A recent article by Harvard Business Review connects the influence of stories with behavior. It is called “experience taking” – we become like the characters in the stories with which we interact. Honest or dishonest, It’s how our brains work, we mirror. We become the stories we believe.
According the neuroscience of narrative, inspiring stories not only make us feel cozy, they cause us to trust the storyteller through the release of oxytocin, a chemical that helps us bond with one another. Often, the kinds of stories we immerse ourselves in become a larger story that holds us together, a narrative glue for our experiences. As storyteller Michael Meade says, “stories hold the world together.” Our brains are built to navigate the way forward by adapting to stories. Poets, storytellers and writers have known this since ancient times, that some of the most important information we need to develop can only be comprehended through the use of poetic and story language.
This is because, as John Truby explains in his book, Anatomy of Story, stories unlock a “dramatic code” that is unique to human nature. Through the use of characters, ancient archetypes, images, challenges and problem solving, stories help us interface with our own unique character and learn how to live out our stories in the world. The stories that we attach to have the effect of helping us to discover the story inside of ourselves. Without guiding stories, we seem to be lost.
Storyteller Michael Meade says that these days we are living in such chaos because we have fallen out of any larger story that would hold us together. When we fall out of a story, whenever we cannot perceive that there is any larger guiding narrative of our lives, we tend to lose hope.
The time of falling out of stories, he explains, is also a dangerous time, because not all stories send positive messages. In these times, people tend to grasp for any story that makes them feel powerful, in control and less anxious. So much of our cultural conditioning focuses on how to “control the narrative.” But the stories that lead us to our own, unique story within will help us learn that we don’t control the narrative, many great writers will quickly tell you that good storytelling is more about asking the story what it wants to be rather than trying to control what it will become. We grow as we learn to trust in a story that is true.
If we are to learn to trust our story, we need storytellers who are capable of pointing us to our true character, teaching us how to navigate the obstacles we will certainly face in our lives and let our story live authentically in the world.
Jesus understood this, he came from a culture of trusted storytellers who perfected the art of telling stories about God. He felt that he had come into the world at a time of chaos, when many people had fallen out of their story, been pushed out or simply had lost faith in a larger story. The spirit of the people had been conquered by many forces, including the force of institutional religion. He felt a particular mission to call back the “lost children” of God to live out their story in the world.
He became a trusted storyteller by so many because he spoke from the world of his own heart. He called it the kingdom of Heaven. He was approached over and over again to tell stories of what this realm of God is like. He used images that people from an agrarian and fishing culture could relate to:
It is like a tiny seed, a weed seed, that is planted in the ground and grows into a large tree that becomes a shelter and shade for all who need it in a hot and dry land.
It is like yeast buried in the dough of bread that makes the whole loaf rise.
It is like this, a master pearl salesman finds the one true pearl he’s been searching for all his life and he throws away all the others which seem to be only imitations of the real thing.
It is like this, too, a man finds a treasure hidden in a field. He goes and sells all his possessions so he can buy this one field where that treasure is buried.
The point is, we don’t have to chase a story in the world or control it in order to find our way. We don’t have to settle for a story in which we feel we are worthless or just cogs in a wheel. We don’t have to force ourselves to believe in a story that just doesn’t ring true.
Jesus tells us there is buried treasure inside of us all, and once we find it, everything we have chased after in our lives seems insignificant in comparison. We find it by living the story he shows us how to live, by trusting that the story he is telling us is true. As we do, we begin to see our lives bloom, we begin to see the impossible become possible. We become living parables in the world.
The greatest story ever told is the one inside of you.
Follow Sherry’s E Newsletter and never miss a thing!
Even Jesus said that he didn’t come for the people who already claimed to have found the way, but for those who were lost, wandering, without the great shelter and shield of the religious institution.
