Unbelievable Stories

The following is the manuscript from the message Leah gave at the first Haven Berkeley Easter Celebration on April 5, 2015 in Live Oak Park.  Pictures from the event are included below.

Tony was an eight year old boy when it happened.  His mother and father told him that he was going to be a big brother.  A baby was coming.  For this family, it was an unexpected miracle.  Tony had had numerous health problems as a young child, and for years doctors told his parents they should not try to have any more children.  They were concerned that Tony’s health issues were genetic and that they were likely to show up again in subsequent children.  Eventually doctors figured out the source of Tony’s health issues and gave the approval for his parents to pursue expanding their family.  But then all efforts proved fruitless.  Consultation with doctors and fertility specialists left them feeling hopeless.  It seemed Tony would always be an only child.  Tony’s mom accepted a job and promised her new employer that there was no chance she’d be leaving work to have another baby.  And a few weeks later she came down with morning sickness.

Of course, there was great excitement around this surprising news.  Tony’s parents began preparing for the impending arrival with great anticipation, and wondered who this new family member would be.  They discussed names, and narrowed their list to one name for a boy and one for a girl, not knowing who was growing inside the mother’s belly.  But Tony said he knew.  You see, he had had a dream; a most wondrous, vivid dream. And in that dream, he said God had come and talked to him.  And God had told him that he was going to have a little sister.

Tony began to tell his dream story to anyone who would listen: his parents, his grandparents, his aunts, uncles, and teachers.  And all the kind, caring adults responded in the same kind of way - with a wary smile and nod and a “we’ll see, Tony.  It might be a girl, but it might be a boy.  Either way, it will be wonderful.”  Something like that.

Now Tony was a bright boy.  He understood what the grown-ups meant.  It was code for something like, “that’s a fantasy, kid.”  Nice dream, but it’s not real.  No one really believed him.  But he was sure of what he had learned.

Finally the big day came.  Tony was with his grandparents when they got the call that the child had been born.  And when my brother got on the phone and my father told him I had been born his response was not joyous surprise, but validated relief.  “I know Dad.  You see?  I told you, I knew.”


Every family has stories that become part of their family lore, and growing up in the Galyean family, this was one of mine.  It’s one of those stories that got told at family meals or special events many times over.  And as a child, it was a story I loved hearing.  Who wouldn’t want to know that their presence was greatly anticipated, let alone that one’s sibling believed God told him about them?  

So as a kid I loved hearing the story, but as an adult, and a parent now myself, I can understand the adults’ skepticism.  Is it reasonable to believe that this child heard from God?  Some adults perhaps have had certain life experiences that might set them up to say, “yes, I believe that’s totally reasonable”.  But there’s also a case to be made that this was childish fantasy.  I mean after all - you could say it was hardly a miraculous prediction.  The odds that this kid were right were 50/50. The only reason we’re still telling the story is that things happened to go in the kid’s favor.  If they hadn’t, this story would have been left behind and dismissed as evidence of a child’s vivid imagination, along with proofs of the existence of Santa and the Easter Bunny.

Scientists have a name for this process by which we often decide whether something we hear is to be believed or dismissed; to be noted or to be ignored.  It’s called “confirmation bias”.  Confirmation bias is generally defined as, “the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses”.  In other words, when presented with new information, humans tend to believe the things that gel with how they already perceive the world, and to dismiss the things that don’t.  This tends to be especially true when it comes to emotionally charged topics or beliefs that are deeply held.  And while it’s a very efficient way to process information, confirmation bias can also highlight a disturbing reality.  People have a hard time changing their minds.  Even when presented with much hard, factual evidence, if that evidence is in conflict with what they already believe, confirmation bias will influence many people to continue believing as they have.  So some deny climate change, or the impact of vaccinations, or the importance of conserving water in a drought, all of which have implications that go beyond one’s personal beliefs and experiences.

But there are other ways that I think confirmation bias can be even more probelmatic. Confirmation bias not only allows us to reject factual information, it also allows us to reject anecdotal evidence even more easily.  But when we dismiss anecdotes, we may be rejecting stories, stories that belong to people.  When we reject a person’s story, we’re not just dismissing their information as inaccurate, on some level we might be consciously or unconsciously rejecting them.  

You see stories are the way that human beings make sense of their reality.  It is a core part of what makes us human.  Stories, the stories we listen to, the stories we come to believe, and the stories we tell, show us who we are and how we are to live.  But when we reject another’s story, when we can’t hear it, when we invalidate it, we invalidate more than information.  We invalidate identity.  It tells that eight year old boy not only that his story is ridiculous, but so is he for insisting it is true.  

