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Toddlers, and Object Permanence

Today, when I woke up this morning and discovered that our government would not be working today, I stomped around, made coffee, stomped around some more, and scared the cat.
I wondered what this would mean for one of our food distribution programs at the church, which channels federal funds through the states to give out groceries once a month (spoiler: not right now, it won’t! Which is great because it’s not like we didn’t just cut WIC or SNAP). And I posted snarky things to Twitter.

Then, still fuming in a manner worthy of a cartoon character, I drove to school. I led chapel with the preschool, and I looked at zoo animals with Pre-K (there was a sugar glider and a boa constrictor). And I decided to eat lunch with the toddler class.

Toddlers are adorable, and charismatic, as anyone can tell you. However, they lack certain basic skills–like the ability to pour milk reliably without spilling, or the ability to ask for what they need, or the ability to problem-solve, past “I want my cake now.” This is never on better display than lunchtime.

But their teachers were brilliant. Every two seconds, they calmly interjected, “Use your words.” “You can’t eat your cake now–what will you have for your dessert?” “You can’t take his sandwich, because what will he have to eat?”

Again and again, they tried to teach the toddlers to think outside themselves. It was lovely.

Let’s send them to Congress.

(Here’s what I said on Sunday. It relates to toddlers, too.)

September 28-29, 2013
Ordinary Time, Proper 21, Year C
Luke 16:19-21

There’s this concept in child psych development called object permanence. The idea is that infants don’t realize that when they aren’t looking at something, it still exists. They close their eyes, it vanishes.
Babies get over the initial phase of this pretty quick—you won’t find a toddler all that amused by peek-a-boo at 2 or 3 years old.
But from this initial concept flow other, more subtle ideas: teachers must live at school. Priests must live at church, when it’s clear that this only REALLY holds true during Holy Week. Toys might come alive at night, since I’m no longer watching them.
Basically, the idea that people only do the things I see them do. They perform the roles I assign in my life’s drama. And that’s it.

And most of us, MOST OF US, get over this. We grow up. We move beyond. It’s called maturity. And we get there…

Except, evidently, for rich man in the parable today—This rich man, who interestingly has no name–he goes his entire life–everyday!. Living his life, with Lazarus right in front of him, right by the gates of his house.
Their lives are described as happening in parallel–the rich man had food, Lazarus had scraps. Rich man had a big house, Lazarus lived on the streets. Rich man lived in comfort, Lazarus lived in misery, plagued by an icky skin disease, and dogs who would lick the sores. (Which has to be one of the grossest descriptions in the gospels. Ew.) Then they both died.
Connected lives they led–practically tripping over each other too. Lazarus lived right outside the rich man’s house. He begged from the rich man’s table. He knew exactly who and what the rich man was.
Yet the rich man never noticed, never acknowledged him.

And then parallels end. They die– The rich man goes to torment, Lazarus to bliss…though I’m going to pause and point out that this description of the afterlife isn’t our current cultural understanding of heaven with the singing cherubs, puffy clouds and harps, up above, with hell as a fiery pit of torment far below. (It’s another sermon, but that’s something that’s more Dante and the middle ages, than actual Jesus.)

What Jesus is describing is the Jewish version of the afterlife, where all the dead people end up in essentially the same place, on the same plane of existence–its just a question of how happy you get to be when you get there. Clearly, the rich man is less happy than Lazarus.

And so, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to do something for him, please! I need some water, pronto. Because eternal torment is so very hot and thirsty.

This is pretty breathtaking gall. They’re DEAD. It’s OVER, there’s no power left to be won or fought over, and the rich man is still ordering Lazarus around like that’s all he’s good for. .
Even now, EVEN NOW, the rich man hasn’t gotten it.
Because when Abraham vetoes that first suggestion, the rich man still keeps going, and tries to send a resurrected Lazarus to save his brothers from his fate. (Note that he does not volunteer to go himself.)

