You Are Telling Your Story Wrong

Being able to tell others your story is of who you are and where you come from is a standard human exercise. We tell our stories when we are dating someone or even applying for a job. The more I listen to people the more it is clear to me that people are amazing, but are really not very good at telling their stories. 

Stringing a collection of events together in a chronological order is not telling your story, it is giving a personal resume. Resumes are nice and all, but they are not your story. 

Recently I sat with three other clergy friends and we each shared our stories. As I listened to each of them share, it is clear to me that these guys are preachers - they can tell their story as a story and not a resume. Here is what I mean.

Your story is more than a collection of snapshots...

Your story is more than a collection of snapshots...

When you tell your story, you need to remember that you will be leaving many parts of your life out. It it not possible to share your many years of experiences and how they shaped you in anytime less than the number of years it took you to live them. Since every story you share about yourself is a bit reductionist, you need to pick a strand of your experience. For instance, you may pick the strand that you are a person who has always sought others approval or perhaps you are a person who never feels comfortable in your skin. 

Once you have that strand, share individual episodes from your life that give that strengthen that strand. Tell the time you dated someone just because your friends like them. Or how you generally take a couple of deep breathes before going into a room just to remind yourself that you belong.

As the strand is made stronger, then you are able to share a time or two when you acted differently than you have been sharing. Tell the time you told your friends to shove it or when you stood in front of the crowd and sang karaoke. These "counter examples" layer the complexity of who you are to the listener so they know you are not one dimensional.  

These little approaches to sharing your story not only are more disciplined but they are also more engaging to listen to thus creating changes to ask further questions. As questions are asked your story is now a conversation which you can invite the others to share their story. 

The next time you are in a conversation and someone asks "who are you?" I invite you not to share a resume. Share your story. You are more than just a collection of events. You are a beautiful beloved child of God with more complexity and layers that you are overlooking by just sharing events.

People of the altar in a ladder world

The art and iconography around the dream is remarkable and captivating. In case you are not up to date on all things in the book of Genesis, Jacob has a dream of angels going up and down on a ladder that connects the heavens and earth. This scene, sometimes discussed as “Jacob’s ladder” is one of those stories where we one detail catches our eye and we focus in on it. For instance, there is the question that if angels were climbing this ladder, then why wouldn’t they just use their wings and fly?

There is a Midrash story that uses the ladder to talk about what it means to be a “good Jew”. A student asks a teacher what it takes to be a good Jew and the teacher says to look at Jacob’s ladder. The teacher says the ladder has 613 rungs, one rung for each of the commandments in the Torah. Some would say that a good Jew is the one who is standing on rung #613 and a bad Jew is standing on rung #1. This is incorrect, says the teacher. It is not the location but the direction one is climbing that indicates if you are a good Jew or not.

Perhaps we are fascinated with the ladder because we live in a ladder world. We are focused on succeeding and climbing the ladder of success that we spend our time figuring out how to not get stepped on while we climb.

Notice, however, that in the dream once Jacob sees God, there is no longer any attention given to the ladder. In fact, while Jacob is looking at the ladder, God is standing right next to him. While Jacob is trying to unlock the secrets of the ladder, God is standing right next to him! Let those with ears hear…

When Jacob wakes up, notice what he does – he builds and altar and pours oil on it. The altar is the symbol that calls attention to the reality that God is here all along and we had not known. In this moment, Jacob gave up on the ladder and became an altar person.

When we are in ministry with the world, we might be wise to take stock in ways that we are ladder people: constantly moving, trying to save everyone we can, and figuring out how to move up or down the ladder. Rather than the ministry of the ladder, we might be called to be of the ministry of the altar: pointing out where God is, giving witness to what God is already doing and get in on what God is doing. 

Dog whistling in the UMC - Scriptural Holiness

In case you don't know what Dog-whistle politics are, here is the Wikipedia entry description:

Dog-whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.

The entry goes on to say:

The term can be distinguished from "code words" used in some specialist professions, in that dog-whistling is specific to the political realm. The messaging referred to as the dog-whistle has an understandable meaning for a general audience, rather than being incomprehensible.

It is that last sentence that makes dog-whistling so darn difficult to hear. The speaker is using words and phrases you agree with, but you may not be aware of the addition meaning(s) the speaker is communicating. So one is swept up in the speaker's language while potentially getting wrapped up in something you may disagree with. 

