The Wisdom of the Owl

About a month ago I was meditating on a passage of Scripture that God brought me to a couple nights in a row.  It is from the Book of Acts, and in chapter 2 the apostle Peter quotes from the Old Testament prophet Joel: “I will display wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below: blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.  The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood” (Acts 2: 19-20).  That was an interesting passage for me to simply open Scripture to given that we had recently had a solar eclipse (“the sun will be turned to darkness”) and that the fires out west were creating on those nights a red moon (“the moon to blood”).  It seemed rather providential.  Not only could I see a blood-red moon, but as I had my window cracked open I could hear the cries of an owl once again.

As I noted in a previous post, owls were harbingers in many ancient societies of death and destruction, but today in our modern Western society owls are synonymous with wisdom.  Although the two concepts seem far apart, I find that in Scripture the two come together in the person of Jesus Christ.  Paul draws directly from the prophet Isaiah in his letter to the Corinthian church when he writes, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts” (1 Cor. 1:19).  Paul goes on to explain that

For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached.  For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.  Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor. 1:21-25).

Jesus, as the embodiment of God in human flesh, is the fullness of God’s wisdom.  The Greeks and Romans, or the Gentiles as all non-Jews were called, sought to find God through the use of reason.  And to be sure, certain Greek philosophers had vague notions of an “unmoved Mover”.  Their understanding of God as Logos, as Word and Wisdom, was a concept that the writer of the Gospel of John borrows in his bold proclamation, when referring to Jesus Christ, that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).   And in an encounter with Jews who demanded of Jesus that he show them a sign so that they might know He is the Messiah, he responds with “This generation is an evil generation.  It demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.  For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Ninevah, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation” (Luke 11:29).  This explains the Jews’ request for signs and the Greeks seeking after wisdom, but what is the sign of Jonah, and what about the “foolishness of the message preached”, that which reveals “God’s foolishness” to be “wiser than human wisdom”?

The sign of Jonah no doubt refers to the fact that the reluctant Old Testament prophet spent three days in the belly of a whale before preaching the message of God to the Ninevite people, who subsequently repented.  Jonah foreshadows what Christ would do as the “Son of Man”.  Specifically, Christ would die on a cross and “descend into hell” as the Creeds state.  But, like Jonah who was brought out of the primordial deep of the waters, on the third day, he, Jesus, rose again from the dead.  But I don’t get this just from the Creeds of the Church.  Rather, in Scripture we return to the book of Acts where King David, author of many of the Psalms, wrote “concerning the resurrection of the Messiah: He was not left in Hades, and His flesh did not experience decay” (Acts 2:31).

This, then, is the foolishness of God: that God would take on and assume His very own creation, be born, live a human life, die on a cross, and rise again.  If it’s difficult to understand how foolish this sounded back then, keep in mind that it wasn’t just the Jews who had purity rituals.  Their ancient Near Eastern neighbors similarly believed in rituals before approaching their gods.  Both Jews and Gentiles couldn’t fathom a God who associated with the impure, who took on flesh.  This wasn’t wisdom for those who believe in an “unmoved Mover”, whose eternal immutability caused Him to sit apart from creation in His eternal perfection.  Further, who would have thought that God would willingly take on flesh in order to die and pay the ultimate Sacrifice?  Surely, the Jews would not as they were expecting a Messiah to come and overthrow Roman rule.  That’s why they wanted a sign.  They wanted assurance of Jesus’s earthly rule, his right to kingship.

I’ve also mentioned in my last post that there were ancient cultures that believed in gods that would become incarnated and die sacrificial deaths.  And I believe that Christ is the fulfillment of those myths.  Those myths were ones that took place far in some mythological past.  But most historians acknowledge the person of Jesus Christ and his uniqueness, even if some doubt His death and resurrection.  And rise he must, for why, in the events of the Book of Acts, would the church be growing, why would the apostles be prophesying and speaking in tongues if they knew Christ hadn’t risen?  The apostle Luke, writer of Acts, captures Peter’s words: “God has resurrected this Jesus.  We are all witnesses of this.  Therefore, since He has been exalted to the right hand of God and has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, He has poured out what you both see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).

This takes us full circle.  For the passage about sun and moon, fires, blood, and cloud of smoke is really about what is taking place that day: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days.  Far from being a gloomy text about the apocalypse, Peter interprets Joel in light of Christ and what was happening in the early Christian community.  “And it will be in the last days, says God, that I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity…before the great and remarkable day of the Lord comes; then whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:17, 20-21).

