Sacred Soil

You Can’t Say You Can’t Play
September 16, 2012, 3:15 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Lectionary 24

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-8
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Words are dangerous. Powerful enough to be used as weapons to destroy, or as hope to heal. I’ve never really bought into the idea that “names will never hurt me.” How we use language matters, how we hear and listen matters. James knew this. So did Isaiah.

One of my dear friends runs a preschool co-op out in Portland, Oregon. Melody has this way of honoring children that creates a holy space in her classrooms–a space to learn the true gifts of being human, of being a child of God.

One day she mentioned this book, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. And I felt compelled to buy it immediately. It’s a beautiful story of a teacher’s journey through the question, what if we established this as a rule? What would change? Could we actually learn to stop excluding? What if we said, you can’t say you can’t play?

And the thing is children’s play is very serious business. Indeed, it is how we who are grownups learned to interact with each other, to negotiate our differences, to establish our social structures. Child’s play lays the foundation of all our social interactions through our whole lives.

And so, Vivian, the author of this book, becomes very concerned at the exclusion she sees in her classroom. The uncomfortable dissonance between students, as they create games that include some, and exclude others. She wonders aloud, is this how we learn to stratify ourselves? How we set ourselves against each other? From as early as kindergarten?

This is a very serious question indeed. One as ancient as our texts for today. James knows that our tongues lead us in dangerous directions, serving to cut ourselves off from each other. The words of exclusion and harm seem to flow like the spark of a fire, igniting a whole forest ablaze. In our tongues lies the power to bless and the power to curse–but our jealousies and selfishness lead us too often toward that cursing. Toward the division. Toward the bitter words of exclusion. And this is something we learn from a very young age. Very young.

Vivian notices Clara in her class, a young kindergartener who is not popular. Rarely chosen for games, she is often also excluded. Lisa is quick to declare, Clara, you cannot play with us. And so Clara retreats to her cubbie, sad and dejected.

Now, Isaiah might try to pull Clara aside and give her advice on standing strong in the fight, about staying stalwart and setting her face like flint. Isaiah is good like this. He knows that it does us no good to merely slink away to our cubbies, and neither does it do us good to come out with our fists, as other students in Vivian’s class are often tempted to do. No, Isaiah would have advised Clara to stand there, firm, let them pull the hair out of her beard… or well… you know what I mean.

But the problem is that for Clara, a kindergartener, subject to the rules of exclusion, well, this is a terribly advanced thing to suggest she actually do. In fact, it is difficult for all of us. I think it is true of most of us in this room, when we have faced exclusion (and I know you all have), we tend to either run to our own cubbies, or fight back, baring our teeth, our words, our fists. Rarely do we stand firm as Isaiah would advise.

Vivian realized this for her class. And so she wondered with the kids, what if we made this rule, what if we said, “you can’t say you can’t play?” The book is a beautiful retelling of the conversation and deliberation–and in the end, she chose to do it. Though the older kids thought, “start with the kindergarteners, we’re too mean to make this work now.” But, Vivian reports that the change was dramatic. The tensions in her classroom melted, saying, “Indeed, it is a ladder out of the trap we’ve been in.”

Here’s what I think happened in that space– in that school: The paradigm shifted. No longer was their time together defined by figuring out who was the boss, and who got to play with whom. Those social jealousies evaporated. As each child entered the space to play, things got more creative and imaginative. And the children learned to play in a new way. But most importantly, they knew inherently that they were all valuable. That none of them deserved exclusion. They learned that they were all beloved children of God. And their play reflected it.

The adjustment took some work–but the ones who tended to be excluded especially appreciated these words: you can’t say you can’t play. It was their strength in the face of exclusion. It was their internal reminder–I too am worthy. Indeed, these words made it possible to take Isaiah’s advice, and stand firm in the face of those who would pull out their beards. To take insult, without feeling shamed. For these words represented for them the promise we all have, the promise that our God is here to vindicate us. To stand up with us.

But what’s beautiful about this, this reminder of the rules, is that the defiance is not an exclusion. Rather it is an invitation. An invitation to play. To participate, to be fully human together. Clara was given the strength and capacity to stay, to engage, to befriend. She did not need to choose between her cubby and her fists.

Turns out we have that rule too. Though we phrase it differently. It appears over and over again in the Bible in different forms. John 3:16 is one you probably remember: For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…. the whole world. You and me, the stranger, and the one, that for whatever reason we might have, (kindergarten taught us a lot of stuff that we’re not fully aware of) that we feel compelled to exclude. It is a rule that comes to us in the form of Gospel. In the form of the good news that each one of us is loved beyond our comprehension–so what business do we have in excluding anyone?

But there are consequences for living this way. Vivian isn’t here to enforce the rules. Indeed, most of our systems of power work against this model. And so, many would laugh, I’m sure, if you showed up at work and declared: you can’t say you can’t play.

