I was reading something I wrote about ten years ago and came across this line: “lucky is the person whose illusions are pierced gently.”
Not sure I meant it to be so, but it reminds me now of the weird introduction (“Attunement”) to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling in which there are four versions of the Abraham and Isaac story told that alter the story in ways (the eponymous author Johannes de Silentio here talking of a man who doesn’t understand Abraham, who cannot be understood) that would denude the story of its full faith-power. Each version is followed by a strange version of a mother weaning her child from the breast. The first such version, in which Abraham acts the villain to take the blame for God, the analogous breast feeding technique is:
“When the child is to be weaned, the mother blackens her breast. It would be hard to have the breast look inviting when the child must not have it. So the child believes that the breast has changed, but the mother—she is still the same, her gaze is tender and loving as ever. How fortunate the one who did not need more terrible means to wean the child!”
Now most everyone agrees it’s hard to impossible to know what to do with the attunements except perhaps that this is the point. It’s hard to attune to that which cannot be understood. But every once in a while I think there is more there… like I can see through the veil for a moment.
Today, thinking on that which I wrote 10 years ago and F&T, I wonder at hard won learnings. Illusions we didn’t want to let go. Or life transforming things we learned but after far too much pain. I can sense the whistfulness of Abraham… “wouldn’t it be nice if this wasn’t all necessary….” and yet Kierkegard makes clear the danger of imagining we can all skip the hard journey and start where other left off. Thanks Abraham for journeying to Mount Moriah for me, glad I can skip that part.
Only we cannot. Not usually.
Lucky if you can I guess.
We cling tight to the breast. It’s hard to give up the reality we have constructed for ourself or had constructed for us. The journey to pierce that veil, to put that world to death? It takes inner strength, a fair bit of foolishness, and good company.
I hope each of you has a couple good friends, traveling partners, who pierce your illusions gently for you. They will make all the difference.
I had a conversation the other day that got me going on a something of a soap box issue for me and it revolves around responsibility. But in that conversation it got more complicated than simply being about responsible versus irresponsible people. The problem really comes about with two interrelated and opposing sets of attributes. Responsibility and narcissism. Because while I was replaying the conversation in my head I realized that for me one of the great problems in our society is people who are simultaneously narcissists and irresponsible. I think this thought goes all the way back to a conversation years ago where a friend noted a psychologist’s opinion that teaching people that they are important in solving the problems of the world trains people to be narcissists because they get caught up in their own importance. I can see that… and yet I’m a HUGE fan of talking about responsibility, belonging, and ownership. Its easy to go into consultant mode where you can tell other people what problems they need to solve, or even how YOU think THEY should solve them. But its largely unhelpful. For me its all in the sense of belonging and ownership that recognizes we are all need to be the people responsible for solving, and not just pointing out, problems.
Thus the intersection of a people who on an x-y axis of responsibility and narcissism.
The x axis for me is a pendulum between ownership/responsibility and laissez-faire voyeurism. The terms may be problematic but the sense is that on one side people feel that life is a shared experiment and we all bear a responsibility to one another and being the solutions to each other’s problems. And the other side has a hands off approach where we stay out of each other’s way. We watch, we don’t meddle.
And the y-axis is about narcissism and altruism. Again the terms may be extreme but the pendulum is about one’s sense of their own importance from the one who is self-obsessed to the one who is so other-oriented as to negate a sense of self.
Why does this matter? Because I am not convinced its helpful to only talk about someone as being a narcissist. I think most good leaders have a level of narcissism in them. Let me, for example use the Apostle Paul. I give him a lot of grief. Paul seems to me to always be saying how humble he is… that he is in fact the most excellently humble guy you could find… the most humblest human of them all. He does humility better than anyone. And I usually laugh about that… because humility is one of those traits you can’t claim to have, and as soon as you do… you don’t. But Paul is on to something in a way VERY FEW leaders in the history of the world have talked about. We need examples. People need to see leaders living life in order to follow them and their example. And that’s tough when you are trying to lead people in a way centered in humility and service. Because the leader needs to think ENOUGH about themselves to see themselves as a laudable example and put themselves out there. AND they need to be oriented towards serving other people and not themselves. They need to be self-important servants? Maybe not that extreme… but maybe also not not-that either. I’m not sure how far I am willing to run with this but I think my working theory is that I’m actually okay with someone creeping up fairly high on the Y-axis toward narcissism…. And I’m actually okay with a pedagogy and social structure that results in people going somewhat high on that Y-axis… if it keeps them on the side where they are responsible owners of the problems in our shared world. I’d rather we all were a little too impressed with ourselves but had a strong sense of inter-relatedness and shared struggle, than a world were aren’t so impressed without ourselves and our authority… but don’t really care to change anything either.
Maybe there is a perfect solution to cultivate a society of belonging altruists… but in the mean time I’d settle for us all thinking a little too much for ourselves… and making the world a better place for each other.
So what do you think? How do we use our language clearly to note that narcissism alone isn’t the problem? Is there a way to impress upon each other responsibility and importance… without being narcissists? And how much of that is ok… if it leads us in the right direction?
And then for fun… where are you hanging out on the scale? Are you happy with where you’d place yourself?
Dear Friends and Family,
Last week I preached about the four women listed in The Gospel of Matthew’s lineage of Jesus. I called them badass women. Because they were, they had the deck stacked against them and didn’t let that hold them back. With equal parts faith, tenacity, and a what-do-I-have-to-lose-life-has-to-be-stronger-than-death-because-I-do-not-like-the-alternative desperation Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah wrestled out hope and continued a line we attest to as messianic. A pretend prostitute and real one. Grieving widows…. Refugees that are our mortal enemies… pawns in political games of abusive power. These are the women who birthed the legacy that would become Jesus.
Now I’m not supposed to be re-preaching my sermon… this was supposed to be a feel-good family Christmas letter. So, where am I going with this? Well I started to think that my hope for my children is that each of them has this kind of tenacious spirit. I hope I nurture a lot of badass women!
Warren is my Rahab. He will be quick to tell you he is the only boy. He has also had an interesting year of being consistently mistaken as a girl. His long hair, and his mother’s good looks I guess. He is a phenomenal older brother (Rahab too was a caretaker of her family) with a strong protective instinct to his sisters – he cuddled E the other day when she got scarred during a movie we were watching. (This instinct is strong in him as long as he gets to annoy them to no end…) He also gets really annoyed when he gets called a girl – and I think he gets extra joy on the soccer field when he dumps a player on the ground (somehow my loving and very sensitive son is quite the physical beast on the field). My hope is that he sees being called a girl as something that is just fine: because he is born in the stripe of badass women. His honors math teacher, in a conference about some of his academic struggles, describes Warren as all force and no vector (guess we know why he is a math teacher). I used to say something similar. The day he develops long obedience in the same direction he will change the world. My frustratingly wonderful son is gritty and talented guy waiting to find his purpose. And when that happens? Walls will sure go a tumbling down (can’t help it with the Biblical references, vocational hazard).
Elizabeth is my Ruth. She is steady, a homemaker, and has a creative flair that tells you she will always find an unexpected way to bring hope into the world. She isn’t so much badass in the way that word normally inspires visions of brute strength or hard-edged attitude. She is that one you never see working and helping and imagining and somehow has done all the work to make it happen. She is up making breakfast with me every morning. She has an insightful view of the world. And she loves to create. She is probably the one I worry about the most, because I don’t want that bright light in her be extinguished. But she is resourceful that one, and she doesn’t need me or anyone else to protect her. She’s badass – just with matching clothes, a spatula, and the latest musical play she has written. Sword-wielding folk are easy to deal with… it’s the poets you have to watch out for – and this poet ready.
Meredith is Tamar to the T. You do not worry about Meredith… you worry about the people in her way. (That includes Caroline and me). She will likely cause us more grey hair than the other three combined. I collect more mere-mere (that’s her nickname) stories than all the rest. My favorite was the day at Arches National Park when I lost track of her at one of the massive arches. I found her because I noticed a large group of people pointing way up on the rocks… they weren’t watching wild animals. They were all watching Mere climb a sheer cliff. She looked like a little dot. I wanted to run up there and get her but knew that I couldn’t. I already can’t go the places she can with graceful ease. I simply called out to her that it was time to come down and she scampered (literally) down to us. Mere is the one kid who hasn’t chosen to do any sports or outside activities and we let her – its her life not ours. But the day the need arises, there is no doubt in my mind that she is the strongest of us: and she will move heaven and earth to get them out of her way. Like I said… Tamar.
Danielle gets the wife of Uriah because that’s the structure I chose and I have to play the game now. It is fitting in a way because we don’t know much of Bathsheba’s story. Her story is more of what happens to her than anything else and Danielle is still young enough to be an open book whose story is barely started. But one other similarity strikes me. They both were people you wanted in your life. Danielle’s gift is her ability to light up a room. She is the most joyous and smiley kid I have ever met. Even her temper tantrums are joyful and cause a giggle. She walks in her world with an air of magic that adds sparkles to everything. And the hope for me as her parent is that her magical joy is something I do not fall prey to thinking can be harnessed and held close – but is a gift to be left free and shared.
Those are my badass “women” whose stories are yet to be written but who have, each in their own way, entered more fully into this year through sporting field, classroom, play, and family fights. Recently someone asked me if with all that is happening in our world and in our country if I am scared for my children. That’s an easy one for me – and no jesting – I don’t fear for them at all. I do fear for anyone who tries to hold them back or stand in their way. The world is at once always horrible and wonderful. Its not more so now than before. As it has been said (bonus points if you know who and where) “There is nothing new under the sun.” But I’m generally one who feels called to see the hopeful, the be open to the magical, and to aspire for the best. Its not that there isn’t horrible stuff out there: there is plenty to fear and plenty to lament and plenty frustrate… but I refuse to allow that to color my world dim. And if anyone teaches me that bitterness is not a name worth taking its those badass women of the Bible and the children of our world – for me, my children in particular.
So one more note, a tip of the hat and huge hug to the badass woman leader of the Kukla clan. Caroline celebrated year ten at Allstate this year – cleaning up a mess of mixed up money which she does so well. She kept us all in clean clothes and eating relatively balanced meals and she does all that with amazing ability. This was a gritty year. Our basement sewer break left the house under construction all summer, and a simultaneous lice outbreak left us emotionally exhausted. I’m not sure we are really “back to normal” if such a thing even exists (it doesn’t). Seriously at one point I wasn’t sure our marriage was going to survive lice. But it did. And it does. Mostly because we are folks that call it like it is, don’t pretend it must be pretty, but keep hope as our fall back, go to move. And in such a mode? Most things can be either overcome, or traveled through. I read this a couple weeks ago: “Its healthier to eat Twinkies together than broccoli alone.” The science may be a bit sketchy but the point is well taken: travel together friends.
So as I wrap up this weird Christmas letter / sermon / I don’t know what this is, I will combine these two thoughts as my words to share and aim for in 2017. For me and you both:
Be Badass with/for each other!
Stay thirsty (for righteousness) my friends. Grace and Peace to you all this season.
Over a month ago I was doing lots of work on Psalm 100 in preparation for a sermon series. I came across this quotation from Walter Brueggemann,
…our world is at the edge of insanity and we with it. Inhumaneness is developed as a scientific enterprise. Greed is celebrated as economic advance. Power runs unbridled to destructiveness. In a world like this one, our psalm is an act of sanity, whereby we may be ‘reclothed in our rightful minds’ (compare Mark 5:15)… Life is no longer self-grounded without thanks but rooted in thanks.
I liked it at the time, but now I circle back to it because I think it is more essential than ever. Its seems we are drowning in discontent and thanksgiving may just be the life preserver we all need. I feel like our critical lenses are on overload. It has become our only, or at the very least, our predominant mode of discourse with each other. Our every engagement is begun in complaint, or critical disagreement, as if all we know how to do is tell some else what they are doing wrong, saying wrong, and thinking wrong. It reminds me of myself in college. I was overly convinced of my own brilliance. Thousands of years of world history and I have now arrived to prove how Socrates, Kant, and John Stuart Mill (I was a philosophy major, sorry about that) had no idea what they were talking about because I can see all the holes in their arguments. (I had issues. I still do.) I was in incredible need to move to a post-critical stage where I could find both the blessings and challenges of the thoughts of these brilliant people who came before me. I was in serious need of humility, but also of gratitude, generosity of thought, and understanding of deeper motives and lived experience.
I’m a big advocate of lament, of critical reflection, and of counter-testimony. We need to be able to say no to things that are egregiously unjust and inappropriate. We need to be able to publicly express our discontent, and we need to hear corrective nuance to our world views. But when we say no to everything our no becomes watered down to the point of meaninglessness. And when our world is wired to complaint all we can see is that which is wrong. Complaint is essential to health, but it doesn’t make a good bed to lie in forever. And I find myself believing that now, more than ever, we need doxology and thanksgiving. In a world of frayed nerves, fearful hearts, overloaded complaint we are literally ruining our own lives with an inability to recognize good around us and within us.
So take up the life preserver of thanksgiving and take a break from complaint. If not for longer, than at least for the rest of this week. Do not look at things ask yourself: what is wrong here? Look at things and see it through the eyes of wonder and joy: how am I enriched and thankful for this?
Having started with him, let me end with other wise words from Walter B:
The Book of Psalms ends with these sort of outrageous doxologies, but this (Psalm 148) is “Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire, hail, snow, frost, stirring wind filling his command, mountains and all hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and cattle, creeping things and flying birds, kings of the earth, princes and all rulers, young men and women, all old and young together.”
It’s an image of all creatures joining in doxology. And I love that, to think that sea monsters — I don’t know how sea monsters howl or how they express their faith, but it’s an early form of [sings] all creatures of our God and King. The whole world is coming in doxology and I just think it’s so wonderful.
