On Production

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.                               

-James 1:19-27

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What does your anger produce?

I ask because, let me tell you, the Bible has some sad stories in it: stories of a paradise lost, of families torn apart, of tribes at war; stories of justice denied, of compassion refused, of people who walk by on the other side of the street rather than cross the path of a neighbor in need; the Bible has some really sad stories in it, but when I read the scripture for today, in light of the events of this week, it just sucked the life out of me.

Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

It can’t be true.

It seems clear, right? It seems simple. But I read it, and I thought, surely, there’s more. Surely, there’s some analysis – there’s some hermeneutical principle – surely there’s something in the original language that will turn this around. I was willing to dig for it, to spend my week poring through the research to find something to say, “oh, here’s a new reading! And it turns out this verse means just the opposite of what it says!”

But I couldn’t. Because of course it’s true. Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. My anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

Even though I really, desperately want it to.

Because I am angry. Aren’t you?

I am angry that racism is such a stain on our country that two more black men were murdered this week, and there is discussion happening about whether they deserved to be or not.

I am angry that we are so unimaginative in our search for solutions that five more police offers were also murdered this week.

I am angry that these are only the most publicized killings this week – they are not the only ones.

I am angry that after Orlando, after the murder of 49 other people, when some lawmakers stood for longer than we would have thought humanly possible, and then when others sat, all in the name of interruption, of disruption, of drawing attention to an ongoing crisis of violence in our country, others lawmakers accused them of making a scene, and left the room, or left the state, so that no action could be taken.

I am angry that however much we continue to mourn for these deaths, we are long past being surprised by them, and we cannot seem to summon the will or the energy to do anything to change these patterns.

I am angry that last week, my friend’s seven-year-old ran upstairs to his room from his front yard where he’d been playing when a police car approached, and I am angry that she had to coax him back out, that she had to tell him that he was safe, that he would be ok, that no one would hurt him, and I am angry that she had to do that through gritted teeth, because the whole time she worried that she was lying, but then decided maybe that lie was better than raising her seven-year-old black boy to be afraid of the world.

I am angry at all of that, and I am angry at myself, for being angry, for getting tired, for hesitating before responding to racist posts on social media, for wondering whether it’s “worth it” to take up these kinds of conversations with people I know disagree. I am angry about the history we’ve all inherited and I am angry that it sure looks like my own kids, and probably theirs, are going to inherit the very same.

And I know that my anger is so minor, in the scope of all that is. I know that it is my privilege that allows anger to be my dominant response, and not fear, not horror, not paralyzing grief.

But I desperately want for all of this anger to produce God’s righteousness. If you, and I, and everyone else who is outraged, everyone else who is horrified at the violence that no longer shocks us, if we could pool all of our anger – shouldn’t that be enough to “produce God’s righteousness”? Shouldn’t it be enough to call out some decisive holy action, like one fell swoop of healing and justice?

I want this anger to become something positive. I want those pop-psychology articles – “5 reasons it’s good to be angry,” or whatever – I want them to manifest here and now, and turn this anger into momentum for change, into energy for revolution. It may be that my anger cannot produce God’s righteousness – that is beyond me, not connected to me or dependent on me – but couldn’t it at least muster a little of my own?
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I keep thinking so, but the more attention I pay to the verses around that one, the more I wonder. The more I sit with the text, the more I think it’s not telling us not to be angry, it’s cautioning us to know the limits of our anger. It can only go so far. It can not go as far as summoning our God to fly in and fix this bloody mess.

And that’s not the God we believe in anyway, right? A God who lets us loose to wreak havoc on one another and who then, when we cry out, comes in to clean it all up? That’s not the God our Scriptures witness to and it’s not the God our faith proclaims. God is the mystery in which we live and move and have our being. The grounding in love of all that is. Which means there is no pain of ours that God does not feel, no violence of ours that God is not wounded by. There is no evil of ours that does not cause God to recoil. Our anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

These verses were written millennia ago to a community in some kind of trouble, it’s unclear exactly what, but there are references to the fighting going on. They might as well have been written to us, today, especially to those of us who are white and know that the current state of things cannot stand, that it must not continue. What if we took these words from James as instruction for how to respond, for how to move in the world following weeks like this past one?

