Stories

You have a story to tell. You are your story. Do you know your story? Do you share it? Only you can. I hope that you not only own your story, but that you recognize how important your story is.

Sometimes the world sends a message that some stories are more important than others. That is a lie. Sometimes the world says that one can do irreparable damage to his or her story. That too is a lie. As long as we breathe, our stories continue. Each breath is a reminder that our stories are still being written, still being lived out.

Another truth to ponder – your story is sacred because you are sacred. Every day I have the opportunity to hear people’s stories. And more than anything else in my work, I remind people of this truth. You are sacred. Your story is sacred. Sometimes we avoid our story because we feel shame about it. Or we miss the beauty of our story because we compare it to another person’s story.

And in case you didn’t know, there are countless stories in this world to hear and learn from, to be challenged and encouraged by. Listen deeply. Listen empathically. Be curious. Be kind. We need these stories, all of them. Yours and mine. My story isn’t your story and that is a good thing.

Several years ago, my then teenaged son plopped himself in a chair nearby complaining of my decision to not let him go hang out with his friends that evening. He was genuinely annoyed with me. In his story in that moment, he was the protagonist and I was the antagonist. How could I, this big, bad, mean mom ruin his life? I let him go on for awhile. When the complaining showed no signs of slowing, I walked over to interrupt his story with another. I knelt down to be eye level. I gently touched his arm. “Isaac, going hungry is a tragedy. Losing a parent at an early age is a tragedy. Living in a war-torn land is a tragedy. This? My making you stay home tonight? Not a tragedy.”

I said this not to shame him but to broaden his perspective. That is what another story can do. I was challenging his story with another story in hopes that he would see things a little differently. Isaac looked at me, a bit startled at first. He then chuckled and said, “yup.” He jumped up and found something else to do.

Maybe it is because I said what I did without judgment or annoyance. Maybe it is because it was love that fueled my actions. Or maybe I was just lucky. But in that moment I could see recognition on his face of a perspective that changed the story he had been telling himself.

A few years later I was sitting in a room with my fellow seminary classmates. One student shared that he had recently taught his teenaged son to drive. Part of that education included how to be pulled over safely by the police. This man, a black man, one of the kindest, gentlest men I knew, went on to share about his dozen or so experiences of being pulled over by police only to be let go after being cleared for no wrong doing. He talked about the unwritten rules he had been taught to follow that he had to pass on to his son. “Don’t make eye contact.” “Be polite.” “Don’t question.” “Don’t show your agitation, frustration, or anger.” Just to name a few. These rules weren’t for the sake of common courtesy. They were rules for survival.

I pride myself on identifying outcomes. I come up with contingency outcomes and contingency-upon-contingency outcomes. Never once, in all of my worst case scenarios I tried to imagine did I consider that my son, who I had recently taught to drive, might be in harm’s way when in the presence of the police. Not once did I worry for his safety. Maybe if my classmate had simply talked about his experiences, I might have dismissed his story. But there was something undeniably disturbing in the contrast between his son’s “driver’s ed” and my son’s. I heard him. And I was undone.

His story exposed a world I had refused to see up to that point. His story challenged my story in a way that humbled me and tore me open. It was painful and hard to allow his story to coexist with my story. But I knew I had to keep listening. I needed to hear his story and many more stories of people who live in and experience the world differently from me.

I am still listening. I am listening to my story and your story. I look for the ways they beautifully overlap and the ways they uncomfortably bump into each other. I am living and learning through my story and your story.

So, what is your story? Have you told it recently? Do so, and tell it often. Remember to tell the ups and the downs. Share the good and the not-so-good. Celebrate the joys. Mourn the losses. Share your story. Again and again and again. The world needs to hear your story.

The Jekyll and Hyde of Christmas

The Christmas season brings pretty lights; attentiveness to others as we purchase our gifts; familiar music; nature brought inside through our decorated trees; ornaments that remind us of Christmases past; food, drinks and laughter in our many celebrations; traditions that have been followed for generations or recently established; and moments of hope that maybe, just maybe, Peace On Earth and Goodwill Towards All might be possible.

The Christmas season also brings long, dark nights; budgetary strains as we buy more than we can afford; short loops of annoying songs that we can’t get out of our heads; messy pine needles everywhere; traffic; unrealistic expectations; gatherings we would rather not attend; obligations that strain, tax, and sometimes nearly break us; and moments where we think humanity is just fucked and there’s nothing we can do to change it.

