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~ Tell Them Stories ~

If you live in the U.S., there’s no need to tell you about Mel Gibson’s soon-to-be-released film, “The Passion of the Christ.” (You’ll find some links to interesting web sites about it, including the film’s official site, on the “Cruising Christian Cyberspace” page on our web site.) I mention it, however, as a reminder of the immense power of skilled and artful sacred story telling. Actually, all story telling. The two recent series of the films, “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” remind us of that. The best stories are not ones that are sentimental invoking an “Ah, that was so nice” response, but ones that call out our own passions from deep within our souls. That’s also one of the reasons such stories evoke passionate controversy.

Religions and philosophies can exist on the fabric of stories alone, but not on just their theologies or proclamations. Behind every cause, statement of faith, declaration of beliefs or codes of conduct are stories, which gave them birth and nourished their formation. When the stories die in the culture’s memory, when people stop telling them to the next generation, the causes, declarations and codes by which to live die too, and weave of the culture unravels.  The next generation speaks a different language, dances to different music, and perceives the world in different images. It creates its own stories, alien to its ancestral traditions.

Even the basic units of the culture, our families, thrive on our family stories, for in them lies our heritage and by them our hearts are connected. Jesus and the first church fathers knew this intimately. As Jewish children, they didn’t go to the temple or synagogues to celebrate the holy days. This was done at home, where several generations would gather, where the children heard again, intimately, the sacred stories behind Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah. The tastes and smells of shared bread, foods and herbs pertaining to that celebration anchor the sacred stories deep in the collective and individual memories and experiences. “We heard with our own ears, O God; our fathers have told us the story of the things you did in their days, you yourself, in days long ago” (Psalm 44:1).

Not all stories are good. Some are profane. All of them are true, however. Some even happened. Consider for example: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’” (Psalm 137:1-3, NIV).  This three-verse story recalls the bitter memory of the historical Hebrew exile in Babylon in the poetic style of lamentation. Harps may never have been hung on trees and captors may not have literally asked the Hebrew people to sing joyful songs of Zion to them. But the little story is true nonetheless, depicting a truth with imagery more piercing than the intellectual recall of an historical event.

“We sat and wept.” Sitting was the posture of mourning, often associated with being robed in rough sackcloth and covered with ashes. As Job sat weeping, he exclaimed, “My harp is tuned to mourning, and my flute to the sound of wailing” (Job 30:31). Isaiah wailed, “The gaiety of the tambourines is stilled, the noise of the revelers has stopped, the joyful harp is silent” (Isaiah 24:8). Psalm 137 continues, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy” (v. 5-6). To force oneself to joyfully entertain godless oppressors, to placate one’s captors with a veneer of gaiety while secretly mourning within, is to betray “my highest joy.”

Such a story commands power for us, though it’s about 2,500 years old or more. As it stirs up passion within the personal experiences of our lives and the memories of our hearts, we enter in the story and become it. Since truth is not relative or faddish, it is lived over and over again through hundreds of generations, in our hearts and in our stories.

The apostle John tells a story of profound mourning and longing, and of exquisite joy and wondrous jubilation. “Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’ At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. ‘Woman,’ he said, ‘why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’ Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary’” (John 20:11-16a, NIV).

This is a true story that actually happened. And the true joy of this story is that it keeps happening. So many of us have cried the anguished longing of our Christ, and cried it to the beloved Christ Himself without knowing to whom we were pleading. So often we cannot see Him through our anguish and tears, mistaking Him for someone else. Then the story climaxes into inexplicable joy...The Christ calls to us by our own name! John’s story of Mary’s encounter with Jesus becomes our own! It is the story of redemption, of Christ acknowledging us by name.

Like Mary, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me...This poor man called, and the Lord heard him” (Psalm 34:4a, 6a). “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy” (Psalm 116:1). “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18). There are magnificent stories to learn behind every one of those proclamations! Stories that we enter and live in. The stories of our ancestors and of our faith become ours to own and participate in, our treasured inheritance!

Jesus was a master storyteller. His parables didn’t really happen, but they were all true. If He appeared to a gathering of us, in the flesh, and said, “Sit down and I’ll tell you a story,” we would obey, not out of a grudging “Here comes another lecture” accompanied by the familiar rolling eyes of our teenaged children. No, we would clamor to sit the closest, in rapt attention and savored anticipation. Word would travel fast, "Jesus is telling a story!” and people would come running to hear.

The Scriptures are God’s storybook of Jesus, His Incarnate. So is every encounter with the poor, despised, imprisoned, outcast, afflicted and persecuted. Many of Jesus’ parables, His stories of truth, were about them. “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old – what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done...so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God” (Psalm 78:2-4, 6, NIV).

In preference over dogmas, proclamations and lectures, we best tell our children, and one another, sacred, holy stories. We relive them and thus perpetuate their truth, the truth that calls forth passion from our hearts and makes us live passionately, the truth that makes us sit and weep by the rivers in Babylon and rise up to dance in exuberant joy in Zion, our heavenly Jerusalem.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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Spiritual Resource Services  © February 6, 2004

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