When people ask me how I came to Portland I usually end up telling the same two minute story. I talk about how one of my best friends from seminary named Gabe got this job at a church called St. Michael’s, and how when I traveled out for his ordination at that church I met one of his best friends named Nathan. I talk about how Nathan and I fell in love, how I was only scheduled to be out here for a long weekend but how I decided to push my return flight back 3 weeks so we could either run this new thing into the ground and get it over with or build up a strong foundation for the next year and half of long distance we’d have to face between Portland and New York. I talk about how we made it through those years, how I moved out here after seminary, how we got married in the dark ages when two men still had to cross state lines to get a marriage license, and how we lived happily ever after anyway. This is, for right now at least, probably the story I end up telling most often about my life. It is a story worn smooth with many tellings, it is the same every time. Because of that, it misses a lot of the details, some of which I’ve almost started to forget. Like how I stood in the Parish Hall after Gabe’s ordination watching Nathan talk to somebody else, sure that he’d never talk to me, or the phonecall I had with my girlfriend Emily before changing my flight, in which I seriously questioned the sanity of spending three weeks with someone I had only just met. Or I forget to focus on the fact that I wouldn’t have even been here in the first place if I hadn’t already wrenched my life away from North Carolina for the sake of pursuing the work I felt God was calling me too. I forget to tell the part about how much I miss my friends and family on the east coast, or about how marriage is sometimes hard. I forget, because it can be so easy for the stories we tell to take on lives of their own, to wear smooth with the telling, to lose many of the details which do not fit, or are too complicated to include.
We all have stories that we tell, stories that have grown familiar in cocktail parties or elevators or whenever someone asks us how our week has been. When I was a preschool teacher, I noticed that the parents often had a few key stories which they told about their children, stories that really seemed to define who their children were. A friend of mine was telling me this week about how she and her husband try to be conscious of the stories they tell about their own children. “Who are we setting our children up to be,” they wonder, “by focusing on certain idiosyncrasies? It’s like the Sondheim song, “Careful the things you say, children will listen…” Perhaps you grew up hearing a story about who you were that you found one day was incomplete. Maybe you found that you were more than just the smart one, the strong one, or the mischievous one who probably could not be kept from doing harm. The thing about the stories we tell is that they often shape what we notice about our lives. We notice and latch on to the details that fit, and cinch our brows at the ones that do not seem to corroborate. In some cases, we can tell a story so many times, get so used to the way it sounds and feels, and leave out so many seemingly unimportant details, that it simply ceases being something true for the sake of being tidy. Or, as Sondheim puts it at the end of his song, “careful the tale you tell, that is the spell.”
In the wilderness, a man appears who seems intent on breaking the spell of a familiar story. His name is John, he wears camel hair, he eats bugs. “Oh, I see what you’re doing there,” say the religious folk, “going for a little Elijah mystique.” But that’s not it. “Ok then, perhaps something messianic, what with all the baptizing and apocalyptic talk.” But that’s not it either. “A standard prophet, then,” they say, “as of old, proclaiming justice, harkening God’s scattered people back to the forgotten laws.” But no, that’s not it either. John elludes the familiar religious stories folks are used to telling about someone who starts acting crazy on a soapbox in the middle of the desert. John resists fitting the story he proclaims into the usual, tidy narratives, because John is proclaiming an unknown quantity. “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” One of the dangers of becoming any kind of religious person is beginning to think that we know everything this story is about, that we may be some kind of expert on God. But John proclaims one whom we do not yet know. More than that, one whom we do not know already in our midst. John draws our attention away from the story we think we know, to a God already with us, a God whose presence may be in the very details we’ve decided to leave out.
I do not meant to imply that the spell of a familiar story was a uniquely Jewish problem which Jesus came to fix, it is our problem now. In one of her TED talks, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche speaks of the danger of a single story. “Show people as one thing and one thing only over and over again and that is what they become.” We love in a culture that loves to show people as one thing and one thing only, whether they are police, protesters, black people, white people, immigrants, republicans or democrats, we only have a few tired old tales we tell about what it means to be each one. The spell of those single, familiar stories seem to be crumbling before our eyes more and more every day. With each new revelation it becomes clear the extent to which our own power and security has been built upon the suffering of others. The CIA torture report this week is one more iteration of this, as one colleague of mine observed, “How could one not expect that a country built on the genocide of it’s native people would always be lying to itself?” When the familiar tale is challenged, we have the same options which religious folk encountering John did: we can insist on evaluating the new information others try to give us by our same old familiar standards, or we can begin looking for the God whom we haven’t seen yet, the one waiting in the details which do not fit, or are too complicated to explain.
Only the whole story will make us whole. We are in a season, right now, of stories which we’ve heard a hundred times. We know that Mary and Joseph will be turned away from the Inn. We know that Angels will appear in the highest heaven and that God will be born in a humble, unsuspecting place. We know that our Aunt Trudy will make her fruitcake again, and we know that at some dinner we’ll likely choke on some detail of our life which is too painful or too complicated to share with our extended family. We know how this time of year works. But where is the one whom we do not know? Where must we look for God’s surprises? Somewhere in the details we might rather forget, the one who has been with us all this time is waiting to step forward with the whole story of our life in God, to draw the lines between the pain and the joy, and to delight in each moment of it’s telling.