“Draw the Circle Wide”

With Alice (our six-year-old) I have been reading Beverly Cleary’s books about Ramona and her co-conspirators. One of those characters is Henry Huggins. What Henry wanted most, at age 10, was to have his own paper route. Unfortunately, he could not get a job delivering The Journal until he turned 11. As Henry’s birthday finally approached, a new boy moved in. Murph was a genius; all the kids watched him construct a robot named Thorvo in his driveway. Murph already had a job delivering The Journal so he transferred his route the new neighborhood, and again, there were no openings for Henry. Murph was really smart but he had no idea how to deal with four-year-old Ramona. She would not stop interfering with his route. After Murph had methodically delivered the papers Ramona would follow behind, gathering them up. She skipped along and dropped them at random wherever she please. When Murph confronted her, she said “I am a paper boy. I have to deliver papers.” When he tried to make her stop, she kicked and screamed and had what her family called “a great big noisy fit.” Ramona’s antics eventually caused Murph to resign, and Henry finally got his own paper route. Of course, now Henry had to cope with the problem of Ramona. Cleary describes the moment:

Henry glared at Ramona and thought hard. The thing to do was outwit her. But how? Somehow, [Henry realized], he had to keep [Ramona] from pretending she was a paper boy. What could he do? And all at once, Henry had an inspiration. Henry ran home and gathered supplies – a box, some wire, a pair of scissors, his mother’s lipstick. Out of this stuff, he quickly made Ramona a robot head. “How would you like to be a mechanical man like Thorvo?” he asked. Ramona beamed. There was nothing she liked better than pretending. Henry relaxed and set the head on her shoulders. “Now remember,” he cautioned. “A mechanical man can’t move very fast, and he jerks along when he walks.” That was to keep her from getting any ideas about being a robot who delivered papers. “Clank, clank,” answered Ramona, jerking down the steps. (Henry and the Paper Route, pp. 186–189)

The way that Henry related to Ramona kept coming to mind as I pondered today’s reading from Romans. To contemporary ears this passage sounds a bit absurd. Paul’s statement: “The weak eat only vegetables” makes me laugh out loud. Personally, I admire my vegetarian friends, and strive to be more like them. And, then there’s the hypocrisy: Paul’s statements about eating are quite judgmental, even as he preaches non-judgement. And yet, Paul’s questions seem incredibly relevant right now. “Who are you to pass judgement?” and “Why do you pass judgement on your siblings?” Here, Paul echoes the teaching of Jesus: “Judge not, lest you be judged.”

So, back to Henry for a moment. At first, like Murph, he approached Ramona with judgement. The paper route was his; she should go away and leave him alone. He would force her to do so. However, Henry quickly realized that a power struggle was going to end in defeat for him. So he backed away from judgement, and looked for a way to meet Ramona with empathy and compassion. He gave her something she wanted (a new avenue for pretend play), and she gave him something he wanted (the chance to deliver his papers in peace).

This illustration helps me think about the difference between discernment and judgement. I don’t think Paul and Jesus are advocating for an “anything goes” philosophy. They aren’t trying to say there’s no right and wrong. Judgement is not just about believing someone else is mistaken. Judgement is a knee-jerk reactivity that cannot listen to someone else’s perspective. Judgement lacks love; it refuses to see an adversary as a person. Judgement is about power, the power to enforce the rightness of our own views, the power to punish someone else for thinking or acting differently than we do.

As fires and storms rage, as the virus distances us and political parties battle, as cities again explode with protest and uprising, as our households struggle to stay healthy in body, mind and spirit, it sometimes feels as if the whole world is being engulfed in a giant ball of fear and rage. I was struck by what Council Member Steve Fletcher had to say about the events that unfolded in downtown Minneapolis on Wednesday.

The destruction is awful. It’s painful to see businesses already stretched to or beyond their breaking points by COVID sustain this kind of damage. It’s devastating to see some community members’ pain turn to self-destructive choices. Trauma compounds trauma in a cycle we must disrupt. The level of community trust in our system of public safety is unsustainably low. We cannot pretend that if there had been a few more officers on the scene, if we’d embraced the status quo, this could have been contained. We are paying the price for decades of failure to reform our system into something that people can trust. There’s no going back to the way things were. For generations, we’ve maintained a public safety approach that has only worked for some, and that we can see in real time is no longer working for anyone.[1]

The fact is, all the systems that are supposed to help us live together with safety, health and justice are broken. These systems are flawed in fundamental ways by their own design. They have helped to sustain deep and painful inequities. They have facilitated the abuse of the vulnerable and of the earth. These systems are simply inadequate to meet this moment. And so we are engulfed in the chaos of their crumbling. And, as we watch this disintegration, we are well aware that we have not yet imagined, let alone begun to build, new ways of living together. At a time of like this, a time of extreme stress, fear is normal. Fear can even be constructive, if we can use it well. Fear can feed judgement. Or it can fuel empathy and compassion. Fear can drive us to silence dissent and smother uprising. Or it can serve as a warning sign and a wake-up call. Fear can drive us into hiding, or it can prepare us for change and growth.

We gather to pray with hymns for a brief time every Monday night at 8 pm. Our leader, Sandy, has been choosing hymns from the previous week’s service. Last Monday, she chose “Draw the Circle Wide.” She pointed out this line, that imagines God’s role and place in the world: “God the still-point of the circle, ‘round whom all creation turns.” It strikes me that when we engage in judgement, we attempt to take God’s place, to make ourselves the center of the circle. Paul insists that when we humans judge one another, it has destructive consequences. And yet, God’s judgement gives life. God’s judgement of us is rooted in love and intimate belonging. This is what I hear in Paul’s statement: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” God’s judgement does not come from a place of separation, on high. God holds us accountable as members of God’s own body, as a part of God’s own self.

Today’s Gathering Words by the poet, theologian and peace-maker Padraig O’Tuama, suggests that our imagination is a path to encounter Jesus. In his book In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World, O’Tuama says that praying with images grew out of his own journey of learning and seeking healing. “The more I learnt about Ignatius”, he says, “and the more I experienced psychotherapy, the more I began to trust these images, not as Polaroids fresh from Jesus, but as yearnings of the intuition.” (p. 69) It seems to me it’s no accident that so many of the youth who participated in O’Tuama’s workshop carry a similar intuition about who Jesus is. Through their imagination, Jesus communicated love and respect for who they already were, and he encouraged them to grow into the fullness of who they might become. God’s judgement is an act of grace. As Anne Lamott puts it, grace “meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” Amen.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/MinneapolisWard3