This is my second time living in Pennsylvania. A few months before I turned three, my family moved from Philadelphia to a 7-acre farm in Indiana to live communally with some other simple Brethren. We all shared the farmhouse for a while, then spread out. Now there are two houses, a trailer, until recently a yurt, a big old barn, lots of chickens and cats, so many worms and bees and veggies and herbs and berries... There’s also an old windmill on the farm; tall and sturdy amidst hundred-year old buildings, without any blades or function left.
Except one. When I was three years old, I used to climb to the top of that windmill, look around while my stomach flipped, then climb back down. I don’t remember the first time I climbed up. I don’t remember the first few years of climbing up actually – like probably most of you, I really don’t have any clear memories before age 5. I definitely don’t remember that my dad followed me up to protect me. I wouldn’t have believed he did this if there wasn’t photographic evidence. I thought that windmill was my private playground.
Physically, I was a bold kid – climbing not just windmills, but trees too, wrestling, doing flips off the bed or through the banister.
Socially, I was timid. One of my earliest memories is eating at a restaurant with my extended family and playing with the ice and straw in my water glass – novelty items that I never enjoyed at home. My aunt scolded me (reasonably, I’m sure). I hid under the table for the rest of dinner.
I hated – still hate – being yelled at, criticized, talked down to. Obviously, no one likes being criticized. But I never got over wanting to hide under the table; I never got used to being called out. It didn’t happen much in my childhood, since my parents weren’t the scolding type.
I’ve always known myself to be accommodating, insecure, and inclined to give in or hide to escape trouble as quickly as possible.
But that probably doesn’t sound like the person you’ve known me to be, does it?
Before moving to the Indiana countryside where I could climb windmills to celebrate my newly acquired walking skills, in Philadelphia I expressed my physical freedom by running into the busy street outside our Germantown apartment – not once, over and over. My parents panicked and tried spanking me to teach my barely verbal brain the danger of toddling into traffic. But I just did it more. Same with turning on the stove; once I learned that it bothered my mom, I did it even more. They gave up on spanking pretty fast.
I don’t remember any of this, but my parents tell me the stories. Apparently my grandma, my dad’s mom, thought that my parents should discipline this wild child differently, and she still believed in spanking. Once, again around age 5, I crossed the country road that ran between her house and her barn without her accompanying me. This was against the rules, so when she found me she said, “If you do that again, I’ll spank you.” I told her, “If you spank me, I’ll do it again.” My grandma was a smart woman, and quickly ate her words of parenting advice.
I don’t know how to jive my 5-year-old self hiding under the dinner table with the one defying my grandma. I know a big part of it is that I felt very comfortable with my grandma, and was shy with my aunt. But when I think back on these stories I feel like they must be about two different girls.
Working as a hospital chaplain for the first time brought the shy girl out of me again – I was intimidated by the lingo, the lab coats, the hierarchy, the haughtiness. It took me a long time to find my voice, and I was rather miserable while I was at work, and often still miserable at home in the evenings, because I let myself be so small.
I came to recognize the disconnect between my hospital self and my familiar self as the same gap between the girl hiding under the table and the girl telling grandma what’s what. I decided to be more strategic about how I tell the story of who I am. That starts with getting smart about how I tell the story of who I’ve been. And all of this shapes the story of who I’m becoming.
We have a wealth of stories in scripture, and the ways we share these stories shape who we understand ourselves to be as people of faith. When we read today’s passage from 1 Corinthians we hear that our own bodies, our very beings, are God’s temple, filled with God’s Holy Spirit. Scripture is full of stories and statements that teach us we are blessed, beloved!
But plenty of people read the same bible and instead of telling stories of being blessed and beloved, tell stories of being wretched and terrible! And you can find it all in scripture, there are seeds for all sorts of stories in our scriptures – so we should be serious about the stories we choose to tell.
Does your family have favorite stories that you hear year after year at the Thanksgiving table, or sitting around the living room on Christmas morning? My family’s favorite stories are either funny or poignant. We either laugh, or get a little teary. There are infinite true stories we could tell, but we tell those stories, they are our favorite stories, because they serve our coming together. By laughing together at Uncle Gary losing those two toes, or getting a lump in our throats about what Grandma used to say, we get closer as a family.
So as a church family, we have infinite stories we could tell, stories that are true! But true isn’t enough – which are the stories that serve us? That serve our coming closer to each other, and closer to God?
Hearing Paul’s words that we are God’s temple – our very beings and bodies are filled with the Holy Spirit – draws us close to God by reminding us who we are, and whose we are. And it’s not just feel-good, warm fuzzy, easy theology – this is challenging! To be so utterly beloved and blessed challenges us to live as God’s temples and treat ourselves with such deep respect that we honor God, and honor that of God within us.
Jesus says the greatest command is to love God, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This letter from Paul reminds me that if we aren’t loving ourselves well, we won’t be loving our neighbors well, either.
Our stories shape us, shape everything about us and how we see the world.
We can only tell stories about the past, but we tell them with the perspective we hold in the present. We change our stories as we change, when we see different shades of them and ourselves.