A large holiday cookie tin sat on the hearth in the den of my father’s house. My wife Joy and I pried the top off while no one was looking. A jumbled heap of old photographs filled three quarters of the container.
My father figured prominently in each picture. Some were in color. Some in black and white. Holding up a shot of him posing on a beach, Joy said, “Jake, I think all these pictures have been cut in half.”
A young, trim Sam Owensby in swimming trunks smiled back at the camera. His right arm was draped around a woman at his side. Only, someone had snipped all of her from the scene except for a small portion of her bare shoulder and the strap of her bathing suit.
Joy and I began shuffling through the rest of the photos. A few were intact. But most had been trimmed down to half or three quarters or just a sliver. I was puzzled until I realized that all of these pictures had been taken while my parents were still married. My father had clipped out the images of my mother.
My parents had divorced years earlier. Married to his third wife, my father was portraying his life in a way that minimized the importance of my mom’s character in the overall story.
Even if we don’t turn our stories into memoirs or share them verbally with friends or recount them to a therapist, each of us has pieced our memories into a narrative. Our identity is bound up with the story we tell of ourselves.
One of the Bible’s recurring themes is that my story is always part of a larger story. My story is inextricably bound up with the story of the people of God. All of them. When we ignore or minimize or distort anyone else’s story and fail to see how their lives intersect our own, the story we tell about ourselves is at best a fiction and at worst a lie.
Our true story is always a story told in first person plural. With “we” instead of merely “I.” Christian life is life in community. And community is messy and redemptive.
This biblical theme became especially clear to me at the very beginning of the Abraham cycle. You’re probably familiar it.
God sends Abram, as he’s known at the beginning of his story, on a holy mission. The creation has been on a bad run. There was the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Cain’s murder of Abel, the abortive attempt to reboot the whole shebang with a massive flood, and then the Tower of Babel.
Through Abraham, God seeks to bless all the nations of the world. In other words, God intends to redeem the whole mess through Abraham. “And Lot went with him.” (Genesis 12:4a)
What may seem like a toss off line actually hints at the complexities of the Abraham story that can be easily overlooked.
As you may know, Lot takes up residence in Sodom. The Bible never explains his reasons for moving to the world’s Biker Bar. But Lot moved his wife and his daughters and their husbands into what seems to have been Sodom’s Red Light District.
One day, a couple of angels show up to give Lot a relocation notice. God plans to torch the whole place. While Lot and his guests are still on the phone with U-Haul, a mob of Sodom’s residents gather at the door. They demand to “know” the guests.
There are various interpretations of the mob’s intention, but Lot seems to hear them threatening to sexually molest his visitors. His response? “Oh no. They’re my honored guests. But I’ve got some daughters. Take them.”
Okay. You’re starting to get the picture of Lot. Not exactly Father of the Year material. But we’re not quite done yet.
Miraculously saved from the mob, Lot hustles his wife and daughters out of town. The husbands opt to stay in Sodom. Famously, Lot’s wife looks over her shoulder at Sodom and turns to a pillar of salt.
Eventually, Lot and his daughters holed up in a cave. Husbandless and seething at Daddy Dearest, Lot’s daughters hatch a plan to have children. They get Lot hammered and sleep with him. The oldest daughter named her boy Moab.
In other words, the Moabites are, from the Israelite perspective, forever stamped as the illegitimate offspring of incest. They are lower than the low. They don’t belong in the story of the Patriarchs as anything more than the butt of jokes. In other words, you cut Lot and his kin out of the picture forever.
But then, somebody writes the Book of Ruth. Ruth is a widow. A Moabite widow. Her mother-in-law Naomi is also a widow. And an Israelite.
Left with no husband and no sons to support her, Naomi goes back to Israel to find a means of support. She tells Ruth to find a nice Moabite husband. She wouldn’t dream of being a burden.
But Ruth sees right through Naomi. Bringing Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth home to Israel would be like bringing the skunk to the garden party. Naomi doesn’t want to be tainted. So Ruth insists on coming along.
