Why Telling Our Stories Matters | Leaving Egypt Bonus Track

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own . . . ”  Frederick Buechner

Let me offer 7 reasons why it’s important for us to be both story-tellers and story-listeners, 7 “identity-markers” for a Storied people beginning with “We Are…”:

1.  We are Hardwired for Story – Curt Thompson writes, “the process of reflecting on and telling others your story, and the way you experience others hearing it, actually shapes the story and the very neural correlates, or networks, it represents.”  In other words, we thrive when we listen and tell.  Without it, we settle for a life of reactivity, not reflection – stuck in our reptillian brain, disconnected from both of neo-cortical brain and from other human beings.  Simply put, Story is healthy.  

2.  We are Meaning-Makers – For millennia, telling and listening to stories was the fundamental building block of civilization, the way of passing along tradition and family tales and myths.  It was a kind of social glue.  Today, our meaning-making happens in radically different, and often compartmentalized ways – seeing a therapist, connecting with an old friend on Facebook, attending church (often infrequently, and in churches where the Christian story isn’t necessarily told and practiced each week), gathering data piecemeal from Google searches, a quick coffee with a friend.  Busyness has robbed us of time.  Individualism has robbed us of community rituals.  Consumerism has redefined our purpose.  Story can set it straight.

3.  We are Honest – Story-telling requires honesty.  I have told my own story in highly edited ways, often trying to cast myself in the best possible light.  Eventually, the truth will get you.  In the recent political conventions, I heard both sides speak frequently of American exceptionalism, and I could not help but wonder if we’ve taken our own American community-story seriously, with all its good and bad – Selfless heroism and slavery, gracious giving and genocide, beauty and brokenness.  Even America has a story…and the point is that there is no shame in telling the truth.  The shame is in the radical editing for the sake of glossing over the hard times, the failures, the suffering, and the errors.

4.  We are wounded – Telling our stories heals us.  We’ve seen that it heals the brain.  But consider this.  After the Rwandan genocide, there were many therapists who visited Rwanda with new techniques for healing – quick fixes for the damaged and abused human soul.  What did psychologists and theologians eventually find?  No new techniques seemed to help.  But old-fashioned, group story-telling seemed to heal wounds.  As Rwandan men and women sat together and told of their sons and daughters, of rapes and ravaging, healing and forgiveness took place.

5.  We are storied/historical beings, not Gnostics – I give credit to Eugene Peterson for this one, as his writings on Lament reminded me that what is grieved in that ancient biblical book is actual suffering.  You see, we don’t live in a vacuum.  Modern enlightened guru’s speak of living in the eternal now, and I understand the value of living in the present moment.  But Judeo-Christian religion is storied.  We are not Gnostics.  We believe in actual events, real and felt.  This is why I feel the most orthodox Christians ought to be the most Storied of them all – rooted in narrative, God’s and ours – mindful of the need to remember…

6.  We are liturgical – In historic Christian worship, we come together to rehearse the Story.  In Confession and Assurance, in the Sermon and the Eucharist, in the Lord’s Prayer and the Benediction, the whole Story is told – the story of original goodness invaded by sin, the story of dignity and depravity, of hunger and thirst, of blessing and mission.  Worship, at its best, is NOT an Oxytocin high, a praise-song-feel-good-love-fest, but an intentional engagement with God as his loving, desiring, obeying, hoping creatures, longing to be re-Storyed and re-branded in the Great Story told each week…

7.  We are commanded – I can’t help but return to the frequent admonitions to Remember…

It seems that over and again in Scripture, God’s rescued people are told to remember.  The Israelites are commanded to remember the great rescue from Egypt.  The exiles are told to remember God’s faithfulness.  Christians are given the Eucharistic meal as a meal of remembrance.  It seems telling and listening is a kind of corporate remembering for Christians in worship.

And this is why I’m both a therapist and a pastor.  Because, I’m in the business of the telling, the listening, the remembering.  I’m called to invite people out of their hurried lives into an intentionally reflective space, where God can show.