And what if, just what if that boy’s experience isn’t just fantasy?  What if he actually has had a glimpse of something transformative?  What if we can’t even answer the question about what he may or may not have experienced without allowing for the possibility that he could be right, and that perhaps the paradigm we’re trying to conform his story to is not the whole picture?

I start off today talking about an unbelievable story and the biases it’s interpreted through, because, at the core of it, that is what today is all about: an unbelievable story.  Now different ones of us come here today for different reasons.  Let’s name that.  Some of us feel that we are connected to Jesus in a relational way, and as such, today is a grand celebration of who Jesus is and what he’s done.  Others come connecting with the tradition of Easter, perhaps we grew up attending services with family or friends, and on a holiday like this, there’s something compelling about entering into that tradition, even if we don’t really connect with organized religion and it’s practices on a regular basis.  Others of us might have been invited by a friend, and didn’t want to be rude, so we’re here.  Or maybe you came solely for the free food.  Wherever you’re at, you’re here, and you’re totally welcome to be here just as you are.

But we can’t ignore the elephant in the room.  And the elephant is this story, this crazy story, that a Jewish teacher -  a super-smart, freakishly kind, winsomely funny, craftsman-turned-guru - allowed himself to be turned over by Jewish leaders to their Roman occupiers, tried on trumped-up-charges, and executed like a common criminal.  And then, bizarre turn that it is, the story goes that three days later he came back to life.  He rose from the dead.  He did something that defies all logic and makes no sense in any practical way in the normal world in which we live.  THIS unbelievable story is in the middle of this holiday and it’s awkwardly, audaciously asking us to ponder it. To hear it.  To perhaps put aside whatever previous biases we have and listen to the story that continues to wield power in so many lives the world over.

So we’re going to take a little time today to listen anew to this story of Easter Sunday.  At Haven we’ve spent the last several weeks looking at the book of Luke.  It’s one of the four renderings the Bible gives us of an account of the life of Jesus, and so today we’re going to look at some of what Luke tells us about the first Easter Sunday. 

A sunrise over contemporary Jerusalem.

A sunrise over contemporary Jerusalem.

But first, let’s set the scene a bit. Every good story needs a backdrop.  It’s a misty Sunday morning in Jerusalem as the sun starts to break over the horizon.  The sky is streaked with pink and lavender and a group of women have gathered their spices and are heading towards the graves in the side of the hill.  They are in mourning, still a bit in shock.  It has been quite a week.  Just a week ago today they were part of the crowd shouting “Hosanna!” and waving palm branches as their hero was welcomed into the capital city of Jerusalem.  But as the week went on, what was supposed to be Jesus’ great victory lap took a surprising turn. By Friday, the same crowds that had welcomed him were shouting, “Crucify!”  The women watched in horror as nails pierced flesh.  His screams lingered in their ears. And then there was silence.

The Sabbath was when it was customary for Jews to do no work but only to rest.  And so they rested for a day but it was so heavy.  So quiet as they all tried to absorb the reality that he was really gone.  That it was over.  That soon they’d need to hug these friends, these sisters who they had met as they’d traveled with him, and say goodbye, returning to the towns and villages they’d come from and trying to re-enter life there.  To find some new normalcy.  To forget that they’d felt so close to a new way of life they could taste it, and in an instant that life had evaporated.

So here they are.  The Sabbath is now over.  And there is one last important task to be done before they say their goodbyes.  He needs attending to.  This would be their moment of closure.  This would be their time to say goodbye.  And here they could restore to him at least a shred of the dignity they had seen stolen from him.  They could clean him, anoint him with oil, and leave his flesh in peace.  They could get one last memory of Jesus to take with them as they departed. 

And that’s where we pick up the story at the beginning of Luke 24.

Now on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women went to the tomb, taking the aromatic spices they had prepared. 2 They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men stood beside them in dazzling attire. 5 The women were terribly frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here, but has been raised! Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then the women remembered his words, 9 and when they returned from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed like pure nonsense to them, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He bent down and saw only the strips of linen cloth; then he went home, wondering what had happened. 

We’ll stop there.  So here we have the first segment of an unusual story.  The women reach the grave and notice something amiss.  The large stone had been rolled away.  This is not cause for celebration.  Something is wrong.  All is not as it should be.  Has someone desecrated the tomb and stolen the body?  Just as they try to get their bearings, something even more shocking transpires.  What look like two men appear out of nowhere, dazzling the cave with bright light.  

