Thinking About...Stories

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Lori McFarland was the best writer in my high school. I don’t know how she did it. She wrote short stories for English class that were beautiful and surprising and lyrical. They made me jealous. I’ve never been good at writing stories. I am too focused on facts. Too heavy-handed with lessons. Too obvious with symbolism. It’s hard for me to trust a story as story. 

Relatedly, I have to force myself to read fiction. I’m always adding more non-fiction books to my “to-read” list: theology, sociology, biography, leadership, church ministry—sounds exciting, I know! Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to foster stories in my life.

Listening to Stories
Growing up, every Saturday evening at 6pm my dad tuned in to Prairie Home Companion on NPR. For the next two hours, host Garrison Keillor and his cast sang songs and told stories. Sometimes I actively listened and laughed. Other times the stories drifted through the air of our home, passing to me passively. Now, I wish I listened more closely to those stories, allowing them to shape my understanding of the world. 

Gradually, over the last 15 years of pastoral ministry I’ve come to see that much of my job is listening to, and listening for, stories. Not fictional stories of Keillor’s Lake Wobegone, but the real stories of men and women within City Church—the pain and poignancy, the laughter and loss, the silly and sublime. 

We often think of Jesus as a master story-teller because of the parables he told. He was equally masterful as a story-listener. In Luke 2, the 12-year-old Jesus is found by his parents in the temple “sitting among the teachers, listening to them” as they retold the story of Israel. In Mark 5, when Jesus is touched by woman in the press of a great crowd, he pauses and listens as she tells “the whole truth” of her suffering. 

Telling Stories
I have a bit of a crush on the writer Leslie Jamison (naturally, she primarily writes non-fiction essays). Last year about this time she released a book called The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, which recounts the story of her alcoholism and attempts to get well. In many ways, it’s a reflection on the stories we tell about ourselves and how they can (and cannot) heal us. Commenting on novelist Joan Didion’s statement, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Jamison writes, “Recovery reminded me that storytelling was ultimately about community, not self-deception. Recovery didn’t say: we tell ourselves stories in order to live. It said: we tell others our stories order to help them live.”

Jamison helped me recognize that another part of my job is telling stories to help others live. Specifically for me, it’s telling people the story of Jesus. It’s telling people the story that reaches its climax with Jesus’s crucifixion outside of Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon. The story that looks like a dead end—a black hole—until His resurrection on Easter morning. By first listening to people’s stories (quietly, patiently) and then telling them the story of Jesus, I can help them live. 

The nice thing about the part of my job that is telling people the story of Jesus is that I don’t have to be a particularly good story-teller (although I suppose it wouldn’t hurt). The story isn’t mine. It’s God’s story. It’s his story of his love to us. I’m finding that learning to pay attention to stories—whether in books or movies or songs—makes me sensitive to the stories of people’s lives. It trains me to hear how their stories connect to the story of God’s love for us in Jesus.