Via Creativa: The Island of Misfit Toys / The Wise Misfits

Read the rest of the Via Creativa: Island of Misfit Toys series

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for Epiphany Sunday:

Then you shall see and be radiant. (Isaiah 60:1-6)
They left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:1-12)
Be wise and help all beings impartially, abandoning none. (Tao Te Ching, 27th verse)

Our first song comes from Melissa Etheridge. Born in Leavenworth, Kansas, the singer and songwriter was rejected by the lesbian record label Olivia in 1985. Three years later she released her first album, and the hit song “Bring Me Some Water” from that album was nominated for a Grammy. Olivia Records has been kicking themselves ever since, I’m sure. Today’s song comes from her 2008 holiday album called A New Thought for Christmas. It’s called “Light a Light.”

‘Tis the season of change
The seasons are the contrast
The key to life and how it’s done
It’s time to let go of all our past
And let go of what’s to come
Write down your excuses
And turn them into dust
Plant the seeds of change
Water it with trust

(Chorus) And light a light – tonight we light a light
We light a light – tonight we light a light
Now that this time is ending,
And everyone is here
We light a light,
A light this year
‘Tis the season of change

According to official Catholic Church doctrine, I am “disordered.” They use this word to describe someone who has what they call “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” You see, I have a tendency to love my wife, my same-sex partner, a love the Catholic Church deems as “disordered,” since such a union cannot result in children.

The church uses this kind of language in order to shame people, to call them into a sexual status that the church believes is “ordered” and “normal.” Sadly, far too many people have been shamed and bullied by these words and have tried to change or deny their natural “disorder” of homosexuality and have tried to conform their lives to look like what the church says it should be. Because of this enforced conformity, some people have left the church or abandoned God all together. Still others live lives of quiet desperation, trying to conform to something they, deep inside, are not. Still others have given up the fight all together and committed suicide, preferring death over a life some old, celibate men in frilly dresses have called “disordered.”

As a misfit, however, I am proud to wear the label “disordered.” If anyone has seen my house or my desk, you already know that “order” is something I “dissed” a long time ago. But, seriously, I love being called “disordered” by the Catholic Church, and any other church or government body, because what it means is that I am what Martin Luther King Jr. called “a transformed nonconformist.”

In his book, Strength to Love, King writes an entire essay about the necessity of becoming a “transformed nonconformist” – someone who will gladly remain maladjusted to the bigotry and hatred that permeated the world during his time, and continues to pollute our own world.

King writes that he “never did intend to adjust to the evils of segregation and discrimination. I never did intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I never did intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. […] I call upon all [people] of good will to be maladjusted because it may well be that the salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.”

I will add that I never intend to adjust myself to the idea that love between two same-sex people is “disordered” or wrong, because love – in all its many and beautiful forms – is what brings light to this dark old world of ours, and we had better embrace it where we find it.

It is the maladjusted – the wise misfit – King says who will ultimately help us “emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daylight of freedom and justice.”

By being wise, maladjusted misfits, Jubilants, we light a light in this dark old world. ‘Tis the season of change.

What do we have
What do we have not
What do we need that isn’t here
This mindless numb consuming
Is driven by a subtle fear
It’s time we stop believing
That there will not be enough
I know they said it on the TV
So turn it off,
Break the chains
Step outside and feel the love

(Chorus) And light a light – tonight we light a light
We light a light – tonight we light a light
Now that this time is ending,
And everyone is here
We light a light,
A light this year
‘Tis the season of change

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

This passage, late in the book of Isaiah, comes from a tradition that theologians call “Third Isaiah.” The book is divided into three separate writings that were edited together. This “Third Isaiah” is believed to be written by a school of disciples of Isaiah, not actually Isaiah himself.

In this passage we find that those exiled to Babylon have returned home, only to be made outcasts among the outcasts.

