Ring Around A Story

I found myself sitting in a Chick-fil-A with some friends of mine the other night. We were feeling in the mood for a quick bite after small group one evening and we knew that we were a short drive away.

Inside the establishment, the five of us sat around a set of two tables in the center of the restaurant. The crowds that normally thronged the place had long since gone their own separate ways. The only sound apart from the soft instrumental music was the gentle sweep of a broom far across the room. Somewhere, off in the distance, I heard my friends talking.

I watched as the last of the rush hour traffic slowly dissipated, a lone car winding its way past in the night. Across the road, my university campus stood quietly, tucked behind bushes and trees as if it were listening for something.

I paused to scratch a note on a napkin. Looking up, I saw that one of my friends was looking intently at my hand.

“Oh,” I said, “don’t mind me, I’m just writing down something for later.”

She didn’t seem to care.

“What do those rings mean?” she asked.

I smiled.

“Now, that is a bit of a story,” I said. “Do you have a moment?”

“Of course,” she replied. “Why do you think we’re here?”

“Well,” I started, “it might take a while. I wrote it down somewhere. D’ya mind?”

She shook her head.

“Here goes.”

Frederick Buechner once wrote that “it is the sermons we preach to ourselves around the preacher’s sermons that are the ones that we hear most powerfully.” The same can be said for stories, I think. In some strange way, we have discovered means by which to communicate as a species, where we can take one intensely personal concept, ascribe to it a sound, and send it across the void to a receiver who can take that strange, chaotic, random, arbitrary, wonderful noise and translate it into the idea once again, more or less. But in doing so, we imbue the noise with our own experience.

My notion of love is similar, but not exact, to the person that sits across from me. Such an abstract concept must have some concretion to it, and we fill in the gaps with our memories that we affiliate with the notion of love. And depending on how we were impacted and informed through these experiences, our notions of love may be related, but not exactly the same. Perspective matters.

I finished the story right as a staff member had come by to inform us that the restaurant was closing for the night. We thanked her and stepped out into the warm evening.

“So, what did you think?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “You told me a story about the ring, but you never came out with what the ring means exactly.”

I smirked. “Does it matter?”

Her inquiring look turned to that of annoyance.

“Well, yeah, it does,” she protested. “There has got to be a single meaning behind the ring.”

She paused for a moment. “Right?”

“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “What if you read the story and I wasn’t here? How would you know if what you believed the ring to be about was right?”

My friend was silent, deep in thought. “Well, that wouldn’t matter, because you’re here now.”

“Aw, come on,” I laughed. “That’s cheating.”

We all stopped outside my apartment complex. Here and there, one could see streetlights with their warm glow dot the area here and there. Occasionally, a tree would obscure the streetlights for a moment, until a breeze pushed their branches out of the way for a moment. In the distance, someone was shooting off leftover fireworks from their fourth of July celebrations.

After looking around for a brief moment, I turned to leave but paused, a playful smile creeping across my face.

“Here’s your last chance!” I said. “Take another guess.”

“Well,” she pondered, “You must have had some intended meaning when you wrote the story.”

I nodded as she continued. “But at the exact same time, I don’t know what you were thinking exactly at that moment. Plus, I only know my own experience.”

Her eyes lit up. “Are- are you saying that the meaning is flexible? That there’s a certain frame around which meaning is determined? Is there no right or wrong answer?”

“Maybe,” I replied, “but that would make the purpose of storytelling pointless. Something needs to serve as an anchor. I think the author only generates half of the meaning, and the other is your own experience.”

I paused at the edge of the sidewalk. “That’s why stories are so powerful. They adapt. Tolle lege.

I think the reason why we get so caught up in trying to determine one simple meaning from a story down is because we like the idea of control. We appreciate that there should only be one author and the characters simply support the plot. And yet the biblical scholar Walter Wink once observed that objectivism is possible, but not in the sense which modernity holds – that all bias can be removed and one absolute truth can be reached. However, objectivity is possible through acknowledging the biases of the authors to the best of our ability and moving through it.

I used to think that I was the only author to my story, but now I know that we all play a role in writing each scene, and each narrator has a different take on the unfolding events. Hence, every author only makes half of the meaning. The task of interpretation is left up to the recipient.

The beauty of post-modernity and storytelling is the fact that one’s perspective isn’t wrong, but it’s also not complete either. We need to continue to make room to hear others’ takes so we can see a fuller perspective.

Both ask us, in other words, to be willing to sit down over a meal with another person. By doing so, we can evaluate how each perspective is valid, rather than falling into the binary of absolute right and absolute wrong.