I just read a book recently. I don’t know whether it’s right, but it says that Socrates said that all true speech ends in doxology to God. I hope he said that. If he didn’t, he should’ve (laughter).
About a year ago I got spinning down a rabbit trail on what was the oldest tree in the world. As with all such superlatives (biggest, tallest, oldest, etc), there is something awe inspiring to me to think about a tree that was born about the same time humans were inventing written language.
But this whole superlative game of living organisms has a total game changer. Move over Prometheus and Methuselah, it doesn’t matter how much we pin down your hypothetical your age Llangernyw Yew, because welcome in Pando. The game changer of all game changers.
Because you see, Pando cheats. Pando isn’t a tree. He is a colony of tree. (No plural there.) Pando, meaning “I spread” and sometimes also known as Trembling Giant, is a male quaking aspen. But he is also a clonal colony, a single root system that sends up thousands of shoots… and each one looks like its own tree. But they are all one. Prado can literally use the royal we. And he encompasses 106 acres, is believed to be something like 80,000 years old, and is the world’s most massive organism.
And that is one more reminder to me that in an ever-changing world there is no greater chance of survival than going through life as a community. ‘We are stronger together’ is not just a nice sounding slogan. In fact, its right there in our own evolution. Human beings individually aren’t all that much. We are lacking a lot of good natural advantages for survival bar one: the ability to create, sustain, and grow together.
Whether its our institutions, churches, schools, businesses, families, or lives… the more connected we are to a larger collective story the more likely we are to weather the ups and downs, ins and outs, life and death all around us.
Shared roots; collective strength; collaborative endeavors.
I have a colleague who reminds me that every time we walk in a meeting we should be seeking to be the most collaborative people in the room. I am reminded again and again that my mission ought to always be more important than me. And yet… somehow we are constantly drawn away into attempts to be self-contained, ego-driven, rugged individualists who hate group projects. It romantic to imagine that I’m able to stand alone, and its freeing to go wherever the day takes us without any obligation to anyone or anything else.
Until you stumble.
Until disease strikes.
Until… life (and death) happens.
And then? It is, sadly, usually, too late. Roots take a long time to grow, and communities must be nurtured. You cannot make withdraws from an account where you have made no deposits.*
So for all my own introverted and self-reliant tendencies… and for all the romance of being the rugged individualists, I will turn back to Pando and ask him question after question. For he has much to teach us. …of deep roots, interwoven life, and how eternity lies in community.
*I have the tendency to always want to qualify my statements. So let me qualify this statement: You may be able to connect with a community who will help you when you falter even though you have never before been a part of it. I certainly hope so, and endeavor to lead just such a community. But that only works if enough people make, and sustain, such communities. Its like herd-immunity. It only works if enough people participate in it. I fervently believe that individualism is an unsustainable way to live propped up on the good will of other people. A world that seeks ever increasing connection and mutual support is the best and brightest hope for your future, my future, our future.
Last night I watched a Norwegian language film about the Norwegian Civil War in the early 13th century. Fought between the Baglers (Aristocray and clergy) and Birkebeiners (mostly peasants) for control of Norway behind what is thought to be two pretenders to the throne. They fought that battle with literal weapons in a convoluted set of twists and turns as they decided the fate of a kingdom in ways that’s hard to discern facts and fictions, myths and motives and meaning except that when decided it ushered in a golden age for Norway, the zenith of its political power on the world stage.
Today we fight a similar battle and while our weapons purport to be more civilized it isn’t always apparent that this is true. While I wish to relish that we no longer kill each other in actuality in a game of kings and queens, we still kill each other in our hearts and minds… and that is its own sickness unto death.
The battlefields may appear different but the battles are the same. Whatever tomorrow may bring let it not be another Antietam or Gettysburg or Appomattox. This is not war. And only when we recognize the sacred humanity of the one we contend with will democracy win. When we do it right even the losers win. And when we do it right we remember that no matter how heated our exchange of differing ideas of good may be, we are one, indivisible, and interwoven fabric of being. United we stand. Our election will not be a civil war.
And gracious in victory and defeat we will move forward together as one. This is my prayer for tomorrow. Not a particular victor. But that we all may resolve more fervently to know, and acknowledge, and grow through the inherent blessedness of one another.
Naive? Idealistic? Laughably out of touch?
Yes, yes, and no. I realize how hard that is to realize. But I will not settle for less. Because we deserve it. Our nation and those who dedicated their lives to forming (or endeavoring to form) a more perfect union deserves it. The future of our world deserves it. And I will not let cynicism win.
