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2014 04 13 (8.0 MB)

2014 08 17


"The power of story-in-action:  reversing trauma and finding joy"
Summer Fine Arts series; August 17, 2014
For First Mennonite Church of Denver
Copyright Vernon K. Rempel, 2014

Bible reading Numbers 23:18 - 24a

Then Balaam uttered his oracle, saying:
‘Rise, Balak, and hear;
   listen to me, O son of Zippor:
God is not a human being, that he should lie,
   or a mortal, that he should change his mind.
Has he promised, and will he not do it?
   Has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?
See, I received a command to bless;
   he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it.
He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob;
   nor has he seen trouble in Israel.
The Lord their God is with them,
   acclaimed as a king among them.
God, who brings them out of Egypt,
   is like the horns of a wild ox for them.
Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob,
   no divination against Israel;
now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel,
   “See what God has done!”
Look, a people rising up like a lioness,
   and rousing itself like a lion!


Let’s go down
 (begin with reggae “Down to the valley…”)
Okay let’s do this a bit
 (Em – first note is “B”)
The words are:
 “Oh sinner let’s go down
  let’s go down, let’s go down
 Oh sinner, let’s go down
  Down to the valley to pray

Now with a slow clap – to claps per line
 and listen for the chunk
  of shovels digging hopeless holes in the desert

Our movie for consideration
 in connection with a few words 
  from old Balaam in the book of Numbers
 and in connection with our lives

is Holes, directed by Andrew Davis
 based on the award-winning children’s book
  by Louis Sachar.

in the beginning of our movie
 the camera pans over an oddly pocked landscape
  a desert full of holes

at ground level,
 we discover that the holes are being dug
  by boys in orange prison jumpsuits

Why are they digging?
 There’s something wrong
  young boys digging holes
   in a waterless region

there are rattlers, and worse dangers in the desert


Shoes from the sky 
In our Bible reading, Balaam declares
 that there is no enchantment
  or divination against Israel

but there does seem to be such
 enchantment and divination
  against Stanley Yelnatz the 4th
It’s the 150-year-old Yelnats curse
 And so it catches Stanley the 4th
  as he is laconically walking
   in his neighborhood

as always, trying to stay out of trouble
 and, as with all Yelnats’, failing
Beautiful running shoes fall from the sky onto Stanley
 like an OT revelation from the Almighty
On impulse, he picks them up and runs
 so purely by happenstance,
  he is running with stolen shoes

which of course is exactly what they are
 and soon he will be headed for the desert
  full of boys digging holes
   in, as the prophet Ezekiel so succinctly puts it
    “in a dry and thirsty land”

Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard transplanted by the water, fruitful and full of branches from abundant water. Its strongest stem became a ruler’s scepter; it towered aloft among the thick boughs; it stood out in its height with its mass of branches. But it was plucked up in fury, cast down to the ground; the east wind dried it up; its fruit was stripped off, its strong stem was withered; the fire consumed it. Now it is transplanted into the wilderness, into a dry and thirsty land. And fire has gone out from its stem, has consumed its branches and fruit, so that there remains in it no strong stem, no scepter for ruling. This is a lamentation, and it is used as a lamentation.
(Ezekiel 19:10-14)

Have you ever had a day like that?
 When your vine, the place of your joy
  your means of doing something good in the earth
   has been scorched by fire

or has just dried up
 and it may even seem like a family curse
  as Ezekiel says “your mother”

almost like one of those “your momma…” rants
 Your mother was like a vine
  but now that vine of yours
   that vine of your family

is dried up, cursed
 it is transplanted to a dry and thirsty place
  and scorched by fire

and is an instrument of lamentation
 only an instrument of lamentation

Sing “O sinner, let’s go down”


150 year old curse
Stanley is falsely accused
 of stealing the shoes

It’s true that it was not smart
 to just pick up shoes that have fallen
  and run

but he didn’t steal them
 he was just walking along
  “minding his own business”
   as the saying goes

Now he is faced with an 18 month sentence
 at a reform camp for boys
  Camp Greenlake

Ironically named, since there is no lake
 no green, only holes in the desert

The way the camp looks
 is the way you feel
  when you are falsely accused

A very minor point, but I was was accused of lying
 in Child Evangelism Fellowship
  in 3rd grade or so

The teacher asked rhetorically
 don’t we all cuss sometimes

First of all, I didn’t know what “cuss” meant
 Then when she enlightened me
  good two-shoes that I was

I informed her that “no, I didn’t cuss”
 she categorically informed me
  that I was lying

Well, whatever
 but I do remember it
  because of the sizzle of the accusation

I also needed to learn to keep my mouth shut
 but that’s another part of the story

The “Innocence Project”
 has exonerated 317 people through DNA reexamination
  18 of these were on death row

Can you imagine being put in a cell?
 Can you imagine being put in a cell for
  something you didn’t do?

Can you imagine waiting to be executed
 for something you didn’t do?

We have probably all experienced
 the false accusation, in some form
  it is a form of trauma, great or small

It should at least give us a great deal of humility
 in dealing with so called “offenders”
  in our justice system

the swagger and pushing and berating
 of what is known as the “Reid Method”
  of interrogation,

that is so often seen on TV and in movies
 where suspects are subjected to being
  “sweated” and made to be thirsty,
   tired or nervous or lonely
    so that they “break”

do we really have the character and knowledge and grace
 to use such a system wisely
  in our criminal justice system?