But, Jesus did this all the time in his ministry–openly declared that our systems of exclusion and rejection were evil. He set his face like flint, and did let them pull out his beard. Indeed they did even worse than that, hanging him on a cross. And he knew it would happen. He knew that God’s rule of love was too threatening to the Lisa’s of this world, to all those who are committed to their own power. And he knew that this would get him killed. He knew this wasn’t child’s play.

Yet, he also knew that this love, this rule of God’s wide embrace, God’s all inclusive love—he knew that this rule was stronger even than death. And indeed, it was and still is. He knew it, and gave himself completely to the hope that we might know this rule too. This Good News. This love.

And I am grateful that we do have a place where we can experience what that feel like, what it is like to be in a space where all are welcomed, where no one is rejected. Our foretaste of the feast to come where God’s love rules– it’s at this table. Christ’s table. So come, receive this bread. The bread of love. The bread of life. And know, everyone gets to play here. Everyone. And that’s serious business.


Systems Theory & Anti-Racism
September 12, 2012, 4:56 pm
Filed under: Things Someone Should Write About

I’ve been reading a book by Friedman, one of the big thinkers in Systems Theory. I’m generally a fan. This book, Failure of Nerve is a collection of largely unedited essays that lean toward being a book. In it he explores his thoughts around leadership. There are these lovely, and sometimes disturbing moments, where it appears that Friedman could have used an editor–someone to reflect back to him that he’s coming off as grump.

In one section he gets frustrated with people who work to set boundaries around our language in an effort to protect folks from being harmed by racist and otherwise abusive remarks. He argues that the work of leaders should be to increase the self-differentiation of all folks, so that such remarks are drained of their power. Though, he’s not quite so elegant as that, nor does he appear to fully understand the passion of the movements such as the folks working on anti-racism. I experience him as merely irritated, and dismissive of the need.

So here’s my question: what are the intersections of anti-racism work and systems theory? How do concepts like self-differentiation function in the context of real violence imposed by those with power? How do we maintain non-reactive connection in the face of systems that are bent on the systematic destruction of a people? What would this look like, and how would we foster environments where this could happen? How does one interrupt racism without becoming triangulated? Would these methods be effective?

This question is threaded into another question I have about community, self-differentiation, and consensus… but that’s a post for another day. But, both of these are born of a concern or a wondering I have about the lack of women and people of color in the work of systems theory. Is this just that the field is new, and isolated, or is it that there is some fundamental critique to systems theory that I should be familiar with?

As always, I’d love to hear your ideas and the folks you might be reading on these topics.

Narrative Theory & Ethics
September 12, 2012, 1:14 pm
Filed under: Things Someone Should Write About

I was at a conference yesterday where the facilitators led a fascinating conversation about narrative theory, it’s power, and how to harness that power to our own goals. They stated that they noticed that the progressive community had largely left this tool on the table, allowing others to set the tone and frame of our discourse.

I’m compelled to agree– though I fundamentally balk at the division created between the “progressives” and “others.” Usually such divisions are unhelpful. Which got me to wondering, how does this new attentiveness to the dynamics of narrative theory affect our ability to engage in discourse with those with whom we disagree?

My wondering is rooted in a concern that perhaps we get so committed to preserving our own narrative, that we fail to see the “other” as anything more than an opposing narrative to be countered. This may then have the effect of dehumanizing the other, and severing our capacity to build new and even more hopeful narratives.

Part of this wondering is inspired by how much I laugh when Jon Stewart points out the inconsistencies of Fox news reporters (and others). Their commitment to the narrative consistently seems to usurp the ethic of good reporting.

So, if you know of an article or book that explores the dynamics of narrative theory and ethics, I’d love to read it. How do these things co-constitute? Which should have higher priority? What are the consequences of privileging ethics over the narrative? What about the ethic of real inclusion, and a movement away from divisiveness?

Shiny People
September 9, 2012, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Lectionary 23
September 9, 2012

Isaiah 35:4–7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1–10[11–13] 14–17
Mark 7:24–37

In my early twenties, I rode the bus to church every Sunday. Usually, Naomi would ride with me. She was a woman who had been blind since she was a small child. Beautiful for her passion, Naomi, wasn’t known for her social graces. Each Sunday as the bus pulled up, she would climb on and holler out my name to find where I sat. Naomi never did small talk. She always got right to the meat of any conversation, asking piercing questions full of hope, despair, and insight. The truth is, she was also a bit loud, immune to my attempts to lower the volume by speaking softer. And so we carried on these deep conversations, on the bus, at full volume… on a city bus.