Love you all, praying for us all. #forwardasone
If you live in the Boise, Idaho area tomorrow morning, Wednesday November 9th we will be holding a 30 minute prayer service for healing and unity following the election. It will be interfaith and non-partison. Our desire is to move forward as one regardless of the results. You can find the Facebook event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/926710330766421/
I wrote a blog post with this title about a month ago. I couldn’t quite get the sections to “feel right” to me and I never posted it. Then the Donald Trump “locker room talk” video controversy erupted. Many people across the political spectrum have called his actions and words (the two are really the same) out as unacceptable. I was surprised it took this long for some to see it, but I’m glad its being seen. The idea that the locker room makes abusive and oppressive thoughts, words, and actions “okay” has got to go.
Many people have stood forward to speak (again) about the objectification of women. I completely agree. Not for the first time I find myself offended by what many of us think it means to be a man, and what we allow men to do and think and believe about themselves.
But this post isn’t about that.
This post is about men like me.
Because I’d like to imagine there is a place to be a man… like me.
So I want to share a bit about what I think that is, and I want to share not so much for my sake… but for the sake of boys who are boys today in much the way I was 30 years ago, and in my heart still am today. Because there isn’t much of a masculine bone in my body. Don’t hear me wrong. I’m male, and without regret. I was born a man and want to be proud of what that means (though in the public sphere I rarely am, I’m mostly ashamed of what “being a man” has come to mean). Being a man does not mean I’m reckless, it does not mean I’m rough and tumble or big and brash, it doesn’t mean I have to let fly with offensive language to be in the club (though I can… if I do or if I don’t, it has nothing to do with being a man), it doesn’t mean I’m strong and athletic, and it doesn’t mean I am due any different rights or privileges than anyone else. I completely disavow any of that as being definitional to being a man, for me or anyone else. They may be true of you, but not because you’re a man. They are true because you are you. What it means to be a man must be far bigger and deeper than that small caricature, and must be far less an excuse than it serves as today.
What does it mean for me to be a man? It means I’m an active father and there is no task that isn’t MY task. I read an article once, in a parenting magazine no less, from a father who said he learned to be okay watching Sports Center while his wife did bath time because he wasn’t good at it. WHAT? No one is good at bath time. Its horrible. Its loud. No child listens to you. You get wet, lose your patience, and regret it. You remind yourself to laugh and roll with it so you make bubbles in the water and soap beard for the kid to trim. Turn off the TV and jump in the water because that’s what it means to be a man.
It means I’m terrified of locker rooms. I always have been and I always will be. It means that I cry when I’m hurt, physically or emotionally. I guess I should back up and say it means I’m emotional. I was a sensitive kid who cried a lot, was among the shortest and weakest in every classroom I was in until most of the way through high school, and (as you can tell) I was a late bloomer. And none of that makes me a weak person, in fact I’d say it makes me strong in most of the ways that have mattered through my life. But it also doesn’t make me masculine – a word that makes me shudder and draw away- I’m a man, not masculine.
I grew up with three sisters and no brothers, and I think mostly I was far more comfortable around girls than boys most of my life. Because I didn’t feel like I fit the definition of what it means to be a boy… or what it meant to “be the man” that I wasn’t yet, nor ever would be. Its probably a good thing I was comfortable around girls because three of my four children are girls and when we get to tampons versus pads, and all of that – it won’t be taboo to me because I shared a bathroom with sisters my whole life. I can talk strings tucked up in underwear just as well as football (been there and done that). None of that makes me, or excludes me, from being a man.
So what is my point? My point is that I always talk about being an introvert but probably don’t acknowledge enough that its because I’m not sure I ever felt like I fit in as a kid. My introverted tendencies were exacerbated by the sense that I did not belong. I walked in a lot of circles but I never belonged to any of them. I had a lot of acquaintances but very few friends, and most of those who I called friends were other people who didn’t belong. We were broken. But mostly we weren’t. We just didn’t “fit” in. We didn’t measure up to social norms.
And so I’m speaking now because my heart goes out to other boys like me, who hear so many stories of what it “means to be a man” and who hear that “boys will be boys” and hear about the appropriateness of inappropriate “locker room talk” and inside the say to themselves, “well I guess something is wrong with me because none of that makes the least bit of sense of to me.” Boys like me who feel something must be wrong with them because they don’t look like the “them” we talk about when we talk about what it means to be a boy or a man.
My son is one of the sensitive ones. Sometimes his emotional nature bothers me, I want to tell him to toughen up. In fact, I have told him that. And then I die inside. Because I realize what I have just done. I tried to make him toughen up because I was too weak to handle his emotion. And that’s the rub of it. Most of what we think it means to be a man is based in a deep underlying insecurity with who we are… mostly it has to do with acting tough so we don’t have to admit how weak we are. Its easy to do, and so damn hard to undo. I try my best to raise my kids with a healthy of sense of self, and of self-differentiation from me, from you, and from social norms. But I too slip up. I too slip back into the garbage the world taught me.
