What sacred narratives do you engraft into the grooves of your child’s heart?
The way your grandfather’s calloused hands masterfully honed a freshly cut piece of timber? Or the way he whistled as he tenderly coaxed a row of pole beans into obedience. The way he smelled of woodchips and bourbon at the end of a long days work. Perhaps it's the story of your husband’s childhood. The day he decided to send his dog sledding down a flight of stairs. Or the day your sister was lost at the fair. The day you hit a double. Or the day you didn’t make the team. The day your father died as he leapt in your wife’s womb.
Once I heard that a FAMILY is a group of people building a story. We are rooted in the sacred stories of our families and formed by the way they are remembered by the people who share them. In many ways, we glean our identity from within the narratives we share.
She will come across the photo of four generations of women, standing together on the day of her baptism. And the one of on Easter morning, toothless and grinning in the dress she hated. Her forced smile expressing the unique tension of the day: resignation, impatience, and a sugar crash all make way for ritual.
Perhaps there will be a day when your child sees the empty cross, and asks the question. When his bright, inquisitive little mind puts two and two together, he’ll want the truth. A story that can sustain his fears and worries.
I remember a little girl, just three or four. The day after Easter, we were driving past the church running errands. The lightness of springtime blew through the purple fabric draped across a heavy wooden cross on the lawn. Two miles toward town, we passed the big steeple churches, cross after cross. She pondered from her car seat,
‘Why do we have crosses?’
‘To remind us Jesus is not dead, but alive in heaven and all around us. ’
‘How did he die?’
Oh… my heart sank.
Do I tell her the truth? I certainly didn’t want to tell her. Wouldn’t it be too much? In that moment, I wished she’d never have to know how we divide, blame, and judge. Besides the occasional tete a tete, involving a diaper change, there had been no real suffering and certainly no hatred. We were all butterflies and Kumbaya. Could I be honest, and still protect her?
Driving in silence, I mustered up the courage to pull over and deliver the blow.
‘Baby, some people were afraid of Jesus, and they hurt him.’
‘What do you mean?’
They hung him on a cross, and it hurt him so badly, he died.
‘Why did it hurt him?’
They used nails.
‘Can we get a puppy?’
Later that night I reminded her how the story ends. ‘You know, Jesus did not stay on the cross. Even though He died, they could not kill his goodness or love. After three days, He was alive again.’
What a story to tell. Ours is a narrative of hope, a promise of God’s grace. No matter how tangled and messy we get there is a way out, even in death. God will shine a light on the next step.
But our families are complicated, and so are our stories. The temptation of course is to tell only the parts that we love, the shiny parts. Golden Anniversarys without the hard work. Instragram smiles, without loneliness. Mother’s Day, Disney World, Elf on the Shelf…all rolled into one. The cross without the nails.
Without the nails, there is nothing to sustain a girl through the realities of life. Is there?
Simon Sinnick's book titled, Leaders Eat Last, explains that trust cannot be obtained unless we feel safe. He argues that when surrounded by others like us, we feel secure. With a sense of belonging, comes the confidence to take risks, experiment, fail, and explore, because we know someone in our community will support us. As he states in an interview, “they have our backs.” Survival depends on our ability to surround ourselves with those who believe what we believe.
See where this goes?
Threats on our stability, cause us to huddle. Manufactured barriers constrict our circles, to ‘us’, and ‘them.’ Without trust, we are left to our own devises and perceptions. But our distorted version of the story is not accurate without the other. What is the truth? How do you know? Who do you believe? Why?
This is so basic, it’s biblical.
Sarah and Hagar, didn’t trust each other as far as they could throw their husband Abraham.
Side note: If you are a person of faith (any of the big 3), and you don’t know Hagar, I’ll bet you $4 you are white. Don’t worry; it’s not too late (click here)!
Sarah lost trust in God, because (let’s face it), God was dragging his holy, lead feet for decades. Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but all sorts of self- doubt and hopelessness creep in along the way.
Hagar couldn’t trust Sarah, because well… she singlehandedly abused, oppressed, abandoned, betrayed, and degraded her (and her child) to the point of total despair.
When we hate ourselves, we are more willing to act with hate toward other people.
Others not like us. Others who disagree with us. Others who make us feel threatened. Others who inconvenience us. People who offend us. People we blame. People we control. People who force us to change. Even people we love.
The man driving too slowly, the co-worker not pulling her weight, The spouse who holds the mirror up right in front of your face, the teenager desperately wanting independence, the child who can’t sleep, the assistant, the boss, the lawn worker…
Andrew Solomon’s book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, explains that our suffering creates identity. Through endurance and avoidance we find meaning, meaning that shapes who we are.
We must face the nails, if we hope to understand grace.
The depths of our stories are the vessels in which we carry our meaning. These are sacred places where God shapes a new identity. In those dark places, God shines a light on the next step toward a way out, a way where there had been NO way before. (See below, Russell, p177)
As Solomon states, “its not that our sufferings and hardships of abuse or tragedy are right, but they do become precious.” The sacredness of who we are is found in God’s unexpected presence during the most painful moments of life.
A few weeks ago, I came home in the afternoon to flip on the news. Our house typically does not watch the news on any given day: too much to explain, too much fear, and too much hatred. What is the truth? How do you know who to trust?
But this day The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the Charleston Nine, State Senator, and the beloved late Pastor of Emmanuel AME Church, was being memorialized and President Obama was speaking.
I heard him say, ‘Justice Grows out of a recognition of ourselves in each other.’ I watched the Eulogy three times. As the service was finishing, my kids walked into the back door.
‘What are you watching Mom?’
Well, something sad happened in Charleston.
‘There was an accident, and some people died.’
Oh, my heart sank, like it did all those years ago. As soon as the words escaped my mouth, I knew the lie I had told. The groundwork for oppression is often laid subtly. How quickly I was willing to bastardize the Gospel in exchange for my ‘comfortable silence.’ Kumbaya would not do.
‘You know what, it was not an accident. Nine good people were shot.’
In a church.
‘A church? Why?’
‘Because they were African American.’
What do you mean, Mommy? Who shot them?
‘A man shot them.’
‘In a church? Why would a man shoot them?’
Because he hates African Americans.
‘Why does he hate African Americans?’
Because they look different than he does.
We sat together listening to the end of the speech. The camera was fanning from President Obama to Reverend Pinckney’s wife and two young children. My daughter started to cry.
‘Mom. What color is the skin on the man who killed them?’
He has white skin.
A sigh to deep for words. If only this story were not part of our narrative. If only there were no nails. It is a wound so deep, there is no balm. I can never truly understand, which makes my job as a parent so much more difficult. But I do know this, “the enmity between Hagar and Sarah, the struggle between us, will not cease unless we become children who struggle for the wider gift of God’s justice, peace, and wholeness in our lives and in the whole creation” (Letty Russell, p.196).
The idea of peace and the work of unity and reconciliation is overwhelming, but I trust that God’s light will shine on the next step. Children will become the stories we tell them. I will tell my children the truth.
We are all God’s Children…
Oh, we do a fine job of ignoring that truth, with our clubs and hierarchies, generalizations and ideologies. But God’s story is crystal clear. Like it or not, we are a family. Thank God for this, because I need help getting the story right. Ours is a story of Blessing. Ours is a story of Love. Ours is a story of Hope. The light only shines on the next step, so let’s at least open our eyes and step together.
*for my friend Amantha.
Solomon, Andrew. Far From the Tree: Parent, Children, and the Search for Identity.
Tibble and Russell. Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives.