Monday, May 23, 2011

A different kind of Story for a different kind of King(dom)

Stories have a way of making us who we are.  The stories we live by influencing how we view ourselves, the world, and where we decide to place our allegiance.  Input is constantly taking place; we’re constantly receiving messages, competing stories, seeking to shape who we are and what we think about.

Let us introduce, for example, 8-year-old Suzie.  Suzie has white skin and so do her parents, and she lives on a particular side of town where she doesn’t really see anyone with dark skin.  Suzie’s parents don’t really monitor what she watches on TV, and she spends a lot of time watching Cops.  She can’t help but notice that most of the people getting chased down and arrested have dark skin.  One day, Suzie asks her parents why she doesn’t ever see anybody with dark skin in “real life,” and why the people getting tackled by police officers on Cops so often have dark skin.  Suzie’s parents reply to her inquiry with, “That’s just the way things are.”  A narrative is established as part of Suzie’s worldview, it goes something like this:  “People with dark skin don’t live by people with white skin because my family has white skin and people with dark skin don’t live around here.  And people with dark skin do bad things, because people with dark skin are always getting arrested on Cops.”  We could reproduce examples of narrative development like this with anything from mental health status, physical abilities and limitations, sexual orientation, economic status, gender, age, anything.  This happens all the time.  Stories, or narratives, intermingle and entwine, most often without us even realizing it, and produce in us a lens through which we see the world and our place in it

It takes a different story, a more powerful story, a story full of emotion and meaning, to subvert, shift, and otherwise destroy the allegiance given to a previous story.  When Suzie turns 12-years-old she meets Ann.  Suzie knows though, that she can’t be around Ann, because Ann has dark skin, and Suzie knows about people with dark skin.  Nonetheless, Suzie is intrigued because Ann is beautiful and wonderful, kind and full of joy and so much fun to be around…….something is happening here.  Suzie finds herself wanting to be Ann’s friend, but she hesitates because she still has this pesky narrative telling her Ann is not good.  Suzie meets Ann’s parents and thinks this could be her chance to find a reason not to be Ann’s friend.  Ann is, of course, probably just an exception.  But then, Ann’s parents are beautiful and wonderful, kind and full of joy and so much fun to be around…….how confusing, and yet, how right.  This narrative about people with dark skin becomes a thing of the past, subverted and destroyed by a relational narrative; a different more powerful story, full of emotion and meaning.  One story comes to an end and another, more appropriate story, a story born of actual experience, becomes the story that establishes a new worldview.  People with white skin and people with dark skin should live together, how wonderful that would be.  And now the only explanation left for Cops is that it’s a crap show that gives structural inequalities and racism a subtle stage, rather than it being a projection of reality (ever seen a CEO that stole a bunch of money arrested on Cops).  Because of this new story, Suzie begins to see the world differently. 

I wonder sometimes if the bible is intended to be read this way.  What would happen if we abandoned proof-texting and read the bible like a story?  A different kind of story, a meta-narrative for the whole world about what God has been doing and is still doing today.  What if there was a way to write ourselves into this story?  What would that look like?

The story of God revealed in the biblical narrative beckons us to re-imagine what it means to be the people of God.  The story is and has always been the same.  It is our place in the story that can sometimes be hard to understand.  Throughout the course of human history we’ve been attracted to empire values of power, prestige, a need to rule over and be better than others.  From the very beginning of our story a brother destroys brother and men degrade women taking them as they please, like objects.  God’s people even went as far as to reject God as their king, asking instead for a human king to “fight our battles for us” so they could “be like all the other nations.”  Even during the pinnacle of Israel’s history, with Solomon as king, we see the values of empire.  He amassed a standing army, oppressed his neighbors and his own people to build a temple, stored up innumerable amounts of wealth, and took many women as his wives.  All the while the cry of the prophets echoed in the background: 

“For if you would only amend your ways, if you truly practice justice between a person and their neighbor, if you do not oppress the orphan, the widow and the stranger, and do not shed innocent blood,” and “Your fasts, sitting in sackcloth and ashes, is this not the fast which I choose?  To loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your home, when you see the naked cover him, and not to ignore the plight of your brothers and sisters?” 

We try and tell ourselves today that we’re different.  And yet, the subtlety of exclusionary and oppressive societal practice does little but mask the same empire values that are alive and well today.  We can acknowledge it or delude ourselves by conveniently looking the other way.  We too, need a different story.  We too, need a different kind of kingdom with a different kind of king in whom to place our allegiance.  This is a story Jesus tells us about His kingdom:  

"What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?  It is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches."  And again he said, "To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?  It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened." 

When Jesus tells this story, like all stories, the hearers are invited to partake, to take upon themselves, the identity of the characters.  The hearers are required to identify with first century peasant life in order to understand the kingdom.  Where are the images associated with royalty and kingdom-making?  Where’s the gold and silver?  Where’s the crown and thrown?  Already we’re seeing a different story.  This kingdom is not like the Roman Empire ruling during Jesus day.  And it isn’t like the heyday of the nation of Israel during the reign of Solomon.  Understanding this kingdom requires entrance into the life of a common man, planting seeds small and hidden under the ground, emerging slowly and gently.  It requires entrance into the life of a servant woman making bread, the yeast hidden away in the dough; pervasive, and unstoppable now that it’s already present.