We need to deconstruct our myths of what it means to be human, and what it means to be strong, and what it means to be a man. Not only because those myths are destructive to other people, but also in the way they destroy ourselves. I want to be the little boy who played on the playground with ants in the back corner of the sand lot while everyone else played kick ball. I want to be the little boy who sang made up songs around the campfire about how his day went. I want to be the boy who played as much with dolls as bats and balls growing up and who cried when the world overwhelmed him rather than trying to be tough and strong. I want to be me, when me has nothing to do with what I was lead to believe it mean to be a man. And still be proud that I’m a man.
I’ve rambled again, and lost my way a bit – I think this is a subject too complicatedly close to my heart for me to stay on point but I want to get it said again: we have to take care about our words (which are actions) and our norms and expectations and how they are heard. Our children, our neighbors, our friends are listening… on the street AND in the locker room. And without knowing we may be crushing their spirit. And as strong as they are in their own identities… the indignities add up, and leave their mark. So the next time you see that popular meme about the what its like being the parent of boys, or you are about to excuse rude or violent behavior by saying ‘boys will be boys,’ or you feel the impulse to tell someone to toughen up because you imagine they have to conform to you and not the other way around… stop. Just stop. Because it isn’t true. And it isn’t good. And when the laughter dies away… so too does the spirit of some kid who just got told they don’t belong. That they are fundamentally flawed in their inner being.
For all of them – for all of us; I love you for you – just as you are. I thank God for you and that God made you as you are to correct me about my too-shallow understanding of all that it can mean to be human. Because without you the world is a smaller, more monochromatic, less interesting place to be. Bless me, by being you: unencumbered, freed from norms, fully expressed you. I deserve it, and so do you.
The following sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho to a group of pastor colleagues in the midst of a three day gathering that focused the crossroad of different people coming together from their particular heritage and learning to live together.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
It is certainly not true that God does not want us to work together.
And it seems unlikely that the God who says, ‘Go forth and multiply,’ employs being scattered and different as a punishment.
But both of these ideas can easily flow out from this text. And yet…
The people do not say: let us become God. The people do not say they wish to lay siege to heaven. What the people do say is: let us build this thing… otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
The scattering was already happening. The differentiation in the sons of Noah enumerated in the previous chapter tell us it was already a reality. The languages that result from the text are, perhaps, less a thing that was done to cause a new reality… than a sign that emerged to put word to what had already come to be. The people were moving out from the Garden in ever more diverse and differentiated ways. And then we got scared.
I’m sure you have seen the comments that arise with alarming regularity that racism had ceased to be a problem until Barack Obama was elected president. He caused the revival of racism. Even now we see the same things playing out in Hillary’s nomination and candidacy and the we shudder at the prospect that a woman would become the most powerful man in the world.
For a moment in time through the lenses of these stories we see the possibility that the American dream could be real. Anyone can become anything. And suddenly, the equality we give lip service to became real. More real than is comfortable for those who have had the power and the control. And so we say no. We will not be scattered. No we will not let our control and power in the world slip out of our grasp.
We double down on building an unchanging monument to keep ourselves from becoming scattered… and just as we learned yesterday in the history of the Basque peoples, which is not their unique history but a way that we learn of ourselves and all our stories, that when a person or persons wishes to control and make an edifice to their own name for their own security they find enemies to name in order to convince the masses to join them in their quest.
Our sin is not that we come together to achieve great things: our sin is that we so often we come together to build monuments to our fear.
Brent A. Strawn, a professor of Old Testament at Candler School of theology posits that an iconic text the Tower of Babel perhaps exists as a way to set up the story of Abram. Abram who is invited by God to go. To go on a journey of discovery that will leave him forever changed – even to the fabric of his name. And in a world in which we are building monuments to sameness and control… there can be no Abram.
Our diversity is a gift that emerges from our calling… a calling to steward creation, a calling to explore the world, to be scattered in it, and to celebrate rather than fear that story. And in the celebration of life that results we are called – as one our colleagues quoted yesterday – to be guests not hosts. Or as the Basque people say: ‘we do not own our homes, but our homes own us.’
We are guests in the world, granted stewardship of that which does not belong to us, and yet it is gifted to us by the One to whom heaven and earth belongs. This means in every moment we are called to live in the tension of being BOTH guest and host. Those who are gathered and those who are scattered in the world. Whose gift of the steadfast love of the Lord is meant to empower us to overcome our fear and concerns of ultimate security that we might feed our curiosity and seek to discover the world around us… and within us.
