By Rev. Paul Graves
Let’s fire up our imagination together for a moment. Picture a long line of people standing in the rain, some holding umbrellas. People of many colors and ages waiting in the rain.
This is a real photograph. Now read the photo’s caption:
“Almost 5,000 queued up for hours in the rain at a swabbing event in Worcester (Massachusetts), to get tested to see if they were a match to save the life of a 5-year-old boy fighting a rare cancer after parents asked for help.”
This and other “great story” photos were sent to me the other day, just after I had chosen to explore great stories in this column. I was prodded in this direction by a brief quote by my favorite spiritual guide, Franciscan monk Richard Rohr:
“Without the great stories that free us, we remain trapped in small cultural and private worlds. True transcendence frees us from the tyranny of ‘I Am’ and the idolatry of ‘We Are.’ ” A 14th-century mystic, Meister Eckhart, said it this way: “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by the process of subtraction.”
Great stories free us. Great stories move us to imagine beyond our petty self-preoccupations, beyond our living circumstances, beyond our destructive biases. I’m convinced that even those of us whose imaginations can soar beyond ourselves are still capable of writing ourselves into greater stories than we’ve settled for.
For those who seek to be Jesus followers, the Christmas story is the beginning of a great story. When God became flesh (incarnation) as Jesus, a new, great story of unconditional love began to take shape. We stumble along trying to live that story even as our attitudes and actions too easily diminish its power.
Fortunately, our efforts to add to or diminish the story of unconditional love are never the final word. If they were, it wouldn’t be such a great story after all. It would be dependent only on what we do or don’t do, or on what we understand or don’t understand.
Any story deserving of being “great” is ultimately formed by life forces we may influence in small ways, but can never control. Our “I Am” egos or our “We Are” tribal needs can, with courageous imaginations, be harnessed to embody love-generated forgiveness or selfless sacrifice.
But those same egos and tribal needs can shrink our spirits into small boxes of anger, fear and political and religious pettiness. In those moments, our great story becomes merely a sad footnote to a story we don’t really believe is ours to embrace.
Some years ago, now-retired United Methodist pastor from Texas, the Rev. Eston Williams, contributed a sentence to God’s great story that I’ve tried to live in my own way: “At the end of the day, I’d rather be excluded for who I include, than be included for who I exclude.” When we exclude people for our own self-limiting reasons, we also diminish the great story’s next chapter.
Faith traditions of all flavors, including my own, have very sketchy histories of contributing to a great story of unconditional love, hope, justice and peace. Sometimes we write spectacularly courageous, loving chapters.
Sometimes those chapters are dismal reminders of how selfish and cruel we can be. They are all part of the very uneven great story humanity tries to write. But it’s not ours to write all on our own!
Our imaginations and spiritual courage can move us to reach out to other people, even to the Earth, to our God. Together, we can write chapters, or even footnotes, that reflect a great story we can live.
The Rev. Paul Graves serves as the chair for the Council on Older Adult Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.