“Tell me a story,” may be the oldest request in the world. So you want a story, do you?
Once upon a time there was an old woodcutter who lived with his wife and lovely daughter in the midst of the dark wood….
Once upon a time there was a dragon who ate so much red pepper that he scorched the earth whenever he sneezed….
Once upon a time there was king whose very touch turned everything to gold….
I remember stories told around family gatherings when I was young. There were a lot of stories. There was the great blizzard of ’88, that is, 1888. I had a Scottish uncle who used to sit under a plum tree and regal me with Scottish legends. I knew about William Wallace way before Hollywood. I remember stories of ghosts and bears and crazy people which we children told trying, successfully, to terrify each other.
As a child, I breathed stories as I breathed air. Stories were the real substance of truth. Stories are the way all of us begin to learn what life is like. Why do we tell stories? One answer is memory. Linguists tell us that there are three kinds of memory.
The first is declarative memory which retains facts such as names, dates, numbers, addresses, phone numbers, or historical events.
William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066. “Excellent” and a gold star for everyone who got that right! Curiously, it is declarative memory that is the shortest of the three.
The second kind of memory is procedural, that is, as much in our muscles as in our minds. Procedural memory tells us how to do things such as ride a bicycle, make bread, dance the “Macarena”, sew buttons, put on lipstick, or change an oil filter. Procedural memory lasts longer than declarative memory.
The longest kind of memory is episodic. Through episodic memory we remember stories, poems, events, experience, and the liturgy, such as how we survived our first date or what happened when my sister baked her first pie and put in salt instead of sugar. It is especially true for preachers. Quickly we learn that few people ever remember any sentence you ever say, but I can go back twenty years to my first parish and someone inevitably remembers a story that I told in some sermon or other.
I think that stories are remembered because they allow us to enter them. They are doorways or windows into life. In our imaginations it easy to see ourselves there, or wonder what would we do if we were in that place? All of them have people, places and a plot, just like all life events have people, places, and plot. Something happens. The lost child is found. The Hatfields and the McCoys shoot at each other. The young knight slays the dragon. Miss Marple unmasks her one hundred and fifty-seventh murderer.
Something happens and, although we do not know Miss Marple or have never seen a knight and don’t believe in dragons, yet, we remember these stories because their characters, their setting, and what happens remind us of our own lives. Mostly they grab our emotional attention, we feel as if we are in there with those people facing whatever it is they need the face. We take on the story, not just the Jack Webb, “facts ma’am, just the facts,” we take on the emotions and feel them with the characters, whether those characters are real or fictional.
I’ve never been to New Orleans, but I can read a story about New Orleans and see it in my mind’s eye. I can imagine the sweltering heat, the sweat, the Spanish moss and, in some sense, I can go there without ever being there.
All of our lives are a series of episodes, of short stories knitted together in a longer narrative. Sometimes our own epic seems like a farce: sometimes a tragedy, sometimes courageous, sometimes pathos, sometimes comedy. Our stories are each filled with laughter, tears, sweat, and blood.
We tell and retell that story of ourselves all our life in order to keep finding out who we are, where we are, and what we are about. We tell pieces of our story to friends, sometimes strangers, spouses, therapists, or maybe anybody who will listen. We watch for the reaction and monitor our own feelings as we do so. Did we tell the truth this time, or did we twist it?
What I have found for myself is that the more I listen to the stories of my life and of things I care about, the closer I feel myself growing to God. People often think that Christianity is a set of beliefs and creeds; or, it is an organization called the church with clergy and a list or programs or projects. Such things are only by-products of the story that touches our heart.
Like this, a child is born to parents who have great hopes for him. He leads a simple, undramatic life in a small village for about thirty years. At the age of thirty, he leaves his hometown and for, say three years, he walked through the countryside telling stories about God’s love, and loving people in such a genuine manner that they began to seek him out and follow him. Eventually he said some things about love and God that threatened the people in power. So during a annual festival, he was arrested on some trumped up charges and they killed him as an example to other would be trouble makers.
The story didn’t end there. His friends and others began to claim they had seen him again. They began to see that though you can kill God’s love, you can’t bury it. He wasn’t dead, because God loved him and us so much that God intervened to show us that in the universe what counts the most is love.
