by Melissa May
Diaconal project paper, reflecting on building Christian relationships through narrative
|Our Human Story: Sharing Relationships in Christ through Narrative
July 21, 2009
This reflection is an exploration of the importance of story for human beings and how story can be used to build relationships, particularly among Christian individuals and groups. Such a conclusion is based on the premise that human nature itself is storied: with narrative we shape cultures, relate to one another, and even construct self-identity as individuals. Accordingly, a model is presented for building relationships through sharing both corporate and individual life-stories with the framing of relationship itself as story, full of characters creating events such as introduction/exposition, action, conflict/unsettling, epiphany, reconciliation, and settling into the discovery of a new status quo. Two case studies are included; they recount and reflect upon the use of the model in strengthening relationships between the Lutheran Mission Society and St. Paul (Lebanon) Lutheran Church in Felton, PA and Calvary Lutheran Church in Mt. Airy, MD.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Part I: The Value and Necessity of Narrative and Storytelling
Story and Storytelling: Working Definitions
Narrative and Storytelling in Shaping a Culture
Narrative and Storytelling in Constructing Personal Identity
Narrative and Storytelling in Building Relationships
Relationships as Stories
Part II: Using A Storytelling Model for Building Christian Relationships
Exposition: The Scene is Set
Introduction Made Incarnationally
Backstory Learned Through Life-Stories
Creating a Storytelling Environment
Finding One’s Voice
Listening in Love
New Ideas/Inciting Events
Tension or Conflict Emerges
Epiphany: New Realizations of Head and Heart
New Equilibrium Established
Part III: Two Case Studies in Using the Storytelling Model
Calvary Lutheran, Mt. Airy, MD and the Fells Point Compassion Center, Baltimore
St. Paul (Lebanon) Lutheran, Felton, PA and the York Compassion Center, York, PA
One morning during my time as an undergraduate student at Susquehanna University, I was listening to lecture in an Introduction to the Old Testament class when our professor, Dr. Karla Bohmbach, posed this question: “Does it matter if the stories we find in the Bible never actually happened?” For a group of college kids that had in this course already undergone the shock of being introduced for the first time to methods of biblical interpretation such as source criticism and form criticism in order to discover more about the socio-historical context of the cultures in which Biblical works were written, this summed up their growing awareness of a quandary in a single sentence. With all these people criticizing the Bible I thought I knew, what if none of its true? As people are wont to do when some of their core beliefs are shaken, many students protested in outrage or simply smirked at the insolence of a professor suggesting something so preposterous. These young adults didn’t want the Bible and the stories it contained not to have happened they way they had always been told the stories did. They wanted all that the Bible contained to continue being valid and relevant and real.
After some lively discussion on the matter, a student raised her hand, and when Dr. Bohmbach called on her, the student said, “Even if something in a story maybe didn’t really happen, it can still be true. Like Peter Pan is true.”
Of course, one comment such as this couldn’t put to rest the serious doubts that had been stirred up among the class, but as a creative writing major, it was an insight that has since remained with me personally. Placing discussions about the historicity of biblical stories aside for the moment, we can very generally agree as people that the stories we tell as groups and as individuals are powerful and influential. We learn from them, pass down traditions to future generations through them, and through them we experience a deeper connection to other human beings. Stories tap into something deep and true about what it means to be a person living in this world, complete with the requisite emotional, physical, social, and spiritual ups and downs of life.
In a study of the effects of storytelling, it is not only pertinent to examine the sway which stories have on a cultural level but also to consider the power that they have with individual human beings. With studies in recent decades in the field of narrative psychology, scholars such as Dan McAdams posit that one’s sense of their individual life-story is integral to how that person perceives themselves and their place in the world. In short, we as people use stories to shape not only our cultures, families, and other social groups, but also our very selves.
