Tell Me Your Story

“The purpose of movies is to tell stories that afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Some people just want to go to the movies to relax and feel good, so they’ll resist anything that seems too heavy. But some movies are made in order to communicate truths that you may not want to hear.” My ears immediately perked up when Bobette Buster basically told the one hundred clergy gathered for the Michigan Area School for Ministry that making movies and preaching have the same purpose!

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“Tell me your story.” It’s often the first question I ask when sitting down to meet with someone I don’t know well. What I really mean when I ask that question is, “Where has your life’s journey taken you? What troubles or fears have you overcome? When are you fully alive? What are your hopes and dreams? How has God called you to make a difference in the world?” Listening to the stories of others not only helps me capture their essence but connects their story to my story and God’s story.

I had the privilege last week of learning from Bobette Buster, who teaches storytelling at the most elite film schools around the world. Author of the book, Do Story: How to Tell Your Story So the World Listens, Buster reminded us that telling stories well is an essential skill for ministry, especially preaching.

Buster, who grew up as a Methodist in Kentucky and whose great-grandfather was a circuit rider from the Holiness tradition, was raised on stories. Empowered by tales of courage and resilience from her grandparents, aunts and uncles and parents, Buster is convinced that human beings are hard-wired for story. Storytelling plays a vital role in our personal well-being, not to mention the fact that the Bible is one big story book. After all, life began with oral tradition. God spoke, and creation came into being.

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Every good story takes a person on a journey and has several elements in common, according to Buster.

  • Time, place and setting are clear. Action verbs help you can see it in your mind’s eye. A younger son asks his father for his share of the property and travels to a distant country.
  • The story is filled with “gleaming detail,” small, ordinary things that stand out. He squandered his property in dissolute living.
  • There is juxtaposition, a unity of opposites. The prodigal Jewish son of the rich father ends up feeding pigs.
  • The story reverses itself. The father runs to meet the younger son when he decides to return home and prepares the fatted calf. Meanwhile, the elder son, who always does everything right, is left resentful and angry.
  • There is personal transformation and redemption: the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The father kisses his younger son, who is redeemed. But he also has compassion on the older son and says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

Buster referred to a quote by Norman Lear, one of the most important writers and producers in the history of television, “This is the most emotionally cluttered era in history.” It is so difficult to sort out what is happening in our world today because the stories are immediate and fast-paced.

Islamic militants destroy the two thousand year old temple of Baalshamin and film themselves laying out the explosives and detonating them. An unstable man murders a morning anchor and cameraman on live TV in Virginia. Donald Trump boots a well-known Hispanic journalist from his press conference for asking a question. The bodies of seventy-one migrants are found in an abandoned refrigerated truck along the side of a major highway in Austria. Racism, bullying, poverty, hundreds of millions of people simply struggling to stay alive one more day.

Story after story, at our fingertips, much of it unfiltered. How do we make sense of the world? Where do we fit in? How is God working in and through us and the church to redeem our world and its people? What is the story behind the story?

Bobette Buster would say that well-made movies help answer these questions by emphasizing the importance of character development. What stories will people tell about us when we are gone? These stories will not revolve around our resume, wealth or accomplishments. Rather, they will focus on our character and how we made a positive difference in the lives of others and our world.

In real life as well as in movies, character development usually includes a wilderness experience. And wilderness experiences force us to face our fears. It is during times of stress, failure and grief that we have the opportunity to create a new vision for our life. The whole point of storytelling/preaching, Buster said, is to project ourselves into our future. “If Mom and Dad could get through the Depression, then maybe I can make it through this unemployment.” “If Grandma could survive the death of three of her children and move forward in hope, then when I am afraid or things fall apart in my own life, maybe I can live courageously as well.”

In the same way, the church molds character by telling the stories of the Bible as well as inviting others to tell their stories. These are stories of very faithful but human, fallible people whom God nevertheless uses to transform others and the world. Through stories, pastors, Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders and caring adults can all play a vital role in shaping and even changing the character of our children and youth in an emotionally cluttered world.

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Bobette Buster shared one of the most poignant cinematic stories ever about discovering the courage to face one’s fears. The King’s Speech (2010) begins with Prince Albert, the Duke of York (played by Colin Firth) and second son of King George V, stammering badly in a speech at the close of the 1925 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium (time, place and setting). Embarrassed at the inability of Prince Albert to speak, the crowd is shaken (gleaming detail). The prince, known to his family as “Bertie,” is treated by several doctors for his stuttering, to no avail. Finally, his wife persuades him to see an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush).