According to some more recent analyses
 (eg. The New Yorker, December 9, 2013)
  the “Reid Method” is increasingly discredited
   as a fount of false confessions and convictions.

And yet it is pervasively reflected in our cop procedurals
 such as Bones, or C.S.I.

And then there is the question of incarceration
 as a solution in general

In Holes, we see some of the prison tropes:
 casual bullying among the population
  and from the staff

from “Mr. Sir” the guard
 with the really nasty little sideburns that curve forward at    the bottom toward a point
           and the also-nasty gold-framed sunglasses

Deprivation and cruelty as punishment
 supposedly for the sake of reform

"You take a bad boy and make him dig holes all day in the hot sun. An' it turns him into a good  boy. That's our philosophy here at Green Lake." intones Mr. Sir.

Balaam: no enchantment or divination against…
But redemption comes to Stanley Yelnats

Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob,
   no divination against Israel;
 says Balaam

And what precedes that is of course
 the old story recitation

God, who brings them out of Egypt,
   is like the horns of a wild ox for them.

God who brings them out of Egypt,
 out of incarceration and false accusation
  the making of bricks without straw
like digging holes in the desert
 and for what reason?

But God brings them out!
 This Spirit who does not lie
  because this is a Holy Spirit,
   not a person,

the One, as Henri Nouwen says,
 who is “free of wounds”
  and so does not need to wound

the one who participates in our pain
 and is wounded, and is a wounded healer,
  and is healed of wounds
   and heals all wounds

because of the infinity of love
 that never fails, that never lacks
  resource, that is like water
   in a “dry and thirsty land”

the land of our traumas and hurts
 and indignities great or small
  into that land flows the river
   of God’s love

as we offer ourselves to each other
 and as let ourselves receive love

so we are healed, so we find forgiveness,
 as we make amends, and others make amends
  and the world is set free
   from some measure of trauma

The story for Israel is freedom from slavery
 in Egypt

the story for Stanley is that his great-grandfather
 is able to survive in the wilderness
  because of finding an oasis
   in a place called
    “God’s thumb”

in case we don’t get the significance of the place.
 And so Stanley the 4th finds his way to survive
  in the wilderness

All very well,
 but the beating heart of the trauma
  and the redemption in the movie

the deep resonance of the human soul
 is the story of lynching
lynching is the reason that Greenlake, Texas,
 went from being a green lake with a town
  and well-watered gardens
   to being a dry and thirsty place

Back a couple of generations in old Texas
 - forbidden love - called miscegenation!
  Illegal, by the way, in the state of Virginia until 1976.

Under the social constructs of racial colors
 white woman and black man
  like gay and straight being absolutes distinctions
   of separation and identity
The peach woman and the onion man
 they love each other
        A teacher and a peddler
But that doesn’t matter…
 what matters is their skin color –
  that's what matters most
             In the kingdom of the curse

That’s what matters in ancient Biblical Egypt,
 the place of bondage
  in the United States
   united with a history of deep
    and persistent racism

In the movie, as so often happened,
 the beast comes calling, and lynching is performed,
  which is popular execution of the scapegoat other,

thus keeping the soul of the town pure
 keeping us clean and spotless from the feared other
  whoever that may be.

James Cone has a powerful book in it –
 The cross and the lynching tree
  on the church and the U.S. history of lynching.

Whew! It’s a read.

So the young man is shot in his boat
 full of onions and bottles of peaches
     While the sheriff got drunk

Terror and force layered upon terror and force,
 in the camp and in racial history

In the Biblical story
 resurrection comes after Jesus experiences
  utter forsakenness
 Eloi, eloi lema sabachthani
  my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In the movie
 redemption comes after Stanley
  and his friend Hector
   come near death in the desert

and they enact friendship
 beyond race and beyond all the brutalities
  layered into their lives

of poverty, and homelessness, and neglect,
 and meanness, and a false justice system

the enact friendship
 risk for each other,
  choose compassion

It is perhaps not a fully resonant answer
 to all the trauma
  for an adult
   I found myself asking
    “does that really answer lynching?”

It is a children’s story
 but perhaps it is deeply resonant
  because what else can we do but risk
   for the sake of friendship
    beyond all the prejudices and tramas?

Part of the movie’s end is deeply unsatisfactory to me.
 The warden, played by the ever-amazing Sigourney Weaver
  has her own back-story of trauma
   being made to did

and she turns and with what’s often called
 the “repetition compulsion”
  does to others what has been done to her

Michael Lerner uses this analysis in the middle-east
 and gets death-threats for his trouble

But she and her fellow cruel staff members
 at the camp, get their comeuppance,
  which is supposed to be satisfying

but I think it just perpetuates the cycle
 whenever indignity is answered with indignity
  and cruelty is answered with cruelty

more satisfactory to have found a paradoxical
 pathway out of all the cycles of harm

then there would be true joy,
 that’s the gospel of Jesus Christ, I think

to reject all strategies of revenge
 and dealing of harm
  and punishment

and rather to seek to find our way
 together in joy and difficulty
  so that all the “dry and thirsty” places among us
   are watered with God’s love.

Sing a bit of “O sinner, let’s go down…”



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