The work we do together for the sake of our full humanity.
Humans are storied beings. This weekend just gone, I was with folk from my wider church community considering the story to which we have chosen to belong. The story of God revealed through Jesus. Our guide through our explorations, Sean Winter from the Uniting Church's theological college in Melbourne, began our time together with the theme of Interpretation. Interpretation as a core theme of the gospel of Matthew, our focus for the weekend. Interpretation as the core activity of Christian community as depicted by Matthew.
It is why we tell stories at all: to interpret, make meaning of, our experience as human beings.
When it comes to the sacred texts of our faith tradition (and I speak only of my own, for I am no expert in any other, and yet a learner in my own), commonly known as the Bible, we can be reluctant to acknowledge that interpretation is not only necessary, but inevitable. When it comes to the other stories, rituals and traditions we inherit, we are likewise reluctant to claim interpretation as the natural and necessary task that keeps them all alive.
What is the cause of our reluctance to embrace interpretation?
We discussed on Friday evening the way in which interpretation inevitably leads to differing interpretations, and therefore to difference and the potential for conflict. We are on much more sure footing if we all ascribe to one single true meaning, the literal, unerring, unchanging words printed on the page before us.
But it is actually more dangerous to seek this sure footing, I suggest, than to enter the murky waters of multiple meanings. To ignore or deny what is actually happening when we read the stories, enact the rituals, continue the traditions - namely, that we are deciding what they mean as we do so - is to make haphazard, un-critical interpretations.
Interpretation of shared tradition, of shared stories, must be a shared activity. Openness to learning from each other is healthy - though, yes, it is risky. I may find myself confronted by an interpretation that differs from my own. This may make me feel uncomfortable. It may force me to think again, more deeply, about why it have decided on the meaning I claim. I may even be invited or challenged to change my mind. Or, and such a challenging thought for Australians frightened by our 'tall poppy syndrome', I may even have something of worth to contribute to the conversation.
Although this work may be difficult, unsettling, challenging - this is the work of growth. It is in the struggle that we find meaning. It is in the struggle that we learn to rely on and encourage each other, strengthening human bonds and community. It is in the struggle to discover meaning that we discover ourselves and move towards the fulness of our humanity.
And so it was that on Saturday afternoon I led a workshop that gave us tools and encouragement in the work of interpretation; specifically interpreting our sacred stories in order to read them aloud in gathered worship. In order to read them aloud communicating meaning: meaning we have ourselves taken the time to discern and understand. Communicating meaning we intend, rather than that contradicts the story itself, or inhibits a listener's ability to find meaning for themselves.
The people enthusiastically engaged with their task of interpretation. And apparently, listened more intently to those reading aloud in their gatherings the following morning!
So it was that I told stories on Sunday morning in my own congregation. I told a story from our sacred book, the story of a man of faith killed by other men of faith (I'll post this on the Belair Uniting Church website later this week - come back for the link). This story reminded me of another I had learned during my theological studies: I told this story in conversation with the biblical story. Elizabeth, an Anabaptist in Holland in the 16th century, writes a letter to her infant daughter; a farewell, a hope of being remembered, as she faces execution by other Christians who practised their living into the story of Christ in a different way. I introduced these stories with a question about how we approach the boundaries between us and 'them'. As we continue to give particular attention to the way in which we are living as the body of Christ in our time and place, we last week looked inward, considering life in Christian community as like playing in a jazz band. This week, we looked up, looked out: how do we live side-by-side with those beyond our faith community in ways that reflect the story to which we belong? I followed the two stories with a poetic recasting of the words of Jesus from John 14, from Bruce Prewer, and an invitation to trust the God to whom we belong. An invitation to live out of love, not fear.
Sunday afternoon, I gathered to celebrate the induction of my former mentor to a new placement. His story was told, the story of his journey to this congregation, this community of faith. It was a painful story; it was an honest telling that affirmed one man's courage to be who he is. I was reminded of this man's wisdom and discernment as we had met together over the course of one year, and he encouraged me to find ways to bring the eclectic facets of my being together into one whole identity. His knowledge of a story of ancient celtic druids and bards spoke into the story he heard and saw of my experience. With the help of this teacher and friend, I made meaning of my experience, and discerned my place in my community.
We are storied beings. We share the task of interpreting our lived experience. We are fully human together.