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Stories That Limit or Set Free

The story of the woman caught in the act of adultery in the Gospel of John always leaves me wondering what she did next? She was given an amazing gift – a new story for her life. We don’t know what the circumstances were that took her down the road of adultery, but we know that her religious community was ready to be judge and jury and stone her on the spot for it. She broke their law and deserved to die, as far as they were concerned. What would Jesus do? Would he uphold the law?  Or would he advocate for them to let her go, trapping himself in disobedience to the law and a chargeable offense.

So, here’s an interesting fact… in Mosaic law (Lev. 20:10 and Deut. 22:22) both the woman and the man are to be put to death if caught in the act of adultery. So, where was the guy? Mosaic law also requires the testimony of two or three witnesses in order to put someone to death, but those witnesses were not provided here, just a broad statement that she was caught in the “very act” of adultery. Jesus, knowing he’s being set up and that this poor woman is being used as a pawn, refuses to engage by silently writing on the ground. The scribes and Pharisees realize they are being ignored and push the subject. Jesus finally straightens up, engages them all as equal human beings, and says, “Let the person among you who is without sin throw the first stone.”

Truly, Jesus was offering all of them a chance to change, to break with the old ways of condemnation and death, and embrace a future marked with freedom and forgiveness. Which story would they all choose? The story that limited them to old roles and old laws? Or would the woman be able to live the new story of a loved and forgiven woman? Would the others present remember in the future that they aren’t perfect either and be careful about throwing around judgment? Would they be able to live into a new life of promise, mercy, grace and compassion?

Think for a moment of a story  by which others have defined you. Perhaps you were called stupid, ugly, or pigeon-holed by gender or race. Maybe you were told you couldn't sing, or play ball or make beautiful art. In a very real way we are a compilation of the stories that accumulate and continue to tell ourselves about our lives. These stories can hold us back, or strengthen us and propel us forward. Walking the spiritual path includes being aware of the stories we tell ourselves and noticing their effect on us. Then we must realize that we can change the story we tell ourselves so that it is more in alignment with who we are and who we want to be.

Like the woman caught in the act of adultery, we are given chances in life to recognize that we’ve been living a story that has limited us and then suddenly we’re offered a new story and we have to choose. Who will we be? What will define us? Will we succumb to the stories that limit us, or will we grasp hold of the stories that set us free to soar?

Brene’ Brown, in her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) tells a story about a woman named Sylvia. Sylvia, an event planner in her thirties, worked for an employer who called her work “outstanding, winner’s work. Then she made her first big mistake. Her boss’s response was to put her on the “Losers’ list.” She said, “In one minute I went from being on the winner’s board to being on top of the loser’s list.” Literally.

Her boss had big dry-erase boards outside of his office. One was the winner’s list and one was the loser’s list. For weeks after her name was put on the loser's list, could barely function. She lost her confidence and started missing work. Shame, anxiety and fear took over.

Then one evening, Sylvia was talking to her sister about the “loser” board and it all started to make sense. Sylvia and her sister had been very competitive athletes in high school. Sylvia had even been offered a scholarship but turned it down. As Sylvia and her sister talked, her sister reminded Sylvia about their father’s constant use of the word loser. “No one likes a loser.” “Losers never change.” He would post their track times on the refrigerator door along with sticky notes that said things like Be a winner!

Sylvia said, “I got off the phone with my sister, cried and started working on my resume. I realized that I couldn’t work there anymore. It’s not just the word loser… It’s the whole idea of believing that you’re either good or bad. You can’t be good and have a bad day or make a bad decision. You can’t be a good runner and run a bad race. I laughed at the people on the losers’ list. Until I was on it. I made fun of the losers just like my dad and my boss. I regret not competing in college. I could have gone to a better school with the scholarship. Now I know I didn’t go because I wouldn’t have always been a winner with that level of competition. Now I’m afraid of being less than perfect, and my sister is still struggling with an eating disorder. That’s how bad it was to be a loser in my family.”

Sylvia and her sister made a pact to call each other whenever they felt what they called “loser shame.” No, things aren’t perfect for Sylvia, but she is much more aware of the story that has shaped her and she is trying to live a new story, one that that doesn’t limit her, but sets her free.

Dawna Markova, in her book, Living a Loved Life, shares the story of working as a “learning specialist” when Jerome was assigned to her because he couldn’t read. Jerome was in the sixth grade and lived in a migrant labor camp with his aunt and two sisters. The principal told her that he had been classified as trainably retarded; he was incapable of learning, therefore it was her job to keep him out of everyone’s way.

He was a big kid, even for fourteen, and had both mischief and misery shining from his wide brown eyes. Daily, he was sent to the principal’s office where she applied a large wooden paddle called the Convincer to his backside and then sent him over to Dawna’s office. Jerome wrapped his arms across his chest and declared, “You ain’t gonna make me learn to read.” Seems he agreed with the principal. But Dawna did love a challenge.

Some of the other kids had told her that Jerome was the chess champion of the labor came. She found that curious. How could he play chess so well if he was stupid? She went to watch him compete one evening. A large crowd of children and adults surrounded him, and an old man sat on the other side of the board and moved a bishop. Jerome’s eyes got wide as he paced back and forth. Everyone was silent. Two long strides brought him back to the board. Jerome pounced, moving a knight as he declared, “Checkmate!” The crowd went wild, but he just smiled and strolled away.

The next morning when he entered Dawna’s office she placed a thick book before him. It was covered in red leather and the title was stamped in gold: A History of the African American. Then she excused herself for a few minutes and left him alone. When she returned he was thumbing through the pages, his eyes lit up as his fingers traced over the photographs. He slammed it closed. “You ain’t gonna make me read that. You read it to me, Missus Teacher.”

She made him a deal. They would play one game of chess. If he won, she’d read the book to him. If she won, she’d teach him how to read it for himself, no matter how long it took. She credited the outcome to Divine intervention because she’d only played chess a few times, yet she won.

Using what she’d learned in graduate school about how different brains learned, and talking to Jerome about how he had learned to play chess, she discovered a unique, unorthodox way to teach him. It took a long time, but several months later he had read the last page. Dawna gave him the book as a reward. The next morning the book was back in her office but Jerome was nowhere to be found. At the camp his sister told her that it was time for Jerome to move on to another camp. He felt he couldn’t keep the book because he was afraid it would be stolen, but he had left her a note:

I don’t know how to show
the goodness of feeling right
about what was wrong
or so they said
about my head.
Thanks.

Dawna was never really charged with helping Jerome learn. She was given Jerome and his story and expected to leave it at that. But with a little determination, a little ingenuity, and a great deal of caring and compassion, she helped him to create a new story, one in which he was smart, and could learn, and could read. We don’t know what happened to Jerome, but I hope that he lived into this new story that didn’t limit him, but set him free.

You see, we are the woman caught in the act of adultery, and the person on the loser board, and the child told we weren’t worthy. We struggle with lack of self-esteem, shame, guilt and so much more because of the stories we’ve been told, or have told about ourselves and believed. It’s our job to recognize that there is more to us than our negative stories. It’s our job to let go of the old hurtful stories that limit us and begin replacing them with stories that free us to be the beautiful, unique people we were created to be.

But, we are also Jesus, and the friends and teachers who offer new stories filled with promise and potential, blessing and hope; expansive stories that don’t limit, but set people free.

Love & Light!

Kaye