"Story: Learning God's story and finding ourselves in it"
By Judy Niemi Johnson
Many years ago Dan and I were part of a church that highly valued bible studies and age-based small study groups. This was very helpful to become familiar with scripture, build relationships with people our own age and understand the theological basis for our faith community. But one day we were invited to join a group of mixed ages, people from age 20-70. This particular group of people was hungry to learn from each other how God “showed up” in actual life. We would look at scripture, but rather than a fill-in-the-blank type of discussion, we shared stories from our lives. It was a new way to approach learning and it took some time to develop trust with each other.
One Sunday, the scripture talked about fear. I remember distinctly Clara, a tiny gentle woman in her late 60’s, told the story of the night she and her sister crossed enemy lines during WWII. They had to travel on foot across an open field, one at a time, while the search lights moved over the burnt grass. She described the deep fear as she ran, stumbling at one point, picking herself up and reaching the tree line and safety. But she was terrified as she waited in the dark for her sister, straining to hear her small steps, watching the lights flash back and forth, until she finally caught sight of her cresting the hill and falling into Clara’s arms. As Clara spoke she pulled her sleeve down, over the tattooed numbers on her wrist, a constant unconscious motion she developed over the years.
Then Clara’s husband, Gerhardt, talked about being afraid, a strange concept coming from a man well over 6’ tall. He was riding a crowded trolley car in occupied Paris. His crisp German uniform was a sharp contrast from the civilians that pressed around him. He was hanging on the side, barely on the edge, when he saw a stone archway ahead. All one person had to do was just give him a small push and he would be smashed against the stone as they passed underneath. He was so afraid that he recalled shaking, the sweat running down his face and unto his uniform. He closed his eyes and waited.
As Gerhardt finished his story the room was silent. Had I heard clear examples of fear? Yes. But in sharing their stories, making themselves vulnerable in the telling, I noticed how God had worked in their lives in a completely different way. I noticed and understood forgiveness, unlike any theological lesson I had encountered before. A Russian prison camp survivor and a German soldier met, fell in love, and created a life with God and each other.
This is the power of story. It does not replace theology, it enhances – it reveals. Dan and I have learned over the years the essential need for us to share our stories with each other, large and small, positive and negative, understood and filled with questions. When we share with honesty, when we listen with respect and openness, God reveals how He is working in our lives. We are drawn closer together as a community. We laugh, cry, question, encourage and learn. We don’t have to go searching for God. Jesus will tell His story to us and through us.
by Lisa Wiens Heinsohn
I love the fact that our tradition is a narrative tradition. Much of our scripture is expressed in story. Jesus himself often taught in parables--freestanding stories that can't be imprisoned within a single meaning or interpretation. They, and all the stories of scripture, are free to transform us in wild, unpredictable ways, for those who have the curiosity and imagination to engage with them.
Intellectually, I have known this since I was a child. But I experienced it in a potent way several years ago. I had had three miscarriages, and--thank God!-- one living child, our beautiful daughter Carly. My husband Jeff and I decided to try one more time for another child. I was in my early forties, he in his early fifties, and our time was running out. So one day in fall of that year, when I saw two lines on the pregnancy testing stick, I was filled with hope--but also with fear, dread, and the impulse to suppress all my emotions and just see what happened--not to get my hopes up, not yet.
We made it to Thanksgiving, and I was still pregnant. November turned into December, and we were in Advent--that time of waiting and yearning. And then I began to miscarry, for the fourth time. I felt numb, and sick, like the part of me that knew how to hope was also dying. I didn't think I could stand coming to church to hear all about pregnant Mary. Everywhere I turned, the songs, the readings, the liturgy were big with child, even as my own body was in the reverse process.
I decided to come to church anyway. It was hard, like I expected. But then something in the sermon made me realize that Mary's pregnancy was no baby-shower-inspiring-event. It was not the perfect-timing pregnancy of a young bride and her husband in their house with a white picket fence. It was an illegitimate pregnancy accompanied by shame and social difficulty and the near-abandonment of her fiancée Joseph. I began to soften. And then, my eyes fell on the station of the cross that hangs on the wall right beside the place I always sit at church. There was Mary, weeping, holding her dead son in her arms. I saw how greatly she had suffered--far more than I, who never knew my babies, never saw them grow, didn't have the depth and bond with them that would have made their deaths so much worse. Everything in the art and the music and the liturgy began to seem like a huge container, like a fortress of rock against which the ocean could crash without toppling it. My grief could crash against the stories of our tradition and be held by them.
Then we had Eucharist and I made my way into the side chapel to ask for healing prayer. I don't remember if I even named what I was experiencing in that moment, just that Marcia Roepke gave me a huge hug afterward. My story had interacted with the Great Story. I had been deeply moved by the encounter, and I dare to think that God was profoundly moved, too.