Truth in Muddy Waters

I believe language to have been given us to make our meaning clear, and not to wrap it in dishonest doubt.

“Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” Charlotte Bronte
-because kiddos aren’t scared to jump into the mud – even when adults try to avoid it.-

I have begun this writing and then begun it again, and my meandering style keeps leading me into muddy waters. I wanted to write about how much I love true stories, and I’ll do that, but it seems that the muses decree I must also write about how those true stories shape my understanding of how to live into these true stories, to break out in deep conversations, and – as the title suggests – find Truth in the muddy waters of this meandering. So, that is your TL;DR disclaimer for today.

I love true stories. Not especially true as in only non-fiction true stories, but stories that are true because they tell true things. These true stories may depict characters in whom I see myself or other real people, that tell stories I can imagine and stories that tell of universal and eternal truths. This love of true gets me in trouble with books clubs focused on popular fiction, as I find that popular fiction, and serial fiction, can lack depth. Lacking believability, lacking a call to something deeper than the cultural moment or the passing reality. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the draw to these types of fiction and I absolutely cheer on the readers and authors who like these quick reads – who flit in and out of books for the quick break in and out of their own story. I’ve been there, keep writing, keep reading. But when I sit down to read, at this stage in my life, I want the truth in a book to be sticky and make me think. The language should make not only “our meaning clear” (as Bronte stated in a biographical reveal), but should bring real life into clear and questionable sharp relief. Truths should always challenge us to question our own place within them, our own pathways toward them. So when I sit down to read, that quick break in my own reality should leave me, not only turning the page and being loathe to put down the story, but also call me back to the same sticky words and truths over and over. When I read them again, I want to wonder at the weight of those sticky truths in my own real life.

This last month, I’ve read and re-read some true and some fleeting books, and found my favorites among them, but as I return to the pages I’ve filled with underline (yep, I write in books), and the notebooks I’ve filled with copied quotes, a theme stands out in both the fiction and non-fictions and I think that it’s clear that my own current reality does shape the way I see these truths, but I think maybe the rest of the world – as we begin to reshape our understandings of how to move beyond the past two years – maybe the rest of the world needs these truths, too.

The following two quotes come from vastly different stories. The first is writing into the biblical context of the life of Jesus from a Christian pastor, analyzing parables and passages as they pertain to modern readers, as they pertain to being human. Peterson, writes

Being human means we are the poorest and most incomplete of all creatures. Our needs are always beyond our capacities.

“Tell it Slant” by Eugene Peterson

and in so doing, recognizes the need for a loving God, and also a loving friend. He’s just finished analyzing the travel narratives within Luke 10 and 11, as well as how Jesus recommended that his disciples pray. Within the context of those stories, Peterson highlights the poverty of being human and our incompleteness. That we are built to want more, but without the capacity to find more on our own.

The second quote comes from a very different story. A fantasy world in which the characters, who are sometimes sort of human, tackle such struggles as the pervasive and ongoing societal injustices surround race, gender, equality, dreams, and higher callings. These are all brought to light through the lens of a fantasy world (Awara), a fantasy language, and fantasy characters – whose struggles and strivings couldn’t be more real. Geiki says to Miuko who doesn’t understand why he would help her:

We help you, you help us. That’s how it works, yes? Everyone needs everyone, and no one gets what they want alone.

“A Thousand Steps into Night” by Traci Chee

His simple response, which is further fleshed out as the story progresses, rang true in my reading – I took a screen shot and circled those words with so much digital highlighter because there, within a fantasy story, I found a truth. Arguably the same truth laid out by Peterson, a truth that echoes throughout the story of mankind. We are not alone, we cannot do this alone.