That’s a sound bite version of the Christian story, quite simple, and maybe not so compelling as some others on the first hearing. But we should not forget that this particular story turned the great and powerful Roman Empire on its ear.
Most converts to Christianity first heard the story through someone who stood up in the town square or in a house and told it. They risked their reputations, fortunes, families and at times their lives for what might have been no more than a fiction. There was no organization in those days, no media blitz, no advance team, no follow-up with local pastors, no press, no hype, nothing except the story told time and time again. The story was the hook, and then prayer and a song and healing followed.
We, of course, have head the story so many times we scarcely believe it ourselves, but every now and then a piece of it will hit us, maybe at Christmas, or at Easter, or even in July when we ponder our own neighbors.
What if we were the man beaten on the side of the road? How would we feel? Did he deserve what he got for being a fool? When have we felt helpless? When have we been beaten up by life and needed some one to find us and help us? All of us have been there.
What about the two who walked away? I know what its like to be in a hurry and have no time for a homeless person or someone asking for help. I know what its like to have more important people to see. I have felt the guilt of crossing to the other side of the road, and you know there are things in my life, in my spiritual life that I should attend to, but I keep passing them by because I am in a hurry, and I feel guilty about them, too.
I have always been impressed with this Samaritan fellow, not because he stopped to help in a crisis, but because he came back. The relationship was not a quick fix and get away, it was for him something that he felt compelled to see through. Where are those things in my life that I am seeing through…can I find a little Good Samaritan in me? I hope so.
So you see how stories grab us. I’ve discovered something about myself and it is a change from the way I used to be. You see, I do not believe that truth is universal anymore, what I believe is that truth is particular. For me, detail is closer to the truth than abstraction. Stories are not abstractions but a series of quite specific details. What if I say, “I do not know if all stories are true, but I find that this one story is true for me, describes my life and brings me nearer to God, as if God were as close as breathing and breathing out?”
You see, I have been changed by hearing this story about Jesus. It has taught me who I am and why I am here. I cannot explain it by abstraction, but I can tell you a thousand experiences when I saw it come to life, and that is why I know it’s true. When the story enters us and we enter the story, that’s the difference between a life of faith and a life of observation. It’s the difference between truth and error.
Truth is always connected to love of God and love of neighbor and that only can happen in a story with people. It doesn’t happen much in a sermon, or a textbook, or a creed. True learning involves a special kind of worldly holiness, and it leads to a deep faith in the reality of God’s love. The world is full of people who turn everything including religion into private advantage, become preoccupied with themselves, and their own importance, and pass by on the other side of the road when their neighbor suffers. There are far too few who will carry the compassion of heaven and spread it to their neighbors in need.
Christians do this because they know in differing ways that the story of Jesus is their story too; a story which includes suffering, sacrifice, companionship, wisdom, pleasure, death, and life.
I believe that the story of Jesus has changed my life and his story has changed my story. He has led me away from self- preoccupation, out of hurts, fears and hatreds so deep I didn’t think I could ever be rid of them. Slowly…slowly…slowly, and it must be slowly so that the change will last; but slowly Jesus has drawn me to a life of happiness which I never expected was there for me.
The great preacher, Fred Craddock, once said, “To be a Christian is to be enrolled in a story!” That story changes us, helps us to lift up our eyes away from our toes and see what love can do.
I won’t blame anyone here today who decides that all of this is “preposterous!” It is preposterous. It is madness to reason. But Emerson once reminded us, when did reason say it all?
You have been patient with me so far. I started with a story, let me end with one.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful woman with a wonderful baby girl. She quit work for a year just to be with her child for that whole year before she started school. And then in a horrible, freak accident, the child was killed, and she was left alone. All her friends feared she would just eclipse because her grief was so deep.
But she didn’t. Slowly, gradually, without ever denying her pain and terrible sadness and loneliness, this woman grew in faith, in part because she belonged to a story which was larger than her own, a story of creation, crucifixion and resurrection. The story of a God who lost his son, and whose love never left him. Somehow out of that tragedy, she lifted herself, or God lifted her, so now her faith enlarges others, even though she suffers still, her story has made other stories stronger.
That’s truth. That’s transformation. That’s resurrection. That’s the truest story I know.