Nine-year-old Billy was a popular kid on the block. He had a circle of friends in the neighborhood; mostly boys. No girls were allowed in any of the clubs he created on the spur of the moment. It was a Saturday and his friends were hanging around his driveway bouncing a basketball, skating on the sidewalk, drawing a hopscotch pattern on the driveway with big pieces of colored chalk. Billy liked being the center of attention. That's why he created all those clubs, like the Girl Haters Club and the Backyard Bowling Club. On this Saturday everyone was doing their own thing and kinda ignoring Billy, so he decided to create a new club. He went over, picked up a piece of chalk and drew a circle on the sidewalk. Then, he yelled to all his friends, "Everybody who wants to be in my Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Club better jump into this circle right now, or you won't be in it!" The boys dropped what they were doing and scrambled to get inside the chalk circle. There was a lot of pushing and shoving as they tried to scrunch themselves into Billy’s circle.
One thing Billy didn't realize was he had drawn his circle too small. As he peeked through the tight circle of boys, Billy could see his best friend Chris was left out. Chris was a bit smaller than the others, so he got pushed aside in the rush. Billy couldn't leave Chris out of the club. Besides, he really wanted all the boys from his block in the circle. It's just that he drew his circle too small. And now look what happened. What was he going to do?
With a big grunt Billy pushed his way out of the circle and told them, "Everybody stay right there!" He went past Chris, whose head was hanging down to his knees. He bent down and grabbed a piece of chalk, and went back to the circle. From the line of the first circle, Billy traced another line over and around the still body of Chris drawing him into a larger circle. Chris now had a smile as bright as the Saturday sun. The other boys were relieved as they moved into this bigger circle. The first one was just too tight. Pretty soon the little game was over and the boys were all playing basketball together and running over the top of Billy's oblong circle as if it were never there.
We tend to draw circles that mark who's in and who's out. It's a part of human nature. Circle-drawing helps us identify who we are. Boundaries and circles mark our identities and define our primary relationships. We cannot survive in the world without some sense of identity. In that sense circle-drawing can be a good thing. We draw a circle around our nation. "We are Americans." We draw circles around our race. "We are White." We draw a circle around our sexuality. "We are heterosexual." We draw a circle our wallets. "We are middle-class." Circles let us know who we are and to what groups we belong. Circles help us to distinguish who's in and who's out, who we include and who we exclude. Circle-drawing has been practiced by cultures throughout the ages. And often circle drawing is a helpful way of clarifying our identity.
The ancient Mediterranean culture of the Bible is no exception to circle drawing. In the society of Jesus' day marking in-groups and out-groups was important. The circles were much tighter then, the lines much thicker, and less permeable. Circles divided Jews from Gentiles, Judeans from Galileans, clans and families from one another, pure from impure, sinners from righteous, followers of one Rabbi from those of another. Loyalty to those in your circle was a serious responsibility, not to be taken lightly.
From behind this cultural curtain steps John, the Circle-Drawer. John walks up to Jesus and says, "Rabbi, we saw this guy casting demons out of people. He was using your name to do it. We couldn't have him doing that in your name. He wasn't following us. So, we put a halt to that heretical nonsense." In other words, that exorcist wasn't "legitimate." The way John put it the problem was not because he wasn't following Jesus, but because he wasn't following the disciples. He wasn't part of their in-group; their inner circle. And, you know, it's critical to know who's in and who's out. Boundaries and circles can be a good thing unless they are not permeable, have no place for entry or exit for others, or cannot expand or be redrawn. John saw the circle of Jesus and his followers as a rather tight circle with little room for those who did not fit their circle’s protocol.
The history of the church follows in the heritage of John, the Circle-drawer. Just let your fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages and what do you find? An endless list of circles; denominations and divisions in the one Body of Christ: Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Episcopalians, Methodists, African Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Mennonites, Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren, Amish, Nazarene, Four Square Gospel, Full Gospel, Pentecostal, Assemblies of God, Church of God, Church of Christ, Church of God in Christ, United Church of Christ, and more varieties of Baptists than Heinz has pickles! We need denominations to help us define who's a part of our group, who's with us and who isn't. But, then we draw even smaller and tighter circles. There are not just Methodists, but particular kinds of Methodists. There are not simply Mennonites, but particular brands of more liberal or conservative Mennonites. And sometimes these circles become exclusive clubs. Folks, the church has had a bad case of John's temperament. We need to ever more clearly define who's in and who's out, who's for us and who's against us to such a degree that our circles can become nooses.
Could it be our tight circle drawing makes us feel like we're in control? No one likes to feel like things are chaotic and out of control. Circles, boundaries, and group identity markers help us gain a sense of control. By drawing circles we control who's in and who's out. Without circles to identify where we belong? We would be confused about our identity. We need to know who the “liberals” are and who the "conservatives" are, who the gays and who the straights are, and who the Democrats and the Republicans are. Circles help us keep from being identified with "them" over there. Some of us delight in putting people in labeled boxes, or identifiable circles. But that doesn’t always work. I don’t think it works for me. Am I a liberal? Well, yes, and no. Am I a Mennonite? Of course, but not in some ways. Am I a minister? Seems obvious, but in many ways I don’t fit well in those circles. You see, some of us don’t always fit so neatly into the circles other want to fit us in. Fitting ourselves or others into certain circles may make us or our group feel more secure. It can even make us feel like we're in control of things.
Our circle drawing can also become a means of trying to control others by monopolizing power, material goods, and even God's Spirit. In other words, we define those people outside our circle as illegitimate, illegal, unauthorized, unofficial, and even un-godly. That's what happened in the story of Moses when the Spirit fell not only on the elders around the tent, but also upon Eldad and Medad, who prophesied along with the best of them out in the camp. In a tone of voice very similar to John's, Joshua said to Moses, "Stop them! They aren't legitimate prophets. They are not within the circle. They don't have our official stamp of approval."