Oftentimes, I’d wager, the reason why a person holds a position is because it has worked for them to some capacity. Now, the task is uncovering why, how, and to what extent each position works.

And that requires a lot of listening.

I had reached the door to my apartment and was turning the key when my friend cleared her throat. I glanced up.

“Do you ever think you’ll write a story about us, then?” my friend asked.

“Perhaps,” I concluded, “but that’s a story still being written. And God knows what that means…”

My friends rolled their eyes and began to walk away.

Far off, their car started up and drove off into the night. It was almost quiet again. But as I listened, I heard that somewhere, someone was playing jazz.

The Business of Creating Home

Recently, I have been learning how to best represent my university to potential students who are interested in the school. From what I hear, one of my larger responsibilities will be to show students around the campus which I have been privileged to call home for much of the past three years.

For some of those years, I would find myself returning back to the New England coast to see my friends, my family, my home once more. But this summer, I find myself unpacking boxes in an empty apartment. An empty apartment on a mostly empty campus.

As I walked around the university, trying to memorize what I would say at such-and-such a location, I would turn to see a person pass by, preoccupied with their own thoughts. They were off to some class or meeting of theirs and disappeared as quickly as they came around the corner. The campus grew quiet again, the only exception being the low thrum of my voice as I spoke to some imaginary audience.

My supervisor encourages us to use stories to bring the campus to life. It makes sense. We humans are geared for story. Our ears perk up when someone starts off with the phrase, “Once upon a time.”

Why is that?

Later that day, I found myself reclining in my hammock, lost in thought for an hour or so. Apart from a street and a traffic light, my hammock boasts an unobstructed view of my workplace. In the summer, cars pass here uninterrupted. Come Orientation Weekend, it will be a completely different matter.

People make a place.

As much as I love my university, it’s quiet here. Too quiet. Without the people, my university is but a shell of itself.

My college is not the same without sophomores screaming and cheering for incoming first-year students as they drive up the main street to unload their luggage. It’s not the same without Smith students regularly voicing their loyalty to their living space to all who might overhear them. It’s not the same when the coffee shop is empty and the library is devoid of persons seeking to crunch before an upcoming test or finish a project or paper late into the evening. It’s not the same without the trolley and its incredibly loveable staff. My university is not the same thing I know it can be without my friends.

People make the place, home.

I suppose that’s why hospitality has always been a central part of humanity’s cultures. In the midst of a great amount of the unknown, to be hospitable to those who happen to find themselves at your door one day is the first step to taming the perceived hostility of the other, seeing more of ourselves in those with whom we might not affiliate.

Even back in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean worlds, hospitality was seen as a primary means by which the divine could bless people through the arrival of the stranger. Or, at least, to find something or someone of worth behind our initial fears and suspicions.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the beast Enkidu became human after having a meal extended to him by another person typically found on the margins of society – a prostitute. A beast is literally given humanity through the medium of hospitality. A foe becomes a friend. The strange takes on a familiar form.

In other ancient texts, the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian patriarch Abraham encounters God in the form of guests on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah. In welcoming the strangers to a feast, Abraham is brought to a divine encounter and a blessing for both he and Sarah, his wife.

Finally, in Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus’ welcoming of a stranger regardless of his own difficult circumstances leads him to be seen as favorable in the eyes of the divine, who had been disguised as the stranger the entire time. By practicing hospitality, Telemachus won the allegiance of the gray-eyed Athena, who enables him to learn of his father’s fate and mature in spite of the suitors’ attempts to kill him.

The act of hospitality is understood in these foundational cultures to bring forth and preserve life in difficult circumstances. It leads us to encounter others on a deeper level, seeing the good in those with who we might not connect in the first place. It allows us to be more ourselves, too. And, it reassures us that the great, mysterious world outside may not be as frightening as we once thought.

But what happens when people aren’t there? What then can we do?

Like the Israelites in the middle of the wilderness, like the Greeks pondering why things are they way they are, like the Sumerians attempting to build one of the first civilizations,  we are invited to remember. For us, it is to recall the times when the stranger became a friend, when we arrived on campus for the first time and were overwhelmed by cheering sophomores who held signs welcoming freshmen on campus, when a professor took the time to invite his entire class to his house to get to know one another around the fire until three in the morning, when classmates became confidantes, or when a university became a home.

We do so through telling stories. We tell stories to remember in the quiet times, to keep us company in the lonely dark, and to give direction when we’re lost. 