How do the women respond?  Pretty much the way anyone in the Bible responds when they encounter an angel.  With terror.  They fall to the ground, they bury their faces.  But what comes back to them is a jovial, chiding response. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has been raised!”  And as the angels explain Jesus’ death and resurrection, understanding finally begins to dawn.  The unbelievable begins to be believed.  It takes a lecture from two angels blazing in full glory, but it gets through.  And immediately the women want to tell their friends what they’ve seen.

I imagine them booking it as fast as they can to the place they know the eleven are gathered.  Breathless, they share the story.  But as they finish each others sentences, laughing with the wonder and the joy of it, their expressions begin to change.  These guys aren’t getting it.  They’re looking at them with confusion, perhaps even annoyance, as they shake their heads in disbelief.  As Luke puts it, “these words seemed like pure nonsense to them, and they did not believe them”.  The story of these women is dismissed. They have seen divinity with their very eyes, but no one believes them.  

It appears that confirmation bias has been around a long time; a lot longer than we’ve had a name for it. But should it be a surprise to us that no one could outright believe that Jesus had really risen from the dead?  I mean, who does that?  And further adding to their bias was the patriarchy that was so deeply entrenched in the culture of the day.  This was a culture in which the testimony of women could not be admissible in a court of law, because it was not to be considered trustworthy.  This was a culture that thought so poorly of women that religious Jewish men prayed the same three things several times a day, “God, thank you that I am a Jew and not a Gentile.  God, thank you that I am free and not a slave.  God thank you that I am a man and not a woman.”  Is it any wonder they dismissed the story and the women with it?  How could they not?

But one man was intrigued.  Peter had been one of the closest to Jesus while he lived and he had learned in that time that Jesus often said and did things that you didn’t expect.  So though he couldn’t quite believe what the women were telling him, he didn’t outright dismiss them.  He was curious enough to go and see for himself what there might be to see.  And what he found was not what he expected. 

Well, Luke’s Easter story doesn’t end there.  The next little episode Luke relates is an encounter I’ll summarize.  Two of Jesus’ followers are leaving Jerusalem and heading towards a place called Emmaus.  They have heard about the women’s tale and they don’t believe.  This thing is done.  Jesus has been killed.  And so these guys are heading home, dispirited and depressed.  But as they go, they meet a stranger on the road, a stranger that Luke tells the audience is Jesus, but in a bit of dramatic irony, the guys have no clue.  Maybe Jesus is somehow divinely shrouded in mystery.  Maybe it’s just their confirmation bias that’s too strong for them to even notice him.  We don’t know but whatever the case, Jesus plays dumb, pretends he doesn’t know why they’re so upset, listens to how they’re feeling and what’s fretting them.  He responds by explaining the scriptures and brings them to life in a way they’ve never heard. 

And when they get to the place where they’re going, Jesus pretends like he has to go further, but these guys are now intrigued.  They're curious.  They want to know more about what this guy knows.  They beg him to stay with them.  So he does.  And as they sit down for dinner, and he breaks bread with them and blesses it, suddenly they get it.  They understand who he is.  They realize that the risen Jesus is real and at the table with them and just as they finally clue in, he disappears into thin air; disapparates like a wizard in Harry Potter.  It’s a crazy story, and these two dudes, similar to the women at the tomb, they can’t contain themselves.  They can’t wait a moment.  They immediately run back to Jerusalem, to the place where they know their friends are gathered. So we pick up the story in Luke’s words with this:

Then they told what had happened on the road, and how they recognized him when he broke the bread. 36 While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 But they were startled and terrified, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 Then he said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; it’s me! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones like you see I have.” 40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still could not believe it (because of their joy) and were amazed, he said to them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 So they gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in front of them. 

So that’s where the story goes.  Jesus doing crazy stuff and being seen by all of them.  Appearing out of nowhere but saying “no need to fear, everything’s fine here.”  He’s eating, proving he has a physical body, but he’s also demonstrating that in whatever way he is present, it is a totally new kind of reality that defies all of their paradigms.  It shatters them and introduces them to something unique…  some new kind of resurrection life that they couldn’t have conceived of before.

I myself have lived an unbelievable story.  It’s a story I couldn’t have foreseen twenty years ago in any form.  It’s a story that may offend some folk’s paradigms, but you can’t know me, not truly, without knowing my story.  

Twenty years ago I was a seventeen year-old young woman who had already given up on church and religion as a way of finding hope and life.  Sure, I’d attended my parents church many Sundays growing up, but my childhood experience of church left me feeling like whatever was taking place there, while maybe helpful for some, was inadequate to address the real messy stuff of life.  It was fine for children’s stories and sweet songs, but what I heard and saw on Sundays couldn’t address the pain I felt inwardly as a young adult.  