And this is why I think it’s so important that you remember.  Listen, quick-fixes are available all over today, in religious forms, in medicine, in self-help books, in internet and TV gurus.  But the unhurried process of telling and listening invites us into a kind of sacred cadence, a rhythm that can reform our hearts, and even rewire our brains.  Science and faith agree – Story is central.  We tell stories in order to live, as Joan Didion says.

Tell and listen as if your life depended on it.


Walk the Crooked Road

In her fascinating musings on the exodus story called The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on the Exodus, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg weaves insights from Jewish tradition, mystics, and contemporary psychology into her often-compelling but sometimes dense tome.  Especially interesting to me was her take on the inevitably of struggle, utilizing the Israelites and their long exodus journey from slavery through a wilderness.  She calls this the “crooked road” of the wilderness, wrought with questions, confusion, and failure along the way.  She writes:

Their “crooked road” into the wilderness gives them, paradoxically, a freedom to think, to ask their subversive, sarcastic questions. It gives them, also, the outrageous freedom to “zigzag,” not only geographically but intellectually, emotionally.  The road that is akuma (“crooked,” “devious”) threads through places of vision and faith and, adjacently, places of doubt and revision. It makes possible a journey that is like a graph curve (a modern Hebrew meaning for the word, akuma), zigzag lines joining highs and lows, discontinuities that are intellectually baffling to the reader, but that are presented by the narrator in a matter-of-fact, empirical spirit: this is the way it was; this is the way it is. These discontinuities cannot be avoided, or dispelled.

In our chronological arrogance, we might think ourselves more wise than the former slaves who traversed the wilderness terrain, less prone to fail or to get it wrong.  But this “empirical spirit” tells a story, our story, a story where our walk or our doctrine cannot be perfected.  No doubt, we continue to walk.  And we continue to theologize.  And we speak what we believe.  But we do it knowing that our way is crooked.

Our best theologizing only approximates God’s truth.

Our best days only hide our deep blemishes.

Our most noble acts conceal selfish ambition.

This is the way it was.  This is the way it is.

Her words invite you and me to tremendous self-compassion.  We beat ourselves up for our failures.  We feel that gut-wrenching ache of humiliation when our concealed self leaps to the fore, exposing parts of us that we despise or fear or simply prefer to remain in hiding.  Her words invite us to extraordinary compassion for one another, with whom we disagree and misunderstand and resent.  This compassion is the soil of real forgiveness.

We are living paradoxes.  And we don’t know how deep the rabbit hole of contradiction goes.  This is an empirical reality.  It’s a theological belief.  And yet, it does not often lead us to humility.  More often than not, those of us who believe in man’s crookedness most deeply are the least compassionate, the most condescending, and more apt to be “blind guides, straining gnats while swallowing camels” (Matt. 23:24). I count myself one much of the time, sadly.

On the crooked road, our waywardness requires humility.  It requires community, because we need help, a hand to pull us out of the ditch.  It requires honesty.  And it requires intense purpose, a single-minded focus on entering that new land, rather than creating false oases along the way.

So, walk the crooked road.  And be mindful of those stumbling along the way next to you.

we need an alternative reality

When the Israelites first stepped out beyond the border of Egypt, they could taste freedom.  It is what they wanted, or so they thought.  Very quickly, they began to miss the everyday securities of Egypt.  Some became vocal, and soon a disgruntled group of pilgrims were pining for the peace of slavery that would soothe the chaos of wilderness.

Whether you lived in ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, or today in the Global West, a view of the ‘good life’ is sold.  Together with its unique promises of blessing, prosperity, salvation, security, and progress, this package is enticing in its benefits.  But, as we’ve considered in the New Exodus posts over the past 2 years, this ‘security-package’ isn’t “Gospel” peace and joy.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m glad Nike’s make me run faster, Peet’s Coffee wakes me up, ATM’s feed me money when I need it, and my navigation system guides me through the maze of San Francisco.  But it’s important to keep our eyes open when it comes to how we define the ‘good life.’

