By the Rev. Cara Scriven | Tacoma District Superintendent
Last week, my youngest daughter got upset when her twin sister wouldn’t allow her to build a LEGO castle for her My Little Ponies the way she wanted. The situation erupted when she tore apart the castle and threw LEGOs across the room screaming, “You’re mean!”
When my youngest emerged from her bedroom several minutes later, we talked about what happened. I reminded her that not getting to do things her way doesn’t make her sister mean. I then offered her these words, “If you tell yourself that your sister is mean, then you will live a life full of anger and that is no way to live.” As you can probably guess, my daughter didn’t agree with me and found her way to a chair to pout it out.
In the week since this incident, I’ve been reflecting on the words I offered my daughter. As I did, I recalled one of the books I read this summer, Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. One of my light bulb moments in this book came when the authors suggested that in the short time between when a situation occurs and our reaction to it, we tell ourselves stories. For better or worse, the stories we tell in these moments legitimize our emotions. For example, my daughter told herself that her sister was mean, thus legitimizing her LEGO®-flinging reaction.
Brené Brown’s latest book, Rising Strong, makes a similar point when Brown wrestles with the question: “Are people doing the best they can?” She tells a story of a woman at a bank who is grilling the teller about her funds. Overhearing the interaction, Brown immediately begins to judge the woman telling herself that this woman could be acting a lot better than she is. When it is Brown’s turn, she asks the teller, “Do you believe that woman was doing the best she can?” Surprisingly, the teller responds in the affirmative and offers several possible explanations for the woman’s behavior that reveal a grace Brown’s inner narrative failed to incarnate.
The stories we tell ourselves strongly effect how we see ourselves, others, and the situations we encounter.
However individuals are not the only ones who tell stories, organizations do as well. A few months ago, I visited a church whose inner-narrative declares them a welcoming and friendly congregation to all. Yet, as a new visitor, no one greeted me or the other guests sitting in front of me. Most churches (and people) struggle with some tension between who we say we are and what we do–we all have bad days–but when we leave our stories unexamined and untested we are likely to see their truth erode over time.
One of the unfortunate effects of a mainline protestant culture where evangelism is treated like a four letter word is that we have forgotten how to tell the stories of our faith. We no longer feel comfortable sharing with our friends and neighbors how our encounters with God have changed our lives. We may wear our political beliefs on our sleeves (or Facebook statuses) but accept that faith is a personal and private thing.
What is even more disconcerting is that we have forgotten our own stories of transformation and thus, our purpose for gathering. It isn’t uncommon to encounter church leaders (lay and clergy) who struggle to articulate a faith perspective for why they do what they do. Without a purpose and story grounded in a rich Christian faith, it is difficult to answer a question many younger generations are asking (directly or more often through their absence): “Why should I bother with church?”
The stories we tell ourselves are powerful, but until we carefully discern and live into the one God has for us, it will be difficult to understand the transformation we need. Without the important work of digging deep toward the roots of God’s story for us, we are left with our approximations; instead of building God’s Kin(g)dom, we risk building castles of our own creation and the inevitable eruptions that follow.
In just a few weeks, our conference is offering a first step in exploring the stories that ground us and how we share them with others. “We Have a Story to Tell!” will take place on November 14th, from 9am to 4pm, at Puyallup UMC (see below for an alternative Portland-area date). I hope you’ll consider registering today for a day of reflecting on the importance of story and its potential for transformation both inside and outside the walls of our church buildings.
Editor’s Note: The “We Have a Story to Tell” Communications Training will take place in two locations across of the Greater NW area, one in the PNW, the other in OR-ID. Click the appropriately link below for more information about each.