Monday, February 27, 2012

The Road To Syria

As horrifying news stories continue to pour forth from the major news networks about the atrocities being committed against innocent civilians in the country of Syria, it is worth taking a moment to consider how important Syria has been for Biblical History. And, as it would seem, trends towards oppressive regimes and governments in Syria are nothing new.

The first civilizations themselves, as archeologists tell us, stem from Syria. Syria, in previous epochs, encompassed more than just the northern region and country from Israel, and extended all the way down to the Euphrates valley. Therefore, it can be said with some certainty that early Biblical figures such as Seth and Enosh and Kenan, descendants of Adam and forerunners of Abraham, came from, and lived in the region of Syria.

One of the oldest languages on the face of the earth is Syriac. When I studied in Kottayim, India during my seminary at Princeton, I had the rare opportunity to hear the Syriac language spoken in Orthodox Christian Syriac worship services. Syriac is still a living language. The sound of it's blunt force "d's" and curled "r's" still ring in my head. The written language, with it's beautiful swills of feather pen, and wide curves of letters are bold, and distinct and confident, think John Hancock's signature on the Declaration of Independence, in their design.

When Jesus was born, Quirinius (full name: Publius Supicius Quirinius), was the governor of Syria. Though any direct comparisons between Quirinius and the current leader of the Syrian government, President Bashar Al Assad, may seem far fetched, both men did rise from relative poverty to near dictator status. It was the annexation of Judea by Quirinius that led to his desire to carry out a census on that region, for tax purposes, that led to Mary and Joseph's need to travel from Galilee, a rural fishing region, to the city center of Bethlehem, where, of course, Jesus was born.

The city of Damascus, is without doubt, the most important city in Syria that is connected with the Bible. There are Biblical accounts of wars between king David in Israel and the city of Damascus. Damascus is sometimes called "Aram" which is the same linguistic derivative of the language that Jesus spoke - Aramaic, basically a form of pigeon Hebrew. Most famously, Damascus was the destination of Paul, then Saul, where on a journey to that city, God struck him down, and blinded his eyes and spoke to his heart, and he became a Christ follower.

Tradition has it that Paul left the "Damascus Gate" in Jerusalem in the morning, probably by donkey, and that around noon, in the middle of the Syrian desert, he encountered God; "As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," He replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." (Acts 9:3-6).

One hopes that other such sightings of God might still be possible in modern day Syria, where Jesus continues to be persecuted, and where men like Saul continue on murdering rampages. One thing is certain, that God is still God, and that Jesus still helps people to turn away from themselves and from violence, and toward The Way...

All For Now,

Monday, February 20, 2012


Every time something new, or life-changing or "big" happens in my life, it has been accompanied by an unusual and unique bird-sighting. For example, there was the time in Galilee, when, on the deck of a hotel that Star and I were staying in, we saw a dove sitting all by herself on the porch. This was not terribly unusual, until the next morning when this dove produced an egg on that very same porch. That very morning, we found out about how Haley Islay, our three year old daughter, would come into our life. Early on in my ministry in Paso Robles, I was writing a sermon in my home office, struggling through the syntax of a particular sentence, when I saw a three foot bald eagle majestically casting a knowing eye on me, while standing in my front yard. I cannot remember how my sermon went that particular weekend, but the vision of the eagle I will not soon forget. There was the white horned owl that I encountered on a walk at night that accompanied the announcement that my surrogate grandmother had passed away. Birds bring big news in my life!

So, it did not escape my notice this past Friday, when I witnessed one of the strangest and most interesting bird sightings in my life. As I was pruning a Spruce tree in my front yard, I observed not one but two hawks hovering overhead. These hawks were cawing (do hawks caw?) very loudly and circling ominously. Then, one hawk landed high up on a branch next to me, and then then the other landed. The next thing is hard for me to describe descriptively enough in the context of a blog post but the two hawks then proceeded to...I think the word is...mate. I will spare you the details of the mating of the hawks, since I am sure it was a private moment for them anyway. But I have been asking myself big questions ever since. "What is this strange thing?" "What is it that God is trying to say to me?" "What new in-breaking is about to happen?" Or was it simply as Freud might have described it, that - "sometimes a hawk mating is just a hawk mating."

I do not know the immediate answers to these questions, but I would like to venture very gingerly into the realm of natural theology (seeing God in the midst of nature - note: Jonathan Edwards), for just a moment, and ask the question, what connection is there between birds and God?

