Let’s Share Our Stories: Post-Election Reflections

Hands

Kathleen Ann Thompson

I’ve been thinking a lot this past week.

I’ve thought about the students I see each Sunday at Sunday School and their fears and dreams. I’ve thought about the protests around the country and the pride I feel in their taking action when others chastise them for their youth and for acting like “sore losers.”

I’ve thought about my parents and how these election results affect them both so differently. I’ve thought about my Arab-American, Muslim siblings and their fears. I’ve thought about my conservative friends and their defenses and the misunderstandings I’ve had with them.

I’ve thought about the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart and whether or not they really are acceptable in God’s sight. I’ve thought about the words of our bishop on Sunday: “Never waste a crisis.” I’ve thought about my calling and how it pisses me off.

And as always, I’ve thought about stories.

Stories in the Bible of light not being overcome by darkness. Stories of exile and homecoming and the pains and traumas of each. Stories of praising God for mercy and crying out against God for not issuing justice. Stories of the Church at its greatest and the Church at its most divided.

I’ve thought about my other favorite stories.

Stories of Time Lords saving planets and losing companions. Stories of Slayers defeating the powers of darkness and struggling with the darkness within themselves. Stories of witches and wizards battling a seemingly endless battle against bigotry and oppression. Stories of superheroes being created and enemies being made.

And I’ve thought about the painful stories.

Stories of deliberate racist attacks and slurs. Stories of fear about tomorrow. Stories of frustration between generations. Stories of apathy.

These stories have given me resolve and fanned the flames of my own anger. They have helped me be merciful and turned my heart to stone. They have walked with me throughout the day when I try to walk away from them.

I have felt hopeful resolve, tremendous anger, and deep sorrow. Right now, I can only hold onto these stories, the painful and the joyful, and hope the very act of holding them will be enough for now.

So as I hold these stories, please know I am willing to hold yours. Know I am your friend and ally, and my heart and prayers are with you, wherever and whoever you are. Know we are stronger together, and our stories are our saving graces.

Let’s keep moving, but first, let’s start sharing.

*****

What stories of pain and frustration do you have from last week? What stories of hope and transformation do you have from last week? If you are grieving, where are you in the process?

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Why This Story?

As I’ve shared before, there have been times in which participating in the Church is difficult. There have been times in which I am less engaged due to everything from boredom to fear of being and expressing myself. But through engagement with theater, TV shows, and comic books, I’ve discovered my desire for a connection with God and others through story.

An instrumental story in this process is The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman.

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http://comicsalliance.com/

In September 2014, I began reading The Sandman at the recommendation of a fellow comic lover and survivor of the Bridgewater College Philosophy and Religion department. I bought the first issue online and lost myself in the world of Morpheus, the lord of dreaming.

One of my favorite Sandman stories is in issue 4. After an occult leader imprisons him for 70 years (as depicted in issue #1), Morpheus/Dream escapes and begins searching the world for his lost totems of power. One of these totems is a helmet, which a demon is Hell withholds from him. Dream enters hell and finds the demon, and the demon agrees to hand over the helmet only if Dream defeats him in a battle of wits, or what they call the “oldest game.” They start with small forms (hunter defeats wolf, hunter defeated by horsefly which harms his horse, etc.) and begin building until the demon declares himself as the form Anti-Life, “the dark at the end of everything.”

Everyone in hell thinks Dream is beaten. After all, what can defeat the Beast of Judgment, “the end of universes, gods, worlds…of everything?”

After a brief pause, in which all the demons of hell wait with baited breath, Dream replies, “I am hope.”

And the demon has no retort.

Dream leaves Hell with his helmet and a little more power, and I move on with the flicker of faith within me burning a bit stronger than before.

This small line has saved my faith more times than I can count. I am anxious and pessimistic about the world around me and the Church to which I pledge my allegiance. It is easy for me to look at world and Church and lose hope in them. In these times, I tell myself to look into the Story which I  say I am a part of, but all I see are stories retold so often and in such dry ways that I see little life remaining in them.

Yet this one line, this tiny sentence, written by a man who many in the Body of Christ would claim is not “one of us,” is sometimes the spark which keeps my faith alive.

