Friday, November 19, 2010

A Thanksgiving Story

Do you remember E. M. Forster’s classic definition of a story? Story, he says, is the difference between these two sentences: “The king died and then the queen died;” “The king died and then the queen died of grief.” The first, he says, is merely a recounting of events without attendant significance; the second is a story. That is to say, storytelling is a creative act; it assigns meaning to the events that make up our lives.

In Jay McInerney’s 1989 novel, Story of My Life, Allison is a young woman who lives a “grab all the gusto and never look back” kind of life in fast-paced New York. Her life is filled with events but devoid of meaning. She has spiritual and emotional Parkinson’s disease, lots of motion, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Numbed by it all, she shrugs off whatever life deals her with the quip “story of my life.” Her roommate steals her rent money and spends it on a present for a boyfriend: “story of my life.” She falls in love with a guy who dumps her for another woman: “story of my life.” No matter what happens, she shrugs it off: “story of my life.” The quip is an ironic commentary on Allison’s life – there is no “story of her life,” just an aggregation of disjointed events without meaning, without purpose, just one stupid thing after another.

That’s why Faith is such a good storyteller; it puts purpose and “plot” in our stories.

Stan Hauerwas of Duke has argued that the Christian story is most truthfully told when it is told as a “Thanksgiving Story.” It is, essentially, a story of what we’ve been given. “The self is a gift,” he writes, “and we need a story that helps us accept it as gift.” Hauerwas goes on to say that when we learn to tell our stories as the story of being given a great gift, we can then be truthful about ourselves. As long as we are trapped in telling stories about our power or our wisdom or our success, we’re dishonest with ourselves and with others, hiding our weaknesses and our impotency and our failures both from ourselves and from others. The truth is, our story is not about our power or our wisdom or our success; it’s about grace, and coming to terms with that is what sets us free to accept it all, the bad times as well as the good, as a gift from God, as our “story.”

There are, of course, lots of ways to tell the “story of your life”: “Of all the dumb luck!” “They’re just out to get me!” “Life is a box of chocolates….”

Long ago, our fathers and mothers of faith told ours as a Thanksgiving Story: “A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me.” (Dt. 26:5-10)

Now that’s a story!

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