January 10, 2021 – Stepping Stones

Growing up, I loved being outside.  Our house was across the street from the local park.  In that park, there was one place which was my favorite to go – a group of about 15 pine trees which grew together and formed a sanctuary in which I could hide.  I would spend hours climbing the evergreens and creating forts in the heights of their branches.

There was also a creek which ran behind our house.  During certain times of the year, this creek would flood.  And water would run through the park to the creek behind our house.  This was no small trickle.  It was like a raging river which divided my house from my beloved pine grove.

The first time I experienced this flooding, I thought I wouldn’t be able to cross until the flood subsided.  But upon closer investigation, I discovered one place I could always cross.  In one section of the creek there were several tall rocks.  These rocks became my bridge, a set of stepping stones that led across the barrier of the raging waters.  Some were a space apart, so I had to approach them at a run.  But the stones were sturdy.  They did not wobble under my feet.  They were a stable place which allowed me to move across what seemed insurmountable, to get to my place of safety.

Reflecting on my life, there have been times when I have had to cross something which seemed impassable.  I think back to the years my mother battled breast cancer, to when I realized I now longer wanted to practice law, when Kathy and I were told that our adoption of Pax may not be able to proceed due to changes in government restrictions.  Times when I sought to move from one place to another but was unsure how I would get there.  Times when it seemed that I was surrounded by rushing waters, unable to move from one place to the next, times I was looking for solid ground to stand on.

Looking back, I have seen that there have been stepping stones which have allowed me to find a path which was not readily apparent.  Events which have provided a solid footing when the waters are rushing by beneath me.  Decisions which I made which have greatly influenced my life.  People who were a foundation on which I stood.  Conversations which helped define how I view myself, what I offer to the world.

All of us have these stepping stones.  Stories of our lives which define us, which make us who we are, which give us strength in those times when it seems there is no path ahead.  And in those times when the waters are raging around us, when there seems no path ahead, we can look to those stepping stones and find a place to stand, remember the sources of our strength, cling to the foundations of who we are.

As I was reflecting on our topic for this week, I remembered one such event which was a stepping stone for me.  I attended law school in Champaign at the same time my best friend was attending graduate school for architecture.  We have known each other since we were five years old, and have never lived far apart.  When I started law school, all of the stress and change of environment caused me to be unable to sleep.  And for almost two weeks, I slept only a few hours.  Nothing seemed to help, and I felt like I couldn’t function any more.  Hoping a change of environment was what I needed, I called my friend and asked if I could spend the night at his place.

My friend always slept on his couch, so I got the bedroom.  Covering the floor of his bedroom were elaborate models of the structures he designed in graduate school.  Beautiful models of buildings he spent months creating.  Much to my surprise, I fell asleep easily in his apartment.  But during the night, perhaps due to my extreme exhaustion or the change in surroundings, I walked in my sleep.  And I walked right onto those elaborate models.

Waking up standing in the midst of the wreckage, I panicked.  I ran into the living room to deliver the news of the destruction to my friend.  I had no idea how he would react.  Would he throw me out of the apartment?  Would he fly into a rage?  His response was what I should have expected, but didn’t.  He told me not to worry about it, to go back to bed and get the sleep I needed.  Even though I felt incredibly guilty, I also felt incredibly grateful – not just that he didn’t kill me but that I had such a caring person in my life.  And even though it seems like a small event, a little story over the course of a lifetime, it was in that moment that I realized this person would always be by my side.  That maybe for the first time I could say that there was someone in my life who would not forsake me.  And that event, that friendship, became a stepping stone on which I could stand, a solid ground as I took steps forward in my life.  And in those times when I felt alone, I could remember that story and draw strength from it.

The stories of our lives which have shaped us into who we are not only provide a foundation for us as we move forward in our lives, they also allow us to connect more deeply with one another. Our stories provide stepping stones to others, a path to a more profound connection.

