Monday, March 19, 2018

Garden Playzones Breaking Open and Sprouting New Life

We have a fantastic office assistant he has bright ginger hair and today he turns 1. Gavin has people he trusts and those he looks at suspiciously, and he likes to climb when we are not looking. He can play on his own, yet even if there were other children in the room, he wouldn't know how to play with them. As he grows and develops there will come a time when he plays next to, but not with others. The experts call this parallel play: multiple children working with the same toy set, yet each is in their own story. Much of adult work life can be like this.

Later in childhood most of us develop the capacity to play with others, to play along. This is the experience of imagination where a box of sand can become an epic landscape. All of these phases are important parts of human growth and intellectual development and most of us are always utilizing different parts of these different stages as needed. Entering into another person’s story knowing how to play along how to say ‘yes-and’ or ‘no-but’ is a crucial part of lifelong human being togetherness.

When I was 12 years old I was the constant volunteer in the church nursery and there was this moment it was such an everyday moment I doubt anyone else recalls that morning at all. Yet I can tell you where I was and what the weather was like outside. I was sitting on the floor in the middle right side of the room near some mirrors. There were probably 10 other children and two other caregivers in the room, all of whom were playing or watching or napping. I was sitting on the floor with a boy named Toby, and he had chosen to play with the blue and yellow Fisher-Price Little People house. Maybe you remember those, with it's chairs and cars and swing set with holes for the round figures to fit in. He was delightfully playing through a story with this house and these figures, and it was real and it was alive, and I knew I wasn't in the same place that he was. The imaginary world that was his I was no longer able to access in the same way, and I knew it. I could see right then and there that part of my childhood-self had broken open and fallen aside. It probably had diminished well before that moment, I just never noticed it until then. To this very day I can feel the mournfulness of that moment. The loss of something beautiful and connective. It seemed as if a door to a room I loved had been shut.

This developmental shift I felt that day is completely normal part of the maturing process. It's not that imagination goes away, it's just that it's retooling, sinking in deep, interiorizing. Some people stay in the concrete factoid zone most of the time. It's reasonable to suggest that in our culture where what is valuable is what is countable and readable, that this stage of concrete thinking is even more pronounced. We build our lives and our world out of signals and data more than we dwell in the playful garden that sprouts unverifiable things like emotions and dreams and heartaches. 

Earlier in the Gospel of John Jesus said that he comes to us so that we may have life abundant and love abundant. Throughout this gospel we are invited into a non linear non data-based storytelling experience that shows that the world is both blessed from the start and now horribly gone wrong. Wrong about what is powerful and wrong about what is holy. Jesus says servanthood is union with the divine; loving your life is letting go of it; and through our union with him in his humiliation, the corrupt authorities of this world will be cast down. John’s gospel isn’t a concrete explanation of yes and no but a life story we are invited into. Where strangely, somehow, Jesus shares that love is stronger than hate, or isolation, or even death. This is an upside down story that the bitter system cannot bear.

There are dark clouds of manipulation and shallowness haunting our well being each and every day. Gloom hovers over the neighborhoods where seeds of hope have been buried. Will they be watered and fed or abandoned? Our choice. Jesus asks, are we going to be gardeners or are we going to be waste managers? Maybe there are people in your life who come to you asking why church? But they may be saying is: we wish to see Jesus. Maybe you're the kind of person that doesn't say the J word outside of this property. A person who tries to be good, and likes something unnamable in the motions of Christian worship, but who doesn't show faithfulness in any company at all. That is a tough skin a hard shell that may have carried some of us through calmer waters. Is this the time for shedding that hard shell that used to protect us but now is choking us? 

