One of the things Minjing and I look forward to this time of year is the Seattle International Film Festival. On days like this it’s a problem because we don’t want to be inside a dark theater!
This past week I saw a film called Letters from the Big Man. The “Big Man” in this story refers to a Sasquatch, or, Bigfoot. The film is about a young U.S. forest service worker who is on the rebound from a painful break-up. She gets an assignment to go on a week-long journey into the remote forests of southwestern Oregon. It’s not long before she senses that she’s being followed. Sure enough, it’s Bigfoot. It takes her a while to figure out what’s going on because throughout the movie she never actually sees the creature.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this movie over the past days. Mention Bigfoot and people are likely to smile, smirk, or roll their eyes. A few people are convinced that the creature exists but probably not most.
It’s funny, isn’t it?—that people of faith will return to this place Sunday after Sunday to hear similar kinds of stories and not bat an eye. There is no Bigfoot in the Bible. But there are plenty of stories that must seem to many people just as mysterious or even unbelievable.
For example, take today’s first reading. After a few final words to his disciples, Luke writes, [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Does this story sound likely? Does it sound like the kind of thing you’d expect to read in a high school science textbook?
What would you say if a friend—or a stranger—said to you, “I don’t believe that stuff–do you?” How would you answer?
Many Christians think that faith means believing in the literal truth of each detail in the Bible. If the Bible says that Jesus disappeared into the clouds from among his disciples, right before their eyes, that’s what actually happened. One Native American leader once spoke about the stories of his own sacred tradition. He said, “I don’t know if these things actually happened, but I know they’re true.”
What if Christians took that perspective? What if, instead of arguing about the literal truth of our stories we learned to ask better questions? What if we were to take today’s reading from Acts and say, “I don’t know about the facts in this story. But I can ask good questions.” Questions like: What does this story say about our human nature? What does this story teach us about the nature of God? What does this story say about our relationship to God—and our relationship to one another?
We don’t know the details of what happened at Jesus’ Ascension. One thing we do know: his followers experienced an encounter with God that was so powerful that words couldn’t describe it. All they could do was to tell a story that hinted at their experience.
Sometimes that’s all we can do. We experience something so powerful that we can’t explain it or make sense of it; all we can do is tell a story. Some of you have told me about dreams and experiences that you might not even tell your friends about because they seem so strange—maybe even supernatural. For you, it would be like announcing to the world that you saw Bigfoot in the woods. You’re afraid people won’t believe you—or maybe that they’ll think you’re losing your grip on reality.
The best stories of our faith are the strangest and most unbelievable: The parting of the Red Sea, a virgin birth, a feeding of five thousand people with a few fish and loaves of bread, resurrection from the dead, ascension into heaven. These stories point to an experience of God that is bigger than our ability to describe or comprehend.
All we Christians have is a story. But it’s enough. It’s more than enough! When we know the stories of our faith we can begin to recognize those stories in the everyday events of our lives.
In Letters from the Big Man Bigfoot is not portrayed as some kind of monster or man in a gorilla suit. In the film he’s not a shadowy figure in some grainy photo disappearing into the woods. He’s portrayed as a creature of great intelligence, wisdom and compassion. He has supernatural powers to appear and disappear, but his mission seems to be to search out and communicate with human beings. He seeks out open hearts and open minds, searching for people who can lead humanity through the difficult times in which we live. In the movie I find echoes of our Christian stories. The Sasquatch reminds me a bit of the angels in today’s story, or Jesus himself, who teach and encourage and challenge, rarely appearing and disappearing, but always with love for the people they’re among.
So—we can recognize our own Christian stories in the stories of our culture. We can go to a movie or read a book and find the stories of our faith. But hopefully—and most importantly—we can recognize the stories of our faith in our own lives and the lives of others. The stories of Jesus and his disciples, of Abraham and Sarah, of Paul the Apostle, of Mary and Martha—these are the stories of our lives, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
These are the stories of all people. Our Christian mission to the world is not to cling to a set of beliefs. Jesus said that our work is to “go into all the world.” Our work is to listen to the stories of friends and family, of neighbors and strangers and to find a way to interpret those stories according to God’s stories of love and grace for all people. As we ponder these stories we discover that not only are we those disciples to whom Jesus and the angels spoke. We discover that we ourselves are the presence of God to a world hungry for God.