Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Village of Lunatics

Psalm 23
Mark 6:53-56
(Preached at First Congo in Memphis, July 22, 2012)

What’s happening to us? The senseless, brutal massacre on Friday morning in the movie theater at Aurora, Colorado makes us wonder what’s missing. What can we do to ensure that we aren’t in the line of fire next time? What can we do to make sure we are not the one firing the next time?  If you go to the Brady Campaign’s web-site you will find a list of mass shootings that have occurred in the United States since 2005. That list is 62 pages long. Ten mass shootings have happened in the United States this summer.

Our fears are about our safety and our identity. We’re not surprised that some people go crazy. We feel the potential for lunacy inside ourselves sometimes when the day has been too long and the pressures too great without adequate compensation. We’re shocked however at the randomness of these mass shootings and the level of violence. The shooters become something other than human. To imagine any of us losing our humanity is profoundly frightening and calls for the question: Who are we? 

And if it’s possible for people around us to become less human—is it also possible for us to become more human? 

If we get down low enough to see the ants in our own back yard we can learn some important lessons from them. Have you ever swept away an ant hill? If so- you might have noticed how that hill gets rebuilt within a matter of hours or certainly by the next day. The ants carry eggs, sand grains and food from one place to another, steadily working to save the colony and its queen. If you get down on your hands and knees, if you are willing to pay attention, you will see that the ants touch each other as they work. They stop briefly and they touch as a way to say, “I notice you and we are in this rebuilding work together.” It’s a touch of encouragement.

Recently I was lucky enough to spend a week on the island of Ocracoke off the coast of North Carolina. I was with eighteen storytellers. We talked about storytelling, told stories and listened to stories all week long. It was like a dream come true for me!

One of my new storytelling friends, Eva Morris, lives in Salisbury, North Carolina. It’s not a big city. Salisbury is a rather small southern town that has a history of trying to do the right thing, trying to take care of its own people. Eva’s family has owned and operated the downtown hardware store for three generations. Morris’s Hardware is a landmark and an institution on its own.

Eva is sixty years old now but she remembers the day in 1956 when her little brother was born. She was three years old and her mother came home from the hospital with a bundle of baby boy in her arms. His name is PB.  There was something wrong with PB, some kind of brain injury that happened at birth. Because of that brain injury the doctor told Eva’s father, “This child will destroy your family; you’ll need to put him in an institution, in a place where they know how to deal with cases like this.”

But Eva’s father had his own ideas about family. He said, “This is my son. He is our family and he will go home with us where he belongs.”  So it was that Eva first met her brother, PB.
The whole Morris family worked in the hardware store. Eva and PB both went there after school during her growing up years and PB was raised there. The whole town of Salisbury helped to raise PB. Eva’s parents organized a group of parents and town leaders who advocated for education for special needs children in the public school and they got what PB needed. 

PB is a man now. He answers the phone at the hardware store and takes orders. He’s known for his big laugh and a warm bear hug that is on the ready for anyone at any time.  
Eva tells how PB walked around town when he could no longer tolerate the phone ringing and order taking.  He had friends all over town.  For years PB had lunch downtown at the Tower Café with Charley.  Eva asked her brother, “Who is this Charley?” And PB told her that Charley was a maintenance man for the offices at the Tower. 

The one day PB fell from a ladder and broke his leg. He had to have surgery. A huge floral arrangement was delivered to the hospital room and the waiting room got a lunch delivery, enough for all the families who were waiting. The tag on the floral arrangement said, “Get well PB! Your friend, Charley.” That’s when PB’s family learned that Charley was a corporate attorney.  He came to see PB every day while PB recovered from his fall. Charley told Eva, “I learned a long time ago that having lunch with PB could keep me from going crazy. PB reminds me of the things that really matter in life.” 

The locally owned hardware business is declining. The family is closing the store now. PB lost his sight a few years ago. He had a stroke that has limited his ability to get around. So he has sitters who stay with him around the clock. PB talks on his phone to friends. Friends come to see him. They read to him and listen to music with him. Because he answered the phone and took orders for so many years at the hardware store, PB refuses to answer the phone. He calls friends and family but he never accepts their calls. Family and friends have to go see him in person if they have something to say. 

Eva was worried about how PB would take it when their father died from a heart attack. But PB handled the funeral very well. He comforted others with his laugh and his big warm hug. That night Eva sat beside PB and asked him, “Are you going to be all right with Dad gone?”
PB assured his sister he would be fine. Then he asked, “Do you think they’ll let Dad open a hardware store in heaven?”

Eva didn’t think that was likely and she said so. “Good,” PB grinned. “because I don’t want to take all those phone orders from so far away.” 

Eva sat there beside her brother and felt amazed at all he had to give, even now: blind and living with a limp right side from his stroke.  Even so there are people in town who depend on PB to help them find purpose, joy and peace. Eva realized on the night their father died that she admired her little brother more than anyone she knew. 

And as she told this story I realized I wanted to be hugged by PB; indeed, I felt as though I had been touched and hugged by PB, included in his wonderful life.

Jesus got out of the boat at Gennesaret and people recognized him. They rushed here and there as fast as they could, bringing the sick to be touched by him, to touch him. Wherever he went there were people who needed his touch and his touch was enough to heal them. 

I read this scripture and I imagine people coming to the lake with friends and family. These are people who have no cars, no cell phones, no radio or television. These are people who have heard about Jesus’ presence from neighbors and friends stopping by to tell them, face to face. These are people who dropped their routine to get busy with the real purpose of life: connecting with each other, connecting each other to healing and hope. I imagine mothers with babies on their hips, brothers with little sisters by their sides, neighbors holding hands and going door to door with faces full of  expectation. “The healer has come to our town and this is our opportunity to be touched, to become more whole.”

