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Stories to navigate by.

Lost and Found: Stories from the Rubbish Heap

A friend recently lamented that her favourite theologian had taken up writing novels. “I loved his theology, but I’m not a fan of his fiction.”

My response was one of a new respect for the theologian.

To my mind the greatest theological challenge is to take a distilled piece of doctrine and ask “what would this look like if I came across it in a novel?”

After all, life happens in story and the Bible happens in story. Shouldn’t the interface between the two be seamless?

Extracting Data from Source Material

In the summer of 1993 I worked at an archaeology lab in the Negev desert. All our material came from the Mid-Late Bronze age site at Tel Haror near Be’er Sheba.

Everyday the field crew brought up buckets of broken rims from ancient cooking pots dating back to 1400 BCE. Every day the rims were sorted in the lab, a fraction were catalogued, bagged and sent on to Ben Gurion University for analysis.

And every day mountains of picked-through potsherds ended up in the rubbish pile.

That, of course, is how the scientific method works. Hypotheses are made from extracted source material, conclusions are advanced in academic circles and the data is either catalogued, discarded or recycled.

And archaeology has long sought to establish its credentials as a bona fide field of academic study. To do so it has needed to downplay its storied past and prove it can swim in deep water when it comes to quantifiable assertions. Indiana Jones hasn’t helped the cause.

In a similar way, since the time of St.Paul, Christian theologians have sought to present faith as a system of reasoned thought with measurable outcomes. For obvious reasons the Judeo-Christian scriptures have been the primary source material in this credibility project. Biblical narrative is sifted through, parsed, spliced, weighed and measured for doctrinal content then recycled until the next inquiring scholar comes along.

In this way Bible stories suffer much the same fate as Bronze Age potsherds. They are processed for their potential contribution to a larger field of study.

This sifting through biblical narrative is modelled to children from the moment they step into most Sunday school classes where Bible stories candy-coat doctrine. As if their too-tight Sunday shoes aren’t painful enough.

I’ve spent my career observing children as they respond to the telling of Bible stories. Often there is an initial moment of promise when the earth quakes and the tomb rips open and Roman guards fall to the ground like dead men.

Eight-year olds lean in, bug-eyed.

Then comes the moment that tips them off. The story is just a front. Set in motion to solve a problem it didn’t create. Usually it’s a change in the teller’s voice. After all, she too is operating under coercion to deliver on something larger.

In a right-leaning Sunday School “something larger” will have to do with giving one’s life to Jesus. In left-leaning, about giving Jesus to one’s life.

Either way, kids sniff it out. Their gaze drops. They get silly. They rib-check the person sitting next to them. They look at the clock.

Storytelling Makes a Comeback

Fortunately there are signs that stories as ways of knowing are making a comeback. They aren’t just fodder for psychology or theology or sociology after all.

It turns out science has its work to do, and so do stories. They may be mutually beneficial but one is not subservient to the other.

It wasn’t that long ago that “stories” – whether myth or fairy or folk or bedtime or Bible – were considered something for children or pre-literates. That the adult mind was believed to have graduated to higher states of knowing. So why the breakthrough?

There seems to be a slow awakening in our post-religious, post-mythic, post-modern imaginations that our souls are underfed. And a collective remembering that what nourishes the soul are stories.

In a world overwhelmed by crisis, the mythic imagination slowly emerges from the fog as something to navigate by. Deep, ancient, unwieldy stories offer beacons when climate change disproportionately impacts the world’s poor, sign posts when youth depression and suicide is on the rise, gravitational pull when forcibly displaced people end up on the streets of our neighbourhoods.

The growing interest in Indigenous knowledge is to thank for leading the way. It recognizes storytelling as the deepest form of medicine, treating injuries of mind, body and soul with traditional and contemporary stories:

Today, some of the most popular Indigenous novels and poetry are stories of resilience born from trauma…These were not simple lessons of coyotes getting into mischief, but lessons from the deepest pain… how to overcome the deepest levels of grief and adversity. Navigating trauma with the help of storytelling encourages resilience…the alchemical process of story as medicine.”  Story as Medicine:Indigenous Storytelling as a Path to Resilience, Siena E. Loprinzi

Speaking recently on a School of Mythopoetics podcast, celebrated international storyteller, Martin Shaw, noted “the reason oral storytelling will not go away, is because it has this radical purchase on your imagination. If I’m doing my job…I’m going to start hurling keys from the stage and whatever kind of cave or cage or prison you might find yourself in, that key is going to bust you out.”

