This morning I noticed a bottle of children’s chewable gummy bear vitamins in the bathroom. This, in and of itself, is not so unusual. With two girls in the house, any manner of things can spontaneously appear and disappear in the bathroom. Shrödinger would approve.
It all started just before bedtime, as most amazingly inventive children’s activities do. It seems that desperation of impending bedtimes elicit the most imaginative of creative talents out of children from time immemorial. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Having consumed their nightly portion of ursine-shaped, gelatin-delivered nutritional supplements, something rather unexpected took place. In glorious fashion rivaled only by the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the bottle magically morphed into a rugby ball.
Here is the picture: parents sitting at their respective desks in the living room, quietly reading. Mom is studiously working on a university paper. Dad is desperately working through the pages of another book, trying to get his Sabbatical reading list complete. The kids, well… the kids are screaming their fool heads off playing an impromptu game of keep away with the bottle of chewable gummy bear vitamins. If this were a toy or a book or an article of clothing, it would have quickly degenerated into an angry, name-calling, screaming match. But this was nothing of the sort. It was play, like two puppies pulling at opposite ends of a rag. The house was filled with loud peals of laughter and squealing, of playful taunts and wrestling (there may have been a suplex involved, but the ref was blocking my view). Up and down the stairs the girls tumbled. Over the couch and on top the cat. The dog, eager to get into the game, sets to barking frantically, waiting to be tagged in. Back through their bedrooms and, apparently, into the bathroom they rolled. It was explosive. It was wild and reckless. It was free. Being the parent with “It’s always fun until someone pokes an eye out” tattooed on my chest, I wait for the inevitable thwump and the resulting shriek of wounded pride. But none came. Spent and satisfied they dropped the vitamin bottle rugby match to pursue their other, more familiar hobbies like not brushing their teeth and not getting into bed.
I need an iPad, and iPhone and laptop computer with expensive software to have fun, and even with those technological marvels I’m rarely more than mildly amused. But here in my house, at 8:45 on a Sunday night, two girls wrestled with a bottle of children’s chewable gummy bear vitamins. And, behold the children called the game fun and God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the next day.
Sitting in a beautiful Catholic church sanctuary this morning, I was reminded once again about the non-negotiable, essential, life-or-death need of human beings to create art. It could have been the beautiful, extravagant cover of the copy of the scriptures sitting on the communion table, or the way in which the sanctuary was laid out by the architects in cruciform shape with the altar as the point of focus. It could also have been the eight brilliantly-colored stained glass panels that hovered above the table depicting the story of Creation. All of these details are extravagant. They aren’t necessary. They are superfluous to the gathering of people to worship. And yet, somehow, they aren’t excessive. They are manifestations of our innate human requirement to encounter the beautiful and, by extension, the divine. Song, glass, chalice, wood, color, shape – these things, too, are the spoken Word of God. And somehow these silent, yet pregnant words, become like umbilical cords that channel and ignite the divine spark of life that rests within us all. They are words that create order out of chaos and light out of darkness.
I spent the day yesterday in my youngest daughter’s room. The state of chaos there had reach epic proportions and threatened to unravel the space-time continuum. The moment had come to utter the sacred and time-hallowed command handed down to me by my father and his father before him from time immemorial. “Clean up your room.” But, that command is always easier said than carried out. The situation was beyond my daughter’s capacity to deal with on her own. So, Saturday was spent clearing out corners, drawers, and the dark places underneath the bed, sorting, donating, discarding, cleaning, and organizing. My older daughter was impressed with the outcome, so much so that she asked, “When are we going to do my room?” “Why don’t you go ahead and do it yourself?” I asked. “Because, you won’t be there to tell me to throw things away!” We forget the power of the spoken word.