Birds come up a lot in the bible. The most obvious example is the dove. The primary metaphor we associate with the Holy Spirit's presence in the New Testament is that of a dove; "And the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form like a dove" (Luke 3:22). Of course there were no birds actually present at Jesus' baptism, but the metaphor of a dove as the Holy Spirit has stuck for these many years. It was also a dove that was sent out by Noah, after forty days and nights on the waters, that would bring back an olive branch, a sign that God had ended the destruction of the earth; "When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in it's beak was a fleshly plucked olive leaf" (Gen. 8:11). And there are hundreds of other examples of birds in the Bible, birds seemingly displaying God's power and God's grace in the Bible: "But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar on wings like eagles,"For they will rise up on eagles," (Is. 40:31); "Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow or reap, or stow away in barns, and yet the heavenly Father feeds them," (Matt 6:26).

These examples of avian specimen in the Bible are equally concrete and as elusive - as concrete and elusive as a bird itself. Some larger theological themes, however, can be drawn from them. Whenever we encounter a bird in nature, there is the sense that something fragile and beautiful has fleetingly flitted into our lives. There is a literal sense of transcendence and levity, of something that floats higher than we do, entering our world. There is often a sense that birds have a higher view of life than we do - a "birds-eye" view, if you will. A bird is an apt metaphor for how we often view God. At least for Christians, we know that God does observe life in a higher, more elevated way than we do. We know that Jesus really was like a "moor-hen" as the book of Psalms suggests - that Jesus was both all powerful and all human, tough and fragile at the same time. We know that the actual Spirit of God also, "blows, (and flutters) where it will."

So, birds for me, are a reminder of God. But what is God doing? What is God trying to say? What messages are currently being sent? The answers to these questions are as ineffable and unforgettable as two hawks mating on branches high above my yard. But I will continue to look to the heavens for the answers, higher even than the birds themselves...

All For Now,

Monday, February 13, 2012

Raspberry is for Real

About a month ago, I had the very difficult parental assignment of telling my 3 year old daughter Haley that her best friend, her soul mate since birth, her Golden Retriever dog named Honey, had died. Actually the specifics of the announcement were even more traumatic than that. Only hours before I spoke with Haley, I myself had to take Honey to the vet and have her "put down" because of a recently discovered metastatic version of lung cancer that had overtaken her entire body ("She never even smoked" I mourned to the doctor...). So, to say that I was "not in very good shape" as I sat on Haley's trampoline and looked into her two pellucid blue eyes and told her that her 60 pound wonder had died, would be an understatement. I was a wreck! But I will never forget Haley's reaction. Haley was immediately defiant, angry even. Then she cried a little. And then she said as clearly as if she was delivering a State of the Union Presidential Address, "We are going to go buy a bunny rabbit right now! And we are going to call her Raspberry." Star and I gladly acquiesced. Sure "denial might be a river in Egypt," but it can also be an equally valid form of coping with grief and loss. If a bunny rabbit could fill the Honey shaped hole in Haley's heart, it was for the best.

What struck me then, and has been with me ever since is where she got the name Raspberry for a Bunny Rabbit. Surely Roger Williams himself, who wrote the iconic novel about life and rabbits, "Watership Down" could not himself have come up with a better name for a bunny rabbit than, "Raspberry." So, I asked Haley, where did you come up with the name, "Raspberry?" Haley's answer was equally as clear and delineated, "The angel told me." "What angel?" I asked. "THE ANGEL," said Haley, "Don't ask me any more questions...". And so I didn't ask her any more questions, but ever since, I have asked myself a myriad of them. "Did an angel of God really speak to Haley?" "Did a messenger of God intervene in Haley's life momentarily, during her time of grief, to give her a name for a bunny?" "Does God speak with children more regularly and clearly than God speaks to adults?" "Is Haley gifted with a unique ability to hear God's voice?"

Recently pastor and author Todd Burpo wrote a New York Times Best Selling novella, which has sold over five million copies (according to the cover), called, "Heaven is for Real." The theme of the book centers around a young boy, Burpo's son, named Colton, who made it through emergency appendectomy surgery, and a near death scrape, to live to tell about it. After the surgery, however, Colton revealed that he had not only been under anesthesia during the surgery, but that he had also been to heaven and back. The book recounts Colton's journey and conversations with God, dialogue with angels, observations about heaven, details about who was sitting next to God, and content about what we can expect if we are to go to heaven. I must personally admit that when I first learned about the book I instinctively knew that it must be taken with more than just a small pinch of salt (please pass the salt shaker). And, since the writing of the book questions have abounded from theologians and literary critics alike. "Did Colton really go to heaven, or was it some sort of transcendentic experience?" "If Colton did go to heaven is there the possibility of some sort of bridge being built, some middle world between heaven and earth?" "Can a person actually go to heaven and come back?" And, at least for the agnostic, the question, "Is heaven for real?"

