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Following the Example of Jesus

Community is about being part of each other’s stories.  When God decided to break the 400-year silence and reestablish communication with humanity, God didn’t just bellow from heaven.  God actually came to earth to share in our story, becoming one of us to relate to us on our most intimate level—relationally.  John’s gospel begins with the announcement of the best news we’ve ever received: the Word became flesh and lived among us.  We are relational creatures, designed to respond to the incarnation of Christ in the person of Jesus.  We are created to relate to each other through story, so Jesus related to the Jewish community in just that way: he told stories.

The gospel writers preserved for us in written form examples of the stories among different Christian groups about who Jesus was and what he said and did that was so life-changing.  These books are not police printouts with Jesus’ specifics so that he can be recognized wherever he goes.  They are stories, narratives—each written from a different perspective and with a different purpose according to the communities each author was a part of.

Mark, whose gospel is generally accepted as the earliest written record of the oral tradition about Jesus, wrote his story to Gentile believers who had little understanding of the Jewish tradition.  Luke was also probably concerned with a Gentile audience, but Matthew, on the other hand, clearly geared his story toward Jewish believers who needed no such explanations.  John’s gospel is probably the most obvious example of the way a story can affirm a community’s identity since most scholars agree that he wrote for a particular group of Jewish Christians who had been ostracized from the synagogue.

Stories not only help us relate to each other, but they also give an account of who we are; our stories are part of our identity.  The gospel writers chose carefully what to include in their accounts of Jesus’ life in order to preserve and perpetuate the identity of each community. But this technique is not lost on us today.  Think of all the memoirs written in recent years.  As we get older and reflect on the wisdom of our lives, we don’t want to share a list of dos and don’ts with those who will come after us; we want to preserve our identities as a legacy, the story of our lives for those lives coming after us.  We are not designed to relate to rules of behavior; we want stories, understand stories, think in stories, and relate to each other through the shared story of our lives together.

Story is universal.  The desire to connect with others, the desire for community life and personal relationships, the desire for spiritual encounters that involve experience rather than knowledge—these desires are not being filled in today’s consumerist society. All around the world people are seeking relational fulfillment. If we weren’t, online networks like Facebook wouldn’t be so successful. We yearn to share ourselves with each other.  Stories are the entry point into the vulnerability necessary to wipe out loneliness and the burden of shame so many people carry in secret.  It is the call of the Christian community to build relationships by following the example of Jesus, by telling stories and by becoming part of the story of humanity.

The gospels invite readers to enter their world, to listen to Jesus’ words, to watch his great deeds, to appreciate their understanding of him, and to ask ourselves the same questions as the people in the text…In other words, they are portraits which invite us to respond by joining in the picture. ~ Richard Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus?

We, as the community of God, need to learn how to tap into that vision and invite people to join in the picture.  We do that by practicing telling our stories, personal and biblical, that join into God’s story—the one we are all a part of, as a community of believers.  If we really want to know each other, and if we really want to know God, we have to tell our stories.  Without them, we lose the power of truth discovered together. And without them, the Christian community is nothing more than a building with a bunch of chairs facing all in one direction.

Community truly is about being part of each other’s stories.  Relationship requires interaction, vulnerability, and the space to share with one another in the one way we all relate to: story.

Why Jesus Taught In Parables

Yesterday we looked at how story can be used to share truth in a way that can be more easily received or just more beautifully and creatively shared.  Today, let’s look at the example Jesus gave us for sharing truth through story: parables.

There are a lot of scholarly arguments out there for why Jesus spoke in parables, and I encourage you to study up if you’re interested in further analysis.  For my purposes regarding holistic body theology and what we do with our bodies in the world, I have four reasons to share with you today.

Jesus spoke in parables…

1) so that only those whose hearts were ready would understand.  Part of Jesus’ reason for sharing truth in parables was to fulfill the Isaiah’s prophecy that some would hear and not understand (Is 6:9-10; Mt 13:13-15).  In fact, Jesus even used a parable to explain why he spoke in parables in Luke 8:4-15.  As he later explained to his disciples, the hearts that were ready to hear God’s truth would understand, and the seed of truth would take root in their hearts and grow (vs. 15).

Sometimes we’re not ready to hear a truth from God.  Maybe we’re locked in sinful behavior.  Maybe we’re overcome with guilt and shame.  Maybe we’re already wrestling with different truth from God, and adding one more would be too much all at once.  God knows us intimately, from the hairs on our heads to the deepest secrets we won’t even admit to ourselves.  God knows just when to reveal truth to us, when we’re finally ready to receive it and make use of it in our lives, and that revelation will never come too soon…or too late.

2) so that there would be more room for people to relate to the story in different ways.  Most of the time, when Jesus told a parable, he was speaking to a crowd of people.  These people were made up of both men and women, children and adults, poor and wealthy, religious leaders and laypeople.   Often when Jesus was teaching, he had a different message for each audience, but rather than address each group individually, which would have taken forever, Jesus told one story that would teach each group a different lesson.

Take, for example, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37).  Now, Jesus is speaking to the “expert in the law,” so the most obvious meaning of the parable is directed at people who fit in that category.  But not everyone listening to the story was an expert in the law.  Should they have just watched a fly land on some bread or pick blades of grass while Jesus was teaching a lesson that didn’t apply to them?

Consider the characters in this story:
a traveler – the victim of multiple crimes
a group of robbers – the perpetrators, motivated by greed (maybe hatred or anger) but not brave enough to act alone
a priest – the “man of God” who was more concerned about keeping the letter of the law (blood was considered “unclean” and required purification rituals) than showing compassion
a Levite – the member of the “priestly” clan, see above, also a man of importance and influence in the community
a Samaritan – the member of a group hated by Jewish people for their conflicting beliefs on correct worship of God who provided sacrificially to help the traveler despite racisim
an inkeeper – the man who provided the means to help the traveler heal, but only because he was paid

Ask yourself, who would you be in the story?  Be honest. Maybe you take advantage of people when they’re vulnerable.  Maybe you feel working with victims is beneath you or too much trouble.  Maybe you are willing to help, but only if you get something back.

Jesus’ parables are multidimensional, multilayered, and designed with every member of the audience in mind–not just the people present on the hillside that day, but the people who have been reading the parables for centuries after.

3) so that he could get to the deeper truth behind the black-and-white Jewish law  in a short time.  For all his 33 years on earth, Jesus only spent 3 years in ministry.  In only three years, Jesus had to squeeze in all the truth and promise and love available to the community of God in the present time and in all the time to come.  Jesus had only three years to usher in the kingdom of God.  And that was before the Internet and Skype and media and blogs and all the technological advances of our day.  Jesus had only three years to bring the truth to the world, and he had to depend on human minds and hands to remember his teachings and write them down for future generations.

At the time that Jesus was teaching, Jewish law had expanded from the 10 Commandments of Moses’ time to hundreds of detailed, specific laws for every daily action, word, and thought.  If Jewish law were a funnel, the 10 Commandments would be at the broad end at the top, and the law in Jesus’ day would be the little tip at the bottom.  They had a law for everything, an exhaustive list of dos and don’ts that spanned a person’s entire existence from birth to death.  So when Jesus showed up in town and started teaching, the experts wanted to know what laws Jesus was upholding, what laws he was breaking, and why.

But Jesus reminded his listeners in Matthew 5:17 that he had come to fulfill the law, to bring God’s truth for righteous living to its fullest completion, in freedom.  That’s a tall order for only three years of ministry.  Jesus’ parables were a way to reach down into the deeper truth of God, cutting through the black-and-white theology of their day.  By refusing to engage in endless debate, Jesus was able to leave a timeless message of love, grace, and mercy through story.

4) so that human beings with human ears could through a human story relate to the divine truth in the human/divine Jesus. More than anything else, Jesus’ parables are a reflection of God’s choice to relate to us through the Incarnation.  God sent Jesus–the Truth–in human form to walk like us, talk like us, and be like us.  Jesus, the divine/human being, chose to speak to us in story, with human characters and a divine message.  Our Emmanuel, this God-with-us, chose to bridge the gap between divine truth and human understanding with stories that allow us to meditate, ruminate, debate, delve, dwell, and finally discover some kernel of the Truth that God loves us, knows us intimately, and designed us to love and know God and each other in just the same way.  The story of God is more than just written words in the Bible; the Word of God came as living flesh to live out the story of God among us.

If that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what will.  Tomorrow we’ll take a look at how we can follow Jesus’ example to love and know intimately our brothers and sisters in the community of God, the body of Christ.

Parable and Truth

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the 2007 French film that won numerous awards and was nominated for more including four Oscar nominations, is the true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby.  Bauby suffered a stroke and lived his remaining years “locked in” to a body completely paralyzed except for his left eye.  He uses this eye, through coded blinking, to dictate his memoir of the same name.  I find something extraordinarily beautiful about the way Bauby chooses to express himself poetically despite the tediousness of the task and the utterly humiliating state of being he is reduced to from his former position of influence and affluence.

Watching films like this make me wonder at the amazing imagination we have been given.  Story has often been considered falsehood or at best escapism, yet the tide is shifting as we come to realize the power of imagination for good purpose.  Indeed, our imagination is just one way we are imaging our Creator.  We have an imaginative God who speaks to us in more than just a list of dos and don’ts.  So, too, do we have this ability to share truth through story.

When I was in seminary, my Storytelling professor, Olive Drane, told us a story about the twin boys Truth and Parable.  In the story, Truth has an urgent message to share with his town.  In his haste, Truth runs into the town square stark naked, shouting his news to all who will hear him.  But the townspeople are horrified by Truth’s display, beat him, and send him away.

Discouraged, Truth returns home to his twin brother, Parable, who is well-respected in the town.  Parable cleans his brother’s wounds, gives Truth his own clothes to cover his nakedness, and encourages Truth to try again.  This time, when Truth returns to the town square wearing Parable’s clothes, the townspeople listen to his message and accept him.

But might people miss the truth we want to convey if we cover it with story?  Isn’t it safer to speak the truth plainly and ensure we are heard?

Even artists disagree on the appropriate balance between story and truth.  Poet Emily Dickinson wrote famously, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” Yet Southern short story author Flannery O’Connor one wrote in an article that she was determined to write her message “in large print on the wall so that the blind could see it.”  Is it subtlety, then, or shouting that wins the day?  To put it another way, how many layers of Parable’s clothes must Truth wear before the townspeople will accept him?

Perhaps it depends on the message.  Perhaps it depends on the artist.  Perhaps it depends on the audience.

In the film, Bauby shares his life story in painful detail, yet the success of his life lies not in his worldly accomplishments but in his ability to imagine, to feed his soul though he is “locked in.” Rather than dictating a minimalist report of his life, which would have been so much easier, Bauby chooses to make the extra effort to show the truth of his experience and the truth of the person he has come to be–with all his flaws–through story.

Bauby didn’t set out to write a book.  He didn’t grow up taking creative writing classes or attending seminars.  He was a magazine editor, interested in the world of fashion.  But he had something to say, and before he died, he took the time to say it. And the world is better for having heard and learned from his story.

Maybe you think to yourself, I’m not an artist. I don’t have a story to tell. But you’re wrong.  Everyone has a story.  Maybe it’s not a fable like the Princess and the Pea.  Maybe it’s not an award-winning novel like The Old Man and the Sea.  But it’s part of who you are. And the world will be better off having your story, too.

Jesus, who is the Truth, spoke often in parable and usually refused to explain himself even to his disciples. We’ll take a look at why Jesus spoke in parables tomorrow.

Sharing Our Stories

In high school, I went on a mission trip to Brazil to perform a mimed drama to Portuguese narration as a form of evangelism.  We “told” the story of the Toymaker who sent his Son to Toyland to break the Evil Magician’s barrier of Greed, Hate, Fear, Pride, and Anxiety and restore the relationship of the Toys with the Toymaker who loved them.   I remember the one day out of our time in Brazil when our group had the highest response to our story.

