My friend Pádraig ó Tuama wrote a book called “In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World.” It’s a theological collection of poetry and prose where he uses his amazing gift of words to make sense of our world. In it there is a poem called “Narrative Theology #1”:
And I said to him, “Are there answers to all of this?”
And he said, “The answer is in a story and the story is being told.”
And I said, “But there is so much pain.”
And she answered plainly, “Pain will happen.”
Then I said, “Will I ever find meaning?”
And they said, “You will find meaning where you give meaning. The answer is in a story and the story isn’t finished.”
Life throws a lot at us and this summer has been an example of that for me and my family. We traveled, I taught, more travel, birthday celebrations, celebrating the beginning of life, and celebrating the end of a life well lived. A virtual roller coaster of what life can throw at us.
But none of these things were new to us. They are all experiences we have lived before. That’s the danger of repeating experiences with too much familiarity. Pádraig speaks to this when he describes reading a book repeatedly, “Part of the concern with re-reading a text often is that in so doing you read less and recognize more. You glide over familiar words. Or, to be more particular, you glide over familiar presumptions, and so, with time, you aren’t reading what’s there, you’re reading what you think is there.”
That’s what we do in life, right? We walk through experiences thinking, “Been there, done that.” We can either become overconfident or overly afraid. A danger that can be applied to the ancient stories that have been told so many times we risk losing the richness of the text through our preconceptions.
Two stories that are often very familiar to us are found in Matthew 14; the feeding of the multitudes and Jesus walking on water. One is a story of great abundance and one is the story of a great storm.
On the surface, one story seems radically different than the other. But look closer at these narratives and you’ll see that they each possess glimpses of the other. Both narratives hold rich images of Jesus’ power and character.
We all have similar stories or testimonies to tell. Testimonies of abundance and testimonies of storms. Jesus has been in the midst of each of these for me, just as He was with his friends.
However, as ó Tuama says, “Testimony if told or heard unwisely, can be a colonization of a single experience into a universal requirement”. It what I call, turning the descriptive into the prescriptive. What rings true for one, may not ring true for another. What worked in one situation maybe not prove to be a cure all.
Pádraig makes this observation, “I cannot dampen gladness because it will burden the unglad. But I cannot proclaim gladness as a promise that will only shackle the already bound. Faith shelters some, and it shadows others. It loosens some, and it binds others.”
When we give testimony to the abundant blessing of our situation we do so at the risk of alienating others. Sometimes those living in abundance are limited to enjoy the bounty because they are living next to someone living in the storm. Following Jesus is learning to live where you are; not where your neighbor is, not where you were, and not where you’re going. Right where you are. Greet your circumstance, no matter what it is. Hello to abundance. Hello to the storm. Hello to being unfinished. Hello to here.
Lisa Ho is an associate chaplain and academic coach at Ohio Wesleyan University along with a member of the teaching team at Terra Nova Community Church.