“One hippo, all alone, calls two hippos on the phone” begins the classic nonfiction accomplishment by Sandra Boynton, Hippos Go Berserk! My toddler Miriam has taken a liking to this board book. “Three hippos at the door bring along another four . . .” it continues, and so on until the house is full of hippos and then they all have a giant hippo party, during which time the title of the book plays out in glorious detail.
What strikes me about Miriam’s engagement with this book is that on every page she looks carefully at all the hippos, then points to one of them and says: “I’m that one.” She looks thoughtfully at picture again and then says: “that one is mommy,” followed by daddy and then her sister Anna. Next comes: “and that one’s Grandma and that one’s Grandpa and that one’s Nan and that one’s Pops” and so on until all of the hippos have been assigned an identity corresponding to someone who Miriam knows and loves.
And don’t we all do that with our beloved stories—whether it be the novel we’re currently reading, the narratives our loved ones are currently living, the stories that float around in culture and politics, or the Christian story of salvation that undergirds our faith? It’s nearly a universal tendency to want to imagine ourselves into these stories, to let them challenge us into being someone greater than we currently are, to let them carry us into questions we may not have been brave enough to ask on our own, to let them break down our assumptions so we can rebuild new ways of being in the world.
It matters, though, which stories we choose to live into and which ones we dismiss as distracting chatter or false news. It also matters how we live into the stories. (It matters which hippo we choose to be!)
Discerning what it means to live faithfully in such a visibly broken world is no easy task. But today’s gospel story reminds us that we are not alone in this endeavor. We have the Holy Spirit, our advocate, to guide us. As we live, worship, and discern together within the larger story of salvation, the Spirit helps us negotiate between all the other stories that swirl around us.