Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Dark Thing: Yours, Theirs, and It. A L’Englian Sermon in Two Parts.



Preamble: 
Anything you really need to know about me you can discover in the pages of Madeliene L’engle’s young adult novels. If Jeff and Mike get the conflict of the powers of darkness and light in the form of light sabers, x-wing fighters, and overly articulate robot-droids, I get the conflict of the powers of darkness and light in the forms of tessering through time and space with embodied soul-stars, brilliant five year old boys, an obstinate and overly emotional teenage girl, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, a few dolphins thrown in.
So, just as Mike waits for the day to introduce Finn to all things Star Wars, I was counting down the days until it’d be even closely age-appropriate to read Jonah A Wrinkle in Time. It’s a slow start, that book. Lots of set up and idealized family systems and teenage awkwardness, but Jonah hung in there. So it’s about Meg, the obstinate and overly emotional teenage girl, Charles Wallace, the brilliant but vulnerable five year old brother, and Calvin, the handsome, intelligent, and popular basketball player who seems to have everything except a decent family. They  “tesser” or travel through time and space by sort of folding it together to a strange grey planet in hopes of rescuing their dad from the clutches of an evil disembodied brain that wants to make droids out of everyone, controlling their every action and thought, so that the planet lives in “harmony” without conflict, even if that means redundancy, a sterilized cycle of living, and complete acquiescence of those who live there.  And a good round of torture for those who refuse to comply.  And then, finally, that’s when Jonah begged me to read further — way past his bedtime. 

Hey. Don’t judge. Yours has Ewoks

Even though I try to quote Rene Girard and explain mimetic desire and the scapegoat effect, my two boys have been having a bit of trouble untangling the myth of redemptive violence lately.  Every time conflict arises, and I ask what happened, I get “well, he hit me/stole my toy/ pushed me / knocked down my tower first.” So then, of course, the other hits/steals/pushes/ knocks down right back. And on and on the cycle goes. Their first instinct is to always “get even,” to do unto others what has been done to them, to reply to the baiting and ignorant Facebook post because they can’t resist stepping in to the argument, even though you, I mean they, know it will turn into nothing other than a huge cyber dumpster fire. 

The human instinct to “get even” is so strong in all of us isn’t it? 

Lately, there’s been a bit of conflict on the bus for my oldest. Lots of inappropriateness combined with excuses and scapegoating and weaseling out of responsibility. “It’s not my fault.” “So and so told me to do it” he says. “He said it first,” he tells me. 

Well. Long story short. If you want to reduce Jenn to tears, just ask her to try to explain to her son about how we are all made of mostly goodness, but sometimes the darkness takes over and our task for everyday is to keep the darkness from winning and then have her read the last two chapters of a Wrinkle in Time to her seven year old son, right before bed. Mix those together, put it in a greased pan and bake at 350 degrees for twenty minutes and voila, a Jenn puddle and an exhausted, muddled, eye-rolling, and maybe a tiny bit changed seven year old. The feels, you guys, so many feels.
So here we go:

Part 1 - Enough about Jenn’s emotional instability, we came here to learn about Jesus, dang it. 

    Things have been going like gangbusters for Jesus and his posse. He’s been preaching and wandering and healing and telling stories and crowds are following him all over the place. Everybody loves him. He’s Justin Bieber before the neck tattoos. So what do you do when your family business starts raising a profit? You expand, of course. Time to franchise!So Jesus divides up his posse and sends them out with nothing other than a carry on bag of authority to cure and heal. Leave the checked baggage at home.

And then he gives them “detailed” instructions: 

1. don’t take anything with you
2. stay where they welcome you
3. where they don’t, shake the dust off your feet and move on.

     Jesus sends out his followers into the unknown, into the wilderness, into the wandering. And it sounds like he’s prepping them for a flight on a discount airline. 
But actually, this is pretty sound advice that reveals to us what is at the heart of the Gospel. 
  1. You don’t need anything but you.
  2. be present. build community.
  3. Don’t take other’s baggage with you when you leave. 
     Or, what I should have told my oldest about what he’s to do when he gets on the bus and travels into the wilderness that is first grade:

1. You are enough. You don’t need posturing, or achievements, or false acceptance from kids who claim to be able to withdraw their friendship and approval. You are made of goodness. Of light. When you travel to these unknown, far-off planets called school and relationships and difficult choices, you don’t need to be or to do or have anything other than who you already are, what you already do, what you already have. Forget John Calvin, our grand self-hating Presbyterian founder, and his total depravity. No. Not the Calvin from our Wrinkle in Time story. He’s cute and strong and smart and adorable. And, Ok, maybe don’t forget about our buddy John completely, but God has given you everything you need. Just trust it. 

2. Be a friend. Don’t get distracted by your worries or your feelings of inadequacy; you might miss what someone is offering you. Don’t let your own darkness cover over what is right in front of your eyes. You might miss the Gospel that is already here, the light that is already being shared. All you have to do is show up and stay. Be present and accepting and forgiving.

