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Guiding Stories

Jesus was born into a people with a powerful guiding story. It helped them survive the harsh reality of living under Roman rule. It told of wandering Arameans, Abraham and Sarah, to whom God promised descendants as plentiful as the stars and of how harshly Pharaoh treated the descendants of these two Arameans. It told tales of plagues and a way God created for them amid a raging river and of manna that God provided for them at the dawn of each new day.

During pogroms in Europe and especially during the fires of the Holocaust, Jews from diverse nations around the world would recite these words from their guiding story: “Wandering Arameans were our parents.” And, with these words, they would reclaim their guiding story of a God who leads the oppressed and refugees out of persecution.

Over time, guiding stories can be obscured and replaced with less worthy ones. While enslaved in Egypt, the Arameans pled to God for even a crumb of hope, but once free they acted as if freedom were something to which they were entitled. While captive in Babylon, the Arameans cried for God to deliver them, but once free and back home, they built walls and expelled immigrants from their land.

Every American knows what it is like for a guiding story to be obscured and replaced with a less worthy story. It happened when this land of immigrants forgot its founding story and forced marched native Americans from their land. It happened when this land of immigrants became especially fearful of certain immigrants during the second World War and rounded up Japanese American citizens, housing them in prison camps even though they had committed no crime. It happened first with slave ships and later when water hoses blasted African-Americans who simply wanted to use the same bathroom and drink from the same water fountains, eat at the same lunch counter or go to the same schools. It happened for years in our own Presbyterian Church when the love between two persons of the same gender was believed less worthy than the love between persons of different genders. Every American knows what it is like for a guiding story to be obscured and replaced with a less worthy story.

Sometimes, though, guiding stories are insufficient from the start and simply need to be replaced. In Mark 5, we meet Jairus. His life was governed by the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. As a leader in the synagogue, Jairus knew all the right prayers and all the right people. He knew how to get things done, what strings to pull, which egos to massage, and where to find extra funds for building drives. Jairus enjoyed all the trappings of prosperity. People worked for him, respected him, and paved his way for a life of plenty and comfort.

In Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Roy Cohn speaks for the Jairuses of this world. In a conversation with Henry, his doctor, Roy says: “I have clout. A lot. I can pick up this phone, punch fifteen numbers, and you know who will be on the other end in under five minutes, Henry?” Henry says, “The President.” Roy retorts: “Even better, Henry. His wife.”

At the other end of the Jairuses and Roy Cohns of the world, Mark tells us about a Jewish woman who had bled for twelve years and found no relief by any physician in town. Like Jairus, her life was also governed by the Torah. It told her to make herself scarce, to stay out of Jairus’ synagogue, to keep a good distance from others, to put marriage out of her mind, lest she pollute her husband and her people with her filth.

Mark does not even give this woman a name; she was simply another anonymous scar on the religious and social Palestinian landscape. As a woman and then as a diseased woman, she was doubly damned, a person with no rights and no claim on anyone to do her a favor.

In her book The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris reflects on growing up as a woman in the church. She writes: “I have lately realized that what went wrong for me in my Christian upbringing is centered in the belief that one had to be dressed up, both outwardly and inwardly, to meet God, the insidious notion that I need to be a firm and even cheerful believer before I dare show my face in His church. Such a God was of little use to me in adolescence, and like many women of my generation I simply stopped going to church when I could no longer be `good’, which for girls especially meant not breaking rules, not giving voice to anger or resentment, and not complaining (pp. 90-91).” Kathleen Norris and the nameless, bleeding woman in Mark 5 know what it means not to belong.

The two interwoven stories in Mark challenge two prevalent guiding stories. The first guiding story of Jairus and his dying daughter is summarized by this aphorism: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Jairus had likely lived his life by that aphorism. His way had been eased by privilege, as a male, as a synagogue leader, and a person of public prominence.

In Angels in America, the powerful and influential Roy Cohn has AIDS and yet tells everyone that he has liver cancer. After hearing Roy spout off about all his power, the doctor says: “Get on the phone, Roy, and dial the fifteen numbers, and tell the First Lady you need in on an experimental treatment for liver cancer, because you call it any . . . thing you want, Roy, but what it boils down to is very bad news” (p. 46).

In Mark 5, Jairus’ daughter is dying and his guiding story is shown for the empty shell that it is. All his position and money and civic influence mean absolutely nothing. In any other circumstance, a distinguished member of the religious Jewish elite would never kiss the feet of an itinerant preacher who had just stepped off the boat from visiting Gentile country. At this point in his life, though, Jairus has no strings left to pull. So, he gives up his guiding story, gets on his knees, begs for Jesus to help, because he knows, perhaps as only a desperate father deplete of all of his resources knows, that only Jesus might make his daughter well.

The other guiding story in this chapter is of the anonymous woman with a persistent flow of blood. Her guiding story has told her to: “Keep a stiff upper lip and don’t make waves.” The hemorrhaging Jewish woman has exhausted her resources, has lived on the fringe of society, has followed the religious rules, and has endured a plagued life for twelve years. She has kept the Jewish law, but not today. Like Rosa Parks saying, “No, I will not go to the back of the bus today,” this woman grabs hold of a piece of Jesus’ robe even though to do so was absolutely against the law. Somehow, she knows, perhaps only as one who has lived a long time with chronic illness knows, that Jesus might make her well.

Just like Jairus, she rejects her guiding story. She grabs hold of Jesus and Jesus says to her: “Daughter, your trust has saved you; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Informed that his daughter has died, Jairus is advised to move away from this public spectacle of begging Jesus for help. Jesus looks at Jairus and says otherwise. He asks Jairus, “Are you going to listen to your advisors or to me? Which story is going to guide your life?

Mark tells us two stories in which a woman with a twelve-year flow of blood is healed and a child who is declared dead later eats lox and bagels. Mark offers us a guiding story that will not crumble under pressure. It is a story of hope and wholeness that will color our lives as we give up the illusion of self-sufficiency or rise above the illusion of worthlessness. It is the guiding story of what happens when you and I trust in the goodness and possibilities of God and allow Jesus to guide our feet.

Every life has a guiding story.

What is yours?


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