Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Power of Story: a sermon of sorts

From time to time I’ve had the privilege and responsibility of being a stand-in for a pastor. This Sunday (April 7, 2013) was one of those times. Pastor Bob of the Algona-Pacific Church of God was in another town, baptizing his granddaughter. As a member of the advisory board of that church, I was asked to speak to the congregation. Bob’s wife, Anita, is our main Sunday school teacher and part of the music team, plus Bob usually plays his guitar for singing, so we were really short-handed. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to do it all.
We had a wonderful young man whom I think of as a pastor-in-training to chair the service, one of the church grandmas took the Sunday school class, the “hospitality hostess” who makes sure there’s coffee and cookies was there, and the talented couple who make up the rest of the music team were doing that part. So all I had to do was speak—which for me is enough of a challenge. I chose a subject that’s been on my mind a lot lately: stories, and how they shape our lives.
I began with a “true” story from my own life—at least as true as I could make it, since it happened seventy years ago. It’s one of my earliest memories, more of a memory of a memory after all this time. When I finally wrote it down about ten years ago, I called it “A Can of Nails.”
I was only two-and-a-half years old. Mama, heavy with my sister-to-be, may have shooed me outside to play.  Or perhaps I was supposed to be napping or playing indoors, and sneaked out on my own. My memory-movie begins with my walking out the front door of the house-- barely a cottage at that time, with one bedroom, a tiny living room, and a narrow hallway of a kitchen.  I shielded my eyes from the glaring sun, and carefully stepped down from the concrete porch-- a long step for me, but I made it without falling.
The fascinating sound of hammering drew me around the house to where Daddy and Grandpa were building the new room on the concrete slab they had poured a week or so ago.  Of course, I wanted to help.
Daddy had seen me coming. Before I could get too close to the enticing but dangerous construction area, he came to meet me with a coffee can partially filled with nails. “Here,” he said.  “I have a big job for you.  I want you to take care of this can of nails for me.  You can set them down, if the can gets too heavy, but be sure you don't spill them.  Now you can watch us, if you want to, but stay over here, under the pepper tree.”
How important I felt. I was really helping.  I stood for a while, watching them work, then sat down in the dirt to look at the nails.  I didn't know then that nails weren't supposed to be bent and rusty. It was many years before I realized that they must have been pulled from salvaged lumber-- building materials, like everything else, were in short supply during World War II.
After sitting for a while, I stood and picked up the heavy can again. I couldn't see over it very well, so I don't know what I tripped on, but the can and I went down and nails flew everywhere. I lay in the dust, crying as though I would never stop.
Daddy rushed over and checked me for injuries. "You're all right," he said. "You're not hurt."
"No," I choked out between sobs, “but I spilled the nails.”   I had failed in my first big job, and I was sure he would never trust me again.
Daddy turned away a moment, his shoulders shaking.  When he turned back, his face was solemn.  "That's all right,” he said.  “You can pick them up again. Be sure you get every one, and be more careful next time."
Like sun breaking through clouds, my sorrow gave way to joy.  I was forgiven, and he still trusted me. Determined to never again let him down, I carefully picked up every nail, then sat under the pepper tree to guard them while I watched Daddy and Grandpa work.  
What follows is the text of my talk, more or less as delivered.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of stories to inform and shape our lives. In fact, I’ve done a couple of presentations on the subject, to secular audiences, but I think it has relevance for church-goers as well. Now, most of you know that I’m a writer. I’ve done a bit of poetry and what’s loosely classified as “Christian inspirational” writing, but mostly I write fiction, and fantasy at that. It’s all made up and shared with others primarily for their entertainment. Just-for-fun fiction is one narrow definition of one type of story.
Stories take many forms. They may be written or spoken, acted out as plays or movies, or make up the lyrics of songs. They may be short anecdotes or novels or somewhere in between.
