Friday, May 11, 2012

Whose story is this anyway?

When you begin a story with "Once upon a time" and end it with "and they lived happily ever after," you are telling us a fairy tale.  When you begin a novel with "It was a dark and stormy night" and you end it with a big reveal, you are probably writing a murder mystery or psychological thriller.  When you start your oration with unfamiliar words describing an unfamiliar time and place, you are either launching into a science fiction/fantasy trilogy or a theology paper.

That is not to say that mixed genres cannot be very entertaining when done right, but it takes a great deal of skill to blend them properly.  Why? Because each narrative relies upon completely different aspects of story to convey meaning.  If the narrator of a fairy tale cared at all about critical awareness, for example, we would discover that Cinderella probably wasn't so much beautiful and kind but codependent, dissociated, manipulative, passive aggressive, and preoccupied with physical beauty while attempting to earn her sense of personal value and gain love through martyrdom, achievement, and impression management.  She also either displayed significant signs of malnutrition or she suffered from delusions, schizophrenia, or some sort of drug problem - after all, she heard talking animals and saw a fairy godmother turn a pumpkin into a coach.

The Christian story is a strange one because we don't know how to tell it.  Often we borrow from or use other genres to help us capture specific images or to explore particular facets of the story.  When we want to talk about the mystery of the unseen, perhaps we'll use poetry or the reality-challenging literary tools of science fiction and fantasy.  If we are trying to articulate a relationship with God, fairy tale rhetoric may offer decent symbolism and meaning.  In fact, many argue that universal components of myth and fairy tale find their origin in fundamental truths about God and our relationship to and with him.  It is possible that the Christian story, then, does not borrow from these narratives, but that these narratives borrow from Christianity.  Chances are that both are inescapably true.  Certainly the scope of the Christian story allows for and indicates both; after all, God is creator and redeemer.  He is other but he also claims to enter in and reclaim.

Of course, the Christian story is not confined to source nor borrower in its relationship to all other stories.  It also integrates and discerns all other stories.  That is the nature of story itself; it is designed to sift through the infinite amount of sensory data available for the purpose of meaning-making.  Any narrative is attempting to tell us what to pay attention to (if anything) and what to dismiss (if anything).

I met and talked with a new Christian recently, a single man who was very sexually active but who was getting this weird message from God that he should explore celibacy.  This message did NOT make sense to him.  He had given much of his time and attention to sex, to pursuing it, to performing its expression well.  Sex gave him something significant - pleasure, hope, purpose, competence, comfort, excitement, joy, validation.  As I listened it was easy to see why his story was so compelling and why he would consider a Christian sexual ethic to be prudish, irrelevant, and irrational.  Yet he obviously was disturbed by this call God seemed to be whispering to his heart.

"Why should I listen to what Christianity has to say about sex?" he asked, not in so many words.  "I take care of myself and others. No one is hurt.  Why change? It makes no sense to me. How am I going to explain it to others?"

And, if his story were about sex, it would make no sense at all.  In fact, his story had been about sex - sex and rationality and reasonableness - and that is why God made no sense to him.  God is not sex. God is not human rationality.  And God, well, he does not have to be terribly reasonable, just as love and sacrifice and forgiveness are not necessarily reasonable.  In fact, this young man confessed that if it had not been for an experience of God that he could not explain, he would not be a Christian.  But he did have an experience of God, and it changed what his story was about.

If there had been only his narrative and meaning-making around sex, I would have tried to answer his question. If God had not been giving me a different story for my own life, I would have felt just as puzzled by his conundrum - or I would have tried to talk him into a particular cultural paradigm in the hopes of controlling his behavior.  That totally sounds like something I would do.  But something was wrong with the conversation.  Something whispered to me that his very question was born of the wrong narrative.  What he needed was not an answer, but a different question, a different story.  He would not find what he was looking for in the story that sex had given him to make meaning of himself and his life.  And he would not find what he was looking for from me.

So I asked God, and what God seemed to say was that this young man wasn't really asking about sex; the whole conversation was not about sex at all.  It was about God.  God had initiated the conversation when he called this man and God had asked the question when he whispered to his heart about celibacy.  This was a story about God.  And so, with the question fresh on his lips and lying on the table between us, I did not try to reason, debate, or persuade. I offered him a different story.

I told him about a lover who longs for him, who is whispering to him, inviting him to make love.

"Do you delight in me?" the lover asks.  "Do you want to know what brings me delight?"

The lover is alluring but shy, desiring to initiate but also to be pursued.

"Do you want me?" the lover asks.

The man smiled.

The desire you have to please and to be validated by a lover, to find affirmation, identity, purpose, connection, and joy - that is by design. Because God is that lover.  The question isn't, "Do I have sex or don't I?"  The question is, "Do I want God?"  Do you want to delight in God and to know what brings God delight?  If so, do not do what I say or what sex says.  Pursue God.  Ask him.  Seek him and keep seeking him.  Never let up.  Seek him in scripture.  Seek him in church.  Seek him in others.  Seek him in the quiet places, but seek him with all your heart.  Seek him the way you sought sex before, the way you sought validation before, the way you sought women before.  Whenever you experience the desire for sex, experience it as a desire for God, and go to him and ask him how you can love and be fulfilled by him.

For the first time in the two-plus hours that we had been talking, the man was speechless.

This young man had had an experience of God, one that stopped him in his tracks much the same way that encountering a strikingly beautiful woman might.  She is captivating, mysterious, alluring, complex.  That is what makes her so appealing.  But he didn't know how to make sense of his encounter with God because he was still trying to make his story about, well, women and sex. Women and sex were only ever meant to tell us something about God in the first place.

I suppose it was a recent blog about an amendment in North Carolina or someplace that made me think of this.  Debates are raging about rights and marriage, the church, the government and the nature of right and wrong. Christians are trying to narrate the story.  Some have been accused of a culture war.  But others seem to have accepted a very sneaky story about sex and identity and love.  I can't help but remember the young man I met in DC and the conversation we had.  As long as we were telling the story of sex, we were not even asking the right questions.  It wasn't until we were open to another story, God's story, that we began to catch glimpses of what we were looking for.

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