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Hear O Israel

July 8, 2010 7 comments

Shema (image by Yaniv Ben-Arie used by Creative Commons)

Lately I’ve been thinking aloud about listening. I’ve been talking about the different forms of listening like empathic listening, active listening, ethnographic listening. Along the way, I’ve made a bunch of mental notes, and I’m having a hard time keeping up with them.

I remembered a story about listening while I took a shower this morning. It seems I always remember things while in the shower. Sometimes I wonder if I might find a lost set of keys by simply taking a shower. Anyway, back to the remembered story.

Shortly after Kelly and I were married, she noticed a peculiar habit of mine (one among many). I pointed at food during our meals. We would be talking about the day’s events when I would point at the bread. She handed me the bread, and then I’d point to the butter.

At my folks house, she noticed everyone pointed during the meal. After about a month, she asks me, “What’s with all this pointing during the meal times?” No one had ever asked me, so I never even thought about it before.

“Well, my dad likes to tell stories, and he doesn’t like to be interrupted. So in my family, we just started pointing at food instead of asking someone to pass it.”

I grew up listening to my dad’s stories. And in many ways, I’m a better storylistener than storyteller. People tell me their stories. And I like to listen.

But listening is not always easy.

I don’t like the telephone because it’s too easy for me to get distracted from listening. Without the person in front of me, my mind wanders so easily. A friend is talking on the phone. He is trying to remember a mutual acquaintance. “Old so and so. What was his name?”

As he continues talking, all I can hear is, “old so and so.” Only in my mind’s eye, I see the words, “sew and sew.” I see a big pair of scissors opening and closing. Then I see them up on an old Cas Walker building on Broadway. The neon scissors are opening and closing as they cut prices. I hear Cas say, “Shop at the sign of the shears.”

Sign of the shears. That sounds funny. What if the big scissors were atop the Sears building on Central? “Shop at the sign of the Sears.”

I’m slipping. I see a flashing neon light over a steakhouse, “At the Sign of the Steers.” I tumbling down into Alice’s Wonderland of Rhyme when suddenly me friends’ voice breaks the fall, “So what do you think?”

Think? Oh great. What was he talking about? I scramble. “Well, what do you think?” he starts up again. Whew, that was close. I must concentrate. Pay attention.

Like I said, listening can be hard.

Back in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were a bit hard of hearing as well. They kept misunderstanding what he said. When he told the story of Israel and God’s purposes for His people, He told it in a way that sounded different.

“What is he up to?,” some of them queried suspiciously. They didn’t trust him. Then again, they didn’t trust his Father either. Isaiah told Israel as much. He warned that they would become blind, deaf and lame like the idols they trusted.

One day a Pharisee asks Jesus what is the greatest of the commands. Jesus replies, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” He responds by reciting the “Shema.”

Israel recited, prayed and even posted this command in the Mezuzah they placed in their doorways. Shema comes from the Hebrew word for prayer. First and foremost, the Israelite must hear.

As Jesus speaks, he is not simply repeating Moses’ age old command. He is the Word Made Flesh. And he is the Son of Man who truly obeys the command. He hears and obeys.

As Jesus speaks, it is with the same power and authority of God as He spoke at creation, “Let there be Light.” And there was light. Jesus says, “Hear O Israel.” Even as he speaks the power of God is present to heal deaf ears and mute tongues. When man can no longer hear the Word of God, he loses his power to speak as well. His words fall like powerless chatter.

As we read the story, Jesus’ word, “Hear O Israel” steps out from the page and breaks into our heart. He is speaking directly to us. We are the deaf ones. He is restoring our hearing, and He is engrafting us into Israel. When He says, “Hear O Israel,” we are included.

His Living Word breaks into upon our deaf ears, giving us ears to hear. For only in “Hearing” the Word can we believe. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom 10:17). Now oddly enough, this makes me think of a science fiction movie I recently watched called, Moon.

In the story, one man lives on a moon station with no other humans. He has been working there for almost three years and will soon finish his commitment and get to return to earth. But there is a problem. Everything his believes about his world is wrong. He is bind and deaf to what is real, and it will take another voice outside himself to reveal this.

We are like this man working alone on the moon. We have limited knowledge of our world. At any given moment, our perceptions are limited and distorted by our own feelings and responses to the events around us. We misunderstand ourselves and the people around us. We hold grudges; we struggle against bitterness; we remember too many sorrows and not enough joys. We are incapable loving perfectly.

