Celebrating Stories: God and Buffalo Bill
Two years ago, I took a Cannon Valley Elder Collegium class on Buffalo Bill, taught by Bob Bonner, a friend of mine. Buffalo Bill has always been an important person for me. I looked at Buffalo Bill from the perspective of a Westerner, since I grew up in California and worked as a cowboy on a ranch in Wyoming. Yet a number of the written sources for the course on Buffalo Bill were written by men who were Easterners. Same topic but fascinatingly different perspectives!
I saw Buffalo Bill as a Westerner, like me. He lived in my life, so to speak. In my mind he was an embellished embodiment of who I was. Whereas some of the East Coast writers looked at Buffalo Bill at a distance, across the frontier, as they wrote about his life. For them, at least it seemed to me, Buffalo Bill was not a part of who they were. Buffalo Bill was a dashing and talented, external figure who they found to be important enough to study and write about.
At first, as I realized this difference in how different people looked at Buffalo Bill, I was a bit bothered. But as the course moved along, and especially because the instructor himself was from Wyoming, I grew to understand that although there were differences among scholars in how we saw and understood Buffalo Bill, the important thing was that we were all “talking” about the same issue – the story of Buffalo Bill in our own lives. As it has turned out, this revelation has been, for me, grounds for celebration.
During a recent weekend I revisited this story of turning differences into celebration.
Stacy, a former student in my department at St. Olaf College was visiting Northfield to hear her oldest daughter play the violin in the St. Olaf Christmas Concert. This very intelligent woman is now a Christian Counselor living in Texas and she and I had been having an ongoing conversation on email about how people saw God and how that played out for them from a psychological perspective.
Stacy approaches the topic of God’s work among us from the perspective of an evangelical Christian who sees God as not only an important part of herself, but as a fundamental source of all she is. Whereas I see God as more of an external figure – but yet a part of my world as I explore human emotions and behavior as a route to a better understanding of how to enable older adults feel that they still matter.
During Stacy and my coffee-conversation the weekend of the Christmas Concert, the memories of my course on Buffalo Bill reappeared in my mind. The more I thought about the comparisons, the more I realized, again, that centering on our somewhat differing views on knowing God, does not aid our understanding.
To ask others how God plays out in our lives is to talk and listen to stories; a multitude of broad ranging stories. We all live storied lives, and our primary means of knowing God and Jesus comes from the stories of the Bible. In conversations we each bring our perceptions of how the stories of God that come to our mind fit the stories of our own life experiences – and vice versa! As we connect our narratives into a co-authored version of a larger story, we gain perspectives on how God lives in the lives of people all around us.
For instance, if two people are having a discussion about the role of religion in their lives, one may read the words in the Bible literally, whereas the other may read them contextually; One person may focus on God’s love for herself, whereas the other person might explore God’s law for the way he treats his conversational partner, a neighbor, as himself; One person may seek the mystery of God, whereas his conversational partner may marvel at how God created each of us so that believing in Him is possible. But these differences are not opposites, as I tried at first to pretend in my course on Buffalo Bill; they are alternative ways of answering common questions.
These differences are not in competition with each other, the two conversational partners are, presumably, both on the same journey. Differences are not a matter of faith being external or internal, faith is necessarily both, concomitantly. The differences between these two conversational partners are not in conflict, they form a whole picture of God in the lives of people -- together.
Our differences are a part of our respective stories – our stories of ourselves with God. Each of our stories encompass our current recall of our lifetime of experiences plus imagined futures. Thus, when we share our stories of ourselves with God, it is not like describing the features of a new cell phone, we are sharing our ways of knowing, thinking and feeling. We are describing ways that shape our joy and our experiences of difficulties. We are describing what it is that we notice from among an enormous array of possibilities we encounter in daily life. We are, frankly, describing a part of what is meaningful to us about getting up in the morning.
Because God can live in and among us all, the more we choose to join with others to talk and listen with openness, honesty, trust and respect for alternative ways of understanding God, especially if there are differences among us, the more we can truly understand the nature of God through the stories of people’s lives.
When we understand the storied pictures of God through conversations with others, we draw closer together – as neighbors, and that is worth celebrating!