A Summer Prayer
May we, in this summer season, journey beyond the safety of our well-worn patterns and paths.
May we, in this summer season, journey beyond the comfort of our regular lives, our customs and habits.
May we, in this summer season, discover new creativity, new fervor, new insight.
May we, in this summer season, discover in ourselves the spirit of the child that knows no limits and no boundaries, who practices the art of the impossible.
May we, in this summer season, explore the borders of our lives—the edges and the unformed spaces.
May we, in this summer season, explore the borders of our lives—the wilderness and the still wild places.
May we, in this summer season, establish new patterns where we have been longing for different ways of being.
May we, in this summer season, forge new paths to go places our old paths will not take us.
May we, in this summer season, discard those old customs and habits if they have dulled our senses, silenced our voice, hidden our truth or cooled our passions.
May we, in this summer season, challenge ourselves to overcome any unnecessary limits we have placed upon ourselves, to break through any unnecessary lines we have drawn around ourselves, to transgress any boundaries that unfairly constrain us.
May we, in this summer season, explore the borders or our lives, where difference is welcome, where tension and conflict and even a small dose of chaos are welcome, where wisdom forms, where creativity thrives.
May we, in this summer season, explore the borders of our lives, where nothing is quite fixed, where old orthodoxies fail, where order is tentative, where simple dualisms just don’t work, where pointless rigidities are the butt of jokes.
May we, in this summer season, explore the borders of our lives, where mixing and merging and morphing take place.
May we, in this summer season, explore the borders of our lives, where old selves give way and new selves emerge.
May we, in this summer season, explore the borders of our lives, where we are compelled to find common ground with our neighbors, where we build, however we can, the beloved community, where we remember, because sometimes we forget, that we are related to the whole of life.
May we, in this summer season, journey, discover, create, practice, discard, challenge, explore and remember.
Amen and blessed be.
The Blessed Mixing
“My children,” writes Michael Chabon, “have used aerodynamic, streamlined bits and pieces of a dozen Star Wars kits, mixed with Lego dinosaur jaws, Lego aqualungs, Lego doubloons, Lego tibias, to devise improbably beautiful spacecraft far more commensurate than George Lucas’s with the mysteries of other galaxies and alien civilizations.” What appeals to Chabon—and what has come to appeal to me—about this mixing and merging of pieces from different Lego kits is what he calls the “saving power of the lawless imagination.” I get it now, though I didn’t at first. I’ve never purchased one of these kits for my boys, Mason and Max, but they’ve received dozens over the years as gifts. The kits take days to assemble. The process can be exceedingly frustrating—inevitably a piece missing. The final product is always impressive, except for one problem. After all that work, says Chabon, “the resulting object [is] so undeniably handsome, and our investment of time in the building so immense, that the thought of playing with it, let alone ever disassembling it, [is] anathema.” It’s a toy, but don’t touch it. I remember saying to my boys, after more than one of these marathon building projects, “Wait. Maybe you shouldn’t play with it.” In response, their look said, “We must not have heard you correctly. It sounded like you said not to play with it.”
“Well, I just don’t want you to break it.”
“We won’t break it. We promise.”
“Alright, you can play with it, but please be careful.” As if I’d handed them the car keys.
Thirty seconds later, maybe less: “Oops. Dad, the wing fell off. Can you fix it?” Or, “this guy’s helmet popped off. Or, “Hm, I thought it would fly better than that.”
Remember, we’re talking about toy spaceships, pirate ships, helicopters, police stations, even hospitals made of thousands of tiny plastic pieces that snap into place. No glue. No duct tape. How could they not fall apart in the hands of even the most gentle child? Fixing them quickly grew tiring, and the boys learned to play at their own risk. But then I would find Lego toys in pieces on the kitchen table, or the living room floor, or the dining room floor—essentially anywhere—mixed together with pieces from other Lego toys. I’d take a deep breath and start separating the pieces back into their respective kits, knowing it would be futile to ask Mason and Max to do it. I would put each kit in its own plastic bag, label it, and place it on a shelf. Then I would try to make up new rules. “Only play with one kit at a time.” “Ask me for permission before you play with a kit.” “Thou shalt not covet thy brother’s Lego Mars Rover.” “Thou shalt not use the DVD player as a hideout for thy Lego Harry Potter and Indiana Jones figures, even if they do fit.” But no rule was enforceable. The result was always the same: the pieces would end up in one big mess on the floor. And it wasn’t just Legos mixing with Legos. I would come upon huge piles of Legos mixed with figures, castles, amusement parks and airports from Little People, Play Mobil and Pokemon mixed with plastic army men, Hot Wheels, dinosaurs, knights and dragons, assorted stuffed animals and a variety of toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals. And there I was, in the aftermath of many epic toy battles, trying to put everything back in its assigned place—everything in the right box, bin or bag—trying to maintain toy order and orthodoxy when my children had no interest in anything other than a relentless mixing across toy genres, stories, eras, realms and universes. No walls. No boundaries. No limits: just one big borderland where everyone and everything crosses, mixes and merges; where all relates to all.