Jesus calls out, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Mark 12:29-31).

He breaks into our self-contained world with His Word of Truth, His Word of Life. He says, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” And acknowledging our complete inability to obey the Father, He answers the command. Jesus, the Son of Man, responds to the call of God and He Loves the Father with all His heart, soul, mind and strength. He loves his neighbor as himself (see John 15:12).

So we rest in Him. We live in Him. We love in Him. By His Spirit, He heals our deaf ears, He anoints our blind eyes, He leads us step by step into a world of truth beyond our distorted perceptions. Through His healing touch, I learn to listen to people around me. I learn to hear them as He hears them. I learn to love as He loves.

He keeps speaking through His Word. He keeps transforming me in His Spirit. He keeps leading me into the love and glory and life of His life in the Father, Son and Spirit.

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26)

What’s Your Story?

April 22, 2010 4 comments

Storytelling circle. Photo by Darien Library (via Creative Commons)

I turned to my wife and said, “So how deeply is God planning to humiliate me?”

You ever say something you wish you could take back?

Frustration gave rise to words that fell out of my mouth like dead birds thumping onto a stone floor. The stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others are distorted by our blind eyes and deaf ears. We speak wrongly because we see wrongly and we hear wrongly.

The other night, I took a stack of 3 x 5 cards and wrote various movie genres on each card like “Comedy,” “Sci-Fi,” “Mystery” and “Horror.” Then I handed each person in the group card and asked them to tell their story in the genre listed on the card. Within moments, one person told a story of their life as mystery, another as war, another as sci-fi. The genre gave us a lens through which we filtered our memories and perspectives.

As we listen and tell stories, we may realize that our own story is a mystery, a comedy, a tragedy, an adventure and even a horror story. And yet, there are times, we trap ourselves in one story. It may be the story of a relentless pursuit for money like Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street.” It may be the tale of unredeemable regret like Briony Tallis in “Atonement.”

We may get stuck in tragedies like the never-ending martyr, abandoned lover, or forsaken friend. We may die in those stories. Judas betrayed Jesus and then hung himself before the story changed. Peter betrayed Jesus, but later was surprised with the story of renewed love and fellowship as Jesus walked with him along the beach.

Our dreams, hopes and fantasies may collide with our lives. In the fog of the struggle, we may grow blind to all memories and experiences of joy and blessing and love, as we are swallowed by pain and hurt and humiliation. I know this is so because I’ve often been trapped in the wrong stories. Stories I told. Stories I rehearsed. Stories I believed. Stories that were plainly and simply false.

We’re good at believing false stories. Either believing our own press that we’re better than we are or believing the lies of hopelessness and despair.

Two men stumble toward Emmaus. As they walk, they rehearse the loss of every hope, every dream, every thing. Just a few days ago they were watching the beginning of a new day for all of Israel. The long awaited king had finally come. While he still walked and talked in secret, the unveiling of his kingdom and restoration of Israel was imminent. Just a week ago it seemed Jesus was about to ascend his throne and bring the enemies of Israel under his footstool.

But the sun set and would never rise again. They stumbled in dark rehearsing the strange turn of events as Jesus fell into the hands of the wicked and seemed powerless to resist. The one who commanded demons, who raised the dead, who commanded the skies and seas, could not stop the deadly blows of his enemies. Within hours of capture, he was brutally tortured, mocked and hung till dead.

Walking in the sickening grief of all consuming loss, they told a story of monumental tragedy and loss. They told their story to one another. They told their story to the stranger who walked beside them.

As they turned aside for the evening, the stranger turned the story upon them. He stepped into their story. He rehearsed their story, Israel’s story, the story of a world forsaken and cursed by God. As he retold the story, he unveiled the light of God’s faithful Word, stretching from Eden to the end of time. Where they saw despair, he revealed hope. Where they saw loss, he revealed gain. Where they saw death, he revealed life.

Jesus stepped into their story and changed everything. He freed them from the binding and blinding power of stories that crippled and isolated His people from the unveiling of His love. Jesus enters into the story of His people again and again, with light for darkness, laughter for sorrow, life for death.

Sometimes we find ourselves trapped in stories–even good ones. But we are still so very blind and so very deaf. What do we do?

We bring our successes and sorrows to Jesus, the One who was dead but now is Alive forevermore. We come, we cry, we listen, we wait.

