Living Into and Out of Story
October 1, 2017
My teaching today is the fourth in a series of teachings given by members of the Eighth Day Servant Leaders Mission Group in preparation for our annual Camp Meeting, which this year is a forty-plus year reunion. Maria, Emily and David Hilfiker over the past weeks have spoken to: 1) 8th Day’s theology; 2) the importance of belonging and relationship; 3) 8th Day’s history and structures. The 8th Day Family Reunion next weekend will surely be one where there will be much storytelling, personal and communal. So, I want to talk about story.
The concept of “story” in our Church of the Saviour tradition is important. Years ago I asked Mary Cosby why writing/telling one’s spiritual autobiography was a requirement for membership in the Church of the Saviour. I’m sure she tried to address my question, but I don’t remember getting a focused answer. Mary and her sister Elizabeth were stunning storytellers, and for years Mary taught the New Testament classes in the School of Christian and Elizabeth taught Old Testament. They were masterful and creative story tellers of these scriptures. They taught with the assurance that knowing our foundational story as Christians was critical to understanding our faith history and life in community and to the building of a seriously committed community of faith. These biblical stories are our stories, too. The characters in the stories are mirrors of identity for us. And, so, I thought, that reflecting on and telling our personal and communal spiritual stories, would contribute to understanding how each of us belongs to the larger faith story.
We are born into a life of story, personal, communal, regional, national, and global. We learn these stories through our families and then through our larger interactions with the world in which we engage-- family, church, educational institutions, neighborhood, and multiple communities in our national and global orbits. As we move through these stories early on, we are usually asking, big questions: Why am I here? What am I to do with my life? Where is my life’s meaning? How do I want to live and contribute? And, what stories do I want to intentionally be a part of? It is that last question that I want to focus on. Being part of this faith community means being part of a much larger story, one that spans from ancient to present times.
We are not a community into which most of our members were born. Most of us have come as visitors or strangers. And many of us have come seeking a place of belonging because we were seeking a deeper purpose; a place to heal; a place where our questions and doubts were welcomed, not dismissed; a place to explore; and a place where we could compose a new story and find the resources to do that. And, in some cases, we needed to hear and explore in a fresh way the story of our Christian faith told in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (the founding ancestors, the judges, the establishment of the monarchy, the pre- exilic prophets, the dissolution of that monarchy and move of the community into exile, the post-exilic prophets, the writers of the wisdom books, the life of Jesus as told in 4 different gospels, the re-birth of the disciples from despair through an experience of resurrection, the conversion of Paul from a persecutor of the early followers of Jesus to the role of leader in spreading a new story/narrative of good news and liberation as lived and taught by Jesus). And this story has continued for 2000+ years, though at times it has been warped, misinterpreted, and used against the very ethics and practices that Jesus lived.
Engaging, studying and understanding our common faith story matters because it is our history as persons committed to following Jesus. So, as followers, you and I are part of that large and long story as is our community. Sharing one’s spiritual autobiography asks us to take the long view as we also continue to share our stories in real time through engagement with community members, individual conversations, classes, teachings, prayer, worship, retreats, play, and celebrations of life events, be they ones of joy, sorrow, deep need, or grieving. Why is it critical to risk being vulnerable at the point of sharing the very life-giving points as well as the broken points of one’s journey? Perhaps, because vulnerability is a pre-condition to connection and deeper relationship. And, sometimes it is critical to our being able to live into a new story.
In one of our lectionary scriptures for this week, from Philippians 2:1-13, Paul writes, “. . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (NRSV) The Message version reads, “. . . be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent, and sensitive before God.” (Peterson, 2138). This is ongoing and hard work for each of us if we want to live into a new story. So, I want to share a small part of my spiritual autobiography because it was with fear and trembling and risking vulnerability that I moved through my early twenties.
The fall after I graduated from college, I went to Ecuador in South American to study and live for about a year. I left with expectation and openness to discern how this new experience would help me to learn and grow and figure out what my next steps in life should be.
About a year later, at age twenty-two, I returned with a serious case of culture shock and much physical pain. I did not have any future steps. Words to describe my feelings were disillusion, isolation, guilt and cynicism. Living abroad in an under-developed country, I had discovered that there were two Americas--one at home and one abroad. It was the America abroad that had showed me the shadow side of our country: colonial oppression, coups and occupations, one of which I lived through in Ecuador; support of military dictators, meddling and contempt for foreign cultures, greed, and extreme, inescapable poverty. So, I came home to a country and to a reality very different from the one I had left a year earlier.
