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.
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We all yearn for spring, for the thaw, with its fluorescent green and goldenrod. In the doldrums of the long winter, we are oblivious to spring’s surprises, her thunderstorms and her turbulent tornadoes.
We are not ready for what we love.
We’re living in a new normal. More ice, more snow, more fire, more wind, less rain and more rain than ever before. More heat will come with summer, more than we think we can bear.
The world is a beautiful and terrifying place all the time and it is where I belong. I belong to the earth, to the rivers, lakes and oceans, to the wind and the air, to the fires that rage, they are all me and I am them. In this biosphere, space ship earth that we are living on, we all get recycled.
We are reminded of this on Ash Wednesday, how very recyclable we are. I will say, as I take my finger and smudge it in some dust, push back the hair of those who have come from their precious brows and make the sign of a cross, “from ashes you came and to ashes you shall return.” It’s a sobering reminder that we are all connected through our very birth and death to one another, to creation, that all things capable of life are in fact, in one form or another, still living.
This comforts me.
I overheard two older men in a coffee shop talking about “little deaths.” One of them was a Wise Old Man,
I could tell, he was the one giving the advice to the man who was facing cancer. He talked about the “little deaths” in the form of all the things we lose, the car keys, the wallet, the life we once had, a loved one, our mobility, our freedom. He then said something about attunement. I became aware that I was eavesdropping and then stopped listening, though I could not help but smile. Attunement is simply the act of bringing all things into harmony. This WOM was trying to help the other find harmony in the act of living and dying. It was a beautiful thing to experience, the exchange of loving and caring in the act of comforting through truthfulness and wisdom.
Each day, we have something to give to someone along the way; a smile, a word of encouragement, an expression of hope. Think of all the things the world gives you without ever asking for anything in return. The sun shines, as does the moon, creating day and night, we love the contrast of light and dark and the beautiful moments as it changes. The earth brings food, creation brings rain and all the things that are needed for the conditions of life are provided for us for free. How much more we can offer the earth and one another when we live each day in the mindfulness that we belong to an order much greater than ourselves, and yet we have been invited to experience it, to become attuned to its natural rhythm, to rescue creation, each in our own small way, from the damages done.
This week, to those of us who receive the mark of the cross and follow the Christ on that journey of life and death and resurrection, let us meditate on that phrase, “From ashes you came and to ashes you shall return.” Let it be a reminder that though our bodies may be tethered to earth, our spirits were meant to soar. We belong to a greater gift than we could ever give, made real to us in so many ways, every day. The gift of life unending, the gift of the ashes.
A little about me: I’m a United Methodist minister at an urban church in Nashville, St. John’s West UMC. I have the honor of working with people from all walks of life and all over the world including many of Nashville’s refugees, immigrants, homeless and poor. I call it the frontlines of heaven and earth, where the angels like to hang out. In a former life, I was the lead singer of a popular rock band, The Evinrudes. So these days, I combine it all. Recently, I worked with award winning filmmaker, Tracy Facceli to create a music video for my new single, “Tending Angels.” A gritty ballad that gives everyone a peek into why I do what I do and hopefully breaks some stereotypes of the typical homeless person. Check it out here.
If you’d like to receive a free copy of my upcoming e-book: “Tending Angels: Stories from the Frontlines of Heaven and Earth,” and free music downloads from my new CD, “Kiss the Ground,” sign up for the email list below.
We’re having a lot of conversations about breaking down stereotypes in our world today. This is a great thing, because even though we sometimes use stereotypes to help us figure out who we are, we can also use them to reject people that are different. Stereotypes can become threatening, hurtful and wounding in a variety of ways.
I know a thing or two about being the target of stereotypes and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of projecting them as well. In this short video on untamed women of the Bible, I talk about women who “smash the brands,” in the Old Testament and challenge the names used to label women who tried to express their individuality in ways that were not culturally acceptable. Stereotypes can cause division, suppress identity formation and lead to great suffering, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
For the past decade, I’ve worked with some of the most traumatized and rejected people in our culture who suffer from stereotypes. Homeless, refugees, immigrants and the poor. However, it has been my experience that when we decide to answer the cry for love and acceptance that comes from all human beings, particularly those who have been rejected, prejudice and stereotypes are shattered.
This is one of the first steps in effective social justice, heart change. It is in human community where we learn to trust one another and become open to difference that we discover our own deepest needs are met. This is where things like meaning and purpose are born, in love and friendship among strangers. This is where we overcome our own deepest fears and are able to lift others out of suffering.
I have found that it is impossible to break down a stereotype, or experience change in your heart just by talking about it. The walls between us come down as we decide to take action, to be in community with those who are different than ourselves.
There is a great scripture from my tradition that says, “do not forget to show kindness to strangers, in doing this, many have entertained angels unaware.” (Heb 13:2)
In my work with the homeless population, I experienced this more than once. The presence of the sacred as I opened my heart to the strangers in my community. Of course, my work was always tinged with fear, and I had to use some discernment to keep myself relatively safe. But heart change does require some risk, mainly the risk of moving out of our own comfort zone and opening our minds and hearts to the rejected. This is how the world changes, one heart at a time.