Why, when I claim to be part of the Greatest Story Ever, is this story the one which keeps me going? What has happened to our Story, and how can it come back to life?

 

Whispering, But Still Screaming: Moving Forward in my Journey with Anxiety

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By DRAWART at favim.com

I have been Zoloft free for 4 months, and I live with anxiety everyday.

There are days in which I do well. I am hopeful about the world yet realistic about it. I enjoy conversations with friends and listen as much as I speak. My anxiety is asleep and calm within me. She may have a thought or two every now and then, but she is quickly pacified and acts more giddy than freaked out.

Then there are days in which I fail miserably.

There are days I find myself frustrated over a snide or unnecessary remark, or thinking about the future and any plans I have for it, and my anxiety wakes up. She is scared that there’s been a disruption. Within me, she panics and flips over furniture and breaks things and makes the chaos more difficult, because she’s so scared and doesn’t know what to do to make things better, so she inadvertently makes them so much worse.

She remembers wonderful accomplishments and good days and wants to be content, but she can’t contain the fear and pain inside, and it erupts before I can stop it. She doesn’t mean to cause harm, but she doesn’t know how to deal with everything pent up inside. She has a hard time processing it on her own and needs someone to talk to, but it’s not the right time. People are busy. We are currently in class or at work. Someone else needs me to be there for them, so just wait your turn. What’s she supposed to do?

She knows she should turn to this “God” figure, who’s supposed to always be there for her, but since she got hurt all that time ago, she only looks up at the sky skeptically, wondering if he/she/it/whatever is really doing anything at all. She’s still so tangled up in that old language and old way of seeing things, and anytime others around her use that same old language, she retreats further away. Sometimes, the new stuff she’s learned about grace, unconditional love, and an overall newer worldview can help untangle a knot and give her some steadiness. But there are days when she is in such a frenzy that instead of resting in the release of tension, she tangles everything up all over again. Sometimes, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with her.

I still go to counseling at least twice a month. I am finally able to see my spiritual director on a regular basis, because I’ve calmed my anxiety enough to be able to talk about spiritual matters without her freaking out. I am more attentive to my self-care and am less likely to let my anxiety erupt all over people.

I’ve learned to talk with anxiety better, in both firmer and more gracious ways. I’ve learned to tell her she’s being irrational without demeaning her. I’ve learned to acknowledge her instead of ignore her, which seems to cause a decrease in temper tantrums. I’ve learned to tell her she’s OK even when she doesn’t feel like it, and she’s mostly learned to listen and accept this. I’ve learned to tell her that her thoughts are just thoughts, not real problems or concerns, and she lets them go a little more easily as a result.

I’ve lived with this anxiety for my whole life, and I am only now learning how to deal well with her. A lot of days are still exhausting, but I have to say I’m doing better overall. We have learned to work together instead of against each other, and it is making all the difference. We talk and even listen better than we used to, and we are taking each day one step at a time. I am learning to be fine with her constant presence and the need for more patience.

But it’s still hard. On the days I can control her well, the effort still exhausts me, and this exhaustion in turn affects how well or how poorly I engage my relationships and responsibilities. I have many days in which I know I am doing better, but I don’t have as many days in which I feel I’m doing better.

I still need more patience and more grace, for myself and others, as I continue this journey which I know will never end. I still need help accepting this and not seeing it as either a gift or a burden, but simply something I have. I still need hope that I can live with her and not hate her, even when she suddenly decides to ruin a perfectly good day. I still need hope in the good enough days and the great days, hope to get me through the really rough ones.

I still need hope that I’m doing well enough.

True, But Not Real

I have struggled a lot with my reformed Christian identity, a transition from certainty to an openness to doubt and questions. One of the hardest parts of this transition has been engaging with the biblical text. After two decades of being taught that the Bible is an infallible textbook, a major faith crisis blew all those assumptions out the window. After that, it was hard for me to pick up the Bible I had lovingly and consistently read for guidance. It didn’t have anything “real” anymore, so how could any of it be “true” to me?

