Imagine… A New Story

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for Resurrection Sunday:

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together. (Isaiah 65:17-25)
Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. (Luke 24:1-12)

Jon Bon Jovi is a native of Sayerville, New Jersey, and has been playing guitar since he formed his first band at the age of 13. Now, some 26 years later, Bon Jovi and the band that bears his name have enjoyed a successful career with many top hits. Today’s first song is not one of those hits, but comes from Bon Jovi’s ninth studio album called Have a Nice Day. The song is called “Story of My Life.”

Yesterday’s a memory,
Another page in history
You sell yourself on hopes and dreams
That leaves you feeling sideways.
Tripping over my own feet
Trying to walk to my own beat
Another car out on the street
trying to find the highway Yeah,
Are you going my way?

[Chorus] This is the story of my life,
And I write it every day
I know it isn’t black and white,
And it’s anything but grey
I know that no I’m not alright, but I feel ok ‘cos
Anything can, everything can happen
That’s the story of my life

“Our stories of our own past are heartfelt and yet are fiction,” writes Peter Block in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging. The first time I read that, I balked at the notion. Of course our stories are real — we lived them after all. How can he assert that our stories about our own lives are fiction?

Then I thought on this idea a little bit longer, and came to realize he’s basically right. All we really know for sure is that we were born, and we know that because we exist. We know stories from our early childhood because our parents told us about them — but we don’t remember them. We know stories about things we’ve done and seen because we did them and saw them. Our experiences are very real. We have indeed done all that we have done.

But Block is right: How we talk about those experiences afterward, how we formulate the story of those events, is pure fiction — all made up — because we tell stories how we want to tell them. Even stories of our most embarrassing moments are edited in some way. Some details get left on the cutting room floor of our minds.

The truth about eyewitnesses

Any trial attorney will tell you that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable. In their book Problems and Materials on Trial Advocacy, Leo Levin and Harold Cramer write:

Eyewitness testimony is, at best, evidence of what the witness believes to have occurred. It may or may not tell what actually happened. The familiar problems of perception, of gauging time, speed, height, weight, of accurate identification of persons accused of crime all contribute to making honest testimony something less than completely credible.

How can this be? People were experiencing the same event, yet they don’t know actually what happened?

Elizabeth Loftus sheds some light on this phenomenon in her book Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget. She writes:

Memory is imperfect. This is because we often do not see things accurately in the first place. But even if we take in a reasonably accurate picture of some experience, it does not necessarily stay perfectly intact in memory. Another force is at work. The memory traces can actually undergo distortion. With the passage of time, with proper motivation, with the introduction of special kinds of interfering facts, the memory traces seem sometimes to change or become transformed. These distortions can be quite frightening, for they can cause us to have memories of things that never happened. Even in the most intelligent among us is memory thus malleable.

So, the story of your life is fiction — all made up. But does that mean those stories are not true? Not at all. What our stories may be lacking in facts is made up in truth, and while facts may not change, the truth can. Often our stories can become the absolute truth — especially the stories we tell ourselves — and that kind of truth can sometimes be harmful to us.

Stories that limit us

If you all had met me in my much younger years, you probably wouldn’t recognize me. My stories limited me. The “truth” I believed about myself kept me from growing as a person.

I was shy because my story — my truth — had been one of a shy girl, someone not good at meeting people or talking to new people. I was also the class clown — someone who made up for their deficiencies by making people laugh. I was the stupid girl who had a way with words but couldn’t make the numbers add up. My story was that I wasn’t good at math, I wasn’t good with people, and words would be my only friends for as long as I lived.

There was another story — one of lack. After my parents divorced, my mother and brother and I had to move into the housing projects. At this point my story was about poverty — about never having enough.

What changed? My stories changed. The “truth” I believed about myself changed. I began to discover that I liked meeting people and talking to them. I discovered that with the right teachers, math wasn’t so hard. So I’m not stupid, I’m not shy. The biggest leap was over money. I had to change the story that I never had enough. It was as simple as telling myself, over and over again, “there will always be enough,” until I fully believed it. After awhile, that story came true — there is always enough. Now my story is, “there will always be more than enough.” And so, it has come to pass as well. All the facts say otherwise — I came from a place of poverty — but the story is now true in a way that empowers me instead of robbing me of my self-esteem.

This is the story of my life.

I’m gonna write the melody,
That’s gonna make history,
And when I paint my masterpiece
I swear I’ll show you first
There just ain’t a way to see
who and why or what will be
Till now is then It’s a mystery,
it’s a blessing and a curse
Or something worse

[Chorus] This is the story of my life,
And I write it every day
I know it isn’t black and white,
And it’s anything but grey
I know that no I’m not alright, but I feel ok ‘cos
Anything can, everything can happen
That’s the story of my life

If there are any people who can be described as people with a story it is the ancient Hebrews.

