Sunday, July 24, 2016

Unmentionable Walls: Permission to Speak Hard Truths

Cindy’s religious childhood was first Mormon, and then evangelical for a while.  Her memories seemed to be a mash-up of prayer meetings and Sunday school flannel boards and red punch. Nice people, nothing shocking, nothing very exciting either.  Over time she fell away.  Believing, but not belonging; curious but living beyond any organized spiritual practice.  She grew up, and married, had children, divorced, remarried, and still she was a n-o-n-e.

You may have heard the advice that there are two things you do not discuss in polite company. Religion and politics.  Cindy was my hairstylist and she owned the salon.  This advice was important to her livelihood.  As we got to know each other, she began to murmur simple religious questions beyond the full roar of many hair dryers.  Eventually, she began scheduling my appointments after hours, when she could ask all the politely undesirable religious questions she wanted.  A short while later her husband would join us too, and when my regular appointments were not enough, She would call and say, ‘I need to practice prom up do’s’, when are you available?  Cindy needed a way and a place to have the conversations she felt were unmentionable during business hours.
Our lessons today are highlighted with a variety of undesirable subjects and polite company unmentionables.  Scanning the lessons on Monday, I asked across the office: who our lectors are this week?  I was uncomfortable with the idea of having these lessons read by a child. Yet right there in the Colossians reading is the transformation of that gut reaction.  The fullness of God was pleased to dwell and live and be fully human in Jesus.  A human who burped and had fungus between his toes, and did all sorts of unmentionable and very human things.  Again and again in Christian history we have forgotten this part,  we clean Jesus up, think his space cannot bear messier words, and we settle for a philosophy  that offers a precious plastic Jesus who has no scriptural heart.
Colossians is asking the Christology question, and the Christology question is why Jesus matters. For me the answer is that, Jesus continues to hold my curiosity and love because he is God who said bad words and sneezed up flemm and ate things that gave him heartburn, and whose disappointments kept him up at night, just like you and me.  I love this God, this God in Jesus who is foolishly human.  All of which means that all the unmentionables of our lives are capable of bearing the divine.  All these lost and defeated and demeaning moments, are beloved by God.
The prophet Hosea is telling a hard story about how precious we are to God,  it is an extended metaphor which rightly accuses us of being broken, cruel, wanton and sold out.  It says something like, I set you down a miracle among miracles and you don’t love yourself like I love you. Hundreds of years later Paul is rebuking another foolishness saying, Jesus became one with us, he wiped the slate clean, and you think you can find eternity through secret paths or magic words or clean diets???  Paul and Hosea, like late night comedians, they grab our attention with cringeworthy metaphors on topics you might rather have left unsaid.
While Cindy and I had our religious salon in the evenings, I served a church where part of my duties were supervising a tutoring ministry.  One day one of the students didn’t show, but her tutor Ella did. Ella asked if I had anything else she could help with, and I did, so she went to work in my office assembling binders or something like that.  At some point, my young friend Darla passed through a doorway of my office. Darla was 13 and active in the choir and youth group,and the most common answer uttered in our time together was you don’t love yourself as much as God loves you.  As was typical in our life together, her conversation wandered from unmentionable question to an undesirable story as salacious as any cringe worthy word in our lessons. This wasn’t a teary confession or a fearful drama,  instead a casual conversation.  Which concluded when Darla cheerily said, ‘I have to get downstairs for choir’ and bounced out the other door.
Now you may remember that the doors were wide open and a stranger, a guest was sitting in my office the whole time Darla was speaking.  I could see and feel that Ella, sitting there with her binders and hole punch, was stunned by what she heard.  I said to her, ‘the rule around here is that they can say anything in my office.’  Ella’s reply was something like this. ‘Oh I’m not offended, that was awesome. That she could be so honest, and you wondering when she would make the better choices, and so nonjudgmentally!  I just never in a million years would have shared those things, said those words, to anyone at my home church.’  Growing up I thought the same sort of boundaries applied. Church was glistening brass and frosted cupcakes where cringeworthy things were left unsaid.  I was mistaken.