So, instead of pursuing the Bible, I’ve been engrossed in books, movies, and TV shows. I know that these stories I love aren’t always based on real events. I also know that I can learn as much, if not more, from a work of fiction as I can from a textbook. Because I don’t worry about whether or not these stories really happened, I focus on their messages.

I witnessed an alien’s adventures through time and space, the love he felt for his companions, and his heartbreak over their later losses. I read the stories of a man traveling cross-country with gods and of a child meeting the cosmic beings who lived in the farm down the lane. I saw a family travel across a war-torn galaxy to be reunited.

In these stories, I listened to these fictitious characters explain real-world experiences: life involves love and loss, pain and joy; we are capable of tearing each other apart and bringing each other together; people will go to great lengths for their loved ones to know love and safety.

I didn’t know if I’d ever find stories like this in the Bible. After viewing the Bible as a textbook for so long, I didn’t believe I was allowed to see it any other way.

And then, unexpectedly at worship one Sunday, I finally heard such a story.

It was a story about the people of Israel crossing the Jordan River. The priests walked before them with the ark of the covenant, and in a parallel to Moses crossing the Red Sea, the waters of the Jordan parted so that everyone walked across dry land. Then, 12 men, one from each of the tribes of Israel, took a stone from the dried up river bed. When they reached the other side, they formed the stones into a makeshift monument. This would remind them of how they came to the Promised Land, given to them by God. It would be a story passed down to their children, and their children’s children, as a testament to the God of Israel’s provision for the people. It would be a story to give them hope in their most difficult times.

Normally, I struggle with miraculous stories like this. I’ve seen them used and abused by proclaimers of the Prosperity Gospel, and their use in this way has caused me and others to stumble. Because of this abuse, I find them hard to believe, and as a result, I tend to immediately discredit them. But this one Sunday, I wasn’t concerned with the seemingly impossible physics behind parting an entire river. This Sunday, I heard and listened to the story differently, because I didn’t worry about whether or not this story actually happened, whether or not it was “real.” Instead, I thought about how true this story was to the people of Israel.

All I could think about was what the stones in this story meant to the Israelites, who would endure falls from grace, exile, and persecution throughout their history. I thought about the truth this story told these people, and what it would continue to tell them time and time again.

They were not alone. They were chosen and beloved by the Creator of the Universe. They would always be known. The Name would always have a plan for them, so that maybe the world would remember their Creator.

And I think I was able to accept this idea of a story being true, but not real, because of all of the “non-biblical” stories I’ve been absorbing. I think because of the Doctor, Neil Gaiman, A Wrinkle in Time, my comic book heroes and anti-heroes, and so many more, I’ve learned that something doesn’t have to be an accurate account to carry a true message.

https://thebiblehistorybooks.wordpress.com

Could these stories have truly happened? Could it be that the power of God physically parted the Red Sea and the Jordan River? Yes. What keeps me going, though, isn’t the certainty that this literally happened.

What keeps me going are the stones by the river, that remind me and all God’s people of the Lord’s provision. What keeps me going is the meaning of the name Emmanuel, God with us, which reminds me to be God’s presence in a broken world. The truth of God’s love, mercy, and guidance that I find in these stories and many others are what keep me going when nothing else seems certain. These truths, not their “realness,” are what matter the most to me.

We don’t need more certainty. We need more faith that the stories are true.

“I’d forgotten not all victories are about saving the universe.”

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http://imgarcade.com/1/lords-supper-powerpoint-background/

When my seminary schedule slowed down about 2 weeks ago, I watched a lot of Doctor Who (read “a lot” as “30 episodes in 3 days”). As a result, my thirst for adventure has been activated. I’ve had dreams of flying through different stars and galaxies with the Doctor and his many companions, meeting so many new people and creatures, saving the universe time and time again.

However, also as a result, my Messiah Complex has been enabled. I’ve been bored with the world, people, and life going on around me. I hunger to make large scale efforts to save my world and the universe at large. The “small things with great love” motto seems like a cop-out to avoid doing anything fun and actually life-changing. After “seeing” so many new and wonderful things, I understand why so many of the companions on the show found it so difficult to return to “normal” life on Earth. And once again, I understand a bit better why many Christians get burned out in the pursuit of doing “great and glorious things for God.”

