Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, VI: The Dove

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July 9, 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, VI: The Dove

Passage: John 1:29–34

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And John (the Baptist) testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. —John 1:32

In the book of Job, we hear the wisdom “…ask the beasts, and let them teach you; and the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you (Job 12:7).

Scripture is filled with owls, hawks, eagles, sparrows, vultures, ravens, pelicans; a myriad of birds to symbolize ideas and speak to us of divine things. When Bill offered the Fantastic Beast series I asked “just give me a bird.” After much deliberation, I finally settled on the dove. Doves and pigeons, which are of the same family, get the largest number of “shout outs” in scripture among the birds.

Doves appear throughout, including all four gospels. Amidst their differing narratives and dialogues of Jesus’ baptism the dove is one abiding element.

Listen for God’s word and the witness by John the Baptist to Jesus’ baptism as recorded by the Gospel of John. I am reading from the Common English Bible translation from the first chapter.

The next day John (the Baptist) saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is really greater than me because he existed before me.’ Even I didn’t recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he might be made known to Israel.”

John testified, “I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him. Even I didn’t recognize him, but God, who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.”

Long ago I was captivated by a postcard of a Norman Rockwell painting, framed it, and have kept it in my office. Over the years, I am continually struck by how necessary it is to hold on to this image to remind how to live.

As with any Rockwell, an initial glance at the image and you may think, “I’ve got it.” It is of the front steps and arched entrance to St. Thomas Episcopal Church on 5th Ave in New York City, painted in 1957.

Pedestrians crowd the sidewalk, walking in both directions, eyes to the pavement, shoulders hunched over, while the nose of a NYC Yellow Cab edges in the drab scene. On the steps to the cathedral’s entrance, a robed minister directs a custodian, who is on a ladder changing the title of the sermon within the building’s signage. Everyone is focused on the task at hand, just like a busy New York minute, not wasting a second nor aware of anything or anyone else. So, consider the irony of the scripture passage Rockwell painted at the bottom of the image: “I lift my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” from Psalm 121.

It has got to be one of Rockwell’s more sobering images. People detached from one another, hustling towards the next event, or retreating from some past encounter. At that moment in time, they do appear to not be present with anything at all, even themselves. It is as if the present does not exist. Rather than dismiss this as depicting hopelessness, if you look closely at the image, there are, perhaps, a dozen doves ascending from the eaves. It is easy to miss them since the color of their wings meld with the granite in the sculpture of the arched entrance. Only the birds of the air seem attuned with their maker, not only lifting their eyes, but their entire bodies to God.

Through the birds, Rockwell whispers, “pay attention, there is hope.”

In human imagination, birds have mediated between the heavens and the earth throughout time. Their freedom to traverse the skies or startle us with their songs raises our vision up into the skies, metaphorically and literally.[1] From the hummingbird to the vulture, their ease of flight is with a grace that almost masks their strength.

Trees and shrubs are strategically placed among the concrete pavement and buildings dominate our surroundings in what seems a human-manufactured world. So the birds serve as a continual reminder of a presence that is not of our making, God’s presence. All may pass by, all will pass away, but the spirit of God remains.

Since ancient times the dove has symbolized the spirit of the divine. The early Israelites imagined it hovering over the waters of creation, pregnant with God’s possibilities.[2]

Scripture tells us that after the rain had subsided, Noah relied upon the dove’s strength to search for solid ground amidst the flood. It returned with the message of land—and the end of chaos—by bearing an olive leaf.

In ancient Israelite worship, doves were the only bird acceptable for sacrifices since they represented purity and innocence.

A dove is often depicted in art as alighting upon Mary at the incarnation of Jesus, again pregnant with God’s possibilities. And all the gospels record a dove was present at Jesus’ baptism, symbolizing God’s Holy Spirit descending from heaven.

