We continue our journey through the “Faces of Faith” today with a look at a small character in the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel – Anna the Prophetess. It’s kind of funny to be exploring a Christmas character in the middle of summer. (Unless, of course, we have lived in Australia where Christmas is always a summertime journey!)
We learn several small details about Anna in this story
- She is of the tribe of Asher
- The daughter of Phanuel
- A widow of 84 years, potentially making her 105 years old. As strange as that seems, consider Luke is where we have a virgin mother, and an elderly cousin/mother in Elizabeth, and a baptizer named John who eats honey and locusts.
- A Prophetess who ‘lives in the temple” 24/7. Again, this may seem bizarre, but it probably means she is just one of the devout people set apart for worship and prayer, which was not uncommon in ancient times.
I want to explore a couple of themes that I think this story of Anna lifts up here in Jesus’ birth story.
- We are shaped by the communal “we” before we know our essential “I.” (James Alison)
I learned this week that a niece of mine discovered through a DNA test that she has some percentage of Iberian heritage. This connection was unknown to our family. It was also discovered this week that my mom’s maiden name family – Mullins – which we’ve always known to be Irish – actually originated from Spain before migrating to Ireland. Like so many others who have done DNA tests, we are faced with the difference between who we thought we were and who a DNA test says we are. In some families these new discoveries are troubling because they mess with the powerful story we’ve inherited as to who we are. It messes with our sense of ‘we’ – our tribe, our clan, our people.
This tension between the biological ‘we’ and the storytelling ‘we’ intersects with the work of theologian James Alison, who writes at length about how our spiritual and emotional identity is shaped by the ‘we’ around us. He suggests there is no such thing as an essential ‘I’ apart from that ‘we.’ All of us are born into a ‘we’ – or a group or family – that we seek to mimic or model ourselves after. Such a ‘we’ is full of grace and challenge for each of us.
Many of us recognize this in our own families – where we see patterns and realities that predate us, but still shaping who we are today. The adult spiritual journey is one of untangling those patterns and learning how to embrace some and to let go of others. I’ve heard African American leaders also suggest that untangling these patterns and histories is also critical to becoming white allies.
Theologically, Alison points out the ‘we’ that shapes us is always flawed, always compromised by violence of various sorts. His take on original sin is that we are born into these flawed communities and families and the flaws and violence inherent in them. Thus the ‘sin’ is woven into the fabric of our personalities. The good news is we all face the same journey. Indeed, this fabric can hold the realities of grace, the love of those not in our family toward us, the experiences of tenacity, persistence and grit.
We celebrated community at family camp at Moon Beach last week, where 104 people gathered for a relaxed week, maybe 50-60 from ORUCC. One of the participants was baby Leo, the 2nd child of Brock and Bethany Schultz. I joking asked, as we finished the week, ‘how many of you have held Leo this week?’ With humor, I was trying to underscore what I had heard Brock say moments before – that living in community makes life better for both Leo and he and Bethany as parents.
Most of us are here because we value community; we value a group of spiritually seeking people to help us be better people.
The challenge, according to Alison, is overcoming the tendencies towards exclusivism, egotism, and self-righteousness that shape us.
I’m going to fight the conservative trends that are over taking our country with everything I have. At the same time, I see one of my roles as a pastor as reminding us that what binds us with conservatives as much as anything is our essential humanness. Political positions aside, whatever behaviors we abhor in ‘the other side’ are often deeply embedded within our families and various communities as well.
One helpful set of questions to probe how our communities and families and groups are shaping us comes from Krista Tippet in her Civil Conversations project (www.onbeing.org). Without minimizing the passion and commitment people have, she asks those on opposing sides of divisive issues not just to debate, but also to reflect on two questions.
What do you see that is good in the position of the other?
What troubles you about your own position or the position of your group?
What good do you see in the position of the others? For example, my father was a lifelong Republican, and we never agreed on politics. In the later years of his life, he was very generous with his time and money to the cause of raising up young Republicans. His liberal children joked that the Reagan Ranch in California was his Mecca. I cringed when I thought of the content of Young Republican gatherings, but I valued that Dad cared about present and future generations. It was not lost on me that in this same time period I was leading this congregation through a visioning process called, “Seeds for the Next Generation.”
What troubles you about your own position, the position of your group?
About a year ago, I heard a Green Bay Area ELCA pastor praise the ‘taking care of our own’ quality of his small town congregants. He noted the way, for example, his two small church communities cared for their elderly, as compared to what he experienced when he was a pastor in Kentucky. He acknowledged, however, that this inward focus also made folks suspicious of outsiders, less concerned about the plight of those in other places, and disconnected to raging racial issues in our country.
Anna’s story, and her waiting and her grace remind us that all of us, even Jesus, need community and we need to see beyond the limits of our community. Her waiting and praying for the day of her dedication represent a powerful turning point in Jesus’ life. She appears only in this scene, never to be heard from again; presumably dying before his ministry really flourished.