As the story unfolds, we see how every aspect of Bertie’s life is dominated by his fear of stuttering. As Logue works on Bertie’s breath and muscle relaxation, he also probes the psychological roots of Bertie’s affliction; among them, his parents not wanting to see him and not feeding him adequately (juxtaposition).

When his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicates the throne to marry a commoner, Bertie becomes King George VI. Logue helps Bertie reckon with his past, turn his fear into courage and gain confidence as king (reversal). In September 1939, shortly after Britain’s declaration of war with Germany, Logue prepares George VI for his radio address to the country and coaches him through the entire speech (transformation).

How are you telling your own story as well as THE story of God’s love through the grace of Jesus Christ? Do you care enough about others to encourage them to tell their story? How might the church be transformed if we reached out to the world by listening to the emotionally cluttered and courageous stories of others without judgment? If we knew and honored the journeys of the troubled and the heart-broken, how might it transform our relationships and open the door to deeper faith?

Why do people go to church, anyway? Perhaps it’s the same reason people go to movies. Because when both movies and churches tell stories of struggle, character and transformation by afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, it sparks our own wonder and imagination, and we can more clearly visualize our own journey as God’s transformed people.

The only difference? The price of admission … and the popcorn.

Blessings,
Laurie

You Are Released

I wake up early Sunday morning a week ago, ready to preach, having arrived at Lakeside (Ohio) Chautauqua the afternoon before. I go out for a run and take a shower. Then chaos ensues. My brush isn’t in my purse, where it always is. I’ll make do, I say to myself. I put on my suit, only to discover that the skirt is missing! I’d had the skirt dry-cleaned and didn’t put it back with the blouse and jacket. Okay, I’ll wear the other suit. Then I realize there is no hair dryer in the cottage where I am staying. Oh well, nothing I can do. Finally, I put on my hose, only to find a run in a very prominent place. Fortunately, I always travel with an extra pair.

I don’t know if other clergy are like me, but Sunday morning is the absolute worst time of the week for things to go wrong! All of my problems could have easily been fixed had I been at home, but when you are on the road, you have to improvise. As I eat breakfast, deciding whether to laugh or cry, I notice an envelope in my briefcase labeled “Wabi-sabi Project.” It’s been there for a year, but I’d forgotten about it.

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I open the envelope and there are four small sea shells glued to the top of a match box, each shell slightly imperfect. I laugh out loud, realizing that the friends who unknowingly put the envelope in my briefcase for such a time as this were saying to me gently but firmly, “Laurie, you are God’s wabi-sabi project. Forget about perfection. You are released. You’ll never look perfect anyway. Just get on with worship.” So I did.

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese word that describes the art of discovering beauty in what is imperfect and incomplete. It was fourteen years ago that I found the word I was seeking to describe the reality of my life: wabi sabi. Broken, cracked, scarred, messy. In the fall of 2001 I was on a three month renewal leave. Actually, it was more like a glorified time-out. After twenty years of ministry, I finally realized that perfection and ministry don’t mix well.

As I have confessed in my book Recess; Rediscovering Play and Purpose, it’s in my DNA to try to do everything well. Half-hearted is not in my vocabulary. I never wake up in the morning deciding to be mediocre that day. No one forced me to be a perfectionist. I just am. When skills don’t come naturally, I work harder. I am probably the only person ever to go through eight years of college and graduate school without ever going to a party! I was either in the library or the practice room.

As an adult entering the professional ministry as well as parenthood, I gave up perfection in some areas in order to pursue it in others. With three children close in age, I decided that my house was always going to look “lived in” and didn’t bother cleaning up every day. Gourmet meals went out the door, replaced by macaroni and cheese and spaghetti. I gave up soccer mom gold status and let the other mothers sew homemade Halloween costumes and lead the PTA.

Meanwhile, I was attempting to raise reasonably normal children with the crazy hours of a local church pastor. The result: failure around every corner. Susanna’s name slipped my mind, and she wasn’t happy. I missed Joe’s surgery, and he wasn’t pleased. I forgot to show up to say a prayer at a banquet and was never invited back. I couldn’t make it to a child’s Honor Society induction. I had what I thought was a grace-filled, come-to-Jesus- meeting with a staff member, and he was mad. I rushed to an evening meeting in mismatched shoes.