Stories can entertain, letting us visit another place or time, or a place and time that never existed. They can help us find the humor in the bleakest situations. They let us explore new ideas from a safe distance; if you don’t like where the story’s going, you can always close the book—or throw it across the room, if that’s your preference. Stories can teach us facts, values, coping skills and problem solving. They can be used for religious or moral instruction, or just to pass on culture in general. They can be cautionary, like so many of our “fairy tales,” showing us how not to behave or what happens if we break the rules. They can help us understand ourselves, by holding us up to a mirror, or showing us characters we don’t want to emulate. Stories can encourage, inspire, and even offer healing on many levels.
Stories aren’t only written down, or composed by people we recognize as authors, songwriters and playwrights. You and I, all of us, and humans in general, have been inventing and sharing stories since shortly after we learned to talk. That’s what people do. That’s how we tell our history, teach our culture including our religion, share our daily experiences, persuade others to see things our way. It’s the way we teach ourselves how to be human. We tend to put everything in story form, and often throw in a moral or meaning in the process.
Just listen to the next seven-year-old who wants to tell you about his trip to the zoo or what he dreamed last night. He’s going to shape that into some sort of standard narrative form, because he knows that if he doesn’t, his audience is going to walk away or tune him out. Notice how he arranges his material, adding emphasis to some items, glossing over others, maybe holding back some of it until the right dramatic moment. He throws in vivid descriptions and carefully builds up the tension to make sure you keep paying attention. That kid is no Stephen King, but he’s already invented the page-turner novel. He just needs a little encouragement and more practice.
We all do that. We all shape our experiences into stories, whether we intend to share them with someone else, or if we’re only going over what happened in our own minds, shaping it to make sense, to have meaning. Because that’s another characteristic that seems to be hard-wired into humans. We’re pattern seekers. We want everything to have some deeper meaning, to be more than “just a bunch of stuff that happened.” We see shapes in the clouds and faces on trees or potato chips. We look at the night sky and see more than points of light. We have to connect the dots, to envision objects, animals, heroic beings; and then we make stories to explain it all.
One of the characters in the book I’m currently writing made the observation that it “doesn’t matter if [the stories are] real like a rock or tree is real. It’s about how they make you think.” We can convey meaning with parables or metaphors which, while not literally true, can convey truth. Jesus taught that way, so did many teachers and leaders through the ages. There are, I hope, a lot of truths embodied in my “made-up” stories, that can nudge my reader’s thoughts a bit. Comments like “holding a grudge is like hugging a cactus” which is nearly a story all by itself.
But while literal truth isn’t necessarily essential to a good story, we do need to think about how that story is presented. We expect journalists to separate opinion pieces from news. We try not to confuse historical fiction with history. If a story claims to be factual or “true” in some absolute sense, but is actually a fabrication designed to make you believe a certain way, maybe a harmful way, then that story may step over the line and become propaganda or a lie, perhaps a malicious lie. Exodus 22:16 tells us:
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. (Exodus 20:16 KJV)
That shoots down a lot of stories, doesn’t it? And even if the story doesn’t claim to be literally “true” but, like many jokes, depends on an embedded falsehood, such as a punch line that requires that “everybody knows” that “all people of this particular disliked group behave in this unacceptable way” it’s still a case of false witness.
If you have email or participate in social networking sites such as Facebook, I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of stories that are designed to make you feel and act in certain ways, without too much concern for thinking or the facts. They may be “chicken little” type warnings about imaginary or highly exaggerated dangers, stories about politicians or other high-profile individuals designed to make you love or hate that person, rants against (or for) various groups of people aiming for similar results, or even pranks and scams that appear to serve no purpose other than mischief. You’re urged to share or forward right now, just a click of the mouse, don’t stop to think about it. They get passed along not because they’re some sort of universal truth, or even beneficial to anyone, but because they come close enough to our own hopes or fears or biases that they sound “true” and therefore must be shared with the world. It’s the electronic version of gossip, and we need to be on our guard about sharing those sorts of stories, lest we become part of the problem. Those stories aren’t limited to computers, of course. We can still pass them along by telephone or direct conversation—it just takes a little longer.