To quench my adventurous yearnings, Bryce and I drove to the base of Reddish Knob this past Sunday afternoon to take a hike. We found a small, off-beat trail at the base of Reddish Knob, complete with a water crossing over a frigid creek and a couple of our own makeshift rock scrambles for good measure. Despite passing numerous trail markers, I kept asking aloud if this was actually a real trail, or if we were making it up ourselves.

About halfway through our journey, I began talking with Bryce about an episode in which one of the Doctor’s companions, Donna, became a Time Lord/human hybrid, but since her human body couldn’t handle the change, she had to lose all of her memories of being with the Doctor to survive. I asked Bryce if he thought it was worth living a “mundane” life if it meant having to lose all of those wonderful memories. Is life really worth living if you have to forget such beautiful and amazing moments? Is it worth it to lose all the “big” things to have the chance to live for the “small” things? I didn’t think so.

To answer my question, Bryce giddily took my hand and took me off the trail. A few yards away, he stopped suddenly and pointed through a gap between some trees, where a small, lone waterfall cascaded down the mountain. He told me that it was made by the moisture descending from the mountain, but if we had walked by it at any different time, we probably wouldn’t have seen it. He had been hearing it throughout the walk but couldn’t find it until now.

He smiled his big, goofy smile at me and said, “Yes. Life is always worth living, because there’s always a chance that something like this can happen. There’s always a chance to see something just as new and just as beautiful.”

reddish

His words of wisdom reminded me of the sacrament of Communion.

Jesus took those everyday elements of bread and wine, something the people ate every day, and said each time they ate this meal, they would proclaim Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection until he came again.

Jesus’ words reminded me of the parables he told, of farmers, workers, and women making bread. These parables in turn reminded me of the story of Jesus performing the miracle of turning water into wine to keep an average wedding going.

These were not “universe altering” events to our competitive minds. These were such everyday, simple, and mundane things.

And yet Jesus says they are not so mundane but point towards the power of the Divine in the world, in the entire universe. With his life, Jesus forever took the boundaries between “sacred” and “mundane,” broke them, and fed them to the people as bread and wine.

I often get so caught up in wanting to do “big things.” Save the universe. Lead a large, relevant church that gets lots of attention. Write an Academy-Award winning screenplay. Become a New York Times Bestselling author. I’m not saying these dreams are wrong in and of themselves, but I often wonder if I’m missing the point in purely pursuing them.

Because I need to remember that there’s life around me, big and beautiful yet so simple. The blooming blossoms signifying the end of winter and the beginning of spring. My cat curled up next to me in the morning, his loud purrs in my ear the perfect alarm clock. The kids in my neighborhood riding their scooters. Helping their parents jump start their car on the way to seminary. All of this is life. All of this is mundane. All of this is sacred.

Luckily, not all of my Doctor Who binge-watching has completely removed this concept from my life. In the appropriately titled episode, “The God Complex,” the Doctor’s companion Rory is reflecting on an encounter he had with a boy named Howie, who had recently overcome a severe speech impediment with the help of a speech therapist. And Rory stopped and honored Howie’s achievement for the beautiful, sacred victory it was. In this moment, Rory realized that he had forgotten, in the midst of his spectacular, galaxy-wide adventures, that “not all victories are about saving the universe.”

Rory

I often do the same thing.

And then I remember when Jesus broke the bread and passed the wine. And then I saw the waterfall. And then I remember how my Aunt Karen called just to say “Hello” a few weeks ago. And then I remember someone in my small group who shared how far she’d come in finding her voice in a new, authoritative role. And then I saw people sending aid to Nepal and praying and acting for peace and reconciliation in Baltimore.

I remembered the things that give me the most hope that “All shall be well,” are all the seemingly small things.

It turns out they’re the biggest things we will ever be capable of doing.

Why I Spend More Time on Netflix than in Bible Study

I give more time to my Netflix queue than to Bible study. My comic book collection has exceeded my devotional one. I still tear through Harry Potter books with an appetite that I’ve never had for the Bible.