Let me give an example here in the UMC. 

Phrases such as "scriptural holiness" or "authority of scripture" or "I believe in the Bible" have become a dog-whistle in our denomination and you may no even know it. You and I read these phrases and say, well yes I agree with all of those statements. I also believe in those statements, however in many circles these statements are implying more than what is stated. Specifically, these statements are implying a "sola scriptura" theology. Again, I turn to Wikipedia to help clarify sola scriptura:

Christian theological doctrine which holds that the Christian Scriptures are the supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice. Sola scriptura does not deny that other authorities govern Christian life and devotion, but sees them all as subordinate to and corrected by the written word of God.

This may sound spot on for your theology and that is fine, however the United Methodist Church is not a sola scriptura tradition but a "prima scriptura" tradition. Take it away Wikipedia:

Christian doctrine that canonized scripture is "first" or "above all" other sources of divine revelation. Implicitly, this view acknowledges that, besides canonical scripture, there are other guides for what a believer should believe and how he should live, such as the created order, traditions, charismatic gifts,mystical insight, angelic visitations, conscience, common sense, the views of experts, the spirit of the times or something else. Prima scriptura suggests that ways of knowing or understanding God and his will that do not originate from canonized scripture are perhaps helpful in interpreting that scripture, but testable by the canon and correctable by it, if they seem to contradict the scriptures.

Finally, Wikipedia helps make the distinction:

Prima scriptura is sometimes contrasted to sola scriptura, which literally translates "by the scripture alone". Prima scriptura — is that the Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith and practice, but that the Scriptures' meaning can be mediated through many kinds of secondary authority, such as the ordinary teaching offices of the Church, antiquity, the councils of the Christian Church, reason, and experience.
However, sola scriptura rejects any original infallible authority other than the Bible. In this view, all secondary authority is derived from the authority of the Scriptures and is therefore subject to reform when compared to the teaching of the Bible.

Sola scriptura says, "scripture alone", prima scripture says, "scripture first." Sola scriptura is a zero-sum view of the world. That is to say, sola scriptura says that in order for the Bible to have the ultimate authority, all others much be diminished. Therefore, sola scriptura has less room for tradition, experience and reason than prima scriptura has. 

Today, the phrase scriptural holiness is a bit of a dog whistle in the UMC by signaling to the listener sola scriptura theology. 

Scriptural holiness is something that is more than likely something that most Christians affirm, however, it is worth asking the next question, "do you mean scripture first or only?"


Diagnosed with “Foot in Mouth” Syndrom

One of the things about being a pastor is trying to strike up conversations with people who have varying degrees of expectations of what a pastor is/does. Some people desire that the pastor know a lot about their lives while others have the pastor on a need to know basis. I am still learning to be comfortable with who I am and as such I tend to over-function and want to try to meet others expectations of me rather than focus on what I am called to do/be.

This over-functioning in order to try to meet the expectations of others leads to the diagnoses of “foot in mouth” disease. Perhaps you have this diagnosis as well? Let me share a few of my more memorable afflictions:

  • I asked a seminar leader for specific advice before the conference began. When the conference began the first rule that was shared was not to bother the leader with specific advice. The leader looked right at me when the rule was shared.
  • I asked if someone got some sun over the weekend, only to be told that the redness is a skin condition.
  •  I stood on the General Conference floor (the governing body of the entire UMC) and asked a three minute question in order to clarify where we were in the proceedings in the hopes of moving the body forward only to be told after the explanation that all I had to do was say, “I call the question.”
  • I said the wrong last name at a wedding.
  • I gave looked Joe in the eyes for a year as I said, “The body of Christ broken for you Joe.” Only to be told when he moved that his name is not Joe.
  • I welcomed a family to worship and asked their son if he liked superman. The parents shared with me that their nine year old was their daughter.
  • I asked a member of AA if they ever wanted to get a drink with me to talk about their life I would open to that.

Perhaps you have your own situations. I share these in order to remind us you that we all mess up in social situations. I have foot in mouth. Sometimes I mess up so bad people leave the church or I just embarrass myself or make it awkward. I wait patiently for a cure for Foot in Mouth, but until then I trust in the Grace of God and God’s people when I step in it.