NT Wright sees the New Exodus theme in Paul’s writing:

“When Paul speaks of God rescuing people from one kingdom and giving them another one, and of ‘redemption’ and ‘forgiveness’ as central themes of that rescue operation, he has the Exodus from Egypt in mind.  What God has done in Jesus and is now doing for them is the New Exodus, the great moment of setting the slaves free.  To become a Christian is to leave the ‘Egypt’ of sin and to travel gratefully to the promised inheritance.”

Paul uses the thought-world of both his Jewish history and Roman present in order to infuse a new understanding of freedom and joy.  But choosing this Exodus route means subverting, rejecting and resisting, to some extent, the false versions of salvation offered by the dominant ‘Empire’ of the day, the false versions of redemption, of freedom, of forgiveness, of blessing, of security.  In our contemporary time, this is the trick – figuring out what this subverting, rejecting, and resisting looks like.  As I’ve said before, you can take Israel out of Egypt, but it’s difficult to take the ‘Egypt’ out of Israel.  Our habits and patterns, informed by the reality and promises of the ‘good life’ according to everything from Thomas Jefferson to Tommy Hilfiger, are deeply ingrained.  Sometimes, it’s hard to think that there is a difference.

In coming posts, we’ll animate this further, contending that the Gospel of Jesus offers an alternative reality that is more compelling, and offers a better freedom, than the false securities and cheap freedoms of ‘Egypt’.  Until then, consider this:

To what extent is your definition of freedom informed by the supposed ‘right’ to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (as defined during the Enlightenment), versus the ‘privilege’ of participating in the cruciform life of suffering servanthood?

What are the habits and practices of your ‘Egypt’ which capture your attention daily?  If you lost these, how would you feel?  To what extent has your life become dependent on these securities?

The love that casts out wilderness fear

There is a desire within each of us, in the deep center of ourselves that we call our heart.  We were born with it, it is never completely satisfied, and it never dies.  It is the human desire for love.  Our true identity…is found in this desire. Gerald May, The Awakened Heart

Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. 1 John 4:18

+ + + + + +

There is a journey we all must take, up from Egypt, to the foothills of Sinai, through the wilderness, and into the promised rest.  It’s the New Exodus journey.  And it’s a cyclical journey.  Just ask the person who has felt that deluge of spiritual satisfaction only to wake up the next day bound by yet a new level of inner chainery.  It is in this moment, in particular, that we doubt God’s love, double-up on our layers of self-protection, and re-commit to our old friends – cynicism, despair, hopelessness, and perhaps worst of all – apathy.

A friend once told me that the polar counterpart of love is apathy.  I had always believed it to be hatred.  But, after some soul-searching and even some biblical exploration, I couldn’t help but agree.  The Bible doesn’t call it apathy, however.  The biblical idea is conveyed in the word ‘hardness.’  The hard heart is the loveless heart, the heart that has abandoned love in favor of fear, the heart that has chosen a safer Lover than the wild, risky, and demanding God we worship.  Psalm 95 tells the story of those who failed to complete the wilderness journey because of their fear:

Today, if you hear his voice,

8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the desert,

9 where your fathers tested and tried me,
though they had seen what I did.

10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.”

11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
“They shall never enter my rest.”

The final words convey something profound about the human heart.  Not entering into God’s rest destines us to a life of restlessness, a life of placing our heart’s fulfillment in cheap substitutes.  This restlessness manifests in a hardened heart, a heart incapable of love, unable to be vulnerable.  And C.S. Lewis warned us of this when in The Four Loves he said

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

You see, St. John was right.  Perfect love casts out wilderness fear. And it’s Love that will get us Home.  Yet, love is scary, risky, and vulnerable.  It is the very thing we want desperately.  And it is the very thing we run for our lives to avoid.