With the component ideas that stories dynamically shape us as individuals and groups and that stories have the power to connect us to one another with their vocalization of life’s truths, there is an opportunity for ministry as Christians through the use of storytelling. After all, we know the power of telling the accounts of God’s creation of the universe and how God has miraculously and regularly intervened to engage in a relationship with humanity; these stories have continued beyond the Bible into the lore of the saints and the plots of our denominational developments and into new ways of expression such as emails and blogs and podcasts which tell about God’s presence in the midst of our everyday lives. Now, with new kinds of recognition of storytelling’s predominance from the fields of psychology and anthropology, we as Christians can glean new insights from the humanities and seize new openings where we can discover how telling stories and our own life-stories can bring us together as God’s children.
My internship with the Lutheran Mission Society (LMS), a Christian health and welfare organization serving the poor in the greater Baltimore area, has been a wonderful opportunity to explore this idea of narrative and storytelling as a tool for sharing and building up relationships in Christ. LMS is able to continue doing ministry through support in terms of financial contributions, volunteers, prayers, and general support from local congregations and larger church bodies. One of the goals put before me during this internship as a communications assistant was to cultivate deeper relationships between LMS and nearby congregations in order that the capacities for doing ministry would be strengthened for each party. With these particular circumstances, I found that there could be many opportunities for a congregation and an organization (or individuals within each) to get to know one another not simply by exchanging information but by sharing something of themselves—their life-stories—as friends in a growing personal relationship.
Part I: The Value and Necessity of Narrative and Storytelling
Story and Storytelling: Working Definitions
Looking up a word such as story in a dictionary will get you a rather dry but manifold set of definitions which illustrate its different senses: “an account of incidents or events” or “a fictional narrative shorter than a novel” or “a widely circulated rumor” or “a lie or falsehood.” It can be reasonably agreed that a story contains a statement/report/account of events or happenings, but depending on how you look at the concept, a story contains things that may or may not have actually (or observably) taken place in reality. Once again, this returns to questioning the idea of truth: is it something scientifically verifiable or is it something that a majority of humanity attests to as genuine? Because I am not dealing exclusively with matters in the scientific realm, I will assume that truth is characterized by the latter description; truth is a phenomenon generally considered to be a genuine experience or reality. Therefore, my working definition of story is this: an expression of events or conditions that witnesses to what is true. For the purposes of this body of writing, I will lay aside instances in which stories containing blatant falsehoods are deliberately told to work for an agenda helpful to oneself but harmful to others.
In my definition, I have consciously chosen the word expression rather than statement or report or account because it is less precise and allows for multiple forms: one may tell a story using words in a speech or a novel, using lyrics in a song, using a curve of a sculpture or lines in a painting, and so on. There is really no end to the possible forms story can take. So in following this line of thinking, the idea of a storyteller will be an equally broad and inexact concept: one who tells/communicates/conveys stories. A few times during the course of this project, the idea of being a story-broker was mentioned; the thought is that a broker, as an agent who acts in an intermediary capacity between individuals or groups, would be the one in the middle who carries a story from one group to another.
With this delineation of story in place, it is time to move forward in exploring the reasons why stories are told.
Narrative and Storytelling in Shaping a Culture
Something that sets human beings apart from other animals—perhaps a phenomenon that is indicative of being created in God’s image—is that we have the brain capacity to remember the distant past and to shape it in a meaningful way to verbally recount to others and to ourselves. We tell stories. It helps us make sense of what has happened in our lives, and it teaches others the best way to live, whether it is helping them to avoid repeating our past mistakes or prescribing a good path of action for a person to take.
