Stories & Stillness

Don’t you just love a good movie? Movies give us common stories we relate to, with themes we understand and recognize—good versus evil, fish out of water, obstacles are overcome, true love is found. Movies also make us feel—we get temporarily transported into a new life, into new adventures, into a fresh world of possibilities. You can probably remember the last movie that made you cry or laugh. It’s really a remarkable thing about us that we can empathize so deeply and feel so much. The mirror neurons in our brains enable us to experience what the main characters are experiencing. Our hearts ache for good people that struggle; our spirits cheer for the underdog; our minds fume at the oppressors and the abusers and we hope they get their due. The stories on the screen become our stories in some mysterious, transcendental way.

Therapists believe—and research backs this up—that movies can be helpful to us when we’re working on healing old wounds and completing unresolved issues. I am currently taking a class with a therapist who said he’d grown up in a hurting home where there was little kindness or connection. As a young man, he discovered the TV show the Walton’s, and he was surprised that at the end of every episode, when the family was saying, “Goodnight, John Boy”, “Goodnight, Mary Ellen,” “Goodnight Mama”, he would begin to cry. He was so surprised by that—he said prior to that he could have counted on one hand the number of times he’d cried in his life, because in his family, you had to be tough. He started wondering what the tears were about. One day he realized: It was the kindness. It was the gentleness and care he wanted so much to experience in his own home. And even though it would be many years before he did find some measure of healing with his own family, at the time, that show touched and  nurtured something in him that needed to believe that kindness was possible.

I’d been making a living as a writer for more than 20 years when I went to seminary. When I discovered in the counseling track at ESR that there was something called narrative therapy, I was fascinated. I did a semester-long independent study researching it, going to workshops, and finding out more. In narrative therapy, the counselor listens deeply to the stories we tell about ourselves, paying close attention to any point where the story seems to get “stuck” or where we give up, do a U-turn, or meet an insurmountable obstacle.

Together the client and counselor work with the story in different ways, broadening it, learning about options and resources, getting to know the monster or the challenge that held the person back. It’s a wonderful way to find out more about how we may have inadvertently limited ourselves or overlooked talents, qualities, and strengths we have deep inside but we may have missed.

Sometimes it’s as simple as believing something about ourselves that might not be completely true. For example, maybe you’ve said something like,

  • “I couldn’t possibly speak in public.”
  • “I’m not musical. I’ll never be able to play an instrument.”
  • “It’s hard for me to make friends.”
  • “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.”
  • “I can’t cook.”
  • I never know what to say in a group.”
  • “I never was good with money.”
  • “I’m not good at sports.”
  • “I always catch other peoples’ colds.”

 

We might say those things as though they are true about us for all time—but what if they are just ideas we had once? Maybe they aren’t meant to be true of us forever. When we accept those ideas as who we are, the belief might hold us back from a bigger, freer blessing God has in mind.

The passage in Psalm 8 that Sherry read for us is a verse I love. You can hear the sense of awe and wonder in that verse—who are we that God is mindful of us? What an amazing thing that God, in all God’s greatness, should care so tenderly for each of us. It baffles the mind—and warms the heart. But I hear something else in this verse too: It invites God to tell us who we are, so God can show us the true and open possibilities of our lives.

When I first started working as a chaplain at St. Vincent’s Hospital, I used my training in narrative therapy  as part of providing pastoral care to the patients I met. I developed an assessment tool that was based on the prayer attributed to St. Francis, “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.” It helped me listen for the spiritual needs people might be struggling with. Was there anger in their story? Injury? Doubt or despair? Darkness or sadness? I learned over time, because I saw it in myself and could hear it in others’ stories, that whatever the hurt or obstacle was—it could get in our way of feeling close to God. It could weaken our sense of trust. The hurt, the struggle, the story that sold us short interfered with that tender, innocent spirit inside that can say to God with wonder, “Who am I that you should be mindful of me?”