Only He can gives us eyes to see and ears to hear. He can teach us how to sing in the dark, laugh in the face of death, play in the light of His unending love. Come Spirit of Christ and teach us. We are blind and we are weak, and we long to hear you, we long to see you.

As we listen to the rhythms of His story, we learn to sing again. Our words take flight and rise into the skies joining in a song of praise to the wonders of His grace.

My Story, Other Stories and the Story

July 21, 2008 Leave a comment

There are three levels of stories for each person. The personal story, the universe of stories and over-arching story connecting all stories.

Personal Story
I have a story that is really a set of many stories with me in the center. So normally if I think I my story, I am thinking of myself as the central character in the story. While I play a role in the stories of many other people, if I tell my story, I am telling it from the center. No matter how much I try to diminish my presence or perspective, I can’t tell a story outside of my imagination. If I read or act or direct or simply print another story, I will still influence with my perspective through the way I tell the story. My vocal inflection, my characterization, my decisions of motion or even my choice of typestyle influences the telling of the story.

So the first level of stories are stories told through the lens of my memory and vision with me as the center.

Universe of Stories
The second level of stories are stories from the world around me. My stories are within these stories. These are stories told by family and friends as well as strangers. Thus these stories are told from a center outside myself. Even if someone tells a story with me as the main character, it is still being told from their perspective, their world, their memories and vision. This level includes all stories from all history, so it includes great literature, plays as well as tales told and retold by friends and strangers. It is a brimming, exploding, unwieldy world of stories that start and move in endless directions.

Think of this second level like a universe with planets upon planets and galaxies upon galaxies. The vast web of stories extends beyond the ability of my imagination to even begin to grasp. This universe of stories contains every known and every possible story created by humankind. Every emotion, every plot, every character, every symbol, every detail from every human story is within this grand drama.

The Grand Story (Meta-Narrative)
The third level of stories is the grand story that connects all stories. This story provides the primary lens for all stories. Through this lens we define right and wrong/good and evil. Through this lens we can find points of connection with other stories. Through this story we define words and symbols and characters.

Many people never consciously identify this grand story. In other words, this story influences them in a passive manner. They may not be able to articulate a clear narrative even while appealing to that narrative to make sense of the world. For many, it operates in the background.

Some people suggests that there is no grand story, there is no meta-narrative. While they might deny the existence of an over-arching but they would have difficulty suggesting that we don’t unconsciously appeal to some kind of meta-narrative in the way we process our stories. Some people appeal to the grand story by appealing to our common humanity. This appeal is rooted in a grand story that suggests humans are connected by virtue of our humaness (aka – the brotherhood of man).

Stories upon Stories upon Story

July 16, 2008 Leave a comment

Last weekend Rick Doughty, Brad Getz and I did a retreat on story. This was the second retreat in my series of retreats on wisdom. We started with Meditation upon the 10 Commandments, followed by The Wisdom of Stories (last weekend), then we’ll do “Acting Wisely: the Translation of Wisdom into our Active Life,” and finally we’ll conclude with “Creating the Future with Words of Wisdom.” These four retreats follow Eugen Rosenstock Huessy’s “Cross of Reality,” moving from inward (meditation) to backward (storytelling) to outward (active life) to forward (wise words).

A few thoughts recapping The Wisdom of Stories may follow in future blog posts. I’ll focus what I write primarily on the notes that I used in preparation although I may reference Rick and Brad’s thoughts as they come to mind.

Each person’s life is filled with stories. When asked to tell my life story, the answer might actually be, “Which one?” For I am moving and have moved in multiple stories. Whatever I tell you will be an extraction from the wide web of stories. My wide-ranging stories are within a context of a storied world. And then there are many contexts for stories. For instance, if I consider setting as the basis for context, my stories are set within the context of family and friends’ stories that are set withing the context of a communities’ stories set within the context of a culture’s stories set within the context of the stories of the Western World set within the context of The Story (of stories) – The Word of God.

Stories pivot on multiple points some of which include setting, characters, plots, words and lines, action, symbols and images, tone/mood and pace. Each of these pivots reveals a particular dynamic to a story. Some writers capture the essence of certain pivots better than others. Charles Dickens certainly masters characters and settings. While his plots are often intricate and delightful, I think his real genius lay in creating characters within settings.

Edgar Allen Poe and Nathanial Hawthorne captured mood. For me, the feeling captured in Young Goodman Brown is one of the richest aspects of Hawthorne’s dark tale. I personally think this is particular genius of M. Night Shymalan. His stories create a mood that overarches the story. Some critique the story or the characters but the mood is his real gift.