This is not a place for unmentionables.  The fully human Jesus is who we bind ourselves to in Baptism and Eucharist. We bury ourselves in the earthy holiness of all of it, Jesus nails himself to our disturbing stories, to our hungers and our plasticity and our ungratefulness.  And his being there with us, is the forgiveness that raises us with him. Maybe we need to be better at telling our whole cringeworthy story, just as it is.  Maybe I need to give you the same permission I give young people, maybe I need to say it out loud.  Anything can be said here, anytime, anyplace.  Maybe the space you need to name and pray through the strange discomfortof fractured dreams is small and personal, like Cindy’s salon.  Or maybe the space you need to speak of sad memories is more open, like Darla,who would breeze through my office and freely speak all sorts of honesty's.
So that rule about my office?  It was more about permission than the office itself.  It looks like we have walls and doors, but truly we do not.  Brokeness is inside and outside and Jesus redeems it all when we name it as our truth.  Church isn’t a building word, it is a relationship word.  So even though you can see the walls and the doors and the locks, in Christ’s church, they are not really there. The rule is that you can say anything here, wherever here may be.
The open doors didn’t change the choices Darla had already made.  It didn’t solve anything in the short term.  It was an ongoing relationship and dialogue.  One of love and honesty, about how she confessed things like this because they didn’t meeGod-given given expectations for herself.  Flannel board and red punch Jesus is too flimsy and sweet to meet the challenges of this day and time.  Our God given expectations take whole hearted courage:  and all of it grows out of our union with him.  Union with a vulnerable, honest, forgiving and storytelling human Lord.   Does your nose run or are you embarrassed by the sound your stomach just made?  Me too.  Do you forget to floss or fail to live up to expectations?  Your neighbor does too.  Does your heart burn or are your hands scarred?  Jesus’s too.   Knock, Open, Ask, Share.  Alleluia.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
July 24, 2016

Monday, July 11, 2016

Potatoes are Enough: Arts Camp meets the Good Samaritan

It is a privilege to say that I have had a rock star for a mentor.  Not a musical rock star, but an ecumenical church priest kind of rock star. Jerome Berryman is the name most associated with the Godly Play method, a Montessori-based approach to what we usually call Sunday School.  Perhaps you are familiar with the method.  The core of his gift to the world is that young people learn by playing, and that to invite young people to both know God and about God’s people, we needed to invite children into a setting that is serene and loving, structured and open, and filled with 3-dimensional opportunities to jump into the sacred stories of the Christian traditions.  Jerome first got to know each other over a lunch conversation many years ago.

One of the core values of Godly Play is that the materials offered are all natural materials, that they be of fine quality, perfect and, well, expensive.  I told him how I had been telling all of the parables using his storytelling scripts, yet I had been doing this with a basket full of children’s toys.  The Weeble Wobbles and Little People and Playmobil figurines that inhabit their everyday lives.  At some point in our little dialogue, I said something like, ‘if you really believe in the holiness of these stories, you could tell them with potatoes.’   I still believe that the hope and the invitation of the storyteller, and the life-giving potency of the living word, is more important than the materials.  The word is holy and precious, but so too is the whole creation, so too are all the plastic toys that children imagine with.  We have more than enough materials and hearts to share this good news, we have more than enough without anything being fine or perfect.

Every character in this parable of the Good Samaritan has gifts and talents and treasures.  Gifts that they choose to use, or not use, for healing, for shelter, and for compassion.  There was enough to care, enough to show mercy, from each of the neighbors.  Yet only the despised Samaritan chose to use his gifts, and to use them generously, to rescue an unknown stranger.  A stranger who could be Jesus himself.   

“If there is any ministering to be imitated in the Good Samaritan's example, it is the ministry to Jesus in his passion, as that passion is to be found in the least of his brethren, namely, in the hungry, the thirsty, the outcast, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned in whom he dwells and through whom he invites us to become his neighbors in death and resurrection.”   Robert Farrar Capon

The question of the summer at Camp Cross is: how do we wake the world?  The answer is that we go and do likewise.  We go love, all, all, all.  We go serve, all, all, all.  We seek forgiveness, all the time, and everywhere. We do have enough to wake up, to become the reign of God. 

Making sacred meaning through play doesn’t end in childhood.  We learn to take it inside.  When we are sitting in traffic, and coming up with ideas about how to get out of traffic, we are playing.  We are manipulating what we have to create a new future, in our minds.  So my conversations with Jerome didn’t end with a conversation about potatoes.  He was an important advisor for a paper I wrote about how adult faith formation needs to play, and to play outside of our minds.  That teens and adults need to be invited to use the materials around us to jump into the story, to make it our story in flesh and blood.  This experiment in the first ever Arts Camp is an expression of that proposal.  We have leapt into the parable of the Good Samaritan with our hearts and minds.  We turned it inside out and upside down and let it speak to our lives and our world and the ideas that surround us.  Our campers and volunteers and staff have played with it in amazing new ways that I could not have imagined.

One of our goals for each camper this summer is that they learn this parable well enough to be able to tell it in their own words.  I am pretty sure that we have met that goal, and they will be doing that later in their show (MTV Good Sam!). Our friends have leaped into the parable of the Good Samaritan and play with it, and used only the items and talents and passions we have right here at camp to make a play like none other.  We had everything we needed right here on camp.   The opposite of scarcity is not abundance, the opposite of scarcity is enough.  And we have more than enough to proclaim Good News.  We had the talent and the materials and the energy and the heart to embody Christ’s call that we are to show mercy, to be a neighbor to all neighbors, that our backyard is as large as the whole universe.  So we send you out, to go and do likewise.  Jump into the story, play with the story and make it your own, because only when we live it will we will actually, wake the world in Jesus name.

July 9, 2016