I’m a card-carrying love-avoider.  I understand why C.S. Lewis spent a better part of his life unmarried.  And I also understand why, after taking a risk and falling in love, he berated God for playing a cruel joke on him after his wife Joy died.  Marital love brings you as close to heavenly intimacy as you’ll find on this earth.  It’s the prime image and metaphor for divine and human love throughout the Bible.  It’s the cat and mouse game of Song of Songs, which for many became the central text on love’s heartache throughout church history.  Pat Benatar got it right in her 1983 love lament, a song that messed with me as a 13-year old romantic.  “Love is a Battlefield,” she wrote, and it rocked my young and lovestruck heart.  Now 16 years into marriage, I can understand.  Vulnerability is difficult.  I’d rather wrap my heart around an old Egyptian flame, a more sure and certain lover than this Divine Heartbreaker.

And then there is the simple young disciple, the one Jesus loved, who writes something that makes the learned theologian laugh – God is Love. We don’t consult John for good theological advice.  For that, we go to St. Paul.  Paul seems to have been born with the dogmatic gene.  St. John, we suspect, would hardly know what to do with the lofty definition of God in the Westminster Confession of Faith – “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”  There is not a whole lot of Love to be found in this version of God.  Simple St. John should have left the theologizing to his later English and Scottish brethren.

And yet, the disciple who was likely a boy when Jesus was crucified knew something of Love.  “Perfect loves casts out all fear,” he wrote.  Again, it’s not likely to make a theological text.  But perhaps he gets the human heart.  Fear ruled the hardened hearts of wilderness worriers.  But Love would get them Home.

Vulnerable Love.

Risky Love.

Gerald May writes, “There is a desire within each of us, in the deep center of ourselves that we call our heart.  We were born with it, it is never completely satisfied, and it never dies.  It is the human desire for love.  Our true identity…is found in this desire.”  The image of God, though shattered by the Fall, did not suffer a permanent loss of desire.  And deep within we yearn for Love.  We replace Love with substitutes – bad relationships, addictions to work and porn and food, and perhaps even the need for certainty.  Yes, some of us still believe Certainty casts out all fear.  But God’s corrective is this:

Love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul, and strength.

I’m scared to love.  My prayer is this:  God, love the fear out of me.

The Tomb becomes a Womb

“The good news is an annunciation.  And the annunciation to Mary was no the imparting of information, or the planting of an idea.  By the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, she became pregnant!  Christ within us by the power of the Spirit is not an idea but a presence even more enfleshed and intimate than a baby in the womb.  Jesus, in all the fullness of his ascended glory and in all the living vitality of his undiminished humanity, is fused and united with each one of us.”  Martin Smith, A Season for the Spirit

+ + + + + + + +

Once upon a time, Israel woke up to find herself enslaved among a once-friendly people.  The hospitable terrain of Goshen where she had blossomed had become inhospitable and unfriendly.  A womb had become a tomb, unsustainable for life.

Passing through the waters, Israel was (re)birthed into a frightening wilderness world, where God would take her to be His own and bring about a beauty attractive to the whole world (Ezekiel 16).  He promised to be with her, but would not take up residence within her until the inauguration of a New Exodus in Jesus.

And now we can say not merely that God is with us, but that He is within us, bringing forth a beauty that will be attractive to a watching world.  How extraordinary.

I was introducing a candidate for ministry several years ago among a group of Calvinist pastors.  When I introduced a young guy I had gotten to know, I said, “Josh is a good man.”  Very quickly, a typically outspoken pastor leaped up from his seat and said, “Can we say that any man is good?”  This pastor’s brand of Calvinism reminds me of the words of an old elder at my childhood church who’d often say to me, “Don’t forget Chuck, there are none righteous, no not one.”

But this kind of wormology misses the reality that God takes up residence in human beings.  It points continually to our screw-ups and ignores the unfathomable reality that in Christ, we are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).  It’s actual.  It’s present.  It’s the re-Edening of your once-inhospitable soul.  The tomb becomes a womb, bursting with life.  And this mysterious growing reality within causes us to say, “It is longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!” (Gal. 2:19).