This is what I think Jesus means when he tells us that we can’t point out the speck in another’s eye when we have a board in our own. The board is a story we’re holding on to about the circumstance, about ourselves, or maybe about the other person. They need help, but we’re fine. They are doing something wrong, but we’re blameless. They are judgmental and self-righteous, but we’re…well, not. We’re kidding ourselves when we think that way, Jesus tells us. We’re stuck in a story of our own creation. A cleaner, clearer, more accurate way of knowing what’s needed is simply to turn toward God and listen for the truth.

We Friends are fortunate to have the practice of silent worship, where we can let go of our stories for a while—our lists and plans, our failures and flaws. We know how to quiet our minds and hearts and simply wait on God. The silence gives us an opportunity to drop our story, to stop filling the air with our own expectations of how things should be, and just let God be with us in how things are right now.

In that way, the stillness can be a kind of reset button, a place we go when the story gets too big or too frantic. We can notice when we’re caught up in a story because our thoughts will be loud and swirling, and our emotions will be on alert. We might feel a tightness in our chest or jaw, a dull headache, an upset stomach. Our bodies respond to the increased tension with discomfort, letting us know we’re reacting with alarm to a story that has taken over our mind—and put a board in our eye.

But that moment when we notice our distress changes everything. That’s the moment in our story when the hero arrives—the light comes to illumine what’s really going on with us, what’s real, what’s true, what’s God in our situation. With just the tiniest of breaks—5 or 10 seconds, long enough to take a breath—we can let go of the story in our head and return to the deep, rest of God’s presence.

In the late 1980s, the kids and I lived in Broad Ripple, and next door to us were Kenny and Jack, two recent business school graduates who had a fondness for the Grateful Dead and interest in philosophy. One summer afternoon, Kenny saw me bringing in groceries and walked over to help. Our conversation turned toward spirituality—I was studying Taoism at the time—and he mentioned that his mom had just started something called A Course in Miracles, and he was amazed at the change in her. “She’s the most anxious person I’ve ever known,” he said, “But lately she’s been really peaceful, much happier.”

The next time I was at the bookstore—because we didn’t have Amazon back then—I looked up A Course in Miracles and bought the book. The course was created by two professors at Columbia University who were having ego-based conflicts over things like professional status. Their department head told them they needed to find a way to resolve their battles, and soon after, professor Helen Schucman, who described herself as a “psychologist, educator, conservative in theory, and atheistic in belief,” began having strange dreams and then receiving a kind of dictation—fully-formed thoughts in her mind whenever she sat down to write. Over the next seven years, she produced the materials that became A Course in Miracles, during the course of the writing, she came to believe that this information came from Jesus himself.

Although I wasn’t sure what to think about the idea of Jesus’ authorship, the writings resonated with me and helped me feel closer to God. I began to learn how peace could be a choice I made in my life each day. The thoughts are beautiful and often poetic, fully in alignment with ideas we Friends hold dear—peace, simplicity, compassion, respect, and the all-loving, all-present light, wisdom, and grace of God.

Much of the teachings are about how we can recognize the stories we are creating and instead turn toward the peace and light of God that shines through the stillness. Here’s how A Course in Miracles suggests we do this. I think it is a perfect description of the way we Friends sit empty in silent worship:

“Simply do this: Be still and lay aside all thoughts of what you are and what God is; all concepts you have learned about the world; all images you hold about yourself. Empty your mind of everything it thinks is either true or false, or good or bad, of every thought it judges worthy, and all the ideas of which it is ashamed. Hold onto nothing. Do not bring with you one thought the past has taught, nor one belief you ever learned before from anything. Forget this world, forget this course, and come with wholly empty hands unto your God.”

Who are we that God is mindful of us? Doesn’t it fill you with awe to even ponder that question? God has the answer for us. We will find it in the stillness, in the silent, peaceful pauses between the stories of our lives. If we take our cues to step outside our stories, even for the briefest moment, we’ll discover that God—with God’s golden, all-encompassing and never-ending love, forever and always waits for us there.

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