If you have been to NYAPC since Lent, you may have noticed that I have become fascinated with the practice of Biblical storytelling or learning the Bible by heart. (The youth learned the whole book of Jonah on Youth Sunday, which totally blew me away.)
I was introduced to this spiritual practice mid-Lent by Rev. Casey Fitzgerald, Associate Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria and professional Biblical storyteller. Her project was to gather five women across National Capital Presbytery to tell the story of the Women at the Well (John 4:1-42) at the NEXT Church National Conference in Kansas.
It was something I said YES to because frankly I respected the women that were asked and wanted the opportunity to get to know them better. What I didn’t realize was how that Biblical story would become so engrained me me. The part that I learned “Look around. The harvest is ripe for reaping!” became implanted so deeply that I began to see the words everywhere inviting me to look around and see God’s beautiful creation and God’s harvest ALIVE and active in this world.
Inspired by this opportunity to learn the Biblical story by heart, during the later half of Lent when the readings from the Gospel of John became rather long — we experimented with this practice in church, not requiring our liturgists and pastors to memorize the text but rather to read it so that the words become second nature so that the the words of the Biblical story become like telling a close friend the best story in the world. That is what the Gospel message is, right? The best story in the world.
For Easter I took the challenge to memorize the Easter story from Matthew 28:1-10. For two weeks, I ran outside with the story. I uploaded it onto my phone, and as I chugged along a few miles each day, I repeated phrase in my head, gradually adding phrase on top of phrase.
It was a deeply spiritual practice to experience and notice the presence of God as the trees and birds were changing over from winter to spring. Seeing the unfolding of spring all around me all while repeating the Easter story in my head, I began to experience the story of the women of the tomb. These are the women who who rose early to check on Jesus’ body expecting a crucified man to still be there.
Central to the story, I kept hearing the words from the angel and then Jesus saying
“DO NOT BE AFRAID.”
These are words that we need to hear today as Christians — as people of the post resurrection era, as Eastertide people. These are words that meet us in our creatureliness — our fears of not fitting in, of not doing well enough, of completely messing everything up, of never being recognized or never getting the opportunity to be seen.
These are words too that meet us in our fears that are more global — fears of that are based in a very real and scary reality of the often violent world that we live in. These are fears that we felt this week as we experienced the real and horrific violence against mostly women and children in Manchester. These are the very real fears from the family of Lilana Mendez, a mom of children ages 4 and 10 years old from Falls Church, VA who was detained at her at her regularly scheduled Immigrations and Customs Enforcement checkin. It feels as though the world is too scary — that there is too much horror and injustice and not enough real peace. It feels easy to simply feel afraid and do nothing. Fear can be immobilizing.
As I was driving home yesterday, I saw a young African American man pulled over for what I assumed to be a traffic violation on 15th street in front of the White House. I wondered what level of fear he felt or how he has been taught by his mother to act so calmly so as to avoid any kind of violence. I took note how my son’s first driving lesson won’t likely be how to interact with the police. I wondered what my role is as a Christian is in in offering protection for this young man.
As I ran and meditated on the words “Do not be afraid,” I heard the realness and the concrete particularity of our fears, and I heard that it is in those places of deepest trauma that God meets each and every one of us.
I heard that the Gospel calls out for us is to take the risk of the relationship, to take the risk of being hurt, to take the risk of being changed, and enter with hands held in compassion into the each other’s space. The Gospel calls each of us to take on risk and burden of another — and through this deep binding to become closer to who we are and whose we are called to be.
Jesus knew that and felt that very real fear as he faced the cross on his journey to Jerusalem and then during that week of trial and execution. So when Jesus says “DO NOT BE AFRAID”, he is saying that he knows this feeling. He is saying to us — I know how it feels to want to immobilized. I know the feeling of wanting to pull the blankets over your head. I know the feeling of feeling so tired.
But in the words of DO NOT BE AFRAID, what I gained from reading the Easter story over and over, running with it, with each pound of the foot on the pavement, hearing the words of Jesus saying DO NOT BE AFRAID and DO NOT LET YOUR FEAR PARALYZE YOU. Don’t give up. Don’t throw in the towel.
Don’t give up because you don’t face all of these fears alone.
You might be like the women at the tomb the first day who came so early because they knew no where else to go. Even if the it was just the body of Jesus, they wanted to be with him. When when Jesus appeared in the flesh — “they immediately came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.”
We might be like the disciples who hid in the upper room for days in fear of the religious authorities. We might be like Thomas who needed to experience the wounds of Christ for himself, who needed to see how God had so concretely took on the all of the pain and suffering of this world upon God-self.
We might be like the one witnessing the story from afar knowing the pain and suffering of those earliest followers and knowing the pain and suffering of God’s people today. We might feel the urge to get up outside of ourselves and try on what it feels like to follow that call and “Do not be afraid.”
Whoever we are in the story — in reading and repeating the learning the story by heart, the story is for all of us — that God is alive and active, that God is with us in the deepest traumas, and that God says that as the body of faith, we are to be present for one another.
Over the next months, I encourage you to take out a Biblical story — perhaps your favorite one and read it over and over. Read it in little chunks savoring on each word and phrase, noticing the shift and tone of the voices, noticing how the story tells in parts and as whole. I hope you will learn a Biblical story by heart. And if you choose a lectionary passage (or ask Roger or I for one), we would love for you to share your Biblical reading in worship.
Here is my plug for an intergenerational class I will be teaching on Biblical Storytelling in July.
Sundays, July 23 and July 30 : Learning to Tell the Bible by Heart: Anyone can tell a story! Join us for an interactive workshop on how to tell parts of the Biblical Story by heart. This workshop can be geared to anyone Grade K and up. If you are planning to bring your very young child, please let Associate Alice Tewell (firstname.lastname@example.org) know so she can prepare accordingly. This workshop will also be useful for anyone serving as a Scripture reader.