The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
“The stories we tell [including the stories we tell ourselves] shape how we experience everything.” That’s quite a story in Numbers, isn’t it? The way the writer tells it, the complainers — “riffraff” in the translation I used this morning — have lost sight of the fact that God has given them freedom from slavery in Egypt and has provided food for them, as well as sending Moses as a leader. They are archetypal complainers who see scarcity when they should sense God’s abundance.
In our adult ed. forums and in Jane Anne’s sermon last Sunday, we’ve been looking at an important book by Gareth Higgins called “How Not to Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying.” I really wish that the Israelites had a copy of this book, because it would have helped them improve their attitude, but it was published about 3,600 years too late. Two questions Higgins asks about every story is 1) Is it true? and 2) Is it useful. If a story is true but not useful, he invites us to tell ourselves a different story — or to tell the same story differently — if we want to shift our outlook. Psychologists, who would also have been helpful to the Israelites, call this reframing.
So, you’ve heard the story as it’s written, and perhaps it is an admonition to us to stop whining and be appreciative for what God has provided. The writer’s message is pretty clear: quit your kvetching and stop demanding perfection! But what if the Israelites had told themselves the story differently? What if they had the emotional intelligence and insight to tell the story this way:
Even though there was a strong craving for meat among the Israelites, they savored the freedom and deliverance God had provided. Even when they remembered the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic they had eaten while in bondage in Egypt, they were sustained by the manna that God had provided to keep them alive, and they were grateful.
The manna was like coriander seed and its color was like a beautiful resin. The people would roam around and collect it and grind it and then boil it in pots and make it into cakes. It tasted like cakes baked in olive oil.
And sometimes, when it was mixed with just the right amount of water, it tasted kind of like chicken. It sustained people in the wilderness for 40 years and cost them nothing.
Milk and honey awaited them, they knew, and beside that, they had something that tasted sweeter than the produce of goats and bees: God had provided them with freedom from bondage.
What would have happened to the Israelites if they had told the story differently? How might their experience have been transformed? How might Moses’s leadership have changed? Do you ever have stories in your own life that need to be told in a different — a more helpful — way? This is not about being a Pollyanna, but rather about surviving your own fears and insecurities and turning them into gifts rather than curses. Sometimes we simply aren’t ready to tell the story differently because we have become attached to the old story, even if it’s an unhealthy narrative. What do I mean by that? It’s in the text this morning: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for free!” Yes, dear Israelites, but do you not also remember the existential oppression of being enslaved for generations? …building pyramids in the hot sun for pharaohs who erroneously considered themselves living gods? Is your whining story helpful?
Are there some less-healthy narratives that you keep telling yourself, simply because you’ve become used to the old, unhelpful story? Maybe the story you tell yourself — or even recount to others — has lost its usefulness. I’ve fallen into that trap and did so again last week.
As I was preparing for my trip to UCLA for a very fancy scan, I reframed the language of diagnosing my cancer. Initially, I was saying, “I have to fly out to LA and have a huge amount of radiation in this scan, and my insurance probably won’t even pay for it.” That is true, but it is not a life-giving story. So, instead of telling myself that I HAVE to get a PSMA PET CT scan, I started retelling the story with a twist: I GET to have a PSMA PET CT scan. What’s more, I have an oncologist who is so far ahead of the game that he sends his patients our to LA instead of waiting for Anschutz to start doing the scan sometime in the future. And even further, I have enough money to pay for the scan and the travel expenses, and I get to stay with my sister and brother-in-law, who are really supportive.
So far, so good. Even when I was anxious about the scan, I kept telling myself the new, better story. But early last week, I started feeling anxious about hearing the results, which could have been not-very-good news. And on Tuesday, I heard some pretty good news from my oncologist: “Hal, there are three lymph nodes in your pelvic region that are cancerous, and there is no evidence of metastasis in your bones or organs. And it’s very treatable.” Phew! Grateful for that! And then Jane Anne and I met with him on Wednesday to talk about the treatment plan. He described two different approaches, and together we opted for the more aggressive approach that has about a 50-percent cure rate. I was fine when he said six weeks of radiation treatments five days a week — it’s a 15-minute drive from my house, which makes me really grateful to live in Fort Collins! My attitude took a nosedive when he said that it would also involve between six and eighteen months of androgen-deprivation therapy, which I did for six months last time, and it made me feel miserable: hot flashes, mood swings, hair loss, muscle loss, weight gain, and other unmentionable side effects. Here is the story I started telling myself even before I left the oncologist’s office: I’m going to feel like crap again, and maybe for an even longer time. I’m going to gain back the 35 pounds I’ve lost. I’m not going to be able to deal with the hormone-driven emotional roller coaster on top of all the stress of doing pandemic ministry at Plymouth. I’m going to be too tired to do what I need to do.” Now, I ask you: do you think that’s a helpful story to tell oneself? I feel sorry for Jane Anne, who got to hear me whine like the Israelites! And it took a good night’s sleep for that story to get stale and for me to tell it differently.
Thursday morning, I read Richard Rohr’s daily email entitled, “It’s All a Gift.” He contrasts our meritocracy with what he calls “the gift economy” that God has set up. “If we call ourselves Christians, we have to deal with the actual Gospel. The only way we can make this turnaround and understand [the gift economy] is if we’ve had at least one experience of being given to without earning.” What have you received without earning it? Most of us “earn” a salary, we “earned” whatever education we got, we “earned” that vacation we took. What have YOU received without earning it? Think about that for a moment. Who gave you life? Biologically, your parents did, but who provided the gift of life itself? Did you earn that? Does God require a quid pro quo for the gift of life, of enough food, of enough education, of enough faith, of enough health? Rohr concludes, “We don’t ‘deserve’ anything!” It’s all a gift. And that changes the way we tell the story.
If we see it all as a gift, the Israelites tell the story of God’s abundance in freeing them and feeding them in the wilderness for 40 years and for providing a leader. If we see it all as a gift, I get to tell the story about how lucky I am: I GET to have another shot at my cancer being cured, I GET to have excellent healthcare and treatment, I. GET to have a faith that sustains me spiritually…. I even GET to learn to tell a better story to myself and to you about something as difficult as cancer.
What stories are you telling yourself? Are they true? Are they useful? Stories about the pandemic? About your responses to it? About where God is in your life? About things that scare the hell out of you? Do you need to tell a different, a more helpful story? How would God tell YOUR story? Perhaps you should tell it that way, too. The stories we tell ourselves shape how we see everything.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Gareth Higgins, How Not to Be Afraid, (Minneapolis: Broadleaf, 2021), p.29.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.