The Creativity Story

Writing, telling, hearing and imagining the story of our creation

by Ashley Goff

Illustration by Terri Scott

Standing in Sacred Greens, the urban garden of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC, I see that the March sky is that end-of-the-winter blue-gray color. Our raised garden beds are full of spent kale and spinach. The soil is choppy, the snow and ice of the past few weeks speckling brown ground underneath. Bare branches of our apple and pear trees reveal a stark architecture. Honeybee hives are full of dead bees. An azalea bush we planted last fall to remember a member’s miscarriage held its own through the winter.

Covered by a mountain of blankets, a homeless neighbor snores on the porch near the garden while giant bottles of Dove shampoo and conditioner stand guard. Meanwhile, folks in suits walk up the sidewalk heading to Embassy Row, and the homeowner of the million-dollar home that sits up against Pilgrims blasts the music of Taylor Swift.

All of this occurs simultaneously on the land lived upon by Nacotchtank Indians in the 1600s and where blacks were sold into slavery as late as 1861.

And all of it—every element in view—has a story.

From my view, the stories of the people who planted the church garden merge with the organic story of seeds, dirt, harvest, birth and rebirth. This is told alongside the story of how one person’s life left them without a home, and with the systemic story of poverty and injustice and the failure of our city to properly care for all its residents. At the exact same moment I read a story of financial success, a story of oppression, a story of slavery, a story of creation. And in the midst of all this, I read and write my own story—how I got to this very moment, and what I will do next as a result of it.

All of these stories are interconnected. The sacred work of the church, then, is to continually organize and recreate itself around these tales in order to more fully live and embody the Christian story.

Creation: Writing the Story

We are people of story. Our beginnings in the Genesis creation story reveal we are ever-changing creatures, designed to be connected to the world around us. We follow a creative impulse to tell stories through art, song, words, graffiti—whatever medium is available to us. When we create, in the image of God, we participate in God’s creative nature with our own. We connect our story to God’s.

All stories are painted on the canvas of God’s narrative, and that narrative is described in the Christian Scriptures. The narrative of the kingdom of God is one of disruption of the status quo. The prophets call for repentance and action on behalf of the vulnerable. Even in the bleakest seasons in the life of God’s people in the Old Testament, prophets announced a vision of redemption and salvation—a new twist in the story with an ending that God, not earthly powers, would create. The New Testament descriptions of Jesus’ resurrection offer a surprise ending to a story we thought we knew; it is in fact life, not death, that bookends all of our stories.

Community: Telling the Story

The church attempts to tell this story of creation, disruption and resurrection in the context of the “real world.” Acts 2:42–47 depicts a church discovering a restored narrative embedded in this story: “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”

The early Christians, in their vision of living into the ways of Jesus, embodied a new order, a new way, by creating alternative communities. In the practice of mutual support, to love one another and feed rather than seek revenge on enemies, the early Christians were designing a community that resisted the ways of the Roman empire to which they were subject. Their gatherings were a direct social challenge to the status quo because of a vision for a way of living not only for individual benefit but for strength and health of community. They read the stories of the Old Testament, and what would become the Christian Scriptures, and organized their communities in an attempt to tell the world what was written.

Our sacred design as a church roots us in the ways of storytelling. It’s at the heart of who we are and why we were created, humans and church. We are People of the Way—a new way.

Empathy: Hearing the Story

The creation stories and the formation of the early church show that we ourselves, as humans and as the body of Christ, are made from dynamic, ever-changing elements in an ongoing story. Therefore, there are always new stories to be written. And writing these stories requires empathy. Empathy allows us to understand another’s experience even if we have not lived it ourselves. Not only do we have stories to tell; we also have stories to hear. This is the work of the church, the place where people gather to tell stories of the ugly, the feared, the what-feels-shameful. Church is the place to bring those stories you wonder if you can tell anyone else. Imagine all the stories running through the bodies of those who are gathered in your sanctuary. “My spouse just left me.” “My teenager is depressed.” “I think I’m going to lose my job.” “I feel worthless.” “My kids haven’t had a good meal in two days.”