Both of these quotes, while addressing the need for different assistance – one recognizing human need for God and human, one recognizing human need for other humans (or in this case: a human turned possibly demon’s need for a trickster spirit who is sometimes bird, sometimes human), non-fiction and fiction; both establish in no uncertain terms that we cannot succeed on our own. We need friends, we need God, we need faith, and ideally we need those things to come together on a level that helps us recognize that our own individual success is not the goal of the world. Pure perseverance, pure ambition, will not result in the completeness that can be achieved with the assistance of community. Secondarily, both of these quotes, and the narratives surrounding them, fully recognize how community, in body and spirit, shapes the path we walk, and the successes we strive for. We are not our own.

Alongside these two stories (and so many more), I’ve been immersed in the regular things of my life: Being a spouse, a parent, a teacher, a musician, becoming an elder – and all of those things have developed their own unlooked for difficulties over the past two years as the world has struggled with what the best way to handle a pandemic might be. There have been guidelines and infographics and mandates and so much isolation and fear in all of these realms. So many ways that instead of coming together as a community, instead of “we’re in this together”, the most common narrative is “I’m right. You’re wrong”. When left to public discourse – to social media which echoes already held fears and beliefs, each of us on our own is left with the feeling that there are no real answers – there are no real truths – and we end up floundering on our own. It’s been grounding to me to have a family who tries to discuss our understanding of the world – even though we don’t always do it well. It’s been grounding to have a church willing to meet – even when we know each person in the room may have a different set of political and social beliefs – because we have established that we believe unshakeable truths about our faith and that those beliefs extend to the ways we live our lives.

There have been quite a few stories published recently about the importance of community togetherness – specifically right now, in the church. These same kind of stories were being published just about a year ago as students and teachers were struggling hard with online learning and the need to, vs. the push to, be back in person. Ultimately, both of these conversations -school and now church – stem from the want for people to come together and the argument over coming together in person, or online – and whether those ways of coming together are equally beneficial. Tish Harrison Warren incited a bit of a chaotic storm of internet responses a couple of weeks ago with her New York Time’s opinion piece: Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services . Within the article, she lays out the need for being embodied people, together, physically in a place – and highlights that, while useful in a time of mandated isolation, livestream church services have now become a way for people to consume church, rather than be a part of the community of the church (my own paraphrasing/interpretations). Her initial article was received with applause (me!) and derision (so much of the church community), and I think both responses were useful. The first thing those very opposite responses show is that the church in this world is not made up of the same demographics in every community, and the society around each of the churches dictates some of how the church can interact with it’s congregants, as do the individual people within each congregation whose community needs are to be fulfilled. All of that is true – and has been true – prior to COVID and after, prior to livestream and after. The second thing these responses bring to light is that human will argue over any and everything. Truly. And in this world of ease of communication or comment or tweet or email, often we don’t take the time to sit with our initial responses long enough to determine why we had that response and what it means to our own being, our own interactions, our own community. How is our response useful? How could it be hurtful? Who does is benefit? To whom does it a disservice? And in all of that, where is the truth? A conversation should allow for differences of opinion and provide space for information to be heard and for the listeners to judge whether their minds have changed, or no. Instead, our knee-jerk responses, quick to tweet and comment, often mean we are shouting over one another, talking past one another, and issues – rather than being resolved, are heighted to being labeled controversial topics, and instead of seeing how two different people could see the same experience through different lenses, our words being to sound like “Us against Them” “I’m Right” “You’re Wrong”.

My mind works in meandering ways (don’t forget I warned you in the first paragraph), and these once commonplace, now controversial, topics remind me of a beautifully written western novel in which a well-respected and successful owner of a large hacienda advises his horse-trainer/ranch hand:

Beware, gentle knight. There is no greater monster than reason.

“All the Pretty Horses” by Cormac McCarthy

The ranch hand has fallen in love with the daughter of the hacienda owner, and while the owner can see the values of the ranch hand’s ability with horses as something admirable and valuable, he will not bend social norms to allow this lowly hand to court his aristocratic daughter. Reason is not what is important here, the socially acceptable and culturally normative standard is what is important. Upholding the standard because it’s the standard, not because it’s true.

