Myth 2: Those Before - thrive UMC Official Blog

Myth 2: Those Before

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Over the last month and a half, we’ve been trying to reexamine the topic of religion so that we can be better connected, and more intentional about the way we live our own lives.  And last month, we spent our time identifying the common personal elements in every religion, which we articulated as ‘faith,’ ‘love,’ and ‘hope.’  And as a very quick reminder, faith helps us identify what we’re living for, and it’s what gives us our sense of purpose and meaning for life.  Love the way we’re connected to the things that matter most; and hope is the picture we envision for where our life will end up.  And those things –faith, love, and hope- are an integral part of the life of every human being.  They only difference between one individual, or culture, and the next is the way in which those common elements are given substance and lived out.

Now, one of the primary ways that these difference become apparent is through the stories of meaning that are lifted up by each community and individual.  Everybody has important stories that help them articulate what matters and how they should behave or live.  And these are the stories that were introduced last week, which are called “myths.”  And again, myths are simply stories that convey meaning and value for a community. And all myths are true: the only question we need to be asking is how are they true?  So what we’re going to focus on for the rest of September is your personal myth.  If your life has meaning –which of course it does- what’s the story to go with it?

When you reflect upon your life –what it is, what it means, and where it’s going- how do you think and talk about it?

Who are the main characters in your life?  What are the major events and settings that have contributed the most to your own development and identity?   What is the overall arch of the story –how the dots are connected?  And what greater truth do its conclusions have to offer others?  In short, what might be the impact and legacy of your story upon the world?

And take note here friends, isn’t it a little strange that all of us were taught the basic elements of a story early in our education; but very, very few of us were ever encouraged to apply those elements to our own lives?  In fact, pretty much every time I’ve sat down with someone, or a group of people, and asked them to tell me the story of their lives, somebody makes a comment about how weird my request is.  And my response: isn’t it weird that you think it’s weird to tell your own story?

I mean, we do this all the time, in a very limited, superficial sense.  If we run into a coworker on Monday, we’ll ask them about their weekend.  Or if we haven’t seen anyone all summer, we’ll ask them about the lapse of time –so we have no trouble whatsoever talking about the events of things.  We love events.  Action, action, action!  But we almost never do this for the plot-arch of our whole lives.  When it comes to the question of what the activity meant for us –whether it changed us, or helped us grow, or mortally wounded our spirits- it’s all crickets and blank stares from people.   (Yes, kind of like the way you’re looking at me right now.)  Because that’s foreign territory to us.  Our own stories, and what our lives mean to ourselves and other people are foreign to us.  We’ve become estranged from them.

And I believe that says something damning about our wider cultural mythology: that it’s not interested in hearing our personal stories.

But here at thrive, we are interested in your story.  And we’re interested in your story, because we’re interested in you.  And we hope you’ll become interested in one another.  That’s an expression of our faith here: that you can tell your own story, and present it as a gift –a holy offering- to others and to God.  So we’re going to try to offer you some tips and encouragement to tell your own story.

            Therefore, to help you share your own myth, I want to offer to all of you the best example of the richest collection of mythology I’m aware of, which is the Bible. The Bible is, very explicitly and intentionally, the revolutionary faith, hope, and love story of God and God’s people (now –we’ll talk more about what we mean by the word ‘God’ next month).  It is a collection of stories that helps us see, critique, and understand all other stories.  This is why the Jewish people, and then later the people who came to be called Christians –call it their sacred text.  Because they –like all other religious communities- recognized what should be a basic truth to all of us, which is that some stories are richer, and have more to offer, than others.  For instance, if all of us were given a choice between watching a 90 minute movie or watching 90 minutes of commercials, how many of us would choose the commercials?   Now why is that? Because somewhere in our cultural mythology is the story that movies are, by default, of a higher order on the mythological hierarchy than commercials.

