We are our stories and so we need to know our own stories and be able to call upon them, understand them and be able to see what it is they say about us during our lives.
Knowing our own stories…
Our own personal journey is shaped by our stories we tell ourselves and which are made visible to those around us as these stories provide insights to others about how we see ourselves. Learning how to tell stories as a story-teller, the ‘art of story-telling’ as a work and gift to ourselves and others is critical in holding in our bodies and keeping in our minds the memories of experiences and understandings that accumulate over the years of our lives, as we live into our relationship within the Spirit in God.
I am a human being, with a past, present and future. I constitute myself and understand myself as a subject with a continuous history of experience (Williams 2013:25).
Consequently, how I see myself and understand my story is critical in understanding primarily my relationship with God and then, consequently with others. My actions, understandings, perceptions are enacted in my behaviour and responses to others and to myself and become visible on a daily basis.
As a human being created by God, I reflect on the fact I am not trapped or confined in the present moment. I have a past; I have a future. Having a memory, releases me from bondage to the present and gives me hope for the future.
This hope in and for the future arises from being made complete in Christ, through my stories and memories, my actions and beliefs; and as a human being, both in the daily betrayals and shames, guilt and failures and in the repentance and forgiveness, which offers hope. It offers the transcendence from the bondage of these betrayals and of being and placing myself outside of the relationship with God.
My memory and imagination provide me with a critical understanding of the present. When the power of the present and the present facts are challenged as we come to see the present as contingent upon the choices we have made, are currently making and will make we hope, we are able to gain new insights for our future decisions. We learn to act and learn to hope. Memory can be the ground for hope and there is no authentic hope without memory.
To affirm our personal identity, our value, solidity and reality in situations where this is being crushed and denied, to affirm I am, you are, all of us are each a spiritual being, spirit-filled by God and we are not just flesh and bones, but embodied, as a body filled with the Spirit in Christ; involves the owning and recovering of our past from and in our memories, which can become and does become a liberating memory.
However, we often think of memory differently. When I think about memories, I can think about past living, with moments and times full of shame and guilt, hurt and diminution, invisibility, humiliations, exclusions, judgements and deliberate, wilful blindness deafness and the choice to inflict pain and violence. When I contemplate and recover those memories and those stories about me, and if it is unbearably painful, an alternative record of moral or spiritual shrinking, or deprivation, how then is it possible we can feel liberated? How can we be liberated?
The bitterness so often inhabiting our past and present and contaminating the future, is sown unseen by ourselves, without reflection or deliberate consciousness. Our memory and handling of memory has the potential to, and frequently does, trap us.
Our past can trap us at various points, and we do not notice how our understanding of our motives in fact has been undermined or been invisibly unrecognisably devalued by factors to which we have not paid attention.
We can all testify to the hard truth that much of our memory is the recollection of vast self-deceptions that need to be processed and understood and called…
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Little Gidding, II. 138-142 (The fourth and final poem of TS Eliott’s four quartets – 1942)
And so, when it comes, forgiveness is never abstract. It is addressed precisely to these particularities. This absence of Spirit and God. If forgiveness is liberation, it is also a recovery of the past in hope, a return of the memory, in which what is potentially threatening, destructive, and has been despair-inducing in the past, is transfigured into the ground of hope for the present and the future.
The vision of the victim as Saviour, of Jesus Christ as victim and Saviour, operates to remove our sense of threat and fear; it makes it possible to remember, because we are assured our destructiveness is not the last word.
So how does forgiveness work? How does the restoration of memory and the stories we tell, not only work to remove our fear, but positively turn the past of guilt and injury into a resource, the ground upon which a much richer identity can start to grow?
So where am I going with this – I am going to the betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as this allows us to see the way forward as companions
Like the first disciples and followers, our stories are ones of desertion, failure, shame and guilt and misunderstanding and betrayal.
The story in John’s Gospel of the ordinary fishermen working on their nets after Jesus’ crucifixion, becomes a story of the memory being transformed as Jesus asks Peter three times, ‘do you love me?’, as Peter and Jesus rewrite Peter’s future and is past is reshaped to enable his future in God.
Simon has to recognise himself as the betrayer, it is his past; and it is his past that makes him who he is.
If Peter is to be called again, if he can again become true apostle, the ‘Peter’ that is the purpose of Jesus, rather than the Simon who goes back into obscurity as a fisherman, it is Peter who needs to emerge. His life, his failures must be assimilated, lived through again, and brought to good use rather than destructive issue.