The power of our stories has been demonstrated scientifically.  NPR recently did a report on how stories connect us to one another.  Research of MRI scans demonstrated that “many different areas of the brain light up when someone is listening to a narrative, not only the networks involved in language processing, but other neural circuits, too.” “One study of listeners found that the brain networks that process emotions arising from sounds — along with areas involved in movement — were activated, especially during the emotional parts of the story.”  This research indicates that our brain waves begin to synchronize with the storyteller.  The greater one understands the story being told, the more closely the brain wave patterns were shared by the storyteller.  One researcher said, “It’s as though I’m trying to make your brain similar to mine in areas that really capture the meaning, the situation, the schema — the context of the world.”  Listening to stories helps us to discover what motivates others’ actions, helps us understand situations from different perspectives.  So much so that it can shift the way we see the world, what we believe.  As we continue to remember a story and think about it, the memory of the story is reinforced bringing about a shift in our attitudes.

It is this power of story which often connects us to our spirituality.  It is evident in the Jewish writings of the Midrash.  Throughout the Hebrew Bible are stories that provide a narrative for the establishment of a unified Jewish people. Oftentimes, though, there are questions about these stories that remain. Whether it be explanations for the actions or behaviors of biblical heroes, background information for some of the stories themselves, or even insights into God’s thought and reasoning behind events, the Hebrew Bible requires commentary to fill in the gaps. In the case of Torah, the rabbis wrote stories called midrashim that built upon the stories found in the Torah.  And these stories when combined with the Torah become a foundation of faith.

Story telling was also central as the movement surrounding Jesus began.  In the years after his death, groups of his followers tried to keep his memory alive and tried to understand what Jesus meant for them.  Their stories were a way for them to speak their understanding of Jesus.  Through the process of their story telling, we see them define Jesus for themselves.  Stories that were eventually written down in the gospels.  And stories were central to the teachings of Jesus we have recorded in those gospels.  As we heard in our first reading this morning, Jesus chose to share his vision of the Kingdom of God through story so those following him could relate, could understand, could align their own stories with the story of God.

Story is central to how I engage in ministry and practice my own spirituality.  My most hated class in seminary was preaching.  Hopefully few of you are thinking that you could tell based on my performance so far.  But what I didn’t like about it is that we were supposed to follow the same formula, and we were told not to share personal stories about ourselves.  When I first started as a minister, I rebelled against that teaching in particular.  And you will probably find that stories are the central part of the way that I speak.  There were probably be few if any reflections that you will hear with me as your interim where there will not be at least one personal story.

One of the most influential spiritual practices for me also centers on story.  Several years ago, our regional minister Teresa encouraged me to attend training at the Center for Courage and Renewal.  This is an institute begun by Parker Palmer.  At the retreats I attended, we participated in Circles of Trust.  Circles of Trust are designed to create safe space in which we can share our stories with others.  In sharing those stories and inviting questions from others, we are able to listen more deeply within ourselves to the meaning of those stories, what they tell us about who are at our core, and what they may tell us about our path ahead.  But these circles also allowed deep relationships to develop, much more quickly than I have experienced in other settings.  In sharing these stories, not only were we able to listen more deeply within ourselves.  I began to listen more deeply to others.  To see them more fully, to embrace the entirety of who they were.  Connections were created much more quickly.  Relationships developed over the course of a few days which remain long after.

Stories are sacred because they encompass who we are.  As we share our stories, we are able to grow in understanding and build relationships.  We are able to draw strength not only from within ourselves, but from the experiences of others.  Our stories become not just a stepping stone for us, but for others as well.  They become foundational, a jumping off point in our movement forward.  Our stories define who we are as a community, binding us together in a shared history.

The pandemic we continue to endure has caused pain in so much of our lives.  And one of the most painful effects has been the sense of isolation, the feeling of disconnection from others.  I want to create an opportunity for us a community to address that sense of isolation in the next few months as we anxiously await the day we will be able to return together in person.  A chance to share our stories of how we are in our spirit as we move through these difficult times.  To build on the deep connections which already exist among you, to build on the trust you have developed with one another.  To provide each other with stepping stones for the path ahead in this community.  When our steering committee meets later this month, we will be exploring this and what it could look like in this community.  My hope is that our shared stories become a source of strength, a source of hope, in this time of uncertainty.  That they can become, in the words of the poem Karen read this morning, a new place to step or stand.  Amen.