Leaf Seligman, author, minister, educator, and restorative justice practitioner, is our guest in the pulpit for this service, for which the theme is the power of stories to transform us, lead us home and help us recognize what matters most.
Sermon: The Power of Stories
“The origins of our humanity are found in story—and our love for it. We are narrative beings. The impulse to create a narrative is hardwired in our bodies. It’s how our brains arrange information and organize the world. We tell, retell and listen to the stories that speak of our origins, and in so doing, weave a shawl of belonging.
Such weaving is imperative because no matter our station or circumstance we all share a common experience of origin. We come out of the womb and as soon as we emerge, the umbilical cord is cut and for the first time, our beingness no longer resides in another’s body. We no longer share a blood or oxygen supply. From conception through gestation we belong—and suddenly we do not. Is it any wonder we spend the rest of lives in search of belonging?
I had the good fortune to feel welcome in my family of origin. I knew my parents and older brother loved me. And I knew a terrible mistake had occurred in utero—I belonged in a different body and a different locale. Though I was born unambiguously female I felt unequivocally male. I knew intuitively I should have been born in New England. I didn’t feel like a creature of the south anymore than I felt like a girl. I brought ham sandwiches to day camp at the Jewish Community Center and worried each December that my conservative Jewish cousins would be horrified to see our Christmas tree. While I felt at home with my family, I did not fit in the larger world.
I suspect some of you had a similar experience: wondering if you had fallen from the mother ship as it orbited earth or reincarnated on the wrong planet. Many of us have moments, if not stretches, of feeling a lack of belonging. Or struggling to understand where and how we align. And for a lot of us, story is how we discover ourselves. We sidle up to characters who seem to know exactly how we feel.
I started writing fiction as a child, in part to understand the incomprehensible, which for me was injustice, brutality and the segregated south. As I reached adolescence I set out to write a novel to understand myself. I wrote as a means to connect, to find the warm accompaniment of those who would understand me as I came to better understand them. The stories I wrote for a graduate writing program in my mid-twenties, varied though they were, all revolved around redemption, though I did not realize that until much later when I reread the box of stories I had tucked away. For the final reading before graduation, I wrote a story about a boy who snuck into the sideshow at the state fair and found himself enamored with the opulence of the world’s biggest woman.
When I showed the story to a professor, he said, “You clearly have the beat on freaks.” And I thought to myself, it takes one to know one. I’d spent years identifying as an oddity: around gender, religion, and even politics in my white flight WASP-y private school so it came as no surprise, in my early thirties, that I returned to the world of the sideshow and wrote a dozen stories about the people who worked there. The stories explored the origins of folks displayed as oddities; and though I didn’t realize it at the time, the fiction I wrote was as much an attempt to document the experience of being split at the root from the source of our being as an exploration of otherness.
For probably twenty years, the stories lived in a computer file while the characters lingered in my body and finally in 2015, I reopened the files and returned to the fictional world. I printed one copy of all the stories and mailed them to an epistolary friend, herself an oddity by virtue of her prodigious brilliance constrained by her self-identified autism—a woman so insightful, well-read and compassionate who could not remember a phone number, pass the math portion of the GED, or sustain a conversation at coffee hour yet she could write a treatise on theology, spirituality, literature or trauma that would rival anyone in the academy. She wrote back to say if the stories were collected in a book, she would read it again and again.
Over the next three years, a spiritual longing took hold in a way that gripped me from the inside out. What I had described as my inner-tent-revivalist had grown increasingly miserable for want of self-expression. I longed to find my tent, to let lose the tongues of fire and a kinesthetic expression of faith familiar to my Pentecostal brothers and sisters but nowhere to be found among the UU and UCC congregations where I occasionally filled the pulpit. Nor did I find the tent in temples and synagogues where my talk of Brother Jesus would have been as confounding as the boy’s swim trunks I wore fifty-some years ago during pool time at Jewish Community Center Day Camp.