As someone who has spent my entire career advocating for Bible stories to be given their voice back, this cultural resurgence in oral storytelling comes as exciting news.

I only hope it hasn’t come too late for biblical storytelling. That trust hasn’t been irreparably lost. Audiences have their guards up. It’s hard for sermon-jaded, post-Christian, Sunday School traumatized audiences to relax into the narrative arc of a Bible Story without feeling an undercurrent of suspicion. How will I be corralled at this tale’s end?

One of the great gifts of working with children is that they don’t have as much unlearning to do. Story is the air they breathe. They are forgiving listeners. Always ready to give a good story a second chance.

Sacred Canopy‘s approach to biblical storytelling is one that has long practised full immersion of kids in the story and leaves it at that. Let the connections happen as they happen. Nevermind the story is too big or unwieldy. Never mind that kids don’t always “get it” the first time through. Nevermind that it might take them a lifetime to live all the “aha” moments where they discover for themselves the pathways of grace, community, downward mobility, non-violence and forgiveness.

Treasure in the Rubbish Heap

I never did follow the science on our archaeological field work that summer in 1993. I didn’t keep up with the academic journals and don’t know if our lab results provided any breakthrough insights toward a collective understanding of human impacts during the Levantine Late Middle Bronze IIA .

What I do know is that before leaving the field school I went around to the rubbish heap of discarded potsherds behind the lab and pocketed a random rim fragment to keep as a souvenir.

To this day the sherd sits in a small archaeological collection on a bookshelf in our living room. Sometimes I stop, pick it up, and turn it over in my hands. I marvel that this same piece of pottery was handled by another human being as alive 3500 years ago as I’m alive today.

It speaks to me of human ingenuity, the vast arc of time, the brevity and mystery of life, the interconnectedness of generations. I know it’s not the full story, but for me such soul-generated glimpses into the past have always been story enough.


Navigating the Narrows: A Lenten Metaphor

My grandfather’s cottage sits atop an outcrop of Canadian Shield granite in southeastern Ontario. There is no road access. It is a journey of two lakes, and between the lakes lies “the narrows”.

As kids we’d pile into his motorboat at the landing, a weekend worth of groceries packed around us. Poppa would fire up the engine, adjust the throttle, and we’d roar down the first lake, aptly called Long. We’d lean into the spray as the boat raced between towering cliffs of pink-grey granite, high-soaring turkey vultures overhead.

The shoreline tapers at the end of Long Lake and an abandoned beaver dam marks the point of transition into the shallow channel between lakes. The immediate threat was always the fleshy stalks and feathery fronds of aquatic plants entangling the engine’s propellers. Poppa would cut the engine and tilt the motor out of the water.

We’d enter the narrows in silence.

It was we grandkids’ job to keep a lookout for rock shelves and boulder piles while Poppa navigated the danger by poling our way along with an old canoe paddle. Glacial debris from an ice age ago lying submerged just below the water line could damage the underside of the boat.

I’d lean over the side and let my finger cut a “v” in the water, becoming alert in the low light and quiet to this netherworld overhung with fallen birch limbs, shorelines tangled with wild blueberry and poison ivy, frog noses just above the water line, basking turtles, water striders dimpling the glassy surface, the slime green glint of rock bass in the muddy depths below, and everywhere the swampy smell of decomposing matter.

Then suddenly we were through. The bottom would drop away beneath us, bright sun bounce off the waves, and the sky open out onto the wide expanse of Loucks Lake. Poppa would again fire up the engine and off we’d shoot across the bay.

On the far shore sat the cottage, majestic on its perch amidst the pines, a world out of time. Within minutes we’d be diving from the weathered dock and eating baloney sandwiches to our childhood heart’s content.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of a season marking Jesus’ passage through the harrowing narrows of death (and our fear of it), to fullness of life on the other side. He invites us to follow.

This year as I take up the seasonal invitation, I’m reminded of all I learned about navigating life’s narrows over fifty years ago from a small passageway between two lakes in the Kawartha Highlands: slow down, pull up the motor, proceed in silence, watch out for hazards, expect fecundity amidst the decay, travel with others, and most of all, anticipate the deeper magic hidden from view that awaits on the other side.

The End of Sunday School

It’s a strange feeling to be in a profession that is slowly collapsing. As a religious educator I have been hired by churches across the denominational spectrum to work with an institution that is now running on fumes: Sunday School.