You see by the time I was in my late teens and early twenties I was profoundly tortured by the demons of my young past.  Childhood sexual abuse had ravaged not only my body, but my spirit.  The secrecy around what had happened to me as a young girl fermented and transformed into a deeply embedded shame.  That shame made me feel ugly, unworthy, dirty, and hopeless.  The only place I felt freedom was when I pretended to be someone else.

And so at a very young age, acting became my coping mechanism.  I threw myself into theatre, and luckily for me, I had the aptitude to do well at it.  I earned applause and I felt the high of self-approval when I escaped from my own story and lived in someone else’s.  This pretending became addictive.  But like an addiction, it’s capacity to truly satisfy seemed to lessen with every character I embodied, leaving me wanting another high to mask the loneliness within.

I left my southern California home to immerse myself in the theatre world, as a theatre student at a prestigious school in Chicago, heading toward Broadway, I was sure.  However, in that setting, the limitations of my addiction became clear.  Without the affection and acceptance of close family and friends nearby, I became desperately lonely and self-destructive.  My self-respect was nil and out of desperation I endured an abusive romantic relationship with the hope of being loved.  I acted out my self-hatred on my body as an eating disorder tormented me.  And too insecure or hopeless to know how to find real freedom or healing, I started to fantasize about taking my own life.  I just couldn’t imagine not feeling that pain.

And there, in the place of death and decay, something spoke to me.  It came first in gentle whispers - little moments here and there - and then as I gave more space and attention to it, the force with which it spoke seemed to grow.  The first whisper was a shiver I felt touring my campus for the first time, as I was trying to decide which school to attend.  I had prayed out of desperation to the Universe, not sure who was even there to answer.  I asked God, whoever he or she was, to show me where to go to school.  And as I walked this campus for the first time, I felt a kind of peace I’d never felt before.  Every cell in my body felt activated, joyful, and alive.  I saw a picture of myself there, and it was good.  “I think there’s a God,” I mused. “And I think he wants me to go to school here.”

Another whisper came when I attended a freshman theatre class with my other freshman theatre majors.  An upperclass theatre student got up to make an announcement before class.  “I’m starting a group in the Arts dorm for theatre students who want to talk about God.”  I had another one of those crazy moments where chills covered my body and I inexplicably understood that this message was for me.  Though I was scared and certainly skeptical, I met the young man, I attended his group, and I encountered something I’d never seen before.

I experienced real acceptance.  Real community.  Real, unconditional and unearned love from others and it shook me.  It was shocking to my system.  I couldn’t comprehend it.  And they spoke of this person, this Jesus, that I had never met in all my years going to church.  He wasn’t distant and polished, a pristine figure in stained glass shining down from the chapel window.  He was funny and kind and disarmingly intimate, entering into the dirt and ugliness of the world and transforming it into something beautiful and renewed, repurposed, resurrected.

And bit by bit, as I allowed myself to take in the whispers I was hearing, this affection I felt anytime I encountered Jesus through these people, through his teachings, through moments where it felt like I was touching some alternative reality, I began to believe that that same Jesus was doing that transformational renewing, resurrecting work in me.  I began to see myself as fearfully and wonderfully made.  I celebrated God’s creation in me.  And no longer did I want to reject myself and my story.  I wanted to live in a resurrected story instead.

Twenty years ago, I couldn’t imagine I’d ever have a healthy intimate relationship, let alone a family life.  I was two scarred and scared to allow anyone that close.  Today, my husband Jason and I are in our 14th year of marriage and we have three amazing kids.  Twenty years ago, I had no idea that prayers could really be answered; I prayed out of longing, but not at all belief.  Today I stand here a woman who has seen incredible things happen that are beyond ordinary comprehension - physical healings, marriages beyond hope renewed, deep emotional hurts utterly transformed - as people prayed and experienced Jesus’ presence in the midst of their mess.  I have prayed for them and seen lives change for the better.  And though I still, twenty years later, have my own struggles with skepticism and moments of bewilderment at all of it, I can’t help but say: “my story is my story. And I have no other explanation for the life I’ve ended up living other than Jesus has had a hand in it.”

At it’s core, my story, at least as I understand it, testifies to the same outrageous claim that the Easter stories we’ve read today do. That claim is this:  Jesus is alive and he brings with him a new kind of life.  It's a beauty-from-death life, a redeemed-creation life, a power to bring hope to the hopeless life. It is beyond the claim that God sent one man to die for all, and rose him from the dead that all might live.  That is only the beginning of what this Easter story communicates.  This story is about more than the resurrection of one man. It is about a new transformed creation that was introduced with the resurrection of one man.  And even the way it’s communicated speaks to that transformation.