What a story they have — being captured and taken into slavery by their enemies in Egypt, wandering in the desert, arriving at the Promised Land, only to face more exile, more oppression, and more domination from their more powerful enemies. Throughout their story their faith wavers — sometimes it outright fails — and God must warn them, cajole them and outright threaten them to keep them in line. What a story our ancient ancestors have to tell.

The real purpose of stories

Ask biblical scholars and they’ll tell you the facts of those stories are sorely in doubt. Some scholars even doubt the main story of slavery in Egypt. They certainly doubt the facts of one man and one woman being the true beginning of the human race. Scholars doubt the validity of a story about a man surviving being swallowed by a whale. They doubt the validity of a worldwide flood — and a boat big enough to hold two of each species of animal. I recently read that to accomplish that feat, Noah’s boat would have been as big as the state of Alaska!

While all these facts may be in doubt, however, the essence of the stories are true — and they are true in that empowering way because they reveal the journey of humans and God through the mystery of this holy existence.

In today’s passage from Isaiah, the prophet is writing a new story for Israel, one of redemption and not of condemnation.

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

God is rewriting the story of Israel. No more will Israel be remembered as people that turned their back on God every chance they got. Instead, God is creating a new heavens and a new earth. On that clean slate, a new story emerges — a story of Israel as a joy to God. No more will the ancient Hebrews cry in distress or despair.

In this new story lambs lie down with lions, the wolf and the lamb feed together and even the lion has become a vegetarian, snacking on straw instead of little lambs. Imagine… a new story!

Breathe deeply.

Bart Millard wanted to be a football player like his brother Arthur, but it was not meant to be. His career ended before it really started when he injured his ankles in a high school football game. Since he couldn’t play anymore, Millard decided to join his high school chorus. It was a good move on his part because it led the Greenville, Texas, native to found a band called “MercyMe.” The Christian band had a big mainstream hit in 2001 called “I Can Only Imagine.” Though it fits with our theme of “Imagine…” we’re not going to do that song. Instead, we’re singing a song from their 2007 album called “Grace Tells Another Story.”

They say don’t waste your time,
You simply cannot find
an ounce of good
within the heart of man
they say we’ve got to lay
in the bed we’ve made
and live this life
without a second chance
but I’m inclined to say
there must be something more.

[chorus] We’ve been told that the heart
is just too far gone to save
but grace tells us another story,
where mercy sends hopelessness away
oh grace tells us another story.

Stories we love to tell

My stepfather Jack has a table. It’s a beautiful old round, heavy, ornate antique table. I know the history of this table very well because every time I see Jack, he tells me the story of the table. Wanda and I have heard this story over and over again. We even made the mistake on one trip of mentioning a table, and off he went on his table story. Even though we tell parts of the story with him, he never gets the hint that perhaps we’ve heard this story before and don’t need to hear it again. No, each time we’re told that during the Depression he came home one day and his mother’s table was gone. He ran and found his father and asked about the table. His father told him that he had run out of wood for the stove and was using the table as firewood. The table was down on the woodpile.

So Jack made his way to the woodpile to discover only the top of the table was left. His father had already burned the base to heat the house. Jack rescued that tabletop, kept it, and years later found a new base for it. It’s a perfectly wonderful story — a beloved table rescued from the woodpile just as it was about to be burned. But it’s a story that gets tiresome when it’s being retold for the umpteenth time.

Some stories however, never grow old. There are some stories we love to tell over and over again and instead of getting tired of them, we seem to hear something new in each telling. Instead of dreading the hearing of the story again, we look forward to it because we know that in hearing it one more time, we’ll find something that we hadn’t found before — something that will enrich our lives and deepen our connection to the mystery of life. We’ll find a truth that will bless and empower us.

One such story is that of Easter — of Jesus’ empty tomb. In the telling of this story every year, we open ourselves to the transformation that is resurrection — the transformation that takes our dead stories and gives them new life. We don’t just make up our minds to tell a different story — instead our stories are transformed by our encounter with the holy, by our encounter with the mystery of God. This is how the ancient Hebrews were transformed from grieving God to being God’s delight. It wasn’t because of anything they did — it’s because God transformed them. They let God write the story instead of trying to write it themselves.

The women at the tomb on Easter morning were shocked and amazed to see the stone rolled away and Jesus’ body gone. This did not fit with their story. They had seen Jesus beaten, hung on a cross, and taken down for burial. These were the facts. They had seen this happen. They had experienced this.

But facts, as we have seen, don’t often equal truth. Is this story factual? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Did Jesus’ body literally resurrect? Are these the facts of this story? Who knows? The scriptures say that even the disciples didn’t believe the story that the women told them about the empty tomb. The story was just too fantastic — too unbelievable — to be true.

Why the resurrection story?

Christian scholars argue about the theology of the resurrection. Was it a literal, bodily resurrection? Was it more of a spiritual resurrection — where Jesus’ followers tried to make meaning of the brutal death of their leader? No matter what side of the theological fence you find yourself on, one thing is true, in the best sense of the word: Something amazing happened that Easter morning. Whether Jesus walked from the tomb under his own power, or layers and layers of myth and story have been laid over this event in the centuries that followed — none of it means that Jesus isn’t alive and well in this moment, right here and right now. Jesus is alive because we remember him.

