Travel writer, Kate Wheeler, states that “True adventures start with desire, an inclination to enter the unknown. In hopes of finding what?”, she asks, “More of yourself, or of the world? Yes.”, she concludes. Stories take us on an adventure – a journey back through or forward into time. They engage us in our present moments, right where we are, and transport us to another plane or place. Paul Zak, author, and director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University, writing mostly about the brain and empathy, suggests that we are hardwired to tune in to stories, even as they unfold before us, because the brain suspects there might be something of value for future use. We shine our “attentional spotlight,” as he calls it, on that which intrigues us for a split second and mostly just move on. But as tension builds, we become less likely to turn away, get caught up in the moments that begin to make meaning for us until we are ultimately transported into the midst of the tale. The characters resonate with us and we sense a relationship to them. We are one with the story. Our Social Justice Committee certainly didn’t plan it this way, but we did notice that the month where we showed a video of young immigrant children sitting before a judge at deportation hearings, dwarfed by their surroundings, frightened – we noticed that the amount of money we collected for the organization which supports those children at the border, was the highest community outreach collection of any month this year! We were transported into their stories, imagined how that must have been for them and wanted to help as we would want to be assisted were it one of us. We tell ourselves stories all the time; tell our stories as we seek to identify ourselves in the company of others. I am a mother, minister, spouse, gardener, bike rider. Frank is a musician, teacher, performer, father. You get the idea! These roles all have associated stories. I create my reality as I tell the story of each of these facets of my being. Psychiatrist and author, Gerald G. May, suggests that these many stories, these self-representations, are not who we are truly are. We develop them as we move in and out of relationships and circumstances; in response to that which we desire and most strongly to the adaptations that other story systems have made to the role. Our individual representational systems don’t operate in a vacuum. He posits that there is an underlying constancy that we may have been in touch with at birth, but once the stories around and about us begin, we lose that sense of connection to our deepest self. And he would likely say that we spend our lives weaving stories that will return us to that place. So, we can see the power of stories to create and recreate in our lives; in the lives of those we love and even in those we do not know; and to make or break the world we inhabit on a personal, micro level and on the larger macro stage. It is an awesome responsibility when seen in this light; this ability to speak into existence; to bring history forward in ways that captivate the mind and heart; to reframe for another purpose imbued with possibility for creation or destruction. Author, professor and former New Yorker staff writer, Lis Harris, spent ten years chronicling the stories of two families culminating in her book, “In Jerusalem: Three Generations of an Israeli Family and a Palestinian Family.” It is a story woven from the lives of real people in this
desperate region of the world. It explores history and survival in the midst of loss and dislocation. It is a story ultimately of hope instilled even as war and the threat of war were a palpable thing all around its characters. And in it one can see the demarcation between the people themselves and the power schemes under which they made their lives. If it is true that those who tell the stories rule the world then, I, too, can have hope. But it seems that those in power, whether they be elected or simply have taken it unto themselves, have perpetuated on each side of this conflict a single and pervasive story that makes despised ‘others’ of those whose human experience has followed a different path. And those in the employ of these powerful storytellers who have bought into the story – having seen in it something that they can grab hold of; that fulfills some desire of theirs – perpetuate the violent outcomes that we see today. Meanwhile, on the ground, we hear the stories of people whose desire runs counter to the single stories hovering over them. A story is nothing if it is not heard – listened to. We can choose which stories to turn our attention to; which stories to hold up; to empower. David Loy, professor, writer, and Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher says that, “We challenge a social arrangement by questioning the story that validates it. When people stop believing the stories that justify the social order, it begins to change. When French people no longer accepted the divine right of their king, the French Revolution ensued. “Change the stories individuals and nations tell themselves and live by,” writes the Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri, “and you change the individuals and nations.” This asks us to take a deep dive into the stories beneath the stories. Certainly, we have been doing some of this more recently as we explore the stories of racism and colonialism that run under the surface that history would teach us in our country. It asks us to listen to the very real and lived stories passed down through generations. In so doing we see the invalidity of the story we have been told which purpose is to oppress, to hold down, to maintain a status quo of supremacy and power over. A new reality comes into being as memories are shared; brought to light. In the Christian tradition today is called Pentecost Sunday. It celebrates a story of spiritual empowerment among the people who had been closest to Jesus when he was living. I find in it the power of memory emboldened by story. Sometimes I think the memories we hold of a person or an event become more vivid and real and powerful than the person we associate with the original occurrence. With each retelling it grows. Author Tim O’Brien says that, “. . . sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future.” We have our heroes, too, our forever stories, and the memory of the work they started gives us the strength to carry it on. We join with their story, connect it to the present and move it into the future. The teaching these early followers had received and the love with which it had been delivered lived on in the memories of these folks and so they tell a story that sounds outlandish to our rational minds. Their desire, though, for the world that was preached – the message that they could grab hold of and see themselves in – fuels the imagination and the creativity necessary to tell it into being. We have our stories, too, here at UUMH! The story of our founding, our big move 25 years ago, our penchant for justice work, our deep and abiding care for one another. We say that we are
largely humanist in our beliefs, a story that has itself evolved over time through its three manifestos and beyond, and so I wonder where on that continuum each of our individual humanist stories, if we abide by one, may fall. Perhaps we will spend some time with that come September! We tell some stories that seem to focus a bit on what we see as problems, too. There is the story that we are old and for the life of me I can’t see that as being problematic because age brings so much of value with it. And there is the story that we are small as a congregation. This one is fictional! A small congregation has less than 50 members and there are plenty of those who tell a story of thriving. We are more than twice that size and so very alive. There is a story that declares us less than solvent which can fuel a scarcity mindset. I have heard it said recently in places of leadership among us that we are likely to finish this year in the black! We tell these stories with what I call, “an Eeyore voice.”
There is a danger in advancing what are sometimes called problem-saturated stories, for all the reasons we have looked at this morning. They can take root, gather steam, and run us down if we let them take hold. We can “doom scroll” as they say, reading only the scary negative stories on our devices, which I have learned will then only feed us those kinds of stories based on algorithms, or we watch such things exclusively on the news. Or we can do what I have come to refer to as “joy scrolling” – looking for stories that lift me up and give me hope, in order to balance the other stories so evident among us. And I asked you all to share with me what brings you joy and do you know what happened? I received only one response! Apparently, there is no joy, or very little of it, in Mudville, as the saying goes. So, I invite you to think about that – what stories are you telling yourself about your joy, about your ability to express it, about the time it takes to do so.
This is an invitation into exploring our stories as persons and as a people. It is an invitation into digging beneath surface stories for those that resonate with us in new and different ways; an invitation into imaginative and creative storytelling with purpose and possibility on our tongues. May it be so. Blessed be and Amen.