27 November 2016

First Sunday of Advent: In what Story will we Stand? (reprise)

Sometimes I will post pieces I have written in the past because they are appropriate for the season or the feast. Today I am reprising this piece for the additional reason that it marks a theme I have recently returned to in my own life, namely, the way genuine conversion transforms the story in which we participate. The question of in what (or who's) story will we stand really represents the question of who we will be as persons: Advent especially poses this question powerfully and freshly.

A Poignant Conversation

Last week I spoke to a friend I haven't seen in a number of years. She has Alzheimer's and now lives in a different state. We have known each other since the early 80's  when we were both working with the same spiritual director and sometimes stayed at the Center for dinner or made retreat together. Today Denise remembers that time clearly as a watershed period of her life and it is a complete joy for her to talk about it. Doing so is part of what allows her to remain a hopeful and faithful person. It is a major part of her ability to remain herself. But her capacity for story has been crippled and to some extent reduced by her illness.

We are Made for Story

For me this conversation helped underscore a deep truth of our existence. Human beings are made for story. Story is an inescapable part of being truly human and we are diminished without it. It is not only a profound need within us but a drive which affects everything we are and do. Nothing happens without story. Nothing significant that happens in our life is unmediated by story.  When scientists reflect on and research this truth, they conclude we are hardwired for story. Neuroscientists have even located a portion of the brain which is dedicated to spinning stories. This portion of our brain sometimes functions to "console" and compensate one for the loss of story in brain disorders (amnesia, for instance) and I sometimes hear it at work in my friend Denise as she fills in the holes in her own memory for herself; but it is implicated in our quest for connection, context, and meaning in all its forms.

Thus scientists explain that story is actually the way we think, the way we relate to and process reality, the way we make sense of things and get our own hearts and minds around them. Whenever we run into something we don't understand or cannot control --- something we need to hold together in a meaningful way we invariably weave a story around it. Children do it with their dolls and crayons; Abused children do it and often have to be helped in later life to let go of these so they may embrace their place in a better, truer story. Physicians do it when they determine diagnoses and prognoses. Historians do it in explaining the significance of events. Scientists spin stories to explain the nature of reality. The complex stories they author are called theories. Like the myths of religious traditions, these narratives often possess a profound explanatory power and truth. They work to allow the development of technology, medicine, and the whole of the sciences, but they are stories nonetheless. And of course, gossips, know-it-alls and scam artists of all sorts routinely spin stories to draw us in and exploit our capacity and hunger for story.

We all know that stories are essential to our humanity.  At their best they help create a context, a sacred space and healing dynamic where we can be ourselves and stand authentically with others: Thus, when someone we love dies it is natural (human!) and even essential that we gather together to tell stories which help reknit the broken threads of our story into something new and hopeful, something which carries us into a future with promise. In a way which is similarly healing and lifegiving we offer strangers places in our own stories and make neighbors of them. We do the same with friends. Ideally, there is no greater gift we can give another than a place in our own stories, no greater compassion than our empathy for and appreciation of another's entire story. For good and ill our humanity is integrally linked to the fact that we are made for story. We reside and find rest within stories; they connect us to others. They are vehicles of transcendence which make sense of the past and draw us into the future. They link us to our culture, our families, our communities, our faith, and our church; without them we are left bereft of identity or place and our lives are empty and meaningless. 

We have only to look at the place story holds in our life in the Church to appreciate this. The creed we profess is not a series of disparate beliefs or dogmas but a coherent story we embrace more fully every time we repeat it and affirm "I believe" this. Our liturgy of the Word is centered on stories of all sorts --- challenging, inspiring, consoling us as only stories can do. Even the act of consecration is accomplished by telling a story we recount and embrace in our "Amen" of faith: "On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it saying. . . then he took the cup, blessed it saying. . .]] Stories like these, we know, provide the context and overarching narrative in which all things ultimately hold together and are meaningful.They make whole and holy. For this reason we yearn for them and honor them as sacred.

