Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Save My Place in the Strange Parade

Have you ever wondered what sort of mood God (or the divinely appointed design committee) was in when he created the giraffe Or what about when he/she decorated (after all, we are talking about interior decorating here) the zebra and the clown fish? Sometimes, I think they were just in for a good laugh, hence the duck-billed platypus. Or maybe it was at the end of that long sixth day (Genesistically-speaking), and he was running short of whatever cosmic playdough he used to create animals, and decided that just one spot of red would have to do. And then only periodically. Viola! The female baboon.

Maybe he let an apprentice creator work on the elephant and she made his nose way too long, but God didn't want to hurt her feelings so he just let the elephant be--way too long nose and all. Just in case the elephant got to thinking all animals with tusks should have long noses, he took the warthog he was working on and slammed that clay figure into the wall, so that its nose ended up two inches from its brain. Then he breathed life into both of those creatures, put them gently into the same neck of the veld behind a few baobab trees, and stood back to watch. The first time and elephant and a warthog spied each other, they both did a double-take and said, "What on earth . . . ." I bet they walked away from each other that first time just shaking their heads in disbelief, those big elephant ears a-flopping, that pea-brained warthog mind a-churning: "What on earth was that? And what is it doing here?"

I have a hunch He did that on purpose. I know zoologists say that each creature evolved in a way perfectly suited for its particular environment in order to maximize food gathering and progeny making activities in a formula inversely proportional to enery output. (Or something like that). But this is my story, my creation myth that helps me make sense of my world.

I think these weird and wonderful, bright and beautiful creatures that found their way onto this earth during those fifth and sixth adaptive periods were more than just economically-advantageous mutations. They were and are signs and symbols, metaphors and mirrors of just what is needed to be "good." Together, the long and the short, the black and the orange, the billed and the spined were good, so "very good" (Gen.1:31)

Contradiction and opposition are "a natural part of the human experience, something God uses for his redemptive purposes. Life is full of polarities and is made full by them. We struggle with them, complain about them, even try sometimes to destroy them with dogmatism or self-righteousness or a retreat into the innocence that is only ignorance." I think about this statement often. Ruminate on it. Bring it back to chew on when I've come headlong into another's obstinacy, or stubborness, or sheer refusal to see things my way. "You," I think to myself, trying not to let my eye go squinty to give away my chagrin,"are my opposition. And I am yours. You and I together might just redeem each other."

In particular, I am often left quiet and squinty-eyed when it comes to my local congregation and the people who sit next to me in the pews, who teach my children and organize activities for my teenagers. You see, I worship in a neighborhood church. I go to church with many of the people who live around me. I'm coming to believe that participating fully in my faith's local congregation just might have the most to do with making me truly Christian.

A few years ago, I worshipped along side Donna, my neighbor before she left the area. Donna and I spoke most easily to each other when we were down on our knees--in mulch. I didn't really see her in the winter, except when she played the piano for the choir. I could hear her practicing on her gleaming black grand, notes spilling through her vertical blinds onto the snow. In the spring our thoughts turned to annuals and container plantings and whether the willow tree needed pruning so that the sprinklers can reach the northwest sliver of grass. We shared discoveries of unusual colored gazanias at Sun River Nursery, and discussed whether a fruit tree might look good demarcating our shared strip of lawn between the two homes.

One Sunday morning, we're sitting in adult Sunday School discussing what our individual responsibilities are to those around us, particularly the poor. I'm of the philosophy that you give without judging whether or not the recipient deserves to receive. You give if you have. As far as I'm concerned, the measure is taken of the giver, not the receiver. I give an impassioned speech about the earth being full, about there being enough and to spare, about taking no thought for the morrow, about seven loaves and two fish, and mystical multiplication plus godly leftovers.

Donna raises her hand from across the room and says in her measured tones, "Now we have to be careful about what we give. People sometimes make bad decisions. They're where they are because they choose themselves into that place. They need to learn to stand on their own to feet. You can't change somebody until they want to change. Sometimes its best not to help at all." I had to concentrate to keep my mouth closed, and my eyes wide open. My pea-brain warthod mind churning, "What on earth Donna! What kind of creature are you and what are you doing here, worshipping with me?" I thought we were kindred spirits, gardeners who wanted nothing more than a full blooming perennial border with annual containers of orange zinnias for all of God's creatures. My neighbor, unbeknownst to me, is an elephant with her trunk firmly wrapped around Ronald Reagan's version of Christian charity.

I could dismiss Donna's comments out of hand as a complete misreading of one's communal duties. But that would mean dismissing her entirely. It would mean removing any space within my heart and my life in which she could stand unassailed. It would mean that only people like me are really members in full intellectual fellowship. Seems a little monochromatic. So, I have to expand my notion of what is acceptable in God's kingdom. I have to learn to embrace difference--not just in the easy outer indicators, but in actual bedrock philosophy. I have to come to believe, actually believe and make adjustments because of that difference, that both Donna and I are worthy for the kingdom, that there's space there for both of us, and that we are both absolutely necessary.

This mental work of recognizing and allowing for fundamental opposites is perhaps some of the hardest soul work I will ever do. I would expect such opposition from say, a card-carrying member of the NRA (oh wait, my brother-in-law has a concealed weapons permit), but from somebody who worships in the same chapel I do, reads from the same holy books, and prays to the same God. . . . It's like seeing that elephant come drifting ponderously across a warthog horizon. It's a meeting that shakes what I've held to be true; that forces me to examine my closely held beliefs; that makes me realize that perhaps what I hold to be self-evident is, perhaps, self-created and evident only to myself. And ultimately causes me, if I am willing, to expand, beyond certainty, into good.

(Title: Marc Cohn, Join the Parade.)


  1. Thanks Tessa. I love this. It resonates with me.

  2. Hi Emily,

    Thanks for reading. Still new at this, but hoping to make it something that keeps me thinking and moving forward.