Listening to Voices

We are in the midst of a holiday season when feelings are exaggerated by connections to family, friends and religion. I made a mistake on Christmas Eve. In the morning I listened on the radio to Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College in Cambridge, England. In the afternoon I attended, in person, another Christian service in Princeton, New Jersey. I say it was a mistake because I have a threshold for feeling negative about Christian liturgy—the reading of Scripture, saying of prayers, repeating creeds and preaching the Word.

So how do I assess blame and find understanding from my mistake? First, it is not related to the Kings College’s lessons and carols, I have a long tradition of listening and being uplifted by this service. The mistake was attending the service in Princeton. But why, why did that service make me tight as a rubber band on a sling shot and ready to fire negative comments toward anyone within earshot?

I have no simple answer, but I will offer a couple of suggestions in the hope of gaining some understanding. One answer is that the service was in a church next door to the seminary from which I graduated forty-five years ago. Second, the service was not just lessons and carols; there was a homily and the sharing of communion. So I would describe my experience of the afternoon as kind of like sharing a meal with your ex-wife, a lot of old and not so good feelings come to mind.

This brings me to the reflection that I want to explore in this blog. I have spent the better part of the last four months working on a memoir—looking back at my web of regrets, but also my path to a positive future.  The memoir shares the journey through the stories I have created and performed over the past forty years. The narrative woven into the web of stories—many of them have already been shared in this blog—attempts to make sense of the life I have lived. Jung calls this finding the “wholeness” in our lives.

One of the subjects I have struggled to understand in the memoir is the role of religion in my life. The first story in the memoir, that introduces the work, is my version of an African folktale I call: TALKING YAMS AND OTHER FLIGHTS OF WHIMSY. I think this little story speaks to all who struggle in life.

One day a farmer went to his garden to dig up yams and take them to sell in the market. And while he was digging, one of the yams complained to him, “Well, now you come. You did not come to pull out the weeds. You did not come to water us. But now you come because you want to sell us in the market. Go away, leave us alone!”

            The farmer was startled and cried out, “Who said that?”

            “It was the yam,” said the farmer’s dog.

            Now the farmer was amazed and he thought he might be going a little crazy in the heat of the day, so he called to the farmer who was working in the garden next to his garden. “Brother, the strangest thing just happened, my yam talked to me and then my dog talked to me!”

            The second farmer shook his head and said, “Brother, you have been in the heat of the sun too long. You better rest in the shade of the tree.”

            “Yes,” said the corn that the second farmer was hoeing, “maybe you should also rest in the shade.”

            “What, who said that?” said the second farmer.

            “It was the corn,” said the second farmer’s cat.

            “What, who said that?” said the second farmer.

            “It was your cat,” said the first farmer

            Now both farmers knew something strange was going on, so they decided to run to the village elder and tell him. They found the elder sitting on his chair in the shade of a tree. Excitedly the first farmer said, “Father, I was working in my garden when one of my yams spoke to me! Then, my dog spoke also!”

            “Yes,” said the second farmer, “my corn and my cat both talked to me!”

            Now the elder listened patiently. Then he stood up, shook his finger at the two farmers and said, “These are wild stories; I think you both are just lazy and trying to get out of doing your work. Go back to your gardens or I will punish both of you for disturbing the peace.”

            So the two farmers turned and went back to their work; and the elder looked to his chair and said, “Nonsense like that upsets the whole community.”

            “Indeed,” said his chair, “imagine the crazy idea, a talking yam, nonsense, pure nonsense.”

So here is how I understand it; we all have a “talking yam” or “talking chair” in our life—that little voice that can entangle us in a web of negativity or open a path to positive living. Attending church in Princeton on Christmas Eve gave voice to my negative talking yam and I was ready to run the other way. Could this be the same thing that Paul the Apostle spoke about in Second Corinthians: “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.”? I will stick with the talking yam metaphor; it has helped to open the positive path to my world of creating and sharing stories.

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