Shaping life’s events into narrative form is thus not merely a form of entertainment: it can be, evolutionarily speaking, a matter of the continued survival of our human race. How else would we know not to eat certain berries or play with snakes? If we had not first heard of things that are poisonous, a food or an animal may have killed us before we had the chance to figure it out and be afraid of them. The same goes for other culturally stored information: shelter building, knowledge of disease and medicine, construction of weapons for use in defense, fire building, and many other examples. While people currently receive this information from highly rational and straightforward textbooks and instruction manuals, this is a relatively recent phenomenon (in terms of modernity) which was made possible through the invention of the printing press. We still receive stories containing crucial life information from our parents. I remember very vividly every urban legend my mother recounted to me when I was a child about what happened to the kid who put the cat in the microwave, what happened to the lady who mixed cleaning products in her bathtub, and how a man froze to death when he returned from a run, sweating profusely, and fell asleep with the air conditioner turned up too high. Whether these accounts were historically accurate or not, the telling of them helped me remember why certain behaviors should not be practiced because they lead to dire consequences!
Stories are the materials that are woven together to compose a society’s moral fabric. How often are children presented with a narrative which ends with, “And the moral of the story is . . .”? The Bible, for instance, is filled to the brim with stories of people who live and learn about the truths of life. Even the book of Genesis is teeming with examples: stories teaching the consequences of disobedience and the virtue of compliance to authority (Noah and the flood), the importance of trust in the midst of doubt (Abram and Sarah), the advantages of family love and cooperation as opposed to discord (Joseph and his brothers), and so on. We learn what it means to do “good” things or “bad” things (or simply how to be good or bad) by both observation and illustration. Beyond learning that it will hurt or kill me, I learned at a young age that doing illegal drugs is wrong because it is bad to hurt your body and it is bad to disobey laws. As we get older, such issues become more gray and nuanced than these simple black-and-white lessons, but again, we use stories to express why a conventionally accepted answer might not be right in all circumstances. Many of us who have touched on the field of ethics during study (even as casually as one lecture in a college philosophy class) are familiar with such “ethical dilemmas” as these: “Why punish the theft of $1000 more than the theft of $100?” “Why punish attempted murder less than murder?” and even, “Would it be justifiable to whip pigs to death if more succulent pork resulted from this process, giving the consumers of pork more pleasure?”
Of course, each culture and society differently discerns moral values. In one country, a person would be rigorously put to trial for ending another’s life in self-defense, and in another, it would be perfectly acceptable without much explanation needed. In the United States, being punctual, working hard, and being a true friend are three extremely valued behaviors for “model citizens,” and so in a story like that contained in the “Ballad of Casey Jones,” the heroic railroad engineer who is said to have died in the effort to help a sick friend get a train in on time after it was running nearly two hours late—Casey Jones “highballed” (recklessly sped) the train from Memphis to Mississippi and crashed into a stalled freight train in the process. Listeners of the story are left with this refrain ringing in their ears:
Casey Jones, he died at the throttle,
Casey Jones, with the whistle in his hand.
Casey Jones, he died at the throttle,
But we'll all see Casey in the promised land.
Casey Jones is celebrated in song over 100 years after his death for never giving in, for persisting in his work in the face of the seemingly impossible, and for giving his all for a friend. Whatever each culture’s different mores might be, people are taught these codes of right and wrong within various societies from childhood, and the veracity of these lessons is depicted in stories, which continue to shape the moral course of a culture.
In his book The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story, John Dominic Crossan outlines a fivefold typology of story that describes the relationship of each type of story to the world. Myth, what I have described above as having the function of founding the moral fabric of a society, can also be said to establish the world. Apologue, a brief allegory like those found in Aesop’s fables, defends the world by bearing a useful lesson without stating it explicitly. The tale of Casey Jones, as I have discussed above, contains qualities of both myth and apologue. A tale of action investigates the world; contemporary television viewers would be familiar with this type of story because of the popularity of crime and forensic dramas like CSI. Satire—easily found in political cartoons and in the comic strip Doonesbury, for instance—attacks the established world. Finally we have parables, including those we know from Christ as storyteller in the four Gospels, which seek to subvert the world. Crossan explains that myth and parable are at adverse poles of the fivefold story typology because while myth by nature reconciles two opposites, parable “brings not peace but the sword,” acting as an agent of change in the world that myth has established. Parable turns myth on its head, as can often be seen in the stories Jesus tells; it “shows us the seams and edges of myth,” as Crossan puts it.
