With over half a million deaths in this country alone, who has not been touched by this pandemic?
The unseen lines of connection have been skewed or even severed as our once familiar communities have been crippled. In the aftermath, there’s a deep need to rebuild the bridges that connect us to one another.
As the social rules of personal distancing are lifted and we emerge in an altered world, what can we do to make sense of this very weird year?
One method of rebuilding our communities is through the power of intentional narrative practices.
Novelist Morris West, in The Clowns of God, wrote, “man is a creature who walks in two worlds and traces upon the walls of his cave the wonders and the nightmare experiences of his spiritual pilgrimage.”
All of life is a story. Story is a way of seeing, a way of organizing experience and a way of making sense of life.
We are a meaning-making people who experience the pendulum of life lived between experience and reflection. Things happen and we ponder their meaning.
When significant events occur, we go deep seeking to know why those events have such power in us.
How do we interpret the unplanned events that shape and redirect our lives? What happens when the normal course of life is altered? What do we do with the interruption that takes over our life’s story?
It can be the simplest of things. It can be the intrusion no one sees coming. No matter, when life’s direction is broken, the whole of life takes a new turn.
James Loder, professor of pastoral theology at Princeton University, was known for his research about convictional moments – any event that forced an inner change in outlook or commitment. He came to describe those unexpected events as “transforming moments.”
Loder experienced a mystical encounter with the divine as he lingered between life and death, which would mark his life from that moment forward.
This event became a transforming moment that altered his outlook, his willingness to follow the mysterious promptings of the slender threads and led him down paths he would never before have followed in his inner world of perceiving.
Some have been only minimally affected by the pandemic, while others have had deep experiences that forever changed them.
The past and the future met at the intersection of viral suffering and the threat of death, and they are rebuilding their lives.
Some talk knowingly about what they call God’s will. Most talk beyond what they actually know or at least with a noticeable lack of humility about such conversations.
Much of this kind of talk is a less-than-veiled version of determinism, which depicts God as the director of the drama who controls events small and large in our lives.
The argument made by determinism has a limited appeal because it opens the door to all kinds of circumstances that must be hung on God’s whim, certainly much more than the weight those other circumstances have the strength to support.
Surely the “God’s will” crowd have provisional meaning for only those events or occurrences that we like but not for those mysterious events we cannot explain. Is there no room for mystery in assigning blame or credit on God?
Often, the mystery of the slender threads that occur – the unplanned gift or curse of circumstance that alters the trajectory of your life – give your life direction.
Slender threads are the counter melody to your wish to intentionally direct your path through the decisions you make, or they are the steps you take you mean to create to control your future.
The slender threads are those happenstances you don’t control but that control you.
Even though we exert our free will by making plans, setting goals and proceeding with full confidence as though we are in control, it also seems true that a larger hand seems to be at work in directing us through life.
Call it fate, blind luck, destiny or the hand of God. Whatever the label, there are events and plans we control and there are intrusions and surprises we don’t control.
An intentional narrative practice is any opportunity a community takes that gives time and opportunity for people to gather and tell their stories.
When we tell one another our stories, we nurture and strengthen the gift of community.
Author’s note: This article is adapted from “Living a Narrative Life” (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).