Peacemaking: being like a child

In the class I’m TAing, we have talked much about Jesus’ injunction to the disciples to be like a child (Matthew 18).  Many of the students have brought up the difficulties of this image.  Usually it’s talked about in regard to our current understanding of children and vaguely psychologized — children are (and so we are to be) constantly learning, dependent for provision, trusting, vulnerable, enthusiastic, innocent, naive, etc.  This is a possible (if very challenging) interpretation, one that, when fleshed out carefully, can be fruitful.

But here are some of the questions that have come up for the class:  This assumes a lot about children that, especially in situations of violence in their society or home, is not always true or even ideal.  A child in an abusive home may be vulnerable and may have no choice but to “trust,” but would we want that vulnerability or coerced “trust” for them?  Is that what Jesus is asking us to imitate?  In Jesus’ time, children were akin to slaves.  Are we to literally become people who have no power and live on the handouts of others?  Paul tells us to put off childish things in regard to faith.  Can we be like a child and at the same time not childish?

I think these are not unanswerable questions, and they may not, in the end, negate the call to vulnerability and trust that many people read in this passage.  However, I don’t want to stop there in considering this passage and its meaning… Here’s another possibility:

Margaret Urban Walker, feminist philosopher and ethicist, explains that human interactions work on a pyramid of privilege along lines of race, class, gender, ability, age, sexuality, and many other factors.  The more of these factors you have in your favor, the higher you are on the pyramid.  She goes on to say that we tend to know a lot about the people who are above us on the pyramid and almost nothing about the people below us.  This very fact tends to perpetuate the pyramid — we can step all over those below us because we don’t know them or see them as quite human (in fact, we barely know they’re there), and we do step all over them because we are working to somehow get higher on that scale.  If you need an example of that, think of how much you know about movie stars and CEOs of major companies… and how much you know about the janitor who works in your building or the migrant worker who detassels corn nearby or the worker who made your clothes.  For Margaret Urban Walker, this not knowing of people below us on this pyramid is directly related to the dehumanization that makes space for violence.

In the mean time, Renee Girard (along with many others) says that we humans are mimetic beings.  One of the most basic facts of our identity is that it is formed by imitating others.  We imitate all the time… in everything (or nearly everything).  In Girard’s view, this system results in “successful” imitation and jealousy becoming a threat to identity and then an incitement to violence and scapegoating.

(Side note — the system of mimetic violence that Girard puts forth is one of the foundations of the theology of the cross called Nonviolent Atonement… if you haven’t heard of it, look it up.  It’s pretty awesome.  Now back to the main point…)

So the disciples are looking to each other and the people around them and saying “hey, Jesus — who’s going to be greatest in heaven?”  And Jesus shows them a little child and says — be like this one.  Do you hear it?  Jesus is saying “imitate this one” — this one who is below you on the pyramid.  When you want to know who to imitate, stop looking up.  Look down.  Get to know the janitor and the migrant worker, or whoever is below you on the prescribed social hierarchy, so they can teach you to be more human.  If you have to imitate (and Girard would say, if he were Jesus, you have to imitate because you’re human…) — if you have to imitate, look for someone who doesn’t seem to matter or who you hadn’t even noticed before, and let them teach you.

Of course, Christian faith also tells us to imitate Jesus.  But Jesus himself tells us that he is to be found in the midst of those who are below us on the social ladder.

Also notice that it is imitation Jesus is calling for, which requires learning and knowing.  This is not the charity that pulls another up the social ladder, though maybe there is also a place for that.  This is the knowing and seeing that requires stepping down a rung or two and looking at the world from that view.  Because we might find (we probably will find, in fact) that the ladder itself is overrated — or downright destructive and dangerous.  Because we might be called to a different way of being together, stepping off the ladder entirely, where with feet on the ground we find ways of caring for one another that are so much richer than pulling and pushing and squashing others on our way up to a Babel-like “kingdom” that can never come.

Jesus is preaching a solidarity that reshapes our very identity and shakes up our current way of being.  If it doesn’t do that, you can bet that you are still just offering a hand up rather than engaging in true solidarity.

I wonder if we did that kind of looking and knowing and imitating and identity-shifting, if Margaret Urban Walker’s pyramid might come crashing down.

Your turn… what are you connecting this passage with these days?  How are you interpreting it in this world of ours?

