Tuesday, August 7, 2012

THE POWER OF STORIES: Preached at Good Shepherd, Berkeley, August 5, 2012

Last spring, at the request of a group of St. Paul’s parents, I gave a talk entitled “Spirituality, Science and Sustainability.” It was not one more harangue to reduce, reuse, recycle. We all know we should do that. 

Right now, we have all the information we need to heal ourselves and the planet.

What we don’t have is the story. We have no one to show us the way.

Most of us would agree that stories are important, that we like them, that from time to time they inspire and teach us, but when it comes to stories as pathways to truth, when it comes to stories as authority, most of us balk. We are accustomed to think of stories as “fiction,” as opposed to “fact,” which is hard, linear data. We like results and outcomes: bank balances, test scores, performance evaluations, funds raised, cases won.

Stories like process far more than they like conclusions. The best ones have no conclusions at all.

Data purports to give us facts.

Stories take us on a journey.

Data proclaims the outcome. And if you’re in education, like I am, you know that outcome trumps everything.

But as I discovered much to my surprise last spring, there is one thing that, it seems, every American, liberal and conservative, left and right, agrees upon, and that is that what we call “reality” is in fact an invention, and since we can’t know what is really true, we choose the most convincing narrative. 

Here’s the nuanced progressive version offered by TED talker and education guru Sir Ken Robinson:

We live in a world that’s shaped by the ideas, beliefs and values of human imagination and culture. The human world is created out of our minds as from the natural environment. Thinking and feeling are not simply about seeing the world as it is, but having ideas about it, and interpreting experience to give it meaning.

Here’s the more down-home conservative version, offered by a Bush White House aide:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

This is extremely important for us who call ourselves Christians, for our authority does, in fact, lie in the stories we tell: the stories of Israel, the stories of Jesus, the stories of the Church, the stories of how our lives interact and intersect with these other stories. Teachings like those about salvation, creation, sin, providence, history and many others are not there to indoctrinate us; they are keys to help us unlock the mystery of the stories.

As one who has spent her entire life loving, studying and telling stories, I can tell you this. Because we’re into outcomes, most of us, when working with a story, will jump to conclusions about it far too soon. The conclusion that almost all of us come to first is the most literal one. That’s OK. It’s an important step along the way. But to stop at the level of literalism is to miss so much depth, complexity and nuance. Stories come most alive when they leap out of simple, linear literalism into complex and diverse truth. Yes, you heard me right. Truth is diverse. 

To work a story invites me to live with it, to look for examples that prove and disprove what I have just heard. Stories, even when I read them in books, are conversations. Stories have multiple characters, multiple actions and multiple points of view. In wondrous contrast to a math problem, there is no one right answer to a story. Also, I’ll get much more out of a story if I work on it with others. Others can be really surprising.

Paul is saying much the same thing in this morning’s reading from Ephesians:

Jesus was a gift-giver, Paul says. “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” (Eph. 4:11-15)

At its most obvious, Paul is saying that we’ll never get where we want to go if we go alone. He is also saying that unity is not uniformity. Unity is diversity working in harmony, not being divided by conflict conflict. People don’t just need to work together to provide the necessities of life; people need to work together to find truth. Because truth is not a single thing. Truth is right relationship between many things.

The part about children being tossed to and fro is only to be expected. To be a child is to get caught up in “winds of doctrine.” Trends, fashions, ideas about the perfect self are all part of their discernment. If a little boy thinks a destructive Transformer® is his sweet child, don’t worry. If a man does, maybe you should. When a culture gets obsessed with youth, it will encourage us to remain childlike. But adulthood is about wisdom. To embrace truth is to embrace aging; it is to not be afraid to grow up.

I personally find this passage incredibly reassuring. It tells me I don’t have to do it all and be it all, that my perfection lies in simply knowing what part I contribute to the whole. The only thing that God asks of me is that once I find myself that I share my talents liberally and wonderfully with others. 

Thus you can imagine my surprise when I encountered a very different read of this same passage:

“The exhortation of the passage is to encourage the listeners to accept their calling willingly, aware of the sacrifice that such a calling entails. They are called to “lead a life worthy” They are to do love by serving one another.”

Is serving one another a sacrifice? Is it a sacrifice to see another fed, healed, happy? Is my calling something imposed upon me in place of something else more fun and fulfilling? What does it mean to sacrifice?

Before I go on, I have to say that the word “sacrifice” scares me. I’ve seen it used too often as an excuse by the strong to make the weak pay for their mistakes.

Fortunately, however, this is exactly what is taken up in today’s Old Testament lesson. 

“Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” (2 Sam 12:4-5)

Nothing could have put my fears into words better. In my world, a sacrifice is something that the powerful exact from the powerless. Jesus himself was such a sacrifice. So that Rome could hold on to everything, they sacrificed Jesus, the piece that did not fit into their puzzle. 

Paul is telling us, I think, to be courageous in putting the puzzle together. Don’t be afraid to be a part of the whole. But because Rome sacrificed Jesus, we continue, no matter what the Church teaches, to worry about sacrifice and how the world has the power to hurt us. 

Which brings me back to David. I’m so glad that the RCL has us reading King David’s story for weeks during the summer of Year B. The first Christians considered the David story essential to their understanding of who Jesus was and what he taught, but until we had the RCL there was very little opportunity to explore how the David story and the Jesus story connected. 
We’ve looked at how today’s story explores the theme of sacrifice. Together with last week’s reading, it shows how a human being trying to make good of a big mistake can find himself in the midst of an even bigger one. A love affair leads to murder. And with the lamb, a sweet sacrifice, taking care of a little lamb who will one day take care of you, turns into a rapacious sacrifice of the rich plundering the poor who look to them for protection. David’s sacrifice of Uriah, the rich man’s sacrifice of the lamb, both of these foreshadow Rome’s sacrifice of Jesus.

Nathan tells a parable to test the conscience of the king. And David, whose self image is that he is a man of justice, not a grasping king, makes the literal first response. “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.”

Just like our own first response to this story might be: how dare the one percent make the rest of us pay? 

Both David and we are completely right, but, as the story unfolds, we discover that the problem is more complex than a mere us and them.

The voice of God says to David: “I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.” (2 Sam 12:7-8)

We return to the theme of gifts, the ancient theme reiterated in St. Paul’s letter: life is not measured by what I take, what I possess, what I get. It is measured by what God gives.

Do not take what has not been given to you. This is a commandment you will find in all great spiritual traditions.  

And though that single teaching would be enough, stories, at least the best ones, never contain a single teaching, a single interpretation, a single point of view. So the story goes on with what I think may be its most important observation:

“I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house…For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun." David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.’” (2 Sam 12:11-13)

In next week’s reading, we will see the trouble unfold, even though David has repented. Things don’t just stop because I’ve said I’m sorry. We live our entire lives dealing with what we have done and what has been done to us.

But this is not a statement of hopelessness, it is a narrative of hope. If I can be aware of my own growing edges, I can ask God to help me turn those edges into insights, into compassion for others, into the broad and generous view that it isn’t just about me. If I can be brave about my own growing edges, I can ask others to walk with me and watch with me.

For a growing edge is every bit as much a gift as a talent. Stories do not begin with us, nor do they end with us. To practice a story is to know that one is a part of a much greater whole. 

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