I am not adverse to drinking cold coffee. It’s not uncommon for me to sip what has been sitting since earlier in the day. Or even, occasionally, the night before. But it was only a small bit in the bottom of my cup this morning and, since fresh coffee was on the way, I poured it out.
There was a spider in that last sip.
I saw it there in the sink. Lethargic. Sopped. But still trying to crawl to freedom.
I share humanity’s instinctive aversion to crawly things. I confess I did not assist this spider’s quest for survival. I was creeped out by the thought it was in my cup – and there had been a passing impulse to sip that last sup. I wanted it to go away. Down the sink. Away from me.
I think about the drive to live within every human creature. Instinctual. Imperative. But we, strange creatures that we are, have a more complicated relationship with life. Existence is not enough. We need it to mean something. We need purpose. We need connection. We need hope.
I am here and I am going there. I am building something. I am building a car or a home or a family. I am connected to these people, to this cause. I fight to survive because I don’t want my story to be over. When I think my story’s over, when I can see no story, no point, why fight?
People can blow themselves up for the sake of a narrative of holy war. They can endure abuse at a lunch counter and risk their lives riding the freedom buses for the sake of a narrative. People can labor at demeaning work for their children’s future. People can risk dangerous seas for a narrative that includes the possibility of freedom.
I don’t think my dog or cat ever needed a plot line. They didn’t ask about the meaning and purpose of life. There was, for them, no “once…but now…” But we need to know why we are doing this. And when we lose the thread of our story we are in trouble.
One of the things religion does is provide us a narrative. A narrative about beginnings – we were conceived in the heart of God – and about endings. It is that question of endings that defines the character of a religious tradition. What is the ending toward which we move? Is it a judgment day when good will be rewarded and evil punished? Is it a bliss, a heaven, given freely to all? Is it an absorption into the eternal, our spirits or our molecules returning to the great cosmic soup? And is this narrative enough to sustain a life through all the twists and turns of our existence?
Religion is not just about identity. It is not about the team to which I belong. It is about the story I live. It is about the narrative that sustains me.
And here, I think, is the great challenge of our culture: most of the narratives we have are unable to sustain us. Narratives of finding a love and building a life and creating a family and dying in each others tender embrace are too easily betrayed by chance and tragedy. Death can shatter that story. Or our sins. A betrayal can bring it all down.
Those who build a life around the acquisition of wealth find that the gods of prosperity can be fickle and, as we all know, death will separate us from our wealth. Power, fame, reputation, honor, adventure, beauty, even wisdom are all vulnerable to sin and death. To allow them to be the driving narrative of a life is to risk awaking to find that we have lost the thread of our own story, that life has lost its meaning.
Religion can betray us, too, especially when the religious narrative promises success and power, even if only spiritual success and power. That is much of what we want from religion: prosperity and protection against life’s ills.
The Christian narrative begins in the heart of God and ends in the heart of God. But the path it travels is not towards myself; it is towards my neighbor. It is a narrative of compassion, forgiveness, service, kindness. It is a narrative of the earth’s redemption not just my redemption. It is a narrative of a banquet where all are gathered, not of riches I have stored up. At the center of our story is a man who lays down his life for others. Indeed, the center of our story is, in fact, a God who lays down his life for others.
No matter how little bread I have, it can always be shared. No matter how wounded my life, I can tend the wounds of others. No matter what twists of fate come my way, I can live compassion. I can speak truth. I can live as a citizen of God’s kingdom.
I can live the reign of God because this is the narrative to which my life has been joined. A narrative of creation and new creation. A narrative of a world formed as a garden and restored as a city adorned like a bride. A narrative of death and resurrection. A narrative of healing and wholeness. A narrative of peace, of shalom. A narrative of light and love. A narrative of grace and life.
Baptism sends me down into the waters and raises me up again. It joins me to the story of dying and rising. It joins me to God’s promise and work of re-creation. It provides me with a narrative that transcends every joy and sorrow. It anchors me not in a world ‘above’ but in a world made whole. And my story is about living that wholeness now.
All of this takes us a long way from that soggy spider whose life I failed to rescue. But it does ask the right question. For what do we live? What is our hope? Who is our life?
What is the thread of my story? What narrative am I following? And will it sustain me despite sin and death?