Aside from a solar eclipse and blood-red moons caused by fires, we live in some rather uncertain times.  North Korea is causing tensions in the Pacific.  The Middle East and Southwest Asia is still engulfed in conflict.  Mexico has suffered from earthquakes.  Venezuela is in shambles.  The Gulf Coast and the Caribbean have had the worst hurricane season in years, with Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico being slammed.  Las Vegas is still reeling from a mass shooting.  Sometimes the world situation can feel apocalyptic, with the freedom of democratic and capitalist societies, and the fruits of all our cultural labors, being threatened by despots and anarchists.

But according to the Book of Acts, God is at work in the world and continuing to pour out His Spirit. Just as Jesus is the fulfillment of the sign of Jonah, so also Jesus is the fulfillment of all those societies that looked to owls as symbols of death and wisdom.  The One who bore the death of all those who call on his name is also a harbor of wisdom, the wisdom and blessing and outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  So, as those who receive wisdom from above, let us call on the name of our true Lord and strive to boldly engage this lost and uncertain world for Jesus Christ.

Advertisements

Still Bearing Fruit

In recent years there have been a number of books published on the topic of aging, dying, and the Christian faith.  No doubt, this is to meet the needs and to answer the questions of an aging church in the West and to help those in the latter half of life respond to spiritual concerns about growing older.  While there are other books that examine the spirituality of the second half of life (Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward readily comes to mind), R. Paul Stevens takes a more unique approach in that his book relates primarily to the question of what one’s calling is in later life, and especially after one retires.

The book is broken up into three sections and the first part deals solely with calling.  The first chapter is notable for it’s argument that retirement is not a biblical concept, in that in the ancient world one had to work as long as one was able.  After a brief history of how retirement came about, the chapter one looks at how retirement can be a catalyst for growth and of a broader and more biblical concept of calling. While Stevens does not suggest we should not retire, his emphasis is that the idea of idling one’s remaining days in self-leisure is not a Scriptural notion and that one can still contribute to society, even if one is not receiving remuneration.  This last point is addressed in more detail in the second chapter as the concept of calling is explained and some guidelines on late-life calling are provided.  And the third chapter takes a closer look at some Scriptural examples of those who lived out their late-life calling faithfully, with special emphasis on Abraham and Jacob.

The second part of the book reflects on the spirituality that comes with aging.  Here, I felt the book had some similarities to Richard Rohr’s book, especially in chapter four where midlife is viewed as a time of transition from doing to being, and from living to accomplish much to living into a more contemplative lifestyle.  Stevens lists a few ways that aging provides opportunities for us to grow spiritually.  The next two chapters detail the potential vices and virtues that arise as one grows older.Aging Matters

The third section looks at how one’s calling affects others beyond one’s death in what we refer to as “legacy”.  Chapter seven is about different facets of one’s legacy, including factors to consider when bequeathing a monetary legacy.  There were two things that stood out for me in this chapter that are not talked about often enough: one’s non-monetary legacy, to include out investment in other people and how that affect our relatives for good or bad even after we are gone, and the importance of writing a living will.  The next chapter, chapter eight, is about preparing for death by reviewing the life we have lived and along that review to enable us to “finish well”.  And the last chapter looks forward to what we can expect in the life, in the new heaven and new earth, and does so by way of clearing some misunderstandings on the nature of death and on Scripture says about our life after death.

Overall, this was a welcome book to the growing bodies of literature on calling and on aging.  While some, perhaps much, of it was already familiar to me, I think Stevens did a great job at exploring the intersection of calling and the spirituality of aging.  He draws upon and interacts with some interesting thinkers in this area, some of who were familiar to me, including Catholic Richard Rohr and Jewish Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and some who were unfamiliar, such as psychiatrist Paul Tournier.  I think one of the best features of the book was the Scripture studies at the end of each chapter.  One of the studies that impacted me most was Jacob’s blessing of his grandchildren upon his deathbed.  Having practiced vision divina with an artist’s rendering of that scene and knowing Jacob’s history, as one who stole his brother’s birthright and blessing, made it a very impacting study on aging, calling, and gaining wisdom from one’s mistakes.  Ultimately, Stevens, who has written a number of books on calling and the workplace from a faith perspective, and who is also in the third third of his life, draws upon a lifetime of wisdom and experience.  To the extent that this book passes on his accumulated wisdom to the next generations, I would say he has embodied the generativity that he wrote about in this book.

Brother Owl

Whoo. Whoo.  

Whoo-who-whoooo.  

