Saturday, June 22, 2019

I am, you are

I was in text study earlier this week with my clergy colleagues. I love them, and I love spending time with them and talking scripture with them so much that try I go to text study even if I'm not preaching, or not preaching on the assigned texts, that week. This week our discussion reminded me of a favorite podcast segment from last year, which prompted me to finally start this blog that I've been thinking about for so long, and struck me as a segment that could be a source of helpful preaching connections far beyond the texts for this week. The themes I'd say we'll hit on with this podcast are reality/being real/authenticity, being seen, naming, identity and healing, with extra potential for connection with texts in ordinary time and Epiphany.

At text study we spent time with the Gospel text assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary this week, which is Luke 8:26-39, the story I grew up calling "The Gerasene Demoniac." The text is dramatic and frightening, and it doesn't have a sense of happy resolution--the situation is incredibly grim for the possessed man, the conversation with the demon(s) feels high stakes and scary, the healing itself is incredibly destructive and violent, the crowd is afraid and asks Jesus to leave, and when Jesus tells the healed man he can't follow him and must return to his home/kin/people, a person feels more than a little nervous for the guy. In our discussion of the text, we kept returning to wondering about what it means to be able to be yourself. For the man who calls himself--or at least, the demons inside--"Legion," is there any point in this story where he able to be himself? Is the church a place (or rather, a people) where we can bring and express our real selves and be met with love and grace?

The conversation reminded me of a segment of a longer episode of This American Life. The episode, To Be Real is from July 14, 2017. In the second act, at about minute 37, we meet magician Derek Delgaudio, and learn about his show, "In & Of Itself." Here's some of the transcript, but it's really worth following the link and listening to it:  

"Ira Glass

Here's what happens. Before the show, when you walk into the theater, there's a wall of cards printed with the words "I am." And then, under "I am," just different things that you might be. A baker, a gardener, troublemaker, truth-teller, the one that got away, extrovert, con artist, idealist, over 1,000 different cards. And you pick the one you feel describes yourself best and you walk to your seat. And 90 minutes later, at the end of the show about whether people see you for who you really are, Derek says to anybody who took the exercise of picking a card seriously--

Derek Delgaudio

Maybe you chose something that you feel reflects who you really are, how you'd like to be seen in this world. If you're one of those few people, please stand up.

Ira Glass

It's not a big theater, about 150 seats. And on this particular night, over 100 people stand. And then Derek walks into the audience, walks up to each of those people one at a time, looks right in their eyes, and tells them what they chose.

Derek Delgaudio

Boy Scout.

Ira Glass

Boy Scout.

Derek Delgaudio

The black sheep of the family.

Ira Glass

Black sheep of the family.

Derek Delgaudio

A good Christian.

Ira Glass

A good Christian. Watching him do this, when he tells the people sitting on your row, and the row in front of you, and the row behind you how they see themselves, it makes you look at them differently. Like, no kidding. These people who showed up on a weeknight with their backpacks and their work clothes, and suddenly you get this glimpse of something so private. It stops feeling like a room of anonymous strangers. They look different.

Derek Delgaudio

You're a ninja.

Ira Glass

A ninja.

Derek Delgaudio

You're a very good parent, aren't you?

Ira Glass

A good parent.

Derek Delgaudio

You're a ray of sunshine.

Ira Glass

A ray of sunshine.

Derek Delgaudio

A wallflower.

Ira Glass

A wallflower. Derek told me these moments, when he walks up to people and stares in their eyes and tells them something about themselves, it's everything he was hoping the show would do. Something about those moments is not about magic. It isn't about the trick. The magic is all in service to this very human thing that's happening.

Derek Delgaudio

Yeah. I mean, I get emotional, too, just based on people's reactions to it and I see it in their eyes. And there are some that are truly painful. One stopped me in my tracks, which was someone saw themselves as a failure.

Ira Glass

This was a young woman, maybe in her 20s. Derek hesitated. Then he said it. A failure.

Derek Delgaudio

I mean, I choked up. There was a pause because you don't ever want to have to call someone a failure. And that's how they felt like they were in this world and kind of how they felt others saw them and I called them a failure in front of a bunch of strangers. But you hear-- you heard the rest of the audience go, aw.

Ira Glass

The woman teared up and sat down. It's the sort of moment, watching it, all you can think about is her and her life and what that must be about. What you do not think is, how'd he do it?"

What makes Delgaudio's "trick" so remarkable is the part that isn't a trick at all--he is seeing people and naming things out loud about them that, on some level, they feel a need to name, and a need to be seen and heard. I think it's uncommon, though not completely unheard of, in most church settings to have an experience of someone reflecting back something you've claimed about yourself, of someone naming something you've chosen as a name. It happened to me once when I got to take part in a Quaker-style clearness committee. There's also an activity I've done with a few groups, now, where you tell a story about a time when you felt a sense of accomplishment, and the people listening write adjectives to describe you on a sticky note and then give them to you at the end of the story telling.  These experiences were powerful, formative. Being seen, known and named in this way is not an everyday thing. 

The healing power of this naming is something we see Jesus do, often, and it throws a different light on his conversation with Legion. Questions about identity, naming, who knows Jesus, names for God, how Jesus and God know and name the people they interact with, and the role of healing in naming, are all possible connection points with this podcast segment. 

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