From Doing to Being: What Stories do we tell Ourselves?

Message preached at Fellowship Christian Reformed Church, Edmonton, AB, Canada, October 14, 2018. (Please note that the biblical passages this is based on come after the text of the sermon.)

In the Gospel of Mark, we find recorded a story about a rich man, who by his own account, is law-abiding.  Surely, measured by every social and religious criteria of his age, he was a “good, respectable” man.  Jesus saw through his story and required something of him of which he was not willing to let go.  When confronted with the story he told himself, the path to salvation and entering the kingdom of God was daunting and formidable.  You would think that a man who was in such a position would be able to walk directly into the kingdom?  Instead of thinking that this message is merely about the idolatry that is the love of money, I want us to consider something in this story that indeed affects us all, even those of us that don’t have that particular idolatry.

About 5 years ago, Air and I were at a 7-11 in a rural town in Thailand.  As we stood at the counter in the process of paying for our pack of gum, and some chocolate milk, juice boxes, and snacks for the kids, a Thai mom and her kindergarten-aged boy came up behind us in the checkout line.  The mom looked at her son, who happened to be staring up at me.  In Thai, she asked the boy if he was scared. “Are you scared of the white man?”  He replied, in the negative.

Air and I both recognized what was going on.  The mother was scared, partly because of my skin color and status as foreigner, and partly because of my imposing height. However, I was no threat.  There was nothing I was doing that was threatening.  And by asking the son if he was scared, she could have been doing many things.  She could have been expressing that it is natural to be scared of foreigners; she could have been inquiring of her son if he was scared to speak to me – in English.  One thing she did do, and I am certain that the boy picked up on it, was express her fear and nervousness in my presence.  But more subtly, perhaps not even consciously-recognized by either her or her son, she sent the message that indeed it is normal for someone to be afraid in such a situation.  No doubt, this boy will have been repeatedly exposed to this message, and may have developed a well-constructed narrative with fear and relationship to others who are very different.  It may be a barrier.

If I had not had such a privileged position in Thai society when I lived there, as a teacher and academic, as a husband and father, I may have wondered about myself whether I was indeed scary as a part of my identity, for it wasn’t the only time I heard such a narrative.  I heard it every time I began teaching a new group of children, every time I trained a new group of teachers, every time I walked into a different church.  The close relationship between fear and otherness may have been internalized by me and would have inhibited me being fully involved in my community, and even fully me.  Certainly, I had to be careful about the role of this story in my own self-perception.  Having lived in Thailand for the better part of 9 years, I was tempted to take on this self-image as frightful, intimidating and judgmental.  I frequently reminded myself of my roles as husband, father, and teacher to tell a different narrative of myself.  I am not fearful and intimidating; I am approachable, hospitable, and caring.  After much wrestling with the scary foreigner narrative, I didn’t adopt it.  I would not take it on as my identity.

Jung, Myeongsuk, a Korean woman who arrived in Winnipeg, Canada in the summer of 2011, wrote the following poem:

I am standing at the Millennium Library bus stop.
A big yellow bus is coming. A big wind is following.
Pursuing the wind, fallen leaves are spinning and spinning like me.
I am a three-and-a-half-month newcomer. Chasing a newcomer’s dream, I am spinning and spinning in downtown Winnipeg, like the leaves.
The ESL morning class at 11 Promenade.  There I am.
The afternoon class at 297 Portage Avenue.  There I am.
The weekend computer class at 167 Lombard Avenue.  There I am, too.
And then, I am standing at the Millennium Library bus stop, again.
The leaves are still there.  They are whispering to me like a witch.
“You are a baby here.  No matter how hard you chase your dream, you are still a baby. You can’t imagine how tough it is and will be. You shall be stranded in the coming harsh winter.”
The baby responds to her. No way. You don’t understand me.
You cannot imagine how strong I am.  I am not like you.
How stupid you are to still be there. You will be stagnant like stationary water.

I am not like you. I am streaming with the dream.
No matter what obstacles I face I will cross them,
And jump them, So I am not like you.
Because I am not stagnant forever.

*From The Past is Another Country:12 Stories by New Canadians. Winnipeg Public Library 2011, p. 31-2.

What would it be like if Ms. Jung had taken on the narrative whispered to her by the spinning leaves of a cold fall day in Winnipeg?  She refused the truth on offer: you are a baby, it is all too tough, you will be frozen by winter.

Why did she refuse this narrative and begin to tell another one, derived in another place and another setting: I am streaming, I am not stagnant, I will overcome barriers?  Did she see that the narrative we tell ourselves matters?  Did she see that the stories we tell ourselves can really stop us from experiencing the joy and communion to which we are invited?  I wonder what has happened to her, and if indeed she has ever said to herself, “I made it.”  I wonder if by making that declaration, the stream that is Ms. Jung may start to begin to freeze?

Now you can think of someone in your life, perhaps even yourself, who tells an autobiographical story that prevents them from experiencing communion with God, and prevents them from experiencing joy. You may know of the old woman who wishes to die; a victim of sexual abuse who believes she is worthless, an ex-convict who can’t get a job that will sustain him, a pastor who believes the esteem the members of the congregation give her. One may define oneself as a widower, as aging, as unloved and unneeded by their children, as weak, as sinful, as a newcomer, as a poor student, as a servant-leader.  But I wonder if God relates to any of these self-definitions, or if God simply wants a relationship with just you?

Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, invites to salvation the rich man on the road.  The rich man consents to a story about himself, that he is a commandment-keeper.  He is faithful to wife and parents; he is honest; he is an upright business-person.  My hunch is that Jesus knew this man, even though they have never met before.  My hunch is that Jesus showed the man something of himself that will indeed prevent his salvation.  But the tragedy of this awareness is not so much that pursuit of wealth would keep him from entering the kingdom, but that despite his full efforts, this man’s story about himself was the obstacle that got in his way.  I can imagine this man as a classmate of mine, whom I meet again at a high school reunion.  He comes to tell about how well he has done.

Jesus confirms in other statements in the passage that the stories that are offered to him should be questioned.  The rich man calls Jesus “good teacher” and Jesus questions it.  The rich man tells of his own honourable life, Jesus questions it. And Jesus offers us the oft-quoted, but seldom-practiced principle, “many who are first will be last, and the last shall be first.”

What stories do we tell ourselves?  Take a moment, close your eyes, and tell yourself that story. God knows this story, but God also knows me, and you, and us.

Frequently, the stories we tell ourselves are, in large part, the way we want others to see us.  In a sense, we present an ideal of ourselves.  That means, we put an idea in front of us like a shield which serves to guard our truer selves from a more direct engagement.

This means a lot to me.  Outside of my significant others, I have not laid bare the following: as a child in my family, our lives were always a matter of “catching up.”  We had a childhood pattern of trying to compete with brothers playing street hockey, basketball, or football; with all of us playing cards, or a board game.  Eventually, through all kinds of circumstances, we learned that while we were loved and always knew that we were, each of us had to get better, to toughen up, and in the deepest sense to have it all together, morally, artistically, vocationally, academically, emotionally, internationally, intellectually and spiritually.  If we didn’t measure up in any way to the best of my siblings, we just weren’t good enough yet.  So, for example, if we weren’t as artistic as my sister the opera singer, or my brother, the painter, we had fallen short.  If we didn’t measure up academically to my brother with a Master’s degree in Physics, or my father, a PhD and dean at a University, then we had fallen short.  If we had failed to establish a successful marriage, we would have fallen short.  If we had stopped attending church, we would have fallen short.  This was the story we each had told ourselves and which has kept me from communion with God.  Indeed, it was a story I had derived from my activities with others and included dialog with others in my family.  Even though they are not present with me now on a daily basis, the conversations I have, and have had, with them are stored in my heart, and the conversations continue with them as long as I live. They have this tendency to fill me with anxiety.

In the light of this continuous defining of myself, the telling of stories to myself, Hebrews 4 offers an incredible teaching about entering God’s rest and about what we will find when we are there.  For in the passage we read, and the passage in Hebrews that precedes it, we are invited to enter into not merely a Sabbath-rest, but a God-rest.  What do we find when we are there?  We find the word of God, living and active, which is so sharp that it perceives the attitudes of the heart.  Nothing, not even the stories we tell ourselves, lays hidden to God when we rest in God.  Can we take this reminder to rest in God as an invitation into God’s presence?

What will we discover when we are there?  Will the stories that we have indeed taken as our own be laid bare not so much as truth, but rather, as a barrier to our direct communion with God?  Will we come to see our strivings and aspirations as indeed driven by something other than what is desired from a resting in God’s presence?  Do I need to prove to God that I am artistic, intelligent, established, loving, worthy, or successful?  Do I, like the rich man on the road, hold on to the story of myself over and above the relationship God calls me into?  The rich man walked away from Jesus in grief.  How many times have I turned away from loved ones, from the presence of God, in grief? How many times did I face the call to let go of the stories about myself and enter into deeper relationship with the Lord… and that point, turn away, because I felt that the stories I told myself were more central to my identity?

Even today, do we hold on tightly to these stories?  Do we try to communicate to others (even significant others), like the rich man on the road, like the Korean woman in Winnipeg, an ideal of who we are?  Do we try to present as real and present something to others which is not yet real, but is instead something hoped for?  Do we try to demonstrate our worthiness in an effort to convince others, but more importantly, to ourselves and to God, that we are indeed worthy?

In this whirlwind of human striving, I want to echo the call of Hebrews 4.  Let us hold firm to the faith we profess, and sit with our high priest, Jesus the son of God, who sympathizes with our weaknesses and sufferings because he has indeed been through it all.  Let us approach Jesus with confidence.  Let us approach the throne of grace, the kingdom which our stories cover like a veil.  By removing our self-imposed veils of ignorance, and entering into God-rest we can commune with our Lord, receive mercy, and find grace.

In other words, I invite you into the presence of the living Lord who is with you now, in every future moment, and ironically, has always been with you.  I invite you into the reverent submission to our loving and powerful God. I invite you into the mysterious presence of the One who says, “you are not good and have abused others, but I love you; you are not artistic, but you are beautiful; you have not been intelligent; but you have a capable mind; you are not stable, but I will give you stability; you have suffered and been abused; but rest and heal in me; you have failed, but I will give you success; you come from a minority, but you are the norm; you may have received blessings because you are privileged in society, but you will receive eternal life in me; you may feel unworthy, but I want a relationship with you.”

“Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Could that be true because those who are last don’t tell stories that prevent them from communion?

Lectionary

Hebrews 4:12-16
4:12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

4:13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

4:14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.

4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

4:16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Mark 10:17-31
10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

10:18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

10:19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'”

10:20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

10:21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

10:22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

10:24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

10:26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”

10:27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

10:28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”

10:29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,

10:30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life.

10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

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