We want to orchestrate the movement of the Spirit, become power-brokers of the divine, and have a monopoly on grace. When we seek to draw our Christian circles too tight we're really trying to control God's wild Spirit. In essence we're saying: "This is our show, God. We'll say what your work is and what it isn't, what's legitimate and what isn't. We'll define who's in and who's out, who's for us and who's against us. And by the way, God, you know those charismatics? I have a hard time identifying with them. They’re a bunch of emotional kooks. What they call "the movement of the Spirit" is just getting themselves all worked up into a lather. It's staged. No matter how much they lift their hands in the air and say the name of "Jeeeeeeeezus!" that's not your Spirit. Since they're not one of us, they ought to stop that nonsense." Can't you hear the circles being drawn? Oh, if only God would pour the Spirit out on all people! Who can control the wind? Who can monopolize God's power? Who can encompass the perimeter of the Spirit? We may try. Probably because we need to feel like we're in control.
That's about the time Jesus comes along and blows our circles wide open. He perforates, breaks open, erases, and redraws our airtight circles. When John wanted to stop the maverick exorcist, Jesus said, "Don't stop the guy. Nobody whose liberatin' people in my name is gonna say bad things about me. You know what. This is the gospel truth. Anyone who isn't against us is for us." Wow! Kabloom! Jesus blows wide open our in-group/out-group mentality. He throws into question our circle drawing that seeks to identify who's for us and who's against us. Jesus is being extremely tolerant. His circle is open. Dare we call him "liberal?" No. That would just draw a tight circle around him.
Jesus refuses to live within the cramped circles and impenetrable barriers we erect. He contests the practice of confining God's liberating, healing, and transforming action to a particular group, gender, religious institution, or political perspective. What? Do you mean that God is not a Republican or a Democrat? Jesus challenges his followers to see God's reign outside their own constricted spheres. We see Jesus' open circle in his conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well, his healing of the servant of a Roman centurion (Israel's oppressors), his dining with tax-collectors and sinners, his welcoming of children, his touching lepers, his defying the hoops drawn around race, gender, age, occupation, and the "pure." Jesus redraws our circles when he raises questions like: Who are my friends? Who are my enemies? Who are my brothers and sisters, and mother? Who's greatest in the kingdom of God? Who's first and who's last? Who is my neighbor? I hear the inclusive spirit of Jesus playing in the words of this poem, a favorite of John Oyer I hear :
He drew a circle that
shut me out---
heretic, rebel, a thing to flout,
but love and I had the wit to win
we drew a circle that took him in
We draw circles that keep people out. Then, Jesus comes along and redraws our compressed circles. Jesus’s love draws circles that include people.
That's probably because Jesus knew God works outside our narrow circles. God is bigger than our tiny circles. We can't draw a circle big enough to contain God. God needs a lot of space to work! That's because God is boundless. God can't be squeezed into our closed circles of time, space, knowledge, and language. God transcends all human categories. God bursts out of our confined circles. We worship an infinite God who cannot be carried around in our pockets, in our heads, in our Bibles, in our denominations, or even within our Christian faith. God is alive and active outside our confined human categories and classifications, boxes and boundaries. The Spirit of God is healing, liberating, transforming, and recreating people outside our circles. God's presence and liberating acts are unbounded by our human circles.
The work of our unlimited God cannot be confined to our particular in-group. As a matter of fact, if our circles are too narrow, we may exclude God. Once a sinner was excommunicated and forbidden entry into a small church. He took his woes to God. "They won't let me in their circle, God, because I am a sinner." "What are you complaining about?" said God. "They won't let me in either!" I've wondered whether the Father, in the story of the prodigal son, ran to meet his wayward child with arms formed in an open circle. We cannot contain God's love and action within the narrow constraints of our closed circles.
The church needs to have her eyes forever looking outside her circles, for those who have been excluded and left out of her circles. Even more so, we need to keep our hearts peeled for the Christ outside our circles present in the thirsty, hungry, naked, imprisoned, forgotten and forsaken. We need to keep our hearts peeled for the Spirit outside our circles working miracles among those not in our in-group. We need to keep our hearts peeled for the God outside our circles dancing on the edges of eternity!
We watched earlier a slideshow of a Bridging Cultures beach trip. Bridging Cultures is a good example of the church drawing its circle ever wider to include others normally outside our circles of association. For God is outside our circles drawing us into more expansive circles. Where can we begin to draw our circle wider to be more inclusive of others?
I woke up in bed one morning with an unusual word stuck like a splinter in my morning mind: perichoresis; a rather odd word. I don't know how it got there. I dug it out and looked it up. It's a Greek word whose root denotes continued circular movement, like that of a spinning wheel. A related word is perichoreuo, which means to "dance in a ring or circle." The word perichoresis was used in the early centuries of the Eastern Church to describe the intertwining, encircling movement of the persons of the Trinity. This word stirs up a wonderful image in my imagination. It's a mystic vision of the new heaven and new earth that is to come; an undivided community, a united humanity; a time when all human circles have faded into the boundless circle of God.
Imagine God as a divine Circle Dancer,
a heavenly whirling dervish,
who has been extending a hand to the world
throughout the ages
to lead all creation in a celestial folk dance in the round.
God is inviting us all to join the circle dance.
We're being called to twist and twirl,
to follow the lead of God's light feet,
turning and turning and ever turning in a never ending,
inclusive circle of God's joyful, life-giving movement
across the floor of time.
Oh, to be caught up in the Spirit's swing and swirl
until all dividing circles disappear
and we fall dizzy
into the encircling embrace of God! Hallelujah!