The Vietnam War was ramping up, and I no longer understood its purpose. I had a ruptured disc in my lower back, had no idea of what my path in life should be, and I was depressed--crying myself to sleep at night and listening to the latest body-count of soldiers being sent back to the US. I felt isolated. One winter afternoon as snow fell heavily on Philadelphia, I wrote my mother a long letter, sharing my pain, distress and sorrow. She called me a few days later. In her firm and empathetic way, she told me that I needed to live into a new story and she gave me a first step: deal with your physical pain; go the hospital clinic. Then, identify your resources; you have them; you can think; you can solve problems; and you can find help. You are not helpless. My mother did not guilt-trip me with the “you just need more faith argument.” The challenge was to activate what faith in God and God’s future for myself that I did have.
So, I started a process of working out my “salvation” and living into a new story:
1) I took myself to the University Hospital clinic and got help with my pain though it took months to lessen.
2) I distanced myself from some college friends with whom I could no longer relate very meaningfully;
3) I went to the campus book store to check out the religion section. A book caught my eye: The Shaking of the Foundations by Paul Tillich, a noted theologian. I thought my foundations were shaking so why not buy and open this book. I did, and the chapter “Escape from God” drew my attention. It was a reflection on Psalm 139, one of the most well-known Psalms. It is the psalm that starts, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me…” and it ends with “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” It is a psalm that puts forth the inescapable presence of God. According to Paul Tillich, the psalm states that “we know we can argue against God, only because God impels us to attack Him/God.” But, then it states, “there is no escape from God through forgetfulness.” I found this comforting since I was trying to forget that my life really did have worth, promise, and meaning.
4) I sought out an acquaintance, a former Peace Volunteer whom I had met in Ecuador who was now at the university, and I risked sharing with him my sadness and confusion. He asked me to share my story. He listened well with non-judgment and presence and then shared his empathy and points of connection with my story and experience in Ecuador. He sensed that I needed relationship and directed me to a Quaker community that ran a community center in North Philadelphia. “Call Karen”, he said. She’s looking for tutors. North Philadelphia was a rough and unsafe neighborhood in the late 60s, but I found at the Friends Neighborhood House a place of purpose, shelter, and joy.
5) I decided to apply to graduate school at Georgetown University. I applied & got accepted.
6) And, then in August of 1967, I moved to Washington, DC, to attend graduate school. I dropped out after 6 weeks because I could barely walk due to back pain. I checked into the hospital for a week, too exhausted to do anything much except sleep. But, while there, my roommate brought me a letter from a church friend in California. She asked if I knew about the Church of the Saviour in DC or had every visited it.
Once, I left the hospital, I knew that once again, I needed to find a new story. I got a job at the Library of Congress. Several months later I attended a worship service at the Church of the Saviour and found a home. My two-year stay in DC would change my story. I discovered that I loved teaching and returned to Philadelphia to attend graduate school for a year. When I came back a year later to DC, a new story awaited me.
Each of us has a story, but our story does not get told beyond ourselves unless we are in relationships that invite and prompt storytelling. As I said, I think vulnerability leads to relationship and to finding common ground. When I knew in 1973 that—on joining the Church of the Saviour as a covenant member—I would have to share my spiritual autobiography, I was close to panicked. I had never heard anyone else’s story and feared rejection. I did not yet have the language or sense of freedom or trust to articulate my vulnerability at much depth. So, when I shared what I could with the Church Council, everyone listened respectfully and some responded; no one offered any word of criticism. I was affirmed into membership. Since then, given the passage of years and growth, I have rewritten and retold my story several times. So have many others in Eighth Day, and these times of sharing draw us closer to one another and to the mystery of God’s spirit at work in our lives.
Individuals have stories, communities have stories, too. The scriptures we attend to each week are undergirded by story as is our worship service.
