In an age when both explicit and implicit biases are becoming legitimate justifications to curse the image of God, it is time for the church in the U.S. to face itself. It is time to repair the broken fabric of our nation. It is time to interrogate the stories we tell our selves about ourselves by immersing ourselves in the stories of the other.
I began writing letters. One hand-written letter a week, delivered to the White House door, so that he’ll know we are here, so that he’ll know our story exists and that we are not to be ignored. I’m not saying that as a liberal I feel ignored; I’m saying that I don’t want to be ignored as a human being, as a citizen, as a woman, as a mother, as a Native American, as a Christian.
It was this fundamental story of black faith that I wanted to sow deep within my son. I realized that if I was to prevent the denigrating pieces of white inhumanity from being “implanted deep within [him],” then he had to know the story of faith that has helped black people “in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieve an unassailable and monumental dignity.”
There’s a beautiful moment in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (now in limited release) in which the character Ma explains the reality of their situation to her bewildered son. Contrary to what she had taught up until that point — that they were the only people in the entire realm of existence, which was limited to the room in question — she explains that they are actually held hostage in a small garden shed in their captor’s backyard. Sensing that Old Nick, her kidnapper and Jack’s father, might kill them because he will lose his house, Ma enlists her son’s help in an escape plan.
In shock and denial he says, “I want another story.”
Ma replies, “This is the story you’ve got.”
Some social and trauma theorists believe these issues are directly symptomatic of an undiffused, collective trauma around the event of 9/11 — exacerbated by our post-modern, technocratic society, in which our witness of one another is often relegated by social media personas and devices. The environment is controlled, protected, guarded — a false sense of security that instead perpetuates isolation and disconnection. This raises a question as to where, and whether, we are experiencing integrated and authentic community as we heal.
It is widely acknowledged that supportive and caring community is an absolutely necessity in trauma repair. To be sure, the answer is complex and dynamic. But perhaps on this day of remembrance, rather than re-enacting our dissociative narratives, we can attempt to reimagine and embrace courageously an authentic witness — to continue the work towards a restorative, integrative, and peaceful future.
I came across a pottery booth at an arts fair a couple weekends ago. One of the engravings on the wall reminded us that “Everyday a new story begins.“
Isn’t that true?
Our lives are a story written day by day, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, choice by choice. Each day is a blank page awaiting our entry.
A new plot twist. A new character. A few lines about grief. A paragraph about hope. An illustration of love.
How will we fill the page?
We get to decide our story, though not entirely by ourselves. Each of us has a co-author, someone collaborating with us.
We didn’t write the first sentence to our story, the one that involves our birth. The co-author wrote that for us. All of our stories start with the same opening and the same word.
The diagnoses are grim. Fervent supporters and ardent critics of religion both point to your decline. An urgency, if not an all-out alarm, fills the air. There are those who hope beyond hope for your renewal and transformation. Others stand steadfastly by your side as they "wait and see." Still others wipe their hands of the whole ugly mess and leave you to your ever-more-inevitable demise.
I'm not sure what to do. But I know I love you.
I know that you have grown weary in a bewildering, fast-paced world less inclined to pause and listen in. I know you have clung to models of leadership, governance, and programming through which you reached prominence, but now seem sluggish in the world today. I know you have tried new methods and "relevant" techniques for attracting new life, but they did not pan out like you dreamed. I know you have been let down by ministerial leadership, and not just in the pulpit: in the boardroom, in the choir lofts, in the denominational office. In this time of shrinking attendance, recycled ideas, and diminishing resolve, I'm not sure what the magic cure is. Or if there ever was one. But I know I love you.
You left groceries on my family's doorstep when my parents could not make ends meet. You carried the weight of my family's grief when my sister drowned. You encouraged me when I felt so alone and afraid. You challenged me to live beyond myself and for those who are so often ignored. You surrounded me with gentleness and love on my wedding day. You gave me time-worn words and melodies to express the joy and lament of my spirit. You pointed to a holy feast big enough to include all of humanity, and you set a place at that table for me.
You introduced me to God.
Conversations in the car are intense. Colonization, spirituality, politics and utter brutality, violence and betrayal — all incomprehensible factors that led up to genocide. Our conversations are set to the backdrop of thousands of lush hills and thousands of massive graves concealing bones — bones of innocent men, women, and children whose only crime was being born Tutsi. The coexistence of Rwanda’s brutal history and scenic beauty is surreal.
No matter how many questions I ask, how many stories I listen to, how many fragments of bones I see, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand how in just one hundred days, close to one million people were slaughtered as if they had no worth. Identifying with these stories of gross atrocity seems impossible.