The recovery of these memories is never the recovery of lost innocence. This is not about regression. The assimilation of our past in Christ, into the present and the future, allows us to become people previously with a history of betrayal and emptiness into a present time of forgiveness and see emerging, a future of hope.
Simon is still Peter in the eyes of God. Our betrayals, collusions, mistakes, hurts, fears and absences from God, do not make God betray us, it does not take away the identity God gives us. What Peter has to learn is his betrayal does not make God betray him, so his calling as Peter, Apostle is still there, waiting to be lived out
On the far side of resurrection, vocation and forgiveness occur always together, inseparably.
Simply to be given back the past of wrong and hurt is not a transaction of grace. We know and have experienced the restoration of wrong and hurt and recovery of memory without change can only be viewed and contemplated with terror and despair. What happens in the resurrection, is this memory is given back in the context of Jesus, in Jesus’ presence.
We know for many the presence to God can be excruciating, some hate and reject the possibility, but when God is embodied in Jesus, revealed, the victim who will NOT condemn, we can receive forgiveness and grace.
If God’s presence is Jesus’ presence, the past can be borne. For the Lord who returns, bringing our memories with him, is as he always was, the Lord who waits on our Love: ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’
Jesus is seeking a response, an engagement, and a new relationship. The past is returned within a lived relationship that is evidently moving and growing. To know Jesus and to know Jesus still invites us, is to know he accepts, forgives, bears and absorbs the hurts done; to hear the invitation is to know oneself forgiven and vice versa.
So the memory of this failure in this context is to know a ‘calling’ forward into the future in hope of my true self completely known and open to God.
What Peter may learn, is wherever he may find himself, however he may fall, his life is constantly capable of being opened to God’s creative grace: God’s presence in Jesus will not fail him.
The story of the last supper and as we re-enact with the Eucharist, is introduced into the community, with the recognition of Jesus’ gift, ‘on the night he was betrayed’… Those who eat at Jesus’ table are his betrayers, then as now.
Yet from the death and hell to which our betrayal condemns him, he returns to break bread with us as before. The Eucharist is never a simple fellowship meal; not even a fellowship meal with Jesus. Its imagery always and necessarily operates between the two poles of Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday, between Gethsemane and Emmaus, between the upper room before the crucifixion and the upper room into which the risen Jesus comes and is present among us.
The sense of truthfulness that emerges from this experience, which Christ restores to us, sustains us as a constant, self-critical, alert, prayerful turning back to Jesus as a gift from the in-dwelling Spirit.
Our identity as restored betrayers, as welcome enemies, is grounded in the present act of God in our Christian communities, bringing Jesus before our eyes. We are given both a past and a future, a vocation and calling. We become transmitters of hope and our new identity is bound up in the destiny, calling to transmit hope, to preach the gospel.
Consequently, my opening question and reflection, on how our personal journeys influence our capacity to companion others, lives in grace-filled tension between Gethsemane and Emmaus.
When men and women, young girls and boys, recognise truthfully the reality of pain, deprivation and oppression in the world and in their own lives and react with passion and engagement, they have turned into the void of being lost and into an unspoken unrecognisable, formless hope.
Rowan Williams tells a very moving story of a young man in Belfast, who had been drawn into a Protestant paramilitary organisation and had been told to kill someone and if he refused, he would be killed. He told his mother who saw his despair. She was able to say eventually, after listening to him, that death was better than murder. Later that day, he killed himself.
While this may be construed as despair, it is also a passionate refusal to accept the terms on which the option had been presented and is a protest by someone who sees clearly that the world in which they live is intolerable, and the young man has taken to the decision not to abuse his humanity by colluding with what the world prescribes.
There could, and might have been other ways to protest, but as an act of refusal, an act fiercely protesting against collusion with the world’s violence, it is, a converted act, so tragically, so obscurely, as to be barely intelligible and understandable as such, yet within the appalling confines of the situation as felt and seen by the victim, still a statement the human world is not-at-home, estranged, improper when it closes itself up with threats and murder (Williams 2013:42).
And the one who has thus turned away in refusal in a trapped world, may indeed be turning to hear his or her name called and spoken by God.
Calling and Protest
Protest affirms there is meaning in the world. Even without resources or power or effectiveness. Protest affirms the hope there is a name for the nameless, a face for the lost, good news for the poor. Protest is taking note of the Calling into action as Peter and Mary. And in the resurrection Gospel, we see the right of all peoples, women and men, young and old, to have an identity, the capacity to be responsible and self-aware sufficiently to take action.
The saved human being, whether young or old, woman, man, is one with sufficient sense of his or her dignity, selfhood and resourcefulness to love generously. To such people, the restoration of self, the sense of the ‘restoration of story’, a memory, brought into the present and to be able to have a perspective is indeed a vocation to pursue a building of this world in which this right is fully realised.
