Monday, February 18, 2013

Identity narratives and roadmaps

Anglican author and priest Herbert O'Driscoll tells a story about a burning house. A woman runs out of the house, fleeing the fire. But before anyone can stop her, she runs back into the house. After a couple of minutes, she again dashes out of the house, choking and coughing, but clutching a book, her diary. She believed that without her story, carefully recorded in her diary, she would lose her identity (I heard this story from the Rt. Rev. Richard Grein on Oct. 22, 2003 at an Episcopal Chaplains Conference, Mount Calvary Retreat Center, Santa Barbara, CA.).

That woman knew her story – or at least where to find it. Each of us has a story, sometimes called an identity narrative, which describes who we are as a person. This identity narrative is actually a composite of stories about important, defining incidents in our lives. These stories may be ones that we embrace as our own, actual events that we have personally experienced, or a combination of both.

Deuteronomy 26:5-8 illustrates embracing another person's story as one's own. In the Jewish liturgical cycle, Jews recite verses from this reading during Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. The text summarizes the Jewish identity narrative. Abraham, an Aramaean nomad, moves his small family to Egypt during a famine. They remain there, becoming numerous but enslaved. God hears their laments, delivers them bondage, and leads them into a new land after forty years wandering in the wilderness, which the brush structures built at Sukkot recall.

Repeating that narrative, personalizing and claiming it as one's own story, year after year in multiple contexts and versions not only at Sukkot, but also at Passover and other times, helps to form a person into a Jew. One figuratively becomes a descendant of that wandering Aramaean, symbolically participates in Egyptian bondage, the deliverance chronicled in the Passover narrative, and the occupation of the Promised Land. The narrative creates, and successfully preserves in each new generation, the Jewish identity.

Romans 10:8-13 contains a Christian identity narrative that encapsulates the identity story of those who walk the Jesus path in a single phrase, Jesus is Lord. However, understanding that narrative requires knowing both Paul's and Jesus' stories. Paul prided himself on his knowledge of Judaism and his religious zeal. Yet in spite of his best efforts to obey God in all things, he kept failing. Then, traveling the road to Damascus, he encountered the light of God's love in a powerful, life altering way. He experienced God's accepting him – just as he was. He knew he did not have to, indeed, could not, prove anything to God. God healed Paul's guilt, guilt he felt for his own spiritual inadequacies and failures as well as guilt for having persecuted those renegade Jews called Christians.

Our liturgy, combining word and Eucharist in scripture, hymns, creed, prayers, and actions, retells the story of Jesus. When done well, our liturgy engages us in a manner analogous to the Jew reciting the passage from Deuteronomy at Sukkot. The more we tell the story, the more it shapes and permeates our identity. In good liturgy, we hear Jesus teach; we witness him healing; and we travel the Damascus road, where we too encounter the light of God's love that heals our spiritual inadequacies, failures, and brokenness.

Luke's story of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness is effectively a prism that refracts the light of God's love onto our path, showing three of its basic components (4:1-13). The first temptation – turn stones into bread – describes the temptation to believe that because God loves us we will succeed and prosper. In the story, Jesus has not eaten for forty days and nights. Incidentally, this is one reason we annually observe Lent as a forty-day period of fasting and self-examination. Anyone who has given up something they really crave, who has eagerly longed for some upcoming event, or who loves the smell of freshly baked bread, can appreciate the power of this temptation, even mindful that in the Bible forty connotes a long period and not an actual time. As Jesus knew, and Holy Week annually reminds us, God's love is no assurance of health, wealth, or long life. Instead, genuine success in life comes through our loving relationships with God, others, and all creation.

The second temptation – jump, God will catch you – is about status, i.e., since God loves you so much, God will keep you from harm. But Jesus knew that God loves everyone, the greatest and the least among us, whether a Jesus or Judas, equally. Imagine the size of the crowds, even without help from social media, that Jesus could have drawn had he jumped off the Jerusalem temple's highest pinnacle and landed on his feet, unscathed! Jesus' response contrasts starkly with what Napoleon once wrote to Josephine after a battle, "I lost no one of any importance." Everyone is important to God; all of us have not 15 seconds, 15 minutes, or even 15 years of fame but an eternity of fame as God's children.

The third temptation – worship me and the world is yours – is about security. Jesus' most frightening opposition came from Roman authorities. They saw him as a revolutionary who told people to choose between having him or Caesar as their king. In a society riven by debates about gun ownership and insatiable demands for more spending on defense and homeland security, plagued with random killings, mass murderers, and international nuclear proliferation, we do well to remember that the only real security lies in God's love.

What is your story? Are you willing to risk your life to preserve your story? Is Jesus your Lord? Do you know his story, walk his path, and allow his light to illumine your path to success, status, and security?

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