So, for Christianity, the Bible is the penultimate myth.  It’s the most important story –the story that has the most meaning and value for its community.  But the much more urgent question for us –and the question we so often take for granted- is this: how do we relate to the Bible?  Okay, we get that we should love it –now what is that love supposed to look like?  What can we expect?  What does it expect from us?

Unfortunately we don’t have enough time for me to illustrate that point, but for now I simply want you all to notice that this is where most of our fights are happening in Christianity today.  They’re happening over the nature of the Bible, and our relationship with it.  For example, I think it’s important to understand that the fight that’s been happening over LGBTQ issues in the church has been happening –not over what the Bible says, but what the Bible is.  Anyone can simply open a Bible, or different translations of the Bible, to see what it says –but what people have been arguing about for decades is not what the Bible says, but over the nature of how we should relate it to our lives today.  Meaning, for some people, the Bible is an unchanging rule-book, and so we only need to follow the rules.  If you can’t follow the rules, then you’re out.  For other people, the Bible is more like a living document, like the U.S. Constitution –so we need to sit down and continually reevaluate what does and does not translate into our world today.  And those two stories about the Bible (metanarratives) don’t fit together too well, do they?

Therefore, to help us begin to approach this deep and open-ended question about the nature of the Bible (which, by the way, I’m not sure we’ll ever fully answer), I wanted to share with you an approach that’s taken by our brothers and sisters in the Jewish tradition.  And it’s a four-tiered approach to reading the Bible, which corresponds to a Hebrew acronym for the word Paradise.  I couldn’t figure out a way to translate this into English in a way that was nearly as clever; but their teaching shows us this: that there are 4 layers or levels to reading the Bible.  And they look like this: [Slide]

  1. Peshat: ‘Simple’ or literal reading (i.e. what does the text say?)
  2. Remez: ‘Allusion’ or allegorical explanation (i.e. what does the text mean –for, for instance, the ancient people?)
  3. Derash: ‘Exposition’ or homiletical commentary (i.e. what does this text mean for us, and how do we apply it?)
  4. Sod: ‘Mystery’ or esoteric teaching (i.e. what secret does this text have only for you?)

Now, what I love about this approach to the Bible is that it shows us what so many of us have been missing.  Somehow –and there are actually a few stories to go with this- lots and lots of Christians have either lost, or never had, layers 2 through 4.   Somehow the depth and the richness of our sacred story has been collapsed to one layer of ‘this is what it says, now do this and not that.’

But one of the most life-changing things that can happen when you have a relationship with the Bible, it should help you tell your own story.  Simply reading the Bible is not enough; but you have to unpack it.  You have to dig.  You have to wrestle with it –especially all the things it says that you probably don’t like.  You have to let it speak to you; and you have to let it help you speak.

You see, there is this whole rich tradition that has so much more to offer us still.  Rather than chaining us to the past, our tradition and our history can show us how to navigate newness and the unknown.  In fact, the Bible itself can be read as a communal struggle to adapt to new and completely unexpected things.  Genesis is the story of there being nothing, and then there was everything.  Exodus is the story of being a slave, and then  being set free to become their own people. Many later books were dedicated to the process of the growth and development as a nation.  And the prophets were about the loss of that national identity.  And then the new testament is new, not because the story just came out –but it’s a reminder that God has done, and is doing new things.  So we’re in an era where life and our values are changing.  Of course!  God is still doing something new –with you, and with us!  So embrace it!  Welcome it. Learn to thrive in newness.

Now, I wanted to quickly share our brief Bible reading from Exodus today, and then we’ll share a little bit about what it means for you.  Again, we’re still reading from the Exodus, which is a story about becoming free.  And it’s a story that was centered on one historical moment: that there were people who belonged to other people, and then arrived at a place of their own.  And there was a character who brought them there.  But this is how the story begins.  Today, we’re reading from Exodus, chapter one, verses one through seven.  It says this:

These are the names of the Israelites who came to Egypt with Jacob along with their households: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah,Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.The total number in Jacob’s family was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. Eventually, Joseph, his brothers, and everyone in his generation died. But the Israelites were fertile and became populous. They multiplied and grew dramatically, filling the whole land.

