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 

1 comment:

  1. And I remember late December 1977, a little girl sat outside the apartment house on Kreuzberg Kaserne playing with pine cones as if they were little people, her little people had not yet come to Zweibrucken, Germany from Aberdeen, Maryland.