianity…but it is the “key in which everything in it is set.” The future is “God’s essential nature,” and we strain after the promise of the universal future of Christ. (pg. 16)

In the hope of this universal future of Christ we find not only “consolation in suffering, but also protest of the divine promise against suffering.” Moltmann writes that this is “why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience, but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself the unquiet heart [in each person]. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with the world, for the [prodding stick] of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. If we had before our eyes only what we see, then we should cheerfully or reluctantly reconcile ourselves with things as they happen to be. That we do not reconcile ourselves, that there is no pleasant harmony between us and reality, is due to our unquenchable hope.” (pp. 21-22)

In other words, our unrest with the present is in itself evidence of hope. It’s evidence that God is also experiencing unrest with the world continuing on as it is.

With the return of Jesus is the return of all good to the earth: no more pain, no more tears, no more war, no more unjustness, no more harming the planet.

Moltmann says, “Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present.” (pg 16)

As church, we work toward this reality of transforming the present because of the chafing and unrest that Moltmann talks about, and because this universal future of Christ is the end of all things, it’s how all things end; when life as we know it utterly transforms into a global community that lives in harmony and peace with the principles of Jesus.

We do what we do because the God of the future is ultimately moving towards this transformation and we participate in this, too, by pushing back against those places in ourselves and in our systems that create pain and oppression.

It can be hard to see God. But it’s not hard to see the pain of the world, the pain of our friends and family, the pain of this community. And it’s the pain that kindles the hope.

The very thing that looks like it robs us of hope is actually what causes it. The world isn’t supposed to be like this.

One of my most helpful theology books in seminary was on the topic of sin and was called, “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be,” by Cornelius Plantinga. The premise is that the world isn’t supposed to be led by sin; that’s not how it is designed, and it’s not the direction God is leading it.

On Thanksgiving Eve this year I had the chance to speak at our local Interfaith gathering. It’s an annual gathering and often I’m unable to attend. This year, instead of offering some sort of blessing from the Lutheran tradition, I decided to tell of some good things that have happened in the world in the past few years.

  • We are close to eradicating diseases like Polio, Guinea Worm, and leprosy, and advances are being made in treating Alzheimers
  • Many scientific papers are now offered online for free
  • The giant panda and the manatee were downlisted to vulnerable, taking them off of the endangered species list
  • High school graduation rates are increasing, teen pregnancy is down
  • The number of deaths across the globe due to war continues to decline
  • 800,000 people in India planted almost 50million trees in one day
  • US Veteran homeless rates continue to decline
  • Scientists have identified caterpillars, fungi and bacteria that can actually eat and digest plastic
  • In Texas, Christians, Jews, and Muslims came together to rebuild a mosque that had been burned to the ground
  • A high school student in Florida started a club so that no one would ever have to eat lunch alone again.
  • There is a giant project underway to start to clean up the ocean
  • Vertical farming is gaining momentum
  • Thousands came together to watch a total solar eclipse
  • The number of people in extreme poverty continues to decline
  • Chile converted 11 million acres of land into protected national park
  • A human chain of people rescued swimmers who had been pulled out to see at a beach in Florida
  • 81 yr old Masako Wakamiya taught herself how to code and launched an iphone app
  • The ivory trade was banned in China
  • The number of children who die before age 5 has been cut by HALF since 1990
  • Two Texas Representatives, a Republican and a Democrat, decided to drive together to DC, live-streaming a bipartisan road trip, showing that these two sides CAN work together
  • World hunger has reached its lowest point in 25 years
  • The first truce was called in Colombia in 50 years between the government and rebel fighters
  • 24 nations worked together to create the world’s largest marine reserve in Antarctica
  • The first openly transgender person was just elected to the US State legislature
  • Tiger populations are growing for the first time in 100 years
  • Dr Who will finally have a woman in the lead character role

These things fuel some hope. The harsh things in the world fuel hope as well, according to Moltmann, even though I don’t even actively realize the harsh things ARE fueling hope in me.

