Keeping the Wolf From the Door


I recently watched a short documentary on Vimeo,  Ken Burns: On Story, about the craft of storytelling. In it the filmmaker says,

“We  have to keep the wolf from the door. We tell stories to continue ourselves. We all think that an exception is going to be made in our case and we are going to live forever. Being a human is actually arriving at the understanding that that’s not going to be.  Story is just there to remind us that its just okay.”

Burns reminds us that “story” is the way that we frame our world, the way we make sense of our lives. The stories or narratives our families and culture taught and lived out before us influence us whether we like it or not. They remain our perceptions of the world around us – for good or for bad – until we choose to change them.  As James Bryan Smith says, “We are shaped by our stories. In fact our stories, once in place, determine much of our behavior without regard to their accuracy or helpfulness.  Once these stories are stored in our minds, they remain there largely unchallenged”( p. 25 in The God and Beautiful God).

Richard Rohr uses the language of the Twelve Steps to describe his understanding of how our stories affect us when he describes the universal addiction of “stinking thinking.” He says, “we are all addicted to our own habitual way of doing anything, our own defenses, and most especially our patterned way of thinking, or how we process our reality” (p. xxiii in Breathing Under Water,  Spirituality and the Twelve Steps).

In the documentary, Burns goes on to say to say, “I made a film on baseball once and it seemed to me that there was a dilemma for the racist of what to do about Jackie Robinson. If you were a Brooklyn Dodger fan and you were a racist, what do you do when he arrives? You can quit baseball all together, you can change teams, or you can change. And I think that the kind of narrative that I subscribe [to] trusts in the possibility that people could change.”

With this example, Burns captures the the options we all face as we begin to come to grips with the reality that the stories we learned from our parents or our culture are just wrong. We can rationalize and attempt to manipulate our environment. Or we can come wrestle with the truth as Jesus taught it and be transformed.

Living as Apprentice of Jesus requires trusting in the narratives that Jesus taught us, including the possibility that people can change. Sometimes change seems impossible; those narratives are hard to budge! Many of us are blindly striving for perfection. An entire class gasped in unison recently when I posited that “good enough” might be an appropriate replacement for the “I must be perfect” false narrative.”  Another difficult narrative to change is that money and possessions can make us secure and happy – and may even be a way of “keeping the wolf from the door.”  Or how about “God helps those who help themselves?” (The way I read the New Testament, God helps those who cannot help themselves.)

We all need to be continually testing our narratives.  Is God an angry judge? Or is God a good  and merciful Being who wants only the best for us?  If we try harder, will God love us more?  Or does God love us as much in this moment as God ever has or ever will?   Is what we own ours to use for our own pleasure? Or do we operate under the philosophy that if we all share, we will allow have enough? Are we working hard for everyone’s approval? Or do we value integrity and authenticity? Is it enough to give intellectual assent to Christ’s death on the cross in payment for our sins? Or are we also being called to the lifelong adventure of following in his footsteps? The narratives we choose will cement us into our rigid patterns or free us to turn our world upside down.

The final narrative we face is how to live while we are waiting to die. Ken Burns is right. The story we tell ourselves about life affects how we view our  demise.  It also affects how we spend our time until that demise is imminent. We can live in denial that death comes to everyone and that our time on this earth will eventually end – and trivialize the life we do have.  Or we can live fully in the Kingdom of God, participating with God in God’s work on earth now and anticipating life in the kingdom after “the wolf has come to the door.”  That is the choice we each have to make. I choose life in the Kingdom!

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