It wasn’t the sensation of being odd that hollowed me; it was the existential loneliness. My rabbi friend proffered I might just be a temple of one. But the singular does not create a temple. Another friend suggested instead of seeking a group bound by a common language, I look for a tribe bound by the lack of one. But the pain continued and last year at this time, I streamed online services for Kol Nidre, the eve of Yom Kippur, desperate to feel a sense of connection with my religious origins. How could I be DNA-tested 99% Russian/German Jew and feel nothing watching those services?
Lying on the floor weeping, I thought of my forebears in the wilderness who never lived to see the Promised Land. Did they weep too?
As winter took wing casting shadows in the diminished light, a friend in whom I confided my angst, pointed me back to the stories. Re-reading them, I saw so clearly how the characters I’d wrought, separated from God and their essential Beingness, shared my yearning, the human yearning to belong. To reunite at the root, to reattach the cord that all of us know, pulsing with the life force that animates and sustains us, that connects us not only to the female body in whom we first dwell, but to ruach ha-olam, the Breath of the Universe, to the swirling stardust that comprises our molecules, to the trees and bees, birds and chimpanzees that share more of our DNA than not.
The fissures that separate us become chasms and the moment we see no bridge across, no pathway to, we cry out: our words, our fear, our longing, the syllables of a story we utter in silence or sound. And it is those stories that coil back to the origin of the cosmos, the planet, four hundred million years of trees that make life on earth habitable, and the ensouled bodies we become.
It is no wonder that a rag-tag band of oddities and outcasts coalesce in their otherness beneath a carnival tent. It is only a marvel, if not a miracle, and most certainly an act of grace, that the friend who sent me back to the stories instructed me to write one more: to raise the tabernacle I longed to inhabit, to deliver the revivalist to the tent. Together we imagined a character far from the fictional carnival circuit of the Jim Crow south. A young German Jew carrying her own anguished separation from Elohim and a yearning to re-connect, and be redeemed. And it is in that intersection of lives split from the root, birthed in the form of short fiction, an origin story makes my way home.
I wrote the story and returned to the others long enough to revise and arrange them into a collection that became a book that has become my tent. It’s not just a bunch of stories anymore. It’s a calling. Every day the characters rouse me, toss me out of bed and ask what I’m going to do to keep birthing them into the world because they have work to do. They want to be in performance and workshops, classrooms and theatres, dance halls and prisons. They know the redemption people long for resides in them as they give folks a way to see their own lives more clearly. Lizard Man and Tiny, Flipper Boy and The Geek are happy to show up in a sermon and equally at home accompanying a bible study. Most of them got womped upside the head with biblical passages that made them sound ungodly, unwanted, unclean. So they are ready to invite good-hearted people for whom Scripture matters to find the bits that offer consolation and affirmation instead of harm. That’s one way redemption happens, when the institutions that weaponize interpretations forge ploughshares from them instead.
Redemption happens when the bodies we violate, be they our own or someone else’s, become temples once again. Redemption emerges when the margins disappear; when difference is honored not othered. The great writerly human being Dorothy Allison once said, “It’s a lot harder to hate me when you know my story.”
That’s why stories redeem. They can free us from the detriment of hate, of self-doubt, of isolation and alienation because they connect us—to each other, in our ensoulment and embodiment, filling us with the breath of the universe, restoring the ground of our being.
Origin stories do more than imagine or retell a version of cosmic creation. They offer us a way to re-create ourselves and in so doing, reconnect the cord of belonging we originally know and continually yearn for. Indeed, our stories, so deeply human, can assure us we are “part of a star that exploded too long ago to imagine, formed from a tongue of fire that whirled into a great storm until the planets came to be.” From the world’s beginning, our stories unfold, eager to redeem us, able to restore us to the shared pulse of life that beats in us and beyond.
What are the stories your life longs to tell? The stories you most need to hear? What stories will liberate you from harm and deliver you to shores of belonging? Put your ear to a tree, to the ground, to another heart pumping, and listen. Amen.