What’s more, this means that you can relax.  Attempts at cosmetic spirituality can be dropped.  External rituals can be stopped.  What defines you is within.  Martin Smith writes, “Unless we come to acknowledge and believe in this true center, we will continue to imagine that our public personalities or our image of ourselves is the whole truth of who we are.”  Our false selves can begin to wither and die.  Our cheap imitations of spiritual heroes can give way to authentic and unique expressions of God’s image-bearing art in each extraordinary soul.  Death to life metanoia takes place, and the Self among the competing selves breaks free.

Yes, while it’s true that our biggest problem is not ‘out there’ but inside of us, it’s also true that our greatest glory is not ‘out there’ but within.  This isn’t New Age pop psychology, but it is why so many have turned to alternative spiritualities and away from faith.  Recently, I heard a pastor make a cynical comment about Disney-theology, saying, “It’s a humanistic lie that teaches our kids that all they need is within them.”  That is, unless you really believe that God dwells within by a Spirit committed to seeing human beings becomes the royal vice-regents of creation that they were intended to be.  If that’s not true, then the Gospel isn’t good news and we are merely worms.

In my Calvinistic tradition, we’ve focused so much on the ‘objective’ work of Jesus that we’ve forgotten a remarkable and extraordinary ‘subjective’ reality – that God really does come near.  If our bodies are really living temples (1 Cor. 6:19-20), then the Spirit has come in to clean house, to offer rest to our exhausted inner Pharisees, to proclaim peace to our angry inner Zealots, and to invite back into the family our exiled inner Essenes.  Ancient Christians called this inner union theosis, a participation in the life of Jesus in a real, experiential, and transformative way.

Hindu’s are known to greet one another by saying, “Namaste.”  I greet the god within you.

How would it change our sense of self, our relationships, and even our churches if we really believed that God has already taken up residence within us?  It might be that our exhausted souls would rest knowing that God has already gotten to work within us in ways that spiritual techniques cannot.  It might grow within us a sense of dignity, allowing us to greet others with dignity, and expanding our sense of mission as we recognize that God’s heart is to see life inhabit dead places.  This isn’t some Disney fairy tale.  It’s a story of a God who takes up residence, making the tomb a womb where life can grow and develop.

Namaste, in the name of Jesus.

+ + + + + + + + + +

Think about your sense of self.  Do you see anything good?  Are you plagued with shame or self-criticism?  How does knowing that God dwells within you by the Spirit change that?

What parts of you (or what voices inside of you) contest this reality?  What do they say?  Why are they afraid of letting God take up residence?

This week, create a quiet few moments where you can rest, breathe, and breathe in this Spirit of life.  Can you feel the Spirit filling empty places?  Can you feel the Spirit blowing away places within that feel congested, cluttered, or clamoring?

We continue to crawl along, ever reaching…

Let me introduce you to a therapist named John Calvin.  Get ready – this Reformation icon is about to tell you that you can relax – that we’re all plagued with divided hearts and in need of integrity, but that much of the time we’re barely crawling along toward progress.  Listen:

I insist not that the life of the Christian shall breathe nothing but the perfect Gospel, though this is to be desired, and ought to be attempted. I insist not so strictly on evangelical perfection, as to refuse to acknowledge as a Christian any man who has not attained it. In this way all would be excluded from the Church, since there is no man who is not far removed from this perfection, while many, who have made but little progress, would be undeservedly rejected. What then? Let us set this before our eye as the end at which we ought constantly to aim. Let it be regarded as the goal towards which we are to run. For you cannot divide the matter with God, undertaking part of what his word enjoins, and omitting part at pleasure. For, in the first place, God uniformly recommends integrity as the principal part of his worship, meaning by integrity real singleness of mind, devoid of gloss and fiction, and to this is opposed a double mind; as if it had been said, that the spiritual commencement of a good life is when the internal affections are sincerely devoted to God, in the cultivation of holiness and justice. But seeing that, in this earthly prison of the body, no man is supplied with strength sufficient to hasten in his course with due alacrity, while the greater number are so oppressed with weakness, that hesitating, and halting, and even crawling on the ground, they make little progress, let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him, and prosecute the journey once begun. No one will travel so badly as not daily to make some degree of progress. This, therefore, let us never cease to do, that we may daily advance in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the slender measure of success. How little soever the success may correspond with our wish, our labour is not lost when to-day is better than yesterday, provided with true singleness of mind we keep our aim, and aspire to the goal, not speaking flattering things to ourselves, nor indulging our vices, but making it our constant endeavour to become better, until we attain to goodness itself. If during the whole course of our life we seek and follow, we shall at length attain it, when relieved from the infirmity of flesh we are admitted to full fellowship with God. –  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

