Friday, June 8, 2012
My Story as Sacred Story
Sitting here at the kitchen table, looking through the window to my peaceful, wooded backyard connects me with the earthy, creative, serene, and expansive nature of God in creation. In the next room, I see a different scene – two of my sons, just home from a day a school, eating snacks, watching television, laughing one moment, fighting the next. Soon, I will prepare dinner and continue the ordinary, sacred tasks that make up my day. Each scene in my story- along with others that include church, baseball practice, naps, and work – carries its own sacred meaning and plays a role in the continuing story of God in the world.
I recognize that my story as sacred story connects to a larger story that includes a myriad of people in many places, each searching for meaning in their lives. I am grateful to so many for recording their experiences of insight and passing down their faith to me. Each moment has the potential for meaning if I simply pay attention, if I can see my experience as both unique and part of a unity. As a Christian, I find identity, mystery, challenge, and joy as I read how the characters of scripture play their part in the sacred drama of God’s presence in their lives. For me, it is all about connecting my experiences to the love of God revealed in so many interesting and diverse ways from biblical times to this very moment.
Last week, our church shared the Passover meal together as we remembered the Israelites who were slaves in Egypt. We were invited to identify with their captivity, to recognize how we too are slaves – to fear, injustice, anger, resentment or whatever keeps us from love and trust and forgiveness. And we remembered the times we have been delivered, just as the Israelites were freed. I recognized again how I, as a middle-class white heterosexual Christian male, have not really experienced injustice. I asked forgiveness for ways I have participated knowingly and unknowingly in a system that holds some people who are different from me in poverty and fear. My prayer for their deliverance was echoed in the scripture. How could I be an agent of God, like the reluctant Moses, to help free those who are oppressed?
I was reminded of reading the call of Jesus to the apostles to follow him and hearing my name called to follow Jesus’ way of love and truth when I was young. I have prayed Psalm 51 numerous times in response to my failings – “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” I have been challenged by the faithfulness of Stephen, even at the cost of his life. I have experienced the Paschal Mystery of dying to my selfishness and being raised to new life. My story has had a recurring theme of commitment, confusion, and re-commitment, which seems so similar to the stories of the Israelites, Jesus’ disciples, and the conflicts among the early church. I can relate.
One sacred story of scripture stands out to me as a constant reminder of the paradox (or at least struggle) of ministry and of faith. My longing is to be open to the Spirit of Christ in my life, learning the ways of love and forgiveness. My desire is to live from my identity as God’s beloved child rather than by how much others like me. Yet too often I am caught up in the demands of both reasonable and unrealistic expectations. My story vacillates between the characters of Mary and Martha.
In the scriptural stories of Mary and Martha, Mary is portrayed as the more contemplative, laid-back sister, while Martha is always worried about the work to be done. Martha lives on chronos time; Mary is on kairos time. Mary listens intently to Jesus’ teaching while Martha busies herself with tending to the guests. Martha gets aggravated with Mary’s lack of organization. Mary is content to sit quietly at Jesus’ feet and listen to his stories and teachings. I have both Mary and Martha within me, and I do think they both are necessary for my spiritual growth.
In ministry, there is an expectation that ministers are people of prayer and of service. This balance is good – to care for others and to be still, to care for one’s own soul and to help others to experience the Spirit. Yet more often for me, the expectation of service wins out over contemplation. When I am at work as a minister, I spend most days planning events, evaluating participation, balancing budget, thinking through strategic plans, supervising staff and volunteers, and reading scripture mainly to teach it. Most items on my to-do list are essential to the operating of the church as a center for ministry, and these tasks are important to me. However, the Martha in me believes that my value comes in making these things happen, in creating space for others to experience the Spirit. Truly, that is one part of my calling though it may not be the most life-giving, and has the potential, if not balanced with contemplation, to drain the life out of me. And I have to remember that fulfilling the expectations of others is not where my value lies.
On the other side, I love to read and reflect. I love to talk with others about their spiritual life. I love to spend time in meditation alone and with others. I love to laugh and hear stories. As an introvert, I find energy in being still and reading stimulating ideas, watching movies with deep meaning, and going inward. But I also like talking one-on-one with friends and church members. I love to listen. I love to be Mary.
So, like Martha, I can sometimes become frustrated with Mary because I feel like I am picking up the slack. But in reality, I need Mary to be primary so that my external actions flow from my inner soul.
The scriptures remind me that in all areas of life, love should be the way. To love God through loving others. To spend time alone and in service. To forgive and to accept. To see the best in others, to see them as God sees them. Jesus is the most inclusive, most loving figure I know, so following his way seems to me to be the path to abundant life. This call has led me to spend more time in nature, to participate in fixed-time prayer, to enroll at the Haden Institute to study more about spiritual direction, to occasionally visit the monastery, and to be more present in the moment with whomever I am with.
This is a piece of my sacred story. It is the story of God’s reminder to me that I am called to experience love, not resentment. It is a reminder that I am a spiritual person, a beloved child of God first, and that my roles as minister, as husband, as father and more flow from that knowledge. Scripture reminds me through its stories what Benedict once wrote, “Always, we begin again.” To see my story in the greater story of God’s revelation reminds me to see the Bible as an unfolding of God’s love and grace, one that continues into the present. The failures and betrayals, the aspirations and tales of courage, the longings and the unfaithfulness speak about who we are, what enslaves us, and how we might be delivered into freedom. The stories make up my sacred history and remind me that I am continuing the story of love, grace and forgiveness in my life. I will keep looking for God’s presence in every extraordinary, and ordinary moment.
Tommy Bratton is the Minister of Christian Formation at First Baptist Church of Asheville. This article originally appeared in his blog, Getting Dressed in the Dark.