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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

375 “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Day 375: Friday March 26th 2021

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” - Joan Didion

"I’m trying to believe that any sorrow can be endured, if only we can make it into a story." - Jim Fredericks

I’m reading a book that I can recommend to you, even though I am only about a hundred pages into it. Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking to tell the story of her grief after the death of her husband. The book is affecting.

As she tells the story of her loss, Joan Didion reflects on an important truth:

“we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I agree. At least I want to agree. I’m trying to believe that any sorrow can be endured, if only we can make it into a story.

Before our lives are obscured by statistics or hijacked as “data points” by the corporations that surveil our comings and goings on the internet, each of us stands out in this world as a story that yearns to be told.

What Joan Didion says about telling stories has important repercussions.

If we hope to know another person – certainly, if we ever hope to love another person – we have first to listen to the stories they tell. This is a truth to learn early-on in life. The sooner the better.

Commenting on Joan Didion’s observation about the importance of storytelling, Masha Gessen (another great woman of letters whose writing I can recommend to you) observed that, like people, nations also must tell stories in order to live. Without stories, nations wither. “The center does not hold,” as Yeats famously wrote. The people are dispersed. We become strangers to one another.

Nations can have a common hope about the future only if they have a common story to tell about their past.

Here in the United States, I sometimes think that we have despaired of our future because we can’t seem to agree on what’s the right story to tell about our past. Like people, nations must tell stories in order to live.

This is a good way to think about the Bible. Our scriptures are a treasury of stories we have told ourselves, century after century, in order to live. But this must be understood correctly. The Bible is the great story that God, in his mercy, has given us to tell in order that we might live.

With this in mind, I want to reflect on Psalm 137. Psalm 137 is a wrenching expression of loss, maybe unequaled in all the literatures of the world. It is a story about real human beings, their grief, and their struggle with hope for their future.

As I make my way through The Year of Magical Thinking,I find myself hoping that Joan Didion knows this psalm. Based on the story she is telling, I think it safe to say that she does.

Here it is:

By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. On the aspens of that land we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked of us the lyrics of our songs,

And our despoilers urged us to be joyous:

“Sing for us the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand be forgotten! May my tongue cleave to my palate if I remember you not, If I place not Jerusalem ahead of my joy.

If you read Psalm 137 attentively, you will see that there is a story behind its words.

Jerusalem was lost to the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king. Solomon’s Temple, the great sign of God’s faithfulness and presence among His people, was a ruin.

Their enemies burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set all its palaces afire, and destroyed all its precious objects. Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon, where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons.

This took place in the year 587 BC.

Psalm 137 was not written by David, who, according to tradition, was the shepherd boy who could calm the raging and delirious King Saul with his lyre and sweet verses. Many of the psalms are attributed to David, but not this one.

Psalm 137 was written long after the time of David, by some lonely Jew in exile in the great city of Babylon. Read the psalm carefully. A story within the story emerges.

Apparently, a group of Jews had been singing songs about Zion (Jerusalem) by the waters of the Euphrates River when a Babylonian taskmaster overheard them and asked, innocently enough, about the meaning of their words. (I doubt if a Babylonian would have understood Hebrew).

By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. On the aspens of that land we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked of us the lyrics of our songs.

And then, naively, the Babylonian must have asked, “Why the glum faces?”

“Sing for us the songs of Zion!”

And instead, the exiles wept.

How could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land?

After twenty-five centuries, the pathos of this exchange, which must have seemed innocuous to the Babylonian, is still riveting in its expression of grief.

I haven’t finished Joan Didion’s book yet, but I think I can say something about why I like it so much.

Joan Didion wrote the story of her grief in order to live.

The same can be said of the Jew who composed Psalm 137 so long ago. In his grief, he sang a lament, telling his people’s story in order to live.

Easter is drawing near. We will gather for the liturgies (I rejoice to think that more and more of us are getting vaccinated) and we will tell the story God has given us to tell so that we might live.

And the story is just this:

Those who grieve in their exile from all they love have not been abandoned. The Lord, in his faithfulness, is gathering them together. The exiles are returning. The Temple is being raised up from its ruins into a New and Heavenly Jerusalem.

Pick up your harp – the one you left by the streams of Babylon.

Easter is coming.

Sing, for all the world to hear, the songs of Zion.

And try to believe, with Joan Didion and that exiled poet, that any sorrow can be endured if only we can make it into a story.

- Reflection by Jim Fredericks


Announcement for our Emmaus Liturgy

Holy Week: Through the Eyes of Jesus Palm Sunday, March 28, 2021

As we approach our faith tradition’s highest holy days, our Emmaus Palm Sunday Liturgy will focus on seeing the week ahead through the eyes of Jesus.

A few Emmaus folks (Alice, Beth, David and myself) have been fortunate enough to participate in a seven part Lenten Series by our friend, John Dear, on the Nonviolent Jesus. Our liturgy will draw on some of the insights we all have gained throughout these class sessions.

During these seven weeks, but especially during this past week’s violent mass shootings, (and a previous administration’s escalating violent rhetoric), our nation seems to be up to its neck is a culture of violence! Drawing on Gandhi and Martin Luther King’s use of nonviolence, civil disobedience and non-cooperation, John Dear opens up the Holy Week scriptures for us to see the world Jesus saw, through eyes that are ultimately and non-negotiably non-violent, throughout his entire life…up to the very last breath Jesus takes.

Throughout our liturgy we will walk with Jesus as he walks toward and enters Jerusalem…we will look at the fulfillment of the Oracle of Zechariah and will see through the eyes of Jesus, the ultimate act of non-violent civil disobedience that he makes in the Temple. We will see how this dramatically leads to his arrest, conviction and death. And as John Dear continually prompts us: come, see and walk with Jesus toward our own personal Jerusalem, reflect on our own actions of civil disobedience and non-co-operation with systems of injustice and inequality.

We are all invited to come and experience walking through Holy Week through the eyes of Jesus.

Alice Waco

Beth Jordan

Victoria MacDonald


A song for Iraq - Have mercy on your people

Don McLean - Waters of Babylon

Psalm 137 - Sons of Korah

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