Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Sophia Moskalenko is an expert on the psychology of fairy tales. Mia Bloom, studies children’s mobilization into violent extremism. Together, they study the power of folklore in shaping the worldview of the adults we grow up to be. Intriguingly, they suggest, one factor underlying the unexpected unfolding of events in Ukraine could be a result of the stories soldiers of each army learned as children. (Sophia Moskalenko and Mia Bloom, “How Fairy Tales Shape Fighting Spirit,” The Conversation, March 2022)
Ukraine’s children grow up listening to bedtime stories of underdog heroes, while Russian children hear tales of magical success. Think Harry Potter vs. Dudley Dursley (if Dudley had had a magical helper). In Ukrainian stories the main characters often start out as unlikely heroes, but their courage, cleverness and grit help them succeed against the odds. Russian tales told to children seem to suggest the recipe for success is not to be too smart or work too hard, but to sit tight in hope that magic will take care of everything.
Emelya the fool is a character like many others in Russian folklore. Emelya is lazy and prefers to sleep on the warm stove while his two older brothers work on the farm. When his brothers must travel, they instruct Emelya to fetch water and firewood for their wives. Yet they wives must coax Emelya with gifts to comply. Emelya catches a magical pike at the river that promises to grant him wishes if he would only not eat him but let him go. All he need say, ‘By the pike’s wish, at my command,’ and everything will be done as he desires. One thing follows another until Emelya, suddenly very handsome, is married to the Tsar’s beautiful daughter, and lives in a magnificent palace with many servants.
Children of Ukraine, by contrast, hear about characters like Ivasyk Telesyk. Once upon a time, there lived an old man and his wife who didn’t have any children. This made them worry about their future. Filled with longing and dread one day the woman told her husband: “Go to the forest and find a piece of wood. We’ll make a cradle, I’ll put the log there and rock it to sleep. Maybe it will help make me calm down.” The old man did as his wife asked. Together, they put a branch into a cradle. The woman rocked it, sang a lullaby, and went to sleep.
When they awoke, they found a baby-boy in the cradle. The woman named him – Ivasyk-Telesyk. When Ivask Telesyk grew older he went out by boat and brought fish home to the old couple. While at sea, Ivasyk encounters a wily dragon which his mother had warned him about, who tricks him, captures him, and makes plans to eat him with her friends. Again, one thing follows another, until Ivask Telesyk, by his wits and compassion, escapes the dragon, whose friends eat her own daughter rather than himself, and befriends a wild goose who flies Ivasyk home to his parents where he lives happily ever after.
Sophia Moskalenko and Mia Bloom tell us that stories matter. The stories we tell our children, the stories we tell ourselves make a difference in who we are and who we become. This week, before the tension and demagoguery could unfold, a woman sat before the US Senate Judiciary Committee and told her story in which she named herself. Judge Jackson’s opening statement, included these words: “When I was born here in Washington, my parents were public school teachers, and to express both pride in their heritage and hope for the future, they gave me an African name; “Ketanji Onyika,” which they were told means “lovely one.”” In Judge Brown’s name, her parents gave her a story: “I am Black, I am proud. I not a victim nor anyone’s prize. I am loved and lovely. I am fully human.” I wonder, was it that story which gave her so much poise and grace that allowed her to remain magnanimous and kind under fire? (Diana Butler Bass, “What’s in a Name?” The Cottage, 3/24/22)
We have a similar story today. It is the story within all our stories. Let it be our bedtime story. Let it sink in to live in unconsciousness. Could it be the story that points the way to abundant life? “Bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him, the father said; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22). A robe, a ring, and a pair of sandals were not merely for fashion or comfort but, more importantly, these gifts restored status, ownership, and authority. The wayward son is welcomed home with more than a lavish party. The Father awarded him a new share in the estate he squandered by half.
We have a God who is like a prodigal father. That is, he is foolish, wasteful, extravagant in his love for you. The young son is a different kind of prodigal. He is immoderately callous and careless. An outright failure, he realized the error of his ways. On the long road home, he rehearses his apology again and again, but didn’t even have time to say it all before the father, who ran to meet him, unbelievably restored his status and belonging.
God sets a higher priority on forgiveness than on being right. God places a higher value on reconciliation than on saving face. Better to be humiliated than estranged. God has done what many of us would not, could that be part of our problem today?
We live in a time when our stories have begun to fall apart. Do “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”… if they are not men but woman, if they are not white but black, if they are not cisgender but non-binary? (US. Declaration of Independence). Could we expand the franchise, widen our story to include everyone? Could we stop defining ourselves over an against a scape goat, a bad guy, an evil empire? Could we stop with the stories of good guys and bad guys? There is One Life, one family, one people of God. Could we instead foster communities and nations built on mercy, forgiveness, and love as our Father in heaven does? Could the gospel story help us fashion a new and more life-giving national story?
All are created in the image of God. Therefore, regardless of past actions, religious or political beliefs, none of us have the right to treat any one differently. We have no excuse to exclude or condemn a person whom God does not view with unkindness or condemnation. This is the great good news that can also be a tough pill for us to swallow (just ask the older brother).
We have a prodigal God. For all God’s children family is family. “O Lord of all the living, both banished and restored, compassionate, forgiving, and ever caring Lord, grant now that our transgressing, our faithlessness may cease. Stretch out your hand in blessing, in pardon, and in peace.” (ELW #606)