Jesus comes to the women who’ve been made voiceless by patriarchy and says, “I am restoring your voice.  No one can take it from you.  I am giving you the most important message in history to carry.  I am calling you to be the first witnesses to my resurrection.  No one may believe you, but I know you are worthy of being believed.”  Jesus comes to the oppressed who’ve lost their dignity and restores it to them.  He comes to the disempowered, whether because of their gender, their race, their class, their sexual orientation, their disability, and he speaks of new creation.  He whispers dreams in the ears of folks like Martin Luther King Jr.; dreams that rally the disempowered to stand up and say “we are God’s creation and we are included, too”. 

But Jesus doesn’t just come to the oppressed.  He comes to those who’ve given up on him.  People like I was 20 years ago.  They’ve turned their back.  They’re walking away.  This Jesus thing was a child’s tale.  It was great while it lasted, but now it’s time to grow up and make our own way in the world.  As the men in our story walk towards Emmaus, we see Jesus coming after them.  Pursuing them on the road.  Speaking in a way that begins to shift the paradigm, ever so slowly, until finally, they’re ready to really see and understand and commune with the risen Jesus in an intimate way.  He gives them new life, too.  A new understanding of the world. New joy and a new story to tell.

And he comes to those who’ve believed but need a fresh experience of him.  Like the folks gathered in Jerusalem, they need an experience for today.  An experience after the cross.  An experience after pain and suffering and disappointment.  Those who may be devoted but haven’t seen the full extent of his life-after-death power: to those followers Jesus appears, as well. 

Three different groups in Luke’s Easter story experience the risen Jesus, in three different ways, but in each case, the affect is the same.  Their stories are transformed.  And he leaves them with a job to do.  When it’s all said and done, he tells them, “you are witnesses to these things.”  Go and tell the world your crazy, unbelievable story.  Because its for everyone.  The disempowered who think they can’t be included, the folks who’ve given up and aren’t sure there’s anything to be included in, the ones who’ve longed for God but need a real experience of him.  And everybody else.  Go, and tell your story.

Here in this little community that we’re building called Haven, we believe the telling of one’s story is a sacred trust.  We chose the name Haven because we long to be a safe place where people from all walks of life can be authentic about who they are and what they’ve lived.  We want to be a place where we can share our stories, be known intimately, and perhaps find meaning and life and purpose and yes, Jesus, in the midst of all of it.

That means we’re committed to holding our stories in tension.  My story is held in tension with yours which may be very different.  It’s held in tension with the person who says “I don’t know about Jesus but I want to explore relationships and meaning.”  It’s held in tension with the story that says, “I’m fine with Jesus but I’ve been hurt by churches.”  We hold all of these stories together, believing that if there’s anything worth following of Jesus, it’s his assertion that devotion to God and devotion to other human beings are profoundly connected.  We will not be a community that does violence to one another by silencing another’s story.  We want to be a community where all stories are heard, and all stories have value, and all stories play an important part in this drama of the renewing of all creation. 

So how do we live that out?  As we close, I just want to leave you with a few little tips to consider, should you want to move forward with any of this stuff we’ve touched on today.

1. Find a safe space to share your story.  Maybe it’s Haven, maybe it’s a friendship you’ve had for years, maybe it’s a family member or even a therapist.  But look to cultivate places in your life where you can be authentic and real with who you are before God and other people.  We’re starting this Seek class in a little over a week, maybe that’s a place where you can feel the freedom to share and explore your story along side others who are doing the same, and ask the questions about where spirituality and faith fit into those stories.  Wherever it is, claim your story and find a place to speak it.

2. Cultivate your listening skills. As we seek to create the kind of space here that people can be vulnerable and share, that means we all need to grow in our capacity to listen.  When someone shares their story, give it the respect it deserves, even if your confirmation bias kicks in and tells you to dismiss it.  Focus on the person and what they’re revealing behind the story they’re telling.  Seek to listen as much as you speak, if not more.

3. Finally, choose curiosity over judgement.  When Peter heard the women’s story, he may not have outright believed them, but he believed there was something to what they were saying.  That openhandedness let him to dig further, and eventually, to make his own discoveries.  When someone steps into the vulnerable space of sharing their story with you, don’t snap to judgement. Consider what there might be new here for you to experience or be shaped by.  And if you’re so inclined, invite Jesus to reveal something new to you.  If the Easter story is to be believed at all, if my own story is to be believed at all, pursuing connection with Jesus is a promising and powerful way to find new life, no matter where you're coming from. 

“For behold,” Jesus said, “I am making all things new.”  Let us stand in the hope of that proclamation this Easter.  Amen.