It has taken longer than I thought to emerge from under the pile of clutter referenced in my last post. Since then, a number of things have come to mind that I would have liked to explore here (and I may yet get back to them at some point), but even once the clutter was greatly reduced, there still remained enough to absorb emotional time and energy that nothing actually got posted here. And so, here at the end of a second short vacation stretch, feeling a bit more rested, and actually a bit intrigued, I have managed to wander back here once again.
What it is that has caught my attention is the power of story. This is certainly not a new idea, but every now and then, things happen that actually cause us to begin to appreciate just how true what we already know to be true actually is. This was brought into focus for me by the convergence of a couple things.
The first was a sermon assignment. We were doing an Advent sermon series, and the passage I was assigned to preach on was one verse (Matthew 2:12)
"And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route."Short passages can be challenging to develop because they are . . . well . . . short . . . So in preparation for this sermon, I found myself reflecting a lot on the story of these Magi, what it might have meant for them to have made this journey in the first place, and what it might have meant for them to be directed by God to go back by another route. If you're interested in what actually emerged in sermon form, you can listen to it by clicking here - but my point has less to do with the message of the sermon itself than with what I think it reflected. Let me explain.
As I thought about the story of the Magi and the journey they were on, I began to notice some similarities to my own story, and as a result, wound of devoting a significant about of the sermon talking about some aspects of my own story against the backdrop of theirs (talking about my own experience of "seeing the star" in somewhat of a "secular" but certainly not "God devoid" context . . . the journey that ensued . . . and having glimpsed Who Jesus was, going home differently than the way I came).
What caught me a bit by surprise was the response to the sermon. There are always a few people who have nice things to say about a sermon (and, as you might expect, sometimes those who take issue with things as well), but this time the feedback was unique in a number of ways.
First, there was more than usual, some going out of their way to give it.
Second, what people spoke of most appreciatively was that I had shared my own story with them. Not only had the sermon had a few insights about the text, but more importantly, they felt like they had seen what I was talking about being lived out in the life of a real person they knew. Most mentioned that they felt like they had gotten to know me better through what was shared. One person, who normally does not comment on my preaching, mentioned at some length that what they really want to hear in a sermon is how what we believe really fits into our lives and impacts who we are, and how that is shared when we tell our stories.
While it is always nice when people (at least the ones that talk to you) walk away with more positive than negative feelings about a sermon, what was most interesting to me was that what they found the most helpful were not theological points that had been skillfully distilled out of the text, but rather a story that had been shared that they connected with.
What I find so intriguing here is the contrast this seems to provide from what I have taken to be some of the basic assumptions that seem to be woven into the fabric of modern life. One of these is the tendency to think that the way to fully understand and appreciate the significance of something is to break it down, take it apart, grasp the mechanisms that make it work, explain it, and then perhaps if we are skilled enough, learn how to manipulate or manage those things. The idea is that the essence of something is what we distill out of the packaging we find it in. So when we interact with something, or listen to a story, we attempt to extract what we think really matters from the packaging we find it in (the story). But what if the "packaging" was really the part we should have saved? (perhaps without throwing away the parts we distill out)
What I was repeatedly reminded of here by those who shared their responses to the sermon was that what was most meaningful to them was not what was distilled out of either the Biblical story or my own, but the stories themselves. Stories are not merely ways we illustrate the point we are trying to make, rather, in a larger sense, the story is the point we are trying to make. Or to put it another way, the points we draw from stories are there to illustrate the meaning of the story, not the other way around.
You have to kind of think about this for awhile before the full significance really begins to sink in . . . at least I have to.
The Second piece that began to converge here for me was the thrust of the reading I have been doing for the past couple of years about the significance of Christian Practices - at the heart of which is the conviction that what defines us as Christian believers may be much less about the theology we articulate and how well we can do it, but rather the patterns of living that we are committed to and actually live out. There is a lot more to be said about this, but, in short, the focus here is on the stories we actually live and share, not just what we say when we talk about them.
The Third piece was finally, and at first somewhat unenthusiastically, my entrance into the community of Facebook (an on-line community that claims to help you connect with and share with people in your life). Despite my resistance to one more "virtual" element in my life, and thinking that this might actually provide another way for connecting with people that I should be open to, I set up my profile and waited to see what would happen. To my surprise, I found quite a number of people who were willing to make connections - some of them people I had had no contact with in years. Interestingly enough, even though the connection was minimal, it felt good to know they were there and I had an avenue to somehow stay in touch.
One of the features of Facebook is that people tend to post the kinds of things they are doing at the moment, recent pictures, or even ideas or causes they care about. It is not a lot, but it provides a way to keep in touch with people - not so much on the basis of any profound thoughts or insights they share, but simply by staying in touch with their stories as they continue to unfold from day to day - with an opportunity to comment or chat along the way. What impresses me here, again, is that what people seem to be drawn to, is not so much the content that can be distilled out of the stories they see on Facebook, but simply connecting with the people and their stories as they share the rhythms and patterns of their lives. While there are significant things to learn and appreciate from what can be extracted from some of the things that are shared, it is the people and the stories that they are in the midst of that are primary. That's where the connecting seems to happen.
Certainly, the way we live is influenced and shaped by what we believe to be true. But equally as important is the realization that what we believe is given birth to and shaped by what we experience in the lives that we live. The content we "extract" is what illustrates the experience, not what defines it. Perhaps in the end, learning to live well is less a matter of distilling the meaning out of the experiences we have in life and describing them well, and more about engaging the people and their stories themselves and learning the dance steps that give us something to talk about and reflect upon?