What Kind of Story?

May 26th, 2019           Easter VI

Revelation 21:10,22-22:5

Dawn and Graham and Lynn and I have just returned from three days at Synod. There were a lot of dry canonical and financial motions, none of which I suspect will make much difference to us. There were presentations from all kinds of ministries in the diocese – that is much more inspiring! And, most inspiring of all, there was a brilliant and creative choice of a keynote speaker. Jenny Salisbury is the director of a community theatre project in Toronto, a PhD candidate in Theatre Studies, and a committed Anglican. Her theme was stories – the way in which the stories we tell make us the people we are, and shape the way we perceive our reality.

I actually met Jenny – briefly – some nine years ago, when General Synod was in Halifax, and I was a delegate from Montreal. She was one of the leaders of the Roots among the Rocks project, which gathered six young people from across the country (one of whom was my daughter Magdalena) for a community theatre project about the Anglican church. Community theatre is about listening to the stories of people in a community, and then turning those stories into theatre. So they interviewed 70 people about their experience of church, spent a few weeks choosing from their stories, weaving them together into a script, and rehearsing their parts. And then they took the show across the country, performing in a dozen or more dioceses. I may be partial, but I think it was a darn good show – moving, thought-provoking, inspiring – and it was one of the most creative projects in recent years in our church.

Jenny brought that same energy and creativity to us over the past couple of days. I have seldom been so energized and moved by anything I have heard at Synod! You’re probably going to hear more about this from me over time, as I get her ideas sorted out in my head.

At the core of what she was saying is the insight that our lives are shaped by stories. That is to say, things happen to us – good things, difficult things, sometimes terrible things – these are the givens. But the way we live with them, the sense we make of them, the way we let them shape our attitudes and actions – that all comes from the way we choose to tell our stories.

That was the aha moment for me: the realisation that there are different ways in which we tell the same story, and that we can also choose to change the way the story is told.

For example, take climate change. Now climate change, as she reminded us, is not actually a story: it is a fact. The story is what we make of it, how we talk about it. As often as not, the story we tell about climate change follows the pattern of tragedy: how human beings in the modern era heroically achieved remarkable things through the use of our technology, only to be brought down to ruin by our pride and short-sightedness. That is one way of telling our story: it sounds probable, and has a satisfying moral to it. The problem is, when we tell our story as tragedy, we give it an aura of fatal inevitability. Tragedy tells us we are simply doomed. Resistance is futile. And that makes us passive and complacent at a time when we need to be anything but.

How else could we tell this story? Well, one speaker reminded us of a time that the oldest among us can still remember, the dark days of the Second World War. We told that story as a story of an overwhelming emergency, one that did not leave us passive, but drew us together and motivated us to put everything into the war effort. We took all kinds of hardships on ourselves: active service, and rationing, and the coopting of our whole economy to the goal of winning the war. What if this were the story we told about climate change? Because that is the scale of the challenge we are facing.

(By the way, the last resolution passed by synod was in this spirit. A couple of weeks ago, the Anglican Consultative Council of the Anglican Communion declared climate change to be a catastrophe that puts us into a state of emergency – the first international religious body to do so. At Synod we made the same declaration, along with a number of practical recommendations as to how parishes might respond.)

What about our story as a church? How do we spin together the facts and experience of being a church at this point in history into a story that makes sense of it?

Well, here too, Jenny suggests, we most often turn to tragedy as the framework to talk about what we are going through. The church is in decline. We are all getting older. We are going to die, and there will be nothing left. We are irrelevant. Nobody cares about us. We are tired. We are poor, and don’t have enough money to pay our bills. And so on and so on.

Sound familiar? I suspect this is a story we all tell ourselves from time to time. And sure, a lot of the things I just said are simply facts. No one in this room is getting younger. We are all of us going to die someday. These things have always been true. And, yes, people continue to turn away from the church with indifference and incomprehension, a trend that has been going on for at least 50 years. But again, it’s the way we spin a story around these facts. When we tell the story as tragedy, it is a story without hope, a story of inevitable doom. And that leaves us feeling discouraged, passive, anxious, bitter.

How else could we tell our story? Well, we might be tempted to tell it as a hero story, as the story of some heroic saviour who will appear with the solution that is going to turn things around. Maybe the latest new church growth program out of California, or something, that will lead us to the triumph we deserve. It is the story of megachurches, a story that speaks of success in terms of greater numbers and resources. That is the way Hollywood would have us tell our story. But I am not convinced. That is not a story that rings true for me, either in terms of our situation, or in terms of the gospel story that is our final guide. Hoping for the triumphant hero to come and save us can leave us even more disappointed and bitter.

Then someone at our table group suggested: how about if we tell our story as a love story? Because that is what it is. It is a story of God’s love for us, from the beginning of time and faithful to this day. It is a story of our love for God, of the gospel story that has caught each of our hearts and brought us here.

The thing about a love story, it is the love that really matters, however the story turns out. I have been privileged to witness many great love stories over the years: marriages that last for 50 or 60 years even, where two people continue to be a rock of tenderness and support for each other. Now every marriage comes to an end. Inevitably, one partner or the other will be the first to die. That is sad, that is heart-breaking. But it is not a tragedy. It is not a story of failure and disappointment and bitterness. It is a triumph, a story that is sad, but can also awaken gratitude and hope and a deep-seated joy in the midst of heart-break. Because when we tell it as a love story, it is about the triumph of love in the midst of both joy and sorrow.

We have not been given the choice about the challenging times in which we are called to be church. But we do have a choice about how we tell our story. We can tell it as tragedy, hopeless and disappointing; or we can tell it as a love story. We can talk and think and live being a church that is centred on a great love at its heart, a love that remains, in times of prosperity or of adversity, for better or worse, at the centre of who we are here. The love of God, that holds us faithfully in the everlasting arms even when we die, as all of us will someday – each individual, each institution. When our story is a love story, that hour will find us with grateful and joyous hearts.

The thing is, we know how our story really ends. We have the script. In fact, we just heard it as our second reading this morning, from the last two chapters of the Book of Revelation. You know, it strikes me as interesting how little attention we pay to this passage, given that it is the end of the whole Biblical story. I suppose we just avoid Revelation because it is generally weird. And because it has a too-good-to-be-true, fairy-tale kind of feel about it.

Of course it is poetic language, not meant to be taken as a factual prediction. But this poetry is part of our story, it is the frame, the ending, that reminds us what kind of a story it is. With its language of bride and bridegroom, it reminds us that our story is a love story. It is the story of a universe that is bending towards the ultimate consummation, when heaven and earth are united, when God is united with his beloved people, when we find our true destiny.

From Revelation 21:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
          ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
          He will dwell with them;
          they will be his peoples,
          and God himself will be with them;
          he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
          Death will be no more;
          mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
          for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’

That, my friends, is our story – and we’re sticking to it!