Sabbath Hymn #4

To the tune of “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”

  1. O God, we come to you this day / With tension, fear, and worry. / Our minds can scarcely slow their pace, / Our bodies cease their hurry. / Repent, Beloved, turn to me. / On six blessed days you labor, / But this, the seventh, bids you cease; / Find purpose in my favor.
  1. O God, our bones ache for repose; / Our spirits long for silence; / Emotions, intellects are worn; / Relations marred by violence. / Have faith, Beloved, come to me, / And find my yoke is easy. / The rest that fills and makes you whole, / I offer to you freely.
  1. O God, we long to be content, / To choose your ways with fervor, / To cherish and engage the world, / To live in You forever. / Embrace, Beloved, all my ways; / Delight to find your freedom. / Intend my love in all you do. / So shall you know true wisdom.
  1. O God, we seek you and rejoice, / Through music, food, affection; / The beauty all around us shows, / In splendor, your reflection. / Here feast, Beloved, and draw near; / In prayer and praise be constant. / My kingdom is among you now, / In this eternal instant.

(As always, feel free to use and share… just give me credit and talk to me if you want to adapt it.)

Sabbath Hymn #3

To tune of “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness”

  1. This is the beginning of all the creation. / This is the day life burst forth. / God sang into being all that is around us / In east and west, south and north.

Refrain:  Sing praise to our God with wonder and rejoicing. / Sing of God’s great glory and deep care. / Creation, redemption, wisdom, liberation, / Here now are the gifts we share.

  1. This is the great journey into our new freedom; / Our God today brought us out / From Pharaoh’s oppression, into our new homeland; / God frees us despite our doubt.
  1. This is the day angels rolled back the grey tombstone. / O, death, where now is your sting? / For Christ is arisen and comes to feast with us. / All robed in new life, we sing.
  1. This is the new advent of the Holy Spirit, / Red tongues of flame now descend. / Ever she is with us, comforting and guiding, / Our advocate and our friend.
  1. This is the grand banquet of Jesus’ new kingdom; / Here is the abundant feast. / All nations together join in joy and justice. / Binding all are cords of peace.

(As always, feel free to use and share… just give me credit and talk to me if you want to adapt it.)

Sabbath Hymn #2

To tune “Ellacombe” (“We Sing the Mighty Power of God”)

  1. On this blest day, the Queen of Days, / A palace built in time, / We come, O Holy One, to praise / And cherish things sublime. / All that we have is Yours alone. / Without You, who could stand? / So we delight in all that is, / All offered by Your hand.
  1. Yet as at Babel, we forget / That we are not as gods. / The storm is not calmed by our will, / Nor earth moved by our prods. / We scurry through our anxious days / Afraid to slow our pace. / Our schedules packed, to-do lists long, / Leave little room for grace
  1. So come to us, remind us here / Of love that makes us whole. / Come, gently pry from our firm grasp / The impulse to control. / Replace it with the gratitude / And certainty of life / That finds in you a resting place, / A respite from all strife.
  1. Your precious gift of Sabbath time / We long to fully know, / That we may find you everywhere / And all our lives may show / The strength of our conviction / That You, our God, are true – / The freedom of the living / That gladly trusts in You.

(As always, feel free to use and share… just give me credit and talk to me if you want to adapt it.)

Sabbath Hymn #1

This and the next 3 posts are hymns I wrote a couple years ago for a final project in a class on Jewish and Christian understandings of Sabbath.

To the tune of “O, The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus”

1.  Sabbath sweetness fills our beings / Wrapping us in cloaks of love. / Full of grace, we practice freeing / All our time to reach above. / No more must our worth be measured / By our products, wealth, or skill; / But we each are known and treasured, / Called “beloved,” urged, “be still.”

2.  Though the work is never finished, / Though the road is long and rough, / With God’s vision in this Sabbath, / We have faith it is enough. / As God rested from all labor, / So we cease our livelihood. / As God basked in new creation, / So we say, “Yes! It is good!”

3.  Sabbath feasting calls us deeper / Into all eternity. / Set the table for the nations; / Bind our hearts in unity. / Here we glimpse the feast that frees us. / Here we taste of justice bread. / Here we journey on together / Toward that day when all are fed.

4.  God, be with us in this Sabbath; / Be our strength, our joy, our peace. / As we rest, come rest within us; / Let our frantic worry cease. / As we feast may our rejoicing / Mirror your delighting way, / Till we find that all our living / Is made richer by this day.

(As always, feel free to use and share… just give me credit and talk to me if you want to adapt it.)


Last weekend a stunningly varied group of people gathered to say goodbye to and honor a very dynamic and life-filled woman. I knew her as an amazing high school English teacher who tutored me (her student teacher) in her craft, and I knew her as a pilgrim with whom I had the privilege of walking on the Camino. What I kept hearing Sunday at the memorial service were all the ways in which Susan was oriented toward beauty — in writing, in loving, in teaching, in fashion, in travel, in life experience. And because she was so oriented toward beauty, she also fostered and created beauty around her.