The Epistle reading for this week is Philippians 2: 1-13. The second chapter in Philippians tells part of Paul’s story within the larger context of the whole letter. Philippians is one of Paul’s authentic letters to the communities that he founded and nurtured. These are communities which have struggled with how to live into this new story, this good news, that Paul has been telling them about and nurturing them into. The community in Phillipi, a city in Macedonia, was founded by Paul in about 50 in the Common Era. Phillipi was on a major Roman road that ran between Byzantium in the east and to the western coast of Macedonia from which transport to Rome was common. Most of the community members were gentiles. There is much in this letter that points to deep mutual affection between Paul and this community. One characteristic of this letter is joy. That’s remarkable because Paul was in prison, possibly in Rome on a capital charge, possibly facing execution. He had recently received a gift from the Philippian church which had been delivered by Epaphroditus, a member of the community, who then had fallen ill and almost died. Upon his recovery, Paul sent him back to Philippi with what I call a love letter. It’s a letter with a joyful and gracious tone despite Paul’s suffering and uncertain future and despite the ongoing persecution of community members in Phillipi.
Here is the today's scripture from Philippians 2:1-13 from The Message.
1 If you've gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care -
2 then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends.
3 Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead.
4 Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
5 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.
6 He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what.
7 Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!
8 Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death - and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.
9 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever,
10 so that all created beings in heaven and on earth - even those long ago dead and buried - will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ,
11 and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
12 What I'm getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you've done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I'm separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God.
13 That energy is God's energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.
There is not time to unpack this scripture or do it justice at a deep level so here are some thoughts to keep in mind.
Paul wrote in part to spell out the way in which those who are in Christ should live. Verse 5, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus . . .” refers to "both the attitude shown by Christ Jesus and to the attitude that is therefore appropriate to those who are “in [Christ Jesus].”
What are the implications or takeaways of these verses for those living in Christ Jesus?
* First, know that God revealed his self-giving love for humans in the birth of Jesus Christ.
* Second, live in a manner worthy of the gospel, the good news, of Christ Jesus. Paul points consistently to the life of Christ Jesus. It is a life that in the words of Eugene Peterson “not only happened at a certain point in history, but continues to happen, spilling out into the lives of those who receive him, and then continues to spill out all over the place.” (Peterson, p. 2135, The Message)
Dee Taylor, a few weeks ago, talked with us about going back to basics. Paul, too, goes back to first principles. Gospel is good news. Understand what God is like. Know what God has done for you, for us. Know what God expects you to be like. Work out what that means for you. What is the Christ-like work of this Christian community, of each of us individually? How do we live with authentic humility and in response to God’s grace?
There are never easy answers to these questions, but they are part of our individual and communal stories. We must live with them. Engaging, studying, and understanding our common faith story matters because it is our shared history as persons committed to following Jesus. We are part of a rich and long story as is our community. Sharing our stories can build trust and relationship.
“Stories have power to move us and to liberate us from the tyranny of what was and is. We are all creators of narratives, and we all have a role to play in imagining our way out of stories that cannot sustain us and out of tempting nostalgic traps (eg the good, old past; make American great again; build walls; divide and scare people). “Stories can break. Stories that no longer provide the meaning and sense of purpose that life stories must provide are failed stories.” (Taylor, p. 3)
But, broken stories can be healed. Diseased stories can be replaced. We humans are free to change and we can live into new stories and choose our defining stories. (Taylor, p. 3) We know this from our personal experiences. We know this through reading and reflecting and sharing and encouraging and supporting one another. Our spiritual ancestors knew this. The prophets knew this. Jesus knew this. Paul knew this. Thousands of others in the cloud of witnesses knew this.
So we should seek out opportunities to share stories and imagine new ones. The future is too important to be left to professional politicians, commentators, and fear mongers. And it is too important to be left to technology/social media. Sharing story nurtures and strengthens the faith journey of an individual as well as a community. It is a connective tissue, a tissue that is welcoming and can be non-judgmental and healing. It offers an individual an invitation into another’s life, often in an intimate way. And it beckons the person moving deeper into a community to be more vulnerable in the sacred space of being heard and loved as one shares the struggles, pain, challenges, strengths and joys that have formed his or her spiritual life. It invites a community to step back into its faith traditions and ask, “So, what?” How does our ancient faith story and our communal narrative engage us now? Does it bring a word of challenge, hope, encouragement, consolation, doubt, wonder? Is there a prophetic word in this story or history that we need to attend to? Is there a mirror that we as a community need to look into?
When we know ourselves as part of each of these, we know something of what it means to be at home” [to belong] to God, to each other, and to the divine story. (Jan Richardson)
The Message by Eugene Peterson
New Interpreters Bible, Volume XII, Philippians
New Revised Standard Version of the Bible
Tell Me a Story by Daniel Taylor