When I moved to Scotland in 2002, it was to study for a Masters in Scottish Ethnology at the University of Edinburgh.

But what’s ethnology, right?

Well to find the answer to that question, you could do a lot worse than watch this short clip.

Stories was everythin’ and everythin’ was stories. Ev’rybody told stories. It was a way of saying who they were in the world. It was their understanding of themselves. It was lettin’ themselves know how they believed the world worked, the right way and the not so right.

When I was going through the selection process for ordination, at the conference in Ely, one of my interviews was on the second night at 8pm. I was exhausted after the intensity of the other interviews, and presentation, and pastoral exercise, and mostly from just being around people for 48 hours straight.

‘So, I see you studied ethnology,’ the interviewer said. I nodded and explained my dissertation topic.

‘How do you think that — not just the subject of your dissertation, but ethnology in general — might shape your priesthood?’

I stared back at him. I could feel the wheels in my brain churning slowly. No words came. I shook my head. ‘I honestly don’t know. I’m sorry. I’ve never really thought about it. That was several years ago. I thought I wanted to be an academic and then when I realised I didn’t, well… I guess I kind of put it all behind me. I’m sorry. I know that’s not the answer you’re looking for.’

I don’t remember any other question from my selection panel. But that one stuck with me. At the time, it seemed to come out of nowhere. Now, I see over and over again the depth of its wisdom.

Stories was everythin’, and everythin’ was stories.

We all have our stories. Maybe they’re folk tales handed down to us from our grandparents. Maybe they’re stories about our ancestors’ heroic (or foolish) acts. Maybe they’re the skeletons in our family closets which only come out at funerals or weddings. Maybe they’re the stories we’ve just grown up with, told to us by our friends, our parents, ourselves. The truth is, we all have stories which have shaped us and which help us make sense of who we are and our place in this world.

One of my favourite parts of priesthood (as anyone who has googled me has discovered) is listening to stories. I find it completely fascinating to hear what people choose to tell about themselves and what those stories say about them, and why, of all the stories they might have told, they chose the ones they did. And of course, Jesus was a storyteller. People would ask him a question, and he’d respond with a story, then walk away, leaving them to puzzle over its meaning. Our scriptures are filled with stories. We enact one of the greatest stories of all time each time we gather for worship and participate in the Eucharist.

Stories are everythin’ and everythin’ is stories. 

Here, I continue to hear stories. I hear the stories of the members of my congregation. The stories of staff at the hotel. The stories of people I encounter on the streets. The stories of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, Israelis, Palestinians, international workers. Stories are everywhere.

But the problem is that some stories simply aren’t compatible. And I see that over and over again here. Stories about land are one example. Who owns the land? Deserves the land? Was promised the land? At what cost? For what gain? Stories about persecution are another common example. Everywhere are heartrending narratives of violence, fear, Holocaust, Nakba, death, separation, survival, terror, resistance, resilience.

‘Where,’ I find myself asking daily, ‘does the gospel story fit in here?’

Watanabe
Jesus teaching, print by Sadao Watanabe

Every single story tells who we are in the world, tells us how we believe the world works, the right way and the not so right. 

The real insight in the video above is that he doesn’t say that stories are formed from our beliefs, but that stories was lettin’ themselves know how they believed. Stories shape our beliefs. They shape our identity. And in telling our stories, we’re often saying more about ourselves than we realise.

But while we are intimately familiar with our own stories, what happens when we hear the stories of others which contradict, or challenge, or undermine ours?

Or, what stories do we think others tell about themselves? About us? It’s far easier to keep the other at a distance if we assume we already know their stories. But that’s never going to end well. Anyone who has dared to scratch below the surface in this land could tell you that .

‘Enemies are people whose story you haven’t heard,’ is a quote attributed to Irene Butter, a holocaust survivor.

We’re often very good at telling stories. We’re not always so good at listening to them. Especially when they might cause us pain. Or even worse, threaten our own stories, and therefore risk shaking the very foundations of our identity and beliefs.

Stories are told all the time. And here, they’re often told to internationals, probably because we are the ones who are seen to hold the power, the ability to lobby our governments, change the perspectives of those around us, put pressure on the systems that perpetuate injustice and discrimination and occupation and segregation.

And that makes sense.

But one of the problems I’ve found, as someone put it so beautifully a couple of days ago, is that those of us who can come and go freely often adopt the slogans without inhabiting the stories.

And for the narratives of this land to change, really change, the stories must be shared with the other, and heard from the other. Not the outsider, but the other who inhabits their stories just as deeply. And each must be willing to relinquish a part of their identity to make space for the other. At this time of fear, of state- and individual-imposed separation, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for that to happen.

And knowing this is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Stories was everythin’ and everythin’ was stories. Ev’rybody told stories. It was a way of saying who they were in the world. It was their understanding of themselves. It was lettin’ themselves know how they believed the world worked, the right way and the not so right.

The problem (one of the many problems) is that the way we see the world, the stories we tell reinforce the belief that the right way is my way. The not so right way is that of my enemy.

And as long as that continues …

Lord, have mercy.

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