Friday, October 4, 2013

A long time ago . . .

       . . . in a univers(ity)* far, far away, there came a time of [reckoning].  I was serving on a committee at UC-Berkeley that was meeting to plan a student leadership conference.  It was our first meeting, and so it seemed appropriate to the student co-chairs that we do an ice-breaker.  Their choice:  "Mild or Spicy".  If you are new to the collegiate ice-breaker scene, this meant that each person chose "mild", "medium", or "spicy" (i.e., like salsa) -- in other words, the other members of the group got to ask questions of the subject that adhered to those categories.  So, if a person chose "mild," they might be asked, "What's your favorite color?" or "Where did you grow up?"  The "spicy" questions?  Well, you can imagine what might be asked in such a crowd.  The "medium" questions were somewhere in between.
       The chairs had allotted around 30 minutes for this exercise.  There were about fifteen of us, so that allowed two minutes apiece to be grilled.  As it turned out, I was the last in the rotation, sitting just to the left of the co-chair who started.  So, when it came to me, there remained only about 30 seconds to answer. I chose "spicy" -- just to put the students off-kilter (I was one of the only non-students there, and certainly the only one in a clerical collar).  After my declaration of "spicy", there was a deafening silence.  Finally a student, with whom I'd served before on a different committee, asked, "So why ARE you in the religion biz, anyway?"  We all laughed, and I said "In 30 seconds or less????"  Then, after a moment's thought, I responded, "It's the best way I've found of making meaning of life."  The questioner nodded like, "Okay, I'll accept that.", and the meeting continued.
       I tell this story relatively often; I may have even recounted in one of these meditation/reflections some years ago.  But I tell it because it helps open conversations about the other stories we know (either about us, or that appeal to us) that help us make sense of the world.  But more than simply make sense of the world -- they are stories that help us find meaning and purpose.
       The great religious stories of our traditions have "worked" for centuries because they function that way, that is, they help us find/make meaning.  They are true, yet they transcend "fact" (although many people might want to reduce them to that level -- either to "prove" or "dis-prove" their relevance in our "Just the facts, ma'am" world).  Of course, different traditions tell different stories to answer equivalent questions -- and the answers may not coincide.  In my opinion, that's okay.  They've stood the test of time, and so, have clearly provided answers, meaning, and hope to generations.
       We are a people who tell stories.  Clearly some are meant to be little more than entertainment.  Some are speculative, giving us a vision of a different world.  Some are meant to provide context or perspective.  Some are morality tales, hopefully to guide, or correct, behavior.  But, then, there are the stories that are told, and retold, to situate us in a much larger narrative.  They help us find our place in the grand sweep of things.  In my words to the committee, they help us make meaning of life.
       I find myself bombarded by many "stories" these days.  Whether they are of international events, congressional squabbles, scientific discoveries or weather events, I've had to remind myself that these "stories" don't make meaning; they cry out for meaning-making.  And, generally, that requires us to dig deep into our storehouse (story-house?) for those wise stories that have helped make sense to various and varied peoples for generations.
       What are the stories that help yo make meaning these days?  Share those the next 


Chaplain Gary

*  Yes, I know it's supposed to be "galaxy"!  Let me have a bit of poetic license!


  1. One of my favorite ways to express the importance of stores, as told by author William Kittredge:

    "We live in stories. What we are is stories. We do things because of what is called character, and our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in. Late in the night we listen to our own breathing in the dark and rework our stories. We do it again the next morning, and all day long, before the looking glass of ourselves, reinventing reasons for our lives. Other than such storytelling there is no reason to things."