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Our Stories

Sunday September 26th, 2021

Thank you for being here, in whatever way you are worshiping with us, whether this is your first time here or this is your spiritual home, it is beautiful to have you here today. Today is the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost and also wow the final Sunday in September. What has become of time over this pandemic? We have entered a most beautiful season here in Colorado and it is a gift to be living in such a gorgeous place. As we come to this time in our service, I invite you to let yourself arrive, to take some deep breaths and to tune in to whatever word God has for you on this day. I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer. Gracious God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen. (Psalm 19)

“Where are the others?” Some of us had been waiting in our squares, worrying if the rest of the group had forgotten the date or confused the time. “They are trying to get in,” one person said. “Look there is activity in the shared Google Doc!” We had gathered for a Council meeting and some of us had arrived, while others of us were searching, lost in the pursuit of links, foraging full inboxes for a passageway, as if desperately searching for an opening, in a literal web that spans the world. “Someone has accidentally deleted the link,” someone said. “How will they get in now?” Emails and texts and chats were exchanged and it started to feel as if we were trying to connect across cosmic dimensions, across chasms so wide there would be no hope of finding one another. Then another person took themselves off mute and said, “They are on the Thursday link. Give them this new link!” The lost had been found, but still we had to get them to us, finding ways to somehow transport their boxes to ours. More emails and texts were exchanged, multiple attempts to paste the new link to portal them to this new location and then finally, all of our squares beamed in together, landing in the same bigger box.

I haven’t laughed that hard in a while and it felt like a most perfect illustration for the times in which we are living.

I hear regularly from many of you, that one of the most difficult parts about this moment in our country, in this pandemic, is how divided we seem to be, how different or separate or disconnected we feel from some people from some places, from some ideas and some faces that were once so familiar to us. It’s as if we are living different stories, which means our shared narratives don’t ever or rarely seem to meet.

We are living different stories about how we got where we are, about who we are, about where we are trying to go and why. We are living different stories about our history and our present, about what we are to do now. We are even living different stories about what is.

And in some parts of our individual and collective lives, our narratives about how each of our stories fit are so different that it’s hard to know even where to start, almost like we are stuck on mute or gathering on separate links where we can’t really connect or hear one another.

As many of you know since mid-August we have been exploring the What do we do when series: We are finishing it up today with: What do we do when our narratives are different?

And the fact is right now, in some parts of our life, they are not just a little different, but really different. And this has meant that some of our stories don’t feel wanted or welcome, as if the collective shared narrative can only have some stories that it has always had or the stories that don’t ask hard questions or the stories that are safe.

Like the time in which the Psalmist wrote, some believe God is on their side, some think God is only in one story, which means ours is also a time of great division too, which we notice. As one scholar wrote of Psalm 124, “implied in the poem is a portrait of God as a warrior, the commander in chief of the hosts of armies... With peoples (and nations) at war with one another,” this image of God fits… But maybe when we are divided, we feel the need to make God like this too?

On one of my visits to the town of my childhood, I unsuccessfully avoided being brought into another conversation that would reveal yet again how wide the divides between some of our narratives have become. “I hold the Originalist view!” one person proclaimed proudly. As you might have guessed, the discussion was about the United States Constitution and schools of thought related to how these precious and powerful documents should be used in this time. “Originalism is a theory of the interpretation of legal texts, including the text of the Constitution” that contends the text ought to be “given the original public meaning that it would have had at the time that it became law.” But the problem is, “the original public meaning” didn’t count me, a woman, as an equal human being and it viewed a black person as only 3/5 of a human being. So, the one who is holding to the story that tries to forever center itself with the title of the original story, is clinging to single story thinking, to a story that centers just one experience, and whose continued existence requires the devaluing of other stories.

Last week in the 9 a.m. service, Heather lifted up the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who challenges us all to avoid what she calls single story thinking, to accept that we are all shaped by the stories we were given and the stories we have lived, and to see them as just one part of the bigger narrative. She says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” She says, "Our histories cling to us. We are shaped by where we come from." “Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize.”

It depends on which stories we tell and where and how.

So what do we do when our narratives are different, when we are living different stories? When some of us believe we are right and God is on our side?

I think part of the answer is that we might accept that we are shaped by the stories given to us, in our histories and in our households, but none of these stories are the whole story or the universal story or the original story, but rather just little stories, letters in a shared narrative. Not one of us alone is right, not one chapter is the whole.