One Sunday, I asked her about her blindness, what it was to grow up blind, and how it was for her now. She gave me a winding story, honestly naming how she was abused, and how she came into her own. And then, she told me how she didn’t really wish to get her sight back. I sat there a bit stunned, because, to be honest, this is precisely the thing I had wished for her. She explained that blindness was part of who she was, part of her whole being. It allowed her to see differently, to hear differently, to engage the world in her own particular way. No, if she were to wish for anything she would wish that blind children would be protected from abusers. That all children would be protected. If she were to wish anything, it would be that her unique gifts would be cherished.

I sat there quiet for a long time. The weight of her words shifted something in me as I realized that the brokenness in Naomi’s life was not because of her blindness, but all the horrible ways people abused her, excluded her.

Since then, I’ve heard this story several times from disabled folks. Wholeness doesn’t mean a cure, it means welcome and embrace, protection and honor. Though to be sure, I’m not speaking for all disabled people. Each person has their own story to tell.

I bring this up because our texts today wrestle so much with these pretty pictures we like to paint of our world. The pretty picture of able-bodied people, well off folks in our Sunday finest, proper and well formed. Shiny, like brass.

But James hollers at us (perhaps as loudly as Naomi would), “with your acts of favoritism, do you really love Jesus?” And though it makes us uncomfortable, he’s right. Still today, we are far more prone to welcome the one who is well off, rather than the one who is disheveled and outwardly suffering. Many in the disabled community feel like churches don’t really want them around—for this very reason.

And then we get these stories from Jesus. They are startling. Discomforting. Confusing. Perhaps as much so now as they were then.

In our first story, Jesus is alone with a woman. At that time, certainly a scandal. And, this woman has the nerve to speak with Jesus. Oh, and she’s a gentile, a Greek. Not a Jew—even considered a rival. But she is forward, stepping out of her proscribed place in society she begs, “Heal my daughter.” Now, this first part would have been seen as utter scandal in the 1st century. To us, because we presume more equality, well… it seems plausible. The next part, well back then, it would have been normal, but to us, well, it’s disturbing. He calls her a dog, a puppy to be exact. This was how the Jews understood their relationship with gentiles. Jesus was naming what was expected. It fit into the honor-shame paradigm, keeping the status quo, the power systems in place, keeping things in their proper order. To us today, it’s just rude and wrong. It’s never ok to call someone a dog.

She persists. And Jesus immediately responds with healing. She asks for the crumbs on the table, and he responds with a feast of love and healing.

And then he goes and does it again, breaking the taboos, this time healing a man with his own spit—and I don’t care what century you’re in. That’s just gross.

But here’s what I see in these stories—I see a God who will do anything, whatever it takes, diving into the mess of our own brokenness, breaking every rule and taboo to show us that the kingdom of God includes each one of us. I see a God whose love knows no limits.

One of my preaching professors, who is himself blind, recently said: I am legally blind. I am created in God’s image in some ways, and in others definitely not. The condition of my eyes fits both. I do not see people as you do, so I am not bound by your visual prejudices (imago Dei). I do not see people as you do, so can miss hurt or pain on people’s faces and unwittingly compound that hurt by my missed cue (not imago Dei). For me, the Reign of God is not my getting 20/20 vision; it’s living in a church and world where not seeing doesn’t matter. I suspect that, if God, in Christ, is not handicapped, God in Christ would become so if that’s what it takes to love someone who is handicapped.

Indeed. Ours is a God who will take on anything, everything to love us. Wholly and completely.

I am astounded and moved and hopeful as the church moves (in an achingly slow manner) toward sharing the Good News in a way that shows no partiality, no favoritism. In part, because I like that folks know God’s love. This is good. But honestly, I’m more interested in how we, together, might strive to seek God’s reign now, and honor, and cherish the extraordinary diversity of God’s love revealed in all of us. In the things that are “pretty,” and the things that make us uncomfortable. I believe that reaching out toward the disabled as full brothers and sisters in Christ will teach us a whole about the kingdom of God. And I long to see that day.

But that’s hard work. Hard because of our biases. As James said, we’re drawn to the shiny gold rings. But it’s also hard because I think we’re afraid. Afraid of our own brokenness, the ways in which each one of us fail to meet our own standards of beauty and ability. Our fear that somehow we will be seen as the one who is poor. And so we fight, and we fight hard, to push off any notion that we are broken, less than perfect—thereby excluding a huge part of God’s kingdom.

Martin Luther wrote, we are beggars. This is true. And he’s right. Each one of us is actually that poor person that James demanded the church welcome. Indeed, the disabled community likes to remind the able bodied that it’s only temporary. Our brokenness is true.

And yet, we know, ours is a God that is revealed in brokenness. Revealed in each beggar, in each one of us. Ours is a God that will do anything, whatever it takes to hold us close, to remind us of the promise made in these baptismal waters: you are my beloved child in whom I am pleased to dwell.

Each one of us, brothers and sisters, bound by the waters of baptism. Regardless of our gold rings, our ability. Each one of us sisters and brothers, cherished for all the beautiful ways our God is revealed in each one of us.