Saturday, December 31, 2016

Sacred Stories

The last book on my 2016 reading list is one I received at Christmas and just finished last night: J.D.Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. For those who haven't seen Vance on cable news (pre- and post-election) or know of his book, there is a fine review of it here from The New York Times. This post is not intended as a book review however, although I encourage you to read the book. Honestly, I can't do any better than the link above. Rather, I offer this post more as a theological reflection/end-of-year rumination, which is what I do in this blog, or at least attempt to do.

As many readers of this blog know, I grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania, the part sometimes called Pennsyltucky. Or as James Carville famously put it in 1986:
...between Paoli and Penn Hills, Pennsylvania is Alabama without the blacks. They didn't film The Deer Hunter there for nothing; the state has the second-highest concentration of NRA members behind Texas.
This isn't the place to debate the quote (which no doubt oversimplifies things) nor to try to claim that my own story parallels Vance's; it does not. Even so, my own Pennsylvania roots and extended family make the story a familiar one to me. Vance grew up in Ohio, in a family of Scots-Irish transplants from Kentucky. The demographics in the towns in and around Scranton are similar. Coal mining has come and gone, but the "new economy" hasn't yet caught up. I left home at 18 and have now spent most of my adult life in New England - nine years in Connecticut and the past eighteen in Massachusetts. My roots and life journey made it pretty easy to relate to the contours of this story even though my own details are different. Reading it felt more like remembering something old than discovering something new.

Here is my prayer for a new year of grace: we need to learn to share our own sacred stories as, together, we shift the narrative we have inherited. We've learned to collect grievances, I think. We worry that we don't have what we want because someone else took it - and didn't even earn it. This didn't happen overnight. But our politics has further polarized us. The media also bears some of the blame. We stick with "thin" story lines that reinforce what we think we already know about ourselves and about our neighbors. But the real story is always far more mysterious and complex.

Twenty-five years ago, Frederick Buechner wrote a memoir he entitled The Sacred Journey. There he claimed that learning to listen closely to our own lives was a kind of spiritual practice, and learning to tell that story of our own truth could be a kind of witness for others. He also wrote:
You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own.
I am reminded of these words as we turn the calendar to a new year. Love of neighbor, one of the two great commandments in the Old Testament (reiterated by Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament) begins with listening to our neighbor's story.

I worry that there is danger ahead in 2017 for our nation and for our world. But I believe that there is also opportunity. We will not be "saved" by elected leaders nor by the national media. We need to learn again how to think globally, yet act locally as we get to know our neighbors again (or for the first time)  across all the lines that supposedly divide us. There I truly do believe we will find common ground. This does not make our stories the same. Place matters and gender matters and race matters and sexual orientation matters. We're not the same. But as a contemporary Irish poet/theologian has put it "we're one...we're not the same, but we get to carry each other." Our stories do, in big ways, converge. 

The Genesis story shared by Jews and Christians insists that we are all formed of the same earth, and the same breath of the living God enlivens us all. We are kin. We are one. May we find the courage and grace in the year ahead to share our own stories with courage - even, as Vance does, the more difficult parts we might prefer to cover up. And may this risk bring healing to the neighborhood, and to the nations. 

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