A few months back, near the beginning of winter, Rachel Coffee and I joined folks from other congregations in the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance (LSEA) for a story-telling event at Mrs. Murphy & Sons Irish Bistro in Northcenter. Pastor Liz was there with Jasmine and Lynette. Pastor Bruce was there with Sarah from Kimball Avenue Church. Arriving just a couple minutes before the first storyteller went on, we had to take seats near the back of the small upper room where the event was taking place. So we crowded in next to one another, shoved our coats and bags under our chairs and made small talk while we waited.
We were there at the invitation of Pastor Rebecca Anderson, a Disciples of Christ minister working up in Glencoe and planting a new church in Rogers Park. Before she was a pastor, she’d been a stand-up comedian, and now she moonlights as the host of a monthly story-telling event called “Do Not Submit.” She’d invited us to this particular event as background research for a grant proposal the ecumenical alliance was working on that would enable us to hire her as our Artist-in-Residence for the upcoming year. Our hypothesis and our hope was that an intentional focus on story-telling at this moment in our communities’ lives would strengthen each congregation’s individual worship, could build stronger relationships between the members of the LSEA, and might make our public advocacy more effective to the extent that we could share a more compelling story with the world about who we are and what we stand for.
My point is, we were there in that Irish gastropub sipping on our pints for a good churchly reason, but all that went out the window the minute the stories started.
That night we heard the story of a woman’s painful coming-of-age at the Indiana state fair. We heard a high school aged boy tell us about the death of his first love. We heard Rebecca tell us about the day her father left the ministry. We heard story after story — some heartbreaking, some hilarious — and with each story shared something incredible happened: we went from being a room full of strangers at an Irish pub to a community of wayfarers, recognizing elements of ourselves in each of the stories told. We weren’t just being entertained, though there was no shortage of laughter. We were being humanized, because there is something sacred about sharing your own story with other people. We know that, instinctively. Which is why the testimonies you offer here during worship are so important. They make us real to one another in ways that simply sitting next to one another cannot.
By the end of the night any awkwardness we might have felt as members of separate congregations who didn’t really know each other all that well had melted away. The event was over, but we lingered afterwards, slowly finishing the last sips in our cups, reviewing the moments in each story that had really stuck out, wondering if we had the courage to do something like that ourselves.
Pastor Bruce said, “It felt like church!” and he didn’t have to explain what he meant. We all agreed. It felt like church, even though it was just chairs in a crowded room and a succession of strangers behind a microphone. It felt like church. A ritual in which we each have a role, using stories and sacraments, wine and bread or a drink from the bar, to point to a reality we each inhabit but rarely stop to reflect upon. Questions drawn from first person experience and offered to one another: Why do we hurt one another? How do I live after a death? Where do I belong?
In its description of the new Jerusalem, the book of Revelation says,
“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there.” (Rev. 21:22-25)
And because his death is still so recent, I couldn’t help but hear:
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Electric word, ‘life.’ It means ‘forever,’ and that’s a mighty long time, but I’m here to tell you there’s something else — the after world. A world of never-ending happiness. You can always see the sun, day or night…” (Prince, “Let’s Go Crazy”)
Maybe it seems irreverent or silly or just cheeky to mix the sacred and the profane like that, but Revelation would seem to indicate otherwise, promising that in the new world there is no need for a temple to house the presence of the Lord, because everything has been made new and all that God has made has a place in God’s presence.
As if to illustrate the point, we get a story from the book of Acts about Paul’s trip to Macedonia, to the north of Greece, where he meets Lydia who is remembered as the first “European” convert to the Way. It’s the kind of story that tosses out details without following up on them, so that we are left with all sorts of unanswered questions, leaving room for our imaginations to play.
For instance, in Paul’s dream he sees a Macedonian man pleading for help, which is offered as the reason Paul undertakes this journey — but we never hear from the man again. Instead Paul encounters Lydia. Who was that man? What was that dream? Some have suggested that the dream figure is God calling out to Paul, and from that derive the point that God is always ahead of us, already present with the people we encounter throughout our lives. That we are not “bringing” God to anyone, for God is already and always everywhere we might go, in every interaction in which we might engage. But who knows, that’s just a guess.
Then, Lydia outside the gate by the river, called a “worshipper of God.” Why is she outside the gate? Is it simply to get close to the clean, flowing water? Perhaps. Is she not welcome inside the gate? We don’t know. What to make of the fact that she is worshipping God on the sabbath in a Roman colony outside Judea with a name that does not sound very Jewish? In fact, her name appears to be a reference to her homeland, as Lydia is a region in western Turkey, and Thyatira a city within it. So she seems to be an economically independent foreign woman whose worship practices already include offering worship to the God of Israel on the sabbath.
She sounds like so many women and men I know who draw wisdom from any number of traditions to create their own kind of faith. Maybe a childhood foundation in Christianity (though maybe not), combined with yoga or maybe meditation. In another decade it might have been New Age thought or self-help literature, now it might be Eckhart Tolle or “Super Soul Sunday” on the Oprah Winfrey Network. People open to experiencing God’s presence in many ways, as Lydia was when she met Paul by the river. Scripture says, “The LORD opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” (Acts 16:14)
As soon as she and her household are baptized, Lydia invites Paul and Timothy to come and stay in her home — just as Cornelius, the Roman centurion had invited Peter into his home after Peter’s vision of the sheet descending from heaven. Over and over again in the book of Acts the disciples discover an unexpected openness among all the people they’d been conditioned to overlook in matters of faith. People they meet as they travel far from home. People among whom God seems to be already present, already laying the foundation for a new relationship, a new church, a new world.
Jesus said, “those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23) It’s a funny pairing with the story from Acts, where Paul and Timothy come to Lydia and make a home with her. Jesus shares these words with the disciples before he dies as a way of consoling them, of promising them that God will not abandon them. But the story from Acts would suggest that the way God accompanies us is via one another. That the evidence of faith is a heart open enough to receive the gifts others might bring, and the willingness to invite into our homes people whose stories will necessarily change us.
I found out late last week that we got the grant, which means that over the course of the next year Pastor Rebecca will be working with all the LSEA congregations as our Artist-in-Residence. Inside our congregations she’ll be working with people who want to offer testimony in worship and want some additional coaching on how to craft a good story. She’ll also be organizing story-telling events outside of worship at which members from all the congregations will come and share true, first-person stories from their own lives. Finally, the culminating event will be next year’s Easter Vigil, at which we’ll be reinterpreting the salvation stories through the lens of our own experiences in an ecumenical festival of story telling. Can you imagine the ways we will be opened to each other by what we hear? It will be church like we’ve never seen, or like we’ve begun to see, but now coming more fully into view.