By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann
November 26, 2017, at Day House Catholic Worker in Detroit
“Let me show you how to fold this, Grandpa,” Isaac said after he picked up a dish rag off my dad’s kitchen floor. He carefully folded it just as he had learned at school. At night, we’ve been reading The BFG and it is slowed down by the fact that Isaac pauses regularly to point out all the words he can read on each page. It’s incredible! I love watching all these incredible things he is learning and knowing that I am not responsible for it. I just get to delight it in.
On the other hand, he has quickly picked up other things like dividing people into categories of good guys and bad guys, or the lovely tune of “nah, nah, nah, nah, nah.” He came home wanting to place police and capture people and lock them in jail which led to a conversation about police brutality and why playing police in our house was off limits. These are the moments when I suddenly feel like “Ah, we have lost control!!” The realities of power, gender, and violence seep into his conscious.
Often when we have kids over in our yard, I overhear that they are playing Kings and Queens. Whoever is the King or Queen is in control of the game getting to make all the decisions. The Queens also wear sparkly bracelets. One day Isaac told me that one of his friends at school was always the Queen because she loved beautiful things.
There is little to do with landownership, servants, wealth inequality, or divinely ordained ancestry. It seems clear that royalty in his world has everything to do with being bossy and enjoying beautiful things.
Today is Christ the King Sunday and we have Jesus sitting upon a throne in the Gospel. Jesus does not match the image of a King- not the image laid out in first century Palestine and not the image played out in my backyard. There is a sense in which the ruling hierarchy is turned over on its head once and for all in this final teaching of Jesus.
But I do think there is a sense in which Jesus is bossy and does love beauty. He just finds that beauty in the poor, the thirsty, the lonely, and imprisoned.
Part of Jesus’ kingly role is what he lays out as Judgement Day. He sits upon his throne and separates the sheep from the goats and lays out the rubric for how we will all be judged.
A month ago, a circle of theologically dorky friends got together for our regular Wednesday night prayer for a special night we named “Blizzards and Hell.” We ordered 15 blizzards at the window of our quirky corner ice cream shop. And spent the evening devouring ice cream and exploring where each of us sits and our theological lens for how we see the idea of hell and the judgement of God.
Many of us could no longer stomach the idea of hell believing in a loving God and in the goodness of people. It doesn’t sit with our understanding of forgiveness and nonviolence. Perhaps you have a choice? Heaven or the great lonely void? Perhaps heaven is a human construct to save us from our own fear of death? Perhaps it isn’t real, but motivates the living towards justice and care for the least of these? There were lots of questions, rejections, and plenty of peanut butter cups.
My dad spoke up offering the image that C.S. Lewis presents in the last Narnia book “The Last Battle.”
“The creatures came rushing on, their eyes brighter and brighter as they drew nearer and nearer to the standing Stars. But as they came right up to Aslan one or other of two things happened to each of them. They all looked straight in his face; I don’t think they had any choice about that. And when some looked, the expression of their faces changed terribly- it was fear and hatred… And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, his left, and disappeared into his huge black shadow which (as you have heard) streamed away to the left of the doorway. The children never saw them again. I don’t know what became of them. But the others looked in the face of Aslan and loved him, though some of them were very frightened at the same time. And all these came in at the Door, in on Aslan’s right.”
There is something powerful resting there that wraps together our own hearts, lives, and God. When we die, will we be able to look God in the eyes and feel hatred or love??
It’s been exactly 12 years since I read The Last Battle. We read it out loud to my mom in the final weeks of her life. She had always been a lover of Narnia and it seemed right to read the last book to her. I remember being curled up beside her on her hospital bed in our living room next to the Christmas tree with Lucy on the other side, and listening to my dad read the final chapter. She died twelve hours later.
Over the course of the following hours and nights, the final words of the book remained with me.
“And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Today is my mom’s birthday. She would be turning 61. She was someone who could be quite bossy and who loved beauty and finding it in unexpected places. She carried a deep spiritual and bodily power that she could wage into struggle on behalf of the least and with a desire to turn the hierarchy upside down.
We don’t have much video of my mom, but one of the few things we do have is her talking about Judgement Day. She was opening a conference for The Witness that gathered together a crowd of theologically liberal and conservative where there were sure to be difficult conversations. She started things off by bringing up Judgement Day.
I’ve watched the video so many times, that the words fall off my tongue.
She starts by saying that there is a day she looks forward to- Judgement Day. She talks about standing in a circle and that moment when the sins are washed away. She distinguished between first the sins that we knew we were sins being washed away. And then the sins that we didn’t know or we pretended we didn’t know were sins are washed away. And then looking into the eyes of those in the circle, many of whom we have had deep disagreements with. She said that she imagines a lot of laughter, and some sadness at the ways we hurt one another, but mostly laughter.
I hope that for all of us. I would love to stand in a circle with all of you, feeling that sadness and delighting in that laughter. I know that I will feel some sadness, and I do now, at the ways that I didn’t feed the hungry, hear the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the sick, or visit the imprisoned.
While having kids has exposed me to my own powerlessness when it comes to the cultural narratives sinking into my kids play and consciousness, kids have also opened my eyes to the ways that I have made the powerless invisible. The ways that I pretend or hide injustice. There is a simplicity of justice that lives in kids and they are quick to see. We never drive past someone on the street, without Isaac saying “What does his sign say?”
“Hungry, please help.” “Homeless, please help.”
“We have to help him, Mommy,” he always says. “We have to give him money and food. If he doesn’t have a house, we have to help him. It’s our job. Go back.” Often, he will say, “We have to tell him about Day House. Go back.”
He can become quite bossy himself and I find it absolutely beautiful.
In the course of this week, we will transfer into Advent, a season that I love and I always begin it with some words from my mom that she wrote to The Witness readers shortly after her diagnosis:
“This Advent, as we light the candles in the dark and sing for Emmanuel, let’s be even more intentional than usual in clearing the commercial Christmas assault from our minds and hearts. Whatever God is calling us to has little to do with shopping and driving ourselves into a frenzy creating the “perfect” holiday. We need to honor the silence and the dark, to remember our stories, to teach the youth in our lives what we believe matters. We need to recall, to intuit, to dream the life we’re called to and then make a plan that allows us to strip down enough to have it. In the course of that, of course, we need to give thanks for all that we are and for those traveling in our circles and beyond.”
That is my prayer for this Advent, is to create space in the darkness summoning our own power and beauty “to recall, to intuit, to dream the life we’re called to live” and I will bring this reading with me into that asking the way my life (our lives) has and will
Feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Clothe the naked
Care for the sick
Visit the imprisoned.