The Stories We Tell

Edited by Nick Chera

There’s a carving in the basement wall of my old apartment. It’s been there long before my family moved in. I can only assume that it was left there by the owners of the place when it was first built. On evenings when I found myself with nothing to do, I used to stare at it and wonder about the story and people behind it.

John Koenig defined the word sonder as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own […] in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”[1] As the evenings wind on and the years roll by, I can’t help but ask myself how I might imagine myself the center of any meaningful story at all. Perhaps our purpose is to always play the supporting role.

The past week, I found myself walking the streets of Los Angeles when I came across something remarkable. As I made my way down the street, past the line of shops and other small businesses, I happened to glance down to check the time when it caught my eye. There, on the sidewalk, was a colorless piece of plastic well on its way to becoming one with the concrete underfoot.

Granted, in most urban centers, melted plastic is not much of a spectacle. But as my eyes flicked from my watch to the ground below, I noticed that someone had gone and taken a brush to paint over parts of it.

As I stepped back to get a better look, I realized that the exact same somebody had gone and painted every other piece of melted plastic along the entirety of the street. It had taken me until this point to notice their work, their art, their contribution to the city.

I wonder who that somebody is. Or was. Or will be.

Brenda Salter McNeil once wrote that “we can’t forever avoid contact with people who are unlike us […] This is when our view of reality is threatened and the foundational way of seeing our lives is shaken.”[2]

Someone told me that art arises out of a person’s need to express some element of the human condition, something that they wrestle with themselves and try to release upon the world. I think that when we express ourselves, it is an attempt to leave our work, to tell a part of our own story. And should we stop to listen and observe, we learn that the world is a much more complex and gritty place than the monochrome stories we like to tell ourselves.

I found myself wandering around my college campus a while ago when a friend of mine turned the corner. “Hey,” they started, “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Oh?” I asked, “What for?”

“I just wanted to know: Why did you pursue ministry? What influenced you? That is, if you’ve got the time.”

I nodded. “Let me grab some coffee and we’ll find someplace to sit. Mind if I ask you the same?”

To be honest, as I shared my story and as I heard theirs, it wasn’t their story about their call which struck me as profound. Instead, it was the circumstances out of which their desire to pursue ministry.

For me, when I compared my life to their own, my own story seemed mild-mannered to say the least. My own story and call arose from a life characterized by middle-class suburbia, defined by weekly soccer practices and church attendance.

For them, life was defined by the city, drugs, and loneliness.

“It might sound strange,” they remarked, “but when you’re entering middle school as someone looking for a community to be yourself and not be judged, the drug community is hard to beat. Nobody ever thinks themselves is better than anyone.”

They looked away briefly, commenting, “It’s sort of hard to do when both of you are sitting there with a needle in your arm.”

“But why didn’t you go to church?” I asked.

“Because my parents didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to be condemned again. I just wanted to fit in somewhere. Oftentimes, the church seemed like the last place where I wanted to be.”

After a moment, they continued, “But it’s really only the church that can bring healing and a meaning which lasts longer than anything else. That’s why I went into vocational ministry – because we all need healing in areas of lives which we don’t want to show to the public. But instead of inviting people to come to us, we really ought to be going to them. Isn’t that what having compassion on people and seeking reconciliation is all about?”

Frederick Buechner once wrote that “my story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours […] To lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”[3]

In the stories we tell, we express who we are through who we have been, often trying to discern who we might become. But by ourselves, we often will find ourselves getting trampled into the sidewalk like a piece of plastic on a hot summer day. It is when we pause to reflect upon the stories of others that our own experiences are contrasted tonally and structurally, allowing that which was previously invisible to stand at the forefront.

