Seeing Our Children Whole

Jesus Looked Up  by Hannah Garrity

a reflection on Luke 19:1-10

I wonder how our friend Zaccheus, in his later years, might have told the story of this remarkable day. I wonder if he spent all the rest of his days trying to find words that would capture the delight and astonishment he felt at being seen up there in that tree and singled out by Jesus. Surely his neighbors found themselves telling this story for many years to come. And I am pretty sure that Zaccheus himself was as surprised as anyone by this turn of events. Zaccheus the tax collector: a man who had grown accustomed to being defined by his job; a man who had grown accustomed to being boxed into a category, his uniqueness overshadowed by his social position. Surely, no one is more surprised than Zaccheus himself when Jesus sees him up in that tree and calls him out for a great and unexpected honor.

What is it that Jesus sees in Zaccheus? What potential does Jesus see in this man that others have failed to notice? Somehow, Jesus looks up into that tree and sees this man whole. Somehow, Jesus is able to see beneath the surface of Zaccheus’ life; to look beyond his reputation and his job and see who Zaccheus really is: a unique, irreplaceable child of God. And in that instant, when Zaccheus is truly seen, maybe for the first time, everything unravels for him. Everything he once knew about himself, about his job, about his neighbors’ opinions of him — all of this unravels when he is seen. In that instant, Zaccheus’ old identity falls away, and the truth of his essential self — the self he was created to be — comes down out of the tree for all to see.

This season, as so many of our own identities, customs, and communal practices are unraveling around us, we are looking to our ancient stories for wisdom and support. Here in our ancient texts, we encounter characters who, just like us, find that when their own lives and roles begin to unravel, that very unraveling makes room for God to work in and among them in new and surprising ways. 

If you want to see the surprise and delight on Zaccheus’ face, I think you’ll find both in the painting by Hannah Garrity that depicts today’s gospel story. In this work of creative imagination, the painter invites us to notice how Zaccheus’ face lights up as he sees his true self reflected in Jesus’ loving eyes. And as this painter reflects on the healing power of being seen, she discovers a connection to her own work as a middle school teacher. Here is Hannah Garrity’s own reflection on what happens when her students feel truly seen:

I teach middle school art. I have spent this school year testing the waters. Each day I try a new collection of inputs for various situations. The most effective one is to stop in at every single student’s seat to have a personal conversation with them. In these conversations, I reiterate the assignment, glean information about what the student plans to do, and answer any questions. The byproduct is positive productivity. Is it because I’ve shown that I care? Is it because I’ve clarified the expectations? Is it because I simply acknowledged their existence in the room? Is it because I saw them?  -Hannah Garrity

As I read this teacher’s reflections on the power of being seen, I find myself wondering what her students would say about what happens to them in Ms. Garrity’s classroom. I wonder if, like Zaccheus, they are even now searching for words to describe how it feels to have someone really see them and hear them, not just as a category (“tax collector,” “middle schooler”) but as a unique and uniquely gifted individual.

If you’ve been worshipping with us for a while, you’ll know that here at First Congregational Church, on the first Sunday of the month, we celebrate all-ages worship, keeping our children with us for the entire worship service. It’s part of a very intentional practice in which we create a community where children are seen, and heard, and welcomed as the unique individuals that they are. And I believe that there is no more important work for any church community than to create a place where trusted adults practice seeing every child in their wholeness. A community in which trusted adults see and name and reflect back to our children the unique gifts that each one brings to the world. 

Beloved, as we worship in many different places this first Sunday of the month, I am acutely aware of the fact that our children are sorely missing the weekly gift of seeing and being seen by us. And as we make our way toward the start of the school year, I am praying daily for the teachers and school administrators who are working long hours right now to reimagine what school will look like this fall, in the midst of a global pandemic. I hope you will join me in grateful and loving prayer for all the teachers and educators right here in Salem and all around the country, as they imagine and create so many different kinds of educational experiences for students who have a great diversity of needs.

And, of course, I am praying for parents who may need to decide, very soon, whether returning to school will be the right choice for their children, all of whom have unique and individual health needs, social needs, and educational needs. 

I’d like to suggest that in addition to our prayers, we might also help our parents, teachers, and kids by making a commitment this season to see our children whole. To see them as Jesus sees Zaccheus this day, as the particular souls that they are, each with their own unique gifts to bring to the world. Of course, some of us aren’t able to physically be with the children in our lives in person right now. But what if we can still see them from afar, by really recognizing their essential selves, their unique and irreplaceable gifts and needs? What if our own clear seeing of the children we love might help their parents make crucial choices this season about what is best for their particular children? Whatever else happens in the weeks ahead, there will be new choices to make. Will school be online or in person, or a combination of both? Do I send my children back to school, or would they be safer right now learning at home? And if this child is staying at home, what kind of learning would be best for this unique being who has been entrusted to my care? These are sacred questions, friends. Questions that will help us all, in the months and years ahead, to nurture the souls of all the children in our care and in our communities. 

Over the past few weeks, I have been pondering all these questions with my friend Meredith, who has spent much of her professional life thinking about how to meet the learning needs of children and youth. In the past few weeks, she has created a list of questions that might help us all see the children in our lives more clearly, and help us make decisions about the school year ahead. I want to share these questions with you here, in hopes that you will share them with anyone in your life who is making important decisions about their children’s schooling right now. Whether or not you are involved in making decisions about the school year ahead, I invite you to prayerfully consider these questions, because I believe they are the kinds of questions that can help us see all our children whole…

  • What does your child miss about school? What does she not miss?
  • What do you miss from when your child was in school? What are you relieved to be rid of?
  • Is there anything that has become possible that was not possible before?
  • Is there anything your child has been interested in that there has never been time to explore with them?
  • What is helpful for your child to have in his days?
  • What is important to him?
  • How much physical activity does your child need?
  • How is your child different from you? What do you admire about them?

As Meredith points out, you can consider these questions yourself, and perhaps also invite your child to ponder them as well. This would be fertile ground indeed for conversation with the children in your life. If you’d like to read more about this process of reflection, you can read the full article, “Finding What Matters,” here:

Beloved, I wonder if there is a child in your life who is spending these long summer days in the branches of a tree? What secrets might that tree be whispering to her tree-loving soul? Or maybe, even as you read this, there is a child who is busy wrapping your sofa in kitchen twine. What kind of beauty might his unique artist’s soul be longing to offer the world?

As we make our way from summer into fall, may we watch and listen for who God is calling each of our children to be. May all our children be seen, and known, and abundantly loved into the fullness of their own beautiful souls. Amen.

Her Nightmare, and Ours

Rizpah Mourns Her Sons by Lauren Wright Pittman

For all my adult life, I have been an eager student of dreams. For many years now, I have studied the great dream traditions of the world as well as the practice of interpreting dreams in a way that brings healing and wholeness to our individual and collective lives.  To this day, dreamwork is one of the most important spiritual practices in my own life and in the lives of those who come to me for spiritual direction and guidance. And of all the things I have learned about dreams over the years, none is more important than the spiritual value of nightmares.

That’s right. Nightmares. Just to be clear: I do not enjoy the experience of a nightmare any more than you do. In the midst of a nightmare, I too wake up drenched in sweat, filled with grief and dread and sometimes real terror. But over the years, I have come to understand that every dream comes in the service of wholeness. And if we have been neglecting that wholeness; if we have been ignoring the more subtle, daily messages from our souls, then a nightmare will come to startle us into attentive awareness. If we have been asleep to our own soul’s deep needs or to the needs of our collective soul, then the nightmare will come, like an honest friend, to wake us up.

What’s more, nightmares come to us not only at night, when we are alone with our individual dreams, but also through our sacred texts. I believe that all the world’s sacred scriptures, in fact, can be seen as our collective dream: a story that, just like our nighttime dreams, communicates through symbol and metaphor; a story that comes to show us the path of healing and wholeness; a story that, at times, must confront us with painful images in order to awaken us to injustice, to cruelty and neglect, and to the misuse of power — before it’s too late.