Even though I’ve had a “sketchy” relationship with religion, (some would say that’s healthy) I became a pastor of a Christian church. Somehow, because of all my searching, I discerned that religion, at its core, held a mystery within that defied the human desire to control everything unknown. I discovered that religion shared some of the same snares as politics or patriarchy or any system that has a hi-er-archy. Religion can be used, just like any other system, as an avenue for greed, power and corruption. I just got caught up in that net.
In my own long, circuitous journey of healing from religion-induced pain, I learned that God is pretty wild and untamed, regardless of how we feel about it, and very often defies any container that religion (or anyone– agnostic, spiritualist, new age, etc.) seeks to squeeze God into or out of. That makes the pastorate quite adventurous and also quite freeing to know that (on my best days) I get to play in the field of this wild and untamed God.
The other thing I have learned recently in my travels is that we live in a Christ haunted world. As Richard Rohr says: “Christ is just another word for everything.”
I ended up in United Methodism, not that it’s better or worse than any other brand, it certainly has it’s faults, but we do have a unique relationship with Native Americans. We have an entire Native American division devoted to exploring that unique kinship between our faiths. Last fall, this curiosity led me, by way of invitation, to a Lakota Sundance ceremony in New Mexico. On the side of a very high mountain in the “Blood of Christ” mountain range, wearing my long skirt and arms covered, I danced to the songs of the singers. In Lakota, they sang out “Wakan Tanka, Tunkashila” around a cotton wood tree. I felt like an eagle.
Early the next morning in the woods, feeling the chill of the air in that liminal space between sleep and waking, still in a half dream state, there came into my mind an image of Christ on a cross.
I continue to have similar experiences, always to my surprise, everywhere I go.
I visited Cherokee, NC, recently, doing some research for a book and was talking with some Cherokee women. It seems it is a common legend among various tribes that Jesus made an appearance around the time of his death over on this continent. The women told me about the Cherokee version. The legend goes that the “little people” (the spiritual beings of Cherokee lore that live in the woods) cried tears when Jesus died and these tears ended up in the form of little crosses at the bottom of Fontana Lake, hundreds have been found. Of course, there’s a scientific explanation for this but the legend is much more interesting. There are various versions of this story in other tribes.
An African woman in my church tells me that in Sierra Leone where she is from, the Muslims and the Christians all consider themselves part of the same family. The Muslims pray to be with Jesus in death, the keeper of eternal life. There is also a legend that Jesus and Mohammed had an actual conversation.
Jesus has been out in the world for a very long time, doing lots of things Christians may not even approve of very much. Alongside the mother struggling with addiction, with the young man feeling compelled to join Isis, the refugee, the immigrant, the homeless person, the rejected war veteran, the traumatized Native American. Jesus is, in fact, right there beside them, having been hung on the same cross.
We miss the whole point of Jesus when we try to pin him down and make him exclusive. Jesus simply belongs to everyone. “In him, all things hold together,” and he is the “image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1)
The goal of religion, in its purest form, religio, is to bind the spiritual “word made flesh,” Christ presence on earth into a form we can participate in with one another. Divine love needs not only the human vessel but the vessel of the beloved community that doesn’t exist just for itself alone, but for God. With rituals and practices that make it safe for us to experience, to bind, what is unfathomable, God, if only for a brief hour or two.
I’m glad I didn’t abandon the path, because I would have missed out on all of this, the sweetness of communion, the chance to help the homeless find homes, all of us wanderers. I would have missed out on my very own healing, and the opportunity to be part of this massive healing that is taking place in the world around the hurts done in the name of God.
What would happen to a faith, or wonder of wonders, even a religion, that understood Christ as another word for everything? It might shift our understanding of the work of Christ in the world from dominance to infusion, from conformity to love, from rules and laws to simply presence and being. From scarcity to enough, from certainty to curiosity, from death to life. What if Christ really is in all and through all and another word for everything? What then?
Sign up for Sherry’s email list and never miss a post!