God’s story of creation, disruption and resurrection can only be told by a church that is empathetic to what people can hear. Without a connection to the community’s needs, even the “greatest story ever told” will fall on deaf ears. Change is a pointless process without first understanding what others feel and experience. When story and empathy intersect, the gospel frees us to live into the DNA of our faith. This leads to ministries of wholeness and healing that bring just change to our individual and collective stories.

Innovation: Imagining the Story

Listening to the needs of the people, the church is called to tell the story of creation in new ways. But how do we discern those ways? This, too, is the work of the church, in each congregation’s unique time and place. The story of hope that begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation reminds us of the hope we steward for greater levels of wholeness for individuals, neighborhoods, and cities.

At the church I serve, we tell stories of vulnerability and fragility in worship almost every Sunday. In those storytelling moments, we hear stories of experiencing sexual assault and moving toward healing and wholeness; the silence of being LGBTQ and moving toward self-love; working with people on the margins and experiencing solidarity; realizing a particular friendship can foster self-acceptance. Each story is told and received in a sacred, empathetic sanctuary.

It is in the consistent, intentional practice of storytelling that we see how our stories are woven into the story of God. Our storytelling practice has expanded our imaginations, letting us witness that God is never done with us. While many of us have experienced horrible things, God’s way of resurrection is always at work. We fall. We question. We are wounded. And we all rise.

This stretches us to live with what sounds impossible: God is filling our mouths with truth, our hearts with courage and love, our spirits with faith. We are seen in the most vulnerable and powerful of ways when we tell our stories and in the process love is cultivated. And this is a love that is not ours to hoard or cling to. Our storytelling shapes us into embodied, Easter people ready to take the truth of life and death into the streets, beyond the church walls and stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable, despised and rejected. Our stories show us we can step out of the human constructs of our lives and let us live in the possibilities of God.

These stories create space for what we didn’t think was possible to happen. We create space for meaningful relationships, connective tissue. Easter people do not have limitations on our thinking; it’s not resurrection based.

Innovation is where stories meet questions. “What if?” is the question that moves us from “That’s too bad,” to “What is possible?”

What if in our churches we created space for such vulnerabilities to be named and embraced?

What if our liturgy not only retold the story of God’s love and salvation but also recognized the stories of those experiencing God’s love and salvation?

What if we first created space for these stories instead of seeking ways to make the church bigger, better, and more bureaucratic?

What if we chucked the vision planning, membership drives, and obsession over bureaucracy and order and sat down at the table and told our stories? 

What if meeting agendas and budgets were about creating more room and space for stories and empathy to intersect?

What if empathy, rooted in our experience as the people of God with a shared story that is thousands of years old, led us to change the outcomes of individual stories of health and wholeness?

The gospel tells us that God’s story, which becomes our story, brings change. Jesus did not do what the religious leaders of his time expected from him. Rather, he led his followers into a life where hope was restored and a lost future was now possible.

When I sit in Pilgrims’ barren garden, I know there is a not yet. Oh, you just wait until spring! The story of life will come out of what looks like nothing. But winter has provided a space for microbes and bugs to flourish underground, setting the stage for vegetables and native plants to come alive. That’s the story of our garden. It is our story as well. The garden is a place of imagination, just like our sanctuary, both places where change is constant, where we connect our stories with God’s redemptive story, seeing our lives, the life of the planet and the future from God’s perspective.

Creation, community, empathy and innovation. Writing the story, telling the story, hearing the story, and imagining the story. While businesses, nonprofits, and social entrepreneurs innovate solutions to improve health and change lives, the task is nothing new for the church. We recognize ourselves even in this latest chapter of the human story, and we rise at the sound of our name.

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