And so it is that we find ourselves confronted this day with the nightmare of our foremother Rizpah. A woman whose life has unravelled into the realm of full-blown nightmare and who insists that in order to heal our own lives, we must be willing to see and hear her. In order to awaken to our own call in the world, we must see and hear the nightmare of this woman’s pain. A woman has no status or power. A woman whose body and soul are used, and abused, by the men who all but own her. And now we hear that even her sons have been taken from her:  murdered at the decree of a ruler who sacrifices the lives of innocent young men in order to try and shore up the economic well being of his nation and solidify his own power.

Friends, this particular nightmare from our sacred text does not unfold on the streets of Portland or Minneapolis or New York. But if this mother’s story sounds disturbingly familiar this summer, it’s because the Bible is the record of our own collective dream. Rizpah’s nightmare of economic injustice; of women and poor people being used and tossed away by their own government; of a social hierarchy that crushes innocent lives — this is the very nightmare to which the privileged among us are only now beginning to awaken. Rizpah’s story is the very nightmare that our black and brown sisters and brothers are living every day, even now. If ever there were a story for our own time, a story that can mirror for us the nightmare of our own tortured psyche, the story of Rizpah is that mirror. And today, our sacred text, our ancient dream, asks us whether we are willing to see ourselves in this holy mirror. Today, our mother Rizpah asks whether we are willing to let her nightmare wake us up.

One of the things that makes dreams such powerful tools for awakening is that they operate through images. Much like paintings and other forms of visual art, dreams bypass the skillful denials and rationalizations of our everyday verbal mind. Instead, images speak directly to the soul’s capacity to make meaning from metaphor and symbol. So today, I invite you to enter into this ancient text through the doorway of visual imagery as we spend some time with an artist’s rendition of this story. This opportunity to open the scripture with images is one of the beautiful gifts of this strange season. In our church sanctuary, it is very challenging to project an image in such a way that everyone can see it. But here in our own homes, we have the opportunity to let visual images lead us more deeply into the text. So I invite you now to take a close look at the painting Rizpah Mourns her Sons by Lauren Wright Pittman.

I wonder what part of this painting captures your attention first. For me, it is the enormity of Rizpah’s pain. A pain she refuses to hide. Beloved, this is not a silent grief. This is a grief, an anguish, that demands to be seen. It demands that those who are responsible for the death of this mother’s sons reckon with their deeds every time they see her. And see her they will. Because rather than slinking home to mourn, Rizpah has taken up her sackcloth and climbed the very mountain of God. And there she stays. “From the beginning of the harvest until the rains fell on them.” In the holy land, friends, this is something close to six months. Imagine. Six months of unrelenting civil disobedience in the most public place she could find. Six months of unspeakable anguish on display for all to see. Nothing can bring back the seven sons this woman has lost. All she has left is her unspeakable grief. All she has left are the lifeless bodies of her children. And she is prepared to defend those bodies–blood of her blood, flesh of her flesh–with her life. For six months her grief and rage are on display for all to see: the ancient world’s equivalent of a televised public vigil. For six months, she camps on that mountain,  refusing to go home and hide; refusing to back down until she is seen. Remember that Rizpah is a woman with no power, no money, no status, no legal recourse to right the wrongs that have unravelled her life. The only power she has is the power to make herself visible; the power to make the world see her in her grief and in her rage. And so, Rizpah seeks justice the only way she can: with a radical, desperate act of public grief. And finally, after six months, the king sees her. 

Finally, after six months, David sees this woman in her raw, unspeakable grief. Finally, after six months of public protest, the king recognizes the wrong he has done. Only then, when he is forced to see both himself and this woman clearly, is David moved to make an act of reparation. Only then does the king realize the error of his ways: God does not demand human sacrifice. David got that dead wrong. In the metaphorical language of our shared dream, God sends the waters of new life only when some kind of reparation has been made. God sends the waters of new life only after David realizes the error of his ways and — so little…so late — acts to honor the bones, and the memory, of those whose lives have been lost forever.

And so it is that across space and time, we are asked to receive the painful gift of this nightmare. A nightmare that comes, as all nightmares do, as a wake-up call. A nightmare that comes to remind us of the power of public grief. The sacred nightmare of a mother who demands justice for her sons and who insists that we see her pain as a prerequisite to our collective healing. A nightmare in which God sees the pain of the most vulnerable. A nightmare in which God calls us to  do the same, so that we too might change our ways. May we be awakened this day. Amen.