As I remember her with gratitude, I offer a couple of poems I wrote almost 10 years ago. I pray there is yet a word of life in them. (I include them as links because the format is as important as the words. Please excuse the inconvenience.)


How can there be beauty in such destruction?

Marco-Polo and Crisis Care

Most of you probably know the game Marco-Polo… one person is blindfolded in the middle of a room or a pool, the others are moving around them not blindfolded. When the blindfolded person says “Marco,” the others must respond “Polo,” with the eventual aim that the Marco person finds the Polo people by following their voice.

You will not know my cat Talia, most of you, but you may have met cats who do this – if the house is too quiet or if she isn’t sure where her sister is, she’ll wander around the house meowing, “Hello? Anyone home?” until someone responds. Then she’ll run to them and quickly go back to exploring.

Recently I’ve been finding these images to be helpful ones to share with people trying to figure out how to respond to friends and loved ones in crisis. In the midst of my own health and spiritual crisis, it has happened repeatedly that I will disclose some of my struggles in writing to someone who I know cares deeply, and I will not hear back from them. What I later find is that the person was waiting until they had the right words to say in return, and those words never came. I know that feeling. I have waited for the right words myself.

Here’s the thing about crisis – there rarely are words to say that feel adequate. Crisis is much better met by presence, touch, and service. But if words are what you have, don’t wait for the perfect words. By far the more important thing is the fact that you are listening.

So here’s my suggestion… instead of thinking of crisis communication as a treatise that needs a fitting and eloquent response, think of it as a “Marco.” Trauma or crisis blinds and isolates, and most often (at least at first), what a person needs is as simple as a, “Polo.”

“Anyone out there?”
“I’m here. I see you.”

And sometimes trauma or crisis takes away voice and words, too. In that case, there may be no “Marco,” but it may still be your job to intuit the “Marco” and respond, “Polo.”

My sense is that people fear saying something wrong. That’s a good fear to have – there are lots of unhelpful things to say. People also have a sense of respect for privacy, and the urge to look away from another’s vulnerability, pain and shame is strong. This is a good hesitation, too, in some cases – there can be many ways to be too intrusive.

But in my experience in both offering and receiving support, “Marco? – Polo” is always okay. Or just “Polo.”

“I’m here. I don’t know what to say or do, but I’m here.”

And as in the game, sometimes the “Marco? – Polo,” might end up needing to be repeated over and over. Or you might find that when you say “Polo,” the other person rushes into your arms for a good cry. Or perhaps the other person will ask something else of you. Or you might find that they walk away from you. Be aware that you may need to accept or respond to any of those… and trust that you will be given the resources to respond when a request comes.

But mostly, in the midst of the blinding, isolating, terrifying aftermath of trauma or crisis, when the person feels like there just might not be anyone out there at all who sees, what your friend needs from you is a “Polo” – “I’m here.”

NuDunkers Hangout on Worship and Authority

Here’s the youtube video of today’s conversation on worship and authority. In the next few days we will be posting follow-up reflections (and somewhere in there someone will recap for you the 10 minutes of discussion that happened after the technical glitch kicked us off the youtube feed). It was a very enriching conversation to be part of, and we hope you find it similarly challenging and inspiring. Please comment here or on the google plus page with anything you’d like to critique or add or wonder about…

NuDunkers: Worship and Authority

A smattering of thoughts, in absence of anything that seems to hold together much…

Last night I heard an Orthodox monk speak of the seed of the Spirit that lays dormant in each of us until we choose to nurture it and cultivate it. He spoke of authority in the Orthodox tradition as coming from a life of practice that is recognized by others. Authority, he said, has little to do with titles or learning or articulateness, and everything to do with the shining of God in and through a person’s actions over a lifetime. “Deep calls to deep,” he echoed the psalmist, saying that we know when we are in the presence of deep wisdom; something within us resonates with that wisdom. I most often see it in people’s eyes — I can tell who has seen much suffering and experienced its transformation into abundant life, most often, by looking at the ineffable but subtle glow in their eyes. Similarly, good Anabaptist / pietist folks like to talk about “knowing a tree by its fruits.”

Worship is close to my heart and at the center of my calling. I find it hard to express the joy of seeing a worship planned with tender care, spun out into the world with anticipation, caught up in something holy and often unexpected, breathed into life in a community, and echoing through eternity. The way in which God meets her people in worship is precious. Worship realigns our priorities and teaches us how to value the good. Worship helps us become enthralled with life and breaks our fascination with death. Worship knits us together and sets us ablaze with love. But like any beautiful and holy thing, the very experience of worship itself is far greater than any list of its “side-effects.”