I would also add that on a less complex level, telling stories enriches both groups and individuals through simple entertainment. There are plays and films and novels and poems and pieces of music and artwork that serve to reinforce or shape a culture’s moral code or recounting of history, but beyond those purposes, some things are just purely beautiful and inherently good. Yes, there are socio-historical reasons why a Shakespeare sonnet or a psalm or an aria sung by Pavarotti are helpful, but they are also wondrous and awe-inspiring and uplifting. Do we need stand-up comedians in order to push ethical boundaries through satire or reinforce the existing moral conclusions of a society by retelling the myth of the Western gunslinger in a humorous manner? To some extent, yes. To another, they are simply funny and it is good to laugh.
Narrative and Storytelling in Constructing Personal Identity: Life-Stories
“When people talk about their lives, they tell stories. It is through stories that we often learn the greatest lessons for our lives—lessons about success and failure, good and evil, what makes a life worth living, and what makes a society good. It is through stories, furthermore, that we define who we are. Stories provide us with our identities.”
Thus states Dan McAdams, one of the major figures of the burgeoning field of narrative psychology, which describes how we as people use stories to shape meaning in our lives. With the supposition that the human experience has a storied nature in how we communicate to one another, it is natural to consider the effect within a person’s own self which telling and forming stories can have. Through stories, experts in this field argue, we frame our lives in terms of what they mean.
As we emerge from infancy and grow up, humans gain the capacity not only to recall events from our distant past but also the ability to develop a sense of becoming a narrator of our own experience. In a collection of writings entitled Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative, editors Dan McAdams, Ruthellen Josselson, and Amia Lieblich speak of this phenomenon as the forming of “narrative identity,” which is defined as “the stories people construct and tell about themselves to define who they are for themselves and for others” or “internalized and evolving life stories.”
Both narrative identity and life stories shall become important terms for the purposes of this study, for they describe significant events within a person by which they construct the stories they tell to themselves (life-stories), which in turn shape their concept of self (narrative identity), which then influences how they lead their lives.
I will use a friend of mine as an example. About five years ago her mother died suddenly while hospitalized for complications with her diabetes: she was given the drug Vioxx and suffered a heart attack, which caused her death. While her mother was in the coma which preceded this imminent end, my friend stood alone at her mother’s bedside and told her mother a secret decision she had formed within herself: she intended to go to seminary to become an ordained minister. After this series of events, my friend had several options about how she could frame this sequence within her life-story. Certainly it would be natural for a person to feel a number of emotions during the grieving process: anger, guilt, sadness, fear, regret, melancholy, and so forth. But she also had options about the motifs with which she could frame the story of these events within her mind, and those themes would help her place it within the larger context of her evolving life-story.
For instance, my friend could make its primary theme that of rage with the pharmaceutical company whose product could have caused the sudden heart attack; such a prevailing idea might make her feel more bitter and betrayed, and might lead her to intense and costly legal action. She might never be able to trust companies or even authority figures such as doctors and researchers again.
Another choice would be allowing sadness or fear to take over. To be sure, many of us who have had this happen in a major way (i.e., developing an anxiety disorder or depression) are not at fault. But at other times, a person may be (somewhat consciously) choosing to let fear and sadness become the reigning emotional factor in their lives. My friend could have let these emotions become the prevailing theme in her life: she could have begun to see herself as helpless, powerless, too vulnerable, and life as too frightening to actively live anymore. What might have happened? She may have decided that it’s not worth the risk to form meaningful relationships because eventually those people will leave her (by death or emotionally). She may have come to the conclusions that no risks are worth it—that seminary could only be an exercise in failure and she should just stay in a job she disliked because at least it was familiar.