Even though I attend a local congregation and am in seminary to become a pastor, I still struggle to practice spiritual disciplines and read my Bible regularly. When I open my Bible, I still think of the past Bible studies I attended in which everyone arrived at the same neat, non-debatable answers. When I sit down to meditate, my brain races with thoughts I think I “should” be thinking and ones I actually am thinking.

But I don’t feel this conflict when reading my books and comics or watching my favorite TV shows. Instead, I feel free to imagine, interpret, and enjoy the story in front of me, free from the boundaries of doctrine, theology, and orthodoxy. These stories don’t demand that I come to a certain conclusion; instead, they invite me along with the characters to see something new.

I don’t feel the same way about the Bible, or at least how I’ve been taught how to read it. For so long, Bible study has contained a number of unspoken rules: Don’t stray from orthodoxy or the theology of our group. Any new insight must conform to what we already believe. Use your imagination, but don’t be too imaginative. This is what the text definitely means, and this is what it will never mean.

This type of reading drives me nuts. I love a good story. A good story allows for plenty of different interpretations. A good story doesn’t settle for a comfortable ending, but challenges the reader to look at the world in a completely different way than they did before. I want to find something in the story I didn’t notice before, like seeing a part in a movie I’ve seen several times but didn’t notice until this particular viewing. If I can read the Bible like that, it will seem bigger and less safe, but it will keep me coming back to it instead of repelling me.

This is why, while I love tradition, I find it problematic when we use this same gift t0 ignore storytelling. And I get very worried about the future of the Church every time I hear someone say or imply, “We’ve always done/thought of things this way, and therefore it is always right.”

The stories I’ve loved, from Harry Potter to Doctor Who, from Ms. Marvel to Sandman, have taken me to a world I never knew existed. They taught me about the pain and beauty of this world in a way more honest than I’d ever heard it described in the Church. When the Church insisted on teaching me about a dreamworld of black-and-white perfection, these stories put me face-to-face with complicated, colorful reality. When the Church only seemed to offer hope in a “world to come,” these stories gave me hope that was tangible and present in the world today. These stories both took me away from my world and kept my feet grounded in reality.

I love The Sandman comic series by Neil Gaiman. I love mythological tales of beings with a lot of power who sometimes look out for humanity yet also make some less than right choices. But more importantly, these comics showed me how to have hope in life when all hope seems lost. When I couldn’t see that hope in the biblical story, Neil Gaiman showed it to me in a whole new context that resonated powerfully with me.

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I love Fahrenheit 451, not only because I love dystopian novels that end with revolution, but because I love hearing about truth that will not be kept in the dark. The prophets proclaimed a word that was fire in their bones and couldn’t be kept shut up. Jesus came proclaiming a truth that couldn’t be killed. Guy Montag risked his life to read more books instead of burn them. This is the Gospel to me.

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I love Harry Potter, because I would love it if I lived in a world where Hogwarts was I real school, but only if I wasn’t a Muggle. More importantly even than that, though, I love the story of a child who is both a very human friend and the savior of his people. It is a tale of sacrifice, love, community, and resurrection.

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I love my favorite books, movies, and shows, not in spite of my love of the Bible, but because of it. The messages from the stories of the Bible are alive and present to me in the stories I love today.

The Church needs to remember that this collection of stories which we call the Bible is extremely powerful and more full of color and paradox than we will ever realize. The Bible cannot be completely bound by tradition, doctrine, or anyone’s theology; it is both too big and too small for that. It is the Word of God but not God. It is inspired yet very, very human. It offers guidance, but the Spirit makes this Word alive.

And for that, I am thankful, because its origins remind me of my own humanity. The Bible, and the stories it has inspired, remind me of the truth that, as a human, I am both very significant and very small. Everything in God’s Creation can testify to that truth, so why should we stand in its way? Why should we say that it is only present in one medium, and how can we say that the truth we find in the Bible can’t be found in other tales?

Someday soon, I hope I find that life, not just in the Bible, and not just outside of the Bible, but in the eyes of the God who looks at me and reminds me, through these and other stories, that I am both so significant and so small.