“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” (Revelation 12:11)
The work of the People
One of the signs of a true artist is a willingness to work patiently and lovingly with even the most inferior materials. -David James Duncan
David James Duncan’s novel “The Brother’s K,” is about a family that lives in Camas, WA. The place where I pastored for 6 years before moving to Greensboro. Papa, one of the main characters in the book, is a paper mill worker who has gone semi-professional in Baseball. He does fairly well as a pitcher for his team until he has his thumb crushed in an accident at the mill.
Consequently, he falls into depression and begins to abuse substances. So in an attempt to regain ground and find some life he builds a shed in the backyard where he begins practicing his pitching again.
Kade, the youngest son, describes the shed:
Read from – [page 105–106] – [Maybe – 117–118]
Then, after building the shed, Papa says to Kade about the shed:
“The thing is…I don’t want you getting worked up over nothing when I start spending time out here. I build this shed because throwing baseballs keeps my head on straight. I did not build it to inaugurate some sort of fairytale comeback.”
“No matt how well I may eventually seem to be throwing, and no matter what your all-knowing brother Everett may say, all I’m ever gonna do out here is toss the pitches’ equivalent of harelip prayers. Okay?”
Don’t think of it as baseball, Kade. Call it my hobby, or some weird kind of worship maybe. Call it psalmball, or shed ball, or thumbball if you life. But remember it’s not baseball. It’s not a comeback. You’ve got to promise me that” (Brother’s K, 113).
And then they describe Papa’s pitching this way:
“Papa wasn’t kidding about “harelip prayers,” though. His resurrected pitches were fast, event to Everett’s educated eye, but shockingly wild. We soon grew accustomed to the resounding thwham! of balls denting the bare garage siding [instead of hitting their intended target, an old mattress], followed by a whump! inside the shed (Papa’s fist slamming the wall)…[followed by choice words spoken] and a palpably disgusted silence. Every time he fell into one of these funks I expected to see him stalk out of the shed and into the house to announce that he’d sworn off his new hobby forever. But instead, sooner or later, out would come another scorcher, which usually also missed the mattress and blasted the bare wall so hard I half expected the ball to stick” (118).
Here is what I find striking about this:
The materials he uses for his hand-built shed are as inferior as his useless thumb. And the persistence with which he goes out night after night throwing that baseball around in such a wild manner wasn’t with the hope that someday he would become pro again, but because he hoped his lost dignity would be found, that the muscle memory of throwing a ball would return to his once well-trained arm, and that he could create something out of those pitch-turned prayers that might bring back some of his life.
I’d like to suggest to you that the building of this shed and the persistent practice of throwing those wild pitches turned prayers was for Papa a kind of liturgy. He took what inferior materials he had and through persistence work he was able to turn inferior materials into a beautiful work of art.
Now I know that among Friends the word liturgy can be a bad word, so let me explain. Often we think of liturgy as “dead ritual,” simply going through the motions with no intention or heart behind it.
But really Liturgy literally means, “the work of the people.” Or a public work performed and acted upon by a person or community.
I would suggest for Quakers that we have a participatory liturgy, where everyone in our meeting is invited to participate in this public work we call, meeting for worship.
And this image of Papa in his shed throwing what called “psalmballs” and “harelip prayers” shows us that form of liturgy is very much alive and has the power to save lives. There is nothing dead about Papa’s pitching, because what he creates is a new story for himself one pitch at a time.
The ways in which we put our prayers and worship into practice as a community are not only powerful but, can very much be about God’s work of taking our good and inferior parts and creating something new out of it.
In Revelation 12 we also see liturgy at work. In fact, there are two kinds of liturgy being described here in this part of Revelation.
Our passage falls right in the middle of three scenes of worship that take place between chapters 11–15. With a dramatic conflict symbolized by a dragon and a woman, Michael and angels, and then two beasts in chapter 13, John shows us that there are two religions: a religion of empire and a religion of the lamb that was slain. Both have their own respective liturgies. Both shape and narrate what life is ultimately about, but one is damning while the other is rooted in liberation. These two liturgies are in conflict over human lives.