It makes for a daily exercise in humility when the initiative I have built my career around is used in popular culture as a synonym for something bland and boring. “A Sunday School answer” suggests a response that is either rote, naive, ill-informed or just silly. “Sunday School morals” implies a set of values that are out-of-touch, old-fashioned, inexperienced, even repressed. The expression “You won’t learn this in Sunday school!” condescends. It implies that the thing being spoken of is edgy, daring, exciting, controversial in contrast to the simplistic, one-dimensional, predictable, and uninspired Sunday School.

Satirizing one’s Sunday School experience has become its own sub-genre of pop literature complete with caricatured teachers and deplorable theology.
On the drive to church for the first time, I sat in the back seat, excited and nervous for this new experience,” reads one post on the 28,0000 followers Facebook group, Raising Children UnFundamentalist:
My parents brought me to a bright-colored room with other four-year-olds and a teacher who was the largest woman I’d ever seen. She was white and she was in charge. My parents left and the moment was more data for my abandonment issues later.
“Sin makes your heart black,” the giant explained. She wore a baby blue, floral-patterned dress and coke-bottle glasses, her light brown hair slightly matted against her damp, pale skin.
“Have you ever lied? Have you ever stolen? Have you ever been mean? Then you’ve sinned. Sin separates you from God. He hates sin. He can’t look at it. Someone had to come along to satisfy His wrath. So He sent His son who lived a perfect life, with no sin, to die for us. He was crucified. They took a long spike and nailed his hands and feet to a wooden cross,” she explained gravely.
Horror. She was telling us a horror story.

Dumping on Sunday School is low-hanging fruit in the culture wars, easy points for those wanting to distance themselves from institutional religion. After all Sunday School, being Sunday School, is unlikely to defend itself.

The press is bad. Yet, all is not lost. If there is one thing Sunday school has done well in its brief 250-year history, it’s pivot.

It got its start as a movement for social reform in mid-18th century England, a time when the children of factory workers and farm labourers received no formal education and typically worked alongside their parents six days a week sometimes for more than 13 hours a day. In response to the poverty and associated rise in juvenile crime in his community, a newspaper editor by the name of Robert Raikes opened the doors to his home on Sundays and used his Bible to teach children living in the Gloucester slums to read and write. Other households and churches followed suit.

A hundred years later, the Education Act of 1870 rendered Sunday School’s basic literacy mandate redundant. The movement regrouped to fill another need in the social fabric becoming a place for young people to gather. Sunday Schools on both sides of the Atlantic, became known across denominations for hosting picnics, sporting teams, debate and drama clubs. Facilities were built and staff hired to support the influx.

Then, in the post-war era extra curricular activities were increasingly secularized and monetized. Municipal governments took up the community-convenor mantle and registration for Sunday school clubs and social groups dwindled. Staff were laid off and buildings abandoned.

But the Sunday school movement didn’t disappear.

Instead it scaled back to the one remaining mandate that had never been far from its core: the teaching of Bible stories to children and youth. Sunday Schools moved into church basements where most can be found today, sustained by church volunteers and meagre church budgets. The sale in pre-packaged, ready-to-use Sunday School curriculum is a multi-million dollar industry in the USA today.

Still, bigger storm clouds were brewing on the proverbial horizon. In the closing decades of the 20th century interest in organized religion began to plummet. The decline began a trend with no end in sight. Unable to pay their bills, churches of all denominational stripes started closing their doors. The demise of Sunday School, dependent as it is on the health and well-being of the institutional church, seems imminent.

So, as the end nears, my work can feel ridiculous. It’s tempting to count my losses and run. Indeed, I tried that once. After twenty years telling Bible stories to kids in a local Baptist Church I resigned my post and took up milking cows on a dairy farm. I was away for three years. But I’m back. Why?


Because I believe kids, maybe now more than ever, need stories to navigate by. And not just any stories, but the big ones, the mythic ones, the sacred ones (call them what you will), – unwieldy, gritty, raw, demanding – the stories that take the human predicament seriously, that call us back from our hubris, that place us on the path of transformative living where forgiveness, imagination, community, sacrifice, divestment, celebration and gratitude are not just lofty ideals but a roadmap into an uncertain future.

Martin Shaw, the great mythologist (and recent convert to Christianity) suggests that we reframe “living with uncertainty” to “navigating mystery”:

The old stories say, enough; that one day we have to walk our questions, our yearnings, our longings. We have to set out into those mysteries, even with the uncertainty. Especially with the uncertainty. Make it magnificent. We take the adventure. Not naively but knowing this is what a grown-up does. We embark. Let your children see you do it. Set sail, take the wing, commit to the stomp. Evoke a playful boldness that makes even angels swoon. There’s likely something tremendous waiting. (Eminence Magazine, Navigating the Mysteries, May 2022)

So I walk with a wide and open heart toward my own vocational demise. Why? Because if there is one thing I know for certain it is that endings are often only beginnings in disguise. That what appears to be an endless night may in fact be the predawn hour.