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Over the years, wabi-sabi has taught me to recognize the counterintuitive and imperfect beauty of my life and of all creation: the half-burned candle, mismatched rocks in a cairn, the knotty pine chair, Jacob’s limp, the wounded healer, a starfish with one arm broken off, the wooden table with one short leg, the pottery jar with a crack, a dying tree, the apostle Paul’s brashness, a struggling local church that nevertheless reaches the poor in a way no other church in the community can. Authentic faith embodies wabi-sabi.

Can perfection actually be harmful, then? Can our insistence on doing everything “just right” get in the way of enjoying our life with God? I realize there is a deeper issue here than mere perfectionism. I’ve been thinking lately about a quote from the author E. B. White, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, it would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

E.B. White gets to the heart of our dilemma as Christ followers. When Jesus becomes a part of our everyday life, we exude passion: a call to save the world in whatever way God asks us, whether as clergy or lay persons. But because there is so much to be saved, we are never done. We often put off savoring the world and doing the things that give us joy so that we can devote all our energy to saving the world. Which can then lead to over-functioning, compassion fatigue, lack of balance and burnout.

One afternoon last week Gary and I took a ferry to Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie and rented bikes. We rode around the entire island to see the world-famous glacial contours and enjoy the day. During our ride, a strong thunderstorm forced us to find refuge in a small gift shop/snack bar. Sitting on old chairs on a covered porch for a half hour, we savored the downpour. I was released. We continued riding along the waters of Lake Erie, spotting wildlife and reveling in the beauty of the land. It was an afternoon to forget about saving the world and become one with God’s beautiful creation.

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On the ferry back to the mainland, with the wind of the Spirit dancing around me, all I could pray was, “Thank you, Jesus; thank you, Jesus; thank you, Jesus.” I was simply being. Gary looked at me and said, “This morning you saved the world by preaching. This afternoon you savored the world by playing.” I was released.

I still like Matthew’s words in 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” After all, the word “perfect” is derived from a Latin word meaning “complete,” “entire,” or “full grown.” I prefer to define “perfect” as “completely aligned with God’s grace and mercy,” which implies a healthy synergy between saving and savoring the world.

I yearn for a faith that releases others to both save and savor. I believe in tending our own souls as well as others’ souls. I want to be part of a church that does not make people feel guilty for stepping away from ministries for a time in order to regain balance. I want to honor the paradox of personal and social holiness, faith and works. And I want to celebrate my most spectacular failures as wabi-sabi: a prerequisite to deep, mature spiritual growth.

Make no mistake. I am probably never going to awake in the morning deciding to be mediocre. But I’d rather be authentic and whole rather than perfect. On Labor Day Sunday last year, I led the congregation in the wrong prayer after communion because I hadn’t turned the page in my bulletin. Seeing their confusion, I laughed and thanked the congregation for their grace. After the service, many people came up to me and said, “It was fun to see that you are human and not always perfect.” And I was released. Wabi-sabi.

You, too, are released to align with God’s grace and mercy, to save and to savor…even if it makes it hard to plan the day.

Blessings,
Laurie

Fix Society. Please.

My heart sank when I heard the news. It was the twelfth transgender murder in our country this year. Amber Monroe, a twenty-year-old African-American transgender woman and student at Wayne State University was shot and killed in Detroit early Saturday morning, August 8.

Amber would frequent the Ruth Ellis Center, a social service agency that provides short and long-term residential and safe space and support services for homeless, runway and at-risk LGBTQ youth in metro Detroit. When she was killed, Amber was standing on the corner of Woodward and Six Mile, not far from the Ruth Ellis Center, where volunteers from our church provide dinner each month. Some of them knew Amber.

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In 2013 the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that 72 percent of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were trans women and that 67 percent were trans women of color. In 2014, they reported that trans women were also 5.8 times more likely to experience police violence and 6.1 times more likely to experience physical violence from the police.

Ahya Simone, 22, a trans woman from Detroit, knew Monroe but was not necessarily shocked by her death because, in her words, “Trans women of color are disproportionately affected by violence… These are the things that devastate us, it’s horrible. There are so many of us trans people organizing and mobilizing for justice for our fallen sister. It’s hard. Our community is small and marginalized. These are things that devastate us. Our lives are treated as disposable.”

