… the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. John 14:26
I like stories of all kinds. I’m an avid reader of a variety of genres, though I have a particular fondness of urban fantasy. There’s something wonderful about the temporary escape from reality a good novel or short story can provide. My imagination is sparked and I am transported somewhere else. I do best when I have a daily dose of fiction. However, I have recently been captivated by the ways in which we tell our faith stories. These are often stories laden with more spiritual truth than factual history, and that’s okay. When told well, these stories also ignite my imagination and I am transported to a place of hope and healing.
Unfortunately, the stories of our faith often get repeated in ways that bring more harm. In the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month, I am acutely aware of how so many of us have been harmed by the telling of faith stories. I think of the times I’ve been told, “Everything happens according to God’s will.” Usually, these words were uttered after I had shared something about the trauma of my early life. I suspect the people who say this kind of thing think they are offering comfort. They might also be coming from a theological place that begins with the idea that all of humanity was condemned by the actions of Adam and Eve.
If the faith that has been handed onto you includes the idea that we all need to be saved, redeemed from the ancient “fall of humanity,” then the concept of everything happening according to God’s will might be comforting. Because you might believe that God organizes everything to get us to place where we will choose God rather than staying in our condemned state. Yet, when you really take a close look at this, this is not a faith story that leads to hope and healing so much as it is a story that leads to fear and despair. More often than not, this perspective keeps one from ever believing that they are good enough for God to love.
There’s another way to tell this same story that leads to a healthier, more hopeful place. If we tell this story as a way to show and affirm that God created everything and declared it good, then it’s easier to get to a place that begins in God’s love. Adam and Eve weren’t villains who doomed the entire human race to life without God’s immediate presence. Instead, they are representatives of humanity and display our capacity to choose what God would rather we do not. God doesn’t abandon us, but life can be complicated when we (or those around us) choose other than what God desires for us. Then Jesus becomes a way to bring more love into the world, to save us from our own self-destruction, rather than a means of saving souls.
We can tell our faith stories in ways that highlight condemnation and failing or in ways that demonstrate God’s steadfast love that continues through all human struggle. I prefer the latter. If I begin and end with the premise that God’s love endures through all things, then anything horrible is not God’s doing. God is present in the midst of pain and suffer, trauma and tragedy, but God doesn’t send these things into our lives – not to test us, teach us, or lead us onto a certain path.
Consequently, no illness of body, mind, or spirit is inflicted on us by God. The ancient people believed that these things were punishment for sin, theirs or their parents’. But they didn’t know anything about genetics or germs or weather patterns or much else. Now we do. The ways in which we become unwell aren’t God’s doing. God also does not abandon us when we are ill, even if it feels that way.
Jesus’ life and ministry were all about healing and hope and restoring people to community. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us, to remind us of God’s love for us and that we are to follow Jesus in the path of loving ourselves and others with the same love. As we listen to the stories of this Pentecost season, maybe we can hear them and tell them in new ways. Maybe we can begin to tell our stories of faith in ways that emphasize God’s great love for the whole of creation. Maybe we can stop using faith stories to blame those who suffer from mental or physical illness for being ill. Maybe we can begin to shape the telling of our stories in ways that promote wholeness, healing, hope, and God’s love for all people, including you and me. How better to celebrate the movements of the Spirit than to embrace Love?
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe is an author, and the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, MN. You can find links to her blog, video series, and books at Beachtheology.com