So, my recent experience with Haley receiving the name, "Raspberry" from "an angel", and Todd Burpo's book and son Colton have given me some things to think about theologically. One of the interesting things about Burpo's book is that there is the subliminal assertion that children are somehow closer to God than adults are. That children are somehow more innocent than adults and that they can build a more intimate bridge between God and themselves than we can. This concept is one that I soundly reject. Having been an ordained pastor for more than 11 years now, I firmly believe that all people, no matter the age, are completely "Fallen", and that all people are equally distant and near to God. The only true bridge between God and humans is the one that Jesus built while hanging on the cross, and the one that the Holy Spirit offers through prayer and supplication.

The ultimate question of whether a person could potentially leave this earth in some sort of middle state of half-life and half-death and commune with the creator God, in a special, out of body way, still remains. My answer to this question is more of a; "Sure, why not?" The study of first and second and third century patristics and matristics is rife with examples of out of body experiences and connections to God. The disciple John no doubt had an out of body experience when living on the island of Patmos and hearing the voice of God and then writing the book of Revelations. God often pierces the conscious and subconscious mind of believers and non-believers alike to impart deep theological truths to God's people.

So, for the time being at least, I am willing to say, with a sort of mysterious and uncomfortable confidence that it is possible that an angel did speak to Haley. And that,

Raspberry, at least, is for Real

All for Now,

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Girl With the Drip and the Flu

Very few images from my life will remain with me until the day I die. The image of my wife standing in a field in Princeton, New Jersey, hearing my proposal of marriage, and with a tear in her eye saying, "Oh my God, yes," and then, "Holy Sh*t, I'm engaged," will stay with me. The image of my daughter just being born, her brand new bluish colored body, being thrust into my arms will stick in my mind. And this image will also remain; a three year old African girl, on school yard playground, in remote Mozambique, who had a bucket full of holes and a snot green bubble on the end of her nose.

It was about the fourth day of my Lifewater mission trip to Mozambique, Africa. Already a kind of immunity and inuredness to all things poor and broken had begun to set in for me. There is only so much true pain a heart can take in before it raises the drawbridge on the proverbial doors of the castle and says, "no more visitors." It was the last stop of the day, to visit a well that Lifewater had installed three years before in the playground of a remote village.

And then there was the girl. I did not notice her at first, since there were literally hundreds of other kids who were cowering and clambering around her to get water. And then, alone, with her single bucket in hand, I remember seeing this little girl, dressed only in a dirty white tee-shirt reach her bucket forward to have it filled. There was only one problem. Her bucket had about as many holes in it as a kitchen colander. Every time she would fill her bucket, the bucket would leak. Her bucket held no water. But she kept trying, like it was some kind of childhood game. Only it wasn't a game. She needed water to survive.

I leaned down to put my arm around her, and to find another more suitable water bucket lying around the ground somewhere. When I got to her level, I noticed that a lack of water was not her only problem. She also had a massive green snot bubble on the end of her nose. Without hesitating I took out a hanky from my back pocket (mostly used over the past day to keep the dust out of my lungs) and I grabbed the snot bubble and squeezed it off. Her face remained expressionless, even if a little bit happier.

But then this little girl's true problem presented itself. It wasn't the water can, it wasn't her snot bubble flu, it was her aloneness. This little girl seemed completely alone. I cannot begin to describe the loneliness and the desperateness of this little human being. She reminded me of the little girl from the movie, "Schindler's List" who was highlighted in light pink, amidst the terror's of Auschevitz concentration camp. Only instead of having a pink hue, this little girl's dripping white jerry can and dirty white tee shirt stood in stark contrast to the brown African landscape. "Where is this girl's parents?" I yelled. "Who is taking care of this little girl?" "Who has responsibility for her?" There was no reply. I tried it again, only this time louder, "Who does this girl belong to, she needs help?"

Then came the voice of one of our tour guides; "She belongs to no one. She has no parents. Her parents are both dead. They have both died of AIDS. Just leave her. The village will try to care for her." "But the village isn't taking care of her," I said. "She is sick. She has holes in her water bucket," I pointed out. "It's just the way it is here, we must go, the sun is going down," said the guide. A thousand thoughts about international adoption possibilities rushed through my head, until I remembered what my wife who is an international adoptions expert had told me before the trip - Mozambique is a closed country, there are no adoptions from there. There were hundreds of little girls just like her with just as many holes and snot bubbles throughout the entire country.

"Come, we must go, it is not safe here," said the guide. And with that I found myself stooping my head to get back into the van that had brought me to this place. As I sat down, I felt a squishy, slimy feeling in my back pocket. It was the green snot bubble still on my hanky. And that snot green bubble will become apart of the colliapy of images that remain with me until I die. A little, lost girl, in a remote place, with a drip in her bucket and a case of the flu, parentless, but also loved by God.

And so I pray for her.

All For Now,
Graham Baird
Lead Pastor - Highlands Church
Paso Robles, CA.

(To find other blogposts on this topic, and this one published in another form, go to