“I don’t really call myself a survivor because when the one hundred days of genocide began, I was in Uganda. Even though I came back to Rwanda in the middle of the killings, I was never in an area controlled by the militia. Yes, it was risky to return to Rwanda at that time and I remember two occasions where I got very close to being killed—but my story isn’t as significant as others we will be seeing. For example, my wife’s—she survived, but barely. She doesn’t talk about it.”
I was a reluctant artist, self-doubting leader and a broken soul.
I was in search of healing.
After a series of traumatic experiences that culminated with my hospitalization in Zambia, I went on a sabbatical in search of courage, tenacity, and renewal to continue in my vocation. It was early 2014, and we were entering into the year commemorating 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda. During this time, my mentors were leading a pilgrimage to Uganda and Rwanda to journey through places of immense pain and tremendous hope as a means to engage in the pain and hope in one’s active life. Because of my closely related work in Africa, I didn’t want to go — I knew I would have to intentionally delve into the hellish reality of a violent massacre I knew very little of. Simultaneously, I knew that by stepping into the pain, I would find the hope I was so desperately searching for. And so, together with eight other pilgrims, I went. We journeyed alongside of survivors and perpetrators of genocide as an attempt to identify in the incomprehensible pain that oppresses us all. It was through this experience that healing came in a profound way.
We may not all be rich. We don’t all have successful careers. We aren’t all healthy. But the one thing we all have are stories. From the beginning of time, we have thrived on connecting via stories. We consume stories for leisure, speak our stories for sanity, and create stories to capture our imagination.
We are swayed by stories. Stories can compel others in ways propositions and facts statements cannot. Our attention wanes at statistics and exegesis, but perks at vivid characters in an engaging plot. Stories have been proven to be an effective rhetorical device. They draw people’s attention in and leaves them satisfied upon conclusion.
You cannot debate a story. While it may be tempting to try and deconstruct the reasoning behind stories when it goes against your agenda, the genius of stories is that it can’t be used as an argument. The story of a chain smoker’s longevity sits uncomfortably in the presence of someone advocating the ills of nicotine. The story just is. We cannot alter it, the only thing we can control is how we choose to respond to it. Any attempts to dishonor or discredit someone’s story is an assault to their humanity.
“The less engaged people are, the more they tend to criticize. The more engaged people are, they have far less time [and] energy with which to criticize.”
She might as well have completed the above statement with the dismissive wave I heard in her voice. But she didn’t.
She’s a pastor’s wife. Her bread and butter (and heart and soul) are wrapped up in the local church. I have been there. Perhaps the mile I walked in those shoes helps me understand the sentiment. And I think there is a place for tempering unjust criticism from sources that seem negatively biased. That protects people, sure.
But I can’t let it go at that.
When Harper was born we decorated the nursery in a Noah’s Ark theme…images of Noah and of animals entering a large wooden boat two-by-two. It’s a common enough decorating scheme for kids' rooms.
I mention it because this week at Bible study we discussed how weird it is that the beheading of John the Baptists isn’t a common decorating scheme for kid’s rooms.
Because this is just too gruesome a tale to show up on rolls of juvenile wall paper.
In case you missed the details, here’s what happened:
So Herod is the ruler of the region, and while vacationing in Rome he gets the hots for his brother’s wife who he then marries. John the Baptist, then suggests that maybe that’s not ok.
Now, Herod likes John, as much as anybody can like a crazy bug-eating prophet who lives outdoors and speaks consistently inconvenient truths. Truths such as it’s not ok to marry your brother’s wife, which, incidentally, is the truth that when spoken, got him arrested to begin with.
It also got John on the bad side of Herod’s new illegal wife Heroditas. She did not like John. Then when Herod throws himself a big birthday party his daughter-in-law Salome dances for him and all the other half-drunk generals and CEOs and celebrities who were there.
We don’t know the exact nature of her dance but we do know that it “pleased” Herod enough that he offered to give her anything she wanted up to half of his kingdom. So, you know, I don’t think it was the Chicken dance.
Each of us is our own worst enemy at one time or another. My eight-year-old son, Mattias, takes himself to the mat more often, and more violently, than most.
My wife and I recently accepted a call to pastor a historic church in downtown Portland. When we told the kids, Mattias – my beloved resident Aspie – would go from unhinged excitement one moment, followed by tearful preemptive mourning the next. Kids like Mattias tend to have more dramatic mood swings than average, and pressure just amplifies the swings.
We took a trip to meet the congregation as an opportunity to show the kids around and sell them on the idea of their new home. The beach is a little more than an hour from Portland, so we took them out to the coast for lunch one afternoon. After searching for sand dollars for half an hour under an unforgiving canopy of clouds, we all agreed that a visit to the arcade on the main drag would be a welcome relief from the cool ocean wind.
This morning, as I caught up on what had been going on in the world over the weekend, I stumbled across a very interesting resource -- a website that compares the frequency with which words appear in the Bible and the Quran.