I wrote a song about it called “Tending Angels” and got to work with an award winning film maker, Tracy Facceli, to tell the story in this short music video. We wanted to break down the typical stereotypes of the homeless and show the real reasons people spiral into shelter insecurity. I hope it inspires you to spend some time with those who are different than you, particularly those who feel rejected. It is as simple as offering friendship. What you find might surprise you and it will most certainly change you for the better.
I’m Sherry Cothran, a pastor, singer-songwriter and author who was once known as the lead singer of the popular rock band, The Evinrudes. Check out more of my story here.
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In the bubbling hostility of our social climate today, you may be among the growing number of people who feel, simply, rejected. Perhaps it is not the emotion that you lead with in your day to day relationships, maybe it brews beneath the surface like volcanic magma. Rejection is painful. Maybe you’ve tried all kinds of seemingly positive approaches and though you may have felt a little immediate relief, as time passed, you may have sunk even deeper into despair, thinking you will never find a way out of the soul trap of rejection.
We often accept the false belief that rejection lies in things we simply cannot change such as gender, ethnicity, disability, social class or sexual orientation. Certainly, these realities are often cited as reasons in which people and systems reject people. Discrimination is very real and should be resisted and transformed. But rejection itself is not rooted in these things. Rejection is kept alive by a constant diet of pain and fear.
Strangely, this is good news. Because we certainly can’t change the gifts of our DNA, in fact, we want to learn to celebrate them. And we can’t change other people. But we can change our lives and the way we feel. We can recover from feeling rejected. Not only can we grow beyond that hollow and paralyzing feeling rejection brings, but we can find acceptance, love and healing in the process. Helping others to find the same along the way. We may even be surprised to find that purpose and meaning await us on this journey.
I offer this quote from Jean Vanier, founder of 147 L’Arche communities in 35 countries for people with intellectual disabilities writes:
“People cannot accept their own evil if they do not at the same time feel loved, respected and trusted.”
People who are rejected often practice rejection as a reaction to the stored pain a lifetime of rejection brings. It can come if the form of perfectionism, shame, impossible expectations and many other forms. Rejection is passed on from generation to generation. The fear of rejection traps us in the pain of isolation, convincing us we are alone, and that it is us against the world. This kind of learned and deeply engrained belief keeps us from reaching out to communities of healing that might be the key to our self-acceptance and the doorway to letting go of painful emotions that block us from our higher selves.
It seems that we need to place ourselves in relationships and communities in which we find love, respect and trust. But these don’t just magically appear. We have to risk looking for them. In my experience, the way I’ve approached this is to become willing to give the very things I crave myself: love, acceptance, healing and trust to some of the most rejected people on the planet before I could open up and receive these things for myself.
For a decade, I followed this mantra (and I still do):
“We are healed by those we reject.” – Jean Vanier – (winner of the 2015 Templeton Prize in the company of Mother Teresa, Dalia Lama and others.)
We are not doomed to hatred, fear and rejection, there is another way. We are not doomed to constantly spin into frantic action driven by our pain. I call that way of living emotional whiplash. There is a better way, and the key is through offering not necessarily our great achievements to others, but our vulnerability, acceptance and love.
I began to experience the kind of healing Vanier refers to when I began working with the community that suffers from homelessness as a pastor in urban churches. As I began to open myself to the woundedness of others, some of the most rejected people on the planet, I began to gain the courage to explore my own wounds. Something was broken open in the exchange of brokenness. I could see into my own heart in ways that had been previously sealed off to me by pain and my own efforts to protect myself from pain. I had fear, certainly, but something more powerful than fear took over as I continued to put my body, my work and my faith into a community that was, by all outward appearances, not thriving but dying. Healing. Love. Trust. Faith. None of these things were misplaced. I began to believe that I had a path to walk, a path of purpose and meaning and it came by taking the risk of loving those whom the world seems to have stamped “rejected.” It was not easy, but I was ushered through cosmically, somehow, by the needs of others, by the very real healing presence of Christ between us, and my willingness to respond to those needs. I didn’t fix anyone, I helped some, but mostly what I had to offer was acceptance and love. And over time I leaned that it was enough.
When we interact with those we reject, we somehow feel safe enough to open up our own deep wounds for healing. Because of this, we gain the courage to take the rejected pathway in ourselves. I say that Christ, the sacred, shows up when we open ourselves to those we reject, because it takes the power out of our fear and shows us true power, that of love. Love transforms fear into the energy of hope. Rather than rejection, we suddenly experience acceptance. Rather than fear, we have the sudden bodily knowledge that we are loved and that we are capable of love. Rather than mistrust, we have the experience that we can trust others and be trusted. There are plenty of places in your community that need you to express love and acceptance. As you become willing to find them, you will.