I am glad to say that what actually happened was that my friend, after a normal grieving process, internally shaped these events into a story of fully becoming her mother’s true daughter: a woman who wanted to publicly proclaim her faith on a professional level. She saw this as carrying out her mother’s legacy—a way to pay tribute to her memory by being her best self. So after a healthy grieving process, she slowly put her plan of becoming an ordained minister into motion. The story of the daughter actively faithful to her mother’s memory was placed within the larger framework of her life-story and narrative identity, and she acted according to those assumptions about herself.
The evolving life-stories and therefore narrative identities that we build about our experiences braid the disparate elements of our lives together into a purpose-giving whole, making them coherent and meaningful—something we can make sense of and refer back to when making decisions about our lives. In fact, life-stories and narrative identities play a very large role in how we proceed with future resolutions and thus the manner in which our life-stories play out. After all, in the above example, it is the one who paints herself as bitter victim that sues the drug company or hospital (whether it is necessary or not), it is the one who sees herself as too breakable that does not allow herself to gain any strength or risk any loss, and it is the one who believes that her mother raised her to be courageous and giving who prepares to become an ordained minister. When we tell ourselves who we are based on conclusions we’ve made about our past, we truly are making self-fulfilling prophecies.
To some extent, life-stories also express multiple facets of a person’s selfhood. Within a person’s narrative identity, they may use stories within their larger life-story to think about many different roles that they could play. One man might simultaneously be a husband in a struggling marriage, a father of children whom he loves deeply, an avid sports enthusiast, a caring friend who likes to hang out with his buddies on a regular basis, an accountant in a firm that is going under, a son of divorced but still loving parents. . .and so on and so forth. Jesus himself was the Son of God, a carpenter-turned-itinerant rabbi, conceived in a controversy that may have perpetually followed his mother socially, born in a time of social upheaval with Caesar’s taxation and Herod’s decision of slaughtering innocents, a cousin to a prophet, raised under Roman rule by Judeans, and so on. It is clear that being a human is a complicated, multifaceted phenomenon which is not easily defined. Add to that the limitless possibilities of interpreting these different roles and you have the perfect mixture for the endless diversity of identity among people.
It is understandable that narrative psychology is a very complex field, for the way in which people form their narrative identities through the shaping of their life-stories is extremely intricate and constantly evolving. While we can never fully understand another person’s process of forming narrative identity (or even our own process!), it can be very helpful to understand that it is one’s interpretation of life’s events which shapes what they think of themselves and the groups with which they choose to associate. With this insight, we can better realize how helpful it can be to pay attention to the importance of telling our stories and listening to other’s stories in the process of building relationships.
Narrative and Storytelling in Building Relationships
“Millions of Americans are searching for a usable past as they seek to remember faith in a changing world,” Diana Butler Bass states, pointing out that these people are “searching for a place in the human story, a place that connect[s] them to history, where they might belong.” Butler Bass’s observation is one of many that describe a contemporary sense of disconnect among people with the past, tradition, and one another. Building personal partnerships—in a word, simply reestablishing relationships in a society that so thirsts for connection—is fundamental to not only revitalizing the Church but also to feeding people’s deep hunger for family through the work of the Spirit in human relationships. As such, it is important to explore the ways in which storytelling serves to build such connections.
There’s a saying that has been circulating in recent years that goes something like this: “sharing the good news is where your story, my story, and God’s story meet.” I have found this statement to be imbued with particularly good insight and wisdom. After all, even if one simply proclaims the Word of God to a person, that person is listening to it and relating it to their own life and what they’ve experienced and known, testing it to see if they can agree with what the other person is saying. More than likely, the person telling “God’s story” is also naturally using examples from their own life about how they have experienced the gospel. Whether we know it or not, these three sets of stories—God’s, mine, and yours, are converging all the time.