As it turns out, Ruth ends up marrying an Israelite high roller named Boaz. But that’s not the punchline. For that, you have to turn to Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew. You see, Ruth the Moabite turns out to be one of Jesus’ ancestors.
Community is awkward and messy. Slippery, strained, and frequently raw sinews hold together the varied members of God’s earthly Body: the Body of Christ.
God’s Spirit weaves us together in tangled bonds of affection and resentment, impatience and tenderness to form holy hands and feet and faces.
We—this awkward Body of well-groomed lawyers and recovering meth heads, soccer moms and runaway teens, Homecoming Queens and Drag Queens—are how God chooses to heal the aching world. Together.
We cannot afford to cut anyone out of the picture. That results in mean-spirited little lies that diminish the souls who give them breath.
Our story—the story of God’s healing love for the world pouring through frail human hands—is a big story. It includes everyone and enlarges the souls who tell it by living it.
Thank you, as always, Jake, for a moving and insightful post. Nearing the end of it, I couldn’t help but think of a photo making the rounds on social media. It shows a drag queen sitting comfortably next to an older woman in a burqa on the subway, with the tag line “This is the future wanted by liberals.” Instead of it bothering me at all, though, the photo inspires me. I think it’s just the kind of future that God intends for us: living together in harmony, as members of the same body of Christ.
I haven’t seen that photo yet. I’ll keep my eyes peeled as I make my way to the House of Bishops meeting in Kanuga today. Thanks for reading so faithfully, Andrew! Let’s keep praying for God’s intended harmony.
I really enjoy your posts and this one was especially great for me because you totally threaded the needle on some of the Bible stories I don’t know well enough to connect the dots on. You may want to think about writing a book called “Bible Backstories” – seriously. I can see more clearly the complex relationships and motivations because of your story telling skills (I like Ruth even more now) – great simple language with a dose of humor. Just as I begin to laugh judgmentally at your casting of Daddy Dearest, and get grossed out by the very bizarre incest story – bam, I’m in that too. We all are. We are all part of this larger story – we can’t take scissors to it and just cut out the distasteful parts. Thank you and well done!
Timi, these are such kind, encouraging words! Thank you for reading with humor, curiosity, and insight. As it turns out, I’m putting the final touches on a manuscript for my next book. I’m tentatively calling it Your Untold Story: Tales of a Child of God. If the publisher likes it well enough I’m sure the editor will help me make many improvements, including the title! Thanks again for reading and reaching out with this comment. I look forward to hearing more from you.
First of all, I enjoy your thoughtful, perceptive posts. They always inform and give pause for thought. This post was particularly thought provoking. Parts of my childhood and particularly my adolescent years were painful and unpleasant. Unpleasant to recall and certainly too unpleasant to recount. Therefore my descriptions of my early home life are always edited, stylized to avoid particulars. Is this wrong? I don’t know. It isn’t lying but it is a deliberate avoidance of reality. I believe that some truths should not have to be relived. They are in the past. Forgiveness has been achieved, fullfilling our Christian mandate to do so. Many of us would prefer to pictorially or verbally edit the past to present a better story than was ever there.
Wendy, thank you for walking with me through the reflections I offer. And I’m especially appreciative of your thoughtful, honest response. It saddens me to hear that your past–especially your childhood and adolescence–were so painful. I don’t know what you went through or how you felt, but I can relate. Each of us will come to terms with our wonunds in different ways. As you’ve read in my posts, I process them (come to understanding, forgive, repent) by writing. Some things have taken me years to face. Others I’m still dealing with. And yet others are either just too tender to share or too harsh to be helpful for sharing to prove helpful to others. At least, that’s how I approach it right now. However you sort through your past is your own and will bear fruit. It’s hard work for me. I imagine it is for you too. My desire for you is that you experience yourself as the beloved child of God that you are. If my reflections have caused wounded you (growth pains aside), I am genuinely sorry. Blessings…..
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