A True Story

I sat in a little theatre in Edinburgh watching #1 Son perform. The
subject of the play was the Hartford Circus fire of 1944. Do any of you know or
remember the story? In July of 1944, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus
paid its annual visit to Hartford, Connecticut, and during a
performance the tent caught fire. Many people were killed. No one knows for
sure how the fire started. The play explores what it means for a story to be
true. Dressed as Emmett Kelly, the Sad-faced Clown, #1 Son told the audience
that people said after the fire Kelly began to paint a tear under his left
cheek as a reminder of the fire. “This is not a true story,” he said. And that applied as much to the talk about
the tear as to talk about the fire and its source.

I sat there listening to stories of children whose bodies
were never identified, of detectives who brought flowers to their graves, and
of the distress of Robert Ringling, who finds himself visited by the ghost of P.T.
Barnum, the great circus impresario. Ringling doesn’t know what to do, but
Barnum points out that the show must go on! In fact, it is going on, without
Ringling and will continue to do so. “The show goes on,” says Barnum. “The show
goes on.”

My mind strayed to the terror plots against airliners, and I
thought of how the rest of the family would be flying home when #1 Son still
had shows to do. Suppose something happened to us? The show goes on. The show
goes on. It’s a saying about show business, but it’s true about life, too. The
world keeps moving, even when we have been engulfed by tragedy. And while I’m
sure it would seem mildly neurotic to my children, I continued to wonder,
hesitatingly, what it would be like for a young actor whose family had blown up
in a plane. I imagined his father meeting him at the plane, the chaos it would
bring to both their lives, the difficulty of saying those words in a play after
a devastating loss: “The show goes on.” 

But–“This is not a true story.”

Not for us anyway. We’re all home safely now. But it is a true story for many families
this summer, not in England or America after an act of mid-air terrorism, but in Lebanon and Northern Israel after acts of war. It is true for families in our home state, including one that just buried a young soldier who died in Afghanistan. People’s lives have been torn apart as shockingly as in the circus fire, or on
9/11 or at any time that accident or violence thrusts itself into our lives.

It’s hard not to worry when the world is full of so many
possibilities for destruction. We understand the need for armor when we read
about our own men and women fighting in Iraq,
the lack of body armor and truck armor, the families and communities raising
money to pay for what the government does not provide. We went to the
Tower of London and saw a beautiful exhibit of historic armor, the kind of armor custom
made for kings and princes, made to fit just so, to protect and defend yet to
allow for athletic feats in joust and battle. People who thought of themselves
as Christian knights went out to fight for what they believed God wanted, and
every one of them felt certain he, or his priest, or his king, knew what the
Bible meant, literally. They felt a compelling need to crush those who

Not much has changed. “This is not a true story.” 

The real armor we need is not physical, despite its usefulness in some situations. The real armor we need is spiritual. The
early Christians knew this. They were persecuted. Paul was stoned out of town
on more than one occasion. Believers were jailed and killed. You needed courage
to be a Christian. They knew that sometimes you can’t be protected physically,
but you can always be protected spiritually.

Finally, be strong in the Lord
and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God,
so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against
enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities,
against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual
forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole
armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having
done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the
belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on
whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the
shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows
of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation,
and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  (Ephesians  6:10-17, NRSV)

What happens when we take the metaphor too literally? 

We end up with Whole Armor of God pajamas. We end up with
jihads fought on behalf of every name God has ever been called. We end up with
a limited perspective on our limitless God. 

It *is* a scary world. I’m not sure there has ever really
been a time it wasn’t. Where do you go
for peace, for comfort, for relief? As I sat in the theatre spinning worst case
scenarios, I called on God. I called on God to calm my mind, to return my
thoughts to the only things I can control: the words that come out of my mouth,
the love and care I show for others, the commitment I make each day to be a
person of faith, to be one of God’s people. This is not a metaphor or a simile,
not a literary invention. It is the hard work of a life of faith, a life in
which there are questions with no answers, heartbreaks with no explanation, and
desires with no resolution. And in the face of all those things there is a God
we cannot comprehend factually, but continue to imagine and worship and seek.

This is a true

18 thoughts on “A True Story”

  1. Oh, Songbird, what a wonderful post. It hits home a bit, because in the town where we used to live and at the elementary school the Kid went to, there was school shooting and a teacher we knew was killed, and like you, I kept thinking about how life goes on, but how it it changed, and how all the students in her class will come for the first day of school, perhaps knowing that she was killed in that classroom. And that is a true story.
    And what you say about a life of faith is right on, too.

  2. Not only does that blog, that’ll preach. If my sermon wasn’t done, you’d be quoted in a few hours. but I’m pretty sure you’ll have a guest appearance on a Sunday to be named later.

  3. Amen!
    This is one of the hardest things to learn in the midst of personal loss–that life goes on somehow, though it’s not at all clear how it’s possible that the sun keeps rising and setting every day.
    But you have told the true story here–a crucial part of what I often call “the best news”–not just good news, the best news. Thanks.

  4. thank you for this, we need to hear true stories, it is all to easy to hide ourselves away and not allow the world to touch us.
    I thank you for your response asking God to take over and picking up those things he has given you, your heart and your voice… and so much more.
    Glad you arrived home safely

  5. Wow, Songbird. I love the way this floats between the tremendous intensity of the subject matter AND just being a family story. And the touch of humor with the Whole Armor of God pajamas is perfect.
    Splendid work.

  6. This is marvellous. I got goosebumps, and found myself wishing this were what I’d heard in church this morning.
    You have quite a gift for writing.

  7. What a wonderful, strength-giving and empowering sermon. I echo the others in saying I wish this is what I heard this morning. Thank you for the inspiring words in tough times!
    God bless!

  8. Ever heard the Bruce Hornsby song, “The Show Goes On?” It’s a tune I’ve held in my mind for about 15 years now. It deals with tragedy and hope. Thanks for bringing it back to my ears.

  9. my dad used to call this skull theatre … when we were building our house hubby didn’t come home – I thought he’d fallen off the roof and was lying dying. I there planning his funeral … he was ofcourse ok … and when I realised that I burst into tears and was furious. Go figure!

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