Sociologist Brene Brown knows the power of owning our stories. “If we own our story,” she says, “we get to write the ending. If we don’t own our stories, our stories own us.” (FB Live)
Now, your impression of “stories” may be that they’re “just” stories, tales for children, told for entertainment or maybe teaching a lesson, like a fable. But the stories that Brown is talking about are much more than that. They are the narratives of each of our lives–the truth about what shaped our lives and how they unfolded–just as our church has a story, our nation has a story, our planet has a story. “If we own our story,” Brown says, “we get to write the ending. If we don’t own our stories, our stories own us.”
So, what does she mean by “owning” our stories? How does that work? The stories from the Bible which David just read for us are perfect examples.
First the story of Joseph, which we began last week, with his brothers getting fed up with their younger brother’s dreams of superiority and his special treatment and affection from their father Jacob, or Israel. You’ll recall that they ended up selling Joseph to a traveling caravan of Midianite traders, who then sold him into slavery in Egypt. The brothers took Joseph’s long-sleeved coat–maybe of many colors–back to their father, after dipping it in goat’s blood, saying they had found it in the wilderness. “He has been killed by wild animals,” their father concluded, and spent the next days and weeks and months in deep mourning. That is how the story of Joseph and his brothers begins.
In today’s reading, they get to own that story–or not. The interim story of Joseph–and his brothers for that matter, because we are introduced to Tamar, one of Jesus’ grandmothers listed later on in Matthew’s genealogy–is fascinating reading, full of deception, disguises, sex, palace intrigue, and dreams. I recommend it to you.
But at the point in the story we’ve reached today, as I said, Joseph and his brothers get the opportunity to own their story, and so write the ending. Joseph, now a powerful man in Pharaoh’s court, recognizes his brothers, who have come down to Egypt to buy grain in the midst of the famine back in their homeland;but they, of course, do not recognize him in his Egyptian court clothes. The last time they had seen him he was a beaten-up, dirty, frightened kid, tied behind a trader’s cart. Joseph tests the brothers, to see if they, like he, have learned anything in the intervening years, to see if they are worthy sons of their father, to see if their word can be trusted. After setting up a number of situations and plants, Joseph realizes that his brothers’ intentions are true, that his father Jacob is indeed still alive, that in fact, he still has family that he can choose to re-claim and be part of. He reveals himself to his brothers, who initially are terrified that Joseph has a very different, vengeful ending to the story in mind, but in the end, the full truth of the story– the betrayal, the deception, even Joseph’s youthful arrogance–comes out. The ending of the story that this family ultimately writes is one of reconciliation, forgiveness, and hope.
The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is one that could easily have been left out of the Christian story. The early writers could have chosen not to own this one. Here we see Jesus’ own very human, cultural bias shutting him off from the pleas for healing from this “foreign” woman, whose daughter had a demon. But the story is owned, for once, held up to be examined, and though it is an uncomfortable conversation, we see Jesus not cutting off the woman but rather staying engaged with her. She too does not buy the cultural story that says Jews and Gentiles have nothing to do with one another, that she and her children are less than human and no better than dogs. Rather, she continues to push Jesus to admit the nature of his compassion and the breadth of his God’s compassion, and together they write a new ending to the story. The woman’s daughter is healed.
“If we own our story,” Brene Brown says, “we get to write the ending. If we don’t own our stories, our stories own us.” Brown’s work is a rich and powerful resource for exploring how we can own our own, individual stories. Her book Gifts of Imperfection is a good place to start. But today I want to talk our nation’s story that is begging to be owned.
There is no question that our nation’s story includes countless acts of courage, imagina-tion, honor, strength, ingenuity, freedom, and justice. But if we as a nation do not own the part of our story which includes racism and white supremacy, that story will own us. It will keep rising up, demanding that we confront it, and alas, more often than not, becoming manifest in violence and disruption. From our founding documents, which said that African-Americans were 3/5 human, our country has not treated all people as created equal, with certain unalienable rights. That is not how we like to think of ourselves, for there is much of value to be claimed and learned from the founding of our nation, but we must own the whole story, if we are to be able to write and live out an ending to the story that will actually be life-giving and good.