That is what I love about the first Creation story. It is the reminder of God’s ongoing creative work of pushing back chaos so that order and light can exist. And you and I live in the midst of that ongoing creative work. We hear God’s life-giving words spoken into the world, commanding that the things that are decaying, broken, and corrupted be discarded so that life may have room to breathe. But we don’t merely have existence. We have life! We have color, and music, and hummingbirds, and the smell of freshly ground coffee, and topiaries shaped like dinosaurs, and Joss Whedon’s Firefly, and Bach, and bedrooms put in order again, and ice cream, and used bookstores. These things are God’s spoken word, and no less are you and I. And as such they—we—point to something beyond ourselves, namely, to the beauty that is in God, the life that is in the resurrected Christ, and the sacredness that is this Creation. Let us not, then, disrespect anyone nor anything on this wonder-filled, though deeply-fractured, place. No one is superfluous. Nothing is excessive or expendable.
For this is God’s spoken world.
Here is a picture of my beloved Peanuts lunchbox. I’ve had it since I was in the 3rd grade. This thing is metal, baby! Part food carrier, part body armor. It’s carried hundreds of peanut butter sandwiches, countless carrot sticks, dozens of those little boxes of raisins (that you had to completely tear apart in order to get the last of the raisins that stubbornly stuck to the bottom), and gallons of 2% white milk (some of which I actually drank). While other kids smugly unpacked their bologna sandwiches from their machismo-inspired Dukes of Hazzard and Knight Rider lunch boxes, I secretly knew that my lunchbox was of far superior quality. So what if I read the 6 comic strips printed on the box about 10,000 times?! My box promoted art and literature which would surely pay me rich dividends of a more cultured lifestyle in the future. Still waiting on that, by the way.
My Peanuts lunchbox (which you are all secretly coveting right now, don’t deny it) came to mind today while listening to a podcast during which Bill Watterson was mentioned. Most of you probably are familiar with that name. He’s the creator of the wildly popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. He’s also very well known for being something of a recluse. For the most part, Watterson has shunned media attention much to the frustration of millions of fans who see him as a kind of rock star for nerds. But, for some, what is even more perplexing about him is that he has refused to license his comic strip characters to merchandisers and movie producers. There are no officially licensed Calvin and Hobbes stuffed toys, no T-shirts, no video games, no lunch boxes being made that legally carry art from his comic strip. Unlike Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, and Jim Davis, creator of Garfield—both of whom have received much criticism for “selling out”—Bill Watterson has stubbornly refused to sell merchandise. In an interview with Comics Journal in 1989 Watterson said, “If you stick thirty Hobbes dolls on a drugstore shelf, you’re no longer talking about a character I created. At that point, you’ve transformed him into just another overpriced knickknack. I have no interest in turning my characters into commodities. If I’d wanted to sell plush garbage, I’d have gone to work as a carny.”
Now, I’m not preaching the virtues nor decrying the evils of merchandising. But there’s something powerful about Watterson’s resoluteness in keeping his art the main thing. Because, when it comes to any endeavor, goal, or vocation, it’s easy to lose track of what got you started in the first place. And when you lose that sense of purpose and passion, the momentum and clear sense of calling goes out the door.
So I’m asking myself, Why did I get into this whole pastoring thing in the first place? Because that sense of calling and purpose can get quickly lost and replaced by distractions and worries. For pastors this often comes in the form of attendance worries, financial concerns, professional future, interior and exterior sources of unrealistic expectations. At a recent gathering which included some dear friends from seminary, the question was often put to me, “So, how do you like your sabbatical? How’s it going?” And I have to be honest: there is something really scary for me about not going to the church office every day and the sanctuary every Sunday. If I’m not there, will the things get done?! I must do all the things! And then I remember that it wasn’t about the things that initially drew me to church ministry. It was community, a group of misfits and outliers getting together and trying to make sense of what it means to follow Jesus in a beautiful but flawed world. I got into it to communicate what I believe to be the central message of the Bible: God welcomes broken people into the life of God to make something wonderful in the world. At this halfway point in my sabbatical, I’m far enough away from the day-to-day of ministry to see this a little more clearly, and close enough to it again to anticipate returning. And this, too, is a gift from God. So, this is my primary purpose, my main thing. What’s yours?