It would tell us, Step One: “Be quick to listen.” Not to defend. Not to explain. Not to shift blame. Be quick to listen. Rush to sit still. Hurry to shut up. In Psalm 40 the poet, addressing the Creator, says, “But you have carved out ears for me…” as if to say that in our becoming, special time, specific care was taken to make sure we could listen to one another. It’s what we were made for.

Step Two: “Welcome with meekness the word that has the power to save your souls.” James doesn’t specify what this word is, with its saving power. Maybe it’s scripture. Maybe it’s the teachings of Jesus. Maybe, also, it’s the stories we hear from one another. Anytime we sit down – any time we are quick to listen, and someone else is generous enough to share – the words of their experience can transform our hearts. Maybe listening to one another’s stories can save our souls. If a person in pain is willing to give words to that pain for another person, it is a great and difficult gift. Receive it. Hold it gently.

Step Three: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Michelle Alexander, who wrote “The New Jim Crow,” called the events of this week a mirror. Just like the brutal day of the Civil Rights Movement in Selma in 1965 that e’ve coined “Bloody Sunday” was a mirror, she said, our violence showing back to us what we believe and who we are committed to being, the events of this week are a mirror. They reflect the discord that has been allowed to grow, the fear we feel of one another, the desperate need for change.

Like James, who wrote that if we hear and do not act, if we listen and do not commit, we are like those who look in a mirror and then walk away, forgetting what we look like – like James, Michelle Alexander wrote, “I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option. On any given day, there’s always something I’d rather be doing than facing the ugly, racist underbelly of America. I know that I am not alone. But I also know that the families of the slain officers, and the families of all those who have been killed by the police, would rather not be attending funerals. And I’m sure that many who refused to ride segregated buses in Montgomery after Rosa Parks stood her ground wished they could’ve taken the bus, rather than walk miles in protest, day after day, for a whole year. But they knew they had to walk. If change was ever going to come, they were going to have to walk. And so do we. What it means to walk today will be different for different people and different groups and in different places. I am asking myself tonight what I need to do in the months and years to come to walk my walk with greater courage. It’s a question that requires some time and reflection. I hope it’s a question we are all asking ourselves.”

Step Four: “Bridle your tongue,” and offer your care. Step four is step one all over again: Listen. James says if we think we are religious and we cannot keep our mouths shut, we deceive ourselves. If we say all the right things but leave those in need, those abused, to fend for themselves, our talk, and our religion, is worthless.
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…And there is so much. There is so much going on in each of our individual lives that to add the disease of a nation can feel overwhelming. There is so much joy of our own we want to live fully in, and so much sorrow of our own to be present for, that our energy is some days nearly spent before we even see what’s happening in other places, with other people.

But in the Gospel, no place is an “other place,” no people are “other” people. This is not separate from any of us. It has been made heartbreakingly clear these past few weeks that this is the work of our time. The acknowledgment of the sins of our past and our present, the listening, the committing to seeing ourselves and our country in the mirror and remembering what we’ve seen, so that it can inform where we go and what we do from here – this is what we’re called to now.

It may be that our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. As sad as that makes me, all told, it’s probably a good thing. As for other production – as for what might come of our listening, our taking each other’s stories seriously and then living in response to them – I don’t know what might come of that. But I know two things: it will be among the hardest work we ever do. And we must do it.

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7-21 Presentation from Christianity 21 Conference

82797896_2d35aee187There are some stories that we tell often enough that they become central to who we are. Whether we mean for that to happen or not.

What are they, for you? For your family? In mine, one is that I’m a terrible cook. There’s a lot of supporting evidence for this, all of it from about twenty years ago. I have more than redeemed those early disasters.

