The story of our people

I like stories. I read novels. Most of the time I have a novel that I’m reading among the other books that I have in progress. The novel I am currently reading is by Yoko Ogawa called “The Memory Police.” It is a dystopian novel about the people who live on an island where objects keep disappearing. Most of the people soon forget the items that have disappeared and learn to live without them, but there are a few, who are able to retain the memories of the objects that have disappeared. The main character in the novel is herself a novelist and after books disappear, she gets a new job, but she keeps the novel she has been working on when books disappear. And she keeps her editor, whom she hides in a secret chamber in her home and together they retain memory and preserve the past.

Of course my paragraph doesn’t do justice to the well-crafted story. One of the fascinating components is that the novel that the writer is working on is contained in the story - a literal novel within a novel. The story within the story is titled “The Typist.” In that story, the typist loses access to her typewriter. The story within the story is in some ways the same story as the novel itself. Even as I write these brief paragraphs, I realize how hard it is for me to describe the complexity and fun of this book. Perhaps it is enough to say that the story is worth reading and Ogawa has crafted a fascinating book.

Of course my life’s work is about a story as well, but it isn’t the same kind of story. My work has to do with the stories that our people have been telling for generations. Perhaps, like all stories, our story starts with lived experiences. Our people left the home of their ancestors and journeyed without knowing their destination. they formed strong family bonds and along the way they collected new family members, some by birth, others by adoption. Their identity was strengthened by the journey and the trials of life on the road. They found places to rest and to stay, sometimes for many generations. They faced hardships, including several occasions where others attempted to eliminate them through crew means. They suffered slavery. They found their way to freedom. They made a home. They lost their home. Of course there is a lot more to the story than just that. One of the important aspects to the story is that through all of the generations of people, they kept the story. Parts of the story of our people have been told for at least 4,000 years. Eventually our people decided that they needed to have the story written down in a permanent form. Creating that written book took many generations and as soon as there was something that seemed to be a complete form we started to encounter different cultures and languages and translation of the story was required. The translations themselves changed the story.

Along the way, as we told the story from generation to generation, it became more than a book. In a way much of what we do is theatre. We have specialized buildings just for the telling of our story. We have songs and motions and even specialized costumes that are a part of our storytelling. We developed ritual and ceremonies that we repeat with great care. We elevated some members of the community to the role of caretakers and tellers of the story.

There are some who find my way of describing our faith and religion as irreverent. I do not lack reverence for our traditions. I do not lack reverence for our story. In some ways I feel like the character in the novel. I have a distinct calling to preserve memories that others are beginning to forget. As more and more people choose lives that are distant from religious traditions and develop secular ways of living, those of us who are immersed in religious lifestyles become the keepers of the traditions and history of our people. We are deeply aware that there are elements and qualities that come from remaining connected to the past. We are convinced that those connections are essential to forging a future as a people. We are deeply dedicated to preserving the memories of our people.

So we tell the story and we strive for accuracy. We enact the rituals and we strive for faithfulness. We teach our children and what we teach them is the truth.

Elie Wiesel, in the introduction to one of his novels reports a conversation with a rabbi in which the rabbi questions the value of his use of novels and stories. The concluding line in that story goes something like this: “Sometimes in order to tell the truth you have to tell a story.” The deep truth of our human condition is so rich and complex that it can’t be fully described. No amount of words is sufficient to contain the whole story. So we use symbols and symbolic language. We can’t describe God, so we use metaphor and simile. We say “God is like . . .” We compare experiences knowing that they aren’t quite the same.

I am aware that conveying the Gospel is done as much with the life I live as it is with the words I say. Words are important and I try to choose my words carefully. But actions speak louder than words. I am aware that there are many settings in which I am being observed. People want to know what a minster is and they pay attention to what a minister does. My life is not just a matter of how I treat people when I am in the church, but also how I treat them when I am not “working.”

Communicating the faith of the many generations of our people is as much a matter of how I treat others in my everyday life as it is the words I write or speak in formal settings. Henri Nouwen wrote “All real living is praying.” I take the prayers I say seriously, but I try also to remember that how I treat the person bagging my groceries is another form of prayer. My interactions with the janitor who cleans the bathrooms is as important as my meeting with the donors who support our work.

The story of our people is far more than the words we say.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!