This is what the Story of God does.  It subverts and stories of the world, the stories of empire, and lays before its hearers the claim that the new kingdom has been inaugurated and is breaking into this present age.  When we live in anticipation of God’s kingdom, as if it were already fully and completely here, we insert ourselves into the Story.  For me, and I dare say for us, this is part of what the Village Art Project has been about.  It has been about exposing and seeing the difference between empire values and kingdom values, and then making the choice to live according to the values of the kingdom as much as we know how.  We’re still learning.  But I think we’re seeing that as we do this, as we’re faithful to the Story and committed to living it together, we start to become part of the very Story we’re learning about.  I leave you with the words of Jesus as he begins his ministry.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

One of the things we can glean from this story is his refusal to recognize socially determined boundaries between people; people considered of low status shall no longer be subject to exclusion based on ridiculous canons of status-making.

I am looking forward to this summer.  I am looking forward to learning more about the Story – more about what it means to be the people of God together.  And more about what it means to give allegiance to Jesus.  May the Story of God continue to subvert and overthrow the other stories we find ourselves living by (even if it makes us super weird). Love,


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Really Beautiful

Spring is in the air...and in my friend's flooded basement...and in the obscenely aromatic lilies sitting on my coffee table...and in the Mount Pleasant Mobile Home Village.  The return of growth and growing things, of torrential rains and flowers that reek like a middle school boy experimenting with cologne reminds me that life is messy.  It is good and it is messy.

In fact life, real life, is utterly uncontrollable.  Only dead things are completely predictable.  Only dead things can be precisely managed in such a way that all outcomes are assured ahead of time.  Life is risky.  It is dangerous.  It is a mixture of good and bad, easy and hard and just plain boring.  And that is precisely what makes it beautiful.

This is something I know with my head but that I struggle to know truly in my heart.  I, along with the rest of the human race, am bent on control, on the extinction of risk, on the gradual homogenization of all things.  And so we create things like Disney's "Animal Kingdom"...designed to look, feel and smell just like a variety of wondrous, exotic locales--minus any possible way of dying or being injured (unless you choke on your $10 serving of Frozen-Space-Age-Ice-Cream-Pellets, of course).

Want to know something that's weird about places like that?  Places where we've totally managed all risk and ugliness and difficulty out of the environment?  Pictures taken there aren't as beautiful.  Something inside us knows--just knows--it's not real.  Yes, there are real lions and gazelles and kookaburras.  But I will never in good conscience be able to hang any of the "nature shots" I took at the Animal Kingdom on my wall.  Not because the pictures aren't well composed, but because (I mean this mysteriously and seriously) they're not truly beautiful.

They're not beautiful like the pictures that are on my wall. David, the pastor from a secret church in Laos, simply sitting in a chair by himself, but obviously deeply concerned about friends he's just learned are missing.  My friend Liz and another friend Skye sitting on a stoop at the Village in the sun sharing a peaceful smile.  A shot from the side of a Thai mountain looking down on a massive tangle of wooden huts and jungle canopy...taken from inside the heavily guarded fence.  Granted, most of these photographs aren't as exciting or exotic as the shots I took at Disney featuring gigantic gorillas and spider monkey's swinging on the "lost ruins of a South American jungle civiliation", but they are infinitely more beautiful. Their beauty comes from the fact that they're real...really real.  In each one, if I look close enough, I can see hope.  But I can also see fear.  In each one there is a story of rescue, and in each one another story of pain and loss.  The good and the bad, the easy and the hard, the realities of life in a fallen world are exactly what make these pictures worth hanging on my wall.

I think that Christians get off track when they start to believe that God wants them to fix the world's problems.  Now hear me out...I am as firm a believer as anyone that followers of Jesus ought to be acting in the world to undo injustice, to help the helpless, to bring hope to the hopeless, and to do all of this through practical, hands-on activity.  That's a non-negotiable.  What I'm getting at is the "fix-it" mentality that leads, however gradually, to anger and bitterness and isolation from things (and people) that will not "be fixed".  Taken too far, it seems like this perspective on "mission" leads us to put "results" before relationships, to value some people more than others because they are more "compliant", to legitimize a hyper-mobility that rips us from real rootedness and from opportunities to let God's word and work seep down to the places of our deepest motivations.

When's the last time you read the book of Revelation?  (Reading the Left Behind series definitely doesn't count!)  I think this kind of perspective on mission--this "fix it" mentality--would be unrecognizable as a Christian attitude to the author of this much-misunderstood biblical book.  For one, the folks he was writing to were so despised (and likely, so generally poor) that any thought of "transforming the world" would have been utterly unrealistic for them.  What is the message of John to these scattered folks whose lives are wracked with pain and uncertainty and loss and dishonor?  Maybe it's best to spell out first what it is not.  It is NOT a message to get busy fixing the broken, immoral, unjust Roman empire.  Conversely, it is NOT a message about self-defense and self-protection.  What it IS is a message about endurance in identity.  Keep being the faithful, peculiar people of Jesus!  It will not keep you safe, and it will not "fix" the world.  But it is what is most necessary, because it is what is most real.  Jesus is the Savior.  Jesus is the Protector.  Jesus is the vindicator of the mistreated.  Jesus is the gardener tending the Tree of Life whose leaves bring healing to the nations.  The surprising message of Revelation is that what God wants most is a people who are truly and wholly His...He's got the rest of it under control.

That's what, at its core, the Village Art Project is about.  It's not really about art.  It's not really about "fixing a neighborhood".  It is about being a certain kind of people...together.  The kind of people who look and smell and talk and think and befriend and spend and pray and act and see like Jesus.  And for all its brokenness, the Mount Pleasant Mobile Home Village helps us down that path.  If we realign our views of what God wants from us, we realize that this TRULY is a mutual experience.  If we will be patient and open and prayerful, we will all be changed.

But we will all--always--be alive.  And that means risk.  That means pain.  That means laughter and surprise.  It means really good days, and really, really bad days.  But the pictures that result hang on my walls...and on the walls of heaven.

Because they are truly beautiful.

Love to you in Jesus, and with growing anticipation for a truly beautiful summer,