As I sat and listened to my friend, Buechner came to my mind once more, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”[4]

Even as contrast occurs, we find in our brokenness shared threads common to humanity. We all want to belong. We all seek community to some degree. We all hope our lives are going somewhere, for someone or something’s sake. Like the carving in the basement wall or the painted plastic in the street, our stories may seem like a random and contextless organization of meaning amidst the chaos. But when we listen, when we share, when we allow that haunting feeling of sonder to seep into our soul, we begin to realize that our story is not monolithic or unique. It is but a tiny part of a vibrant web, a piece connected to millions of other pieces, a part in a hundred thousand plays each with their own plot. Ours is a story unlike any other and yet the same as every other, a story of longing, of loss, of brokenness, but of hope too. And in this tension of uniqueness and connectedness, maybe we can find a basis for true community.

[1] John Koenig, “Sonder,” The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. 2013, accessed March 11, 2017. http://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com

[2] Brenda Salter McNeil, Roadmap to Reconciliation: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and Justice. (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015), 45.

[3] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 30.

[4] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1993), 18.

Advertisements

A Soul In Need Of Scrubbing

“God creates everything out of nothing. And everything which God is to use, he first reduces to nothing.” -Soren Kierkegaard

I used to think that a regular practice of kenosis (“the emptying of self”) was mainly for the sake of talking to people I normally wouldn’t. Now, I understand that kenosis also reveals, to those who practice it, the person of Christ located properly within a theology of suffering.

My mentor and I sat down to grab lunch at one of the more popular dining options on our university’s campus. After chatting about the weather and classes – those which he was teaching versus those which I was taking – he noticed that I had barely touched my food, resorting to simply pushing a fry from one side of my plate to the other. My brow was furrowed.

He blinked. Leaning back from his daily special that he had been working through, he let out a sigh. Waving a hand, he remarked, “But enough about your classes, I’m assuming you have something on your mind. How are you doing, really?

I let out a laugh more bitter than a typical cup of three-day-old coffee which has sat unused in a French Press. “Yeah, about that.”

Looking at him, I muttered, “I used to think that Paul wasn’t being serious. I thought he was using hyperbole when he said that we are dead in our sins.”

“But now,” I paused, “Now I think I am beginning to understand. I’m starting to see that my righteousness is like filthy rags.”

He nodded. “That’s a pretty valid point for most of us. All of us, I would argue.”

Yet, still, it was as if a crack had formed in the wall holding back a flood of thoughts, doubts, and fears. My demeanor began to crumble. “And the thing that gets me the most is,” I said, my voice growing louder as I continued, “That, when we get down to it, I realize that even what I consider as goodness and virtue is motivated out of pride, a desire for control, and a fear that I am not who I have portrayed myself as.”

I tapped the table, stressing each syllable as I pronounced them. Words like rocks hit the floor and began piling around my feet. “God, I hate myself sometimes.”

He was silent. His eyes scanned my face as I stared at the table with the same intensity as if to count every speck which made up the design of its surface.

“Nothing! Nothing I do is ever good in its entirety!

They say that in Hebrew, the word for one’s face is the same as that person’s presence–as if to suggest that to really see a person’s face is to bear witness to their very soul. Little wonder, then, that as my mentor witnessed tears, hot with frustration, strike the tabletop between us, I could sense that, for one of the first times, I knew that he could see who and where I really was.

“No matter how hard I scrub my soul, it’s still filthy.”

And for some time, a holy silence rested between us. Somewhere, some time, a slight smile flickered across his face.

“You know, being nothing is a good place to start. God usually creates from nothing.”

“Being nothing sure feels like I’m nothing but dirt.”

“I know,” he said. “Boy, do I know.”

 

A few days ago, I found myself at a church during a Celebrate Recovery session. Celebrate Recovery is the Christian equivalent of any recovery program which was started out of Rick Warren’s church almost twenty-five years ago. The beauty of this program is that participants place their hope in the higher power of Jesus Christ, explicitly. People, regardless of demographic, come to bear one another’s burdens and sins, offering, in turn, the grace and truth of God in equal measure.

I almost felt like a complete outsider, an observer without any draw toward a program like this, until I heard someone share that they struggle with pride and self-acceptance. Suddenly, it was as if Jesus himself was speaking to my soul.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sets the characters of a religious leader and a tax collector against one another to illustrate a point, stating:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” [1]

Typically, the Pharisee was looked up to as an illustration of what people ought to strive for in regard to holiness. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were considered among the vilest of society.

