Monday, September 15, 2008

Living in Story (September 14, 2008)

I love stories. Unless you and I have never been here on the same Sunday, you know this about me. I love them not only because they are fun, not only because they are a wonderful form of art, but because they are powerful. They have the power to give shape and meaning to our lives, the power to enhance communication, and the power to transform society. But stories have a shadow side too. Because they also have the power to keep us stuck, to maintain the status quo.

This is why our children begin today a curriculum called “Timeless Themes” in which they will spend the year looking at stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but looking at them with our special UU questioning way. Because these stories have power in our society, and knowing these stories, and asking questions of those stories will help us and our children to be agents of healing and change in our world.

I the children’s lesson we told this morning[The Story of the Three Kingdoms by Dean Myers], the people use storytelling to share wisdom and experience. A story can help us remember and share information like “how to move a really heavy object” or “how to catch something that flies” and telling these stories helps us make good decisions for the future. This is one of the reasons we tell stories; so that we understand the mechanics of this world, what works, what doesn’t work. Many of you know the story of Olympia Brown, the first woman ordained to the ministry in a main line church, and a speaker and activist for women’s suffrage. You have heard that she rode in the back of a wagon (without shock absorbers, mind you) over unpaved roads from town to town in Kansas speaking for women’s right to vote where she was often greeted with anger and opposition. And we know that after many decades of her dedicated work, and the work of many others, women were given the right to vote, and Kansas was one of the first states to ratify the 19th amendment. So we tell this story to learn something about the mechanics of how amending constitution works, and we learn something about the multi-generational movement to make sure that women have equal rights. But this is not a civics class. We tell this story in church because the truth I need to hear on a Sunday morning is that changing society is hard, but it is possible. When we get discouraged because the work we are doing for social change is going so slow we are worried we may never see any change, we call to mind this story, and we realize that the slow, thankless work of speaking the truth until the world listens is the unpaved Kansas road of our journey.

This is why the story of Moses and the Israelites is so powerful. Anthropologists have poked huge holes in the historical accuracy of this story, but oppressed peoples around the world have found in this story the strength they need to fight unjust political power structures. It shows us that though the struggle for liberation may be long and hard, that journey can lead to freedom. And in a world where the political and religious powers-that-be are often on the same side, this story shows us that people of faith can stand up to entrenched power. It is a story that has been told and retold by many oppressed people on the road to freedom. Said Martin Luther King in his Nobel Lecture in 1964 “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh's court centuries ago and cried, "Let my people go."5 This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story.”

By seeing the 20th century civil rights movement in the context of a liberation story like that of Moses and the Israelites, suddenly you see the light at the end of the tunnel, and feel the power of history behind you. The story gives you hope and it give you a map of the journey. It also gives you the power to communicate that map. You can say to other people who know the Moses story “Moses stood in Pharoah’s court” and it draws a clear picture of what it looks like to speak truth to power. King didn’t feel he had to tell his audience at the Nobel lecture who Moses and Pharaoh are, because this is one of those stories that “have grown fat in the retelling” as Pratchett said in this morning's reading. [Terry Pratchett Witches Abroad p. 2-4]

But we all know that any powerful tool can be used both for good and for ill. What about the shadow side of story?

Let me tell you about a story that is not working right now-- the story of creation from the Judeo-Christian tradition. As a feminist, I have always had trouble with the story of Adam and Eve, but when I look at the state of today’s environment, I can see that God’s admonition to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the see and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen 1:28) is no longer good advice, now that the earth has been subdued, and our multitudes are on the verge of rendering the earth unable to sustain human life.

Environmental Theorists like Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, propose that we need a new creation story, a new cosmology a new story to change our path. Fortunately, they say, we already have one. The big bang. The story told by science about this history of our universe. In this story we find that we, like the fish, like the trees, are made of stardust. We are part of a story much much older than we are, that will go on long after humanity has left the stage. In this story we are in the middle of the 6th mass extinction that earth has seen since life began here. In this story, which is grounded in the best thinking and research our scientists have to offer, the fact that the conditions necessary to create and sustain life as we know it were met at all fills one with awe and wonder. And wonder, awe and a sense of connection to all life is what we need to move our culture to a sustainable paradigm.

But Swimme and Berry postulate that even those of us in American Society who believe that the Big Bang theory is accurate still function in a Genesis Cosmology- that humans were created to be the stars of the show, and the other living beings are created only as the backdrop for the salvation history of humanity. As long as we live our lives out of that story, even unconsciously, we will think of ourselves as separate and above the physical universe, and will not be motivated to make the changes required for the health and survival of the ecosystem that sustains us. For the survival of our eco-system, we need to change stories.

Here’s another example of being trapped by a story, this time from the Hindu tradition. “A Brahmin [or Hindu Holy man] was having his bath in the river. Then he noticed a scorpion almost drowning. So he lifted the scorpion and put it on the ground. But before he could set it down, the scorpion bit his hand. His companion said to him, ‘What have you done? You have saved him only to get bitten yourself!’. His answer was, ‘I did what I had to do according to my nature. The scorpion did what it had to do according to its nature’. This is a teaching story about non-attachment. It is a powerful and important teaching because each of us encounters things in our life we cannot change, and need to remember not to let our consciousness get stuck in those events or situations. But a western criticism of theologies of surrender is that it does not provide an opportunity for justice-making.

There’s another version of that story called “The Tiger and the Braham” (There’s a great version of it on Rabbit Ears Radio that my son Loves.) In this story, the Brahmin helps a tiger out of the cage after promises that the tiger will not eat him, but when the tiger is freed, he says “foolish Brahman, no one can come between a tiger and his dinner.” After some discussion the Brahmin is allowed to take his case to the next 3 beings he meets. The 3 beings are feeling very cynical and bound by duty, and tell him to accept his fate. But then the Brahmin meets a Jackal, who makes the Brahmin repeat the story over and over “Ah, it is no use” he says “I cannot understand it. My poor Brain! Please take me to the place where this happened so that I can understand.” There, beside the cage, he makes the tiger repeat the story over and over, and finally, in a desperate attempt to make the foolish Jackal understand, the Tiger jumps back in the cage, and the Jackal slams the door shut. The Brahmin decides not to free the tiger this time, and thanks the wise Jackal for teaching him something about the way of the world. So here is the hero in an impossible situation, doomed by fate, but the trickster shows him the side door into a story that “works” for him.

But there are a million stories out there we hear each day. A lot of them we see on TV or in the movies. For example, the story of a rock band discovered by a record label while playing in a local club. The story of the semi-ethical cop who believes the ends justify the means. The story of the wedding that must be stopped by the TRUE love of the bride. The story of the nerds’ revenge. The fantastical story of the rich pretty people who can afford a big apartment in Manhattan and only wear designer clothes and eat at fancy restaurants every night.

My point is that the story of Moses is a powerful one, but these stories from contemporary culture and media have power too. They make us think that it’s worth the risk to express your love, or that being ethical in your work is unimportant if your goal is noble, or that having a certain lifestyle is normal. Some of these are healing stories, and some lead us down dead ends. So we have to notice which stories are creating those channels in which our lives flow. We have to chose a story which allows us to be a hero, and not just an incidental player, and we have to chose a story we can be proud of Part of the reason we share stories at church, in our worship, and in our Religious Education is so that we can become aware of the stories that shape our lives, let them warm in our minds.

So remember to be nice to the animals you meet in the forest, because later they will help you save the princess, remember that even when you feel gawky and clumsy, someday the ugly duckling turns into a swan, remember the child who stood up to the wicked witch, and remember the Jackal who asks you to tell your story over and over until it changes into the one that saves your life.

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