But the world is moving in some kind of direction that will eventually lead to the universal presence of Christ. The idea is only 2000 years old.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

We can keep looking. We can keep looking for the wonder of the world that is being redeemed on very small scales every day. We can keep actively chafing against the Unlikeness of Jesus in ourselves and in our communities, and in our world, by spreading compassion, by living justly, by promoting justice, by not succumbing to despair.

The sights and sounds of the coming Jesus may be faint, but keep listening and looking.

It may be well into Advent, but it also may just as well be the beginning of Advent every day: "In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen." (Frederic Buechner)

May we not only hold our breaths to listen, but breathe out the movement of Christ, the returning Christ, into the world.

- Charis Weathers

Memories, Monuments, and Mountain Caribou

Photo by Dominik Lange on Unsplash

Photo by Dominik Lange on Unsplash

On Labor Day Monday I was making the long drive home after an unsuccessful attempt to find grizzly bears along a remote river in British Columbia. (Isn’t that an intriguing opening sentence? If you’d like to know more about that serious situation, and the precipitously endangered mountain caribou, read the bottom of this post…)

Aside from my deep concern for local endangered wildlife and ravaging wildfires, it was a pleasant, uneventful drive. I can’t say that I was even particularly focused on the road itself. Some of my brain was occupied with the podcast that was playing, another part was marveling at the scenery, while simultaneously being dumbstruck at the eerie, orange hue that nearby wildfire was producing. It was like driving into a monochromatic, hazy painting. The road travels from the Canadian Rockies, and then twists and turns for hundreds of miles, just north of the Canadian/US border. I was hoping to make it to Manning Park with enough time for a quick hike.

And then...

On an unremarkable bend in the road a sudden, jarring image slammed into my brain. I could *see* an overturned motorcycle, a few people standing around, and a sheet draped over a body with only motorcycle boots sticking out. “WHAT? What’s going on?!,” my mind shouted in its now-discombobulated, time-confused state.

The boots. The motorcycle. The slow, somber procession of a few lookie-loo cars, mine included, driving by. I could visualize all of it. Oh! Yes, I HAD seen this. It was in the past. I had forgotten that entire scene! At least I thought I had forgotten it until it was suddenly remembered with striking detail. When was I here? What was I doing?

I tried to rebuild the context. It had been many years (5-10, maybe?) since I had been on this stretch of road. Back then I had been with a good friend, on our way to an adventure that I can’t recall. But I wouldn’t have even remembered that much unless I had had this experience at this particular section of this particular highway. Back then it was early morning. On Monday it was dinnertime. I had been driving in the opposite direction that day in the past, but I had recognized it anyway.

It was one innocuous bend in road, amongst literally hundreds upon hundreds of bends in the road that I drove last weekend. But it wasn’t innocuous to me. Or to whoever’s loved one was under that sheet. I’m sure they remember that day with crystal-clear precision.

memories-407021_1280.jpg

Memory is such a weird thing. Many years ago during an otherwise insignificant jog, I came across an unusual scent in my neighborhood that sent me spinning into a traumatic re-experience of a previous life event. That experience landed me in counseling for four and a half years, and thankfully produced a dramatically freer life. Prior to that event, though, I had had no idea that memories, or our perception of memories, can be sitting latently, waiting for a trigger. Even in an unrecognized idle, memories, individual or collective, can have a dramatic effect on a person or a group.

Last year I learned the term “historical trauma.” A registered nurse, who is Lummi and works in school health care, spoke to a class I was taking about the effects of trauma, past and present, upon members of her tribe. Some trauma of their past included coercion to sign treaties that oppressed tribes even more; forced relocation to one small piece of land thus ending their way of life of moving between seasonal homes and providing for their own food and shelter needs; corporal punishment for speaking their language of maintaining their ritual traditions; being considered less than human; forced poverty resulting in reliance upon government “assistance;” and the list goes on and on and on. Coast Salish Peoples were in this region for thousands and thousands of years before the white person ever came here. The loss of their way of life that they had had since time immemorial is incalculable and inconceivable.