Jesus says to let his life become our life to let his story become our story. He doesn't want us playing independently of him, I don’t even think that he wants us playing alongside him, unless we are mirroring him. Jesus Christ calls us to follow him and let our imaginations weave together into lives of mercy and justice. When we enter into the imagination of life with Jesus we will change and this neighborhood and this congregation will change. Shallow, reactionary otherizing isn't that different from that selfish play of our youngest years. When Jesus says we need to be like children to enter the kingdom of God he's not talking about that selfish part of childhood, the part that doesn't know how to control the unjust passions or how to live in moral community. The part that Jesus is inviting us into is the part where we know how to play WELL with each other. Play is not leisure or silliness, but incarnate meaning-making. And every age of person does it, even if some of us keep it on the inside. The playfulness of faithfulness is to enter each other's imagination and God's imagination and live into it with our whole selves.

We can't just pretend and wear Christian-ish costumes anymore. They are too thin to answer the real questions of this hour. Why do we walk out for those who were slaughtered, because we are one with Jesus who absolutely walked out. Why do we hold hands together, because Jesus stands there with us holding our hands. He knows our unacknowledged hatefulness and he loves US and forgives US. We can experience our place in the story with daring and candor or we can bury ourselves in the little bits of truth that we like and ignore the rest.

If I were to take a guess at why the last few years have been fruitful and life-giving for St. Paul’s, even in the context of panic and embarrassment and waiting, it could be that we have learned to play along with each other and God. There's a ground of wholehearted trust that playing along well reveals. I feel like we've gotten better at leaning into each other's stories, and figuring out how dense weights could become the compost where seeds have sprouted new life. I hope we've gotten better at trying new things, of hearing our neighbor suggest something holy daring and our saying, okay, I am not really sure I get it, but how can I come along and make your dream real?

Many years after I sat on that floor and noticed that something was gone, I was watching a friends daughter after-school. Willow and I were playing out a story in their front yard. One with heroines and evil doers in a baseball game. I was so involved in the story that I believed I could jump down three steps and take off running while wearing flip-flops and holding a water bottle. I fell flat on my face. Six-year-old Willow felt no malice at this occasion, she was concerned that I was ok. And I felt very little humiliation. Falling on your face is normal when you are a child. As I got up off the ground And wiped the dirt from my skirt, I laughed. I laughed at the absurdity of believing I could have made that leap successfully. And I laughed because I could see that I really knew how to play along again. That mournful shell of unimagination of my younger self had been shed. The other side of being broken open, is getting up, stepping out, and playing again.


March 18, 2018
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Other Commandments: Temples, Getting Closer, and What We Can Hear

Cognitive behavioral science tells us that when we are in the heat of the moment when we are busy with adrenaline and excitement, we don't process instructions the way we do when we are at rest. If you see a person is running where they shouldn't be running, and you yell ‘don't run’, what our minds hear is RUN! We can't process the don't part of the instruction in that moment. In today's lesson from Exodus we are invited into a framework for an undiminished human community, or as it is more commonly known, the Ten Commandments. The people of Israel have come out of Egypt, out of slavery, and through the waters in the life-defining Exodus event. They are now in the desert, A people on a nomadic journey of many years trying to figure out who they are, and how to live together and survive. This set of commands is intended to shape our life together. Shape it into something that looks like the compassionate God who delivered us.

These commands set the framework for a bold attempt to locate the best ways to live around our fidelity to God and God's priorities. Even though the wilderness setting is anxious, This revelation doesn't seem to come from a place of fear and hurt. If anything it's trying to reduce the systems of adversity and alienation. Most of the Commandments are phrased from that do not stance, and we teach them over and over from the place of stillness because it would be hard to hear in the context of crisis. And we teach many of them from negation ‘you will not’ and ‘do not’ because there are times when saying ‘do not run onto the field’ is much clearer than the verbal gymnastics of ‘help us maintain the integrity of the game and keep all guests and players and staff safe by staying inside the guest seating area.’ However, I want to look more closely at two positively phrased Commandments: Sabbath and Elders.

In this day and age with all of our expected productivity and demands for perfection, Sabbath may be the most unfollowed commandment. The sabbath God invites us isn’t just for the elites, it is for all. It is a day of leveling the playing field. The servants have to rest. The women who do most of the household chores have to rest. For a people who had been slaves in Egypt and will later find themselves in Exile and trampled under the foot of Empire again and again, for any vulnerable people, the guarantee of rest is liberating. Sabbath is about healing and freedom and interrupting the systems that demand go go go. God calls us back to Sabbath, to honoring each other and the real weight of the gift that God believes we are.