Everything else had gone wrong that day, so it was no surprise to us when—after we had gathered children and their parents on the playground, broken the ice with funny skits, and taken up our positions to begin the drama—the sound equipment failed.  It took two hours to fix the problem, and in the meantime, our group had to figure out how to entertain nearly 60 children to keep them from leaving.

So we played with them, pushing them on the swings and riding with them on the see-saw.  Even though we couldn’t exchange a word, we bonded through a common activity, so that when we finally performed the drama to tell God’s story to people who longed to hear it, every hand went up across the crowd.  Every child, every parent wanted to know more about this Toymaker who we’d gone to so much trouble to tell them about.

That was my introduction to “the ministry of hanging out,” building relationships through common experiences and then sharing our stories with each other when vulnerability has become possible.  I took that lesson to heart and expanded it in college when a friend and I instituted “Tea in the Hallway.”  Every night from 11 at night until whenever people went to bed (which was sometimes as late as 6 in the morning!), my friend and I hosted anyone who wanted to come sit in the hallway, drink some tea (or apple cider for those less inclined), and talk about anything at all.  Some nights we had debates about philosophy and God.  Other nights, we took care of inebriated students.  And occasionally, when most people had gone to bed, someone would linger over a mug of tea and whisper shameful secrets or painful experiences, just because in that moment of vulnerability, there was a raw need for sharing the story in a safe space.

It was during these occasional moments that I learned, really learned, how to listen.

Listening came in handy when I began my honors research project my senior year of college as an exploration into the realm of creative non-fiction.  Over almost a year, I interviewed family members and friends of my grandfather, who had died just two years before.  I learned quickly that it only took one or two questions to get the ball rolling, and then all I had to do was try to keep up as the stories and reflections poured out.

The story of my grandfather became the story of my family, and my story, too.  And in telling these stories, I learned how to clothe the truth in…well, story.  Here are some of my reflection on the nature of story and storytelling (or writing) when trying to capture not just what a person said and did but the true essence of a person:

Family stories are all connected.  Pleasant or not, it’s hard to separate ourselves from someone in whom we have part of our identity.  In fact, to do so would be to deny part of the story.  In this way his story becomes our story, too.

When I presented my work to the faculty, I introduced my process this way:

I always liked Chaucer’s line from the movie A Knight’s Tale, “Yes, I lied.  I’m a writer.  I give the truth scope!”  Scope is what I wanted to give my readers in this effort at cultivating a creative piece of writing.  It is an essay in the true sense: an effort, a try, as I looked for the balance between historicity and fiction, and I found the tight-rope called memory.

What I want to point out is the flexibility of memory.  I was so intrigued at the different little things people remember about my grandfather, and more particularly, the way they remember them.  For instance, there is a hot debate at the moment between my mother and one of my uncles over whether my grandfather used to be referred to on the mission field as a “wild man” or as a “wild Indian.”  Not that it matters, but the point is that our memories are fluid things, always moving and changing and impressionable.  And faulty.

I have taken it upon myself in this little work to sort through all the memories from the interview process as well as the contributions made by email and online posts.  I sorted through all the conflicting images and stories, to the reality of who he was not just actually but as we remember him.

This balance between fiction and historical fact is what the gospel writers struggled with as they told their different stories about the same Jesus. When we share our own stories with each other, there is always that element of choice involved.  We filter our stories according to the audience and the level of intimacy reached.  What I am learning through these experiences is how to foster that level of intimacy, how to create safe space for people to be vulnerable and share their stories.

It is only through sharing that community is truly built, especially in contemporary society where emphasis is placed on the individual, on being self-sufficient.  We succeed, and we succeed on our own.  And when we get to the top, we are lonely and ashamed of what we did to make it there.  We look around for a safe space to apologize, to make it right, and to try again.  It is the church’s job to provide that safe space, in whatever way possible.

Holistic body theology is about more than who we are and what we look like.  It’s also about what we do with our bodies in the world.  We were not created to be alone but to be in community.  Through our stories, we connect with deep truth within ourselves, we connect with each other, and we connect with God.

This week, we’ll explore the power of story both for speaking truth and for fostering community.  For today, think of your experience with story, and share in a comment box below.

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