In the Middle of the Story
When you think about it, a story is an unnatural thing. When we hear a story, the assumption that comes with it is that our lives run along clear narrative lines. There is a beginning and then there are some events, and then the events develop meaning and resolve themselves into a conclusion: Ta da! It gives us a sense of power and clarity to take our experience and shape it into a story, but in fact, life is hardly ever that orderly and straightforward. In the biblical tales, it is true, the sense of story is especially clear and meaningful—after all, these accounts have been repeated and embraced for over a thousand years. And the chroniclers of Jesus’s life had a clear goal: they wanted to share the good news, and they were unifying very diverse peoples and cultures around stories that were to be told persuasively: Hey, this really happened! Believe this! See what Jesus did and how he acted! There were miracles—really!
Our era is more skeptical, but no less in need. We need good news, we need to acquaint ourselves with the God who is still here, and we like a good story. But the passage from Mark 5, I think, is a good corrective to the idea that a story is always straightforward, that it always has a clear beginning and ending. Our bible splits into testaments, then books, then chapters, then verses. But within this careful organization, the people of God are much more chaotic, and they are always on the move. At the start of Mark, chapter 3, Jesus asks his disciples to have a boat ready so that the crowd pressing forward to see him would not crush him. Crowds congregated around him everywhere he went. He appoints disciples, he visits his family, he casts out demons, he calms a storm on the sea. (After all that, it’s no wonder that he was sound asleep in the heart of the storm!). Having crossed back and forth across the water over a series of days, Jesus finds himself in the midst of a crowd, and in the midst of all of the stories of every curious or beseeching person in the crowd. Immediately, Jairus, who is a leader in the synagogue, comes forward and begs Jesus to come and heal his daughter who is at the point of death. Moving slowly toward the house through the press of the people, I imagine a great jostling and clamoring. What to pay attention to? How not to be completely overwhelmed and exhausted? Yet, in the midst of all the noise, all the voices raised asking—for attention, acknowledgement, help—something strange and subtle happens. Jesus perceives some connection and, with it, power moving from him to another person: healing power. A woman who has been hemorrhaging for twelve years touches his clothing and is healed. It is a sign of how remarkable Jesus is that in the midst of this strange and, no doubt, motley procession, he is able to attend fully to the presence of this woman, to treat her with respect, to be a part of her healing faith.
And then onward, step by step, plea by plea, hook by crook, to the home of Jairus where, already, people are keening with grief. The little girl has died. With that comes all the contradiction of distress. Go away! Don’t waste Jesus’s time when she’s already dead. The disciples are looking to Jesus. The child’s parents don’t know where to turn. Jesus says calmly, “She is not dead. She is only sleeping.” Then others roll their eyes and make fun of Jesus. Clearly, he is deluded if he thinks the girl is just asleep. Yet Jesus goes into the house and approaches the child, saying, “Little girl, get up!” She gets up and walks. Gently, lovingly, Jesus tells her parents that she will now need something to eat.
How many stories are there here? In the midst of those we actually hear, there are at least three and these echo with the life stories that were unfurling within each of the people who followed—the hemorrhaging woman, the disciples, the father, the child, and each individual person in the group. Story overlapping story, full of doubt, hope, need, faith, excitement, fear. Alternately a rich weave or a big, snarly knot.
But always, in every one of these stories, Jesus is at the middle.
To believe, to have faith, is always to be in the middle of the story.
In creative writing classes, the formula for a good story is what teachers call the “upside down check mark” of beginning and then a conflict or problem, or rising tension, climax, and then the ending or resolution. In the biblical stories, Jesus walks resolutely into the middle, straight for the rising tension. One might say that it is his calling, and the manifestation of his union with God the Creator, that he never leaves that tension.
Some people like to be “in the thick of it” and thrive there. Yes, there are these moments in Jesus’ life—the wedding at Cana, the Palm Sunday procession. On the whole, though, being in the thick of it—for Jesus and for us--means being in the belly of the beast—in the middle of political and religious controversy, personal betrayal, and, especially, the ache and turmoil and sometimes ecstasy of other human lives.
Richard Rohr, in speaking of the sign of Jonah, gives us the all-too-human model of the prophet Jonah. When God called Jonah to be right in the middle, to be God’s intermediary for the people of Ninevah, Jonah said not gonna happen. He ran away. And his unwillingness to be in that uncertain, unwieldy middle caused storms, literal storms! Jonah knew this! He told the sailors on the ship, “If you want to survive, you’re going to have to throw me into the sea.” Maybe this is what happens when we try to resolve our holy problems too easily. We go from being in the middle of them into some deeper, even more strange middle of nowhere. Taken from the middle of a social conflict into the middle of the sea and then into the middle of the whale.
But I like to think of Jonah, down there in the whale’s gut, not just alone, swallowed up in his resistance and fear, but throbbing with the great beating heart of the whale, and so hearing God’s voice in that rhythm. Hearing the call to greater faithfulness in the middle of darkness. To believe, to have faith, is always to be in the middle of the story. And from that faith to find ourselves spit onto a new shore and a new understanding of our place in God’s endless, always renewing story.
As Rohr says,
We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster like the death of a friend or spouse or loss of a marriage of job, we usually will not go there. As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent. That is the great language of religion. It teaches us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life. These dark periods are good teachers. Religious energy is in the dark questions, seldom in the answers. Answers are the way out, but that is not what we are here for. But when we look at the questions, we look for the opening to transformation. Fixing something doesn’t usually transform us. We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning.
Rohr cites the harder elements of staying in the middle, but we all know that being in the heart of things can be a nexus of awe and joy. In my life, at Bridge House, that can be the small, but deeply intimate celebrations of helping a dirty, tired man to get a shower or holding the hand of a homeless woman who has just found out that she will be moving into an apartment. It comes when my mother sends me a box of the blood oranges from the tree my now deceased father planted. Sometimes, this being in the middle is simply the grace of standing in line at the post office and enjoying the other people who are standing in line with me.
I am thinking here of a French film called “Of Gods and Men,” about the true story of Trappist monks who were in the midst of political conflict in Algeria during the Algerian civil war. They had lived and ministered peacefully in a mostly Muslim village, but the tensions of the war changed the environment. As a group, they talked and argued, and were even told, urgently, by their superiors to leave. They decided to stay. They stayed right in the middle of the conflict fully aware that it might cost them their lives. In the end, seven brothers were kidnapped and assassinated. Even as they lived under the sign of Jonah, they loved the people of the village and the love the goodness of life as God gave it to them. A visitor comes and brings them cheese and wine; they play music. And in the most, for me, moving scene of all, one brother leaves the terror and tension of the day to walk in his garden. He moves toward a tree, lays his hands on it, and closes his eyes in contentment. There, in the very center of creation, he surrenders all answers, all fear, all distress to the unfinished story we know as the wonder of God’s presence and grace.