Those who had not been exiled, but remained in Jerusalem, were not glad to see their old friends and neighbors return after those long years. These returning Hebrews had new ideas, new ways of seeing things. Years of being misfits in Babylon and had changed them, and the folks back home didn’t care to let them take part in their traditional reindeer games.

You see, these returning exiles learned a few things while in captivity. First, they learned that being so exclusive about who God loves and who God does not love, or who is chosen and who is not chosen, isn’t really a healthy way to live in the world. They realized that God had called them to live differently, to be more inclusive, more accepting, more loving. It is in this section of Third Isaiah that we find these new transformed nonconformists opening the temple to those who had been previously excluded like eunuchs and foreigners.

The hometown crowd didn’t see it that way. They had their status quo down and these new maladjusted nonconformists were trying to change their way of life.

It reminds me a bit of poor Rudolph in Christmastown. You see, Santa and his crew had a way of doing things – traditions that they held dear. None of those traditions included a red-nosed reindeer or a dentist elf. When they discovered that these misfits were among them, they were shunned. Rudolph’s blinking nose and Hermey’s desire to tinker with teeth were “disordered” in their Christmastown world, and were not to be tolerated under any condition.

What Rudolph, and these returning Israelites offered to those who had adjusted themselves to the ways of the world around them was one thing – light. At first, Rudolph’s bright, shining nose was an oddity, then an irritation and a distraction – but in the end, it was the light that saved Christmas that year. It was only because of Rudolph, with his nose so bright, that he was able to lead Santa’s sleigh on that stormy Christmas Eve night.

It was only because of these maladjusted nonconformists that Israel would be able to find its way back to the Holy, into that right relationship with a wild, inclusive God that they were seeking all along.

It is the transformed nonconformist, we misfits who refuse to adjust ourselves to the injustices of this world, that can bring light into the darkness that envelops our world.

The wise misfit knows that we each contain a light that the world desperately needs. There is so much darkness in this world, because darkness is the status quo and many of our brothers and sisters sit in darkness because they have been told that this darkness – this world of injustice and greed and war – is all there is. So, in despair, they extinguish their own light, or seek to hide it so they can fit in with the world’s darkness.

The Holy calls us to celebrate our light. In Jubilee! we always say we have to keep the main thing, the main thing. The main thing, Jubilants, is our light – that light of the Holy that shines deep within each of us. It is the wise misfit, the transformed nonconformist, who embraces their own light and bravely shines it into the world, even if that light is mocked, misunderstood or others seek to extinguish it with criticism, hatred or rejection. We light a light anyway, even though the forces of darkness are great. We light a light today and every day so that the world can see and know that main thing – that light of love and peace.

“Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”

(Chorus) And light a light – tonight we light a light
We light a light – tonight we light a light
Now that this time is ending,
And everyone is here
We light a light,
A light this year
‘Tis the season of change

(Bridge) We will change
We shall change
We must change
Heaven is inside it’s all around
Not just above
Choose only love
Heaven is inside it’s all around
Not just above
Choose only love
Choose only love
Choose only love
Choose only love
Choose only love
And light a light – tonight we light a light
Light a light – tonight we light a light
We light a light.
we light a light
tonight, We light a light
‘Tis the season of change

“What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man but a good man’s job?” asks the ancient Tao Te Ching. What old Lao Tzu seeks to remind us of is this: we are all teachers and we are all students. We can all learn something – even if it’s what not to do – from the light of others. Those we call “bad” are here to teach us – not about them, but about ourselves. What we perceive as “bad” in others is in us as well, and what we perceive as “good” in others is in everyone we call bad.

Neither Rudolph, nor Hermey, ever labeled those who bullied them as “bad.” Instead, they both realized at some point, they had to come home to their community, just as those exiled Israelites had to one day return home. Rudolph and Hermey could have spent their time holding grudges and reminding those in Christmastown about how badly they treated them. But, they didn’t do that. Instead, Rudolph was honored to shine his light for his community, and his community was humbled by his grace, even in the face of how they had treated him in the past.