We humans are worshipping creatures and authority-following creatures. The question is never “will we worship?” or “will we follow?” but rather “whom or what will we worship?” and “whom or what will we follow?” The answers to those questions begin, bit by bit, to claim and reorient our lives. It strikes me that in worship (as in life), all authority in the church comes directly from the One we worship but is manifest through the many joined in one body. Here, we seek both to express the best gifts of our community and also to offer the many voices just as they are. And in that expression and offering we are met and formed. So, though we must never worry that God’s realm will rise or fall based solely on our worship, we also must honor the power that flows through our worship: power to nurture, challenge, equip, and equally power to wound, destroy, or lull into apathy.

The questions this leaves me with are these:
How do we call out and form leaders in this area?
How do we hold them accountable to us and ourselves accountable to them in creating robust opportunities for encounter with God — opportunities that open us up and avoid the myriad pitfalls that can close us off from God?
How do we turn worship from a consumer activity led by a professional purveyor of all things holy (or alternatively from a social club with very little vision and direction), into something more communal and sacramental, something that points more to God than to our own safety zones and preferences?

NuDunkers will be talking about this topic in a Google hangout this Thursday at 10am EST. You can find more information here. Also check out the other blogs on this topic:

Travis Poling, The Body of Christ as Liturgical Authority
Dana Cassell, Worship and Authority
Josh Brockway, Whose Authority, Which Worship
Matt McKimmy, Respect my (lack of) authority

PS — I wrote another post on this topic a while back: “Let us pray” and authority

Be careful what you wish for…

I just got back from the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, and I find myself swimming in reflections about the shape of the church in that gathering. Here is one of those:

I often find myself among feminist and liberationist colleagues in Boston, and in those theologies there is an emphasis on egalitarian community in which all have a voice. In the Church of the Brethren, we maintain Paul’s understanding that anyone who is present within the church as it discusses is to be given a voice. Early Anabaptists called this “Sitzrecht,” translating to something like “the right of the seated.” In principle this sounds like an amazing thing — no domination, no oppressive hierarchy, no silencing of anyone, no matter their education level, their socioeconomic status, their race, or any other demographic or personality feature. We then endeavor to discern the Spirit (not our own agendas!) in the spaces between the words.

And it is an amazing thing.

But make no mistake, it takes a whole lot of faith to listen not only to those who disagree with you, but also to those who have wounded or discounted you, even to those whom you believe are just plain wrong. It takes a whole lot of faith in the God who works in mysterious ways and the Spirit who stirs creativity out of chaos when her people gather… because sometimes, in practice, it just looks like an unholy free-for-all.

This year a resolution on climate change came before the delegate body. Several of the speakers who came to the mics were people who advocated against it, who saw salvation of souls as more important than the saving of the earth, who spoke from a denial of human complicity in the wounding of the earth. This debate, more than any other this year, saddened me. And it has stayed with me.

But the more I think about it, the more I think there is hope in this. This is what true, honest, human disagreement looks like. This is the outcome of egalitarianism in practice, the result of striving to seek out and listen for that of God in every brother and sister. And this is holy because God is working in the midst of it. God never coerces us to love, because God knows that that kind of “love” wouldn’t, in fact, be love. We always have the choice to accept or reject Jesus and Jesus’ in-breaking realm. Likewise, we must allow that in other people.

This is not to say that we don’t continue to try to find the Truth and proclaim it as fully as we know how. This is also not to say that we give up the ability to lovingly hold one another accountable to Jesus-following. But it is to say that a measure of patience is required in our dealings with one another to make sure that we are not coercing one another, dragging one another along by sheer willpower or political stratagems, no matter how subtle. Hearts and minds converted by love, actions that are the result of true repentance, can never have their birth in coercion or fear.

So, as much as I would sometimes like to grab my brothers and sisters by the lapels and shake them when they don’t believe something I believe deep in my soul — to shake them until they submit — in my better moments, I know that to do so would be to do violence to the body, to deny the unsearchable wisdom of God, and to set myself up as God.

Instead, by the Spirit’s help and Jesus’ example, I will search for the voice of God in the midst of this messy egalitarianism, I will proclaim and witness to the truth I think I have glimpsed, and I will seek to open my heart, even in the midst of discussions that make me cringe. Because perhaps my sister or brother who does not agree with me will be the vehicle of my own conversion toward love. Perhaps, ultimately, we will save each other, and in doing so, carefully, faithfully, and obediently in Christ, God might use us together to heal the world.