Shame. It’s a feeling in the pit of the stomach, a burning sensation. A rupture in the belly, a spiraling inward, shrinking, feeling inferior at the core. Shame makes us feel that our very identity is under threat of erasure.
At one point or another, shame takes us all hostage and calls the shots. Under extreme shame, we may even feel as if we are not the ones running our lives. Shame is a hostile dictator, suffocating us from any sense of freedom. Without realizing it, we often hire shame as the micro-manager of our lives.
We may feel paralyzed by shame because we live in a shame culture. It’s a force that is very real. Since we are enculturated to locate our self-worth in performance, this sets us up for an extreme sense of shame when we are not able to perform according to the (perceived) expectations of our peers or superiors.
But, we need to realize that we are not primarily performers, we are people. As the Native Americans say, “we are real human beings,” and this is our core identity. We have good days and bad days, good years and bad years. What is often missing and what it means to be a “real human being” is to have a sense of continuity between the ups and downs. A feeling that we are simply the same person regardless of what successes and failures come our way.
But the state of shame is often exacerbated by a lack of intimate and honest friendships. Without this shield of human love, shame can isolate you. It is often hard to find a community of friends that will love you no matter what. We are often judged so harshly by our performance that even our friendships are based on status and prestige. If you have ever lost a job, significant relationship or marriage and witnessed most of your “friend” community drift away from you, then you understand this. But, we have to look at our own choices here. We often become friends with the people we think can get us to the next level in our lives. If we crave authentic friendships, then we need to become willing to examine our own motivations. When we are able to get shame out of the equation, we tend to make better choices.
But swimming out of shame, I’ve found, at least, begins with acceptance, self-acceptance. Because shame will continue to send messages such as “you’re not good enough, worthy enough, smart enough, beautiful enough,” simply, “you’re not enough.” This leads to an inner conflict. The authentic self wants to love, cherish, express joy, compassion and empathy for the self and others. But shame is like a stun gun, sealing us off from access to the authentic self. When we can accept how things are, where we are in our lives, our jobs, our relationships, our bodies, then we can begin the long journey of leaving shame behind. One day, we just say to shame, simply, “I don’t need you anymore.” We break up from our long, sordid, dysfunctional relationship with shame.
Becoming real to yourself, learning to love yourself today, where you are, how you are, this is respect. This is what authentic women and men model in the world for one another. This is what Jesus brought out in all of those who believed, freedom from living in the paralysis of shame and a restoration to living life from the true self. This often restored people to a sense of community as well. The Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, Mary Magdalene and her seven demons, Peter in his constant self-doubt. Jesus even loved Judas, the betrayer himself. Jesus knew the great power of shame, that it belonged to the realm of the shadow, it was a tool of separation from God, from the Divine image of the Creator. With love, Jesus created a bridge to the sacred, the realm of God and gave people the power to walk away from shame. He did this through love.
When our stomachs are burning with shame, it makes it difficult to focus on the heart. In fact, as we receive shame into our bodies, it is so strong and has such a grip on us that we usually over react in anger, binging, compulsive behaviors or isolating. We live life in the extremes, vacillating from anger to feelings of self-doubt, shame keeps us running the spectrum of emotional intoxication, cranking down on the lever of control all the while feeling completely out of control. Insanity. If we are to be done with shame, we need a power greater than ourselves to lift us out.
In the image of Jesus on the cross, we see an open and vulnerable heart, a Spirit that even the cruelest enactment of shame could not kill. Focusing on this image in meditation can often bring us to a ground zero where we can accept ourselves and begin the long journey of walking away from a shame culture, a resurrection, a healing.
Letting go of shame can be scary, because it has often been the driving force of our lives for so long that we have come to rely upon it as our primary motivator. But it is possible to live life from a different center. A Divine love can stabilize us as we become willing to be done with shame.