This is the lawless imagination. Again, it was all dissonance to me at first. You can’t have American Civil War soldiers fighting dragons with laser beams. You can’t have knights in spaceships fighting dinosaurs. It totally contradicts the archeological record. And besides, dinosaurs can’t breathe in outer space. Try as I might, resistance was futile. I could not keep everything in its proper place on its proper shelf. The 50-page kit manuals had long since vanished into the recycling bin. There was no going back. The old rules didn’t apply. Chabon calls it “the aesthetic of the Lego drawer, of the mash-up, the pastiche that destroys its sources at the same time that it makes use of and reinvents them. You churn around in the drawer and pull out what catches your eye, bits and pieces drawn from movies, history and your own fancy, and make something new, something no one has ever seen or imagined before.”
Mason once made up his own hybrid superhero movie character. He said I could describe the character to you, though not to tell you his name, which is a cross between a superhero nicknamed the man of steel and a cartoon canine crime fighter whose theme song goes: “speed of lightening, roar of thunder, fighting all who rob or plunder.” We’ve written about 45 screen plays for different movies featuring this character. We’ve acted most of them out, with Max getting a few bit parts here and there. In the first movie, this superhero pooch enrolls at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He becomes best friends with Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley and actually teaches them everything they know about magic even though he is only a ‘first year’ student.
In that first movie Mason’s character defeats Lord Voldemort decisively, which is not the case in most of the Harry Potter books. None of that J.K.-Rowling-bring-back-the-same-arch-villain-seven-times stuff. Voldemort doesn’t stand a chance against Mason’s superhero pooch. He is vanquished for good before the end of opening feast. My instinct, again, was to keep all the different fantasies separate, to strive for some modicum of believability, to keep our play anchored in the old rules.
“You can’t have a character at Hogwart’s who’s more ingenious and courageous than Harry Potter, let alone a more powerful wizard than Professor Dumbledore.”
“It doesn’t fit with the books.”
“Why does it have to fit?”
“I guess it doesn’t have to. But now Voldemort’s dead. You have nowhere else to go.” Then I’d get that look again, like I was speaking gibberish. And to Mason I was. With Harry, Ron and Hermione at his side, the superhero pooch defeats Professor Snape and Draco Malfoy, Sr. and Jr. Then, still a student at Hogwart’s, but also spending summers at Camp Halfblood from Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians novels, he overcomes Darth Vader and Jaba the Hut from Star Wars, Doc Oc and the Green Goblin from Spiderman, Smaug from The Hobbit,Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin and Mr. Freeze from Batman, General Woundwort from Watership Down, an assortment of rogue Pokemon trainers, that punky white kid from the first Karate Kid movie, a variety of dragons and half the gods and goddesses in the ancient Greek pantheon including Zeus himself. The challenge now is that he’s running out of serious opponents. Maybe next he’ll take on the hunter who shot Bambi’s mother, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Zurg from Toy Story Two, and the T-Rex from JurassicPark.
I don’t know if this mixing, merging and morphing of stories and characters is how all children play at this age, though Chabon’s essay on Legos suggests the lawless imagination is widespread among little ones. My kids’ friends intuitively engage in the same blurring of story lines. Only adults, it seems, try to put everything back in the appropriate box, bin or bag. Only adults resist journeying to the borderland where everyone and everything crosses established lines and breaks the old rules.
This makes sense. For a variety of reasons—some of them good, some of them not—adults need boxes, bins and bags. We need some way to define ourselves. We need a semblance of order in our lives. We need to be able to think beyond the moment, to plan for a stable future. We need to be responsible in our jobs, in our relationships, with our money. We have an obligation to consider the needs of others, to consider the quality of our communities and institutions and our role in building and maintaining that quality. There are good reasons for us to box ourselves in, to set boundaries, to let Harry Potter be Harry Potter and Batman be Batman and never allow them to meet.
But we also know we can’t live wholly within well-marked boxes on tidy shelves. Just as it is part of the human condition to need order and stability, there are also times in our lives when we need to remake and reinvent ourselves; when we need to stretch and grow; when we need to set off on a new stage of our journey; when the borderland beckons; when, in Chabon’s words, we feel called to “make something new, something no one has ever seen or imagined before.” From time to time we feel the need to change; something stirs inside; something new calls to us. The question is, do we actually respond? Like children, but as adults, do we break out of our boxes, get off our shelves, blur old lines, mix things up? Do we assert ourselves in novel ways, engender tension and conflict for the sake of what we hope is healthy change? Do we risk creating something new even if all our efforts might end up in a sprawling mess on the living room floor? For me these are deeply spiritual questions.
