Several months ago I participated in step one of the wider diocesan process of electing a new bishop in what is called ‘Walkabouts’. The purpose of Walkabouts is for clergy, delegates and members of the Episcopal Church in one region (Diocese) to meet and hear from the candidates face to face. It is the candidate’s first and only opportunity to answer questions and tell the people about themselves before the diocesan-wide election. It is a ‘getting to know you’ occasion.
A ‘getting to know you’ occasion as I understand – one as depicted in the 1956 musical, The King and I, when the teacher addresses her students with these opening lines of the song, Getting to Know You:
It’s a very ancient saying
But a true and honest thought
That if you become a teacher
By your pupils you’ll be taught
The candidates for bishop were with us for the Walkabouts that we might get to know them. But I was most curious if any, all or some might allow that they were curious to know us or, perhaps appropriately, were we incidental to their ambition to become a bishop in The Episcopal Church? Any number of searches are underway in the national church for bishops. I knew all five candidates to be worthy and qualified. What did each of them know of us?
Our diocese is geographically large so five different walkabouts were scheduled over five days. At each, clergy met with the candidates over dinner before the public forum was held. This gave clergy, who will take a vow of obedience to the new Bishop, some one on one time with each of them, followed by a randomly selected table seating for dinner with just one. I knew none personally and only one with whom I had a loose 6-degree-of-separation connection.
After the Walkabout and before the electing convention I attended a gathering of the clergy in my region to share notes. Of the five candidates, three emerged as most favored (Candidates X, Y, and Z).
The person with whom I had sat at the Walkabout dinner, Candidate Y, was one of the three, though as the discussion went on, I was struck by how differently I had perceived Y than my colleagues. None of them had sat with Y at dinner and some had sat with one of the other favored candidates X and Z.
I recalled how when I heard Y’s presentation to the wider body in the Open Forum, I was linked right back to our table talk wherein I had heard some of Y’s backstory. In that introductory moment to the larger gathering, Y’s words were more than words, Y’s story more dimensional than the others I was hearing – it went deeper, taking me past what Y does/did to who Y was/is. With the others, I had no backstory and so their introductions laid there on the surface, intimating an authenticness, but not one I yet, could access.
My colleagues who had sat with Candidate X or Z had similar experiences. Feeling a connection with the one with whom they had had a conversation, had heard some backstory.
No news here, but simply an observation – a recognition – of how significantly our perceptions of all things in life are informed and persuaded by personal experience and how blind and deaf we are to the deep waters that run below the surface.
It is really hard to perceive or know something or someone just by the resume, the story presented, the introduction made or the questions answered. When there’s no backstory it is personally harder to connect with the bigger story.
Backstory is a ‘thing’ in story development and nothing that comes out of Hollywood these days comes without one.
My daughter is a professional screenwriter for movies and TV. Every new feature or series she writes includes a script and a backstory. A character’s backstory is the stuff behind the script that tells the actor what happened from birth to how they became the character on the page. Included in each character’s backstory is a secret.
The audience may never know the secret exists, but the actor does. It’s the key to giving that character a full and real life. We all have things in our lives that remain a secret for as long as we can bear to hold it silent. But it’s there. It affects your life, even though you’ve buried it beneath layers of life experiences.
Knowing the backstory to the character helps ensure that the integrity of the larger story is maintained through each episode and every potential season.
This is why I think I heard Candidate Y more deeply than I heard the others. I had been given access to Y’s backstory in our short conversation over dinner. No deep dark secrets were revealed – only some of Y’s vulnerabilities which were a meaningful part of Y’s story, but not necessarily part of Y’s resume. This allowed me to relate to Y differently than to the others.
All this came to mind this morning when the Holy Spirit paused me at Paul’s letter to the Philippians. For the first time in long time, I just feel Paul here – feel his heart for the church in Philippi. So dear, he is. He is responding to a petition we don’t have access to – a letter they have written him that must have included something to the effect, “Sorry to bother you Paul – we know you’re in prison and have a long ‘to-do’ list, but in your spare time might you clarify something for us?” Our brother Paul, begins a final paragraph in this letter so sweetly, going on to explain – again – how we gain life when we die to self. Here’s how he starts that letter:
Finally, my brothers and sisters,* rejoice* in the Lord.
To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.
I have wrestled with this passage that follows – the one that recounts his fantabulous resume virtues – and so many of Paul’s teachings over the years for Paul’s own presence in the writings. I’ve argued that Paul just needs to get out of the way for us, the reader, to get to the heart of the matter.
