Imagine you are being photographed and interviewed for Humans of New York. What story do you tell?
“We are the stories we tell about ourselves,” proclaims Rabbi Rami in his Guide to Forgiveness (p 65). If this is true (and our love of stories, as evidenced by the popularity of Humans of New York along with Netflix and novels, show it is), then it’s important that we know what stories we’re telling.
If the stories you share with others and the stories that live in you were turned into a movie, a series, a novel, or a HONY Facebook post, I’m curious what they would reveal as to who you are (at least in your own mind or who you want people to believe you are!). It’s worth consideration, so let’s ask some questions:
If you were to share 3 life-defining stories, what stories would you tell? When you start thinking through your stories, maybe you discover there are more you want to tell, so try 7-12 stories. Maybe you write down the titles or a brief synopsis to begin with, then take a look at them. Notice how your collection of stories define who you are and how you approach and move through life.
How many of your stories include tragedy and/or suffering? How many of those stories also include redemption and/or resurrection? Notice any elements of surprise or suspense.
Who are you in the stories you tell? What role do you play? Are you cast as the victim? savior? hero? rebel? fool? Is your soul happy with that role? We may not realize that we are playing a role someone else has written for us. Or, we might discover we are typecast in a particularly unfavorable role.
Thinking of stories of harm, hurt, anger, and resentment that continue to burden you…
Are there any stories that need to be edited or re-storied? Which ones are crying out for a rewrite?
Even as strong feelings exist around them…
Is it time to assign new meaning or step out of a role that no longer fits? As Rabbi Rami reminds us--feelings come and go, stories can last a lifetime. (p. 79). We do not have to wait until our feelings are all resolved before we move forward with our life. Sometimes feelings resolve as we move forward with more wisdom and creativity than before.
Your stories matter. Are you beginning to see how that is true?
The story that lives in you shapes who you believe yourself to be (as well as who you believe God and others to be). It also shapes the way you tell stories about yourself to others.
Says Gertrud Mueller Nelson, in Here All Dwell Free, “Know your story, or your story will live you.” If we don't know the story we are living, we can easily get caught up in or be entrapped by our feelings of resentment, bitterness, and anger. They can define us by becoming the soil out of which our story grows.
Misunderstanding, hurt, harm, suffering...they are all a part of life. Everyone’s story includes them. But not everyone allows them to be transformed.
Maybe it’s time to revisit your stories or to write down the names of people in those stories who have caused you harm. Then consider what God has done and is doing with and through those stories. You might be surprised.
A beautiful re-storying is found in the book of Genesis in the story of Joseph and his brothers (a powerful retelling is found in Stephen Mitchell’s book, Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness). After being sold into slavery by his own brothers due to jealousy, years later a famine forces them to seek food in Egypt, where Joseph, who was once a slave, has risen to power and is now in charge of the food supply. He recognizes them, though they don’t recognize him so he plans a creative way for the revelation to occur. His God’s-eye view of his own story allows the present story to unfold with compassion and creativity rather than revenge. Or maybe that is the best kind of revenge!
After the surprising reveal, Joseph invites his brothers into God’s larger story of redemption when he tells them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). He does not pretend the harm did not happen, he just transforms the harm.
Harm happens and usually people don’t mean to harm you (you’re just in the way of their happiness) but sometimes people do. Either way, you are not condemned to your story of suffering, a new story awaits. Will you join in the ongoing work of the Author of Life in transforming your story?
“The Tao which can be told is not the eternal Tao,” states the opening line of the Tao te Ching. Try replacing Tao (or Way) with God or Jesus.
No matter who we are, the image of the Way, of God, even of Jesus, that we hold is not the true or eternal one. Our image will never offer the whole picture or truth. A book that is an enjoyable reminder of this is Naming the Unnameable: 89 Wonderful and Useful Names for God …Including the Unnameable God.
So even though God is beyond all images, why do I still often ask people in Spiritual Direction, “When you pray or think about God, how do you image God?”
You can learn a lot from the image of God you hold. Images are powerful.
As a Spiritual Director, they can let me know why a person may have such a hard time being in Silence, praying, or trusting the Sacred Presence. They can also help identify particular spiritual wounds. Some images we hold inspire fear and shame rather than love and trust.
An example from my work:
Most often people describe a masculine image of God (usually a Zeus-like one standing judgmentally outside of them). This is not surprising as religions are chiefly shaped in and by patriarchal culture and language.
Yet one may not (or may not feel the freedom to) stop to think how a strictly masculine image of God can be wounding. Women, especially, have suffered (the extent is a topic for another time). But all of Creation (as well as Creator) suffers when parts of them (and in this case, the feminine) is ignored, suppressed, or even despised.
For some, the suffering leads to feelings of resistance to all things around God, Jesus, Church, and Scripture. Not knowing the soul is crying out for a more holistic, truer image of Divinity, many times the person feels guilty or rejects all things religion-related (but somehow some still find their way to sitting with a Spiritual Director!).
As we listen together in the Silence, the still, small Voice begins to whisper of the Divine Feminine and often images from Scripture itself arise—Lady Wisdom (also known as “Chokmah” in Hebrew or “Sophia” in Greek), Mother Hen gathering her chicks, Mother God holding or nursing her beloved child, Mother Mary who knows suffering...
Notice the “Mother” theme? It is both telling as to what the person’s soul is crying out for as well as a needed corrective for an overabundance of Father imagery.
Feel uncomfortable with that thought? You are not alone, fear can often accompany the idea of turning toward these images (it did for me!). After all, a patriarchal culture only validates patriarchal images! Isn’t it amazing these feminine images are to be found at all in the Hebrew and Christian Bible? And by the way, Saint Paul declares Jesus to be the embodiment of Sophia (see I Corinthians 2:7 as one example).