This history of racial abuse remains in the collective conscious and continues to assert trauma on individuals, and it becomes particularly fierce when triggered by present-time racism and well-established systems of oppression. The fact that Lummi Nation maintains such a strong, irrepressible resilience is a testament to their greatness. They, along with scores of other tribes, are now saving our own environmental asses by demanding that governments honor the very treaties that were written to subject them. And yet the history of the wrongs perpetrated against them continues to affect their health and well-being every. single. day. The average life span for a Lummi person in comparison with a white person in this region is downright horrendous (only 11% of the tribe is over 55). They may be damn strong, innovative, proud, and beautiful, and yet historical trauma digs deep. The same is true for African-Americans with the history of enslavement here in the U.S., and the ongoing oppression of people of color –historical trauma is real and valid, and it’s easily triggered by overt and subtle acts of racism.

I can’t help but think about the connection points between my sudden, freak memory, the historical trauma of our local Lummi, and the question of whether or not to remove historical monuments that honor those who fought for the Confederacy.

My memory of the motorcycle fatality is striking evidence of the presence of latent memories. These memories just need some kind of trigger to enter into conscious awareness.

Confederacy monuments are a physical, tangible reminder that many in this nation wanted to keep African-Americans in slavery. Current national (and local) racist overtones worsen the effects of historical trauma. So why do we keep them up? The persons reflected in the monuments are in history books; they are documented for all time. Taking statues down is not erasing history, it’s a feeble, well-reasoned move to try and mitigate some of the effects of racist trauma on people who continue to suffer from ongoing oppression.

Memory is so damn strong. We don’t need monuments to keep those particular memories alive. We need to establish new memories of tearing them down.

We need to establish new memories...

**And for the story to which I alluded in the opening sentence…

The grizzlies were supposed to be at the particular river to which we traveled because the salmon were spawning. Because the salmon were not there, the grizzlies were not there. A ranger person told us that the salmon run had collapsed due to an imbalance in the ecosystem, largely caused by much greater numbers of bull trout, which ate the smaller Kokanee salmon, and also ate their food. My adventure companions, who were local to the area, were utterly dismayed. We did manage to go to a different creek where the Kokanee were spawning – they were glorious! (And cranky; the battle over who gets to spermicize the eggs is real, folks.)

And the mountain caribou…Two of the people I met last weekend have newly produced films on the mountain caribou. These are not the arctic caribou, which are so well known for their mighty migration. No, these are another, related species that sticks to the mountains. They live in forests and survive on a diet of lichen that grows on trees. The trees that support this lichen are old growth; at least 120 years old. Then these trees get cut down, which sustain the ancient lichen, there is literally not enough food for the mountain caribou. But not only is their food source being cut down at staggering rates, the clearcuts have created vast meadows which draw in the meadow-loving ungulates, namely the elk, deer, and moose. These animals, in turn, draw in predators, primarily wolf.  The mountain caribou are easier prey than the deer, elk, and moose, because they didn’t need to develop acute evasion skills, because wolves didn’t live in the dense forests. The forests are both the food source and the protection for the mountain caribou, and their removal has quite possibly pushed the mountain caribou beyond the ability to survive.

One moviemaker, Bryce Comer, lives in the region that contains the southernmost herd of mountain caribou. He started making his film nine years ago, when the herd had 49 members. This year it has 10 members. It is getting wiped out, and logging is the explicit cause. He has spent countless hours in a disguised shelter, trying to capture these beautiful animals on film. His motion-activated cameras have yielded extremely important footage of these elusive animals. I thoroughly enjoyed watching his movie with a few of his friends on a moonlit beach the night before we went searching for grizzlies.

The other filmmaker was the instructor of the wildlife tracking course I was taking, which was the reason I was in BC over Labor Day. Dave Moskowitz produced a fabulous film on the mountain caribou, which was partly funded through Kickstarter. We had the chance to see the movie during the course and it was well done.

Both of these films have the potential to raise awareness of the relatively-unknown plight of the mountain caribou. I hope they do. And I hope these animals can somehow survive; it doesn’t look good. Unless logging is dramatically restricted, it looks like we’re only going to have memories of them.