Within the African American community this form of story as immortality is especially important as James Evans Jr. points out in his book We Have Been Believers. He writes:

When a person dies he or she lives on as part of the community as long as relatives and friends remember his or her name. These remembered ones, or ancestors, participate in a kind of personal immortality. When that person’s name is no longer remembered — because there is no one left alive who remembers him or her by name — the process of dying is finally accomplished. However, the no longer remembered ones are not vanquished from the community. They are then referred to as the living dead and enter into a state of collective immortality.

Jesus is alive because we remember the story of Jesus’ life. His process of dying isn’t completely yet. He lives on. Is the story of Jesus factual? It may be. It may not be. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the story of Jesus’ life is true — because it’s a story that empowers us. When we study his life — when we seek to meet the holy in and through Jesus — we touch the truth of the mystery of this life. When we study Jesus’ story, and seek to make that story of love, of grace, of mercy, of healing, our own story, our lives, become richer — more life-giving. When we examine our own story in the light of Jesus’ story, we understand that there’s something more. We understand that there is far more going on than we can know or understand. Our stories may tell us that our hearts are too far gone to save, but grace — in the form of Jesus’ life — tells us another story.

[verse] They say we cannot change
there is no other way
Get used to it
cause this is all there is
They say don’t raise your voice
cause we don’t have a choice
we’re dealt this hand
so learn to live with it
well I have to believe
there must something more.

[chorus] We’ve been told that the heart
is just too far gone to save
but grace tells us another story,
where mercy sends hopelessness away
oh grace tells us another story.

A few years ago, I had workshop participants take a piece of origami paper and a pencil and write on the back of the paper everything anyone had ever said to them in their lives that had made them feel bad, or humiliated, or less than. What I was asking them to do was to write down the limiting stories they had heard about themselves, and continued to embrace as true. All those bad things may not have been factual, but they were true, because they were stories that they repeated to themselves all the time. Stories that told limited them — that told them they were fat, or ugly, or stupid, or damned because they were gay or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender.

After they wrote all that down, I told them to erase it all. Gently — since this was origami paper, after all. When they had finished I asked them if all the marks on the paper were gone. No, they said, they could still see the writing, or the smudges from the eraser. We can never completely erase the terrible stories we’ve been told about ourselves, or the ones we keep making up about ourselves and telling ourselves over and over again. Even if we start to write a new story — the remnants of that old story will remain with us.

After that, we folded the origami paper into the shape of a butterfly. The lesson is this: No matter how horrible the stories are that others have told you about you, or that you tell about yourself, God can transform your life into something beautiful. You may tell stories about how stupid and ugly you are, but God tells another story — a story of how beautiful you are, of how special you are. God rejoices in you — “no more shall be heard… the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.” Behold, God is creating a new heaven and a new earth — right inside of each of us. The former things are no longer remembered — the old stories of despair are never uttered again. They’re gone.

Be glad and rejoice!

Breathe deeply.

Imagine a new story

Sadly, my stepfather is in the grips of a deepening dementia. His Alzheimer’s disease has become so bad that he hardly ever lives in the present anymore. He’s a former tire salesman and my mother says most days he goes to work — just in his mind. He sells tires all day. Because of his illness, Jack is trapped in his old stories. He is mentally unable to create new stories.

What’s your excuse? Jack is handicapped by his illness, but we able bodied and sound minded folks are not limited in this way. Why are you still telling your old limiting stories — stories that keep you stuck in a reality you don’t enjoy and leads to nowhere?

Our old stories bring us death — but new stories bring us to life. What old stories are you telling that keep you from experiencing the newness of life? What stories keep you locked in the tomb unable to fully experience resurrection?

Imagine… a new story. A story of a new heaven and a new earth — a clean slate where the holy has room to create an incredible story beyond your wildest imagination. Don’t worry if you’re friends are like those disciples who didn’t believe the story the women told them. Soon enough they’ll see you as a new Jerusalem — one in which God rejoices — one where balance is found between our personal lambs and lions, where our own demons are tamed and we can bring that personal peace into God’s wider world.

I invite you, tell another story — not just to yourself, but to the world — a story of love, grace, peace, and mercy. Tell the story over and over again — a story that gets more and more exciting and full of life with each new telling. Tell your new story to everyone who will listen, and especially to those who won’t, and see new life begin to take root in, through, and around you.

Be glad and rejoice forever in that which the Holy creates.

Imagine… a new story.

[chorus] We’ve been told that the heart
is just too far gone to save
but grace tells us another story,
where mercy sends hopelessness away
oh grace tells us another story.

[bridge] And though we may not understand
why You’d give us another chance
we praise You who lets us start again.

[chorus] We’ve been told that the heart
is just too far gone to save
but grace tells us another story,
where mercy sends hopelessness away
oh grace tells us another story.

Oh, yeah!