I’m reminded of words from the great 19th century Transcendentalist poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who sometimes commented on the necessity of retaining the spirit of infancy into adulthood. Not to stay in a childlike state but, as we sang in our second hymn, to seek the spirit of the child. Emerson once said, “Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of an eyebrow.” I love these meanings. I’ve quoted them to you before. They recall the spirit of the child. They say to me that despite everything I might do in the interest of stability, security, working hard, planning for the future, of doing all the things mature adults need to do, the spiritual part of me—if I am tending to it—makes sure I don’t draw my lines too rigidly, don’t box myself in too tightly. The spiritual part of me seeks opportunities to transgress in Emerson’s sense, to cross lines, to mix and merge, to be open to new ideas, to create, to live on the border where worlds collide and blend; where people and cultures negotiate and barter with each other; where distinct melodies sift, churn and intertwine, at once haunting and raucous, serene and dissonant; where distinct aromas hang and simmer in the air, slowly combining, at once savory andpungent, sweet and jarring; where no social or political orthodoxies can stand for long; where no religious orthodoxies can stand for long as those who claim to believe in and love or fear God find reason to doubt their faith, and those who claim there is no God find reason to pray.
I find this idea of the borderland useful: this both real and metaphorical place; this place on the margins that is actually a center for the discovery of new ways of being human, new ways of creating, new ways of being in community. My friend and colleague, Robette Dias, Executive Director of an antiracism training organization called Crossroads, talks about the borderlands as a place where we grow our capacity for ending racism and other oppressions and also for becoming more fully human. She says “The borderlands is a juicy place. It is a place full of possibilities, chaos, creativity, conflict, beauty…. It’s a place that transcends and defies dualism, where rigid linear reality cannot exist; a place where multiculturalism and diverse identities mix and mingle in a constant ebb and flow of mess, mediation, and mitigation.” It strikes me that in order to live at the borderlands we need the spirit of the child.
I’ve also recently become very engaged with the work of the Rev. Jacqui Lewis, senior minister of the Middle Collegiate Church in New York City’s East Village.This historically white Christian Reformed church was dying in the late 1970s, but it turned itself around. Today it is a thriving multicultural, multiracial, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender affirming congregation with a commitment to the arts and social justice. Rev. Lewis says leaders in such congregations must be able to minister on the border. That is, they must be able to work with ambiguity; hold competing ideas in tension; subvert artificial lines of difference; engage the world from a both/and rather than an either/or perspective. They must be multivocal. They must have some way of empathizing with people from different backgrounds and social locations. They must be able to offer radical welcome and hospitality.
All of these skills—in an innocent, undeveloped, uncritical form—are right there in children’s play, right there in that pile of Legos and other assorted toys on the living room floor, right there in their blessed mixing, merging and morphing. But let’s make this metaphor real in our lives. In the end, what Robette Dias is talking about, what Rev. Lewis is talking about, is the idea of beloved community. The borderland, where old, constraining rules fall away, where difference is welcomed and celebrated, where listening and openness lead to that mixing and merging of ideas, where social justice and fairness are critical values—this is a way of talking about beloved community. If we want to build beloved community—and we often say we do— in our congregation, among many congregations, in our towns and cities, in our nation, we need that spirit of the child, that spirit that asks “why can’t we play with it?” That spirit that asks, “why does it have to fit with what the book says?” That spirit that knows no walls, limits or boundaries. We need that lawless imagination, because the old laws that may or may not have served a valid purpose at one time, still haven’t gotten us to our vision of a more just and peaceful world. We need that spirit that pulls everything off the shelves with no qualms and mixes it all together into something new no one has ever seen or imagined before. It is truly a blessed mixing. And it may very well be the thing that saves us.Rev. Josh Pawelek Parish Minister Unitarian Universalist Society: East 08/28/11
 Chabon, Michael, “To the Legoland Station,” Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son (New York: HarperCollins, 2009) p. 57.
 Ibid., p. 55.
 Ibid., p. 57.
 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Nature,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 23.
 Seaburg, Carl, “I Seek the Spirit of a Child” in Singing the Living Tradition(Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #338.
 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Nature,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 31.
Read this short essay on “The Borderlands” by Robette Dias and Chuck Ruehle at:http://www.crossroadsantiracism.org/wp-content/themes/atahualpa/PDFs/The%20Borderlands.pdf.
 Lewis, Jacqueline, The Power of Stories: A Guide for Leading Multi-Racial and Multi-Cultural Congregations (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), Chapters 2-3.