So the story starts with a people –one family in fact.  And these people were fertile.  They had lots and lots of babies.  So many babies that they filled the land.  Which, by the way, is a way of expressing being rich, right? But then one generation died, and the next took its place.  And that’s layer one of the text.

Layer two is that these twelve names on the list –each a member of the same family- those names each became an entire tribe of their own.  So not only was there a family, with names and babies and death, but already at the outset we’re seeing a story of exponential growth.  A few became many –and the many wouldn’t have been there without the few and their story.  Because this whole family is connected, and everyone who was there was fully dependent upon all those who came before them.

Layer three:  all of you too have ancestors!  Each and everyone of your lives, and your life’s story, is rooted in a much larger story.  It’s rooted in a family story.  And there would be no ‘your story’ without there first being their story.  So honor them.  Honor your ancestors and living elders because they gave so much of their lives just so you could be here.  Remember their names, because they are a part of you.  Tell their stories at family gatherings, pass them down to your children, so that you can sustain a legacy of people that matter to one another.  Don’t forget that you come from a fertile people –and fertile not just because they had babies, but because they taught you how to live, and they shared joy, and their talents, and they tried to take care of one another.  And their lives, like our lives, last only a little while, so let it be precious.  Let yours be the skin and bones that carries on your traditions.  Or, if your family hasn’t been so great –if their legacy has been one more of dysfunction than compassionate vitality, you could be the turning point. You might be the one your family needs to help recover what’s been lost or neglected.  Remember too your forbearers’’ mistakes so that you might make way for a better and brighter future for those yet to come.  Because even if your biological family wasn’t there for you in all the ways it should have been, then you have us –a whole other collection of imperfect people who are here to bless you.  And to be blessed by you.  We might screw you up a little too –but that’s just what people do.  We’re not finished yet.

And then, finally, layer four: the mystery.  I can’t share what the mystery of these few verses have for you, but I know what they said to me.  They said honor your grandma.  Because not only is she responsible for such an integral portion of my biology, but her and my grandfather were the ones who showed my whole family what God’s love was like.  And she showed us by talking about it when it was necessary, but by living it all the time.  She and my grandfather welcomed my dad into their family, when conventional wisdom suggested that maybe they shouldn’t have.  And from my whole life, she’s led us to church and made sure we always pray before every meal.  And I’ve seen her welcome refugees into her home.  And I’ve seen her devote her life to serving and caring for others –not just her neighborhood but her whole community- a vocation from which she has not retired.  And I’ve seen her love expressed in generosity and quiet words, and with her humble presence.  And I’ve seen it break her heart too, but she goes on loving anyway, somehow.  And her example, and her story, and the life she’s given me have showed me not just who I am, but they’ve combined to remind me of who I could be, in Christ.

Therefore, the mystery that opened up to me from reading the opening words of Exodus remind me to thank and hug my grandma.  Because she’s a powerful living reminder of the legacy I’m called to grow into.

Now, for the rest of you, I share this because I bet each and every one of you have someone, or whole groups of people, who have been good for you.  I bet every one of us here have had people pour their lives into us, and shown us a living example of what human goodness looks like.  Maybe it was a parent or grandparent, or aunt, or uncle.  Or maybe it was someone at church, or a teacher, or a coach, or an older friend.  Indeed I bet you had not only one or two, but who lists of people who have gone before, and set the stage for your arrival on this planet.  And it’s been much of their hard work that has allowed you to enjoy so much luxury and love in this life while we have it.  So today, let’s celebrate that.  I want to encourage all of you, to take a moment and think of at least five people who are worth remembering and giving thanks for.  Write that list down, and talk about those people during breakfast church today.  So that your story can grow out of theirs.

Let’s pray.   *Photo credit: Artistic work of Travis Durden, taken from travisdurden.com

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