Our name is called by God, as Jesus called Mary, Peter, Thomas, Paul, and all the others, and who God is still calling, it is then a transformation of our story, in which we may have courage and hope to own ourselves as sinners and makes possible the trust we need to grow.
It is through this calling by name and being known that we are able to companion others and continue to grow into Jesus throughout our whole lives. Demonstrating and living like this takes our whole lives.
Hannah Arendt, a Jewish philosopher who survived the second world war and escaped war torn Germany and France and ended up in America wrote about the trial of Adolf Eichmann….
Arendt tells a story about a witness at Eichmann’s trial, a Pastor who was questioned as to the words he had spoken to Eichmann in his role as a Christian leader about the murders and genocide which Eichmann was committing. The Pastor was unable to state he had said anything to Eichmann about these matters.
Her conclusion that words become deeds and our capacity to speak into the reality of betrayal, violence and death must be one we recognise and actively do wherever we can to shift from betrayal into life, from despair into hope.
When we think about our life’s journey with and in God, and with each other, what are the characteristics we might want to see and be living during our companioning. And why do we choose to take action, become a disturber of the peace and follow in Jesus’ footsteps….
The first step is to recognise in our own stories and relationships we are of equal value to God, every human being is related to God before they are related to anyone or anything else. God has defined who we are and who we can be by God’s own purposes. People can refuse their calling or remain unaware by choice; but God continues to call them and to offer them what they need to fulfil their calling. And the degree to which that calling is answered or refused has consequences for eternity.
This means that whenever I face another human being, I face a mystery. There is a level of their life, their existence where I cannot go and which I cannot control, because it exists in relation to God alone – a secret word God speaks to each one, whether they hear or refuse to hear, in the phrase from the prophesy of Ezekiel. The reverence I owe to every human person is connected with the reverence I owe to God, who brings them into being and keeps them in being. I stand before holy ground when I encounter another person – not because they are born with a set of legal rights which can be demanded and enforced, but because there is a dimension of their life I shall never fully see; the dimension where they come forth from the purpose of God into the world, with a unique set of capacities and possibilities. The Christian disciple will have the same commitment to human rights and human dignity; but they will have it because of this underlying reverence, not because of some legal entitlement.
It means that there are no superfluous people, no ‘spare’ people in the human world. Everyone is needed for the good of all. Human failure is tragic and terrible because it means that some unique and repeatable aspect of God’s purpose has been allowed to vanish …the Christian gospel declares that there is nothing more Godlike and precious than a single human person.
It means therefore, that a human person is worth extravagant and lasting commitment. A human being deserves complete attention and care, whether rich or poor, whether they will live for a day or for nine decades. (Williams 2016:64-65)
As we companion and think about ourselves, we think about those we companion, who choose us or whom we choose. What might they look like and in our work as a vocation and calling, who are we companioning and why?
We can also think about what our calling or vocation looks like; not a one-off, single event, but God’s calling throughout our lives, increasing our capacities, changing them, life experience and circumstances. It is important to reflect on how this can assist in shifting and moving us, in growing and changing, learning and being present in God.
‘Calling all years good’…and what does that look like? Our understanding of how God’s call to us changes over the years as we change. Given each of us is unique and precious, our calling too is the same. This give us hope which comes out of being in relationship with Jesus. Hope is not simply a confidence in the future, it is a confidence that the past, present and future is held in one relationship that becomes bearable, because we are never abandoned.
As people of the Gospel we must seek to be marked by patience, with other human beings, in an environment and world where everything is about choice, where things seem to be unclear and the dualistic, simplistic offerings are unworkable.
We must seek to be marked by love, a love that delights in the other, not simply by ‘doing good’. We must refuse to delight in another’s failure, it is not demanding or judgemental, it is in relationship and in community, it is dependable.
We must also have a recognition that faith is God’s gift in us, we don’t have to know, understand, or be capable, but simply God requires us to step back from confidence in our own resources, and have faith and trust in God.
Where have I ended up?
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
Arendt, H. 1994. Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin Group, London.
Cahalan, K.A., Miller-McLemore, B.J (Eds), 2017. Calling All Years Good. Christian Vocation throughout Life’s Seasons. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Levertov, D. 1997. The Stream and the Sapphire New Directions Books, New York
Williams, R. 2013. Resurrection. Interpreting the Easter Gospel. Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd. London.
Williams, R. 2016. Being Disciples. Essentials of the Christian Life. SPCK London