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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Like a child: learning to walk, talk, and live in the reign of God (B27O)

On Monday, my usual day off, I try to look at the readings for the following weekend to see what I might like to post here about the connections between the liturgy and life that the readings suggest to me. Sometimes it's easier than other times. One would think, with all the hubbub about the International Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and the visit of Pope Francis last week there would be a lot to be said, but the truth is, it already has been said, and there's not much new or engaging in the conversation. One might say, I guess, that the pope's focus on such a huge stage on human kindness, mercy, and social consciousness is news insofar as he did not, like so many of his American bishops, use the media as a bully pulpit to push a narrow moral worldview on an intentionally pluralistic society. Like Jesus, Pope Francis was focused on the moral code of the reign of God, but another activity took me in a slightly different direction.

The other thing I do on Monday is try to get my first look, for my weekly presentation at parish, at the piece of James Alison's video series that accompanies his four-volume book of essays on theology called Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. If you haven't heard me speak of this before, it's a series of essays and videos intended for small group discussion on a theological system based on Rene Girard's mimetic theory, but re-imagined in such a way that it can be of great benefit to normal Christians like us who have a little trouble reconciling a vengeful, retributive God with the Father of Jesus, who have come to realize that the whole business of bible reading and interpretation is a little more complex than reading a newspaper or a novel, and who are looking for that experience like the Emmaus experience, wherein someone we know and love takes our lives, the very ones we have lived and thought we knew so well, and reinterprets them in a way that changes us and moves us outward with love.

What happened to me was the discovery in Alison of a metaphor that opened up part of Sunday's gospel for me in a way I hadn't imagined before. It's this section, near the end, which echoes last Sundays as well, with its language about the attitude Jesus had for children.
And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them,
but the disciples rebuked them.
When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them,
"Let the children come to me;
do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to
such as these.
Amen, I say to you,
whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child
will not enter it."
Then he embraced them and blessed them,
placing his hands on them.
Most of the time when I've heard these words, about becoming like children, or accepting the kingdom like a child, the words "meekness" and "obedient" get used, and pretty soon the whole thing just loses me. Of course, I blame myself for being jaded and such a hopeless "sophisticate" that I don't want to hear any of that churchspeak. Ched Myers' book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus helped me a little by suggesting that children in the world, especially in agrarian and vassal state economies before the Victorian era, occupied the lowest social strata possible, with slaves, and so the championing of their cause by Jesus was a challenge to the power structure, making the case for the equality before God of children with parents, just as he did for other kinds of outsiders like prostitutes, the lame and mute, and those "possessed by demons."

But James Alison presents an image of the child-as-receiver, as imitator, that seems to me right in line with what Jesus is talking about. In fact, it is receiving the reign of God that is at stake here, not the image of the child as such. Let me see if I can summarize a bit, because this really helped me. As far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with meekness or simplicity. It has to do with imitation, and relaxing into who we are meant to be by way of being loved by someone, Someone, who wants our greatest good.


Humans are mimetic creatures. Alison uses a phrase that, I believe, originated with Girard, that "we desire according to the desire of the other." Babies learn to walk and talk not by sitting with a computer course or being left alone in a room full of balls and rattles. They learn to walk and talk by other human beings, parents especially, but siblings and grandparents and caregivers too, who look after them closely, watch for their safety, help them get onto two legs and do dancing leg bends, facilitate their creeping along couches and tables, take them by two little hands for a few steps, then for longer and longer assisted perambulations, stand a step away with outstretched arms while the child takes her first step into a future of forays, and then keep watch along the way with encouraging sounds and occasional rescues from unforeseen obstacles. It's a process into which we are inducted into a habit of acting (walking) by people who love us and want to see us succeed. It would be impossible to do without imitating someone; we start crawling, perhaps, to get around a bit, but we wouldn't imagine getting onto two legs without knowing that other people do it, and we don't have the leg muscle strength to do it without the gradual strength built up by practice over time.

The same goes for speaking. Language is a gift that we receive from others. Language, like the other, preexists us. We receive it over time, being introduced gradually into the sounds that match the objects we desire, those things we need or want to satisfy our appetites and needs, or that we want to grasp for their sparkles, or that otherwise pique our curiosity. A child's first word is usually something truly basic: mama, dada, yes, no. We graduate to other necessities quickly: more, juice, up, remote, crême brûlée. We learn what to want by seeing it in others, we learn how to ask for it by other people teaching us how that goes.

"Whoever does not accept the reign of God like a child..." What I heard this meaning this time around, thanks to Alison's analogy about how Jesus is trying to teach us what faith is, is that we have to stop thinking that we can learn to be holy, good, clean, righteous, by following some kind of manual, whether divinely inspired or of our own device. Our idea of goodness is almost certainly idolatrous, some extension of our idea about what would be best for us and the human race, probably including the exercise of force to get others to agree to our ideas. God, and faith, isn't like that. What Jesus came to show us about faith is that God loves us, has always loved us, right in the mess and the misery that we make for each other, right in the midst of our violence and scapegoating, our fear and denial of death, and all the ways we have of trying to insulate ourselves from its reality. The ministry of Jesus, healing, reconciling, uniting, and the death he endured as a result, and the act of God raising him from the dead, are all a way of saying, "I'm not like what you imagined. I not only have seen how bad you can be, but I am here among you, I've experienced you at your worst in my own body, and I love you anyway." Look at me, says the God-parent, take baby steps my way, I'll catch you if you fall. Say "our Abba."

The gospel, the announcement of the reign of God, the evangelion of God's victory over death, is a call to listen to a parent trying to tell all of us at once to say, Mama, Papa, Abba, and to begin to allow a habit of loving imitation, without rancor, rivalry, or exclusion, of Jesus, because "whoever has seen me has seen the Father."

The idea of scandal, skandalon, a stumbling block, that entered the discourse last week and caused the litany of amputations, is the suggestion that bad example, offering a model for imitation that is not like God and therefore destructive of the human race, will result in catastrophe. In a brilliant homily last weekend given at her increasingly famous little Denver church, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber described accepting rescue by grace from our many addictions is indeed like having a part of us cut off. If you haven't seen that yet, you can read it online on the Patheos blog.

I think I'll leave it there. It's a simple insight, but I'm grateful for it, for the strange confluence of Alison's essay and the gospel for this weekend, and for the chance to share it with you.

What we're singing at St. Anne this weekend:

Entrance: I Have Loved You (Joncas), or Let the Children Come (Cooney, WLP)
Psalm 128: All the Days of Our Lives
Presentation of Gifts: New Families 
Communion: Covenant Hymn
Recessional: Lover of Us All (Schutte)