Last Tuesday night we started our ‘enquiry’ group for deepening of faith with some newer members of the congregation. The usual procedure for this kind of group is to begin with story telling. We draw a line on the paper, and mark a number of lines on it, representing significant times in life. Underneath was ask ‘Where was I up to with God at those times?’ We then begin telling the story of those times. Doing this exercise again got me thinking about my attitude to my own story. Here are two things that came to me.
When I was growing up there was a family in the Church that was very close to ours called the Angels. The son of the family closest to me in age was David. He seemed to have a charmed life. He was even tempered, he did well in high school, had lots of friends and went on to become an engineer. I looked at his life and mine and often said ‘Why can’t I be like David Angel?’ Clearly there was something about my own story that I could not affirm. What was that?
Then, a little while ago now I was thinking about my ministerial career. I remember being disappointed that I wasn’t a bishop by now, and that I had not gone the route of ‘small parish, medium size parish, big parish, archdeacon, bishop, retirement’. I remember speaking to someone about it and they said ‘Maybe the kinds of small places that you have worked in are exactly what your special gifts are needed for.’ Now I never thought that before.
So I started to think about the feelings that are generated in the present, by a kind of unconscious ‘judgement’ on my own story, which is part of my past.
Then, a lot of other associations came to me. In our Church’s Newsletter, we tell the story of ‘One of Us’ as a feature of the newsletter. Some people are willing, and have stories that tell of lives lived happily with God.
Other people say ‘No, I don’t want people to know my story.’ I wonder ‘Are they, like me a bit ashamed of their story?’
Then comes the stories of people who have not fitted in with some kinds of Church groups, because they say ‘I went to church X, and they expected that we would all be a certain way (insert here: happy, rich, married etc.). I didn’t feel as though I matched that pattern, and so I didn’t feel as though I belonged.’ Here is an example of a number of people having stories that are different from the dominant story of the group, and so these people feel as though they don’t belong, because they do not share the same story. Now that is interesting too.
As these things happen, yesterday, I noticed in the hairdressers’ an article in the ‘Femme Actual’ for this week which was promoting a kind of ‘ego-therapy’. This is not an advocacy for being egotistical, but that the author was promoting a positive self regard. She said ‘The secret is not to compare oneself with others, but to anchor oneself in ones own story.’
But I ask ‘What is one’s ‘own story?’ We get our stories not ‘from ourselves’ but as a consequence of being located in a bigger reality. That is exactly what a story does. A narrative locates characters in a bigger, narrative landscape. The question is ‘What story am I anchored in?’ It is impossible to ‘anchor myself in my own story’ because the story itself (whatever that is) is the thing that anchors me in society, in family, in church. We could replace the word ‘anchor’ by the phrase ‘tells me how I belong’. That is: the people who do not share the same story as some groups cannot belong to those groups. To want to ‘anchor myself in my own story’ is to want to belong (have a story or context in which my life’s narrative is told) and at the same time not to belong: that is, to have a story that sustains me in the face of other stories.
This article is also telling us a story like the one I learned as a child in a song about Daniel ‘Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm and dare to make it known!’
But Daniel’s ability to ‘stand alone’ was because he was anchored in the story of God! Can you imagine his going to the lion’s den anchored only in himself? No, he went to the lion’s den ‘anchored in the story of his God.’ So having a good story answers both questions: that of how we are related, and how we are individuals. I hope it would be possible to construct a story of a congregation that not only told people how to belong to the group, but how to be different from the group and still belong (like Thomas) and what is for me most important how to discover what the next steps in the journey might be. Now that is a story that can be told. ‘Here, we know that everyone has a different story. The story that unites us is that we are all pilgrims on a journey, wanting to take the next steps for us, with God. Anyone who does not share this story, will have difficulty belonging here.’
It is an essential part of the life of Christians, the question which locates us in the Body of Christ’ ,is ‘How can I find my story in the story of God?’ This is what I have been saying about Daniel and belonging. But the danger associated with having another story, of which we are aware, is that it is possible to construct a ‘false self’ that fits in with the story of one’s dominant group, and does not leave room for the necessary discovery of how my story fits, for me, into the story of God.
As a child, I soon learned in Sunday school, with visiting preachers, that all one needed to know in order to be blessed was two answers’ Yes’ and ‘Jesus’. “Have you been good? “ ‘Yeeees.’ “Do you say your prayers” ‘Yeeees.’ “Who loves you best of all?” ‘Jeeesus!” This might be true in any place, that we develop false selves and false stories in order to belong. But the value of having a story like the one I told above is that this story allows both for sameness and difference. It is a story that allows for periods of differentiation (difference) and of integration (belonging).
So at one level I am consciously committed to encouraging a diversity of stories, and also to encouraging people to tell their stories, and also to ask ‘What is the next step for me? How does my story fit into the story of God.’ Sometimes the answer to this cannot be predicted. ‘Life is lived forward, and understood backward.’ This is a description of a confident faith that does not need to know the ‘answers’ but needs to have faith in God’s love. Sometimes, like this week, I become aware of some of the lingering shame about my story that signals to me that even this confidence in God’s love can be a bit shaky at times.