by Maria Evans
“I love to tell the story;
’twill be my theme in glory,
to tell the old, old story
of Jesus and his love.“–“I love to tell the story,” #64 in Lift Every Voice and Sing II
If I couldn’t spin a story, I’m pretty sure I’d have to turn in my “fifth-generation native rural Missourian” card. My grandpa, in particular, was the master of the shaggy dog tale, told with just the right amount of understatement. In the world of the stories I grew up with, there always seemed to be a sense of divine justice. The country person outfoxes the city slicker, the uneducated person trumps the Ivy League graduate, the “slow” person in the family outwits the smarter ones. I love those old stories, some from the family, some apocryphal, and some simply from the fabric of the Appalachian folklore, embedded in the DNA of my relatives that came from Virginia to Kentucky/Tennessee, and finally to Missouri.
Yet it was only very recently I came to realize that it’s okay that “who I am as a preacher” is to simply be a storyteller. Now, that’s not to discount good preparation and Biblical scholarship–there’s no doubt that those are both fundamental items in the preacher’s toolbox. The problem is that any of us, whether we are preaching from a pulpit or sharing our faith one-on-one, makes a mistake if we muzzle our inner storytellers, when it comes to this messy and convoluted and beautiful and scary and wonderful narrative called the Good News in Christ.
It’s important to remember that the Bible didn’t come about as an assigned report. It was pieced together bit by bit around campfires and dinner tables and workplaces for generations before anyone started thinking to write it down. Even when people did start writing it down, the stories were flavored by the ages and backgrounds and life experiences of not only the narrator, but to some degree by the scribes who assisted the narrator. (Which, in some ancient cultures, included female scribes, often female slaves from a variety of cultures.) We forget the Bible wasn’t put together with a due date in mind.
It’s also not surprising we make a 21st-century mistake when it comes to our approach to the salvation story. In a world where we skim multiple sources on the Internet for our news, in a series of 10-15 second nibbles, we forget the spiritual potential hidden in the process of sitting still and letting someone paint a picture with words and phrases which have the power to take us places we didn’t intend to go. Yet that is precisely what the salvation story is–communal and relational. We can’t begin to experience the story of God’s love for us without relating to each other. It also means that in a world that prizes being factual and accurate, entering deeply into the salvation narrative feels risky, as the truths within it demand stepping beyond our usual means of proof.
In the Sunday retelling of a portion of the salvation narrative, both bearer and listener enter into uncomfortable, shared intimate space. Sometimes the discomfort is within the lessons themselves. Sometimes it springs from triggers in our lives. Sometimes it comes from those bits in a sermon that challenge us.
We discover that in the telling and re-telling of “that old, old story of Jesus and his love”, God works THROUGH people as they are, and somehow, despite the occasional flubbed line or mispronunciation, the Holy Spirit makes sure people hear what they need to hear. A commonality in the preaching experience is that almost anyone who’s preached can recall times someone came up to them and said, “I remembered what you said in your sermon about…” and the thought racing through your own mind is, “What? I did NOT say that.”
In my own case, the most important thing I’ve come to learn about bearing this story is that in order for it to be authentic, I have to be authentic. I had to accept that the only credible narrative I can deliver will always be refracted through the lens of a slightly quirky person who lives a slightly quirky life, who likes to spin a good story she believes herself. I had to trust that my own trials, crucifixions, and resurrections would be sufficient background for sharing how the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ matters to each of us.
What are the stories of your own life that help you see God’s love in unlikely places?
Maria L. Evans is a surgical pathologist in Kirksville, Missouri, a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church, and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds a moment to write on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.
image from debjowen.com