Still, my family delights in retelling the stories, in making my mistakes come alive again, so that, however much things change, I will always be … a terrible cook. There’s no getting out of that identity for me. The story makes it stick.

There are stories we tell in the church that do much worse damage than this.

There’s a story we tell about Jesus. Some of us, every week. Scripture readings change and music changes and our own lives change but regardless of what else we say and what else we pray, we come to a particular point in a worship service and we get serious, we get reverent, and we tell the story that Jesus was betrayed.

Body broken; blood spilled. We tell that story often enough that it has become central to who we are. Whether we meant for that to happen or not. Whether Jesus meant for that to happen, or not.

Maybe he didn’t. Mark gives us just a few words about the betrayal – it’s a story interrupted, even, by another, a story about anointing…

We ritually tell the betrayal story. Some youth I work with were preparing to serve one another communion and trying to remember the words of institution, and it was so telling: of this ritual they participate in every week, all they knew for sure was that it began, “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…”

But the other story is gorgeous, filled with luxurious detail: Jesus is reclining; he’s a guest in a home and he’s laying back, after the meal, and a woman comes into the room and she releases this exquisite fragrance into the air, she lovingly pours this expensive perfume on his head.

The disciples harass Jesus about it, and he tells them that wherever the Gospel is preached, this is the story to tell: her courageous generosity. Wherever the good news goes, he says, say also that there was this woman, who offered what she had, who did what she could, and it was beautiful.

But we don’t tell the story that way. We tell it like whatever else there was –  whatever beauty, whatever faithfulness – whatever other details help fill it out, the center of the story is betrayal, and brokenness, and blood. That’s what churches tell, ritually, when we gather for communion.

We took a rebuke from the apostle Paul, and made it liturgy. When he offers the language we still use as sacred, he’s telling the church at Corinth they’re doing this ritual wrong – they bring private meals, and at the end of what should be communion, one person goes home hungry and another leaves drunk. He’s chastising them for this when he says, “This is how it happened, ok? On the night that Jesus was betrayed…” I’ve tried to imagine how that language might have come about. I wonder if there’s some conversation the disciples have about the meal. They’re mourning, they’re trying to be faithful, and maybe one says, “How does this go?” And another answers, “Well, there was bread, wine. Like always.”

And another asks, “When was it? The last time we ate with him? What’d he say? It’s all so blurry…” And another says, “Don’t you remember? It was … that night we were all there. The night he was betrayed.” Others nod. “Right. Right, that’s when it was. What an awful night.”

I can imagine that happening. But the betrayal is not the only story told by the early church around this table. Broken body and spilled blood are not the only images used for this meal.

Ephrem would say, “The Fire of compassion descended and took up residence in the Bread. See, Fire and Spirit are in the womb of her who bore You; See, Fire and Spirit are in the river in which you were baptized; In the Bread and the Cup are Fire and Holy Spirit.”

How did we lose that? Why do we use Paul’s context of betrayal every week?  What if we came to communion and said, “When a hungry crowd followed Jesus, he told them, ‘I am the bread of life. Come to me – never hunger; believe in me – never thirst.”

Or we said, “When people gathered around Jesus, to hear him teach, he promised, ‘Blessed are you who are hungry; you’ll be satisfied.’”

Ritual language matters because rituals are acts of re-creation. What is it we speak into being when we share story and bread and wine?

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There’s a story we tell in this country, over and over again. Thirty-one times since the year 2000, we’ve told a new story about mass murder. They’re each unique – a movie theatre, a workplace, an elementary school, a temple – but there are similar threads, and we respond similarly.

We respond with shock and sympathy, with prayers and promises to be more diligent. We try to understand, and explain. We collectively deny that these stories shape who we are. We buy more weapons. And we defend them more fiercely. We argue whether violence will save us from violence.

