Big Bird

This is the first election cycle in my remembrance that, at least for a week or so, an eight-foot yellow bird has played a central role in presidential politics. When one candidate promised that his policies, if elected, will put the bird’s employment status in jeopardy, people sat up and took notice. This particular bird has played a special role in my family’s life for several decades. Strangely enough our journey with this bird began with trying to help my sons imagine what God might be like.

It’s pretty much a given that whatever God is, God transcends whatever words and pictures we use to capture the divine reality. But we have to picture what we believe, knowing that all pictures are inadequate. What gender is God, for instance? I have no reason to believe that God is a guy, but since every sacred text I was steeped in from my childhood refers to Him with mostly male nouns and pronouns, it’s been a challenge to picture God as female, a Mother, a nurturer. Old pictures fade hard. So I’ve started using words like “the transcendent,” “the divine,” “what is greater than us.” It helps to remove the picture of the old guy with a white beard, but doesn’t give me a new picture. Recently, I got a lot of help from William P. Young’s The Shack, in which God the Father is a large, robust, African-American woman called “Papa” who is a gourmet cook and generally Loves with a capital “L.”  I’m sure Young has gotten flack from all sorts of people who say “that’s not scriptural,” “that’s disrespectful of tradition,” and so on. So what? All we have is imperfect pictures, we all “see in a mirror, dimly,” and Young cleaned my mirror just a little bit.

Jesus is a guy, of course, simply because Jesus was—a guy. So what’s the Holy Spirit? To be honest, we didn’t talk much about the Holy Spirit in church when I was a kid; sure, the Spirit’s in the Bible, but that’s the only place I ever encountered him (or her, or it). People didn’t talk about the Spirit, probably because they didn’t know what to say, The Holy Spirit lived between leather covers. It wasn’t until I ran into a bunch of charismatics as a young adult that the Spirit all of a sudden became important. If forced to specify a Holy Spirit gender, I suppose I would have said “female” just to mix it up a bit. But the one visual of the Holy Spirit that stuck with me early on was the one that everybody knows from the baptism of Jesus, where God booms from heaven “This is my beloved Son” and the Holy Spirit descends “like a dove.” The whole Trinity together at the Jordan River. Don’t get me started on the Trinity—there is no picture for that.

So the Holy Spirit is a dove (male or female doesn’t really matter, I guess). I can buy the bird part, but a dove doesn’t work for me. Doves are too close to pigeons, those rats with wings that fly only when you’re inches from them in the car, and whose heads jerk back and forth in the same way that Steve Martin’s hands do when he does his “King Tut” routine (I’m really dating myself). The prophet Hosea even refers to the northern kingdom of Israel, which has wandered from God, as “a silly dove without sense.” Enter another inspired piece of iconoclasm. Once many years ago, when Jeanne joined my two young sons and I in a new “blended family”—it’s definitely a good thing that one doesn’t know what one getting into when one makes such decisions—she referred to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird.” It was a brilliant move on her part, locking into a six and a nine-year-olds imagination, accustomed to regular doses of Sesame Street, an unforgettable picture of the divine. My sons are now in their early thirties, and the name my family uses most frequently when referring to “what is greater than ourselves” still is Big Bird.

And it works. The image is just irreverent and crazy enough to do the job. If God the Father can be a big African-American woman named “Papa,” why can’t the Holy Spirit be an eight-foot tall, bright yellow androgynous bird with massive feet and red-and-white striped stockings? No one’s going to go to doctrinal war over whether Big Bird’s feathers are yellow or orange (I don’t think), but it’s a great place holder for one aspect of what truly transcends any human attempts to get the picture perfect. I once sent Jeanne an email with a link describing a summer writing workshop, asking for her impressions as to whether this would be a good program for me to apply to. In her return email, she wrote “I don’t need to read the description. Anything that will help you write in a non-academic way has Big Bird all over it.”

At the end of his poem “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes that “the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast, and with, ah, bright wings.” Indeed. But Gerard Manly forget to add that the wings are bright yellow.

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