“Be wise and help all beings impartially, abandoning none.” Those bullies, those haters, those who taunt and reject us – they are our teachers – and we are their students. They are also our students, and we are their teachers. Instead of judging others, or trying to prove how much better we are than others, let us seek to learn from everyone. Let us always return honor and respect, even if we never receive it. Waste no opportunities to do good, even to those who hate you. This is called following the light.

Breathe deeply.

James Vernon Taylor was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1948. His family moved to North Carolina when sweet baby James was three years old. There he learned how to play the cello and took up guitar in 1960.

After building his music career in New York and London, Taylor was signed to The Beatles Apple Records in 1968 and had a hit with Carolina in My Mind. Today’s song comes from his 1988 album Never Die Young.

The song is called Home By Another Way.

[VERSE] Those magic men the Magi
Some people call them wise
Or oriental, even kings
Well anyway, those guys
They visited with Jesus
They sure enjoyed their stay
Then warned in a dream of King Herod’s scheme
They went home by another way

[CHORUS] Yes they went home by another way
Home by another way
Maybe me and you can be wise guys too
And go home by another way
We can make it another way
Safe home as they used to say
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high
And go home another way

In our Jesus story, we find our guy still soiling his swaddling clothes in that manger in Bethlehem and playing host to some wise guys who followed a star to find him. But, let’s back up a minute and talk about these wise misfits who came to see the baby Jesus.

Their visit proves what we already know about Jesus – he was a transformed nonconformist and even his birth heralds this status as these wise misfits come for a visit. You see, these wise guys were Gentiles. They were not Jews, yet they knew the birth of this child meant something special for entire world, not just for the Jewish people.

The Magi probably belonged to a priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, a sect that closely studied the stars and valued science and astronomy.

God, the ultimate transformed nonconformist, uses Gentile scientists to reveal her in-breaking into the world through this baby Jesus.

As Lutheran Theological Seminary professor Craig Satterlee writes:

God seems to do whatever it takes to reach out to and embrace all people. God announces the birth of the Messiah to shepherds through angels on Christmas, to Magi via a star on Epiphany, and to the political and religious authorities of God’s own people in through visitors from the East. From a manger, where a child lies wrapped in bands of cloth, God’s reach, God’s embrace in Christ Jesus, gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners. Jesus touches people who are sick and people who live with disabilities. Jesus even calls the dead back to life. Ultimately, Jesus draws all people to himself as he is lifted up on the cross. In Christ Jesus, no one is beyond God’s embrace.

Jesus lived his entire ministry maladjusted to the ways of the world, eating with outcasts and sinners, and healing the sick and lame who had been discarded and forgotten by society. He spent his entire ministry calling those who dared to follow him to also become maladjusted to all the injustice and unfairness in the world. Instead of going along to get along, Jesus calls us to be transformed nonconformists – misfits – among the accepted ways of this world.

That means we must be like those wise magi, especially in dealing with the powers that rule this world. The powerful are always afraid that someone will take it all away from them. Herod, upon hearing about a baby in a manger, is afraid for his kingdom. He had hoped to use the Magi to track down the baby so he could kill him. When the Magi are clued in on Herod’s real agenda in a dream, they go home a different way and never speak to Herod again about the baby they found.

Today’s world is no different, the powerful are always on the lookout for threats to their position, always ready to go to war to keep their power, always ready to kill or oppress anyone they feel is a threat.

When the powers of the world seek to dim or snuff out our light, it’s time for us to get creative like those wise guys, and go home by another way. here are a million ways to get to the Holy – and those routes hardly ever go through the powerful – or even the religious – in the world. No religion, faith or belief system holds a monopoly on the Holy. We can all get to that manger by following the star – that inner light that shines in us all. When we find the way home blocked, or too dangerous, there’s always another way to let our light shine. There is always another way home.

Breathe deeply.