Out of the Boat

Step into the Swell  by Lisle Gwynn Garrity

a reflection on Matthew 14:22-33 for a season of rough waters…

Imagine, for a moment, that you are out in the middle of a big lake. You’re out on that lake with your friends in a fishing boat—just a little one that somebody’s uncle made. There you are in a small boat out in the middle of a big lake when all of a sudden, the sky goes dark and a storm comes up. Next thing you know, the wind is blowing so hard that no matter how hard you row, you can’t get any closer to shore. The waves are crashing over the sides of the boat now, and your friends are taking turns rowing and bailing, rowing and bailing, each one thinking the same dark thought: you may never make it back to land. And there in that boat, you see it all unravelling: your life, the lives of the ones you love, all the bright and beautiful plans you had for your life, all dashed to pieces by a storm you never planned for. I don’t know about you, but these days, when I hear this story, I can’t help but think that perhaps we humans are in a similar boat, all of us bailing as fast as we can, wondering when this storm will be over. 

But back to that lake. Just as you’re about to give up hope, something, or someone, begins to make its way toward you, walking across the waves. Something that looks like a ghost. Something that looks even more terrifying than the storm. Until suddenly… you realize who it is. Sure enough, it’s Jesus, calmly striding across the surface of the lake. 

So here’s the $64,000 question: What will you do? Remember that the waves are still crashing; the wind is still howling. Do you call out for help? Do you pray? Do you invite Jesus into the boat? 

All of those sound like pretty good ideas to me. But if you’re Peter, you have a different idea. If you’re Peter, you decide to step out of the boat and take a stroll yourself. 

Who does that? In the middle of a storm, while your little boat and all your friends are about to go down, you decide to get out and walk? I’m pretty sure that the Safe Boating Handbook published by the Holy Land Coast Guard does not recommend this course of action.

So, what in the world could Peter have been thinking? 

Friends, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t. I’m convinced that at this moment, Peter isn’t thinking at all. At least not with the rational mind we use every day—the cautious, logical mind that knows very well that a human being cannot walk across the surface of a lake. 

At this moment—who knows why?—Peter slips out of his cautious, everyday mind. And when he does, he suddenly realizes beyond any doubt not only who Jesus really is, but who he, Peter, really is: ONE with GOD. One with God! In that moment, Peter knows the astonishing fact that there is no separation, no distance, between himself and God. And in that sure knowledge, he steps out of the boat and strides across the waves. 

As Jesus himself might explain it, what happens to Peter in this moment is that he steps into the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, as Jesus tells us many times, is not somewhere far away; it’s not some place we go to when we die; in fact, it’s not a place at all.  For Jesus, the kingdom of God, the realm of Heaven, is right here, closer than our own breathing. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is a state of mind, a state of consciousness, in which we know beyond any doubt that just like Jesus, we too are one with God, one with each other, and one with the power of life flowing through all of creation—the power of God’s own life that is now flowing through our bodies and lifting our feet above those waves!

What kind of a shift does it take to enter the kingdom of God? The answer may surprise us, but it’s right here—it’s all right here in this little boat if we take a close look at what happens at the very end of this passage. The disciples see Jesus walking across the water, they see Peter do the same, and they decide right then and there what to do: They worship Jesus! They bow down and worship him. Which is a tempting thing to do, especially when we are afraid. So tempting that the institutional church has encouraged this activity for the better part of two thousand years. Which is a little strange. It’s strange because, as we know, Jesus never thought much of institutional religion. In fact, he spent his whole life trying to teach us that religious institutions and rigid religious traditions serve to prevent us from directly encountering the liberating, life-giving, presence of the living God. 

This worshipping reflex is also a little strange because we know that never—not once, not ever, not in any Gospel—does Jesus say “worship me.” Never. What he does say is “Follow me.” Follow me. Be as I am: one with the living God. And of all the disciples, it is only Peter who dares to take Jesus at his word. It is Peter who dares to leap out of that rickety boat—the very human boat of habit and fear—and actually follow the Christ of God into the state of Oneness. Oneness with God, with neighbor and stranger, and with all of creation, including those waves.

