About five years ago a man named Jonah Sachs wrote an insightful book titled “The Story Wars.” The subtitle is telling: “Why those who tell – and live – the best stories will rule the future.” A part of the book deals with the 2004 presidential campaign – George Bush vs. John Kerry. After the resounding Republican victory, a democratic strategist, the very colorful James Carville simply noted that the Republicans had crafted a well-received story: the world is a dangerous place and we Republicans will protect you and your loved ones. On the other hand, the democrats had no story at all, only a litany “We’re for clean air, better schools, more health care.” Carville asks would you rather commit your life for a story to believe in or a long list of complaints and problems?
Sachs notes that the successful 2004 Republican campaign was rooted in an old Madison Avenue advertising approach: inadequacy marketing. “You aren’t pretty enough until you lose weight.” “You aren’t clean enough unless you use this detergent.” In the political realm, “You aren’t safe unless you vote for me.” “Things are a mess, but I can fix them.” “Do you want that other person with their finger on the nuclear button?” “You can’t trust that other person.” In the shadow of the recent presidential campaign, some of this should echo loudly.
We live in a world that too often resounds with litanies of complaints and problems. But the real problem is that we are not called to change. We are not called to that higher standard from last week’s gospel: Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt5:48). If I could resolve all my sins, spots, and blemishes, I would still not be whole and complete – I would still not be all that God wants me to be. There is a part of each one of us that wants to be called, inspired to something greater than ourselves.
Empowerment advertising is a message that challenges to reach higher, to be something more. If you want to see a wonderful example of empowerment advertising, when you get home, google “work campaign for Levi.” You will find the Weiden + Kennedy campaign for Levi’s jean which shows Braddock PA’s efforts to not dwell in the litany of their economic misfortunes, but to rebuild their town. The scenes take place as the sun rises and people of the town rise and begin their days. In each scene you see people making that daily commitment to a future hope for a forgotten town. In a town from which people have left in droves for a new horizon, the last line of the ad makes clear how those who stayed are empowered. “People think there aren’t frontiers any more. They can’t see that frontiers are all around us.” You watch that and you feel inspired to reach high, be something more. You want to be part of that story.
And what is our story? Perhaps the gospel raises up a part of our daily story. “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Jesus tells people not to dwell on the litany of problems and complains, but to look to the larger story, to see how our heavenly Father takes care of the birds in the sky and the wild flowers. We resist a bit as our life seems full to overflowing with worry. Not just “what will we eat and drink?” or “what will we wear?”, but also “will our kids be healthy?” and “will I find someone who accepts me as I am?” and “will we be able to retire?” and “what do people think of me?” and “will I find work?” and “will we go to war?” and on and on and on. We are a people of worry, a people of the litany.
St. Augustine once said that we were made to love people and use things and that sin causes us to confuse these two. And maybe there is the problem of the litany we accept and worries we carry – it brings us to the junction of sin where we love things and use people.
But at every junction, there is a choice.
Maybe the choice we all face is, do we wake up to story or litany? Do we wake up ready to work for people and community or do we wake up ready to work for things? Do we wake up with trusting in God’s providence or do we wake up trusting only in ourselves?
When you wake up, what story do you commit yourselves to? Who do you serve?
“No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
You will either serve the story or the litany.
You will either be devoted to God or yourself.
No one can serve both.
I will tell you, choose the story – the greatest every told.
The story of a Father who so loved you, he sent his only Son to rescue us to life eternal.
Each day you will awake and choose. Let the litany fade and let the story call you to reach higher, be more, be perfect.