Are you ready for a "New Story?"



My Dear One,


Last weekend, I attended the New Story Festival in Austin, Texas. It was the first year for this progressive Christian festival, being created by a team that includes Gareth Higgins, co-founder of the much larger Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. It was inspiring, reminded me that most new beginnings are hard and fitful, and articulated a much bigger question that I wonder if you share with me: “Am I ready to tell a New Story with my life?”


I don’t recall how I came across the fact that this festival was happening. It just kind of came on my radar about a month or so ago. I wondered how I’d never heard of it before until I realized it was the first year. So I decided to go. I arrived at the starting time Friday evening expecting a large crowd only to find I was one of the few people there. The crowd eventually grew to several dozen, but not the hundreds I expected or the thousand organizers said registered to attend. The unseasonably cool and wet weather for the weekend wasn’t helping the cause.


New beginnings are sometimes slow beginnings. But they are important beginnings nonetheless. They are planning to do it again next year. I’m excited and plan to go.


I was there to hear the keynote speaker, rev. angel kyodo-williams, a female, African-American Zen priest. I’ve heard about her but had never heard her speak or read any of her work. She gave a jaw-dropping talk on the origins of slavery in America. This was stuff none of us learned in history class. The first black people brought against their will to America were not technically brought as slaves, they were brought as indentured servants with a contract to serve for 7-8 years and then be set free. I think I knew that much. A man now known as Anthony Johnson was one of the first 20 indentured servants brought to Jamestown from Africa. When his indentured servanthood was over, he became a landowner and took on other indentured servants, among them a man named John Casor. But when Casor’s time had ended, Johnson sought for the courts to declare him a slave for life … and won. Thus, the first black man arbitrarily made a slave in America was at the hands of a black man with a similar story. This I did not know. rev. angel said it was shockingly new news to her as well and it appeared to be so for the others in attendance. This struggle over the power of personhood vs. property between these two black men, both of whom had been kidnapped and brought here against their will, opened the door for slavery as it came to be in America. It is a painful reminder that sometimes it’s not just “them” that leads to the oppression of “us.” Sometimes “we” are a party to our own oppression. Both Johnson and Casor were bound by a “contract.” Neither got what they bargained for. Here's a link to a fuller version of the story.


rev. angel then asked us to consider what “contracts” we are bound by, how relationships, society, the government, religious institutions, all operate on contracts, some written and some unwritten. And each contract comes with clauses that we probably didn’t bargain for. But, she reminded us, contracts can be torn up or at least re-written - either in ways that liberate the oppressed or in ways that further oppress them.


“In what ways do we stand on both sides of that line?,” she invited us to consider.


It was a lot to contemplate. I’m still mulling it all over. It’s a bit of a gut punch. It is a deeply profound question. And I say this acknowledging that I am a privileged white guy who hasn’t faced oppression on nearly the level of most of my brothers and sisters in God’s family.


I’d already come to the festival with a lot weighing on my mind. After her talk, I needed to dive into something much lighter for my own mental well-being. So I went to one of my favorite hangouts, South Congress Avenue in Austin, grabbed a beer and joined the party at The Continental Club, listening to a kick-ass set by Two Tons of Steel that lasted until 1:30 in the morning. It felt like a very small personal liberation of sorts. After years of denying myself (and being denied by others) permission to enjoy this kind of “aliveness” I was deep in the middle of it. I love live music. It felt good to allow myself to enjoy life just this little bit, even among these strangers.



I slept outside the club in my car that night. I awoke to find a homeless person had gone to sleep on the sidewalk next to me. Another gut punch. There we were, so very close, neither of us sleeping in a bed. And yet, I know we are in such very different places. It was a reminder of the failure of contracts. As a follower of Jesus, I have an unwritten contract with, or better yet a kinship with and a compassion for, the person sleeping on the other side of my car door. What to do? How are we to live in a world like this?


The next day, back at New Story, I attended a discussion between Gareth Higgins and Brian McLaren. Gareth is the aforementioned coordinator of the festival. Brian is a well known Christian author that I’ve written curriculum for in the past (though we’ve never met and he surely doesn’t know who I am). They read from their new children’s book, Cory and the Seventh Story. It is a fable about how we divide the world up into “us” and “them” and how Jesus offers an alternate way (The Way I am writing about in following The Way), though many of us still prefer the familiarity of our places in the old, pre-existing orders.