Yesterday Amy turned to me at dinner after a comment I made and asked, “Are you a people pleaser?” I responded that I’m a middle child. I was born to try to make peace in the world and do so not wanting to be a burden to anyone… so my peace is dysfunctional. My first instinct is pleasing people, covering over that which is upsetting, and creating an absence of conflict. Making a peace that is really nothing more than absence of conflict propped up by really good blinders. You see, I want to build towers. I am good at building towers to keep us from becoming scattered.
But another thing that strikes me about the Tower of Babel story is that in a world where we do not have to explain ourselves, we forget ourselves.
The people had a type of unity of mind… but it wasn’t so much unity as a likeness of mind, and they prized this likeness of mind and so would do anything to protect it, at all costs. And security and safety at all costs is too high a cost. Our life becomes our idol. And we know the consequences of that way of being. It makes helicopter parents, and elders who are tortured by the medical community to squeeze out one more moment in time. It legitimizes terrorism against the other… and it ultimately makes it seem sane and ration to talk about a world in which we hold all creation hostage to our ability to kill ourselves many times over seems… and call that peace.
When life is easy to relate to everyone around ourselves because we are all alike we begin to forget ourselves. We no longer question our own assumptions. We make ourselves into God… not out of radical disobedience. But because no other alternative can present itself. And that comfortable place – this is my first instinct to create – becomes worth holding on to.. entrenching in… and even building a wall to protect.
This is not the unity to which we are called.
This is not creation making a grand tapestry that celebrates life, or setting a table that always has room for another guest. Its about pinning us down to a moment of time, ceasing to grow and learn and explore… it isn’t a celebration of life… its about becoming the undead.
So yes, I’m a people pleaser. And people pleasers build great towers. So I could, I imagine, fill football stadiums of worshipers who will join me in that tower building. And yet….
And yet I too feel called to a journey like Abram – another great people pleaser. Abram never met a person he didn’t try please. But I was called to a journey of self-discovery and of dislocation to discover the other. I continue to spend my life getting to know who I am so I can both honor and overcome it. And I am called – we are called – to spend (that is risk and give away) our lives getting to know each other that we can honor each other as well. We do the hard work, that we don’t have time for, of building bridges and relationships across a diversity of differentiated peoples. To be both guests and hosts to each other.
How then do we tred on this earth as those called to be both guests, and hosts?
I read a great article recently on marriage. The main premise was this: Marriage is the fight we agree to have the rest of our life. Between two people, the author says, there will always be different views and opinions. And marriages that work don’t seek to force the other to become obedient to your answers and world view. Two becoming one? Does mean like-mindedness either.
But rather, marriages that work are between two people who agree to fight about the same things over and over again because they cannot imagine someone else they’d rather spend the rest of their life fighting with. Its not our likeness of mind that creates our unity… it is commitment to the beauty and blessedness we see in the others’ self-differentiation that makes us fight for a shared life together.
The gift, not punishment, of our languages that give name to our identity and unique flavor of life, is the gift of constant translation. No word – beyond the divine logos – can capture God. No image captures the breadth and depth of life. But in the constant dynamic play of words and the dance of matching them to their meaning we are drawn together by the task of knowing one another. And here we find that we do not do great things from our shared ideas and like-minded approaches to the world… but in the sharing of our differentiation from each other we find a unity of purpose in knowing and being known by the world that owns us.
We are all guests. We are all hosts. We are called to curate a life of translation in the tension of those dual roles and to risk losing ourselves to each other, for each other. Nothing we build matters other than the human connections in which the love of God abides.
Thanks be to God.
Last night I was turning my light off to go to sleep when my youngest child wandered up from her room. I was like, okay I’m not even playing at this before I even try to fall asleep there is already a kid and a dog in my bed. So I vacated the bed for the small single mattress we put on the floor at the foot of our bed (okay this happens with some regularity). Having moved down to that mattress I forgot to plug my phone in overnight to charge. I started the day with it already under 20% charged.
I have spent all day trying to grab quick charges from my car, from my computer, from my office manager’s computer… you get it. You have probably done it. I am spending the whole day in catch up mode… and it doesn’t work. You can’t start from behind. I tell folks the same thing about surgery recovery from my days working in a hospital. You can’t catch up to pain. Take your meds, don’t cut back from what you were told to take, and keep taking it. Because once your pain gets out in front of you? It will take you a long, long time before you feel comfortable again.
So. You guessed it. This isn’t about my phone.
Its about starting on empty. Its about remembering to find some me-time. Its about getting a good night sleep. Its about creating margin in our life so we aren’t overloaded. Its about not starting out the day in catch-up mode.