For Peter, and for us, moments like this are the high points of our individual and collective journeys; moments when we suddenly find ourselves in the kingdom of God—a state in which the center of our consciousness escapes the tiny boat of the small, individual mind and flies into the larger Mind of God: the state of consciousness that  Paul calls the Mind of Christ, and that turns out to be our own right mind.

And…then we forget. Sometimes in mid air. Sometimes not until we are safely back on land. But sooner or later, we fall back into our much more familiar, and much smaller, everyday mind. This is the egoic, or dualistic, mind: a state of consciousness in which we are always on the alert for difference, separation, and danger. Neuroscience calls this smaller mind the “reptilian brain,” and tells us that it is the job of this part of the brain to keep watch for anything that might threaten our survival. Ancient and primal, this is the mind of fear, the mind our earliest ancestors relied on to survive, and the mind we slip into as our default state of consciousness. Without our conscious effort, attention, and deep spiritual practice, we see our world through the lens of the often paranoid and always suspicious egoic mind: a mind that is constantly dividing the world into “us” and “them;” a mind that is constantly urging us to defend whatever it is we think we own.

And so, in the wake of our glorious leaps into the kingdom of God, religious people fall back into egoic mind and then frantically get to work: developing doctrines, making rules about right and wrong belief, making rules about who may and who may not join us at the communion table. Even in the wake of our encounter with Jesus—the teacher who spent his whole life breaking down the rigid walls of religious tradition and habit—even in the name of Jesus, Christians have gone on to build religious institutions to try and protect that stunning, miraculous insight we had into the very heart of God. 

The problem, of course, is that the systems we create with our profoundly dualistic egoic mind are directly opposed to the very nature of the God we have encountered and whom long to meet again. The God we keep meeting out there on the  afternoon lake is not, after all, the possessive, tribal God our ancestors once presumed. Rather, the God who keeps finding us is the God whom our deepest, most shocking insight tells us is profoundly One: the undivided, indivisible God of all creation. A God who can never be contained in any institutional or doctrinal boat. Just try and imagine Jesus being content to spend his life inside the tiny boat of religious doctrine. Any doctrine! On the contrary, the Christ who calls us over the sides of our boats is the One who is always one step ahead of us, calling us to let go of everything we thought we knew about ourselves and the world; the One who leads us out of our rickety boat of belief and habit; a Christ who calls us to join him out on the water, and who loves us right through the fears that contain our safe, small lives. 

And that’s why, even though organized religion gets it wrong so often, it’s also true that all the world’s religious traditions, somewhere in their tool kits, offer spiritual practices designed to sweep us out of the isolation of the egoic mind and into the liberating power and joy of our oneness with God, with each other, and with all of creation. 

In Christian tradition, some of our most powerful spiritual practices are those acts that we recognize as sacraments: physical acts that invite us to experience our fundamental oneness with God in and through the material body of the world and our own physical bodies. For instance, the sacrament of baptism. Tamed to a trickle from an indoor font, it may not look like an act of union with the waters of the world. But remember that baptism began as an immersion in—an ecstatic reunion with—the rivers and lakes and oceans of the earth. Following Jesus back to the water, we are invited to leap once again out of our habitual mind of separation and fear, and into a deep experience of oneness with God, with other human beings, and with all of creation. 

What Peter knows as he leaps out of that boat is that our bodies can recognize our oneness with God in ways that our everyday mind can never comprehend or explain. And it is the great insight of Christianity to understand that our communion with God and one another must, by necessity, circumvent the logic of the rational mind and plunge us into an experience of union by way of the physical body. The way of sacrament.

But first, we have to step out of the boat. Or, perhaps, the boat itself has to fall apart. Either one will do. Either way, we are invited, this season and always, to step out beyond our familiar habits of thought and action. Out into the body of the world. Follow me, whispers the Christ of God, even as our boat is tossed by the waves. Be as I am, Jesus whispers. Know that you, too, are One: with God, with your neighbor, with all of Creation. Throw yourself overboard into the arms of grace. I’ll catch you, he whispers. Fall in! Fall in!