Monday, January 20, 2014

Acorns, King, Beloved Community

On the eve of Tu Bishvat, Hebrew New Year of the Trees, I found myself planting pin oak acorns I Jerusalem as a mark of new beginnings.
collected last fall from a healthy wetland forest. I had been waiting for a good wet day to drop them into the muck in the less healthy wetland where I do my Weed Warrior work, a fitting activity to mark the date when trees are planted in

As I squashed each acorn into the mud, I found myself thinking about new beginnings, this month’s Synchroblog topic: “Starting something new. Dreaming about the future. Second chances. Change/Transformation.”

Every acorn planted is a dream for the future. The start of something new. An occasion of change or transformation.

But the topic of new beginnings goes far beyond acorns, or trees. New beginnings are the heart of the Christian faith: new life from old, grace breaking through the tight confines of the past. Read any of the gospels and there they are, stories of new beginnings: Jesus reaching out to heal the blind, retrieve the outcast, offering new sight, new starts, new standing.

Interesting, as I think about it, how insistent the scriptures are on individual stories: names named, locations given. The point seems very personal. Interventions of grace, new beginnings, happen one person at a time. Blind Bartimaeus on the road outside of Jericho. Greedy Zaccheus. Mary Magdalene.

The book of Acts continues the pattern: Saul interrupted on the way to persecute the new Christians, and given a new name, a new mission, a new beginning. Lydia of Thyratira, dealer in purple cloth, first convert in Europe.

Yet Jesus was explicit that faith in him also marked a new beginning for the Hebrew tradition he was born to. When Nicodemus, Pharisee and member of the rabbinic ruling counsel, saw in Jesus something startling and new, he came in secret to ask more.

“No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 
I have heard the term  “born again” since I was small, but it never occurred to me that Nicodemus might have heard the term in a different way. Apparently, to a rabbinic Jew of Yeshua’s time, there were already at least six ways of being “born again.” Born of water was commonly understood as physical birth, while “born again” could refer to someone converting to Judaism, experiencing circumcision, getting married, becoming a rabbi, becoming a king, or becoming a leader of a yeshiva, a rabbinic academy.

All those “born agains” are new beginnings in some way under human control. The new beginning Jesus offers is something different, and in fact is a play on words. gennatha anothen, translated in John 3:3 and 7 as “born again” could also mean “born from above” or “from a higher place,” or “of things which come from heaven or God.

There was much discussion, in Jesus day and after, about the relationship between law and faith, between Jew and Christian. Can a Jew be a Christian? Does faith in Christ null obedience to law? Nicodemus walked away from Jesus puzzled, but appeared again in John 7, urging his fellow Pharisees to take more time to understand what Jesus is doing. In John 19, he came to help take Jesus body from the cross, to wrap it and prepare it for burial.

Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Rattling acorns in my hand, it occurs to me that in some strange way, the relationship between law and new life is a bit like that between acorn and oak tree. The acorn is manageable, graspable. It has defined boundaries, protective shell. But the acorn isn’t really the point. It’s what comes after.

Sprouting Acorn, Wikimedia Commons
At what point does acorn become tree? Is the new beginning the moment of planting, or the moment when the shell splits, and roots begin to sink deeper? The moment when the first shoots surface?

I love stumbling across stories of conversion: Augustine, in his garden hearing a voice saying “pick up and read.” Francis, struggling with illness and depression, confronted by a strange question: "Who do you think can best reward you, the Master or the servant?" Brother Yun, awestruck at the miraculous healing of his father, listening as his parents explained what they had learned of Jesus from missionaries banished 25 years before.  T. S. Eliot, embarrassing his companions as he knelt before Michelangelo’s Pieta.

For some, new beginnings are dramatic and immediate: my grandmother on a street corner in a rural Oklahoma town. My friend reading the gospel of John in a lonely prison cell. Other times, new beginnings are less easy to date, or track.

Martin Luther King couldn’t point to a precise moment of conversion, but instead spoke of moments when abstract theology shifted into personal conviction. In “Stride toward Freedom”, he wrote of a January night in Montgomery, Alabama when as a 27 year old pastor, new husband and father, the accumulation of abusive, threatening phone calls prompted by the Montgomery bus boycott brought him to a point of near defeat:   
It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point. I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. . . Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee.
 I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. . . With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak right now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. . .  I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’ It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.’ . . . At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
A few years later, in 1960, King wrote: 
In past years the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category which I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. Perhaps the suffering, frustration and agonizing moments which I have had to undergo occasionally as a result of my involvement in a difficult struggle have drawn me closer to God. Whatever the cause, God has been profoundly real to me in recent months. In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.

What was King’s point of new beginning? Does it matter?

Will anyone remember when I planted these acorn? Will anyone note the date new life springs up out of the muck, and reaches toward the sky?

One oak tree can feed over 500 species ofbutterflies and moths, more than 100 species of vertebrate animals. One oak tree can change an ecosystem, a landscape. Not just for now, but for centuries to come, just as one courageous follower of Christ, or a small handful, growing together, can change a culture, a continent.

At the beginning of his time of public ministry, Jesus read from the prophecy of Isaiah 61:   
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,    because the Lord has anointed me    to proclaim good news to the poor.He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,    to proclaim freedom for the captives    and release from darkness for the prisoners,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  
The Isaiah prophecy goes on to describe the result of this work of new beginnings: a community of joy instead of mourning, of praise instead of despair:
They will be called oaks of righteousness,    a planting of the Lord    for the display of his splendor. 

Pin Oak, George Thomas, 2013
Martin Luther King described this prophetic vision as “the beloved community” – a planting of the Lord providing shelter and restoration for all seeking freedom from captivity or release from darkness.

In this time of new beginnings, I pray for all the seeds I’ve planted across the years. For the seeds still dormant in dark places. The seeds struggling toward light.

I pray for the fruit of new beginnings: for mercy, wisdom, justice, love. Food for the hungry. Joy for those in despair.

I pray for oaks of righteousness – towering trees that change the world around them. A beloved community of restoration and redemption.

For branches that reach far beyond their roots, offering shelter and nourishment in ways I can only imagine. 

Synchroblog had a record number of postings this month, with lots of thoughts on all kinds of new beginnings. Take some time to check some out:

Jen Bradbury - Enough
Abbie Watters - New Beginnings
Cara Strickland - Bursting
Done With Religion – A New Year, A New Beginning
Kelly Stanley - A Blank Canvas
Dave Criddle - Get Some New Thinking
David Derbyshire - Changed Priorities Ahead
K W Leslie - Atonement
Michelle Moseley - Ends and Beginnings
Matthew Bryant - A New Creation
Edwin Pastor Fedex Aldrich - Foreclosed: The beginning of a new dream
Jennifer Clark Tinker - Starting a New Year Presently
Loveday Anyim - New Year New Resolutions
Amy Hetland - New Beginnings
Phil Lancaster – New Beginnings
Mallory Pickering – Something Old, Something New

Margaret Boelman – The Other Side of Grief