After a recent baptism I went out to lunch with the family and sat across from Bob, a man who holds several land speed motorcycle records. This humble and courageous person told fascinating stories about danger, technique, the mechanics of racing engines and the culture of the people gathered at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
I love talking to experts whether their field is ancient languages, wine tasting, roof construction, bird-watching, finance, early music, knee surgery, pretty much anything.
Yann Martel the author of Life of Pi is an expert on stories. He believes we need to make it a conscious practice to regularly reexamine the stories we tell ourselves which make sense of what happens to us.
In the first few pages his narrator writes that this is, "a story to make you believe in God." It is a pretty grand claim. Since I believed in God before I started reading I cannot really weigh in on whether this is true. However, I do know that the book makes you realize how important stories are and that stories lie at the heart of how we experience God, maybe even whether we experience God.
But Martel has a more interesting project called "What is Stephen Harper Reading?" For those of you who may not know, Stephen Harper is the Prime Minister of Canada.
At an event honoring fifty Canadian artists in the House of Commons, Martel noticed that the politicians seemed unmoved by art. He writes sympathetically about how busy they must be and imagines that they even might be "deluded by that busyness." Martel points out that to read a book, watch a play or movie, to look at a painting or experience a beautiful garden -- or for that matter, to have a religious experience -- you need a moment of stillness.
Martel writes, "This is what I propose to do: not to educate -- that would be arrogant, less than that -- to make suggestions to [Harper's] stillness." Every two weeks Martel sent the Prime Minister a different book with a thoughtful letter about his sense of its importance. Stories matter and Martel went to the top in his effort to change the stories of a whole nation and culture.
Martel's project isn't so different from what we constantly experience. Advertisers, politicians, teachers, CEO's, family, journalists, AA sponsors and friends also try to modify the story we tell ourselves.
I do not know what events have recently modified your story or whether you have even consciously considered changing it at any point over the last few years. But in the holy stillness of Christmas I wonder how God is at work in changing our story so that we can thrive. One way that God works, of course, is through scripture.
Because we have seen so many cute manger images on Christmas cards we forget how much cruelty there is in the story. Matthew writes about Joseph's deliberations about whether or not to abandon his pregnant fiancé. A prophecy predicting the birth of a child who will grow up to be king provokes the unscrupulous King Herod to order the death of all the infants in the region. He commissions three magi from the East to unwittingly act as his spies. Fortunately, angels intervene and they warn the family to escape down into Egypt. Surrounded by death we follow the one child who survives.
The angels terrify everyone they meet but from our vantage point centuries later we know that the good news they bring is true. This child from a simple family born in controversy, threatened by kings, would forever change the course of human history.
Perhaps this is in large measure because of the stories Jesus tells about our longing, our confusion and God. Jesus tells stories about a kingdom in which even the powerless and the outcasts are welcome. He talks about a father welcoming home a disappointing but beloved son. Jesus says, "Follow me!" And over time these stories become our stories. They change our life and our relationship with God.
Of course, when it comes to our stories we have a choice. Prime Minister Stephen Harper never wrote back to Yann Martel and may not have read a single word of those books. Perhaps he did not want to be exposed to anything that would change his story.
Will you allow the Christmas story to change your story? Perhaps it will help you to see the world out of the perspective of gratitude so that you can notice more of what God is giving you. Maybe you will learn to be more forgiving of others and of yourself. It could help you to entertain the hope that God can take this whole mess and make something profound out of it. Perhaps it will give you access to a new compassion that makes us slower to judge other people. Maybe you will more fully understand your power and learn how to use it to transform the world.
Or at the very least maybe the Christmas story will open up some silence in your life in the way that Yann Martel hoped to do for Stephen Harper.
Do you remember my new friend Bob the motorcycle racer? Later I learned the circumstances that brought us together.
Bob's son was in my friend Russ's command in Iraq. When the son was killed, Russ was in charge of helping the family. You might think that a parent would have too many sad memories and never again want to see the person who talked to him about this. But these two men have become good friends.
So there we were at an Italian restaurant after the baptism of Russ's newborn. Brought together by a child's death and a child's birth, with light hearts telling stories and laughing as if we were at table with God and all the angels beyond the end of time.