Sometimes, though, “your story” and “my story” aren’t consciously combined or compared, and this is why friendship doesn’t happen. For instance, a person might regularly watch a televangelist’s program, in which the preacher regularly proclaims the Word of God, and the viewer feels that they can completely identify with the preacher and even feels close to them because of it. But does the preacher know who the viewer is? More than likely not, because there would be too many viewers for that preacher to meet and personally get to know. So the preacher becomes personally important to the viewer, and while the preacher may hold his or her viewers in high esteem in general, he or she doesn’t know that viewer from Adam, so to speak. The televangelist has a one-to-many connection, but the viewer craves a one-to-one relationship.
Another sort of example: I know that there are many lonely and poor AIDS orphans in Africa, and I may choose to join an initiative to join the ONE campaign to get my government to send money to impoverished countries in such situations. I have feelings of compassion for these distant people, and perhaps if these folks receive aid and know how it got to them, they feel gratefulness for me, but we don't actually know each other in any real way. We can’t be friends until we each learn something about one another—until we hear one another’s stories from each other personally (although not necessarily in person). We must form a kind of personal partnership.
This connection between “your story” and “my story” can often be a missing but crucial element in the relationship among Christians and between the Church and those whom its members seek to reach. We want to work together because we know it’s an inherently good concept and it could be mutually beneficial, but we might find no real motivation or impetus for forming a relationship because the other person or party is a large question mark or a blank to us. I like working together with other people, but do I really want to make time to meet Dorothy K. Jenkins from St. Matthew Lutheran in Petersburg if I have no idea who she is or how she might be at all interesting or useful to me? (It may be a cruel thing to say, but I’m fairly certain it’s the kind of thing that many of us end up thinking from time to time).
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)’s Global Mission unit uses something which they call the accompaniment model to train its missionaries. The thought behind accompaniment as a model for mission work is that of walking with/living closely with the people whom they seek to serve, for the word “accompany” comes from the Latin “to break bread with” (in the English language, it has picked up similar concepts like “to be a companion”). The theological inspiration behind this concept is that of the Road to Emmaus story in the Gospel of Luke, which describes the way that God walks with us. Starting from their definition of accompaniment as “walking together in solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality,” the ELCA Global Mission unit recognizes that relationships are at the center of mission, and that they aren’t necessarily easy:
“Relationships take attention and time: time to listen and get to know one another, time to share meals. . .time to affirm one another, time to forgive, and time to speak difficult truths in love. So, as simple as it sounds, telling and listening to one another’s stories may be the missing link in the ways we sometimes go about forming meaningful Christian relationships. What we learn about who each other is can be a great motivation to want to work together, spend time together, and perhaps even take care of each other. That’s the basis of friendship, and the core of the difference between meaningful relationship and a faceless business contact.”
When a good relationship—built upon hearing one another’s stories—is cultivated first, people are able to become friends, who are then able to become partners in mission and Christian life together. After all, as biblical storyteller Arlene Flancher says, “Stories and questions are seeds when they are placed in the dirt of everyday life. Infused with a little God-given warmth and rain, before long a faith grows that looks nothing like the seed it sprouted from. We are transformed by stories, questions, and the mysteries inherent in them.”
Relationships as Stories
It is important to mention one final note about the prevalence of stories in our lives: relationships themselves become stories both in that a relationship collects notable events surrounding the parties involved, and that the nature of the relationship resembles the structure of a story. Story structure will be discussed at greater length in the following section, but it will suffice to say for now that every story contains many intricate elements: the introduction of characters and situations, growing conflict, a climax or resolution of conflict, falling action or denouement, and a closing point.
Of course, many of our relationships last much longer than events which are described in many novels, plays, or films (with notable exceptions such as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and other literally epic undertakings). So it can be said that the entirety of a relationship follows a story line and different periods in these relationships follow their own story lines. For instance, I do not yet know the entire course of my relationship with my brother Nathan because we are both still living (and in communication), but I could describe the story line of our relationship as children, or “zoom in” closer and describe the plot of a summer, or go in even more closely and examine the ups and downs of the occasion when, as grade-schoolers, we were both in the wedding of our Aunt Sarah. Smaller trials and tribulations and joys and exultations rise and fall and circle within the larger narrative of our life together as sister and brother, and both the smaller and larger stories have been formative and are informative to figuring out our own identities.