Pace is the tempo of the story. Some recent films have played with pace both increasing pace or decreasing pace to almost a motionless state (Into the Great Silence). Andrei Tarkovsky films slow down pace, which make his films almost unbearable for some people. At the retreat someone mentioned “Napoleon Dynamite” as a great example of a movie tinkering with pace. Good observation! This may be why the movie seems for some to have no point or no action. It’s capturing an almost suspended state of time. “Run Lola Run” is a great example of a film that goes the oppositie direction and is breathless in it’s movement forward. The Bourne films (like many action films) speeds pace to a blinding fury.

Pace makes me think of Louie Armstrong. I once heard Wynton Marsalis say that Louie’s great genius was in capturing the changing pace of the American life. America was moving from an industrial nation to a communications nations where life is non stop 24/7. Louie’s phrasing both with his coronet and his voice plays with pace.

Sometimes setting is the driving force. Gormenghast tells the tale of a castle with endless halls and twists and turns. The story cannot be extracted from the setting. E.M. Forrestor’s Howard’s End plays with setting (both social and physical) in his fateful tale of a house in the country where two women are connected by being joined to the place.

Think of the power of words and line in stories. They can leave the story and take on a life of their own. “I’ll Be Baaack!” or “Go Ahead, Make My Day” became cultural catch phrases used in everyday life to create new meanings. These trendy phrase might be contrasted with the genius of Shakespeare who gave the world words and lines that continue to drive the way we think and talk. Just consider a few of the following (with thanks to Absolute Shakespeare):

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”
“This above all: to thine own self be true”.
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”.
“Brevity is the soul of wit”.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question.”
“All the world ‘s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts”
“Can one desire too much of a good thing?”
“For ever and a day.”
“Now is the winter of our discontent”
“A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”
“Off with his head!”
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

And the list of familar quotes goes on and on and on. We’ve used his quotes verbatim and we’ve altered them to create new meanings or new contexts, but the the quotes appear on the mouths of many people who’ve never read one line of Shakespeare. His words live on and shape the way we frame our world.

Sometimes an image becomes so striking within a story that the image like the lines above takes a life of it’s own. We speak of a “scarlett letter” as a public disgrace. Hitchcock took common everyday images and turned them into images of terror. Aladdin gives us the “magic carpet.” Pinochio gives us a nose that grows and grows. These images are extracted from stories and used on our everyday discourse to convey meaning and ideas. Sometimes is less than honest and we mention that their nose might be growing.

All the elements I’ve mentioend thus far (plots, settings, characters, words, lines, images, tone/mood, pace) are conveyed in stories and may be the pivotal element in a story that connects with us or speaks to us. We may not remember anything else from a story but the element that moved us. In fact, we can dislike a story while loving a single element that impacts us.

This impact may be called inspiration. Stories and their elements “in-spire” us. We breathe in their influence. We are in “spired” or in “spirited” by the power of the story. Just as we breathe in oxygen and it keeps us alive, we breathe in these elements and they shape the way we understand and communicate and act in our world. The “inspired” stories become a source of wisdom that shapes us and gives us insight in the midst of living.

In the past, I’ve written about Memory and Vision as the life span of a person. I think stories fundamentally capture the movement between memory and vision, extending from our own story to the stories around us to The Story (the Word of God). I contend like Chesterton that the Bible tells The Story and all other stories are subsets of this story. There is a movement of energy, of vitality, of spirit that moves between these stories. As I consider this movement, this conversation of stories, I might begin to think more deeply of the “Holy Spirit” breathing upon creation, but more on this later.

Stories upon Stories upon Stories

June 15, 2008 Leave a comment

The Bible is not simply one story but many stories. And these stories form patterns that are repeated again and again. For example, the creation story appears in Gen 1 and Gen, but then variations of the creation story reapper throughout the scripture in places like Job, Proverbs 8, John 1 and Romans 1. Each story reflects a different aspect of the pattern.

Some of the many stories appearing in the Scriptures include:

The story of the Law

The story of Sojourn

The story of Slavery and Exodus

The love story between a Groom and Bride

The story of Father’s and Sons

The story of rebellion and redemption.

These are just some of the many stories that appear, reappear and reappear again. All these stories might and probably would have seem disconnected. But Jesus comes and fulfills/embodies every story. All the stories are flowing in and out from Him.

