Every August my friend and colleague, Dale, preaches–does pulpit supply–at his local parish (St. Mark’s Episcopal) in our hometown. He always has something valuable to say so I ventured forth eagerly on a recent Sunday morning to hear him even though “church” is something I gave up years ago.
Dale began his sermon noting that the news he reads online every morning while striving to keep an “ordered” and “routine” life is overwhelming. Institutionalized racism, poverty, addiction, and lack of healthcare are problems that affect us all. We live in the “wilderness”–both physically and existentially. How do we cope? He asserted that the Bible explores humanity’s response to what we call “the human condition” and then proclaimed, “Darkness does not have the last word. God does. Hope triumphs.” Dale’s sermon reflected a perspective based on the tradition (story) he embraces–Christianity, however, the “particulars” of Biblical stories have universal themes. One of the functions of religion is to create a “reality” that enables hope. Dale gave three Biblical examples of “wilderness experience”–examples that included the promise of hope.
The first example: Hagar (Genesis 16) tells the story of Abraham’s concubine who had a son, Ishmael. God, according to the story, promised a son to Abraham and his wife, Sarah, even though Sarah was well past her childbearing years. Sarah offered Hagar to Abraham “for procreation purposes” and Abraham obliged. As the story continues, Sarah eventually has her own son, Isaac. During Isaac’s “weaning party,” Ishmael, a teenager by then, mocked his half-brother. This enraged Sarah. Sarah complained to Abraham. Abraham told Sarah to do as she saw fit. Sarah saw fit to banish Hagar and Ishmael from the house. Alone in the wilderness with her son, Hagar called upon God and God provided sustenance (water), giving her hope. Ishmael’s lineage resulted in a great nation.
The second example: Moses’ leading the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for years, often losing heart in spite of God’s provision of manna every morning. They complained. “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand back in Egypt! There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Exodus 16: 3). The children of Israel, according to the Christian story, are the lineage through which came Jesus, the Messiah, the one who gives hope by delivering people from their sin.
The third example: Prophet Elijah’s “dark night of the soul” (I Kings 19). “Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life….’” It’s hard being a prophet. Most times, people do not want to hear what prophets have to say. Elijah, exhausted and depressed, fell asleep under the tree. An angel woke him, provided him with nourishment and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” God provided sustenance for Elijah’s journey, giving him nourishment and hope.
How do we not give up as we go up against the things that comprise our own wilderness experience–institutionalized racism, poverty, addiction, and lack of healthcare? It’s all about the story. The three examples Dale used serve (as all stories do) as a lens through which to view the world. What we consider “truth” is really story verified by our own experience. We’ve all been in a wilderness. We all have stories to tell about sustenance in its midst and deliverance from that wretched space. By fitting ourselves into the stories of a tradition, we sustain its “truth.” We take comfort in those stories–another way religion “works.”
Because of my Christian background (raised on Biblical stories), I learned to perceive the world through a specific lens. So, I easily plugged into the sermon’s thrust. My wilderness is “alienation”–never quite belonging. For whatever reason(s), living within society–any society–is uncomfortable. I just don’t “fit in.” However, for over ten years, Dale and I have been friends–a friendship that grows stronger and deeper all the time. I might even articulate this as “God provided the sustenance of friendship for me in my wilderness.” There’s even a bonus. I count Dale’s husband, John, as my friend as well.
I think all religion is, first and foremost, a story. How do we get hold of experience? Through the vehicle of story. Stories vary from person to person and culture to culture, but when all is said and done, stories carry the distress of our human suffering, the hope for a way out of that suffering, and the joy of our triumphs. The stories that shape human beings–whether Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist–take root in particular soils. We (humans) spring from a wide variety of soils. Our stories are different one from the other in the particulars; however, I think it’s important to find a story’s essence and not get caught up in the story’s particulars–circumcision, virgin birth, Muhammad’s night journey, etc. What universal truths can we tease from the story’s particulars? And then how do we connect our own experience to them?
Stories are not “how-to” manuals. Stories reach and inform us on a deeper level–the place where our values take shape. The values many of us hold dear (love, justice, mercy, compassion, joy), having been shaped by the stories that inform us, carry with them the potential to eradicate institutionalized racism, poverty, addiction, and lack of healthcare. A “how-to” manual fails because it lacks the ability to put that fire in our souls needed to accomplish the task. Only stories can breathe that fire into us.
It’s not likely I’ll ever again become a regular church-goer. As Carol Christ wrote in her recent essay, “No Longer Moved…by Symbols that Once Moved Me Profoundly,” “…the Easter drama is no longer my drama.” Nevertheless, I like attending St. Mark’s occasionally. Why? They are an outrageous and diverse congregation. The members seem to live passionate, quirky lives while loving their neighbors fiercely. They even warmly welcomed the likes of me!
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.