The Story and the Road

by Jonathan Pye.

Amongst this year’s holiday reading for me was the novel, The Beekeeper or Aleppo by Christy Lefteri[1]. In the book (and don’t worry, there won’t be any ‘spoilers’ if you’ve not read it yet…), we share the journey of Nuri, a beekeeper, and his wife, Afra, as they flee the war-torn ruins of their life in the Syrian city of Aleppo, to an uncertain future in Britain. It is a story that resonates with the reality of pain and loss, as well as the hope, that is experienced by so many. As we travel with Nuri and Afra, and share in their story, in all its tenderness and horror, the less they remain anonymous ‘refugees’ and the more we come to see them as people, individuals, each with their own story to tell. We are invited into their story as we travel with them on the perilous journey, by land and sea, from a ruined home and shattered past to an unknown and as yet uncertain future in a foreign country. It is a book that deals with two themes – of journeys and of stories, and about the way in which they intersect. The more we travel with people, the more we get to know them. As conversations unfold, and relationships are built, preconceptions are dispelled, labels are confounded and we begin to see people as they are, to see them as individuals to be known and loved.

One of the chapters in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World is titled, ‘The Practice of Walking on the Earth’[2]. This chapter is all about ‘intentional’ walking – walking that focuses on the journey and not simply on the destination. One of the dangers of the busy-ness of ministry is that our eyes can all too easily become focussed on destinations, on the next thing in an over full diary, the next meeting, the next place we need to be, and so we fail to recognise the importance and the insights of the journey itself and the encounters, with self or others, which it brings.

There is a phrase attributed to St. Augustine – solvitur ambulando (‘it is solved by walking…’). It is a curious phrase that refers to the way in which some things are only truly worked out when you apply them practically. Augustine got the phrase from the philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope (or Diogenes the Cynic, as he is sometimes called) who was said to have answered Zeno’s paradox of the reality of motion simply by getting up and walking about – the best proof, he was saying, is often the practical one.

Bruce Chatwin’s book, The Songlines[3], is a book that reflects on aboriginal culture and about the way in which the first nation people of Australia navigate the landscape without the use of maps but find their way, sometimes across great distances, by ‘singing’ the stories of the land that have been passed down from generation to generation. In just the same way, we learn to navigate the communities which we serve as we walk them and as we listen to the stories of others and as we sing and share our own stories on our common journey.

The Methodist Presidential and Vice-Presidential theme this year is, ‘So, what’s the story?’. This theme starts from the premise that life is a tapestry of stories that help us better to understand the world around us, our relationships with other people, and even ourselves. In life and in ministry we constantly use stories to reach out to others and those stories enrich our knowledge of God and help us grow in faith.

The Austrian philosopher and priest, Ivan Illich, was once asked what he thought was the most effective way to change society[4]. Was it revolution or was it reformation? His answer was, ‘Neither’. If you want to change society, he said, then you have to tell an alternative story.

The challenge for the Church is, How do we learn to tell the story of God in a world in which talk about God is unfamiliar and strange? This, of course, is not a new question. It was also faced by Isaiah and the exiles and they phrased it like this… ‘How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ What that meant for them was, How do we worship God when we no longer have all those things that make faith safe – the Temple, the altar, the priesthood… ?

If we are going to speak of God effectively in the world and tell the stories of faith we cannot use the church as a place to hide because what we see happening ‘in the world’ is frightening, whether it is the chaos of Brexit, food poverty, the demands of the Nuris and the Afras and countless other refugees who seek sanctuary from the destructiveness of war or poverty or persecution, or the global crisis that is climate change and the degradation of our fragile environment.

If we are going to tell our transformative, alternative story, we need to be alongside others, to share their lives and their stories and, as part of that sharing, to have the courage and the confidence to tell our own story: the story of God’s love, God’s concern, God’s compassion. Ultimately, the Church is not an idea or a doctrine or an organization but, what Professor Dan Hardy calls ‘the practice of shared faith.’[5]

In his Booker Prize winning novel, The Famished Road[6], Ben Okri has one of his characters say, ‘the story is the road’ – as our stories and journeys intersect, the opportunity for humans to flourish grows and lives are changed.

 

[1] Christy Lefteri, The Beekeeper of Aleppo. London: Zaffre, 2019

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World. Norwich: Canterbury Press (2nd Impression), 2019

[3] Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines. Picador Books, 1988.

[4] Ivan Illich, ‘Storytelling or Myth-Making? Frank Viola and Ivan Illich’, Proclamation, Invitation, & Warning, July, 2007.

[5]Daniel W. Hardy, Finding the Church. London: SCM, 2001.

[6] Ben Okri, The Famished Road. London: Vintage, 1991.

3 thoughts on “The Story and the Road”

  1. Thank you, Jonathan! We certainly learned something of this as we walked to Conference from Huddersfield this year. I am sure your Tolpuddle walkers found the same. As we slowed down and prayed and noticed things we also discovered the transformational interaction of journey and story. I would love the ‘people called Methodist ‘ to discover (and walk) their songlines!

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  2. This made me remember a book I read a few years ago ‘We Make the Road by Walking’ by Brian D McLaren.
    It contains a year’s worth of short reflections on the Bible, each followed by some suggestions for engaging with the meditation, one of them being ‘share a story’ which is relevant to the topic we have reflected on.’ It would be a great book for group discussion in this year of storytelling.
    Thanks for the reminder, Jonathan. I’m going to read this book again!

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  3. Reading this a week late but so much that resonates. I love Altar in the World and the phrase “Ambulando Solvitur” was one which completed the liturgy said every day on the “Just Walk to Jerusalem” which Neil and I joined for 6 days.
    My last sermon at Darlington St, which closed yesterday, asked the question those bereaved of their church are asking – “How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” I also love Ivan Illich’s quote, which is one I try to live by.
    So – now I have to go and read the Beekeeper of Aleppo, which I’ve somehow missed! Thanks so much for starting my Monday so well, Jonathan

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