But of course no one here would ever pass on a lie or share gossip—would we? And far beyond repeating what “everyone says” we certainly wouldn’t originate such stories. We all know to stop and ask ourselves, not only “Is it true?” but “Is it kind?” or “What good purpose will be served by my sharing this?” Do we really need to persuade everyone we know that our way of thinking is the only acceptable one?
Jesus told us, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” And he went on to say,  Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:1-5 NIV
Besides the stories we hear or read, that we may or may not decide to share, there are the stories we put together ourselves. Some of them are for internal use only, going over events in our minds and trying to make sense of them. That’s good, up to a point, depending on the meanings you attach to the stories.
If you’re giving yourself an atta-boy for doing the right thing, that’s good: it encourages you to do more of the same. If you’re telling yourself, “That didn’t work out too well; I need to do it differently next time, and maybe I need to tell someone I’m sorry,” that’s good, too. You’ve learned from a mistake, and want to make amends.
On the other hand, if you’re mentally beating yourself up, calling yourself stupid or worse, claiming that you “always” get things wrong, that’s not so good. Nor is justifying your mistakes by blaming them on others. If your internal stories are leading to anger or hopelessness, you may need to seek a second opinion—preferably from a wise counselor who won’t let you get away with pointing fingers of blame at yourself or others rather than resolving the issue. Those internal stories are how we become the person we want to be—or the person we don’t want to be. They’re important. We need to tell ourselves stories that help us grow.
As Paul said,   Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8 NIV
You can choose the stories you want to internalize. You’ll find plenty of good ones in the Bible, of course, but you’ll find others as well, if you look for them. There are inspiring stories everywhere: in history and biographies as well as in prayer books like the ones Anita writes, and even in works of fiction. I like to think that some of my stories are both entertaining and instructional, that they offer some good role models for kids and encourage them to solve problems by thinking first and acting second.
And what about the stories we tell others directly—not about a third party but about themselves? The stories that influence their internal stories? Our words have the power to heal or harm, to build up or tear down, to strengthen or to crush. They may not be lengthy stories, but even a brief remark can have far-reaching consequences.
I was an extremely shy child. When I finally worked up the courage to show my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Byrd, my poetry, she told me that I was a poet. There was more to it, I’m sure, some prediction of future success, something about I had important things to say, but that’s the part of that story that I specifically remember. That’s the part that encouraged me to keep writing, to take baby steps toward presenting my work in public, to keep going when I started receiving rejection slips.
On the other hand, a well-meaning older cousin decided I was too old for pigtails and needed a new hairdo. Without bothering to ask my mother, and over my own protests, she took me to a beauty parlor where she and the hairdresser discussed my strengths and flaws, with emphasis on the flaws. It’s such a shame,” she said, “that your mother didn’t tape back those prominent ears when you were a baby. You’ll just have to be careful to stick to styles that cover them.” So for the next forty years or so I was very self-conscious about my ugly ears. Then my daughter, bless her, told me, “But mama, you have elf ears.” As if it were a wonderful, magical thing. She changed the story for me.
One of my favorite stories is a parable, or teaching story, that Jesus told . It begins, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.” Luke 10:30 NIV
We all know the rest of that one, don’t we. In fact, if I mention the word “Samaritan,” you’re probably going to automatically think “Good Samaritan.” But keep in mind that to the Jews who first heard this story, the Samaritans were slimy, filthy, blaspheming untouchables.  So what happened? Jesus changed the story. He can change your story, too.
Stories tell us who we are. They inform and shape our lives. But we shape the stories, too. If you don’t like the way your life is going, change the stories. Drop the negative ones, internalize the positive ones. Find yourself a new story and share that one with everyone. Let it be a story about love and redemption, a story about healing and forgiving, a story about seeking the best in everyone you meet. Let it be a story about overcoming challenges. Know that God loves you and wants the best for you. Give others the stories they need to hear, and they’ll mirror them back to you. You can be both the author and editor of your own story, as well as the ones you share. You can change the world, or at least your corner of it, by changing the stories.
The power of story; the power of words.