So what if part of our call right now is to build the capacity to hold space for paradox, for competing stories and different claims about what is, that might actually be true altogether? What if we could learn to validate different perspectives without agreeing? What if we can see one another and hear other stories, without arriving at the same spot? What if we could stop trying to make God as divisive and as small as we are?

I fear that if we don’t do this, we will become like some of what is happening in the wider world, which is that some stories are worshiped and others are discarded.

What if hearing other stories gives us the gift of the bigger picture? Because holding just a single story means possibilities are left unheard and untried, connections across chasms are hard to be found. Because when all of the stories aren’t given space to be told and brought into the fold, the whole bigger narrative isn’t held in common. It’s like reading just one chapter and deciding you have read the whole book.

What do we do when we are living with such different stories? Perhaps also being careful about the stories we tell ourselves. That’s what author Glennon Doyle wrote in the book Untamed. She said, “Be careful with the stories you tell about yourself,” be careful because you might be living stories that were once true, but aren’t any more. Or maybe they were the stories handed to you, but maybe they are someone else’s stories? She begins the book Untamed with Tabitha a Cheetah, raised in captivity in a zoo. Each day that Tabitha has to be on and showing good behavior for the cheering crowds, she is released from her cage and expected to chase a bunny stuffy in the dust. The reward for her display of wondrous wildness, for her beauty and boldness as a creature meant for the savannahs, is a big juicy steak. The cheetah has no predators and is safe in captivity, something the zookeeper joyfully shares and highlights over the microphone, but Tabitha, the cheetah, paces the periphery, frolicking anxiously along the fence, knowing beyond what she as ever actually known, that there is a sort of freedom beyond this. The story she is living doesn’t fit, and she knows it, but the world around her keeps her captive, telling her to love what is because it is good enough.

Glennon writes that when Tabitha “looks back to the cage, the only home she has ever known. She looks at the smiling zookeepers, the bored spectators and her panting, bouncing, begging best friend, the Lab. She’d sigh and say, “I should be grateful. I have a good enough life here. It’s crazy to long for what doesn’t even exist. (and) I’d say: Tabitha. You are not crazy. You are a &*^damn cheetah.”

“Be careful with the stories you tell about yourself,” because what if the story you are living is actually someone else’s? What if God is big enough to hold your real story? And all of our stories? And what if that story that was handed to you was for someone else’s comfort, to keep their story as the original story, to keep them in power and in place? And what if that story that helped you survive, isn’t the same one you need to thrive? We can own our stories from our history and also when we need to, we can write new ones. As Brene Brown says, “We choose owning our stories of struggle, Over hiding, over hustling, over pretending. When we deny our stories, they define us.” We can be the “authors of our lives” writing “our own daring endings.” So let us be careful with the stories we tell ourselves.

What do we do when it feels like we are trying to connect across cosmic dimensions, across chasms so wide there is no hope of finding one another? In my own life, another part of the answer is to care, to care about bridging these gaps where we can because not everyone does. Some people just want easy or comfortable or what works for them because there is too much hard in the world. But if we see how we are shaped by the stories given to us, in our histories and in our households, we can see ourselves as a tiny part, in a bigger, longer narrative, knowing not any one of our stories is the story, but rather just a chapter or maybe a few. We can build the capacity right here to allow for stories that challenge even our own narrative and way of thinking. And we can be careful with the stories we tell about ourselves, knowing maybe some of them were handed to us, but they are really someone else’s stories. Some of the stories we are living helped us survive, but maybe we need different ones to thrive. Telling and living just a single story, hiding or holding back the stories of others, or our own stories, means so much is left unheard and untried. It means more tension, larger canyons, deeper divides within ourselves, between one another inside and outside these walls. What would it look like to be a place for many stories, myriad stories, marvelous stories of all kinds, old stories, new stories, surprising and challenging stories? What would it look like to intentionally be a church that lives beyond a single story?

Beloved of God, maybe when we are divided, we feel the need to make God like this too, but what if God is wider, bigger, deeper than that? If you feel like you are stuck on mute or gathering on a separate link, if it’s hard to connect, keep trying, bless you who keep caring about bridging gaps. Bless you who are willing to tell your story. Bless you who are willing to own your story. Bless you who are willing to decenter your story. Bless you who are willing to hear another’s story. Bless you who are willing to write a new story. May it be so. Amen.

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