Our Capacity for Story is Both Blessing and Curse 

Augustine summarized all of this when he said, "O God, we are made for thee, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." He might well have said."O God your story is our own and our hearts are restless until they finally reside securely in that story". Just like physicists who are searching for that one theory of everything, we are each made for and in search of the story which makes complete and ultimate sense of our lives, the story which allows us to develop our own personal stories fully, the narrative framework which lets us be completely and exhaustively human. Christians recognize this blessed story as the Kingdom of God, God's own story.The challenge for each of us, I think, is to make this story our own. The problem? We already reside rather securely in other stories, other controlling narratives and myths. Because of our capacity and even our hunger for story our lives are full of scripts and tapes which conflict with the story we are offered in Christ. Some seem lifegiving but many do not serve us very well at all.

 For instance, when young persons opt to join a gang, they are choosing a particular story of status, community, belonging, power as opposed to powerlessness, and a place in a world which seems larger and more adult than the one they occupy already. Unless these things are distorted into badges of courage and achievement the narrative omits prison, death, the sundering of family relationships, loss of education, future, and so forth. Another example: when adults choose to have affairs they are buying into a story they tell themselves (and our culture colludes with this at every point) about freedom and love, youth, immediate gratification, sexuality and attractiveness. The part of the narrative they leave out or downplay is the part of the story we are each called to tell with our lives about personal integrity, commitment,  faithfulness, patience, and all the other things that constitute real love and humanity. 

What we are seeing here is the very essence of sin. It is no coincidence that the Genesis account of humanity's fall from "grace" (which is really a place in God's own life or "story") centers around the fact that at evil's urging Adam and Eve swap the story God tells them about themselves, their world, and their place in it for another one they prefer to believe. In THIS story eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil will not bring death; in THIS story God is a liar; in this story humanity grasps at godhead and lives forever anyway. So many of the scripts and tapes we have adopted are as distorted and destructive and they touch every part of our lives. Two of the most recent I heard are, "The poor are takers" and "Selfishness is a moral imperative and the key to the common good." But there are many others! Scripts about what real men and women do or don't do --- both in society and in our church --- about what freedom is, divine justice, what is required to gain God's love (despite the fact God gives it freely to anyone who will simply accept it), etc. As sinful human beings we are an ambiguous mixture of stories which make us true and those which stunt or distort us. Our capacity for story is both blessing and curse.

Story is also the way Home

If our capacity for story is both blessing and curse then it is also the way home. In particular the stories Jesus tells us are a primary way home. Jesus' parables are, in fact, one of the ways he works miracles. (If anyone --- even Webster's Dictionary --- ever tells you these parables are "simple religious stories with a moral" don't believe them! They are far more dynamic and dangerous than that!) Like every story, Jesus' parables draw us in completely, allow us to suspend disbelief, check our overly critical voices at the door, and listen with our hearts as well as our intellects. They create a sacred space in which we are alone with God and can meet ourselves and God face to face. No one can enter this space with us even if there are hundreds standing shoulder to shoulder listening to the same story. But Jesus' stories do more. As I have written here before: [[ When Jesus told parables, for instance, he did so for two related reasons: first, to identify and subvert some of the less than authentic controlling myths people had adopted as their own, and second to offer the opportunity to make a choice for an alternative story by which one could live an authentically human and holy life.


Parables, Jesus' parables that is, typically throw down two sets of values; two perspectives [or stories] are cast down beside one another (para = alongside, and balein = to throw down). One set represents the Kingdom of God; one the kingdom where God is not sovereign --- the realm the Church has sometimes called "the world". Because our feet are firmly planted in the first set of values, [the first set of stories or scripts], the resulting clash disorients us and throws us off balance; it is unexpected and while first freeing us to some extent from our embeddedness (or enmeshment) in other narratives, it creates a moment of "KRISIS" or decision and summons us to choose where we will finally put our feet down again, which reality we will stand firmly in and inhabit, which story will define us, which sovereign will author and rule us. ]] 

Will we affirm the status quo, the normal cultural, societal, personal, or even some of the inadequate religious narratives we cling to, or will we instead allow our minds and hearts to be remade and adopt God's own story as our own? Who will author us? Will it be the dominant culture, or the God who relativizes and redeems it? Where indeed will we put our feet down? In which story will we choose to walk and with whom? These are clearly the questions that face us during this season of Advent as we prepare our hearts for Christmas and a God who tells us his story in a most unexpected way.The fresh cycle of readings are an invitation to approach God's story with fresh ears and a willingness to have our lives reshaped accordingly. It is the story we are made and hunger for, the story in which we are made true and whole, the story in which nothing authentic of our lives is ever lost or forgotten. What greater gift can we imagine or be given?