There it was again, a call to ask what part of the story I am playing and if I was happy with how that story was playing out. I am not. None of us should be these days. Our story is not going well. And, again, I say that from a place of comfort and privilege. Still, I’m not comfortable with how the story is playing out right now. Jesus won’t let me be comfortable with it.


  • I’m not comfortable with the continuing immigration crisis on the border a few hundred miles south of me, which has again taken a turn for the worse in the last two weeks.

  • I’m not comfortable with the fact that 1 in 5 children in our country has to worry if they will have enough food to eat this week.

  • I’m not comfortable living in a society that seems hell-bent on regressing to an older, more racist and homophobic, contract that I thought just a couple of years ago we could take for granted had already been torn up. I should have known better.

  • And I’m not comfortable with limiting my ability to speak out about these things in an effort to “fit in” with my various communities.


A few years ago, when there was an increase in undocumented children entering the U.S., our local county commissioners wrote a letter to President Obama to not send any of “them” here. It was an empty gesture. But it also wasn’t. How could we treat children this way, I wondered? They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Where is our compassion for them? I let two of the local commissioners know so in a heated meeting at our local ministerial association. I learned today that meeting from years ago continues to be a source of real division amongst the local clergy. That and the fact that a couple of years ago some of us invited an imam to come talk with our community about Islam. One local pastor at the time told his people from the pulpit that their job was to convince people who went to churches like mine that I was leading them astray and their souls were in jeopardy under my leadership. In being civil and friendly with a Muslim, I had “abandoned the teachings of Jesus Christ.” That’s bullshit. We should all know it by now. But we don’t. Our social contract explicitly allows for such hatred and “othering.”


(Don’t tell them about this WayPost where I recounted the time I visited a mosque as a child … or do.)


But I can’t be anything other than what I am. I’m not interested in a contract that allows for anything less than that. I have lost a lot recently in my personal life. But being authentic about my love for all God’s people is not something I am willing to sacrifice. As Cynthia Bourgeault has pointed out, the call to “love your neighbor as your self” doesn’t mean to love them as much as you love yourself. It means to love them as if they are you: no division, no distinction, we are one. Love them as self, Jesus says. It echoes his words in prayer to God: I am in them. They are in me. And we are in God together.


I cannot hate them or seek my own welfare or dignity over and against theirs, despite what our competitive, us vs. them, power and domination contracts allow. They are bad contracts that we’ve all been convinced are acceptable. But they are not.


And so I am committed to walk even more intentionally into following The Way. I desire to walk even more intentionally into working with you to create a community of people who abide by our baptismal and basic human contract to respect the dignity of every human being, to work for justice and peace, and to not be afraid of God’s truth wherever it may be found or whoever’s mouth it comes from: Democrat or Republican, Mexican or American, Christian or Muslim, … Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female for we are all One in the Lord.


I’m thankful you are a part of this journey with me. I seek your support as I do this work and proclaim this gospel. I’m excited about much that is to come and a new story for myself of speaking more deeply and loving more widely.


So here's this week's Soul-based challenge: let's be in prayer for one another. I ask for your prayers as I walk further into this new chapter of my story. I want to be in prayer for you as well. What new story would you like to be writing with your own living? What are your fears? Where are you drawing strength and hope? Email me to let me know so I can be in prayer for you as well.


following The Way,

Rich

Here is a prayer and a hymn for your journey this week:


O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. - from Evening Prayer in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal


And one of my all-time favorite hymns:

I know not where the road will lead

Author: Evelyn Atwater Cummins (1922)


I know not where the road will lead

I follow day by day,

or where it ends: I only know

I walk the King's highway.

I know not if the way is long,

and no one else can say;

but rough or smooth, up hill or down,

I walk the King's highway.


And some I love have reached the end,

but some with me may stay,

their faith and hope still guiding me:

I walk the King's highway.

The way is truth, the way is love,

for light and strength I pray,

and through the years of life, to God

I walk the King's highway.


The countless hosts lead on before,

I must not fear nor stray;

with them, the pilgrims of the faith,

I walk the King's highway.

Through light and dark the road leads on

till dawns the endless day,

when I shall know why in this life

I walk the King's highway.


© Rev. Rich Nelson.  All rights reserved.  www.revrichnelson.com

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