We find a true identity, a wholeness we never knew before is waiting for us at the core. As the poet Rumi says, “beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” In this field, we meet our true selves, beyond the fighting and the wronging and righting, we meet the joy given to us from the beginning of time. We take the hand of our Creator and begin the long journey home.
Don’t let shame take you off your path today. Who you are is enough, find the center of you and begin living life from that center. You can ask God for the courage to break up with shame and help you find a community to sustain and nourish you in the journey.
Want to have Sherry’s blog delivered to your email inbox once a week? Sign up here.
We all have a soul, we are created from sacred stuff. But many of us struggle to make a connection to it.
We may even be seeking that soul connection with our new year’s resolutions, craving more spiritual order in our lives this year, and that’s great!
But often, when we get a few weeks into the new year, we find that our energy seems depleted, the spark has left the agenda. We get busy with our lives, the demands of our current reality. We feel bogged down by the state of the way things are in our world, sucked into the gravitational pull of chaos. Connecting with soul slips way off the list, down into the netherworld.
When you spend any time in the news or dwelling on our current reality, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, here’s my brief synopsis of what I call the dark stew we’re all swimming in.
The Dark Stew:
Anxiety over unstable political environment.
Fear over increasing violence and disaster in the world.
A sense of aloneness, lack of support or community.
The feeling that you will never become who you were meant to be, that the odds are insurmountable.
Restlessness over a lack of resources such as health insurance, medical attention when needed, job, financial, etc.
It’s really not our fault that we feel the invasion of the dark stew. We’ve been trying to control it for a very long time, and that tactic just doesn’t seem to work anymore. Sometimes, we even make our new year’s resolutions from a determination to control the chaos in our lives. From a young age, we are usually taught that we can gain the upper hand on chaos if we just learn techniques of control. And maybe for a while, it has worked.
But the stew is out of control.
More often than not, controlling the chaos through the various tactics we learn, working harder, becoming a huge success, being good at producing more, consuming more, etc., may help us “get ahead.” But we discover, eventually, that more is never enough. We have to work harder to keep up, our modern lives often leave us feeling depleted, experiencing identity loss and wondering where our promised sense of peace, hope and future lie. These traits may make us good producers in the world but often fail to bring us the deep sense of wholeness we crave. What’s even more confusing, is that these traits make it inside of our religious experience where they prevent us from connecting with the spiritual core.
What are we here for anyway?
We all may have had moments when we have glimpses of the sacred or soul within, like an elusive fox crossing the road in our headlights. We often ask, did that really happen? What was that? A moment of natural beauty or joy. Our instinct is to follow it, but we often have to just keep driving on, we have somewhere to be, something to do, we have an agenda, a set list of goals, or a plan we must follow. Or, if we don’t stay distracted, we are afraid we might get swallowed up in the experience of the dark stew. It’s so ironic, we often miss the soul journey because we are too busy making plans to thrive in the world, all the while thinking we are headed in the right direction. Or keeping ourselves distracted from our feelings. But the blueprint for our thriving is already within us, if only we would take the time to go within.
Our little glimpses of soul are often lost as we get sucked into the gravitational pull of chaos.
Consider these teachings about the soul from ancient traditions:
Lakota spirituality teaches us that we all have a story written upon the walls of our souls, our lives are about living out this story. The story is given to us by the Creator for the good of our community and the betterment of the world. As a young child, the soul is brought before the Great Spirit to discover its path. The role of the family and community is the help the child nurture this soul journey into the world, along with spiritual practice, rituals and traditions.
In the Christian journey, we believe that we all, at one point, are to experience the soul’s awakening to the Divine power within, this is the presence of God to which Jesus referred when he said, “the kingdom of Heaven is within” (Luke 17:21). Jesus’ presence in the world is the Holy Spirit, giving us the power to enter into and sustain a life lived from the soul’s purpose. “Abide in me and I will abide in you” (John 15:4) is an invitation to experience life from soul center. Jesus becomes the stabilizing force within you as you let go of the “learned” survival traits (control over the dark stew) and awaken to your gifts and talents for the betterment of the world. You take on the Spirit that is Christ, unique in all the world. Christ’ teaching on love, radical love that transforms hatred, is utterly unique and transformative.