In walking into Celebrate Recovery, it was as if I walked into the midst of Jesus’ own parable. I am well on my way, in more ways than one, in becoming like the Pharisee. And many people would consider the people who attend accountability groups like Celebrate Recovery to be of the same class as the tax collector. I think they’re right. But not in the way that they intend.

I think that Celebrate Recovery, and groups like it, are places for where people are more open about what they wrestle with. I think that they are more in touch with being human than most of us, too.

I am just as much in need of grace and love and forgiveness as each and every one of my brothers and sisters here. On what grounds should I even think I am better than them, that I don’t need just as much grace (if not more!) as the next person there? For every person there, they own and voice their flaws and shortcomings, seeking help and community. I still cling to my pride and desire for control because they are familiar.

Who here is closer to God, then? Who here is just playing games?

Frederick Buechner once commented that recovery groups like A.A. or Celebrate Recovery “is what the church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be big business. Sinners Anonymous. “I can will what is right but I cannot do it,” is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).” [2]

When you realize that you are in over your head, you have a greater propensity to run back to the one we can call Abba Father – Daddy, in other words. No wonder why Jesus mentioned that the spiritually poor are blessed – they know this to be true. When you find yourself in over your head, you realize in your darkest moments that you cannot save anybody, even on your best day.

But it is here that you realize that in this, in the fact that you are not anyone’s messiah, you also recognize that the reason why God has you here is not to bear the burden of others’ salvation, but to spend time cooperating with the Father, being fully present to those with whom you find yourself. There is no pressure to be perfect because God is, instead. All we need to do is be there, and bear one another’s burdens as a brother or sister. Compassion simply means “to suffer with.” Not save.

When Peter protested that Christ would even stoop so low to wash his feet, Jesus responded by stating, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”[3] Peter, like many of us, found himself in the uncomfortable position where Jesus began to wash his feet, an act reserved for the lowest slave or servant within a household in the Ancient Near East. Christ was too good, too honored, too holy to wash the grime from everywhere that Peter had been in the past seven or so days.

Likewise, when Christ reveals himself in our moments of self-emptying, I think we are prone to try and skirt away from his ministering to us. We, rather, should be ministering to him, our Lord and Savior, in the least of these. Shouldn’t we?

But I think the reason why Christ still comes in the form of the least of these to minister to us is because each and every person that we encounter is a reminder that we are in need of grace and cleansing in some way, too.

If I realize that, on my own, nothing I can do or be is ever good – that’s kind of the point of needing Christ in the first place.

 

A week passed between my conversation with my mentor before I found myself seated in a liturgical style chapel at my university. His words he offered were helpful, but nothing had changed in terms of my mood. I had tried reading Scripture and meditating on God’s love and forgiveness. Prayer seemed like an empty respite. It would be another two weeks before I would speak with my mentor again. Yet, as the pastor presiding started to deliver the Eucharistic rite, something happened.

“Come to this table,” he said as he widened his arms in a welcoming gesture toward all, “Not because you must but because you may…”

It was as though the voice of the speaker trailed off. No longer could I hear him. My heart beat in my ears. I could hear the breath inside my lungs. I could barely hear his next words.

“Not because you are strong, but because you are weak…”

I realized I had been holding my breath. I exhaled. Suddenly, tears flowed once more, freely.

God wants me anyway. He wants to work with me, on me, for me, despite me.

I blinked as the Gospel made itself clear to me once more, a ministry major of all people. Realizing that I am nothing feels a lot like reducing me to dirt. I think that it’s because it’s the way which God goes about reminding us of who is the Potter and who is the clay. It’s his way of letting us know who is the Savior and who needs the saving.

I sat there in my chair, silent as I felt full of meaning and purpose once more, even despite my emptiness. Kenosis is as much for the person emptying him or herself as much as it is for others.

“Thanks be to God,” I whispered. “Thanks be to God.”

 

[1] Lk. 18:10-14, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Frederick Buechner, “Alcoholics Anonymous,” in Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 5.

[3] Jn. 13:8, NRSV.