I find the Christmas story interesting: a seemingly insignificant event; a couple so ordinary no one would give even the very pregnant Mary shelter, with the exception of one innkeeper who offered the use of his barn for her pending delivery; the shepherds, not considered important in their society, receiving a heavenly choral performance; a star to guide those who are curious, aware, persistent and wise; an announcement that God is with us in the form of a newborn baby; an event that at the very least continues to be marked by the dates we use today.

Is it ridiculous in 2018 to believe that this story still matters? There seems to be little of the Christmas story evident today in American Christianity. Humility, curiosity and wisdom are not attributes I hear my non-religious friends use when describing their encounters with the Christian faith. Religious people often seem to have no need for God anymore because they have things figured out. Instead they look for others who are like them and who believe what they believe. They are too good for a manger, too important for the shepherds, too busy for the star-led journey. If God With Us was meant to evoke some change in humanity, shouldn’t there be more evidence that God is in fact with us?

And yet there is a part of Christmas that never seems to go away completely. Something, or someone, persists in this underlying thread of hope. Perhaps there are enough of us who long for more humane humans to keep this dream alive, which is what I have come to believe is actually the Christmas message. We don’t achieve peace through power. We don’t extend goodwill through domination. We work towards peace and goodwill by being better humans.

“Keep Christ in Christmas” I see on billboards and read in social media rants. Jesus didn’t demand, bully, demean, undermine. He did hang out with the marginalized and the forgotten, focusing on their healing and wholeness. He seemed to care about the humanity of all with special attention to those whose humanity had been stripped away. If we are to keep Christ in Christmas, it seems that what we are in fact to do is to care about the humanity of all.

The Hyde of Christmas demands, requires, insists that the holiday and its message be interpreted and practiced a certain way. The Jekyll of Christmas evokes mystery and wonder. Hyde is noisy. Jekyll whispers in the silence. I realize the Jekyll and Hyde illustration has limitations, but it helps me understand how one holiday has seemingly contradictory realities. And it helps me see how we are all both Jekyll and Hyde.

Interestingly for us in the northern hemisphere, Christmas happens on the shortest of days. When darkness dominates, a season of lights offers hope. The collection of small lights reminds us of the impact made when many come together. It is still night with dawn far off, but for those of us who long for more humane humans, we come together this holiday season hoping that maybe we aren’t fucked after all.

Merry Christmas.

Chatter

“Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter . . . ”
Frederick Buechner’s words resonate deeply. The chatter is exhausting. Maddening. Deadening. We are a culture of chatter; chatter that chirps day and night, chatter that chips away at humanity – yours and mine. 
I do not even realize the toll it takes until I am so tense every muscle aches, or so utterly depleted that I want to sleep for days.
“Unclench the fists of your spirit,” Buechner says.
I do not think this means to abandon one’s convictions. On the contrary, this is what might enable one to live out deep convictions without losing one’s mind. Or all of one’s friends. What a novel idea.
Once in a great while, I meet a person who embodies what Buechner names. I know it almost immediately – faith, integrity, grit, a calmness that resembles the eye of a storm, and love. He or she embodies convictions without shaming another. He or she inspires change, not demands it. He or she has a full life with relationships that have been tended to and meaningfulness that goes beyond work.
The chatter pulls us further away from what so many of us seek: peace, salvation, purpose. We long for an affirmation that we are on the right path but spend most of our time criticizing the “wrong” path. We fear wasting our lives, yet we waste so much time. We want to be part of something greater than ourselves. But we put much of our energy into breaking things apart.
I think it is scary to ease the chatter. What will the silence bring? What do I not want to hear? What if I hear nothing at all? And so we chirp away. We speak even when we have doubts. We speak regardless of who is listening. We speak until we cannot stand the sound of our voices anymore. And we speak some more. Until eventually our souls wither or something shatters, forcing us into silence. Then, if we have an ounce of consciousness left, maybe we just might hear the collective sigh of heaven.

Friday Favorite: A Good Life

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading – – that is a good life.

Annie Dillard, A Writing Life

I first came across this quote a few months ago, and it still lingers in my mind. In particular, two points have stuck with me. First, that a life of the spirit requires less and less. I have thought a lot about what this looks like. Is it less stuff? Less recognition? Is it feeling increasingly content and satisfied? All of the above, I think.

Second, that by talking of one’s life, I believe it will need to be worked on throughout my life. It takes time, intentionality, mistakes, lessons learned, vulnerability, patience and grace. Life is measured as a whole. I can look at its parts and evaluate how I am doing. But to look at my life, I must step back and examine the whole of my life – self, relationships, work, interests, thoughts, contributions, and so forth.

I would like to some day look back on my life and think of it as good. For there is no shortage of good days. But a good life is hard to come by.