Then we are directed to honor our elders. It says parents, but let us choose to expand its neighborhood just a bit. This word to honor in the Hebrew it means to give weight to, it is a word that implies heaviness. Honor does not demand that we obey blindly. To honor is to treat the wisdom of those who have lived before us and longer than us with hefty seriousness. I do wonder however if this one needs a footnote. Perhaps that quote frequently attributed to Chief Seattle: remember that we are borrowing our today from our children's future. In a recent interview sociologist, Brene Brown said: People are hard to disregard close up; so move in, get curious, get closer. Make connections, try to discover how we are enmeshed with each other in ways that are bigger and deeper than any of our ideas or borders are.

Part of the point of these Commandments is setting a space where we walk with God, A framework where God's presence and intention for our life is made evident. And paradoxically one of the primary points that John is trying to share in his gospel lesson today is that Jesus is the framework and shape of God's presence in this life. In the scene today we are at the rebuilt Temple with its holy of holy chamber and porticos and hallways teeming with people. A few years ago I realized how close the measurements of this sanctuary are to the measurements of the Jerusalem Temples. It is easy for us to imagine ourselves in the Temple if you just look around. Imagine the tables set up in the narthex, and sheep and oxen in the atrium. At this moment in the gospels, during the festival of the Passover, imagine it would be as busy as an arena on a game night. Now in this space and in the middle of this busyness, John wants us to see that the uncontainable God who is supposed to be held by this structure, this same God is in the whole life of this man who is here In this Jesus from before the beginning began.

With him we have the concrete presence of the absolute aliveness of God and an authentic, compelling and creative witness to who God is and who God is calling us to be. However, it is our enmeshment with the powers that be and fence builders of the world that are thrown into chaos by Jesus’ very presence. Our response to this truth-telling and brilliant holy life Is panic. The mob response to his closeness and his difference Is to cast him out to try and resolve our shame and dismay and chaos with a scapegoat. Jesus will be found at the center of a terrible game that is a murderous lie. The systems that keep us running, keep us blind and harmful and never able to sit still, these mechanisms are hidden from us because we are knee deep in them. But in Jesus’ death, we can see it. He is the victim who judges all of our unjust systems of grind and push and pull and kill. Jesus will turn the tables over and send the critters out into the streets. Jesus will expose all the little accommodations to the ways of God. All the little ignorances that give the authorities their power. Can we open our hearts and be set free from unquestioning participation in the systems of death?

I found myself wondering this week if the lovely framework of commandments covers all the complexities of contemporary life? In many ways, the whole set is broad enough to include all sorts of complexity that the Ancients could never have imagined. On the other hand, if you look at our history the people of God maybe we could have used a couple more operating instructions. One of the things we struggle with over time is fear of the other, our anxiety about the stranger, the widow, the different person who we continue to exclude and diminish. Maybe we could use the command to not fear the stranger. To see every neighborhood as a temple, every person in every neighborhood as precious and revelatory as any holy mountain could ever be.

The new commandment I'd really like to have is: don't be a jerk (or a troll or a bully). The problem is if you're being a jerk, you're probably caught in adrenaline and anger and loneliness and in that moment like that, we are the child who is running who can't hear the don't part of the command. In Martin Luther King, Jr’s book Why We Can’t Wait he outlined ten duties participants in the Birmingham protests were to abide by. I wonder if they can help us, Help us shape our lives as temples of the presence of God, Help us confront the systems of diminishment that grind and scapegoat every day. These are the duties (slightly interpreted), let us pray them together:

Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus
Remember that we seek Justice and Reconciliation not victory
Walk and talk in the manner of love for God is love
Pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free
Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all might be free
Observe both friend and foe with the ordinary rules of courtesy
Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world
Refrain from the violence of fist tongue or heart
Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health
Follow the directions of the movement and of the Captain.

In the name of our Lord and Captain, Amen.

Lent 3  B
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington