The birth of Jesus. The visit of angels, shepherds and finally magi. Since probably before we knew what we were hearing, we’ve heard this story. Hopefully it has done what good stories do – it’s gone deep; past our ears and our heads, lodged firmly in our hearts – embedded itself somewhere in the core of our being…
A native American storyteller begins all his stories with this phrase, “I don’t know if it happened exactly this way, but I know this story to be true.”
The story is a gift, to make of what we will. So what will we make of it this year? (Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 2001)
In the life of the church, this weekend is Epiphany, when we celebrate the coming of the magi to the holy family (January 6). We celebrate the revelation that occurred as they named and honored a recently born child. Even as we celebrate their arrival, we remember that their coming caused great calamity too – the fearful and violent response of King Herod and the family’s quick exodus to Egypt for their own safety.
Powerful and true stories regardless of their historicity. In fact, too much energy placed on working out the exact timing, trying to understand the celestial star that might have guided them actually misses the point, and the truth of the story.
As we enter 2018, we are invited, as we are every year, to make this story our own. To focus not just on the past meaning, but also on the present and future meaning.
As historian and activist, Rebecca Solnit has written, we have the power and the responsibility to craft and tell the story that guides our lives.
In 2006 she wrote, “On January 18th, 1915, six months into the first world war, as all Europe was convulsed by killing and dying, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, ‘The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be.’ (Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, Rebecca Solnit, 2006)
Dark, she seems to say, as in (mysterious), not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfillment of all our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward.” But this is not the only possibility.
“Who, two decades ago, could have imagined a world in which the Soviet Union had vanished and the Internet had arrived?
Who then dreamed that the political prisoner Nelson Mandela would become president of a transformed South Africa? …
There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in: (on the one hand) one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but (On the other hand) by dreams of freedom, of justice, and transformed by things that we could not have dreamed of.
… One of the great conundrums is that unless we believe there are possibilities we don’t act, but the possibilities only exist if we seize them.
Hope … is deeply tied to the fact that we don’t know what will happen. This gives us grounds to act.
Interviewed recently she said, “Sometime before the election [George Bush’s reelection in 2004] was over, I vowed to keep away from what I thought of as ‘The Conversation,’ the tailspin of mutual wailing about how bad everything was, a recitation of the evidence against us –(which) just burie(s) any hope and imagination down in a dank little foxhole of curled-up despair.”
Now I watch people having (‘the conversation’), wondering what it is we get from it?
Stories trap us, but stories free us. We live and die by stories. But hearing people have ‘The Conversation’ is hearing them tell themselves a story they believe can be written in only one way.
What other stories can be told? How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners?” (On the Media podcast, December 28, 2017)
Solnit is a public, social commentator, but her words penetrate far beyond that realm.
Just 3 years ago, or so, our new Wisconsin Conference UCC leader, the Rev. Franz Rigert, stood in this building and said to a gathered group of UCC folks from around the state, ‘the story of the long lament is over.’ He noted that for at least a generation, one of the guiding narratives of the mainstream church has/had been,(in my words, not his)‘we are in decline, we are dying, our future is uncertain. Woe is us.” He was inviting us to write a new narrative.
Same facts. Same realities. Different narrative.
One of discovery, experimentation, trust, hope and new beginnings. “What have we got to lose,” he was saying? If we are a dying church, let’s do so while having fun, trusting in the Spirit, giving our lives to values we believe in.”
The same can be said for our personal lives.
Who among us has not had an emotional crisis, a relationship crisis, a vocational crisis or a health crisis in which we had to choose the narrative we would live with forward? Had to choose how we would incorporate new facts and realities with the unknowability of the future? Who had to decide if the future was a story of lament only, or one of lament shaped and held also by mystery, possibility and adventure?
In every area of life, we are living with the both/and of crisis and possibility.
Climate change – change that cannot be undone combined with massive new creativity around alternative fuel sources.
Human Sexuality – real and dangerous homophobia combined with real change in the what’s normal in a society in the span of a few short years.
As we hold on to the characters of the Christmas story, we remember that they were writing a future of possibility in the face of turmoil, exclusion, pain or uncertainty.
Which of the story writing characters in this saga is speaking to you? Is it:
- Mary with her tenacious faith? An open vessel of trust in the face of travel, exclusion, and pain?
- Joseph with his quiet and steadfast accompaniment, his quick thinking and intuitive understanding that danger (ie Herod looking for a child) required relocation, and now?
- The shepherds trusting their gut and their star experience even as their visit to the Christ child defied every social custom there was?
- The magi, men or women we don’t exactly know, traveling across the known world to find a newborn leader? Risking their lives in the process.
- A vulnerable baby dependent on the protection and care of so many adults; who at the same time upends the way all of us as adults will relate to our creator, as well our brothers and sisters across the globe.
- A story of tentative and risky beginnings that prevailed in ways no one could have known – not his mother, not the prophets, not his adult companions and friends.
These characters are true, regardless if they ever lived. This story was written in a way that we could hear it, pull it into our hearts, and live it for ourselves. We can tell our version of the story in any way we want.
In a day when ‘the conversation’ – filled with dread and anger and despair – runs rampant, what story are we carrying forward?
The future is not yet written. What the story is – and what it becomes – depends on what we make it.