And I wonder how much all of that is connected to our practice of ritually telling a story of redemptive violence. I wonder if repeating a story of betrayal and horror – even one that ends in awe – might breathe more of that into the world.

As it is, there’s a terrible disconnect between the abundant life we preach and the violent liturgy of our sacred moments. It’s as if because the table ritual is ancient, we can’t touch it. Banners, hymns, prayers can reflect liturgical seasons, or congregational concerns, or world news, but we can’t imagine another way to share bread and wine.

But this story, of betrayal and blood, is not really what connects us to Christians across all time and space. … We know now earlier Christians used life-giving images, spoke of sacred identity – Augustine told his congregation, “You are Christ’s body; it is your own mystery that lies here upon the table of the Lord…”

Early Christians did not deny the realities of violence and suffering and sin, but they did tell more than just one story.

And if we did, too – if we loosened the hold the story of betrayal has, and began to ritualize stories about abundance, and care — what else might we do?

It may sound far-fetched – this idea that the words we say become the worlds we inhabit, that if we make sacred stories if courage and beauty and generosity we’d breathe more of all of that into the world, but… we are people of faith. The story about us is that we believe impossible things. Do we?

(This is excerpted and re-worked a bit from a longer sermon, The Stories We Tell, that you can find here.)

The Stories We Tell…

So they said to him, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as Scripture says: ‘God gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

So Jesus said to them, “The truth of the matter is, Moses hasn’t given you bread from heaven; But God gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

So they said to him, “Teacher, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them,”I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (John 6)

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There are some stories that we tell often enough that they become central to who we are. Whether we mean for that to happen or not.

What are they, for you? For your family? In mine, one of them is that I’m a terrible cook. There’s lots of supporting evidence for this, but all of it is from about twenty years ago. Still, my family delights in retelling the stories, in making my mistakes come alive again, so that, however much things change, I will always, always be … a terrible cook. The stories are sort of funny, and they also make me feel sort of … stuck. There’s no getting out of that identity for me.

For a friend of mine, the story his family told about him – and to him – was much more damaging. They told him he would be healed. They told everyone who met him that he would be healed. They took him to church every Sunday, marched him down the center aisle during the hymn of invitation every Sunday, and as he knelt, the church passionately told stories of Jesus healing those whose bodies, like his, didn’t work quite right. And then eventually – when he was eleven, and it became clear that his cerebral palsy was going to stick around, that no amount of elders hands could anoint it away – eventually they started telling him that he didn’t believe strongly enough, that he didn’t pray fervently enough, that he didn’t hope faithfully enough. He left the church for fifteen years. Then he went to seminary to learn to tell different stories about Jesus. Or to tell the same stories, but differently. To try to make the healing stories not so harmful. To be able to hear them, in his own body, in all its glory and with all its limits.

There’s a story we tell about Jesus. Every week. The Scriptures change and the music changes and our own lives change but every week, regardless of what else we say and what else we pray, we come to a particular point in this service and we get serious, we get reverent, and we tell the story that Jesus was betrayed. That his body was broken and his blood spilled. We tell that story often enough that it has become central to who we are. Whether we meant for that to happen or not.

And maybe, more importantly, whether Jesus meant for that to happen, or not. I would propose that he didn’t. The story about the betrayal, the first time it’s told, is in the Gospel of Mark. There are a few verses at the beginning of chapter 14 that warn that something bad will happen – they were looking for a way to arrest him, but to be sneaky about it. And then there’s a story about a meal, and a woman who brings Jesus a gift. And that story is followed by a couple of verses that return to the earlier concern, and tell us that a disciple agreed to turn Jesus over to the authorities.

And every week we tell the outside story. The shorter one. The one about Judas. About betrayal. On the high school mission trip to Joplin, when the kids who were leading worship were trying to remember the words of institution, whatever else they couldn’t remember about what came after, they all knew, “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…” They knew that the ritual began with those words.