I wrote a song about my experience, it’s called “Tending Angels,” and it tells the story of how I began to have the real life experience, working among the homeless community that I was, in fact, as the passage in Hebrews states, “tending angels unaware.”
Have you had experiences that have changed your life similar to this? How did it change you? I would love to hear about it, leave your thoughts in the comments box below.
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There are many different ideas as to what recovery looks like in our nation right now. Economic recovery, healthcare recovery, energy recovery, recovery of the planet itself. We often feel gridlocked, confused about how to respond to chaotic leadership. Many feel simply trapped in an endless loop of verbal warfare about issues of social justice and more divided than ever before on our core beliefs.
But rather than protest or support a political agenda, let me suggest a third way, a different type of recovery, recovery from dysfunctional systems. This is the not the way of cranking down on control or running away, rather, it is the way of letting go.
The greatest threat to our world is not a chaotic leader, this too shall pass, or even the extreme lack of unity in our country, we’ve been here before, but the core issue is dysfunction itself. Whatever threatens the soul threatens the world. If we want to live in a better world with clarity and purpose, it often begins with our own recovery. Healing is an act of revolution.
In this election season, we have been exposed to leadership styles that mirror dysfunction, in which we see our own worst selves. The creation of chaos and confusion, using insults as a form of communication, shaming, blaming, compulsive behavior, greed, bullying, sexual harassment, acting out on racist beliefs, deception, perfectionism, anger, etc. These behaviors, when practiced in organizations and families, create mistrust, confusion, dishonesty, instability, denial and a deathliness of spirit. Even when one seeks to do the right thing, to help others, to be a good citizen, one often feels trapped, as if there is no way out, in dysfunctional systems, it often feels as if a heavy blanket of despair covers the world. More dysfunction is always needed to make things appear successful, dysfunction is a progressive disease and grows worse with time if untreated.
It may appear to be a recipe for success but to the millions upon millions of people in recovery programs, we have learned to see dysfunction for what it is. We know that productivity does not equal wholeness, and chaotic attempts at the management of dysfunctional behavior is not the same thing as sanity. We are discovering a new way to live. Coming out of denial as we realize that our own behaviors are often driven by the chaotic spiral of the dysfunctional trap.
But there is a force that is greater than dysfunction, and we connect with this as an act of recovery. God within. The same power that has pulsed in every living thing for over four billion years is the power that brings sanity out of chaos in our lives, in our hearts. A new kind of stability awaits us. It is as if we begin to live from heart center instead of chaos center. We let go of control over the unmanageable disease of dysfunction and we come to realize that only a Higher Power, God, can restore us to sanity.
Witnessing dysfunction as a leadership strategy on the world stage can often be daunting. However, it can be viewed as a positive development because it no longer remains a hidden thing. Wherever dysfunction is hidden, it becomes more powerful. Because it is a progressive disease, it creates a sense of learned helplessness, in dysfunctional environments, we feel a sense of abandonment, maybe even a sense that there is no God. Or, in the other extreme, we create our own versions of God that make us feel that we are in control. This is how dysfunction works, while convincing you that you must control a chaotic environment, it traps you in despair, loneliness, toxic shame, isolation and anger. At the same time, it drives you into the exercise of will power to gain control, gain the upper hand over the chaos and confusion that seems to have stolen your identity and taken over your life. On the one hand we become way to weak, on the other, way to powerful, we vacillate wildly between the two extremes.
The truth is we are simply powerless over dysfunctional behavior, and it makes our lives unmanageable.
As we learn to name it, we recognize that there is a greater force at work in us, greater than world leaders, political systems or the stock market. There is a force in us that can create sanity and bring stability and manageability to our lives. God. Not some gray bearded man in the sky or some action hero savior that is going to punish everyone in an eternal hell who fails to obey all the rules. We haven’t always painted the most appealing image of God in religious environments. Dysfunction is pervasive. As we become a new creation by letting go of our own control and asking God to be the creator of sanity in our lives, we come to know the God of the universe, the God of creation, who has created and is creating. We come to know the God that Jesus spoke of as love. There are no contradictions in Divine love, there is just love.
We begin to heal. Healing is a radical act, it is one’s own individual revolution that begins to infect the whole world with a new kind of freedom. Jesus knew this.. It makes way for a Divine power to order the world through us. Healing and the proclamation of freedom were intricately linked in Jesus’ ministry. To heal from dysfunctional systems is to claim that your body is not property and you are not at the mercy of chaos. You come to know yourself, body, mind and soul as sacred, created by God. It is to claim that you were created for love. Love is the most powerful force in the universe.
We cannot control dysfunction, but we can let go of it. It seems counter intuitive, but strangely,as we allow God to bring us to sanity, this is how we move towards healing the world, one heart , one soul at a time. This is the constant source of energy that motivates us to serve others, to love with all of our hearts. Finally, because we have access to the source of love within.