3. And when it’s time to leave, don’t take the others’ darkness with you.  Don’t track the mud from one house into another. Don’t fight it with your own darkness; that won’t help any of us see. Don’t press reply. Don’t participate in hurt just because you want to be accepted. When you’re scared that you’ll be alone and unloved, go back to number 1. You’re made of light. Your fear is made of darkness. You have everything you need to choose the light. Because if you carry others’ darkness along with your own, it’ll get so heavy, and you’ll forget why you’re out there wandering the multiverses in the first place. You’ll turn into a black hole.

     So great. That’s what they do. And then a bunch of stuff happens:

1. Herod feels threatened by what’s happening and is confused. Didn’t he just kill that guy?
2. Jesus feeds five thousand plus people
3. Peter declares Jesus as the Messiah
4. Jesus tells his friends he’s gonna die…and then come back to life.

     All that traveling and dusting and light sharing with nothing than who God made them to be has led them here, to Part 2.

So now that we’re all warmed up, let’s speed this thing up, shall we?

Part 2: The Black Thing. It’s in you, but it’s not you.

     In case you didn’t get it the first time, disciples, sharing the Gospel is as uncomplicated as wandering the desert with nothing but the clothes on your backs, but is as dangerous as traveling through time and space to a planet run by a dismantled brain that wants nothing but to control, numb, and spread darkness over everything.
Jesus gives them this strange, twisting seemingly contradicting puzzle to parse through. Jesus gives them further instructions about following him: he tells them, if you want to be my followers you need to do these three things:

1. deny yourself and take up your cross every day. 

2. and if you want to save your life, you need to lose it.

3. you need to give up the whole world so you can gain your life. Because what good is it to gain all the things, but lose yourself?

     The kingdom of God is coming, is even here, for some of us. The light is going to win, and, in fact, has already won for some of us. 

     I always interpreted this passage to mean that we’ve got to suffer. That I’ve got to do whatever it takes to un-Jenn myself so that I can save myself. As if the thing worth saving needs to be disconnected from anything that makes us, us. Deny yourself. Sacrifice yourself. Carry your cross and accept suffering and being made into nothingness. I sort of let the third part of the instructions drop off into the ether, get sucked up into a black hole of nothingness and sacrifice.

     But the third instruction is the key to understanding the other two. What’s the point of gaining the whole world if you lose yourself? Jesus never wants us to lose any part of our true selves in the first place, just the dust, the excess, the darkness that distracts us and causes us to turn to violence, blaming the other for our actions, responding to others’ darkness with our own. The crosses we need to carry are not simply a means of suffering enough so that we can collect enough salvation points to “get in.” You’re already in. The Kingdom of God is coming, is even here for some of us. Losing your true self by self-hatred and immolation just recycles the darkness inside of us. It’s like trying to dig your way out of a hole. It’s like a condescending facebook reply. It’s like doing the negative thing because some third grader on the bus who is the fastest runner in the whole school told you to and you’re afraid he won’t like you anymore.  
      It’s like hitting your brother because he hit you first. Taking up your cross means carrying the thing with you that will be the means for your salvation. That thing that won’t be easy, but will bring more light into the world. 

What I should have told my oldest son is that when we go out into the wilderness, out into the frightening expanse of this world and beyond, Jesus wants us to

1. give up the part of yourself that carries the darkness. Instead, take on the things that bring more light into the world, even if it’s not easy.

2. If you really want to know how much you are already loved, and experience that love from others, you have to be yourself. 

3. You have to give up the idea that darkness can be expelled by darkness. You can’t respond to violence with violence. You can’t do what you feel pressured to do because you’re scared. We all have to wake up everyday committed to growing the light and pushing out the darkness. All the darkness in the world is never going to make up for the light we give away.

     A tall order for a seven year old. A tall order for a group of disciples who got to know Jesus personally. A tall order for all of us. 

Now for the cool down.

Epilogue: We’ve been given all the things. We’ve been given ourselves.

     Well, turns out that in the process of trying to rescue their dad, Charles Wallace, the five year old prodigy, gets sucked into the big evil brain thing and loses himself to the darkness. All that is good and real in him is gone. And it’s his big sister Meg’s job to get him back. She is given nothing for the journey. Nothing but the grace to be herself. She is thrown back onto the creepy planet of grey blind acceptance with nothing but her stubbornness, her obstinance, and her love for her baby brother. When the brain tries to change her, tries to suck her in, she shakes the darkness off, and goes back to focusing on love. She can’t love the thing, but she can love her brother. And that’s enough. 

Hey, Jonahbug, your light is enough. 
That is the Good News of Jesus Christ. 
The feels you guys, so many feels.


Thanks be to God. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Coming Back to Life

I gave up on poetry,
the cross country team,
the idealism of cloth diapers,
and the defiance of being
the flat-chested girl,
on the infant bird fallen
from the branch.

Now I have lists:
celery, milk, sage, pharmacist, therapy.

These are not the end.

But where is the girl
who loved anyway
who built cardboard tree houses
in the snow?