The Common Good
May 2008

The Creator of Life

by Laurel A. Dykstra | May 2008

Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost are not three distinct seasons, but rather celebrations of and grapplings with three aspects of Christ’s resurrection and what they mean about Jesus, ...

Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost are not three distinct seasons, but rather celebrations of and grapplings with three aspects of Christ’s resurrection and what they mean about Jesus, God, Spirit, and us.

Jesus’ friends and companions were adamant. Jesus had died, was brutally executed as a criminal and disruptor, but he continued to live. They saw him, re­ceived messages from him, and were different because of it. Jesus was with them individually and in community.

Easter did not just happen one morning 2,000 years ago, and it does not happen one Sunday a year; it happens over and over again through the life of the church and the life of those who would follow Jesus. It happens after the chocolate and jelly beans are gone; it happens when we know that love and hope have died. Then and now, powers and principalities say no to resistance, but God says yes to life. Death does not have the last word. Each new Christian generation has Easter experiences that demand the absurd proclamation, “He is alive!”

This month’s reflections look at passages from Acts, Psalms, Isaiah, and Genesis. As we read both the texts and the resurrection-filled world around us, I have focused on bodies, laughter, and the earth itself—lest we become, as my mother often quoted, “so heavenly minded we are no earthly good.”

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus. www.laureldykstra.com

May 4

Slapstick Comedy

Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

Justo González, Cuban-born theologian and promoter of Latino theo logical education, claims that humor is one way the author of Luke-Acts engages in “moderate subversion” of an early church that was becoming increasingly exclusive in its models of leadership. Jesus’ ascension, as it is described in the first chapter of Acts, is one of the funnier biblical narratives—practically slapstick.

In a final, over-the-top demonstration of “not getting it,” an unspecified group of followers demand of the resurrected Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). My crude paraphrase is: “Great, you’re not dead. Now are we going to kick some Roman butt and take our rightful place as kings?”

In response, Jesus promises an entirely different kind of power and then promptly disappears into a cloud, as though in exasperation. I imagine later there was a fair amount of forehead-slapping among his followers, with them saying, “I can’t believe that was the last thing we said to him.”

So the stooges are standing gawking up at the place where Jesus has disappeared when two men appear and ask why. The scene is parallel to Luke 24, where two men in dazzling clothes chasten the women at the empty tomb for seeking Jesus in the wrong place. The men’s appearance is sudden but not necessarily supernatural—they may simply have walked up on the distracted cloud-gazers. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” they said (Acts 1:11). I expect the unrecorded response from the disciples was, “Agh! Where did you come from?”

Many of us are looking for Jesus in the wrong places; our faith lives consist too much of standing and looking up. We could use a poke in the eye, a ride on a banana peel, or a pie in the face to get us to look at the world around us and those who are standing next to us.

May 11

Tongues of Fire

Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34, 35; 1 Corinthians 12:3-13; John 20:19-23

“Our language holds our culture, our perspective, our history, and our inheritance,” says Mary Siemens, an Abori­ginal woman from the Dogrib Nation of Canada’s Northwest Territories.

From the 1870s to as late as the 1970s, one-third ofAboriginalchildren in Canada spent much of their childhood in church-run government residential schools. Forcibly separated from their families and communities, they were subject to “education” that ridiculed their culture, prohibited their language, and often included malnourishment and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. This is an incredibly painful and often-ignored Canadian reality. Dallas Nikal, a 16-year-old Wet’suwet’en youth from northern British Columbia, helped organize a conference to provide a forum for First Nations youth to talk about the devastating generational impact of residential schools on Native communities.

Like most young Indigenous North Americans, Nikal speaks a Euro­pean language, English. “My grandmother remembers being smacked by teachers when she was a little girl for speaking our language. Basically they tried to beat the culture out of us,” Nikal told Northword Magazine. Linguists estimate that since first contact between Indigenous North Americans and Europeans, nearly half of the 300 languages spoken on the continent have been lost and destroyed, and nearly 100 are near extinction.

On Pentecost, “tongues like fire” rested on the heads of the gathered community and they began to speak in different languages. The miracle of Pentecost is not that persons from all the known world and language groups could understand a crowd of Galilean hillbillies, but that each person heard and understood God’s deeds of power in vocabulary, symbol, and grammar that had meaning for them.

This event, like the prophecy from Joel that Peter quotes to explain it (Acts 2:17-21), is an incredible affirmation of diversity and inclusion that Christians need to remember: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).

May 18

God’s Body

Genesis 1:1 - 2:4; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Readings for Trinity Sunday are chosen to show God as creator and to include passages that refer to God, Jesus, and Spirit together. What is also emphasized in the creation readings from Genesis and Psalm 8 is human dominion over earth and its inhabitants.

Genesis 1:26 reads, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” Unparalleled species extinctions, global climate change, massive deforestation, food monoculture, and destruction of Indigenous knowledge are devastating realities with roots in a theology of dominion.

Economic and environmental theologian Sallie McFague offers a trinitarian understanding that challenges dominion theology. As she writes in LifeAbundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril, “I believe in God, the Creator and Sustainer of all life; in Jesus Christ, in whom we see God at work for the flourishing of life; and in the Spirit, who works in us so we might live from, toward, and with God.”

Psalm 8 speaks of God’s hands and fingers and the world as God’s work. McFague invites Christians to imagine the world as God’s body as a way of understanding God as vulnerable, near to us, and concerned with more than spirit. “If God is in some sense body,” she writes in The Christian Century, “then bodies would matter to God—God would love bodies—and salvation would be as concerned with such basic needs as food, clothing, and shelter as with matters of the spirit. Salvation would be a social, political, and economic matter and not just a matter of the spirit’s eternal existence.”

May 25

Mother and Child

Isaiah 49:8-16; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.5 million infant deaths per year could be averted through effective breastfeeding. Yet infant formula producers continue to ignore or exploit legislation that prohibits the promotion of breast-milk substitutes.

This week’s readings contain two references to God as a nursing mother, rare passages where I can exercise the hermeneutical privilege of biological mothering and the exegetical resource of four and a half years of breastfeeding.

Psalm 131:2 says, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.” In my experience a weaned child would like to look down your shirt, sing a little song to your breast, grab a handful of what you’re eating, show you a doll, tug your earring. A weaned child is not a model of calm.

Turns out what I know from experience is confirmed, or at least debated, by language scholars. The Hebrew word is not weaned but instead means “dealt well with, dealt with bounteously.” This sounds to me like a child who has just finished nursing. A child who is quiet in despair because he or she knows crying won’t do any good is very different froma child whose calm is born of satisfaction, trust, and sufficiency: The implications for the portrait of God and God’s children are significant.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). In Hebrew, the words for compassion and womb come from the same three-letter root so that one implies the other. In this passage, the connections between womb, compassion, and birth are further emphasized because the words compassion and womb appear together. God as nursing mother does not communicate sentimentality, but im­mediate biological urgency.

Nursing children whimper, cry, scream, and sometimes bite. Breasts that are not suckled on time ache, swell, and leak. The children of our wombs step on our bladders and tear our bodies as they exit. God is intimately connected to us, intensely aware of our experience and our needs and incapable of forgetting.

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