Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 119:1-8) transports me to an event much anticipated in households across America in the 1960s and 1970s, a Sunday evening television show that would preempt Lassie once a year and transport viewers to a magical land over the rainbow. Because it was on CBS, our family, despite our best attempts to get the antenna adjusted just right, had to watch the annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz on a somewhat snowy screen. But we were transfixed, waiting for that moment when the snowy screen turned from black and white to color, and the Munchkins got Dorothy started down that yellow brick road, singing Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the yellow brick road. Year after year, we learned the lesson again and again that the yellow brick paths we think point to trusted authorities might instead lead us in the direction of authoritarian bullies who pull strings behind curtains to control people’s lives. And then, many years later, and many, many viewings later, just when we thought we really understood the world L. Frank Baum created, along comes Gregory Maguire and his book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Read the Wicked series or see the musical, and you discover that you really didn’t know the story of Oz at all. You learn the tragic history that caused some people to be labeled “good” even though they were bullies in their own right. The fuller story redeems characters who had long been labeled “wicked.” It’s a fascinating read on human nature, on the political and religious structures that influence how we judge and interpret human nature.
Reading through the sacred texts of scripture, something I grew up being challenged to do on a yearly basis, I heard the call to follow over and over and over again. Fifteen times the Psalms, including today’s passage, sings encouragement for the faithful to follow – to follow God’s way, God’s decrees, statutes, laws, commands. Follow, follow, follow, follow. The more I did my annual reading through the scriptures, through, snowy as the reception sometimes was, the more I saw the various ways people heard and interpreted that call. Sometimes, especially when people of faith rose in status and privilege, the call led them down a yellow brick road to authoritarian power, to a fortress mentality and exclusive exceptionalism, even using provocative language of violence and hate in the guise of praise and worship. Then the prophets would come, pull back the curtains on this authoritarian wizardry that attempted to merge worldly ways of power with God’s ways of love and mercy, and call people back home to their original covenant faith and their identity as a light to the nations. And then, just when we thought we understood the story and the cast of characters, who the villains and the good guys were, along came Jesus, who gave us the fuller story, the deeper story, peeling back the layers of a tragic history that had caused religious leaders to be labeled “good” even though they were bullying people in attempts to exercise social control. Jesus redeemed characters long thought to be “wicked,” eating and drinking in their homes, healing their infirmities, bringing them from the margins into the center of God’s presence, and calling them to follow the simple but profound path of love.
The book Wicked is also about following, but not a yellow brick road. As one of the early tragic heroes, Turtle Heart, said after hearing the infant Elphaba speak her first words, When words are to speak in the air, actions must to follow. We hear a lot of words spoken in the air today, and we read a lot of sacred words. The question is, what actions follow? Do the words and decrees take us down a yellow brick road in the direction of authoritarian power plays and condemnation of the “wrong” people? Or do the words lead us in the direction of redemptive love toward our neighbors and our enemies? To follow decrees in a way that authorizes our preconceived notions and shores up cultural prejudices is not faith. Faith is trusting that there’s a a fuller story, a deeper Way, than the one we’ve been presented, and following that Way wherever it might lead us, including to places that contradict our natural presuppositions. Redemption is risky. Follow that path, and you might wind up, like Jesus, singing goodbye to the howling dogs of high society and being labeled wicked.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.