This time of year, we all become particularly vulnerable to the urge to control chaos in our lives, or distract ourselves to distraction sickness. We crank down on control to make a new start, get the upper hand on the disorder or perhaps take the bait on that old sales pitch that “get the life you always wanted.” But the pathway to the soul is one of surrender, letting go of control, awakening to the wholeness within and experiencing restoration to your natural self.
There is no secret tunnel, no hidden formula, and there are no short cuts, just a lifetime of daily practice and surrender to what is already within you. Someone once said that the soul journey is about subtraction, letting God remove the barriers to God’s presence in you.
We don’t ever get rid of life in the stew, the gravitational pull of chaos will always be there, but we don’t have to be swallowed up by it or live at the pace it demands. As we learn about the Power that brings sanity, sustainable peace and manageability into our lives, God, Creator, Higher Power, we come to experience a new way of living in the world. We learn to surrender and let the internal blueprint take over. We become more connected to all that is sacred in us and in the world. This connection stabilizes our lives over time as we become less and less attracted (and attached) to the chaos, and more drawn to the peace available to us through our connection with God. Ironically, because we are changed, miraculously, by our experience of God, the world around us changes, too.
So why not take a close look at those new year’s resolutions that call for more control, or setting unattainable goals that force you to enslave your body and spirit to impossible amounts of work. Why not be guided by a higher cause, the soul’s journey? Perhaps your deeper yearning, what you’re really searching for, is a deeper connection to your very own soul.
If you’d like weekly resources to help you on your soul recovery journey, take a look around my site and sign up for my email list below, I’ll send you once a week inspirations to help you on your soul journey. If you’re interested in the 12 step spirituality, check out my recovery blog, leadkindlylightblog.wordpress.com.
And, if you like this blog, share it with others! Send me your thoughts below. What do you think about soul? Are you finding ways to connect with your soul journey this year? Share your inspirations!
Sherry’s Email List
Sing Up for Sherry's Email List
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Sherry Cothran is the pastor at St. John’s West UMC, Nashville. An award winning singer/songwriter, former lead singer of the popular late 90’s rock band, The Evinrudes, and upcoming author, Sherry writes about soul, recovery, women and faith, and the spiritual journey. Sherry’s new CD, due out in early Feb., 2017, “Hundreds of Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Ground” contains her alternative interpretations from the spiritual wisdom of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Egyptian, and Native American practices. Her writing and music can be viewed here: www.sherrycothran.com
We live in a dysfunctional world, can I get an witness? We seem to swim in a stew of wrong and right, bubbling in the shame, blame and guilt that are the end result of the failure to meet impossible standards. Out of this human predicament, we have created a lethal brew known as perfectionism.
Our culture is built around an unattainable ideal of perfectionism, what is morally right and wrong. The extreme pressure to live up to these standards seems to rule us more than the spirit behind them. Even though no one seems to be able to live up to the impossible standards, we still crank down even harder, it usually comes out as hateful words or actions, shaming, blaming and guilting everywhere. But there is an alternative way to live.
As far back as the 13th century (and even long before that) humans have been obsessed with perfectionism as a method for keeping anxiety at bay. One of my favorite poets from this period, Rumi, a theologian and scholar, made this statement in response:
“There is a field out beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, I will meet you there.”
Ahh, what a relief, there is a space for love to flourish somewhere. He is talking about love, of course, as a revolutionary alternative to perfectionism. Not necessarily romantic love, but Divine, unconditional love, what we call Agape. It is the kind of love we are learning in our spiritual process as we meet the God within, as Christ has said, “the kingdom of Heaven (is) within you.” We go within to find the love we need to flourish in difficult times.