See? Real communication takes two people. Two real people with skin on their bones and breath in their lungs. Real hope and healing gets passed from one human being to another: face to face and voice to ear. We live so deeply connected these days to the media: television, radio and internet. We know intimate details about people who will never know one thing about us. It’s one-sided and it is not communication. Our news comes to us from screens and amplifiers—from corporations that make a profit from scaring us out of our minds and into their greedy nets, cast to catch us all and create a sense of abject fear and powerlessness.  Real communication happens when two people or more than two people come together, pay attention, listen, learn and then go out to connect what they have learned with others. This is the way to build community, to become more fully human. This is how Jesus became so well-known and how we have come to know his story and the power of his love today. 

My friend, Randall Mullins, told me about this place, a town in Belgium called Geel. I am so fascinated by its story. 

Legend has it that long, long ago in the sixth century the daughter of an Irish king became the object of her father’s affection. The queen had died and the king could find no one more perfect than his own daughter, Dimphna, to fill the emptiness in his life. With the help of the village priest, Dimphna escaped from her father’s advances. The princess found sanctuary and hid in St Martin’s Chapel outside the village of Geel, Belgium. When the king found his daughter there Dimphna chose to die rather than to submit to her father’s madness. The chapel and forest where Dimphna was martyred have come to be associated with miraculous cures from mental illness. 

Pilgrims go to the village of Geel from all over the globe. This has been going on for centuries. In the year 1749, the Church of St Dimphna was completed. Even though it is a large building where many people can be housed and treated for mental illness, it has never been large enough for all who come to Geel for a touch, for healing and for hope. The priest at the Church of St Dimphna long ago invited his parishioners and villagers to open their homes to the overflow crowd. Families opened their doors and their hearts. Mental health patients are given not only a room to stay in but a family to belong to. Geel’s Family Care Program is an integral part of the health care system in Belgium. For seven hundred years this residential care has been going on. People in the village are luny enough to adopt and value the contributions and gifts of the mental health patients who come seeking a touch and a healing. Thus Geel has come to be known as “A Village of Lunatics.” 

And from our gated and secured systems over here, an ocean away from the hospitable homes of Geel, we are not sure who we think of as the lunatics. The ones with diagnoses? Or the ones who embrace them, give them a purpose and a place to belong?  

I go down to Court Square or over to Confederate Park and I see so many of our Memphis neighbors with mental health imbalances. There they are with no purpose other than to survive another day in the Memphis heat, no place to belong other than under the shade of kindly oaks and magnolias, no touch other than the shove of an officer reminding him or her that it is against the law to sleep or urinate in the park.  We have set up a system of the haves and have nots, those who can be touched and those we avoid. This division among us is making us all crazy.

We create these wide divisions between “us” and “them” until the divisions themselves become huge problems for all of us.

I go out to the jail twice a week and sit in a circle, face to face and voice to ear with twelve neighbors, women who are living inside our county’s correctional system. They are known by a number rather than a name. They are given no meaningful work to do and they are allowed to sit day after day and stare at the television—soaking in the tawdriness of Maury and Jerry Springer. The news makes it clear to them that nothing but more crime is happening on the outside and they are right to live in an attitude of fear and defensiveness. They serve their time and get released into the streets of our city—more convinced than ever that they are not wanted, not valued, untouchable. 

If people believe that nobody cares about their story, if they are reassured time and time again that they are not important and do not have anything of value to contribute to the community then they begin to believe that they do not matter at all. And guess what? If I believe that I do not matter then I am going to also believe that you do not matter either. Because until I can experience my own human value I cannot possibly experience you as a creature of value. 

I’ve been sitting in a circle with women in our county jail for almost three years now. Ninety women have shared their stories with me and I have shared my story with them. Only a few of the class participants have not been victims of sexual abuse as young children. Some of the women in the Prison Stories circle have as many as eight children and it is not uncommon to learn that the first few children were born from a series of rapes by a family member or someone living in the house.  

The class participants come into the story sharing circle and look at each other, listen to each other and learn from each other. They build trust over a four month period as we risk telling the truth and trusting that our truth will set us free—even in jail. Caroline said it best at the close of the last Prison Stories performance. “I thought I was just a fast girl, a bad girl from the core. But in this class I have learned that I am not bad. I am a girl who has had bad things done to me. I can heal from those bad things. I never thought I could heal from being a bad girl.”

The tiny ant knows exactly what it means to be fully an ant. No lack of clarity in its instinctual behaviors. But what does it mean for us to be fully human—right here in Memphis? Can we be free enough to touch each other and trust that healing and wholeness will come from the touch? Is our faith large enough and intimate enough to allow us to become a Village of Lunatics?

Our Aztec neighbors tell this story: Long ago there was a great fire that covered the forests of the earth. People and animals were running, trying to find a place to escape the flames. Brother Owl was flying furiously when he looked over his wing and saw a small bird hurrying back and forth between the river and the fire. Brother Owl turned back toward the small bird. The small bird was clearly a lunatic. He was picking up a drop of water from the river and flying back to the flames where he let it sizzle before returning to the river for more water. “Are you stupid?” Brother Owl screeched. “You must run for your life!”

The small bird responded, “I am doing the best I can with what I have.”

Our Aztec neighbors tell the story about the forests of the earth being saved from a great fire when a small bird inspired all the birds and animals of the earth and all the earth’s people to come together and put out the flames. One drop of water at a time.