But the story that comes in between – the story about the woman – do you know it? It’s longer than the other – there are these gorgeous, these, these luxurious details. It tells us that Jesus is reclining, he’s a guest in a home and he’s laying back, after the meal, and a woman comes into the room – she wouldn’t have been allowed, you know, her being there would have been problematic – but she comes in and she releases this exquisite fragrance into the air, she pours this expense perfume on his head. The disciples harass Jesus about it, and he tells them that what she did was what she could, and that it was beautiful. And he tells them that wherever the Gospel is preached in all the world, what she did was the story to tell. Her extravagant generosity, her pouring out of gratitude and honor and beauty – that’s the story, he says, that should go with the gospel. Where good news is preached, say also that there was this woman, who disregarded the rules that tried to keep her in a particular place, or in a particular role, and instead she came forward, offered what she had to her neighbor, to her God, and it was beautiful.

But we don’t tell it that way. We tell it as though we believe that whatever else happens, whatever else about Jesus’ teaching or Jesus’ embrace or peoples’ faithfulness, whatever other details help to fill out the story, the center of it is that he was betrayed, and his body broken, and his blood spilled. That is the story we tell, ritually, every time we gather.

We’ve taken language from the apostle Paul, meant to be a story, and we’ve turned it into our liturgy. The words come to us in the middle of other instruction, in the first letter to the Corinthians, and he’s telling them that women ought to wear head coverings when they pray. And then he’s telling them about all the ways their community is doing this sacred meal wrong – like they bring their own private meals, he writes, and at the end of the feast, one person goes home still hungry and another goes home drunk. They bring divisions with them to the table and at the table, they intensify those divisions. He’s trying to correct those practices, and in doing that, he offers the language that we still use today. He says, “This is how it happened, ok? On the night that Jesus was betrayed…”

And I’ve been trying to imagine how that language might have come about. The disciples are the first ones to share the communion meal together, to say that it’s symbolic of Jesus and his life among them. And I wonder if there’s some conversation they have about it. They’re in mourning, they’re trying to be faithful, and maybe someone says, “How does this go?” And someone else answers, “Well, there was bread, and wine. Like every meal.” And another says, “When was it? The last time we ate with him? What did he say? It’s all so blurry…” And another says, “Don’t you remember? It was that same night, there at the end. That night we were all there. The night he was betrayed.” And others nod. “Right. Right, that’s when it was. What an awful night.”

I can imagine that happening. The first time, maybe the first few times that they gathered. But we know that the betrayal is not the only story told by the early church around this table. We know that broken body and spilled blood are not the only images used for this meal. Sometimes, our ancestors talked about it as fire, and spirit. Ephrem, an early church leader, used to say, “The Fire of compassion descended and took up residence in the Bread. See, Fire and Spirit are in the womb of her who bore You; See, Fire and Spirit are in the river in which you were baptized. Fire and Spirit are in our baptismal font; In the Bread and the Cup are Fire and Holy Spirit.”

Sometimes the cup was not understood as blood or as spirit, but as oil, like for anointing… Another early church leader, Cyril, in Jerusalem, invited those who came to take communion, after they drank, to touch their wet lips with their fingers, and moisten their foreheads. He taught that this kind of anointing would help restore right perception, so that all who feasted at the communion table might then recognize the whole created world as filled with the spirit of God.

We’ve lost those images. Somewhere along the way, we’ve turned Paul’s story into liturgy, and we repeat it every week as if it’s the only way. We’ve done this with some other parts of our tradition, too – the Lord’s prayer. Clearly, the words that we choose to do this with matter. So I’ve been testing out some other scriptures in my head – not the words of Paul, but the words of Jesus. Like today’s scripture. What if we gathered around this table and we said, “On the day that a hungry crowd followed Jesus to the other side of a lake, Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” How would that change what we do here? Or what if we thought back to earlier in his ministry, and we said, “On the day that many people gathered around Jesus on a hill, to hear him teach, he said, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you are hungry now, for you will be satisfied.’” We are partway there. We already speak of this table as open, as abundant, as celebratory. But there is this disconnect, then, sometimes, when we follow that with the stories of betrayal and violence that we’ve enshrined.