Biblical scholar Wes Howard-Brook writes:
This war took the form of ritual crucifixions, arena contests with lions, and other public spectacles of execution. John’s insight is that these are not merely “political” acts, but liturgical acts as well…[Even] “the courtrooms with the robed magistrates, the choreographed rising and sittings, collective responses and other ritual acts” are all a part of this “liturgical demeanor” (WHB 211).
In other words, the empire’s religion of temples, statutes, decrees, ordinances, and symbols, are for John a kind of liturgy that dulls the hearts and minds of its subjects.
While on the other hand, the liturgy of the lamb that was slain, is one that is rooted in non-violence, in love of neighbor and enemy, and understands God to be for the world, rather than against it.
Therefore, liturgy can be used for positive or negative formation. It can either dull the heart, stunt the imagination, and make us content with the way things are, or worse, lead them us to do horrific things to human bodies in the name of God as Christians have often been known to do.
Or liturgy can slowly over time rebuild us from the inside out, free us from what binds us, and lead us into a liberatory life that dismantles oppression and harmful systems in this world.
Instead of dulling our hearts so that we are less in the world, the liturgy of the lamb “enables us to dwell more freely and creatively within it…” (James Alison, Worship in a Violent World, 39)
John’s Revelation is written to a second-generation church struggling with compromise and apathy, which has plateaued, lost steam and direction – I think it is a letter meant to spark their imaginations, reshape their liturgy, inspire hope, and, like Papa in Brothers K, help them find life again before it is too late!
The liturgy of the lamb takes whatever materials are available, whether perceived as good or inferior and begins building and rebuilding. It is always a movement towards life and freedom and love.
Subversive Worship In Violent Times
John’s revelation couches these conflicts between the great red dragon and the pregnant woman within the context of worship to tell us something very important: Christian worship is meant to be a counter-narrative to the liturgy of empire.
Think about today’s political landscape, the infighting, the victim-blaming, the attack ads, the scapegoating. This is all the liturgy of empire made manifest before our very eyes. It thrives off rallying against one another, and building up to a sacrifice, so as to create a “public spectacle of execution.”
But fortunately, Christians know so much better and are not given over to such practices!
Our worship is meant to form us into living in ways that are meant to be “public spectacles of life and caregiving.”
I like how one theologian describes worship (James Alison),
When people tell me they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it’s supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It’s a long-term education in become un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn’t abstract from our present or our sounding or our neighbor, but which increases our attention, our presence and our appreciation for what is around us. The build-up to a sacrifice is exciting, the dwelling gratitude that the sacrifice has already happened, and that we’ve been forgiven for and through it [and therefore have no more need of sacrifice or scapegoats] is, in terms excitement, a long drawn-out let-down (Alison, Undergoing God, 45–46).
What I like about the liturgy of Papa’s baseball shed and his psalmball is that instead abstracting himself from the pain of his situation, he enters into this long and drawn out process of squaring with that pain and being transformed through it.
His liturgy is one in which brokenness, weakness, and his inferior thumb is not something to be rid of but actually becomes the material through which he patiently and lovingly begins to craft a new story for his life.
Is our practice of worship one that draws people into this work of presence and attention to what is right in front of us or does it ultimately abstract us from the needs of our community?
Is our liturgy of worship one where human lives are disposable or does it take the good and the inferior materials of our lives, and not only accept them but allow the life and Light of Jesus to patiently and lovingly bring about new creation?
Does our liturgy of worship aim to exclude and scapegoat, or does it work to build up the beloved community, embracing the Kingdom of God among us?
I want to close with a song that I love by a band from Ohio called Over the Rhine. It is called “All My Favorite People Are Broken” and is a song that embodies this message today that:
May the One who creates and recreates life continue to work within us here so that we might be ones who embody the beloved community, and embrace those who are broken among us and in our neighborhoods with the love of Christ Jesus. Amen.