Psalm 78 recounts the importance of passing on the stories of God’s saving love in our histories to those that will come after us – the next generation including, yes, our children & grandchildren but also young people in our lives to whom we are mentors.
I can remember those who did this with me growing up. I remember daddy telling me how each of the pieces of God’s good creation we saw alive and active by the fishing hole were made by God with a purpose and how I was too. I remember my grandmother walking beside me as I was a little boy telling of her life, her history, speaking about both faith and also granting kernels of wisdom. I remember Eddie from church, who told how he taught himself to read in order to read Scripture. He told me of his daily fight between “Eddie and that ‘other Eddie’” the one who could be selfish and cruel. I remember a schoolteacher named Phyllis who shared about her faith in personal stories and small acts of kindness.
Each of these individuals, and many others, shaped my faith. Their stories helped root me in the larger story of God’s working in the world. The psalm suggests this rooting is not just supposed to be in personal stories but also in the tales of God’s great acts in our history: the freeing from Egypt, the feeding with manna in the wilderness, the journey to a new land. For me such a story also includes the fiery preaching of Hildegard of Bingen against the excesses of wealthy and powerful men in Medieval Europe, a preaching that broke the rules of “women be silent”. This wider story includes St. Patrick of Ireland who is freed from slavery by the hand of God and led through that same hand to reach back to those who once enslaved him with the message of freedom. It includes Martin Luther & the nailing of the 95 theses, it includes churches in England who said they would rather follow Scripture than bishops. It includes here in the US churches that helped resist slavery, helped organize to free those found in the Amistad, and who joined Sojourner Truth & the Grimke sisters in speaking up for human dignity for women and people of color. I could go on…
Learning to root ourselves in this story and to root those we help pave the way for helps create a wider perspective. It helps us remember not to simply buy into the values of our time blindly, but to continue to look around us with the eyes of justice and compassion.
I find it interesting too that the psalmist talks about this larger story that gives us perspective as a kind of “parable”. Parables were tools Jesus used in his teaching too. When Jesus gave parables they were either stories or illustrations that often could not have been literally true but pictured the world as it would look lived out by different rules and expectations. These parables were misunderstood when approached literally but opened the hearers’ minds to a whole new vision of life when the black and white, either/or approach to life which often held sway was put aside.
The classic example of this is John 3, where Jesus uses the parable of rebirth, telling Nicodemus he must be born again to see God’s larger perspective which Jesus calls “the kingdom”. Nicodemus balks at this, saying how can he a grown man crawl back into his mother’s body? I mean, I don’t even fit anymore!
Nicodemus’ crass literalism leads him to miss the point. Yet read mystically this story opens you up to new awareness – to the presence of the Spirit all around us in whom we can re-enter the womb, becoming open to new way of seeing the world that “birth us” into it afresh.
I am not sure what the author of this Psalm meant in using a word we translate “parable”, but I have to wonder if such a choice not only points us forward to Jesus but also suggests an approach to the story of salvation in Scripture and our lives.
So often we get caught up in what happened literally, in a black and white way. Was Abraham a real person or is he a symbol for all people who find faith through their wanderings? Did the plagues of Exodus actually happen? Which version of Easter — in Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, or 1 Corinthians – is accurate since they all vary on details?
Even outside Scripture, we have such debates. Within the church, different communities remember their experience of God in the same events differently. Were the pilgrims people of faith building a new way of being community not bound by oppressive monarchies and episcopacies? Or were they thoughtless Europeans who began a theft of land and oppression of people of color both indigenous to the Americas and from Africa?
I think this talk of parable suggests that, though search for the historically accurate version of events can be valuable, it is not the point of what the Psalmist suggests. Rather the point is to hear the stories of salvation in all their rich imagery and metaphor as openings to a view of the world far wider and deeper than literal language allows. And let the contradicting accounts all stand, as giving important lessons. We need Mark’s tentative approach to Easter which leaves us with scared women told to go to Galilee but without a clear resurrection appearance, just as we need John’s richly detailed accounts in which the disciples are left with no doubt. Both give us important insight into how we experience new life breaking forth out of death, and the presence of the living Christ today.
We also need to hear fully the story of both those who were the mainstream of our faith background, and also the stories of people of faith who stood on the fringes because of social oppression. They both experience God but their unique stories shed light on different aspects of Christ’s character and also the limits their background give them in seeing the full picture reminds us to be careful about not underestimating our capacity to “get things wrong”.
As we share our stories and listen to the stories of God’s deliverance in other’s lives we open our minds so that we can better see how to participate with a living God in the work of setting free, healing, and breathing life into our beautiful but often broken world. That is a work worth doing.
Let’s do it together.
And I sure ain’t whistling Dixie
Your progressive redneck preacher,