With this in mind, we can begin to examine a way in which storytelling can be used within the larger, already growing stories of our relationships with one another. Storytelling as relationship-building, whether it is consciously used or not, can fail during the introductory phase of a relationship, during times of rising tension and climax and falling action, and even during the close of a relationship. Relationships—built of shared experiences and the telling of life-stories—become new stories to tell.
Part II: Using A Storytelling Model for Building Christian Relationships
During the course of my diaconal ministry project with the Lutheran Mission Society, I was granted the wonderful freedom to seize a number of different opportunities for exercising the storytelling model in building relationships. These circumstances offered the chance to implement the model for use between Christian organizations, churches, and individuals. In my larger study of the form of stories and how they shape us, it was helpful to study traditionally described models of story to discover how relationships follow these patterns.
Figure 1: Huber’s Story Bell Curve
The model shown above is taught by Dr. Robert Huber, professor of theater arts at Cerritos College. Huber uses traditional ideas of story structure in charting the level of tension (y) over time (x). At the beginning of the story, it shows gradually growing tension. Next, there is dramatically mounting tension in the middle; one should note the mini-crises within this portion that create smaller peaks and valleys. Finally, a climax announces the transition to the story’s end, where the tension falls off dramatically in the denouement.
In my own exploration of the story structure within relationships, I have attempted to rephrase the models of others in order to make them more recognizable within our day-to-day relationships, particularly within a Christian context. For the purposes of this project, I have replaced a few terms. Exposition signals not merely the beginning of a lived story but also the introductions of its characters and situations, ending with equilibrium established between parties. Unsettling denotes not simply a rising tension but also an event which disturbs the peaceful equilibrium; it may not necessarily be seen or experienced as tension. Epiphany carries obvious Christian connotations, and modifies the traditional idea that a climax of tension concludes the action of a story; I am suggesting that any sort of new realization changes the urgency of action within a story. Finally, “settling” mirrors the earlier step “unsettling,” signifying the transition into a “new equilibrium,” or a new status quo. Things may be radically or only slightly different than they were when the characters began this story lived together, but they will never be quite the same because these people have lived new experiences together.
Exposition: The Scene is Set
The exposition portion of a story introduces the characters, the circumstances in which they are currently and have been (backstory), and the setting in which it all takes place. This is how the audience and the characters come to know each other in order that action can take place among them; before action, introduction is necessary. To the extent that we can control some of the circumstances in the introduction to a relationship, we have the opportunity to set the tone for that relationship.
Introduction Made Incarnationally
Social networking on the internet is currently all the rage at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. There are many qualities which recommend this phenomenon to people both on personal and professional levels: it is convenient, enabling you to connect broadly, even globally with people you would otherwise have lost contact with or you would have never known, and it allows you to quickly determine a person’s whereabouts, plans, priorities, opinions, and interests. Conveniently, broadly, and quickly, we keep in touch with people we already know/have known and meet/get to know people we may not have met otherwise. Tools such as this are a unique and helpful way to forge and strengthen the bonds of relationship between human beings.
Convenient, broad, and quick can be great qualities in communication insomuch as they avoid pitfalls like difficulty in making connections, having only a narrow community with which to converse, and experiencing a “lag time” in getting a message thoroughly across. Unfortunately, characteristics such as convenience and ease, broadness, and quickness contain an increased possibility of preventing experiences of meaningful connection in relationship. Do convenience and ease sometimes circumvent hard, complicated, deeply involved work among people to have a conversation with them and get to know them? Does broadness of talking/keeping in touch bring a danger of spreading oneself too thin? And as far as communicating quickly, could that stop one from spending “quality time” with a friend because one doesn’t need to invest much time anymore in talking or checking in with that person?
