Soul Training

by Joanie Butman

Over Thanksgiving the power of stories was glaringly obvious as we sat around retelling many familiar tales. They seem to get better each year, but that might depend on the amount of wine consumed. There’s my husband’s infamous sailing story, accounts from my rebellious past, anecdotes of past family dramas. It is a comfortable tradition despite the fact that the ones about me are far from flattering. My long history of unwise choices makes good fodder for entertainment.

We had a new guest at our table this year: a friend of my niece who wasn’t able to travel home for the weekend. As I listened to all the stories, I realized that her impression of the various members of our family would be largely formed from the stories she heard about them. Other than watching us during her three-day visit, she had no other basis on which to form an opinion.

There is no doubt that our stories define us, which is why if you’re like me, you might have a vested interest in filtering the ones people are hearing or at least be there to defend yourself. I remember talking to my nephew’s wife about the Choose Wisely project, and she commented, “I know all the funny stories of Papa’s antics, but I’ve never heard any of his serious ones.”

So true. Many of us are reluctant to share our most revealing stories. Obviously, I am not one of them. In fact, I suspect my family would prefer that I keep more of them to myself. Most people are uncomfortable with vulnerability. Yet those are the most powerful kinds of narratives. Those stories are the vehicles that give others insight into the person you’ve become, how you arrived there and the lessons you learned along the way.

Even so, some people just can’t get deep. Maybe they’re afraid of what they’ll find there, or of being judged, or maybe they just don’t feel the need or see the value of sharing it with others. In The Bucket List, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson are hospital roommates who are both diagnosed with a terminal illness. While composing a list of things they want to do before they ‘kick the bucket,’ Freeman makes a futile attempt to engage his new friend in a philosophical conversation about God. Freeman finally gives up uttering, “I’ve taken baths deeper than you.” For Nicholson’s character and many others, it’s easier to float on the surface, which is fine; but at some point in your life you are going to find yourself immersed in the depths of a crisis (as he did with a deadly diagnosis). How you choose to deal with that challenge will probably be the most important choice-story you ever convey (whether it is in writing or not), but it is the culmination of all the stories that came before that will determine how it plays out.

I’ll share one of the worst choices I’ve ever made. It was going to see that movie alone shortly after my first cancer surgery. Just one of my many “What was I thinking?” moments. Actually, it wasn’t as stupid as it sounds. When you are battling cancer or any other crisis, it is interesting to hear how other people cope in the same circumstance. It also motivated me to think of what I’d put on my own bucket list. Now, there’s an interesting exercise.

On the other hand, the best decision I ever made was to join a Bible Study group 15 years ago. By studying the stories in the Bible I was introduced to a God I only knew from a distance despite (or maybe because of) growing up Catholic. There was good reason God wanted these stories recorded in perpetuity. As a prior rebel, it’s also been comforting to note that I am in good company as these stories don’t portray people in the most flattering light either. Bad Girls of the Bible was one of my favorite studies followed closely by Really Bad Girls of the Bible and Slightly Bad Girls of the Bible. I never understood that last one. Then again, I'm an overachiever in all pursuits. I think it was Donna Summer who sang, "'Cause when I'm bad, I'm so, so bad." Story of my life. Ideally, we gain wisdom by studying the choices of past generations and the consequences they suffered as a result – good and bad. Isn’t that why we study history of every kind – to avoid making the same mistakes over and over? To understand where we came from and how we got here?

Through these biblical stories, God’s love, sovereignty, trustworthiness and providential care for us is revealed. And it was through these chronicles that my relationship with God moved from my head to my heart. The choice to deepen that relationship was and continues to be the key factor in dealing with my health and any other challenge that life brings. People get cancer diagnoses every day, you might be thinking. Many survive without divine handholding, and I probably would have muddled through on my own as well if it had happened ten years ago; but it wouldn’t have been with the joy and peace that comes from leaning on God. Consequently, simply by sharing my own story others have been inspired to avail themselves of that same blessing bringing comfort amidst trials of all kinds.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the ten years I chose to spend getting to know God (soul fitness training) was preparing me for that moment in the doctor’s office much the same way David’s years as a shepherd (honing his accuracy with the slingshot while protecting his sheep) prepared him to bring down Goliath. More importantly, it was David’s faith (honed by a life-long relationship with God) that gave him the confidence to fearlessly confront a giant of a man with nothing but a few rocks and a rudimentary sling. We all encounter Goliaths in our lives, how and/or with whom do you choose to face yours?