As the years go by, I have become increasingly attuned to the mystery of human life. Conception, pregnancy and birth are a mystery. The first roll-over, first smile, first steps and first words are a mystery. Sexuality is a mystery. Marriage is a mystery. Friendship is a mystery. Death is a mystery. The only eternal truth that is perfectly clear to me is that God is love, God created humans to love and Jesus taught us to love one another.

Unfortunately, we humans tend to fear and even hate what we don’t understand. We label those who are not like us as “other,” never realizing how devastating our judgments are for those who are considered outcasts. Jesus never talked specifically about the LGBTQ segment of God’s good creation, yet he did insist that his followers treat every person as a precious, unique, one-of-a-kind child of God, especially the least, the last and the lost. What Jesus did say is that God does not discriminate against, hate or marginalize anyone.

Rejection, violence and the treatment of others as intrinsically worthless and even disposable do not bring us closer to the kingdom of God. The only way to bring in the kingdom is by practicing God’s unconditional love, seeking to understand those who are different and modeling acceptance and grace to all. Jesus invites us to honor the mysterious God-breath that is in each person by empowering them to reach their full potential.

I was compelled to examine my own theology and let go of assumptions and stereotypes when two transgender individuals became part of a downtown congregation I served. Having to think through many issues also provided an opportunity to reflect upon the amazing variety of people that God creates and loves. We stumbled at times on the journey, but the congregation welcomed our transgendered friends with open arms, and we learned how to be a church for all.

Having the mind of Christ and being faithful to Jesus’ ethic of radical love means showing radical love in return. To say we are welcoming does not mean that we can pick and choose who is really welcome. It means stopping ourselves before we say, “We’re glad you’re here, but you may not really fit in with our congregation.” The greatest indictment of the Christian church is our rejection of others based on our own fears rather than heeding what Jesus teaches us about God’s creatures: we are fearfully and wonderfully made, each one.

When Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner was pictured on the cover of the June 2 Vanity Fair as Caitlyn, a transgender woman, people around the world took notice. Jenner was subsequently awarded the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the July 15 ESPYs. In her acceptance speech Caitlyn said, “All across this country, right now, all across the world, at this very moment, there are young people coming to terms with being transgender. They’re learning that they’re different, and they are trying to figure out how to handle that, on top of every other problem that a teenager has.”

“They’re getting bullied, they’re getting beaten up, they’re getting murdered and they’re committing suicide. The numbers that you just heard before are staggering, but they are the reality of what it is like to be trans today.”

Jenner referred to Leelah Alcorn, a seventeen-year-old transgender teenager who committed suicide on Sunday, December 28 by walking in front of a tractor-trailer on Interstate 71 in Ohio at 2:30 a.m. Leelah, who arranged for a farewell letter to be published on social media following her death, wrote, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was. They’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights… My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgendered people who commit suicide this year. I want to look at that number and say ‘That’s (messed) up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”

Jenner also mentioned fifteen-year-old transgender teen Sam Taub. Taub, a junior derby skater from West Bloomfield, Michigan, committed suicide on April 9, four months after self-identifying as a boy and a few days before Jenner’s “coming out” interview with Diane Sawyer. Sam’s father, Geoffrey Taub, said in a Detroit Free Press article, “Parents can do a lot for their children if their children are able to talk to them, and that has been the hardest part.”

Praising Jenner for mentioning Sam in her speech, Taub said that he has been contacted out of the blue by Sam’s friends in middle school and on Facebook to let him know how Sam inspired them. “I think Sam was carrying a torch for others, and now I think Caitlyn is carrying that same torch,” Taub added.

Caitlyn Jenner used her speech as a platform to encourage the world to do one thing: accept people for who they are. Accept differences. “They deserve your respect,” she said. “And from that respect comes a more compassionate community, a more empathetic society, and a better world for all of us.”

The mystery of human life still baffles me, yet one thing remains clear, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) God perfectly loved Amber Monroe, Leelah Alcorn and Sam Taub as much as God loves every human being on this earth.

I thank God for all those who unconditionally loved Amber, Leelah and Sam and encouraged them to become their true selves. I thank God for Detroit Police Chief James Craig and other police and local officials, who met with more than one hundred residents last week to build trust between the LGBTQ community and the police. I also thank God for the Ruth Ellis Center, which is taking care of costs for Amber Monroe’s funeral.

In the midst of the struggle to understand differences, may God empower us to refuse to treat any life as disposable and vow to show compassion, support and respect. Glory be to our God, who created each one of us so that we, too, can carry the torch for others and fix society. Please.

Blessings,
Laurie