What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly – Richard Bach
My deepest me is God – Catherine of Genoa
To what should I compare the presence of God in the world? It’s like a tiny mustard seed someone planted in the garden; it grew and became a large bush, and the birds of the air made their nests in it. – Jesus (Parable of the Mustard Seed)
The Parable of the Mustard Seed – on the surface, a lot of us might think, “How nice! God’s presence in the world is like a tiny seed that becomes something big and provides a shelter for birds. How comforting! How wonderful for God to care for the birds, and us, like that!”
Its meaning, though, is quite the opposite to the ears of anyone planting gardens or crops in order to survive physically and economically, in our time if not much more in Jesus’ time. The last thing you’d probably want in your garden is a mustard seed. It takes over and can ruin everything! And there are all those birds – looking to your grain and veggies for food! It seems Jesus is trying to make the point that the work of love at the ground of our being isn’t about keeping life secure and comfortably familiar. It’s about spreading a kind of humility and justice that transforms everyone and everything. And it can (and will) get messy and destructive in the process.
Perhaps “deconstructive” is a better word than “destructive,” because I don’t think destroying everything was the point either. Jesus wasn’t trying to start an entirely new religion. It’s not an emotional reaction or catharsis we’re talking about here – a personal, social vindictive reaction to some frustration or brokenness – “they’re all wrong, so let’s just tear it all down!” That happens. Call it revenge or passive aggression or just plain unbridled anger. We see it in the news and social media all the time, and certainly it’s at the root of our nation’s reactionary, vitriolic behavior these days.
I had a childhood friend whose house we sometimes went to on the weekend. We’d play all-night games of Monopoly (the title says it all, doesn’t it). But, on more than one occasion, when we got close to the end of the game, and it became increasingly clear the odds were stacked against him and he was gonna lose big, he’d yell, “This game sucks!” Then he’d stand up angrily while “accidentally” rocking the card table and overturn everything onto the floor! He’d stomp off toward the TV, “Who wants to get some pizza and watch a movie?”
He destroyed everything, and it stopped the game; but it changed nothing.
And clearly, intervention is often necessary. Where we see injustice, systematic oppression, institutional greed, interpersonal abuse, the Gospel is a call to intervene and stop it! But intervention is rarely about deep change. It’s often about taking control.
Without truly changing the way we do anything, nothing will ultimately change in how we do everything.
Metanoia (the Greek word we often hear associated with Jesus – to repent, convert) is more about “deconstructing”, getting messy, like a mustard seed. It takes over, but it’s not controlling. Seems like when we try to control change, we’re right back into a zero-sum approach to life – there’s always gonna be losers (sometimes a lot of em). Because that’s the point of control. My house. My board game. My rules. My religion. My way of seeing things, even if I give in a little. As long as I’m still in control.
Metanoia is more about allowing what’s happening to take us apart, in order to open us up to something else that’s possible. It’s going to rearrange things, change the nature of the garden. It’s about seeing what’s going on in and around us that’s inviting a whole new compassionate, curious, and caring way to be in relationship with oneself, with others, and with all of life. It’s “yes/and” instead of “either/or”.
Like a caterpillar willingly entering its cocoon in order to be completely liquified and become something else. Nothing new is added to the ingredients. It’s all still there – but something completely new arises.
For the past 3 or 4 Sundays, I’ve been talking about Jesus’ teachings in light of the Heroine’s Journey. We’re mostly familiar with the Hero’s Journey thanks to Joseph Campbell’s work and the history of literature and cinematography for as long as there’s been storytelling. It’s the dominant narrative of the Western world – the protagonist experiences a disruption in the routine of his/her life and heeds this invitation to go into world and find the answer. It’s a story with a zero-sum outcome. Good versus evil. Winners and losers. There’s only one Holy Grail, and only one knight gets to take it home. Dorothy has only one task, to get back home where it’s safe. Foolish Jack must conquer the Giant to redeem himself with his mother and the villagers. Nothing changes, though. Not really.
It’s how much of the world is presented to us – competition, individualism, friends and enemies, nationalism, even with much of religion – this zero-sum way of spirituality. You either believe or don’t believe because the eternal consequences are dire. You grow or you die. Or to be a part of this community, you must believe like us, look like us, and think like us. And the better you are at it, the more esteem and success you’ll have in it.
How we do anything is how we do everything.
Of course, the other side of that zero sum heroic journey is “We’re not successful enough, wealthy enough, attractive enough, youthful enough… ” – so many people living life according to these zero-sum myths of scarcity. When so many of us carry around this way of seeing ourselves in our own small contexts (like church, work, family), it shouldn’t surprise us that it’s how our nation and world operate as well.
It takes entering the Journey of the Heroine, the willingness to listen honestly to the deeper, connective part of our lives with all of life, before we can experience the kind of metanoia where we’re willing to get messy and birth new life from the old. The mustard seed isn’t where the magic is – it’s in the shared ground of our being. Metanoia is the discomforting, reorienting path of seeing life for what it really is and who we are as a part of it all. And, like a mustard seed, it changes everything.
This Sunday, August 28, in eleven:eleven, downtown, our friend and New York comedienne Winn LaRue will be joining me to finish up this series, as we tell, read, and talk about a few humorous and thoughtful children’s stories that offer far more than simply a happy ending. They offer a glimpse into changing how we do anything in order to transform how we do everything. So bring your questions from this series, your favorite childhood story or fairy tale, and your willingness to get a little messy!
See you then!