Monthly Archives: September 2016
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!