I think of this quote here, as I consider Livestream vs. In-Person community, and as I continue to recognize the truths written into non-fiction and fiction alike, because in our current cultural conversations, reason isn’t often what we use to persuade. Even more true, as McCarthy illustrates through his character Don Hector, reason is not what we humans easily trust. It is the monster because it goes against the culturally accepted practices, the culturally adopted norms, the culturally communicated good; and reason, inclusive of truth, challenges us to step out of what is comfortable and into new unknowns. Sometimes reason challenges us when we’ve finally just become used to this norm we’ve tried to adopt. Sometimes we teachers have finally found a rhythm to the madness of surprise online learning, sometimes students have just finally learned how to turn things in. Sometimes, the sound that was so hard to figure out for livestream, finally works, the cables and cords are finally long enough, the camera is poised and ready to turn on; our livestream is finally something that works. And what is reason to question whether it should continue?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and clearly pose some for rhetorical effect (most, probably), but I’ve been pondering these things for a couple of weeks, and when I try to write about something else, I keep circling back. I’ve been trying to imagine what it looks like to write the story of in-person vs. online within my own church context, and in all honesty, I’m not sure I can separate my own bias to want to shut it down from what the needs of our community might be otherwise. Mostly, because I have not heard from people who benefit from this, and I recognize that that is my own failing. That is my next step. Who is benefiting and why? How can I bring them into better community – how can I be the neighbor they need in tangible ways outside of a livestream?

Finally, I’ve had the pleasure to read through Catherine McNiel’s new book, “Fearing Bravely”, within which she challenged me as a reader to really dig deep and analyze what it means to actually love my neighbor, love the stranger, love my enemy. She had great questions that created space for me to begin to imagine what it would look like to start hosting regular dinner nights in my community, and my own context makes me into this creative dinner planner that allows for people of all covid comfort levels to be able to attend and get to know one another. And in the context of the In person vs. Livestream, I’m challenged to pray for how to best serve the people I don’t actually see in person regularly, and to reach out and see how I can serve them better as a neighbor within their community, as an elder of the church, and as their friend. Perhaps once that has happened, I’ll be able to better write the narrative, but for now, I let it stand, and I plan to keep listening – trying to parse out the truths, the reason, the comfortable norms and the uncomfortable needs for changes, or just as uncomfortable needs to dive deeper into the norms. We shall see where that one lands.

Now, another browser window awaits for me to step into the mud of the lifting mask mandates and how this has become controversial as well. I’m telling you, that reason monster, alongside our very real needs being always, clearly, “beyond our capacities”, and knowing full well that no one reaches these conclusions, or “gets what they want alone”, makes discerning meaning and evening realizing what is dishonest versus honest doubt a true struggle. And while I agree with Miss Charlotte Bronte’s statement that “language [has] been given us to make our meaning clear, and not to wrap it in dishonest doubt.”, I also recognize that she and her sisters had to wrap themselves in dishonest personage in order to even publish the language used to make meaning clear, and if that doesn’t create it’s own set of dishonest doubt, I’m not sure what does.

Happy to struggle alongside you, friends. Happy to discuss and converse and take on the monsters of reason and comfort. Let’s chat, and more importantly, let’s keep being community together.

Want some extra reading?

Books full of sticky truths reference here (in order of appearance) – I recommend them all:

“Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” Charlotte Bronte (in the preface to Wuthering Heights)
“Tell it Slant” by Eugene Peterson
“A Thousand Steps into Night” by Traci Chee
“All the Pretty Horses” by Cormac McCarthy
“Fearing Bravely”by Catherine McNiel

Articles on LiveStream Vs. In-Person Church services
(Tish Harrison Warren’s as listed above, along with the varying viewpoint responses I’ve been reading – have your own? have more? comment or email and share them with me, please!):

Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services – Tish Harrison Warren
Why Our Online Services are Here to Stay – April Fiet
Is Congregational Worship an Endangered Species – Debra Rienstra
7 thoughtful Reader Responses on Ending Church Online – Tish Harrison Warren