Religion is supposed to be a container for this process of love and loving, but these days, it seems some of our religious environment is functioning out of rigid perfectionism. And this “some” has the loudest voice in the world. But that is not the Way, at least, of true faith.
Perfectionism is simply another attempt at control. Making religion and God into something we can control and bend to our own will is classically known as idolatry. The odd thing is that when we engage in trying to control God or love or anything, or the reverse, trying to keep God out of the equation of life, we are the ones that become frozen! It is as if we are trying to freeze time or stop the madness, control the chaos. This always makes for craziness in the world and it seems to happen most when things become unstable.
In uncertain times, people crank down hard on control. But it is not just religious communities that are prone to this, we all do it, it is part of the human condition. As Paul Tillich said, “we are anxious unto our death.” And we all look for ways to manage the anxiety.
But faith interjects a different way, surrender. Surrendering to a higher Love causes us to let go of all the other ways. As Paul said, “in my weakness is my strength.” He was talking about surrender. Over time, in this faith process, as we surrender our control, we become stabilized by our true power, our soul life within, our true nature. Love teaches us how to be natural in an artificial culture.
Rumi’s statement gets at the core of the human condition. It is an invitation to let go of control, let go of rigid moralism and perfectionism and surrender to Love.
The field out beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing is a place where we meet ourselves out beyond the shame, blame and guilt of wrongdoing, beyond trying so hard to get it “right.” We try to get at the exact nature of our harmful actions rather than focusing on controlling the actions themselves. We do not try and get “right,” or stop being “wrong,” rather, we become attuned with the Sacred in us and surrender to its work in us. We focus on Love itself and the nature of love and we allow God to do the work in us.
Love, our tradition states, “keeps no record of wrong and does not insist on its own way.” For the early church, the focus was transforming from a litigious religious practice into the heart of relationship with the Divine, the God within, whom Jesus represented and left as the special presence of God on earth, the Holy Spirit. This is the basic root of all Christian theology.
Becoming attuned to Love re-routes us on a new path. Instead of choosing to live in the stew of shame, blame and guilt, we choose other methods for dealing with the pain of living in a dysfunctional world. We surrender to God in us. We walk in the woods, getting re-grounded with creation; or write or paint or do yoga or volunteer for service. We learn that there are many alternatives for dealing with pain and that we have the power to choose them because we are giving up control over our pain and we are letting go of perfectionist behavior.This is the moment when we begin to take true responsibility for our own lives and become actors rather than reactors in the world.
Control is an illusion. Control of fear, behavior, others, the world. When you give up control, what you are really giving up is living life from the artificial energy of your illusions. When you give this up, pain doesn’t stick around as long, it simply doesn’t have much to attach itself to anymore.
For some, religious experience has become a painful place and religion simply is not an alternative. But a loving community is not the same thing. Religion is a system, a container, a loving community is working out faith together. I encourage you to ask God to help you find a loving and safe community for you to practice your true faith.
Here are some helpful questions you might use as criteria:
Am I a part of a religious or faith experience that sees Love as its highest goal? If so, am I learning that true love seeks to be unconditional? How do I feel about unconditional love? Does my community make me feel unworthy? Less than?
Is the community I am a part of confused about love? Do they confuse love with perfectionism? Do they confuse love with pity? How do I feel about love?
Do I feel empowered by my community to pursue what I feel are the dreams God has given to me as the story written on the walls of my soul? Does my community talk about the soul’s life in some way?
Does my community teach me to take responsibility for my own life, empowering and educating me to make my own decisions about my faith journey?
True faith is coming to the field, coming aside to the feet of the great Healer and taking some deep breaths of unconditional love. In the field, we learn to love more deeply than we ever thought we could, because we are learning to love from our souls, where God lives.
Please send me your comments, I love reading them! And share freely on twitter, Facebook, linked in or other buttons below.