[VERSE] Steer clear of royal welcomes
Avoid a big to-do
A king who would slaughter the innocents
Will not cut a deal for you
He really, really wants those presents
He’ll comb your camel’s fur
’til his boys announce they’ve found trace amounts
Of your frankincense, gold and myrrh

[CHORUS] Time to go home by another way
Home by another way
You have to figure that God’s saying play the odds
And go home by another way
We can make it another way
Safe home as they used to say
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high
And go home another way

The wise men set out “and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Oh, how we long to be like the wise men, overwhelmed with joy whenever we find the Holy in the world. But, too often, we are like Herod – afraid that the light that shines within us will demand that we give up our power. We may not hold much power in the world, but we like to think we have power in our own lives. When we hear about the Holy, about this amazing light that shines forth into the world, we are intrigued, but we’re also, like Herod, frightened.

What if this light demands that I give up my power? What if this light demands that I trust it completely and stop trusting in my own power? What if this light means that I must give up control, not just of the world around me, but control of the world within me?

For Rudolph, accepting his light meant he had to give up any desire to hate or hold grudges against those who had hurt him. Instead, when Santa, who had led the rejection of the red-nosed reindeer, asked Rudolph to lead his sleigh, Rudolph didn’t demand an apology or remind Santa of how badly he had treated him. Instead, he said, “I’d be honored.” It was Rudolph’s light, and his ability to love and forgive even those who had hurt him deeply, that ultimately redeems all of Christmastown and saves Christmas.

We, too, must give up our dreams of revenge on those who have hurt us. The light within us demands that we give up any power we think we have in this world – especially the power to get even with those we call “enemies.”

Does this willingness to forgive mean we stop working for justice and peace and equity in the world? No, it means we double down on that kind of work, because “a bad man is a good man’s job.” We are called to use our light to teach others of the peace and justice that the Holy has revealed to us. We are called to find kindred spirits and join our light with the light of others who also seek peace and justice and equity in this world. We all fear change, but it is our Holy misfit nature that calls us to follow the light no matter where it may lead us, or no matter what it calls us to give up in this world.

When we set our eyes on following that star, that light of the Holy, we begin to see the world with new eyes. We begin to recognize the Holy no matter where we see it – in a baby in a manger, in a homeless person on the street, in an innocent victim of war, in a person we don’t like, or in a difficult family member.

The wise misfit always knows that God is speaking in everything, in every moment. We often choose the darkness, but wise misfits are those who choose to open their eyes to the light of the Holy all around.

And when we recognize the Holy, we, like the Magi, are overwhelmed with joy, and in our joy, we kneel down and open our treasure chests. We may not have frankincense, gold and myrrh to offer, but we have the greatest gift of all that we can give to the world — ourselves.

The greatest treasure we have to offer is our maladjusted, disordered, transformed nonconformist selves. This is the gift that the world craves, a gift of light that brings others out of the darkness of conformity and despair.

“We are called,” King writes, “to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.”

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,” Jubilants! As misfits, as transformed nonconformists, we are witnesses to, and bringers of, the light in this world. We are called to be wise misfits “and help all beings impartially, abandoning none.”

Don’t be afraid of the Herods in this world who seek to dim or extinguish your light. “Arise, shine,” because no matter how dire the dangers may be that surround us, whether it’s King Herod or the Abominable Snowman, the Holy guarantees that there is always a safe route home.

[BRIDGE] Home is where they want you now,
You can more or less assume
that you’ll be welcome in the end
Mustn’t let King Herod haunt you so
Or fantasize his features when you’re looking at a friend

[VERSE] Well it pleasures me to be here
And to sing this song tonight
They tell me that life is a miracle
And I figure that they’re right
But Herod’s always out there
He’s got our card on file
It’s a lead pipe cinch, if we give an inch
Old Herod likes to take a mile

[CHORUS] It’s best to go home by another way
Home by another way
We got this far to a lucky star
But tomorrow is another day
We can make it another way
Safe home as they used to say
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high
And go home another way

Oh, Yeah!