Going Back to Our Basics: Where the Wild Things Are

The night max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him, “Wild Thing!” and max said, “Ill eat you up!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.  That very night in Max’s room, a forest grew, and grew- and grew, until his ceiling hung with vines and the wall became the world around and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.  And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.

There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.

Turns out, it doesn’t matter who you are, how old you are, whether you grew up in 1963 or 63 BCE – you’re human, and you probably lose your way sometimes.  In fact, these two stories aren’t just about sons getting lost, being hungry, and trying to get back home – they’re about wandering away from home on purpose.

Even if you haven’t literally run away from home like Max or the Prodigal Son, the likelihood that you’ve run away from something, run toward something you thought might be better but just ended up being a place of desolation, a sense of loneliness, the guilt of making bad choices.

This is, after all, the human condition.  It’s the first chapters of Genesis – human beings screwing up in a perfectly good world.  It’s our story, through and through.  We get an idea in our head, make damaging decisions – sometimes, we throw a fit like Max, other times we plan carefully like the son in Luke.  Either way, we end up hungry, scared, and alone somehow.

And it’s not just you and me – it’s us, too – we do it as a people, as species.  It really is the human condition.  The poet William Butler Yeats understood this, from personal experience.  His poem “The Second Coming” was written in 1919, right after the world-changing catastrophe of WWII.  He looked around and saw the destruction the human race was capable of, how far away from the holy we could wander.  Ancient countries found themselves in ruins.  Pillars of civilized living had proven little better than beasts.  The blood of innocent millions stained Europe’s soil.

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

That line, “the falcon cannot hear the falconer,” it sticks in my brain, rattles around.  Think about it for a moment.  The falcon cannot hear the falconer.  Sometimes, I feel like I can’t hear the voice of whatever it is that is supposed to be in charge of the world, in charge of my life.  Then I read that first line again, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre…” Perhaps the reason I can’t hear it is because I’ve wandered so far afield.

I remember one day a few years ago I took my dog Ruby to the park to swim.  Now, I know this dog could hear my voice, because if I say “cheese,” “lunch,” or “walk,” her ears would perk up, even from down the street.  But this day, she took off on her own agenda into the pond.  I wanted her to swim, to tire herself out, but within the limits of what I knew was safe for her.  She took off, happy as, well, a dog chasing ducks on a pond in mid-August.

And just kept swimming, despite the fact that I had gotten increasingly desperate, calling for her to come back.  At first, I knew she heard me (her ears perked up), but then, out in the middle of this enormous pond, I realized that no matter how loudly I called, she was too far away  – she could no longer hear me.

I just had to wait – either for her to come to her senses and turn around, or for the moment when her legs couldn’t tread water anymore and she started to sink.  I readied myself to dive into the lake, just in case.  Okay, so I’ll admit – I was scared she would drown, but I was also ticked.  After all, she knew the rules, she knew her limits, and she also knew that I would let her swim as long as she wanted.  But she disobeyed, blatantly. So, there she was, halfway into the lake, too tired to swim to the other side, to exhausted to swim back – I could see her, but she couldn’t see me – her head was barely above water, and she was in big trouble of her own making.

Back up to Max.  Here’s this little boy, and sailing to the land of the Wild Things. The Wild Things are fearsome-looking monsters, but Max conquers them by “staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once”, and he is made “the king of all wild things”, dancing with the monsters in a “wild rumpus”.   He yells, “Let the Wild Rumpus start!”

“Let the wild rumpus start,” we say, creating the very noise that will drown out the voice we most desperately hope to hear.  Maybe we, I, are like Ruby in that pond.  We’ve heard the voice calling us.  We’ve simply decided to disregard it.  And in so doing, we’ve put ourselves beyond range of hearing.  And so we’ve unleashed anarchy on the world.  We’ve yelled, “Let the Wild Rumpus Start!”  We’ve wandered into a distant land filled with dissolute living.  I have trouble blaming God for this mess we’re in, in the middle of dark water with nowhere to go but forward or back, both terrifying options.

