The Stories that Shape Us

This past Holy Week, I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of hosting, what was for me, my fourth annual Passover Seder (Here are some of my thoughts from the first Seder). The Seder is as close to a family tradition that Claire and I have in our few years of marriage thus far, and I hope it continues to be something we look forward to and cherish each Easter season.

Even though I use the same material every year, inevitably I will see the story in a slightly different light.

This year was no different.

As I prepared for the Seder, the phrase that kept returning to my mind over and over again was “the stories that shape us.”

The Passover is not just an event to be remembered, rather to celebrate the Passover is a retelling and re-entering the celebratory story of God rescuing his people from slavery and oppression. It is not about what God did for a people long since dead, it is about what God is continually doing even today to shape a people for himself.

This idea made me ruminate on stories and the fact that I have been shaped by a very specific set of stories – both good stories and bad stories. And these stories have shaped me more than any Bible lesson or seminary class I have sat through (and trust me, I have plenty of those experiences).

So what is it about stories that are so powerful? Why am I more inclined to remember a person when he or she tells me the story of his or her life? And why is it that as a culture, both the broader American culture and the more specific Evangelical culture, we have lost the art of storytelling?

For one, while all of language is revelatory, stories reveal something deeper. Stories move me away from the abstract into the very heart of the person telling the story. Stories dwell in the place of flesh and blood, of people, not merely neat, tidy ideas. Today we value information over story – stories are seen as the illustration for the important information. As Eugene Peterson writes, “But we don’t live our lives by information; we live in relationships, family-of-faith relationships in the context of a community of men and women, each one an intricate bundle of experience and motive and desire, and in the presence of a personal God who has designs on us for justice and salvation” (The Jesus Way, 73).

Stories also have the power to open us up to new horizons and a grander picture of the world and the dawning of God’s kingdom. Stories give color to the world. When we join a good story, we see the world in a more vivid manner. Again to quote Eugene Peterson, “Without stories we end up with stereotypes – a flat earth with flat cardboard figures that have no texture or depth, no interior” (Tell It Slant, 134 [emphasis original]).

In some ways, I wonder if you can compare information and stories to a photograph and actually seeing the real thing. Photographs can give me an idea of the beauty of a place, but it can never capture and invite like actually being there can. Information, likewise, can tell me a great deal about something, but a story opens up my imagination and invites me into something much bigger. Stories take the “boring-ordinariness” of my life and invite me to see them in a different light…as an avenue in which God is deeply at work in bringing forth his kingdom within me and around me.

One of the many consequences of sin is the fragmentation of stories. I am prone to forget my story or prone to forget that what I have done and continue to do bears little to no impact on my story. Satan tries to convince me that the story of my sin does not matter that it does not correlate with the person Jesus is calling me to become. Satan also is great at disconnecting me from the myriad of stories simultaneously taking place around the world. Do I really need to bother myself with what is happening in Ukraine, South Korea, and the problems that continually plague Africa? Eugene Peterson writes:

“Most of the words that come before us today are delivered by television, newspaper, and magazine journalists. There is no story in them beyond the event, the speech, the accident. There is nothing that connects to the past, reaches into the future, plumbs the depths or soars to the heights. Instead of connecting with more reality, the words disconnect us, leaving us in a litter of incident and comment” (Subversive Spirituality, 187).

However, when the great Story of the Gospel is told and invades my life, Jesus uses what I once considered the fragmentation of my story and slowly shows me how the pieces fit together to make one beautiful, harmonious story. A story only he could tell.

And this is the story I need to remind myself. I need to remind myself that I am more than the bits and pieces. I am a beautiful story that can inspire others to join the Story that gives all other stories their meaning.

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Hospitality Perverted

If hospitality, like I discussed in my previous post, is the creation of an open space to allow people the freedom to be who God created and intended them to be (most clearly seen and exhibited when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet), then what is its stark opposite?

Dare I say: Cannibalism?

In Homeric Greece, a civilized community is a place where “people produce grain to make their bread, where they have vineyards to make wine, orchards with apple and pear trees, pomegranates, figs and olives, and where well-planted gardens provide all sorts of fresh green vegetables throughout the year. Communities like this have meeting halls where the people come together for discussion and counsel” (Food: The History of Taste, 67). And hospitality was an act held in high regard; Zeus himself was considered the god of strangers; so much so that the common practice upon receiving a stranger was to first feed him and then, once fed, to ask questions about his history and business (The Hungry Soul, 102).

In his epic The Odyssey, Homer gives us a glimpse into what the antithesis to the idea of Greek hospitality looked like through Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclopes Polyphemus. As many know, the Cyclopes are one-eyed monsters. Because of the one eye, they lack any perspective, motivated solely by the here-and-now, enslaved to an unbridled, imbalanced appetite.

The Cyclopes are further described as “lawless brutes,” having “no meeting place for council, no laws either,” and “each a law to himself, ruling his wives and children, not a care in the world for any neighbor” (The Odyssey, 9:120-128). Their land is unsown and unplowed, overgrown. They live in caves in complete isolation from one another, hating community and hospitality so much that they use huge boulders as doors. Polyphemus takes better care of his goats and sheep than other humans.

When Odysseus and his men finally face the Polyphemus, they beg him to treat them as was the custom, as Zeus had commanded. Polyphemus’ reaction to Odysseus’ request? Mocking Zeus and hospitality to the extent that he snatches up two of Odysseus’ men, “knocked them dead like pups—their brains gushed out all over, soaked the floor—and ripping them limb from limb to fix his meal he bolted them down like a mountain-lion, left no scrap, devoured entrails, flesh and bones, marrow and all!” (9:326-330)

They Cyclopes have such a distorted/twisted view of what it means to be human that they resort to devouring humans, leaving nothing behind. Humans are simply to be tossed aside while his goats and sheep deserve the utmost care and respect. As Leon Kass observes, “For him [Polyphemus], not nature or the divine, but ‘one’s-own-ness’ is supreme” (The Hungry Soul, 112). Kass continues, “One-eyed, without perspective, he is confused about what is truly near and far, about what is superficial and what goes deep, indeed, about that which is truly his own—the human soul and its openness to learning and loving” (112). Everyone that is only slightly different is a threat to who he has become, and therefore, must be destroyed, taken to the furthest extreme in cannibalism.

While no one might be practicing Polyphemus’ deeply perverted hospitality, I do wonder if there is not some sort of spiritual cannibalism we as sinful humans all struggle with? We may never resort to physical cannibalism, but do we spiritually cannibalize others who are different from us?

This spiritual cannibalism brought to mind Paul’s words to the church at Galatia: “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed” (Galatians 5:15).

Life in the Spirit and becoming more and more like Christ is not an easy, straight-forward process. It is messy; it can be disorienting; it can raise a whole lot more questions than provide answers. Unfortunately our tendency is not to embrace said process but to look for shortcuts or easier means. Along the way we are tempted to think that these shortcuts are the means of sanctification and require others to adopt the same. If not, they can be ostracized from the community…devoured and destroyed…instead of “serving one another in love” (Galatians 5:14).

What am I doing that might be cannibalizing others? What practices/ideologies/theologies of the church might be cannibalistic in nature?