This particular passage often read to me like some of the holier-than-thou preachers out there on the airwaves – I was all that, now I’m all this – preachers that talk at you from a stage where their personality turns a sermon into a solo act. For the longest time, every time I’d read Paul it was as if his ink well of personality had been spilled over all his letters, smothering what is truly some of the most compelling, imaginative, historical, mystical, dot-connecting, metaphor-making, holy spirit-inspired writing found in scripture.
And through all those years of struggling to get to the theological significance of one letter or another, to get to the practical application of losing self to gain Christ, to hear what the Spirit was saying through Paul, it never occurred to me to get to know him, really get to know his story. To sit with Paul at a dinner table and hear his backstory – to know some of his vulnerabilities and what was and is behind his super-qualifying resume to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and with Peter, the apostolic father of the Christian church as we know it today.
It’s as if like the woman in this Bizarro panel from Dan Piraro, I sat across from Paul for years with an eye patch on, unable to perceive his depth, so sure I was that his all-about-me-persona I had come to love, was who he was – there was no there, there. No depth.
Though I have earnestly peeled the patch off with every encounter to find application in his writings, I have to remind myself to do so – it just hasn’t come naturally.
I knew his biography. I studied his ministry routes and learned on some level enough to think of him as the zealot he was before Damascus and the zeal for which he went after Christ, after. Heck, in seminary I took an entire semester class on Paul and with the Lutherans, no less! where I learned much about his ministry.
But boy, did I miss his backstory. One piece that I’m just learning about is what took place in Paul’s life immediately following his personal encounter with the risen Lord. I had the timeline wrong, thinking Paul went very soon after to Antioch. But he didn’t! God gave him reflection time – time to assimilate the reality of the Messiah come and resurrected into what up to that point had been a Judaic world view – one that didn’t include a guy on a donkey, nailed to a wooden cross.
I’ve been learning that after Damascus, Paul bounced to Jerusalem, then back to Tarsus, his home town. And he’s there maybe up to 10 years – a decade! – before Barnabas comes to Tarsus to pull him to Antioch, where he, Barnabas, needs a bible-guy to help him with the diverse community in Antioch eager to hear about the risen Lord.
This is the secret I hadn’t thought about in Paul’s backstory. The secret that in his own home town and for maybe 10 years he had been sifting through the scriptures as he had always understood them and seeing how to figure Jesus Christ – this new reality – into the world he had known. He was doing some heavy duty theological reflection – rethinking the prophets, Abraham, Moses, the exile, all through the lens of the fulfilled prophecy of the Messiah, Jesus the Risen Lord. While he’s doing this? He’s in his hometown where presumably his family and friends are living. He’s likely sitting with them, trying to bring the good news to them, to persuade them to know Jesus the Risen Lord.
But here’s something I had never thought about – there is no mention of Tarsus in Acts or anywhere else in the canon that indicates a home-church or church of any size was planted by Paul. And, in addition, on Paul’s first missionary trip that began in Antioch the most likely route on that or any subsequent missionary trip up to Galatia would have naturally included a stopover in Tarsus.
But Paul never did return and seems to have intentionally avoided Tarsus in all his missionary travels. Which says what? It says to me that Paul had struggled in those first years of his new life in Christ to convince, persuade, enjoin any of his family or friends.
And that gives me an insight into him that peels away his bravado before my eyes. My heart aches for him. Only in humility – and maybe even despair – could he have left his hometown, family and friends to have gone to Antioch with Barnabas who needed basically a bible nerd to help him out.
Sigh. I’m just beginning to peel back these layers as I get to know Paul, better – getting to know him as I briefly got to know Y for who Y was/is, not what Y does/do. I’m getting to know who Paul is and was. I am blessed in so doing. I hear the Spirit so much more fully than I have in a long time.
I wonder how many of us non-bible nerd Episcopalians know a fraction of the backstory of not just Paul, but, too, all the biblical characters and storylines, hyperlinks and connections of salvation history.
I’m thinking of all the attention paid to the Game of Thrones premiere last night – how the hundreds of thousands who tuned in for the first episode of the last season of the 7-season HBO series had prepared by revisiting previous episodes, the books, blogs, and Social Media sites to be sure they had the backstory straight to ensure full engagement and enjoyment with the new season.
How does that passion compare with how we read a new episode or chapter or even book of the Bible? What kind of backstory are we inclined to pursue before concluding one way or another what the Spirit is saying?
As the importance of backstory is to the integrity of a Hollywood product, as the importance of backstory is to knowing of a bishop candidate, is the importance of knowing the stories of our ancestors and the human authors inspired by the Holy Spirit of the Bible.
Well, actually. More. More important.
How about you dig in?
Praise God from whom all blessings – and backstories – flow.
Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 51:1-18(19-20); PM Psalm 69:1-23
Jer. 12:1-16; Phil. 3:1-14; John 12:9-19