Oh, by the way, that I learned in Sunday School.

Flattening the Curve: The Rise and Fall of Community in a Pandemic

I found the first few weeks of the pandemic exhilarating, even while measures taken to restrict the advance of COVID19 caused so many untold suffering: overworked healthcare workers, under-slept business owners, stressed out parents of young children, bumbling politicians not sure of their next move, unemployed workers unable to pay bills, and above all those fighting for their lives in ICUs.

But it was precisely because of those high stakes that the March 11, 2020 WHO announcement was so energizing. Would this invisible, potentially lethal threat be the catalyst for the human community to completely reimagine what it means to share life together on our little blue planet swirling in space?

The narrative that formed in the earliest days of the pandemic was promising. World leaders were being called on to set aside differences and come together around the singular purpose of holding this common enemy in check. Social distancing measures were a type of sacrifice asked of all for the sake of the common good. Everyone was in this together.

Overnight a volunteer helpline sprang up on Facebook in our community-minded end of the city Anyone with a practical resulting from the upending circumstances of lockdown was welcome to post, and anyone with the wherewithal was welcome to respond. There was no bureaucracy. It was grass-roots community-building at its best. Neighbours helping neighbour (socially distanced of course!) Everyone living generously. Giving what they could.

So while Italians sang arias from balconies across empty city streets, and while dolphins swam in the Bosphorus for the first time in a century, and while memes capturing the absurdity of social distancing (eg. Jesus sitting alone at Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper) circulated, I was in my element biking around my East Vancouver delivering groceries to immunocompromised neighbours and seniors under stay-at-home orders.

It’s how I met Margaret, the 89-year-old living in subsidized seniors housing a few streets over. She gave me her grocery list over the phone: “14 Hungry Man TV dinners if you wouldn’t mind, dear.”
“Fourteen?” I, who had never bought a TV dinner in my life, clarified.
“Yes, dear,” she went on in a nervous, apologetic voice, “One dinner does me for both lunch and supper, so fourteen will keep me going for two weeks.”

Her request came at a cost to my personal principles as regards ethical eating (over-packaged, over-priced, nutrient-deficient etc.) What was more I had to endure scowls from fellow shoppers in the frozen food section of No Frills who assumed I was one of those hoarders they’d heard about on the news, to say nothing of the challenge of bungee-cording the pile of teetering frozen dinners to the back of my bike and transporting them across the neighbourhood.

But no matter! I was part of the narrative. In on the war effort! According to my mom, my British-raised great-grandfather used to ask at the dinner table “So what have you done today for king and country?” He would have been proud.

But it wasn’t just the helpline and the grocery runs. In those first weeks of the pandemic the narrative was unfolding on cue at every turn. Community connections were everywhere. There was the pot-banging with neighbours at 7:00 to acknowledge frontline workers (some streets struck up whole bands and made an evening of it). And the waving to drivers in passing buses thanking them for their essential service, and their honking back in return. And the heavy tipping for deliveries to the front door. And the zoom calls reconnecting family who hadn’t talked in years.

The Psalmist wasn’t so far off the mark after all when describing community-living as “a fine oil dripping off the beard of Aaron”. The poet understood the dripping sensuousness that comes with human connection. It can be almost intoxicating. And that’s how it was. In the early days of the pandemic.

But it didn’t last.

Hardly a month had passed before it was rumoured that cycling groceries around the neighbourhood was putting meal-delivery businesses out of work. And the helpline was plagued with fraudulent requests preying on people’s generosity. The service was discontinued. And apparently, the banging of pots became an irritant to frontline health care workers who would rather efforts be put to keeping people off ventilators. And in time the zoom fatigued relatives drifted back to Netflix-on-demand and the stress-free zone of their couches.

Even more paralyzing, however, was how starkly the underbelly of the free market economy in a time of scarcity exposed itself. The narrative was shifting beyond repair and it seemed like our small efforts at community building could do little to stop it. We weren’t a global community united under the shared banner of a common enemy, after all. When it came to accessing PPE, ventilators, vaccines, working from home options etc. we were a world profoundly divided into the haves and the have-nots. Suddenly thanking the check-out clerk for their essential service felt more like social condescension than meaningful gratitude.