Most western art depicts a gentile and sanitized image of Jesus’ baptism: the tidy banks of the Jordan River, John the Baptist and Jesus in crisp linens, with a dove descending to lightly touch Jesus’ shoulders.

Ornithologist, Sally Roth, disabused me of my placid image with; “(a) dove’s descent is not slow and gradual but rather an ‘oh my God’ moment with sudden appearance. They do not glide in from afar, but with swift maneuverability, they come in at high speed, close their wings and drop like a rock, pulling up at the last instant to flutter to a stop, flaring out their tail and throwing it forward to aid in braking.”[3]

The word “descent” is an idiom in scripture to indicate a divine origin.

Now, when we read of Jesus’ baptism, we need to reimagine he was slopping mud from wading into a river, approaching John the Baptist who must have smelled to high heaven, and then this dove thundered in from no where. Jesus’ baptism was an earthy, cosmic and explosive experience.

But the spirit did not just appear and then vanish. Rather, John the Baptist claims the spirit remained. Since birds of flight do not “remain,” the gospel writers drive home the point that God’s divine presence is both very startling but also enduring.

In this short narrative, we are to know the spirit tethers Jesus’ finite, mortal existence to his divine origin and to the eternal to which he will return. Rather than thinking of the baptism in the spirit as a single event, we are to always think of it as the ongoing indwelling of the spirit.[4]

John the Baptist testifies the spirit descended from heaven. But, as the gospels testify, the spirit did not shield Jesus from adversity, rather in the long arc of each gospel, we grow to understand the spirit equipped him to weather the storms. This simple dove symbolized the strength and grace that invested Jesus for the vigorous struggle in which he will live each and every day and for the struggle that will take his life. The spirit is resilient. The spirit remains.[5]

Even Jesus needed to be equipped with the spirit to weather the storms of his life. But, if we listen to common culture today, we might wonder “what storms”? The stars in the workplace, or public stages are perceived as able to glide along, creating an illusion that they either do not encounter failure, become disabled, or, if faced with obstacles, are able to navigate them without skipping a beat.

Social media and our social networks, seem to celebrate those who are fonts of limitless energy and productivity: the consultant able to work throughout long days and then late flights, the student who stays up night after night to get the paper done or study for the exam, or the neighbor with capacity and creativity to take on every volunteer task. There is this notion that the more we do, the more we can do, and we don’t stumble.

None of this is true. We are created to be human beings and not human doings. Life is messy. There is so little we can control. It can be heartbreakingly difficult when tragedy strikes out of nowhere.

Rising against this illusion that we can be perfect or that bad things won’t happen to good people is the lived experience that when failure or trauma happens, we survive by becoming resilient. “Resilience” is the current buzzword and is resonating with those in “real life” who have been humbled by life.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, learned more about resilience than she imagined following the sudden death of her husband. In an instant, she became a single parent to their two small children—something she never imagined, and she became a widow—something she never imagined.

The indomitable Sandberg, who had inspired women to just Lean-In as her first book was titled, admits how her husband’s death crippled her. In the recently released book, Option B, Sandberg recounts her struggles to take a breath, and another breath, wipe away tears and more tears, and rebuild. It couples her story with Wharton psychologist Adam Grant’s insight on the need for resilience to weather life’s traumas.

Resilience is not something we are born with or a character trait like optimism, rather Sandberg and Grant write; “resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity—and we build it. It is not about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone.”

Coached by Grant through her grief, Sandberg learned resilience is built by the daily habits and stories she told herself. Sandberg learned not to personalize her husband’s death—of course it was not her fault, but she needed to accept that and know she could not have prevented it. Overtime she had to learn her grief was not pervasive—it would not affect all areas of her life. And, the trauma she and her children endured would not be permanent—her children would grow up to lead full lives and she would as well.[6] She had to be fully present with all her emotions, accept each day as it unfolds, and, step-by-step, re-create her life. There was no value in clinging to the past or imagining a future in which the pain would be erased or never be healed: resilience demands living in the present.