We tell them to provide hope that, one day, we might find ourselves home once more.

 

Those Small Eternities

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.

-Frederick Buechner

At the end of my freshman year, a group of my friends and I decided to get together to watch the sun rise upon our last finals week for the year. Climbing on top of a building, we spread out blankets on which to sit.

And we waited, listening for something. I can’t remember what.

I, a New England guy, had turned toward the city, half expecting the sun to rise from the ocean like in years gone by. But that was then, in a far-off place, overlooking a far-off ocean.

The stars had disappeared from overhead some minutes prior. All that was left was a navy quilt overhead, threatening to suffocate those beneath its crushing weight. Beneath us was a bed of gravel which crunched as we shifted our weight. I picked some up. Tossing one at a time, I counted the minutes as they passed.

The sky lightened to a periwinkle. A small, hot ember peaked over the ridgeline of mountains behind me. And for a moment, I felt as though I had fallen through a mirror into a place where everything was all turned around.

“The sun,” one of my friends whispered as they tapped me on the back. “You’re going to miss it!”

I dropped the stones and, turning toward the mountains, I watched, awestruck.

Church tradition holds that the apostle John saw a glimpse of heaven on one of these days while exiled on the island of Patmos. At one point, he says, enraptured, “the twelve gates were twelve pearls; each one of the gates was a single pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.”[1] I honestly wonder what he saw, sometimes. Other times, I doubt whether he saw a city at all. Either way, I don’t think I’m too worried whether that was the case or not.

What does it mean for something to be golden? To be literally made of gold? Or something else?

The Romantic poet William Blake once wrote in the opening lines of a poem of his:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
and a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…[2]

In the moments of trying to get from one place to another, I think we forget that even our work habits influence how we see the world and our faith. Perhaps the things of greatest truth, goodness, and beauty seem dull compared to the sensationalism we are used to.

Recently, I stopped a friend of mine in the hall who looked troubled. Asking what the matter was, they said, with a blank expression on their face, “I don’t know if I know what heaven is anymore.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Because if heaven is where God is,” they started, “And God is all around us, wouldn’t that mean that heaven is all around us, too?”

I shrugged. “What do you think?”

“Well, I don’t know what to think! What would that do to my understanding of the afterlife?”

“Something, I’m guessing.”

“No, yeah.” They said. “But I’ve been spending so much time thinking about how it’ll be like to leave this place after I die. But this will, in a sense, keep me grounded.”

I raised my eyebrow at the pun.

“If heaven is here,” they asked, “Why can’t we experience it?”

“A number of reasons, I think, but I think the first reason is because we’re always looking down and too busy to pay attention to what’s going on around us.”

“Perhaps if we do,” they thought aloud, “we might be able to see the small eternities around us in the every day. And we might just realize how precious everything actually is.”

“Sounds poetic,” I said, “I might just borrow that.”

They laughed.

I found myself in the same place that I had been with my friends that last full week of school during my freshman year the other day. The sun, however, was setting. And I was alone.

It’s been a while since I’ve slowed down to watch the sun disappear beneath the distant waves of the Pacific. Most days it seems to sink beneath a dust cloud or squeeze between skyscrapers. And most days, I’ve found myself always on the go to do something. Or be somewhere.

But this day, I found myself near the close of my junior year with no one to be with and nowhere to go. And the day had been pleasant enough that I felt at ease and sat down to watch the sun sink lower in the sky.

Here and there, birds wished each other good night as they found their homes in which to rest. And as the sun began to disappear beneath the horizon, it shot out orange-gold tendrils of light into the oncoming darkness. Squinting as I faced the dying sun, I traced the inroads that the light had made with my finger and felt the breeze on my face.

“Streets of gold, eh?” I chuckled to myself. “Good one, John.”

Perhaps it isn’t so much that there will be literal streets of gold or mansions for the average believer that John was getting at. Perhaps it is that, when heaven is united fully with earth and all things are made new, perhaps we can glance at a tree and see, maybe for the first time, the full splendor of God that had been present all along.

Soon, the sun had all but disappeared. And as it vanished beneath the horizon, I heard crickets composing their nightly performances somewhere. The birds had settled down for the night. I yawned.

Grabbing my jacket, I turned to leave. But before I did, I reached down and picked up a single pebble. Studying it, I placed it in my pocket and began walking back home.

“Right, well, I better get settled in, then.”

[1] Rev. 21:21, ESV.

[2] William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence.” The Poetry Foundation. Accessed March 26, 2017. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43650