The Stories We Tell
The Stories We Tell
Sitting around the dining room table Thanksgiving Day in the afterglow of pumpkin pie our family proceeded, as is the annual custom, to tell stories about the cute things we said or did as children. Our daughter Betsy pulled out the old chestnut about me, in a stroller at the age of two and a half, being pushed by babysitter Veronica Geoghan, when the raindrops started to fall upon our heads. I guess I thought Veronica wasn't moving fast enough, so I turned around in my seat and said, "Run, you damn fool, run." Even then I had a grasp of religious terms.
I remember that incident as if it were yesterday. Of course, what I probably remember is the retelling of that story many times in the past sixty-nine years.
Stories have lives of their own... sometimes with only the vaguest connection to historical reality. But that doesn't mean that stories are only stories, fantasies of the imagination, made-up narratives to clean up, dress up, or water down what actually took place. Stories, in fact, are the glue of our lives. They connect our days giving us reference and meaning, reminding us of who we are and, if they are good stories, the way we want to be.
At the tender age of two and a half, so my Veronica story goes, I was the direct and more than a little "in-your-face" fellow I grew up to be on the hardwood court and at Methodist committee meetings. Like that evening at a fundamentalist seminary in Westchester County when the liberal five from Union were about to engage in mortal combat with a roundball on their court, and they huddled in prayer, a long prayer, before the tip-off. We were not about to be one-upped spiritually, so we too huddled in prayer. I was inspired to ask God, "Forgive us for what we are about to do." They, of course, slaughtered us and were loudly displeased by our tactic in the closing minutes of the game, freezing the ball so they couldn't score a hundred points.
We may not have won, but our stories of that encounter kept alive our picture of ourselves as stalwart defenders of a slightly cynical variety of Christianity.
As I type these words we are at the verge of that season when the most wonderful story of all is retold. I mean the Christmas story. We know or should know, most of us, other than those who beat us in basketball in Westchester fifty years ago, that the details of the birth of Jesus have been skewed more than a little over the past two millennia. Like Queen Elizabeth II's birthday, celebrated in May when her true natal day is sometime else, Jesus' birth probably wasn't in December. Christians early on co-opted that season from the pagans whose Saturnalia greeted the rebirth of the sun, and was attended with gift-giving and merry-making. The star, the wisemen, the barn, the shepherds and the angelic chorus, and the virgin birth, are details that many historical critics of the Bible have set aside as questionable.
On which critical judgment I would express my own, as once to Veronica, "Who gives a damn?" The story, if with questionable historical validity, is nonetheless true. True, in the sense, that it gives meaning to our lives, helps us understand the eternal significance of that precious life the Christmas story beautifies, the way colored lights bring a festal air to the sturdy fir tree in the front window.
For, in fact, facts are never simply facts. Events recent, no less than those two thousand years ago, are irretrievable, always to be rendered in another version, never black and white, take it or leave it. The Christmas event, what really happened at Bethlehem two thousand seven years ago (yes, that's right, they got the dates wrong when they switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian) can best be understood in the stories which have accrued to it through the centuries, the theme always constant, the great love of God for his creation and all his creatures, so great he went to them in their brokenness to heal them, in their waywardness to set them straight, in their violence to put peace in their hearts.
Bring on Santa. Let Rudolph's nose glow again. Send good King Wenceslas to feed the poor. Tell Jeannette and Isabella to fetch another torch. Encourage Amahl to welcome camel-riding visitors. God is pleased to dwell with us, and that's a story that demands every bright embellishment we can imagine.