One of the teachers at my school is planning to do “expert projects” this year. The idea behind them is that every kid is an expert at something and that we may not get to see that side of him or her in a normal school day, like a student who loves skateboarding but can never show us because skateboards are not allowed on campus for safety reasons. One way to build community and respect in the classroom is to let the students present on what they are passionate about in order to see them in a different way. They can be respected as authorities in their topics, which is a beautiful way to empower them and to see their gifts.
As a good Baptist and my father’s daughter, I have authority issues, of course. Recently I have tried to explore things a bit outside of my liberal bubble and it pushes all my buttons to read blogs that list things that I need to know in order to find joy in the mundane and books that explain how I can find real meaning in my life. I get jittery when I see blog posts insisting that you should just submit to your church or your husband. In truth, when people talk about authority a lot, I wonder if they are worried about asserting their own, or if they are worried that they don’t trust enough. When I find myself on those blogs with the lists, I wonder why they express themselves that way, if it’s not to simplify things so they can have a lot of followers. Who are these people to tell me what to do? Why are they so bossy? And do those Bible verses really mean that?
Even as a kid, I struggled to read devotionals or Christian living books that took Bible verses and told me what to do with my life. Books like this one:
And also this:
(I actually did have both of those books in case you were wondering.) (Yes, I read them.) (No, they weren’t good.)
Time and again, I read things in these books that were supposed to offer clarity, especially lists of verses that supposedly stated who I am in Christ. Other women recited them to me on retreats, and I returned the favor, trying to make sense of the list of words on the yellow piece of paper: You are the salt of the earth. You are a city on a hill. You have the mind of Christ. You are God’s workmanship. As I have said before, those words were all around me but they didn’t touch my heart. They didn’t mean anything to me. They still don’t, at least not in the way that I think they were intended to.
For most of my life, I have lived by the credo of story, but it’s only in recent years that I have come to see that personal stories are the ones that make the most sense to me. In those devotional books, there were always examples of students who did X and then suffered for it or did Y and then their whole school got saved (and also their lockers opened). Those stories were appropriated to prove a point, just like the pastor we used to have who always took inspiration from teenagers and sports and especially teenagers who played sports. And while it matters very little to me that a kid would play basketball and score a lot of points in a game after his mom died because Jesus, it matters even less to me when it’s a 50-year-old dude telling the story about someone else.
I’m not saying that stories are the only thing that matters. I read books about science and history and the Bible all the time, but I am saying that for a reader like me it helps to have a story to hang the facts on, to give them shape and meaning. I have been working my way through Benefit of the Doubt by Greg Boyd (full review to come soon) and I was struck by how well he uses his story to express his passion for the topic and his interpretation of scripture. As Boyd explains why he feels certain ways, the book feels open and warm rather than the distance that I feel when someone tells me what I should think or what I should do. We might disagree on his interpretation of scripture (well, I don’t, but you might), but he has the authority to speak in ways that make meaning out of his life, and that is powerful to see.
In case you can’t tell, authority is an issue that I have been wrestling with a lot over the past year. Instead of feeling, as I used to, that I had to wait and listen for God, I feel empowered to make meaning out of my own story. God and I have been creating something beautiful together, something that doesn’t require lists of Bible verses or cramming myself into a role where I don’t belong. It feels almost daring to say that, to admit that those things never worked for me and that God and I are making a different way together. I am delighted to find that I have the authority to make that happen.
When that Pride and Prejudice movie came out a few years ago, the one with Keira Knightley, it was a bit of a shock for those of us who were used to the more leisurely meandering of the miniseries. I read a review that framed the clipped pace in a more positive way, saying that it felt as if Lydia had taken us by the hand and pulled us into the middle of the story. And while I prefer the longer version of the story, I have to admit that the idea of being welcomed in by Lydia is delightful.
I was reminded of Lydia when my cousin Tara paid me one of the greatest compliments of all time by saying that when she reads my thoughts here that she feels that we are in this together. I hope that the words in this space draw people in and let them know that they are not alone. Since I tend to avoid books and blogs that talk about what you need to do or who you really are, of course I can’t write things like that either. The only thing I am an expert on is being myself, and I hope by talking about the things that I experience that you see part of your story, too.