Where There is No Path

How Sacred Story Guides Us Through the Deep Forest of Grief

Our first child arrived into the world 22 years ago today. But something was wrong. He struggled to breathe and twenty minutes later was pronounced dead. It was a full-term pregnancy and up until that point there had been no question of viability. To have a son born and die on the same day without any advance warning launched me into the deepest grief I have ever known.

In mythic terms, when a person experiences great loss, they enter a forest where there is no path. The stages of grief may be predictable, but the shape and contours of each of those stages is unique to everyone who walks the path. Each person has to find their own way. Some may pass through the deepest, darkest part of the wood early on. They may fear, as I did, that they will never find their way out. For others that section of forest comes later. Some come out into frequent clearings where the warmth of the sun hits their face. Others walk the whole wood never once experiencing the dappled light of day.

Sacred stories can’t give you the specifics of your particular path. Nothing can. What sacred stories can do, however, is provide reassurance that the dark wood you are in does not comprise the whole map. A sacred story will honour the forest, and the path that must be taken through it, but it will also reveal the forest’s limits and boundaries. A sacred story provides a bird’s eye perspective of the wide, sunlit landscapes on the far side. It’s this perspective that can get a person through the forest, that can give them the courage to journey deeper in.

There are many such stories in the biblical narrative. The story of Jesus is one of them. Like a lantern it casts light on the next step and then the next. His own journey through sorrow and loss and death invites us not to project our pain outward at those around us (which is the fallback script of a retributive culture like ours), but to stay with the pain. To bear the tension of it. And ultimately to trust that the path will lead us to new terrain on the far side of the forest.

The Christian tradition has a name for this ancient story. It’s called the Paschal Mystery.

Aden’s funeral took place six days later at the church where I was pastoring. The first thing I saw when I walked into the crowded sanctuary behind my son’s tiny coffin were the kids of the Eastside Story Guild sitting on the very front pew. They were a group of a dozen or so ranging in age from 3-18, and represented an East Vancouver mix of ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.

It was the very first season of the very first story guild, yet already, the kids were leaning against each other, arms intertwined with matching blue story guild t-shirts that read “Where my story and God’s Story meet’. I was comforted knowing that this group of kids knew what every kid deserves to know: that they were a part of a Story large enough to hold all of life, including theirs, in both its beauty and its heartache.

Bible Stories? Really?

When asked in casual conversation about the work of Sacred Canopy I tend to take the low road and respond simply: “It’s a theatre initiative.”  So far so good. Inquirers are usually impressed. Their eyes light up.  “Theatre. Wow. Cool”  They want to know more.  It’s then that the ice gets a little thin.  “We do Bible stories”, I say, “….with kids”.  Response?  A look of incredulity followed by a change in the subject.

I don’t blame them. Anyone remotely connected to church culture knows what “Bible stories with kids” means.   Its means events like the annually-staged Sunday School Christmas pageant where 5 year-olds are dressed up in oversized bathrobes with towels draped over their heads trying to remember lines with words like “Hark!” and “Behold” in them. Painful for everyone except the adoring parents of the little tikes involved.

So the thought of developing a whole theatre initiative around such pageantry is perplexing.   To be fair, people like the idea of Sacred Canopy but think we should drop our commitment to stories from the Bible and broaden out into stories that are more in-touch with the “sacred stories” of our time –  “What you guys do is amazing but why not tell the story of Nelson Mandela or Malala?” I’m often asked.  “These would have broader appeal to the public imagination…”  So the argument goes.

I get their point.  And, to be sure, it’s tempting.

However our question at Sacred Canopy is not whether to stick with biblical narrative or not.  Rather our question is how to spring Bible Stories free from cultural mismanagement to which they have been subjected.  Mismanagement culprits include kitschy Christian publishers which have mass marketed biblical narrative to a preschool-aged audience  (e.g. The ubiquitous Noah’s Ark wallpaper motif).  Then there is the Hollywood portrayal of biblical prophets as robed grey-beards with boney fingers carrying out the will of God (Classic case-in-point: Charleton Heston in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments) .

Yet it’s not just the marketing wiles of pop culture that have Bible stories entrapped.  They have been equally co-opted by the very community they seek to serve. In the high church traditions biblical narrative gets buried beneath the weight of the prevailing liturgy while in the low-church traditions the same passages can too quickly be reduced to morality tales or fodder for insights from pop-psychology.

And all of this to say nothing of the political agendas of church and state alike which have used biblical narrative to extend boundaries, oppress “the other”, justify exclusion and so forth.

The bottom line is that Bible Stories have been so laden with imposed agendas in the last few generations that they have come through the wringer pretty much flattened in the public imagination.   All that’s left of them it seems at times are spoofs and caricatures. Mention an Old Testament character or story outside of a religious context and they evoke a guffaw.   Everyone knows it.  Bible stories are out-dated with their social exclusions and out-of-touch pronouncements.

No wonder we garner blank looks and arched eyebrows when we mention the subject matter of our theatre initiative.  Needless-to-say, one of our goals through our Sacred Canopy storytelling approach is to move as far away from these culturally prescribed stereotypes and assumptions as possible. We hope that through art and dance, mythic storytelling, music and imagination, community and intergenerational collaboration to recover something of what we understand biblical narrative to be, namely acollection of ancient, time-honoured stories,  told, gathered, layered, recorded, organized and re-organized by a people in search of the ultimate human quest: a coherent universe.  Stories unabashedly in touch with what it means to be human and not ashamed to include experiences of vengeance, lust, greed, passion, hope, betrayal, forgiveness and love.  Stories that range in literary quality from unimaginably lyrical to the tiresomely didactic.  Stories that insist on a relationally-oriented Divine Being who, whether seeming to be aloof, intimate, angry, persistent, wooing or pedantic, is always and ever a sub-text of the prevailing narrative. In short, stories with the potential to take the heart and spirit of the listener on a spiritual journey of transformation, even by 21st century standards.

I worked as a preacher/pastor for twenty years. I eventually got tired of hearing my own voice.  It became increasingly clear to me that  in one or two hundred years the sermons will have changed, the liturgy will have changed, the theology will have changed, the marketing will have changed, the politics will have changed.  The only thing that will not have changed are the stories themselves.  This is not to say that we tell the stories without an interpretive lens.  Our goal is to stay as close to the human element in the stories as possible and in so doing to find our experience of human-ness broadsided, perhaps when we least expect it, by the experience of God-ness.