For instance, my Facebook page tells me that I have 250+ friends, and I know that they live on six different continents. I could send one line of greeting to half of them once a month, I could examine new pictures that they have posted, and I could learn the news of all their important life events and milestones in absentia. But I only talk to around ten percent of them on a regular basis in person, on the phone, via letter or even email! I care about these people, but if the entirety of my relationships continued to be largely based on such convenience, broadness, and quickness, those relationships would lose the fortification which made them solid in the first place. And while online social networking has its value, these sites generally work best with friends with whom one is already strongly connected or with acquaintances communicating on a surface level about similar interests.
I would speculate that meaningful relationships must at some point have both parties exerting a certain amount of time and effort into forming a connection. Of all beings, God—especially in Christ—knows this reality. Our Trinitarian God is the supreme communicator, constantly talking to us, inviting us to talk back through prayer, and sending us signs, messengers, and miracles throughout God’s history with humanity since God’s creation of us. However, Jesus Christ, the person of the Trinity made flesh and sent to dwell among us, is the One who could most observably be said to have engaged in regular life among us. Christ walked alongside us, touched us with hands and arms (and spit and mud, for that matter), lived and conversed and told stories and argued and laughed and wept and sweated and bled with us. Christ knows how messy relationships are. He lived with a group of disciples every day and moved among large crowds on a regular basis. Although our three-in-one God is always present among humanity, this presence of Christ physically among them was for his disciples always self-evident in its consistency and degree of depth. So Christ has become a model not just for living together but for building strong relationships in a true body of Christ among all God’s people. I have chosen to focus on this particular person of the Trinity for the purposes of this portion of my work, although many more volumes could be written about all (or multiple) aspects of the Godhead as relationship.
I emphasize Christ’s incarnation to say that strong relationships are built among persons through the means of presence, not paper. Even the apostle Paul, famous as he was for writing epistles to faraway communities, could only successfully do this because he spent so much time with them in person first. Good relationships are the stuff not of possessing data about one another (how many members at a church, how many in regular attendance at how many services, etc.), but rather of living side by side and gradually learning largely subjective, unquantifiable information. Building strong relationships is about experiencing disagreements and confusion and apathy yet finding ways to live for excitement, learning, discussion, and sometimes harmony. It is troublesome and terrifying but tremendous; it is deep; it is slow. This is the basis from which future “convenient” engagement can have a possibility of effectively proceeding.
Since healthy Christian relationships are complicated, it is important that the parties involved consciously take part in what I would call an incarnational introduction. One can learn abstractly someone’s name and intentions from a letter, and one can “read” a voice over the phone, but most meaningful interaction begins after hand is in hand for a shake, after eye contact is made and body language can play a part in understanding one another. Many times we observe or are part of an introduction, and one of the persons says, “It’s nice to finally meet you,” or, “It’s nice to put a name with a face.” Even in the 21st century, we generally still acknowledge that true meeting only takes place in person. This may seem like a simple observation, but for churches and other Christian organizations and assemblies who seek to “do outreach” as a part of God’s mission in the world or to “make appeals” for support of many kinds, this is important to realize and acknowledge. Good relationships are built on regular presence with one another, and since no person, church, or organization can spend significant time with all those with whom they wish to communicate, a decision must be made about the parties with whom they believe a deep connection involving significant time is worth forming.
Having resolved that the relationship and therefore the investments of time and presence are worth it, it is time to place palm against palm in a handshake, and as Christians, to hear the Word of God together, to take the bread and wine together, and to respond together in active love to God’s redemptive acts in creation. Like Christ after the resurrection, our continual action is entering together into communion—both liturgically and personally—with the greeting, “Peace be with you.”
Beyond learning the names and clapping eyes on one another is familiarity, which grows into camaraderie and shared experience: new stories lived together within God’s story. It is in this space where people can begin to truly get to know one another, but only when they feel comfortable enough to share the stories that make us who we are.
(end of part one; please proceed to part two)