Sandberg’s grief, recovery, and capacity to create resilience was not solitary. The authors reflect; “(r)esilience is not just built in individuals. It is built among individuals…when we build resilience together, we become stronger ourselves and form communities that can overcome obstacles and prevent adversity. Collective resilience requires more than shared hope—it is fueled by shared experiences, shared narratives and shared power.”[7]

As Christians, we share common stories of tragedy and hymns of sorrow permeate scripture. Yet, we tend to skip over them and go to the texts that offer pleasantries. A wise pastor reminded me about one third of the psalms are voices railing at God with “how could you let this happen to me?” Or “where are you?” Honest questions that God knows we are asking.

Go ahead and ask them. It is healthier for someone in the midst of gut-wrenching trauma to admit how hard life is rather than try to push aside the pain by saying, “I know God does not give me more than I can handle.” That is one of the little Christian lies we tell when nothing could be further from the truth. Life does throw at us—all too often—more than we can handle. By turning to God every day, and particularly in times of trial, we may not find the answer we want, but we grow to realize God did not inflict the trauma, rather the spirit of God remained with us, even when we have lost our ability to hope.

We weather the storms of life by building spiritual resilience.

At 5 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Camp Liberty, Iraq, before the morning run, a group of soldiers meet to pray together. Colonel Mike Lembke, the US Iraq chaplain, believes these regular gatherings are essential for soldiers, who are separated from family, work long hours, and live in life-threatening conditions. They build “spiritual resiliency” which he defines as the “ability to exercise your faith on a daily basis so you are able to understand, or you are able to integrate the joys and sorrows of each day into your life.” [8]

Through discipline the soldiers build physical strength, so we should not be surprised; rather we should be inspired by the ways they seek to build spiritual resilience. It does not happen magically, it takes the support of the community and devoting time to God. Their lives depend upon being fully present at each moment and they learn their lives rely upon God’s abiding spirit.

Let’s return to the Norman Rockwell image we started with of the pedestrians crowding in front of St. Thomas in NYC and attempt to imagine the scene 60 years later. The minister would be wearing the same robe, engaged in the same activity, the cab might be an Uber, and the pedestrians would still be self-absorbed, but not staring at the sidewalk. Instead they’d be staring at their smartphones.

We have a nagging concern with being connected, all the time. We behave as if it is our phones that sustain us. If 60 years ago, we failed to be fully present in life, we are even more so today.

Phone-obsessed pedestrians cannot begin to notice the birds, but if they did, they would realize they are probably not doves, honestly, pigeons. But, that does not diminish any of the divine connection since pigeons and doves are of the same bird family. Pigeons are just a bit larger and certainly more prevalent.

So if the birds of the air remind us of the enduring connection between heaven and earth, if the pigeons of the city, peck around you, murmuring a soft coo, stop to consider God’s spirit remaining with you. Pause to say a prayer of thanks. Stop worrying about the past or planning the future. Bask in the presence of God and build a bit of spiritual resilience.

[1] Bernd Heirich, “Angels in Our Midst” book review of The Wonder of Birds by Jim Robbins, Wall Street Journal,(Saturday/Sunday, June 3–4, 2017): C9.

[2] Dorothy Willette, “The Enduring Symbolism of Doves,” Biblical Archaeology, November 2, 2016, Accessed June 15 2017.

[3] Sally Roth, An Eye on the Sparrow (Laporte, CO: Happy Crab Publishing, 2013), 209.

[4] Clark H. Pinnock, “Holy Spirit,” New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology, Ed Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2013) 246.

[5] Katharine Hargrove, “Why a Dove,” Worship 38, no. 2: 62–67. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(Accessed June 16, 2017) 63-65.

[6] Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, Option B (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 10-16.

[7] Ibid., 130.

[8] Britney Bodner, “Spiritual Resiliency Leads to Strength” US Army (May 11, 2010) Accessed June 30, 2017.