It’s been almost two years now since the heady rise and sudden fall of our attempts at community in a pandemic.

I give Margaret a call to find out how she is doing. “Fine, dear, fine”, though she hasn’t left her apartment in twenty months. We’ve promised to have her over for a proper home-cooked meal once all restrictions are lifted.

And over the course of our conversation I realize something about community building. That even in a pandemic, it is about what it’s always been about: living consistently, intentionally and relationally in the slow-lane. There are no quick fixes to overcome the distances that separate us – not a pandemic, not climate disruption, not even aliens invading from another planet. The work of community will always be about the long haul, staying with the little things, like going through the front door and greeting my ornery next-door neighbour rather than slipping in through the back gate and avoiding contact, or running the left-over cake from supper up the street to the new Muslim family from Afghanistan. And the bigger things like confronting the shadow side of capitalism by putting my privilege to work for long-term systemic change like changing where I bank, or lobbying politicians on behalf of refugee rights, or risking arrest for sustainable energy.

If my great-grandfather were to adapt his question to a post-pandemic world he might well ask. “So what have you done today to make the global village a kinder place?
And I’d probably respond that I haven’t done everything, but neither have I done nothing. I’m guessing he would approve.

On Whale Carcasses and Bible Stories

After hearing Vancouver-based theatre artist, Tetsuro Shigematsu, describe what happens to a  whale after it dies, a thought came to me: maybe Bible stories are to spiritual ecology what whale carcasses are to marine ecology.

Shigematsu’s description of the epic demise of the world’s largest mammal is as much poetry as it is science:  The life of a whale is unfathomable (his voice mesmerizing) but equally extraordinary is its death.

At first the decomposing gases cause the body to float to the surface where the sunlight accelerates the decomposition process. Eventually the skin, the layers of blubber,  break open, gases are released. And then it begins its slow journey downwards; its final swim to the bottom of the sea. And when it lands, this is where things really begin.

Those trillions of calories are a bonanza for all kinds of life. A universe in which countless generations of species will live and die. It’s ribcage is the edge of the known universe. Consider the whale’s eyeball alone which, to plankton, would be as vast as the moon. The optic nerve, as mysterious a passageway as a cosmic wormhole. And the brain itself, all the neuro pathways, all the dissolving synaptic passages, all those tiny creatures thoughtlessly consuming once precious memories of love and loss, of dreams, of song cycles, of the sacred.

So here’s the question: what would change if we thought of the Bible less as a worldview that needs defending on moral or theological grounds, and more as a collection of stories endlessly giving themselves away?  Afterall, the image of life feeding off of life is a profoundly mythic and spiritual one. It takes giving one’s body away, as it were, for life to be reborn.

For a child, decaying stories will not do, of course. A story needs to be well-formed and clear, in the prime of its life, so to speak, with the narrative arc fully intact. When it comes to storytelling children settle for nothing less than a story with a proper beginning, middle, and end.

However, could it be that overtime the life of a story ebbs away and that at some inevitable point it’s death is not only inevitable but necessary, even important? Maybe in the decay process listeners will take take refuge in single sections – the Psalms, the Gospels, the creation narratives – feasting for lingering periods, until eventually, they too are gone.

Once we’ve feasted on a story long enough perhaps it takes up residence in us at a cellular level. Perhaps we can be relieved of the need to wring more from it, the need to prop it up as the robust narrative it once was. Maybe as we mature in the faith all that is left of the stories that once plied the mighty seas of our life are the bones –  and even they, with time, will dissolve into the sediment of the ocean floor.

I’ve mentioned before how I love bumping into story guild alumni. What I see when I look at these young adults who came up through the ranks, are the dozens of ways they inhabited sacred stories through dramatic play for whole seasons of their lives. And whether they attend church or not, whether they have the right doctrine or not, is of no consequence to me. What matters is that the stories reside deep in their DNA and will be there for them when life comes calling (as it will).

I grew up with a version of the scripture called “The Living Bible”. I was a devout kid and used to carry that Bible around in the crook of my arm. But as Christendom crumbles and the stories of the faith are lost to the public imagination, it occurs to me that perhaps that’s okay. Perhaps there is something to gain from allowing this most beloved of books to be called by another name: “The Decomposing Bible.” And maybe that doesn’t need to be as scary as it sounds. Maybe in their dying, the stories of an ancient faith, like the body of a composting whale, have nourishment to offer universes yet to be born.