But how does it happen?  What’s going on?  How do we end up there?  It’s about more than listening…  We have to “come to ourselves”.  Because, honestly, after we’ve spent ourselves in dissolute living, in the wild rumpus, once we’ve reached the middle of the lake, at some point, (and it always comes, doesn’t it?) where we look around and realize… even if we get to be the KING OF THE Wild Things, like Max… everything is what we thought it was.

Jesus tells us the Prodigal, having spent all of his money, “went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son…”

And Max, in the heat of the Wild Rumpus, screams, “Now STOP!’, and sent the wild things of to bed without their supper because he, Max, the King of all the Wild Things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.  So he gave up being king of where the wild things are.

Both Max and the Prodigal figure out they’ve gotten to somewhere they shouldn’t be… they come to themselves in the midst of the Wild Rumpus.  But what does it mean, “to come to yourself?”  Because, really, realizing you’ve messed up is harder than it sounds, isn’t it?

Let me tell you another story.  It’s a news story, and the headline that caught my attention was: “Woman Stays on Toilet For Two Years”.  Here’s what happened, according to the paper:


A 35 year old woman in Ness City, Kansas, sat on her boyfriend’s toilet for 2 years.  By the time her boyfriend finally called the police for help, her body was stuck to the seat.  Ness County Sheriff Bryan Whipple explained, “She was not glued.  She was not tied.  She was just physically stuck by her body.”  He said it appeared that her skin had grown around the seat..  Apparently each day her boyfriend had brought her food and water and asked her to come out of the bathroom.  Her reply?  “Maybe tomorrow.”  Finally, on February 27, 2008, the boyfriend decided that two years on the toilet was enough.  Police reported that the clothed woman was sitting on the toilet with her sweatpants adown to her mid-thigh, that she was “somewhat disoriented,” and that her legs looked like they had atrophied.


There’s no way this could be true… but how? Why?  Why didn’t the woman just get up?  Call for help?  Do something?


But really, when and where have you been stuck?  Found yourself somewhere and not really known how you got to that point?  From your current vantage point, if you’re honest, you can hardly believe you stayed in the situation for so long.  Yet you can clearly recall that feeling of helplessness.  I know I can – I have relationships I feel this way about.  People in my life who, if you met us “back then,” it would have been obvious to you that I needed to move on… but I couldn’t see how to do it, and at a certain point, didn’t believe it could be done.


Did you know that most people feel that way?  People you know, live next to, work with, see every day – they don’t admit it or show it, but they feel stuck, trapped, locked up behind a wall with no apparent means of escape.


We could debate about how the situation they’re in is their fault because of bad decisions they’ve made along the way, particular decisions.  We like to assign blame, figure out who’s at fault, trace the path.  But honestly, its still not like this is what they wanted, what we wanted.


No one ever grew up thinking, “When I get older, I want to hurt my kids.”  No one ever wrote on an essay in high school, “My life goal is to someday be addicted to alcohol.”  People who are addicted to pornography aren’t proud of it. No, they think, “Look at me… I’m a forty year old man staring at images of naked girls on a computer screen.  What’s wrong with me?”  Wives and husbands who’ve been unfaithful to their partners didn’t go in seeking to destroy their marriages.


And it’s not just the big ones we like to stick our fingers out at – we all, every last one of us, has messed something up big time.  Done serious damage to ourselves or another person at one point or another.  Each of us has made serious mistakes – and anyone who claims otherwise is committing the sins of pride and dishonesty.


Because, let’s be honest friends… I am the woman stuck on the toilet seat.  So are you.  We’re all stuck somewhere – We’ve all taken a journey on a ship across the sea – to the land of the monsters, and what we find there might be deceiving at first.  We might think we’re kings.  We might take a swim one day not look behind us and realize we’ve swum too far from shore, can’t quite see which direction is the beach.  We might wander off with an inheritance in our pocket and riotous living in our hearts, only to come to ourselves only when we look down and see the pig food we’ve been feeding ourselves.  We might, just might, lose sight of who we are long enough for our butts to grow around our toilet seat.


But guess what?  God doesn’t.  The trick is, we’ve got to read to the end of all these stories, which help us to know how to get “unstuck.”


The wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go, we’ll eat you up, we love you so!” and Max said, “No!”   The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye and sailed… into the night of his very own room, where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.


So the Prodigal set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.


Notice a theme?  If you’re stuck, you’ve got a job to do – Max had to come to see that being the King of the Wild Things still meant he was wild and lost – he had to come to himself.  He had to get back in the boat.  He had a trip to take.  The son, he had to look around and realize where he was, WHAT he was doing and take the long and difficult journey back home.  Coming to yourself, getting unstuck, is hard work.  It’s not magic.


The author William Simpson says, “To be real, to be true bearers of the divine Face, means to be able to stand on our own two feet.”   We’ve got to do something.  We’re MADE to do something BUT, and this is a big big BUT…


You can’t do it by yourself.  If you’re stuck, really truly stuck., you’re going to need some help.  That’s what I mean when I say we might forget who we are when we’re well and truly lost, but God doesn’t.  Remember, we might be terrified that, like Yeats, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer…” but just because we aren’t listening doesn’t mean the falconer isn’t there the whole time, calling to us.  Waiting for us with supper.  We might wander off, or run away, but God will stand like the Loving Father of Luke’s Gospel, with the door open and the night light blazing.  We might read the signs God has set along the road but refuse to follow them or interpret them poorly.  Regardless of our response, God is not merely an abstraction, but a reality pervading the whole of Creation and worthy of worship, characterized more fundamentally by love and grace than by wrath.


God does not abandon.  Although any honest person knows that true love inherently accommodates judgment, consequence and justice as WELL AS mercy, and there are always consequences when we wander away from God, grace is everywhere and at all times.  We just happen to have the opportunity to respond to that grace with either affirmation or refusal.


In other words, we can be and are in relationship to God because love is a relationship.  God is personal, present, and active for the good of Creation, of us.  This God has acted for our salvation through Jesus Christ, and we know this through the events centering in Jesus who is the Way and the ongoing work of the Spirit, which empowers us to read the signs, to remember where we are and where we are going and where we were made to be.  To help us know what to do when we get stuck.


Remember, God taught us to make choices.  Free will is a human trait, something we have been given a beautiful responsibility for.  God taught us to do it, just as, I had taught Ruby to swim, initially.  I had been in the water with her, telling her she could do it, ought to swim, to enjoy the deep water and that I would be on shore watching for her, doing what I could to keep her safe within my own abilities.  I encouraged her to risk living fully in the world, just like God does for us.  My voice called to her from shore, luring her back and encouraging her to be safe.  But ultimately, she was not me, and I did not have complete control over her choices.  All I could hope was that she would remember my voice and turn to it, trusting that I knew the way home.


All Max’s mom could do was keep his food hot while he figured out that she would still love him, wolf-suit or not, just for who he was.  It must have been terrifying, but all the Prodigal’s father could do after he lent his son the inheritance was trust that he would figure it out and come home eventually, at which point, while he was still far off, he would be filled with compassion; run and put his arms around him and kiss him… celebrating his homecoming.


Hear this story.  Once upon a time, the story tells, a Sufi religious man stopped by a flooding riverbed to rest. The rising waters licked the low-hanging branches of trees that lined the creek. And there, on one of them, a scorpion straggled to avoid the rising stream. Aware that the scorpion would drown soon if not brought to dry land, the Sufi stretched along the branch and reached out his hand time after time to touch the stranded scorpion that stung him over and over again. But still the scorpion kept its grip on the branch. “Sufi,” said a passerby, “Don’t you realize that if you touch that scorpion it will sting you?” And the Sufi replied as he reached out for the scorpion one more time, “Ah, so it is, my friend. But just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting does not mean that I should abandon my nature to save.”


The scandal of grace is that God will keep reaching out for us, no matter how hard we sting.  God waits for us while we’re still far, far off.  God yells and sings to us from the beach until we turn and swim.  Fear not, friends… you may be stuck.   You may feel lost.  But God is on the shore with open arms, God’s voice is calling you home.  Your supper is hot and waiting.  There will be a huge and holy party when you come to yourself.


Know that it is so, and that God loves you even as a wild thing.  Amen.


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