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Archive for August, 2014

“The power of story-in-action:
reversing trauma and finding joy”
Summer Fine Arts series; August 17, 2014
For First Mennonite Church of Denver
©Vernon K. Rempel, 2014

Bible reading Numbers 23:18 – 24a

Then Balaam uttered his oracle, saying:
‘Rise, Balak, and hear;
listen to me, O son of Zippor:
God is not a human being, that he should lie,
or a mortal, that he should change his mind.
Has he promised, and will he not do it?
Has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?
See, I received a command to bless;
he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it.
He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob;
nor has he seen trouble in Israel.
The Lord their God is with them,
acclaimed as a king among them.
God, who brings them out of Egypt,
is like the horns of a wild ox for them.
Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob,
no divination against Israel;
now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel,
“See what God has done!”
Look, a people rising up like a lioness,
and rousing itself like a lion!

Let’s go down
(begin with reggae “Down to the valley…”)
Okay let’s do this a bit
(Em – first note is “B”)
The words are:
“Oh sinner let’s go down
let’s go down, let’s go down
Oh sinner, let’s go down
Down to the valley to pray

Now with a slow clap – to claps per line
and listen for the chunk
of shovels digging hopeless holes in the desert

Our movie for consideration
in connection with a few words
from old Balaam in the book of Numbers
and in connection with our lives

is Holes, directed by Andrew Davis
based on the award-winning children’s book
by Louis Sachar.

in the beginning of our movie
the camera pans over an oddly pocked landscape
a desert full of holes

at ground level,
we discover that the holes are being dug
by boys in orange prison jumpsuits

Why are they digging?
There’s something wrong
young boys digging holes
in a waterless region

there are rattlers, and worse dangers in the desert

Shoes from the sky
In our Bible reading, Balaam declares
that there is no enchantment
or divination against Israel

but there does seem to be such
enchantment and divination
against Stanley Yelnatz the 4th

It’s the 150-year-old Yelnats curse
And so it catches Stanley the 4th
as he is laconically walking
in his neighborhood

as always, trying to stay out of trouble
and, as with all Yelnats’, failing

Beautiful running shoes fall from the sky onto Stanley
like an OT revelation from the Almighty

On impulse, he picks them up and runs
so purely by happenstance,
he is running with stolen shoes

which of course is exactly what they are
and soon he will be headed for the desert
full of boys digging holes
in, as the prophet Ezekiel so succinctly puts it
“in a dry and thirsty land”

Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard transplanted by the water, fruitful and full of branches from abundant water. Its strongest stem became a ruler’s scepter; it towered aloft among the thick boughs; it stood out in its height with its mass of branches. But it was plucked up in fury, cast down to the ground; the east wind dried it up; its fruit was stripped off, its strong stem was withered; the fire consumed it. Now it is transplanted into the wilderness, into a dry and thirsty land. And fire has gone out from its stem, has consumed its branches and fruit, so that there remains in it no strong stem, no scepter for ruling. This is a lamentation, and it is used as a lamentation.
(Ezekiel 19:10-14)

Have you ever had a day like that?
When your vine, the place of your joy
your means of doing something good in the earth
has been scorched by fire

or has just dried up
and it may even seem like a family curse
as Ezekiel says “your mother”

almost like one of those “your momma…” rants
Your mother was like a vine
but now that vine of yours
that vine of your family

is dried up, cursed
it is transplanted to a dry and thirsty place
and scorched by fire

and is an instrument of lamentation
only an instrument of lamentation

Sing “O sinner, let’s go down”

150 year old curse
Stanley is falsely accused
of stealing the shoes

It’s true that it was not smart
to just pick up shoes that have fallen
and run

but he didn’t steal them
he was just walking along
“minding his own business”
as the saying goes

Now he is faced with an 18 month sentence
at a reform camp for boys
Camp Greenlake

Ironically named, since there is no lake
no green, only holes in the desert

The way the camp looks
is the way you feel
when you are falsely accused

A very minor point, but I was was accused of lying
in Child Evangelism Fellowship
in 3rd grade or so

The teacher asked rhetorically
don’t we all cuss sometimes

First of all, I didn’t know what “cuss” meant
Then when she enlightened me
good two-shoes that I was

I informed her that “no, I didn’t cuss”
she categorically informed me
that I was lying

Well, whatever
but I do remember it
because of the sizzle of the accusation

I also needed to learn to keep my mouth shut
but that’s another part of the story

The “Innocence Project”
has exonerated 317 people through DNA reexamination
18 of these were on death row

Can you imagine being put in a cell?
Can you imagine being put in a cell for
something you didn’t do?

Can you imagine waiting to be executed
for something you didn’t do?

We have probably all experienced
the false accusation, in some form
it is a form of trauma, great or small

It should at least give us a great deal of humility
in dealing with so called “offenders”
in our justice system

the swagger and pushing and berating
of what is known as the “Reid Method”
of interrogation,

that is so often seen on TV and in movies
where suspects are subjected to being
“sweated” and made to be thirsty,
tired or nervous or lonely
so that they “break”

do we really have the character and knowledge and grace
to use such a system wisely
in our criminal justice system?

According to some more recent analyses
(eg. The New Yorker, December 9, 2013)
the “Reid Method” is increasingly discredited
as a fount of false confessions and convictions.

And yet it is pervasively reflected in our cop procedurals
such as Bones, or C.S.I.

And then there is the question of incarceration
as a solution in general

In Holes, we see some of the prison tropes:
casual bullying among the population
and from the staff

from “Mr. Sir” the guard
with the really nasty little sideburns that curve forward at the bottom toward a point
and the also-nasty gold-framed sunglasses

Deprivation and cruelty as punishment
supposedly for the sake of reform

“You take a bad boy and make him dig holes all day in the hot sun. An’ it turns him into a good boy. That’s our philosophy here at Green Lake.” intones Mr. Sir.

Balaam: no enchantment or divination against…
But redemption comes to Stanley Yelnats

Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob,
no divination against Israel;
says Balaam

And what precedes that is of course
the old story recitation

God, who brings them out of Egypt,
is like the horns of a wild ox for them.

God who brings them out of Egypt,
out of incarceration and false accusation
the making of bricks without straw

like digging holes in the desert
and for what reason?

But God brings them out!
This Spirit who does not lie
because this is a Holy Spirit,
not a person,

the One, as Henri Nouwen says,
who is “free of wounds”
and so does not need to wound

the one who participates in our pain
and is wounded, and is a wounded healer,
and is healed of wounds
and heals all wounds

because of the infinity of love
that never fails, that never lacks
resource, that is like water
in a “dry and thirsty land”

the land of our traumas and hurts
and indignities great or small
into that land flows the river
of God’s love

as we offer ourselves to each other
and as let ourselves receive love

so we are healed, so we find forgiveness,
as we make amends, and others make amends
and the world is set free
from some measure of trauma

The story for Israel is freedom from slavery
in Egypt

the story for Stanley is that his great-grandfather
is able to survive in the wilderness
because of finding an oasis
in a place called
“God’s thumb”

in case we don’t get the significance of the place.
And so Stanley the 4th finds his way to survive
in the wilderness

Lynching
All very well,
but the beating heart of the trauma
and the redemption in the movie

the deep resonance of the human soul
is the story of lynching

lynching is the reason that Greenlake, Texas,
went from being a green lake with a town
and well-watered gardens
to being a dry and thirsty place

Back a couple of generations in old Texas
– forbidden love – called miscegenation!
Illegal, by the way, in the state of Virginia until 1976.

Under the social constructs of racial colors
white woman and black man
like gay and straight being absolutes distinctions
of separation and identity

The peach woman and the onion man
they love each other
A teacher and a peddler

But that doesn’t matter…
what matters is their skin color –
that’s what matters most
In the kingdom of the curse

That’s what matters in ancient Biblical Egypt,
the place of bondage
in the United States
united with a history of deep
and persistent racism

In the movie, as so often happened,
the beast comes calling, and lynching is performed,
which is popular execution of the scapegoat other,

thus keeping the soul of the town pure
keeping us clean and spotless from the feared other
whoever that may be.

James Cone has a powerful book in it –
The cross and the lynching tree
on the church and the U.S. history of lynching.

Whew! It’s a read.

So the young man is shot in his boat
full of onions and bottles of peaches
While the sheriff got drunk

Terror and force layered upon terror and force,
in the camp and in racial history

Resurrection
In the Biblical story
resurrection comes after Jesus experiences
utter forsakenness
Eloi, eloi lema sabachthani
my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In the movie
redemption comes after Stanley
and his friend Hector
come near death in the desert

and they enact friendship
beyond race and beyond all the brutalities
layered into their lives

of poverty, and homelessness, and neglect,
and meanness, and a false justice system

the enact friendship
risk for each other,
choose compassion

It is perhaps not a fully resonant answer
to all the trauma
for an adult
I found myself asking
“does that really answer lynching?”

It is a children’s story
but perhaps it is deeply resonant
because what else can we do but risk
for the sake of friendship
beyond all the prejudices and tramas?

Part of the movie’s end is deeply unsatisfactory to me.
The warden, played by the ever-amazing Sigourney Weaver
has her own back-story of trauma
being made to did

and she turns and with what’s often called
the “repetition compulsion”
does to others what has been done to her

Michael Lerner uses this analysis in the middle-east
and gets death-threats for his trouble

But she and her fellow cruel staff members
at the camp, get their comeuppance,
which is supposed to be satisfying

but I think it just perpetuates the cycle
whenever indignity is answered with indignity
and cruelty is answered with cruelty

more satisfactory to have found a paradoxical
pathway out of all the cycles of harm

then there would be true joy,
that’s the gospel of Jesus Christ, I think

to reject all strategies of revenge
and dealing of harm
and punishment

and rather to seek to find our way
together in joy and difficulty
so that all the “dry and thirsty” places among us
are watered with God’s love.

Sing a bit of “O sinner, let’s go down…”

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I think this excerpt of Merton’s writing is so powerful and important in times of deep struggle and longing for change.

Vern

LETTER TO A YOUNG ACTIVIST

By Thomas Merton

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually as you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell you the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

…The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them, but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

The next step in the process is for you to see that your even thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come, not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth; and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration, and confusion.

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand . . .

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