But as Abraham says–that won’t fix it. The problem here isn’t that the rich man didn’t know what was right during his lifetime. The problem wasn’t that he was confused or ignorant, or even mean. He probably was perfectly nice to those around him.

The problem wasn’t any of those things–the rich man’s problem was that time and again, and even after death! he failed to see Lazarus. He failed to see him for what he truly was– a fellow child of God, worthy of his recognition and care as an equal.
To the rich man, Lazarus was a set-piece, a prop. Someone there to do his bidding, to get him what he needed.

That was how the rich man thought of the world and it so shaped how he thought, that he couldn’t see anything else. He couldn’t see the suffering of Lazarus. He couldn’t see his humanity, or how much they had in common, or even how he might help him.

Because to the rich man, he probably never really thought about Lazarus, since Lazarus never seemed to him as a fully-formed child of God, with thoughts, dreams, and a life of his own. Lazarus never appeared to him as real, as worthy of full consideration, and until that happened, the rich man was stuck.

It’s easy, in the busyness of life, to start shrinking people down. To start believing that people are here for uses, to reduce them to functions and what purpose they can serve. It’s easy to believe, on a very busy afternoon, that the checkout lady in Target is there only to wait on you….and that she isn’t also there to make ends meet, feed and clothe herself. It’s easy to assume, if we’re not careful,that the homeless man on the corner is there only to wave his sign and collect money…and had no life previous to this moment, or life after this.
And it’s easy to give in to the voices in our public discourse that shrink entire groups of people into stereotypes, the better to make us afraid and keep them in power. How often have we heard that it suggested the poor are lazy, and it’s their fault if they can’t make ends meet? Or if you are sick, well, it’s on you to get better, and if you can’t, then that’s probably your fault somehow. Or how often have we heard a so-called Christian preacher threaten of a great End-Time Battle, where blood will flow in the streets, and all the righteous will be saved, at the cost of the unrighteous…who evidently were just there to prove a point?

Our government is about to tear itself apart right now, because Congress can’t let go of these two-dimensional images of the sick and the poor. That’s how far this has gotten. That’s what this leads to.

It should probably go without saying, but there is nothing Christian about that. There is nothing Christian in shrinking each other down. There is nothing Christian about letting everything fall apart, because we can’t take the time or energy to see the full humanity in each person.

It might be easier, quicker, more politically expedient to deal in stereotypes, and 2-dimensional figures, but that’s not where Christ calls us. Christ calls us to find the image of God, the full, complete person in everyone we meet. Not just the part that makes us comfortable or that meets our needs.
Even when the person we encounter is not like us, even when they do things we disagree with,, even when they are quite literally needy,— when our recognizing their humanity means that they need something from our abundance, and we have to do something to accommodate them.
Even then.
We are called upon to recognize the fullness of each person. As a full person. As a full child of God.
Only in that way, will we begin to see the fullness of what God is up to in this world.
Because the real tragedy in the story of Lazarus and the rich man is that these two never got to know each other here on earth. This rich man, who counted himself among the faithful of God, never got to see the love of God working in the life of Lazarus.
As people who follow Christ, we owe it to ourselves to see the Spirit of God working in each and every life. Because that is too good to miss.

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

3 responses »

  1. Thank you.

  2. Object constancy/permanence is one of my favorite psychological concepts/constructs and, for what it’s worth, something I struggled with way into chronological adulthood! For some (okay, people like me) early trauma makes it difficult to grow beyond this and results in hyper-vigilance and phobias like agoraphobia. What will disappear if I look away?

    Anyhoo, not meaning to lecture — if that’s how this is coming across. In fact, I love what you’ve written in the post and reread it several times. As I mentioned via Twitter, I especially appreciate how you’ve described the Jewish notion of “afterlife.” And your call/reminder to see the spirit of God working in everyone, everywhere, at all times is something I need reminding of *all* the time, so thank you for that!

  3. Pingback: SR Angels and Coyote, Michelmas 2013 | Theologybird Writes

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