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In a fascinating episode of RadioLab on NPR, an academic who studies ancient texts found a real issue in two very influential books – The Iliad and the Odyssey. As a very descriptive writer, Homer often gives great details, clearly observational and particular. But when he looked carefully at these texts, the academic noticed that the way Homer used color is odd. Black and white seem pretty typical, but he describes the metal iron as violet, as he does sheep. He describes the sea as “wine colored”, which could be just poetic, but he also describes oxen as wine-colored as well. He describes both honey and what he calls “faces tight with fear” as green. He uses black and white hundreds of times, but red only about 13 times in both books, yellow and green under 10 times. And he never uses the color blue. Never.
Other classic Greek texts also use colors in strange ways and also never use the color blue. Never. The academic’s conclusion was that Homer was colorblind…and so was every other Greek person, which seems ridiculous. So what else might have been happening here? Another academic, some time later, looks at the same research and then expands it beyond to other cultures where she finds, in ancient Vedic hymns and Icelandic tales, even in our original Hebrew texts from the Bible – no blue. There are descriptions of the heavens, massive clouds, fiery chariots, the vast expanse of the sky and…no blue. The sky isn’t blue.
Enter a social psychologist decades later. Studying a tribe in Namibia who have no word for blue, he showed them pictures of several squares – mostly green except for one, which was blue. The tribe stared at the screen, unable to declare a distinction. How did he explain this? When we make a category for something, when we name it, it creates a feedback loop. It is a difficult thing to understand, but the claim is that without the word “blue” you don’t notice the blue. Having a name makes it real. In other words, experience really, really shapes our world.
I know what you might be thinking – but what about the sky? It’s blue. Of course, science tells us that the sky really isn’t blue – there’s light refraction, and the color blue travels in smaller, shorter waves so we see it in the expanse of the sky more readily. But we all describe it as blue, so consistently so that we use it as the penultimate example of fact – next thing you know, he’ll tell you the sky isn’t blue. So, the psychologist happens to be teaching his young daughter colors at the time and he tries an experiment. He teaches her all the colors, including blue, but never teaches her that the sky is blue. Finally after she shows that she knows all her colors, he points to the sky and asks, “What color is that?” She freezes. She has no answer, as if he is asking her to describe a great void. After weeks of this question, she finally acquiesces to say “white”, but even that isn’t consistent. Only after many months does she begin to condition herself to think that the sky is, in fact, blue.
It’s not, the researchers are quick to say, that blue doesn’t exist until we name it, or that we don’t see it until we know what to call it. It’s more, the social psychologist says, like the volume is turned down very low on blue until we have a category for it…until we have space in our awareness…and then the volume slowly increases.
The Book of Acts is full of scenes where the volume is being turned up. The Holy Spirit visits Peter three times on a rooftop to tell him that his definitions of “clean” and “unclean” are his – not God’s. Saul has such a transformative encounter with the risen Christ that he changes his name and his entire life, becoming the apostle Paul, preaching that there is no Gentile or Jew, no slave nor free, no male or female in Christ. Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch. A member of another tribe and race. A gender non-conforming person. A queer person. And Philip struggles to understand how to be faithful when the amazing grace of God demands that he set aside his prejudices and listen to someone, even welcome and embrace them. So he has to develop a new category – and give this eunuch the name they are asking for – beloved child of God.
So he baptizes the eunuch. All of these encounters turn up the volume on a new world, changing for each disciple what is possible with God.
As they realize the presence of Jesus post-Easter, and feel the annoying deliberateness of the Spirit, the disciples have to do some backtracking – like when you are raising kids and suddenly you realize how right your parents were, and you have to scramble to remember all the things they said. Now what was it Jesus said about loving your enemy? Do you remember what he said to the crowd gathered to stone the woman caught in adultery, or what he told us after he met in the broad daylight with the foreign woman from another religion? What did he teach us about love?
The Book of Acts is an adventure for the disciples in turning up the volume and saying to people around them that the sky isn’t blue. It is marked by the arrival of the Holy Spirit, here to guide the church in its development, or to pester us into compliance with grace, whatever is needed. So what does it say to us now, as the church, that these stories of our beginnings are wrapped in the movement of a Holy Spirit that re-defines the norms, demands the welcome of people once rejected, and challenges the categories of clean and unclean so carefully crafted by religious tradition? This “Holy Spirit” even works against scripture, openly defying the “law” with this ridiculous notion of God’s love for all people.
As the church struggles with the rights and welcome of LGBTQ persons, as our state once again tries to legislate a particular “morality”, as we debate guns and violence and whether or not what happens to your kid impacts my kid…as we move into Mental Health awareness month and what we are aware of is the vast chasm between our understanding of mental health needs and the resources available…we need the Holy Spirit. The volume needs to be turned up – not so we can find something that has never existed, but so we can hear it, so we can experience the life of an LGBTQ person seeking to claim themselves in a world that insists on narrower definitions and have that shape our attitudes, or the reality of a person seeking mental health wellness with little support or even acknowledgement, so it might guide our decisions. For when we allow for re-naming to occur, we we can hear someone loud enough to let their voice change us, we practice grace and hospitality. When we take the chance to do exactly what Jesus taught us, to love instead of arguing over the rules, to extend grace instead of deciding who is the worst sinner, to bring peace to the table when it is set for revenge, we discover the newness that God has ready for us each and every day – if we will open our hearts to receive it.
It is only when the disciples began to practice the same kind of love that Jesus practiced that their vision expanded. As they worried less about categorizing and judging people and simply tried to love them as Jesus would have this amazing thing happened. They began to allow that perhaps God didn’t see the world the way they did, they started to make some new categories and to see things they couldn’t see before.
What places in our lives do we have the volume turned down so low on that we can’t even hear it? Where do we lack even categories, maybe because of ignorance, maybe because of intentionality, maybe because of prejudice? What are you clinging to because it’s the way you have always done it, or because you don’t know another way? Where have you decided that you know someone, that you’ve got them all figured out, because of their label, or a single action? Who is speaking a new name to you? And who’s volume do you have down so low that you can’t hear it? Is it possible that the Spirit is whispering in your ear…there’s another shade, another tint, another color…could it be the change you seek isn’t found in looking at the same places, or in finding something in which you can be certain, but rather in having the courage to not know and to move ahead anyway, trusting in God’s love and seeking the newness that God is placing before you?
The Spirit is calling to each of us today – in the songs of the early morning birds and the cries of victims of injustice…in the hopes of people who gather each morning at 6am to find another day without drugging themselves into numbness, the dedication of an immigrant seeking refuge and opportunity despite the laws, and the resilience of people who do what they can, where they are, with what they have, though they really want to crawl into bed. The Spirit is calling us to look out at the world around us and to see it with God’s eyes, in the full spectrum, with possibilities as endless as creation itself.
Open our eyes, O God, to see what you have already placed before us…