When those in Spiritual Direction allow themselves to embrace (or be embraced by) the Divine Feminine, guess what? They can pray again.
And they begin to trust in the God who is with them, and in the case of women, a God who resembles and better understands them. They discover a true Soul Friend.
An example from home:
My teen daughter is a contemplative at heart. Silence has been her way of prayer since she was tiny. And for just as long, she has expressed a disdain for overly masculine images of God. We have talked about Mother God since preschool when we tweaked her school's "God our Father" singing prayer to also include "God our Mother." But not seeing or hearing the same language in communal worship has left her with little desire for institutional religion. I cannot blame her.
While it has not been a cause for worry, I have wondered if Silence is more of an escape from religion or a hiding place from the world rather than a surrendering to the Sacred. Regardless, I have trusted God would meet her in it, even if I had no idea of the particulars. But the other day she surprised me by saying she talks to Lady Wisdom and asks for Her help all the time!
I guess she figured one mother is enough for now! She has found relating to God as Lady Wisdom to naturally be more soul friendly. And finding a Friend of her Soul, she cannot help but pray.
Years ago, I read George MacDonald’s 1879 novel, The Baronet's Song (also titled, Wee Sir Gibbie).
It’s about a young, mute, Scottish boy raised, then orphaned, by an abusive, alcoholic father. Gibbie finally ends up being adopted by an elderly couple and the old woman, Janet, becomes a mentor to the pure-in-heart boy. Seeing the face of Jesus in him, she teaches him everything she has ever loved about Jesus (which was very different than the hellfire and brimstone being preached in the churches!).
Writes MacDonald, "So teaching him only that which she loved, not that which she had been taught, Janet read to Gibbie of Jesus and talked to him of Jesus, until at length his whole soul was filled with the Man, of His doings, of His words, of His thoughts, of His life. Almost before he knew, he was trying to fashion his life after the Master. Janet had no inclination to trouble her own head, or Gibbie's heart, with what men call the plan of salvation. It was enough to her to find that he followed her Master."
Prayers of salvation and baptism (so he would not go to hell) were of no concern to Janet. She simply shared with him the life of the One who taught her how to walk in the way that leads to Life.
I finished that novel and began reading more novels of George MacDonald's, The Curate's Awakening, The Musician's Quest, The Lady's Confession, The Poet's Homecoming, The Fisherman's Lady, The Marquis' Secret and more...amazed at the way his characters experienced and trusted in (& their lives reflected) an unrelentingly kind and tender God. Each time I would say to myself, "I want to trust God and speak of Jesus in that way." And slowly like Janet had done for Gibbie, George MacDonald did for me.
Sometimes what we have been taught or picked up on in regard to salvation does not lead to the freedom or life of which Jesus spoke. It does not cause the heart to long to know and trust that God more.
Says Meister Eckhart in Daniel Ladinsky's Love Poems from God,
"How long will grown men and women in this world
When you think of God, does the image that comes to your mind make you sad or fearful?
Or is it an image your heart dearly loves?
If you prayed the prayer of salvation or were baptized, what was that like for you?
What motivated you to do so? A welcome into and communal acknowledgement of following Jesus on the path of Life? Or wanting to be saved from hell and eternal punishment?
If both rituals initiated you into living a life of Love, I am so very glad for you (my baptism was very meaningful to me). But if either were fear-motivated, perhaps it is time to recognize any grasp it still has on you, especially if fear-based theology continues hissing in your ear.
Stories around salvation and baptism reverberate throughout one's life, for better or for worse. And fear-based theology can offer nothing (no matter how convincing!) but fear-based lenses to view one's self and the world.
Maybe it's time for a trip to the library to spend time with George MacDonald's characters.
Maybe it's time to come to Spiritual Direction and experience the God of Wee Sir Gibbie.
Maybe it's time to pick up your crayon and draw a different image in your coloring book.
Honestly, I don’t.
As a Spiritual Director, I’m looking and listening for spiritual “fruit” in your life rather than whether or not you’ve checked off or formalized any religious rituals or beliefs.
And while both can be meaningful, they are not requirements for relating to (& being loved by) the Sacred Presence. In other words, your spiritual life happens with or without them.
While they can be meaningful, they can also be areas of spiritual wounding.
Let me give examples from my own life because saying a “prayer of salvation” does not appeal to me for three reasons:
Maybe you have had a wounding experience around this as well. If so, I am sorry.
There is nothing “saving” or “sacred” in manipulating people into believing what you want them to believe (even if well-meaning, it is still manipulation!).
Plus, it’s simply not creative. Jesus did not have one way of being with people and inviting them into freedom and wholeness. Methods and "laws" often by-pass the sacredness of relationship by making people projects that need saving.
Years ago, a woman once bemoaned in spiritual direction how she had tried to “save” her brother but feared he was not “saved” before he died. I asked her tell me more about their relationship. She told me about his disdain for God and the ways she had still loved him through the ups and downs of his life. It was clear that she had loved him well and he knew it. Her kindness in caring for him, especially while he was dying, was evident.
I looked at her and said, “Wow, I am amazed by your care for your brother! You do know that the way you loved him means more to God (& your brother) than any of the beliefs you shared or any prayer he could’ve prayed. Plus he had good reason not to pray it and he did not need to, you were the face of God for him and he loved you.”
I want to explore this a bit more next week. But if you desire Spiritual Direction, know that you do not have anything to prove and I certainly do not want to manipulate or burden you. Instead, I will listen to the ways you have been spiritually wounded. And together, we will look for the fruit already present in your life, already waiting to be tasted and tended to. It has nothing to do with whether or not you've said the right prayer or done the right ritual.
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.