Her story, however, reminds us that Jesus was not alone. He inherited his own family stories, expectations, blessings and challenges. Just as his ancestral ‘tribe’ had evolved, so would he. Many of us heard a powerful sermon by Tammy Martens this spring about how the Syro-Phoenican woman asking for a healing challenged Jesus’ own assumptions and limitations of community. She pled with him, and eventually prevailed upon him the need to redefine community. Tammy’s interpretation of the story highlighted both Jesus’ blind spots, but also his willingness to evolve as part of a living community; ever changing.
None of us come into this world alone; and from that welcoming community we grow, change and arise in new forms and expressions.
2. In addition to the known community, we may be shaped even more by the unseen connections and networks in our lives.
In a fascinating interview on the podcast Ted Radio Hour, Ecologist Suzanne Simard, professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia described her work demonstrating that complex, symbiotic networks in our forests mimic our own neural and social networks. She discovered that trees use underground fungi networks to communicate and share resources. ( https://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/509349587/networks?showDate=2018-07-06)
“The evidence was clear. Paper birch and Douglas fir were in a lively two-way conversation.
…In the summer, the birch (trees were) sending more carbon to fir than fir was sending back to birch, especially when the fir was shaded. And then, in later experiments, we found the opposite, that fir was sending more carbon to birch than birch was sending to fir. And this was because the fir was still growing while the birch was leafless. So it turns out the two species were interdependent, like yin and yang.
And at that moment, everything came into focus for me. I knew I’d found something big, something that would change the way we look at how trees interact in the forest, from not just competitors but to cooperators. They’re actually sending messages back and forth that balances the resource distribution among the community.
(Initially, we found that ) if one tree had a lot of water in it or a lot of nitrogen or had high photosynthetic rate and if one tree is sick, then the neighboring tree shuttles more of those nutrients to that suffering tree….If one tree gets damaged by, say, mountain pine beetle, the injured seedling will up its defense enzymes. And then, the receiving tree will then increase its defense enzymes because it knows now that there’s some kind of damaging agent around.
(She found that )… if you were to peel back the surface of the forest floor you’ll see the fungi that are linking these trees together. They’re very visible. …they look like sewing threads. But they’re fungal threads… And they work together to create a very, very complex web. And they’re in constant communication between all the trees.”
All of this unseen, and mostly unnoticed by humans throughout time.
The podcast went on to explore other networks – from the human vascular system to social networks to air traffic control systems to potential urban transportation systems that will include various kinds of flying vehicles. Again, most of these systems operate out of sight and consciousness. A cut on our arm heals, our planes land, the subway arrives relatively on time. We have little awareness or knowledge of the networks that support us and keep us alive.
I couldn’t help thinking of this upcoming reflection on the prophetess Anna. Her presence at Jesus’ dedication is a symbol, I think, of these profound but unseen networks. What we see is the presence of one from the tribe of Asher, from the temple in Jerusalem, rooted in the long-term connective spiritual community of the ancient Israelites. But what is it we don’t see?
Mystic strands in all religions often surface similar teachings appearing at similar times in seemingly unconnected communities around the world. As such, practitioners in all religions begin to see how Jesus, and others, tapped into a profound universal spirituality unseen and unknown by he or others. To use the tree networks as a metaphor – there seems to be a ‘spiritual fungi’ that connects Jesus (and us) to so many others over time and across the globe.
Spiritual wisdom involves looking for these unseen connections and networks. It draws us into connecting threads across disciplines.
In addition to the way trees may be networked like our internal vascular systems, I’ve experienced unseen connective threads in areas such as:
The way Emotional Family systems theory connects our emotions, biology and spirituality.
The way my sister’s animist traditions and my Christian theology connect through ecology.
The way a liberation spirituality first articulated in Latin America that later connected Native American Indians, oppressed blacks of South Africa, and Philippino island peasants gathered around a Bedouin community center in Israel.
In one sense, discovering these connections is surprising and mind blowing. But, in another sense, we can come to expect these discoveries and learn from them; we come to seek them out because we know how powerful the well of wisdom is that connects all creation.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a spiritual DNA test that would offer a graph with the networks of our own lives?
Instead, we have spiritual practices and we have communities of faith. Through developing these we come alive to the ties that bind us, reminding us we are not the first, we are not the only and we are not alone.
To remind us grace is real.
To remind us that paying attention, listening, and opening our minds are creative, and at times, prophetic forms of prayer that connect us to the sin and the sacred within and around us. Understanding and appreciating both will frame our pathway forward to justice and hope.
What would it look like if each of us were to lean just a little bit more into the truth of our known and unknown spiritual networks.
What if we were to put less anxious energy into consuming news and opinions that divide us and anger us; and more time into sitting with wonder at how we’ve come to know grace.
Might that awareness help guide us into more and more right living today?
Might this be the prophetic living that is needed in this moment in history?