Finding Wholeness In Community

As a parent of two young children, I make many trips to the public library and I read many children’s books. I can be a bit of a children’s book snob, picking what appears to be a high-brow picture book based on the inclusion of a Caldecott or Newbury award sticker, or by literally judging a book by its cover and choosing the ones with the best illustrations. A great children’s author can write something that engages my children while also holding a deeper meaning and inviting me into the story over and over as my children inevitably request the same book six times in a row. 

But I’ve learned to be cautious after a few run-ins with books that went deeper than I anticipated. 

First there was Harry & Hopper, the cover of which had a smiling boy nuzzling his faithful dog. I looked forward to reading about their adventures. It wasn’t until page four—too far in to turn back—that I discovered this lovely picture book was a book about grieving the loss of one’s pet. By the time I realized poor Hopper’s fate, my eyes were welling up and my then-4-year-old, totally oblivious, was eagerly awaiting the rest of the story.

More recently, we picked up a selection called Boats for Papa, with a sweet beaver mama and her beaver cub on the cover. Little Buckley makes boats out of driftwood to send out to sea for his Papa, who is away and whom he misses very much; if the boats don’t wash back ashore, he knows they made it to Papa. One day, Buckley discovers that his mother has been collecting and storing the washed-up ships as an act of love to prevent Buckley’s heart from breaking. My preschooler couldn’t understand why I had to pause and clear my throat several times before continuing the story. Buckley sends out one final boat, this time with a special note: “For Mama, love Buckley.” 

Surely you’ll agree with me that this children’s lit world is brutal, and clearly my selection process wasn’t helping, so I decided to try a different approach for a while. Avoid anything that looked deep, indulge my children’s gravitational pull toward literary drivel and simplicity, toward books based off of tv shows, toward selections that had me creating new accents just to get through the third reading of it without wishing personal injury.

Into this category of emotional shallowness and insipidity fell a book with a crayon on its cover. 

Or so I thought. What could be deep about a crayon, I asked? Well, let me tell you about Red. Red was a crayon with a red label, who everyone saw as red and fully expected to be red. But no matter how hard Red tried, he only drew blue. Red’s crayon family and crayon friends tried hard to help him be the Red they thought him to be based on his external appearance. They tried mixing him with other crayons, giving him extra lessons in redness, and they had a million pieces of advice. 

The other office supplies even got involved, the masking tape bandaging him after assuming Red was broken inside, the scissors snipping him assuming his label was too tight, and the pencil trying to sharpen him. And yet, everything still came out blue. Finally, one day, a new friend came along. A purplish crayon named Berry who invited Red to draw a blue ocean for her boat. 

Despite his objections that he was red, Berry encouraged him. And for the first time, Red truly saw and embraced the color he was on the inside and excitedly declared, “I’m blue!” His family and friends rejoiced with him and the book ends with Red’s proud masterpiece of an entirely blue sky. Apparently even a book about a crayon can make grown-ups claim “allergies” as they dab at their eyes.

Apparently a book about a crayon can contain gospel. 

Perhaps you recall the story in John 5 about a man waiting for the invitation to be made well, to be made whole. A child of God who was not broken or damaged, but lonely and alone: 

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

Had this man been simply ignored for thirty-eight years? Had people tried to “fix” him, assuming they knew what was really wrong with him? Was his ailment something visible or invisible? Was it depression, migraines, an autoimmune disorder? Mental illness, a genetic condition, a missing limb? 

The belief regarding the pool was that the waters were stirred up by angels and that the first person to enter the pool after the waters were stirred would receive healing. But for a reason unknown to us, this man could never make it down in time; someone always beat him to it. I imagine he might have been in a state of despair. Or exhaustion. 

I imagine he may have given up on any hope of wholeness. 

Jesus’ invitation, however, seemed to be that thing which helped the man find healing, which helped the man be seen again: “Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.”

Perhaps this man’s story was the same as that of Alexander Walker, a teacher from Belmont, Massachusetts.  Alexander is a transgender man who says, “For most of my life, I felt like I was sitting in no man’s land, waiting for someone to give me a push so I could finally be whole.” Just like the man at the pool, waiting thirty-eight years in no man’s land, waiting for someone to give him a hand toward the healing waters. Toward wholeness.

As with many of Jesus’ healings, I don’t believe the story in John 5 is about changing the man at the pool, but rather, about affirming who he already was. The stories of people in the Bible who are deaf or blind or physically disabled or different from you and me in some way aren’t usually about “fixing” what’s broken with them. 

Jesus makes people visible to others, restores them to community, and brings wholeness to all. 

In a recent blog on Believe Out Loud, social worker and queer theologian delfin bautista writes about the Easter Resurrection story in this way: 

The Resurrection is the beginning of a journey of living into wholeness, a journey of affirming who one always was, and a journey of discovering and/or rediscovering new aspects of who we are—a journey similar to the many ways we transition as trans-identified folks….Like transition, [resurrection] is about affirming who we are, who we have always been, and who we will always be.

Though Eastertide has just ended, we are still called to live as a Resurrection people. And that means looking for Resurrection in ourselves and in the people around us, affirming who God has created each of us to be—beloved children created in God’s own image—and helping one another live more fully into that. 

Every Sunday in my church, we stand at the announcements and say: “If you’re new or visiting, we’re delighted to have you here.” For God has placed us in community so that we don’t have to navigate life on our own. It is within community that we see the gifts of one another, that we help each other discern God’s call for each of us that we stand up for the other, and that we invite one another toward wholeness. 

Just like Berry invited Red, just like Jesus invited the man at the Sheep Gate, just like loved ones invited my friends, God invites us to be that affirming presence for someone else. She invites us to turn and support and love and truly see one another.

How do we stand up, not just for our own healing, but for one another? 

We turn to the stranger next to us in the pew, offering a smile and tutorial on our sometimes-confusing liturgy. We offer to be an ally, accompanying a friend to the bathroom if they’re afraid. We stop words of hate from becoming accepted rhetoric in our schools and workplaces and communities. 

It’s never too late to get up and accept Jesus’ outstretched hand. Do you want to be made whole, for the entire Kingdom of God to be made whole? 

Then stand up, take your mat, and walk.

Adapted from a sermon delivered at Christ Church Raleigh in Raleigh, North Carolina, on May 1, 2016; Photo via flickr user Denise Mattox

Comments (1)

Dear Callie,
This homily excerpt brought tears to my eyes on several levels. I do not recall if you have often (or ever) visited the Chapel of St. John the Divine in Champaign, IL (Phil will certainly know what I speaking of) but "The Chapel" is one of those blessed communities that constantly reminds us (regulars & visitors) to "stand up, take our mat(s) and walk." We are a diverse community of academics, students, professionals, non-professionals, marrieds & singles, young and not-so-young, straights, gays, bi-sexuals, and perhaps, trans-genders as well; but we are united as a community of seekers, all engaged in the life-long process of discerning who God in Christ, intends and calls us to be by reason of our baptisms. For 20+ years I have felt called to make this my spiritual home; having always felt myself affirmed, embraced, and supported by love. I hope that all who enter our doors find that affirming presence as well. - "Mean ole Bob"

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