Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Stories We Tell

The stories that we tell ourselves shape the people that we are becoming. Think about two successful people, with very similar trajectories to the top of their chosen careers. It doesn’t really matter whether we are talking about athletes, college presidents, business executives, or nursing supervisors. One of the two focuses on all the people along the way who made it possible for her to achieve her goals, while the other focuses exclusively on her own hard work and determination. Obviously success requires some mix of both. But the story that each person tells will continually reinforce itself and inevitably shape the person each is becoming. One will become more and more aware of, and even grateful for, the support of others; the other is very likely to feel self-made and perhaps even self-righteous. It makes a big difference which part of that story is emphasized.

It’s not much different, I think, with the early history of this nation and the story that we remember tomorrow. As an elementary schoolboy I learned a highly sanitized and idealized story about the relationship between the people native to this land and the Pilgrims who arrived here from Europe. The story, as we all now realize, was not that simple. And yet this story, too, and the ways we tell and re-tell it, continues to shape the nation that we are becoming. It matters that we try to get it right, that we try to tell the truth; and also that we recognize that the truth is usually more complex and multifaceted than we first believed.

The stories that we tell ourselves shape the people that we are becoming. If this is true with individuals, and with nations, it is also true with families. Have you ever had the experience of adult children from a family each telling a story, about the same event, but from their perspective at the time as, say a sixteen-year old, a twelve-year old, and an eight-year old? Their stories may be wildly different not only because they experienced it differently when it happened, but because over many years of telling and re-telling, the story has become more solidified in each one’s brain—to the point where an outsider might find it impossible to discern what “really” happened. They get together, let’s say for Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s hard sometimes to believe that they grew up in the same family, because their narratives are that different.

We become, in a very real sense, the stories we tell. If we feed old wounds and grudges and those are the stories we rehearse over and over again in our heads, then if we are not careful they will form us into bitter, hostile people.

When we gather for worship, to break the bread and share the cup, we are saying "thank you God." That is what the Greek verb Eucharisteo means. This narrative means to define who we are, and who we are becoming: a thankful people who are dependent on God and neighbor. Gratitude is a practice, not a dogma; it’s an attitude; not a line in the sand. Gratitude takes us to the very heart of the Christian narrative and when we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing, and to say thanks, we tell and re-tell a story that shapes the people we are becoming, with God's help.

This liturgical act of coming together to celebrate the Eucharist is about remembering our Baptismal identity - who we really are. We pause in the midst of a lot of competing narratives—stories we tell ourselves, stories our families tell, competing stories about what makes this nation great—in order to remember the Story that binds us together and goes to the very heart of our faith in Jesus Christ. When we gather up the gifts of this good earth, bread and wine, and when we offer our tithes and offerings on God’s altar, the wealth of this good land, we come as God’s thankful people.

Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices,
who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mother’s arms, hath blessed us on our way,
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

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