Why some people thrive despite life’s challenges, setbacks and tragedies while others become overwhelmed, consumed and trapped by them is a matter of the stories we hear, share, fear and wear in our hearts and through every aspect of our lives. Author and researcher Brene Brown says that she was shocked by the results of hundreds of interviews by with people from all walks of life. What we know matters but knowing who we are matters more. People who see their story connected to a purpose which is bigger and greater than themselves live life more authentically without pretense, demonstrate greater compassion and forgiveness for imperfections, and have a capacity to listen to others even when the stories, opinions, perspectives and ideas are radically different than their own.
Only, it isn’t that easy. The voices of fear keep us telling a whole different story.
Case in Point: Years ago I served a different congregation; one which had a long history of being at the forefront of inclusivity. With great intention and sensitivity, the congregation avoided words and phrases that some found hurtful, that reminded others of experiences of being excluded or reinforced negative uses of power.
One evening several years ago, in another community I am passing through the social hall when a young woman who was a member of the praise team catches me mid-stride, “Why don’t we use certain words in our songs and prayers?”
Before I respond, another member of the praise team interjects - “The words are hurtful to women.” She says.
“Well, I don’t believe that!” says the young lady.
“Well, I do!” says the longtime member.
And they stand face to face, silently in the middle of the social hall. Ironically in the social hall the stare each other down. Seconds tick by as each waits for the other to blink.
I look from one to the other, a long silence passes between them. I suggest, “Maybe you might share your different experiences?” One smiles wryly, the other laughs sarcastically. Both walk off in opposite directions.
And this is both the point and the challenge we face. Fear, our fears of being right and wrong, good and bad, in and out, etc. leave us stastaring one another down and walking off silently in opposite directions.
Now when Paul arrived in Corinth nearly two thousand years ago, the city was an economic crossroads and attracted many diverse people from all kinds of cultures, ethnicities and faith traditions. Paul started the church in Corinth; attracting a diverse community who found their way into the old, old story. In time, Paul moved and the community declined in conflict, fear and concerns about earthly power.
Paul writes to the church in turmoil. "All of us possess knowledge." However when we use the story to puff up rather than build up we’ve missed the whole point of this old, old story of God’s liberating love. Strip away all the things of this world, let go of the tools and techniques, forget the conflicting objectives and expectations.
This story - God’s story – is the story that builds up rather than puffs up; the story that invites rather than casts out; the story that challenges and invites us to align our lives with God’s call, Christ’s compassion, and Spirit’s direction.
This story is the story that cannot be contained in particular words, or certain songs, the type of bread, rules, or doctrine.
This story lives, and is meant to be lived rather than contained, coerced, regulated or found in something we merely know, which is the whole point of Jesus’s authority which flows from living confidentially as a beloved child of the living God in whose image we all have been made.
Look, the religious authorities of the day were scribes – people who merely copied and applied letter by letter and word for word the ancient stories. And yet it is Jesus who is the one who teaches as though he has authority. Why? Because in Christ and through Christ this story comes alive, lives and God’s love is resurrected once more.
In Jesus authority flows from living authentically as one resting on the promise that he is and we are God’s beloved. In Jesus fear filled inner voices are silenced and sent away. In Jesus we are forgiven and freed to be who we are authentically created, called and sent to be
Call me naïve or silly, I invited the congregation to explore the words, images, metaphors and symbols that were life giving and challenging. Nearly half the congregation completed a survey and a quarter engaged in a series of to interpret the survey and explore the question further.
As we met, we intentionally began by listening to the stories of others, what blessed and challenged them, their faith journeys, their hopes and their fears. One attendee reflected “It seems like my fragmented and challenging faith from my childhood seems to be mirrored in my eclectic and often tenuous connection to faith, community and relationships today.”
And then, three quarters of the way through our final session one participant rose to his feet with tears flowing down his cheeks, he shared:
“I’ve been coming to this congregation for a long time and I’ve been one of the language police and even used to come in early Sunday morning and go through the hymnals with white out to change the words. Now I realize that being so rigidly inclusive we’ve been excluding people who are in different places on their journey. We need to have a much wider range of words in worship.”
Following the sessions all shared how their perspectives of community had been deepened, own views had been challenged and expanded, and how in the midst of these difficult conversations they sensed God’s holy presence. This is the power. The power of the of this old, old story to gather and build up rather than puff up or tear down; to resurrect hope and make love real in ways we could never imagine!
You see God’s love is made real as we embrace rather than avoid the messiness of life and relationships.
God’s love is made real as we reclaim and reframe our lives within God’s ever unfolding story.
God’s love is made real as we risk our best and deepest selves and let this story live in us and through us once more.
My friends, we live in a world and at a time when so many hunger to hear the good news of God’s love. It is why a community like Greendale People’s Church exists.
In the coming days and weeks and months you will be invited – and I encourage you to engage - to engage in all kinds of conversations to hear and share your stories as we wonder together what God is calling us to be in this time and place once more.
May God bless us and guide us on the journey.