Creatures of Story
On Changing Stories and Evolving Faith
Writing cultivates hunger for story. The more I write, the more I look for the stories in the everyday and the mundane, the closer I observe and pay attention to the words and stories of others. We are creatures of story. Through story we remember, engage, create, behold.
Lately I can’t get enough of travel memoirs and the profound ways circumnavigating the globe, venturing beyond the places we call home, can render unfathomable experiences and transform souls. I’m increasingly convinced our experiences (big and small) from the people we bump into at local coffee shops to the communities we meet halfway across the world affect and influence our faith. How can it not? If we are body, mind, soul, then everything touches the sacred. Story shapes us – and not just the stories of the Bible.
In her book Dakota: a Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris reflects on her years of encounters and conversations with monks and nuns and the stories they tell of what led them to vows of chastity and lifelong servitude. Many lived through hell, experienced addiction, struggled sexually, endured abuse... The sacred vows are not an “after story” but a continuation of a complex life. For many, Benedictine service provides meaning and opportunity for hospitality and renewal after years of difficulty, suffering, and struggle.
Our stories matter: how we found faith and even…how we may have lost it. Six years ago, I sat in a pastor’s office and gave a personal testimony as proof that I was holy enough to join his church. It was the kind of church that voted on new members, that had us waiting on pins and needles for news of either acceptance or rejection. I wanted to belong so badly that I practiced my testimony to ensure it would impress, though it certainly wasn’t the most glorious or most interesting. Evangelicals say “boring” testimonies are good things (boring means God saved us before we could get caught up in drug addiction or orgies). And yet, they’re intrigued by the more complicated and messy tales, especially the ones of addicts who suddenly lose any desire for a drink, a rebel who stops swearing cold turkey…they want the tidy endings, the clear messages of hellboundness turned completely around. And they rejoice when they hear things like “I haven’t taken a sip since” as if any sort of stumble indicates a lesser faith…
In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes about the realities of ups and downs, the tension of sobriety and addiction. He talks about the holy experiences of sitting together in AA meetings with people who, once again, made a mess of things because addiction is cruel and impartial. The addict knows he will always be an addict, that years of sobriety could be interrupted by one bad night. I think his experience with addiction made him far more empathetic as a priest and Christian. He knew he was beloved, but he also knew his testimony was all over the place. He might never be able to say he was “delivered” from addiction; he could only say by God’s grace he was held in love even with every subsequent slip up, every return to a meeting where he had to admit “it’s only been one day since my last drink.”
The telling of a testimony cannot be a story of a wicked heart turned saint. It can’t be. Because we are ever-changing people, believers when it’s easy, and disbelievers more often than most of us admit. We are hopeful and bent towards change, encouraged by progress, by so many days of sober living. And we are also humans prone to addictions and major falls backwards. If we are to gather together in safe spaces and swap stories, there has to be an understanding that my current, unwavering faith may one day waver, or that my distrust and disbelief could, over time, transform into the smallest mustard seed of hope.
If the disciple Peter had told his testimony, it would have changed drastically over three years: “I was a religious fisherman, then I met a man who challenged me to become a fisher of men and follow him so I did. I believed completely. But then he said some things that disrupted my religious traditions so I challenged him. I became more sympathetic to those on the margins but sometimes prejudice overtook me. I helped feed five thousand but also crashed through the waves in overwhelming disbelief. I broke bread with Jesus but didn’t believe when he said he was going to die. Then we accompanied him to a garden and I chopped off the ear of a Roman soldier, later denied Christ three times, hid, and doubted the women who claimed he’d risen…long story but my life of faith has never been a forward trajectory. Belief has certainly never been easy.”
If I were to share my story today, it would be completely different from the one I told my former pastor, the story I hoped would secure our entry into a closed community open only to those who could explain the gospel in 60 seconds and offer a convincing testimony. Today I would tell you that faith is anything but easy, that Christians can be some of the most vile people, that I am increasingly dismayed by the American evangelical church, that I’ve had richer, more spiritually-engaging conversations and encounters in situations some would deem secular. I would tell you that I’ve wrestled like Jacob, denied like Peter, doubted like Thomas. But I no longer believe these struggles disqualify me from the Christian faith. I’m reminded time and again of a God who literally meets us in the wilderness, comes alongside us with physical responses to spiritual acedia (like the snack and nap offered to Gideon).
I’ve felt the pleasure of God in the most mundane things, whispers of divine love on cool mountain trails, on silent cliffs overlooking a dawn-kissed Caribbean, on the black shores of an Icelandic beach...and when I write, though I have few answers and so many questions about once-familiar things, I hold assurance that the process of questioning, writing, engaging, and listening is good and holy work.
I return again and again to the personhood of Jesus because he compels me to keep seeking a divine Love that will not let go. Some say religion is a crutch; that Christianity is a tool of oppression. And it’s true – for some, religion is a crutch, an excuse to disengage from the hardships and injustices of the world and focus only on “a gospel of sin management” (Dallas Willard) and a heavenly afterlife. For centuries, powerful people have twisted Jesus’s words and used a perverted gospel message to oppress and abuse. If we are to be honest seekers of the divine, true lovers of Jesus, we must reconcile with the ways Christianity has caused harm. We can’t say “that’s not my Jesus” or “not all Christians.” The people causing harm in the name of Christ believe their way is the correct way, that their vitriolic, John-Wayne-esque Jesus is the same Christ of 2,000 years ago.
We have to tell new stories while making space for the ones that are hard to hear. A testimony for some might look like a particular faith expression or tradition turned on its head; belief, deconstruction, reconstruction…It’s not a promise of ceasing from questioning or doubting or falling back into a particular addiction. Rather, an acknowledgement of belief, even the smallest amount, a return to the Love God extends to a people who continually reject the notion of worthiness. We tell stories to remember our belovedness, to reflect on the experiences that shaped us, to return again and again to the hope of welcoming arms, a banquet table.
Loving & Savoring
Book: Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri – I found this book because Beth Moore shared it on Twitter as one of the most incredible books she’d ever read. I have to agree. I’ve been listening to it as an audio book, which author Daniel Nayeri narrates and his storytelling is rich, moving, heartbreaking, and hilarious. This is a story that touches on heritage, religion, living as a refugee, classroom bullies, Oklahoma, and poop. It’s so many things and it is brilliant in both its humor and gut-wrenching moments. Though it’s too soon to say for sure, I think this will be my favorite book of the year.
E-book: Traveling the World for Almost Free by Amy Colon – I’ve shared my friend’s substack and upcoming e-book, but it’s finally out and available, full of tools and tricks to traveling the world on a budget!
Local Recommendation: I’m currently sitting and working at Maria Empanada in South Denver. I regret it’s taken me this long to begin coming to this spot. Maria’s boasts a variety of fresh-made vegetarian, meat, and dessert empanadas that are incredible! Plus, I really love the inviting and aromatic atmosphere. If you’re in Denver, this is a place you don’t want to miss!