These stories might also be thought of as bardic songs. The ancient Celtic bards would sing songs of adventure and love and nature and war to the people. Their songs not only entertained but also helped forge a common memory of the tribe.

As we read the story (and sometimes realize we are acting in some of the story patterns), we also discover that we are being forged into a common memory of a family that spans time from beginning to end.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar speaks of the complexity of interwoven stories. He calls this a “symphony,” ” a dance fo sound.” Here are few of his thoughts on symphony from the classic treasure, Truth is Symphonic – Aspects of Christian Pluralism.

In his revelation, God performs a symphony, and it is impossible to say which is richer: the seamless genius of his compositions or the polyphonous orchestra of Creation that he has prepared to play it. Before teh Word of God became man, the world orchestra was “fiddling” about without any plan: world views, religions, different concepts of the state, each one playin gto itself. Somehow there is the feeling that this cacophonous jumble is only a “tuning up”: the A can be heard through everything, like a kind of promise. “In and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets…” (Heb 1:1). Then came the Son, the “heir of all things,” for whose sake the whole orchestra had been put together. As it performs God’s symphony under the Son’s direction, the meaning of its variety becomes clear….Initially, (the musicians) stand or sit next to one another as strangers, in mutual contradiction, as it were. Suddenyl the music begins, they realize how there are integrated. Not in unison, but what is far more beautiful–in sym-phony.

Advent – Remembering

December 18, 2007 1 comment

This week, the rhythm of advent shifts from looking forward and anticipating the return of the Son to looking back and remembering His first coming. Each year the church pauses to remember through stories, songs, plays and pictures. We remember, retell, reconsider, rehearse.

To re-hearse is to “hearse again.” That word causes me to stop and think. When I think of rehearsing, I think of practicing my lines for an upcoming performance. So what does this have to do with a hearse?

A hearse refers to a tomb, an encasing, an elaborate framework used in ceremonies commemorating those who have died. So a hearse helps us remember those who died. Hearse comes from the word “harrow,” which means to cultivate, break up, tear apart the land.

Each year the farmer re-harrows the land before planting. Each year we re-harrow our lives by remembering the incarnation of God in our midst. We must rehearse or else our minds grow hard, cold, infertile and forgetful.

Our land has forgotten the ancient stories, and I fear our churches have as well. One friend who has served his mother struggling with Alzheimer’s disease suggested to me that the prevalence of this disease in our time seems to be a sign of a culture that has forgotten their roots. Failing to re-harrow, we suffer from memory loss.

The church didn’t always set aside a time for remembering the birth of Christ. An intentional focus on remembering the birth of Christ came in response to a heresy that suggested Jesus was never really born in human flesh: he was simply a spirit that came to enlighten us. So the church decided to re-harrow, remember, rehearse the ancient tale of God made flesh.

This act of remembering was an act of war against thoughts and ideas fighting to diminish God’s action in human history. And the war still rages. The culture continues to forget and diminish and discard the wonder of God, the gift of God, the blessing of God upon us.

The festive trappings that overshadow our season of remembrance can be frustrating. As Frosty, Rudolph and Santa loom larger than the Lord of Glory we may feel shut out from our own party.

I would suggest the response to this mass forgetfulness is not anger but remembering, re-hearsing. Let us revisit the ancient stories. Let us remember the babe in the manger, the shepherds in the field, the angels in the sky. But let us deepen our memory, reaching further back into the story.

Let us revisit the story of creation, the story of the garden. Let us brood deeply upon the flood, the tower of Babel, the call of Abraham. Let us pause at the enslavement in Egypt, the wondrous journey to the land of promise, the time of the great judges. Let us reconsider the glory and tragedy in the kingdom of Israel. Let us weep with Jeremiah at the destruction of temple, and dream with Ezekiel at the temple to come.

As we reread, remember, rehearse these stories, we come to realize with the writer of Hebrews that we are part of the story. Their story is our story. The story of the Jesus is our story. The miraculous birth, the announcement in the Temple, the flight to Egypt: these are all part of our story.

We are part of the journey from the mount of Transfiguration to the mount of Golgotha to the mount of Zion. This is our story, our testimony. Let us remember and retell and rehearse our story.

During this time of remembering, I encourage you to pause and rehearse the story of our Savior born in Bethlehem. Let it cut deep in your heart. I trust the Spirit of grace will come and break up our fallow ground, restoring us by “re-storying” us in His grand drama of redemption and recreation.

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