Two weeks ago I preached on this and began my sermon with a favorite anecdote from Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh:
“There is a Zen story about a man riding a horse that is galloping very quickly. Another man, standing alongside the road, yells at him, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse yells back, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.” I think that is our situation. We are riding many horses that we cannot control… Our lives are so busy.”
When we start on empty we are not at peace with ourselves and thus cannot be instruments of peace. When we start on empty so much of what we do will be empty because we do not begin it with anything to give. Oh, we fool ourselves into think we do. And we may even be so talented that we actually manage to give something for a little while. This is not a laudable talent. Because sooner or later living on empty is going to have dreadful consequences. For you. For those you love. For the world.
Get a good night sleep. Have a slow morning. Cancel appointments for an afternoon. Let the dishes stack up in the sink. Play hooky from work and call it a mental health day – because it is!
You owe that yourself. You owe that to the world.
Because we all want a fully charged phone. (friend… I meant to say friend!) 😉
Adulting has become quite the term. Its a favorite of memes. (Here is a Time magazine article on the usage of the word if you are interested.) Adulting is what gets blamed for all the unpleasant things we have to do as part of being a responsible and contributing member of society.
Sometimes I think of my job as a pastor as adulting. I’m the person in the room whose vocational expectations set up that I’m patient, uplifting and not derogatory, prophetic when called for but always in a pro-people way, make space for differentiation, relieve other’s anxiety, nurture healthy systems that don’t triangulate and aren’t passive aggressive, and set aside what I personally would like for what the group discerns is the greater good of our community. I often look at myself and say, “I’m paid to be an adult.” That’s all.
So, why is that so hard?
One of the ways I compromise in my adulting is that I drive my kids around in a car with a built in DVD and let them watch. Every rule I ever made about cars and dvds? I broke them. All of them. For my own good. #adultingfailure So I get it. Sometimes we just want to get through the day.
One of the consequences of those DVD’s is that I listen to a lot of kids shows. I obviously don’t watch them, because #adulting, but I do listen. I got struck recently that the new Strawberry Shortcake TV show’s plot is basically written out of a healthy systems theory text book. Really! Almost every show it turns out that Strawberry Shortcake is just the group’s therapist ready to call out their triangulation and petty behavior. She is so stinkin’ good at adulting.
Then I was listen to Dora the Explorer today. Its really all about community. She overcomes every obstacle that ultra-high pitched and annoying map reminds her she has to overcome… but never alone. She almost always does it through the work of others who want to be a part of her journey and help her succeeded. She is all about the common good and rallying support and winning friends. Even the “bad guy” Swipper is really just a misunderstood bully who needs a friend and turns into a nice guy (aka Pete in Mickey Mouse Clubhouse). (yes I NEED to stop listening.)
My Little Pony? Its all about friendship as magic… and a whole lot more healthy systems plot lines… I could go on for hours and I’m not mocking. They really are good teachings. We could all use to learn some adulting from the average plot of the the average kid’s TV show.
We expect it in our children. And then what? Do we forget it as adults? Do we get tired of it? Did we decided that was nice enough then but now we have earned the right to be… toxic? Arrogant? Rude?
I’m not saying you are those things. I’m not saying we are all doing them all the time. But its amazing just how often we treat each other with very little respect. Just last night I caught myself displaying absolutely zero patience. And three days ago I got upset with my son for filling up the dog’s water bowl (talk about trivial) in way that wasn’t as efficient as I would like… and yet in a way that I have probably done it twenty or thirty times. I turned it into a whole lesson about thinking through unintended consequences… and then had to remind myself to listen up.
I’m not sure what makes us think that adulting is such hard work… except perhaps its that we are all so busy and stressed and “important” that we turn into ticking time-bombs looking for a reason to act like anything other than an adult. And that makes me wonder if what we really need is to stop adulting… and start embracing our inner child. After all years ago there was this teacher who said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven… become humble like this child… welcomes one like this child… welcome me.”
So many of our interactions and systems are dysfunctional. We often think that dysfunctional means it doesn’t work. But that isn’t quite right. What it really means is that it is functioning in pain. The pain has become a part of the very fabric of the system. And when that happens patience is allusive. We become painfully reactive and this creates fear. Fear of all that reactive pain being thrown around, and a world where fear is ubiquitous cannot foster freedom and growth.
So maybe… just maybe. The antidote to our struggles to adult is to stop trying. Stop emulating the pain-wrought system and go back the basics. Back to beginning. Become like children. And build a better dream (thank you Shark Boy and Lava Girl).
**yes I really do have the dialog to all these shows unintentionally burned into my memory, but don’t ask me what they look like because I’m driving. Though while I’m driving I do dance along to the theme of Everybody’s Awesome. Because you are!