+ + + + + + + +

I used to read this great quote to my Master of Divinity students in a Christian spirituality course I taught at a seminary.  Seminary students are some of the most tightly wound, internally tormented people around.  They can never do enough to please Jesus.  Most of the time for these students, a Calvin quote brought to mind how inadequate their theology was, or how tough it would be to pass an ordination exam.  It was always a comfort to them to hear from the pen of Calvin, himself, that progress on the road to the New Eden is hard, really hard…like crawling…

It’s at this point on the New Exodus road that we’re all expecting the grand finale – the tips for emerging from the wilderness unscathed, the principles for living continually close to the heart of Jesus.  But I’m about to tell you a secret.

There is no secret.  No secret message.  No secret recipe.  No hidden prayer tucked away in a remote portion of Scripture.  No 7 steps.  In fact, Calvin’s message is that a real and accurate assessment of yourself might actually be the freedom you need to get Home.

The poet Robert Browning once wrote: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/or what’s a heaven for?”

Most of our lives, if we’d admit it, are a grasping.  Whether our grasp extends to wealth or reputation, transcendence in a bottle or in sex, we’re all in the business of grasping.  Calvin’s point is this:  the grasping leads to futility, and futility is an opportunity for us to recognize the truth – that we’re a mess, and that even the best attempt to grasp control will end in even more futility.

Craig Barnes says it well:  “The way of the Cross never takes us away from the limitations and hunger that are characteristic of all humanity.  It simply leads us back to the world with the strange message that our limited humanity is the mark of our need for God.  It is enough.  It is a great reason for hope.”

Our wilderness leads to dependence.  It humbles us.  It doesn’t make us super-saints.  It doesn’t make us spiritual giants.  Emerging from the wilderness, we’re not marked by halos.  We’re marked by a thorn in our side, a limp, a weakness that is a testimony to Christ’s strength.

I spent the better portion of my days after seminary trying to achieve sainthood.  I had discovered the mystics during a summer in England, and was hooked.  I am still hooked.  I was especially drawn into contemplative spirituality.  It seemed as if the Carmelite mystics like St. John and St. Teresa, or the mysterious unknown author of the Cloud of Unknowing, or Brother Lawrence lived in perpetual ‘mystic sweet communion.’  And so I tried to grasp this communion, too.  I walked labyrinths and lit candles and created quiet spaces, and did my best to manufacture the mystical.

But “union” doesn’t come in a bottle.

I’ve quoted this from C.S. Lewis before, but it bears repeating: “All joy emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire.  Our best havings are wantings.”  Spiritual union and communion, itself, will disappoint.  Our best havings are wantings, our best graspings will be mere reachings.  And each will bring a kind of grief.

I’m not a spiritual giant, yet.

Good for you.  Neither am I.  Welcome to the way of Jesus.  And as Calvin said, “Let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him.”  We continue to crawl along, ever reaching…

+ + + + + + + + + +

How have you tried to “grasp” spirituality?  What books, programs, rituals, or principles have you tried to use to manufacture spiritual union and communion?

Re-read Browning’s quote.  What is this “reaching” he speaks of?

How do you relate to my own journey?