I can hear the calls and responses of two owls in the dark night beyond.  I look out the window in a vain attempt to see them.  Even after turning the lights off, the owls remain obscured by the darkness of night, hidden among the even darker silhouettes of trees.  I spend some moments listening to their plaintive cries, wondering why their low sounds seem so comforting…

In our culture today, the image of the owl is fashionable.  I walk into stores and see cutesy owl images on everything from handbags to scrubs to wall hangings.  What is so ironic about this is that an image our society celebrates, and sees as symbolic of wisdom, was also representative of, in many ancient cultures, a concept our society fears: death.1  In societies from Native Americans to Egyptians, the owl was a symbol of death.  And for the ancient Israelites, who had a habit of taking concepts from their ancient Near Eastern neighbors and putting theological twists on them, the owl is representative of mourning and destruction and desolation.  Not quite death, but close enough.

In Isaiah 4:23, we read, “I will turn her into a place for owls and into swampland; I will sweep her with the broom of destruction,” declares the LORD Almighty.”  And the author of Psalm 102:3 compares himself to, “a desert owl of the wilderness…an owl of the waste places”.  This bleak usage of the owl in Scripture caused me to ponder even more strongly my sense of having a kindred spirit in the owl.

I found a possible connection in the music of the singer/songwriter Josh Garrels.  In his song, “White Owl”, he sings the following lyrics:

When the night comes,
and you don’t know which way to go
Through the shadowlands,
and forgotten paths,
you will find a road

Like an owl you must fly by moonlight with an open eye,
And use your instinct as a guide, to navigate the ways that lays before you,
You were born to take the greatest flight

Like a serpent and a dove, you will have wisdom born of love
To carry visions from above into the places no man dares to follow
Every hollow in the dark of night
Waiting for the light
Take the flame tonight 2

When I read or listen to the above lyrics, I am reminded of one of the more interesting symbolism of owls.  According to one website, “In some middle and far eastern cultures, the owl is a sacred guardian of the afterlife, ruler of the night, a seer and keeper of souls transitioning from one plane of existence to another.”3  When I think of that in connection with the lyrics above, I am reminded of Jesus Christ.  Today is Holy Saturday, the day in between the days when we celebrate the death of Christ on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday.  It is a time when we meditate on the bleak in-between time of his crucifixion and his victory over death as he rose to life.

Scripture has the following to say about that time: “But all who knew Him, including the women who had followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things…It was preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.  The women who had come with Him from Galilee followed along and observed the tomb and how His body was placed.  They they returned and prepared spices and perfumes.  And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment” (Luke 23:49, 54-56).  When I read this passage, I wondered why it was included in Scripture.  It seems so mundane.  But I am struck by the description of the women.  In the face of death, in this time of mourning and hopelessness, all they can really do is observe and then rest.

When it comes to death, you and I are like the women who followed the passage and burial of Christ’s body to the tomb: mere observers.  Mere followers of the Way.  We need one who will make the path straight and safe, who will guide us along the Way from life to Life.  While Josh Garrels might be singing about followers of Christ as being like owls who navigate the darkness of this world, it is Jesus Christ himself, the Great White Owl, who went before us and makes the way possible.  He, the Great White Owl, bridged the divide between us and God the Father in his death and resurrection, and is the ultimate guardian and keeper of souls as we transition from this world into the new heaven and earth.

…I reflect on the above things as I prepare to go to bed.  Lying down, I can still hear the cries of the owls in the night.  I can almost imagine that, as the keepers of the night that they are, they are watching over me.  And as I surrender myself into the care of Another, and as sleep begins to pull at my consciousness, I thank God for the death and resurrection of Brother Owl.

_________________________________________________________________

1 While it is the case that many ancient cultures viewed the owl as a symbol of mystery, wisdom, secrets, mysticism – in short, gnosis – there are just as many, if not more, that perceive it as representing death.  African, Egyptian, Celtic, many Native American, and Hindu cultures all saw the owl as relating to death in some way.  See, for example, “Symbolism and Mythology.” Wikipedia.org. Web. 25 March 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owl&gt; and “Animal Symbolism: Meaning of the Owl.” Whats-Your-Sign.com. Web. n.d. <http://www.whats-your-sign.com/animal-symbolism-owl.html&gt;.  I hope to write a follow-up post at some future date on the other meaning of owls: wisdom.

2 “Love &War & The Sea In Between.” Josh Garrels. Web. n.d. <https://joshgarrels.bandcamp.com/track/white-owl&gt;

3 “Owl Symbolism.” Macramé Owl. Web. 5 Mar. 2016. <http://macrameowl.com/owl_symbolism.html&gt;