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There’s a story we tell in this country, over and over again. Too often. Twenty-one times since the year 2000, we have told a new story about a mass murder, like the one that happened in Aurora at the movie theatre. The stories are all different but there are similar threads, and we respond similarly. We collectively deny that those stories shape who we are. We respond with shock and sympathy, with prayers and promises to be more diligent. We respond by looking into the mind of the perpetrator, as far and as deep as we can, to find that place where he is different from the rest of us, that thing that makes him and only him capable of acting in ways we would never dream of. We try to understand, and explain. And, on the whole – maybe not us here, but statistics show, we, Americans – buy more weapons. After attacks like this, gun sales go up. Predictably. As a people, we have come to believe that violence will save us from violence. And I can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection between that belief and our practice, as Christians, of telling and retelling the story that violence – submission to violence, violence done by people, violence willed by God – is what saved us.

Here at Saint Andrew, we don’t talk a lot about it. We don’t preach the power of the blood, or that the crucifixion called us back from certain condemnation. We are careful about that, actually, having seen the damage that theology can do – how it historically has been used to sanction abuse, and torture, and worse. But we still use it – the language of betrayal and death – we still use it around this table. We say it as if because it’s the tradition, it’s untouchable. As if because people around the world gather around a table using this formula, there is something about it that is sacred, something that must remain. We can change the liturgy at any point to reflect the season, or the character of the congregation, or the news of the world, but when it comes to the Words of Institution, it’s as if our hands are tied. As if that’s where our power ends, and only the ritual remains.

That’s how ritual works. That’s why it has such hold on us. Because it is this connection to what came before; it invites us into a world not of our own making. This story, of betrayal and body and blood, is what connects us, across time and space, to all other Christians, around this table. Except now we know, from the early church, that that’s not true. We know that other Christians were creative in their coming to the table. We know that they used more life-giving images, also found in scripture. And they held a tension – they spoke of beauty and mystery – early church father Augustine told his congregation, “You are Christ’s body; it is your own mystery that lies here upon the table of the Lord, and it is your own mystery you receive.” And Ephrem said, “Christ’s body has been newly mingled with our bodies, his blood too has been poured into our veins. His voice is in our ears, his brightness in our eyes, In his compassion, the whole of him has been mingled with the whole of us.” Early Christians did not deny the reality of violence in the world, or the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion, but they did tell more than just one story.

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Once upon a time there lived a holy rabbi. He was a good man, and he was brilliant. He knew the answer to every question, to anything anyone could ask of him. He traveled from town to town, telling stories and answering questions. And in one of these towns, after he had taught for hours and answered every question the crowd had posed to him, a young girl cried out, “Rabbi! I have a question I’m sure you can’t answer.” And he smiled at her, and he encouraged her to ask. She said to him, “I have a bird, hidden behind my back, held carefully in my hands. Is the bird dead or alive?” She figured she could make the rabbi wrong, regardless of what he said. If he said the bird was dead, she could set it free, and it would fly away. If he said the bird was alive, she could crush it in her hands; she could kill it.

The rabbi knew that the girl wanted to trick him. To do it publicly, to bring him shame. He considered how he could answer without shaming her. He stayed silent for a moment. And then the answer came to him – how he could respond, and still give her some dignity, too. He had trouble getting the words out, but he told her, “My dear child, you hold the bird in your hands. The answer all depends on you. You can let it live, or you can take its life. The answer is in your hands.”

We can tell stories about betrayal or we can tell stories about beauty. We have tried for a long, long time to tell both. And it is true that both are real, and both deserve our attention. But which stories we tell often enough that they have the power to shape who we are – that is up to us. It is in our hands.