The events in Charlottesville of last weekend, and increasingly in other parts of the country, indicate that we have not owned the whole of our nation’s story. We have not had the difficult, uncomfortable, imperfect private and public conversations about our nation’s story of racism and white supremacy, which at their heart are about power. We have conceived of power only as “power over,” rather than as Martin Luther King Jr. defined it, and as Jesus’ life did as well, “the ability to affect change.” Power is the ability to affect change. Powerlessness, –the inability to affect change–Brene Brown says, is the most dangerous state we can experience, and those who would claim white supremacy and Nazi ideology can only imagine power to be power over. Power–the ability to affect change–is not finite, but power over is. Brown says that what we are witnessing in our country right now is “power over’s last stand.” I hope she’s right.
“If we own our story, we get to write the ending. If we don’t own our stories, our stories own us.” Joseph chose to own the whole story of his relationship with his brothers, and his family was ultimately healed and saved. Jesus and the Canaanite woman chose to own the larger story –the story that they were both beloved children of God–larger than their cultures had told them– and Jesus’ world was expanded and the woman’s daughter was healed.
The ending of our story as a nation has yet to be written, but though it may have begun, in part, in racism and white supremacy, surely we want it to end or unfold in full equality and justice for all, in compassion for those who have been victims of injustice or war or handicap of birth, in rejection of fascism and Nazism, which many of you or your fathers or grandfathers fought against and gave their lives to bring to an end. Surely we want our nation’s story to include the rich and varied gifts of immigrants from all parts of the globe, just as our founders came as immigrants, while acknowledging our story of devastating the native peoples of this land. We need their rich and varied gifts in writing the future story of our country. Despite what others who claim the name Christian have advocated, we believe that God’s power is infinite and ours is not diminished by others having the ability to affect change. The shelter of God’s wings expressed through Jesus is big enough for Jews and Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, no matter how or if they imagine God. The hatred and violence of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups have no place in the church of Jesus Christ, nor does counter-violence and hatred.
I woke Bruce up one night this week with the cries of my feeble attempts to escape from a nightmare. The dream was filled with images of angry marchers, terrifying flags waving,
people shouting at me, and my response was only to try to escape. Of course, a man followed me as I ran–or flew–away, and he was quickly gaining on me. My cries of protest caught in my throat, and the next thing I knew, Bruce was shaking me awake.
In the moments afterward, as I tried to slow my heart rate down, I asked the Universe, “What can I do?” And the answer that I perceived was, surprisingly, “You can call on the angels.” Call on the angels? The only reason that answer had any ring of authenticity for me is that it completely surprised me. I’m not really an “angel person.” But the more I let that ring and resonate, the more I realized that we can indeed call on those beings of light–and remember, light is made up of all the colors–that are all around us, here among us whom we can see, and those we can’t see, on that “other shore,” in the great cloud of witnesses. We are not alone in this fight. To use all our energy and fear and hatred and let it be consumed by the forces of hatred and prejudice and violence is only to feed the darkness. “Darkness cannot cast out darkness,” Martin Luther King said, “Only light can do that. Hatred cannot cast out hatred, only love can do that.” “Call on the angels.” Become one of the army of Light. It is a great army standing all around us, radiating powerful love, endless creativity, fearless courage.
There are uncomfortable, essential conversations that need to take place. There is the convoluted, alas sometimes corrupted, ship of government to be righted. There is anger and injustice and powerlessness to be acknowledged. But what is the alternative to doing all this hard work? It will take millions of acts of courage and kindness, engaging with those with whom we disagree with “a little hypothesis of generosity” [Brown], actually trying to understand their perspective, trying to understand, as Ruby Sales puts it, “Where does it hurt?” It will take persistence that will not let go of the truth, and it will take love–however imperfect–that casts out fear and hatred.
But we are not alone. We are surrounded by an army of light, a great cloud of witnesses, and companions on the journey. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour, O God. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark