Why stories?

My parish is currently under the leadership of an interim rector. I immediately liked him when he first arrived, because he continuously asked for stories. “Tell me a story of how you’ve experienced God here,” he told us. “Tell me a story about the best worship experience you have had…about a time when you served others…about a time when you sensed God’s presence,” he wrote in the parish newsletter. Part of his interim ministry is learning what we love about our parish, and that work is done through story.

Now, I’m a little biased, remember: English major. I have read more thoughts on the power of story than you’d believe—and I took them all to heart.

Stories have always resonated with me, from the time my mother read me stories when I couldn’t read them myself, but one of the first times I encountered the real convicting power stories can hold is when I went to see Seven Passages as a college sophomore. Seven Passages is a play written/directed by a theatre professor at Calvin, and tells the stories of gay Christians in West Michigan, compiling well over a hundred interviews into a 90-minute one-act.

My religious high school was staunchly anti-gay, and I entered college parroting most of what I’d received there. I launched into a confusing and often painful unlearning process (hardly limited to issues of sexuality) driven mainly by—you guessed it—stories.

Seven Passages is an hour and a half of stories. Heartbreaking, beautiful, honest stories.

The play (named for the seven Bible passages frequently used to condemn homosexuals) was produced at a community theater with local actors, and great efforts were made to invite as many area pastors as possible. A number of free or heavily discounted tickets were made available to students, which is how my roommate and I wound up in the audience. The play was made into a film available on DVD. Several months later another production that cast students from Western Michigan University traveled to perform the play at the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

Stories have power.

The thing is, I’m not the only one who loves stories. You know what story-lover I’m thinking of here? Yeah. Jesus.

Jesus told a lot of stories, stories recorded in what we’ve named the Gospels. Barbara Brown Taylor calls Jesus’ narrative style “courteous,” “respectful of the listener.” She says that story and image “do not come at the ear the same way that advice and exhortation do—although they are, I believe, even more persuasive. Perhaps that is because they create a quiet space where one may lay down one’s defenses for a while. A story does not ask for decision. Instead, it asks for identification, which is how transformation begins.”

Stories open us up to be moved at a deep, soul-touching level. When I listen—really listen—to other peoples’ stories, I’m inviting transformation.

Everybody has stories. Some are published in books that we may or may not read, but most of the time, the stories flicker deep inside. You pass someone on the sidewalk, in the hall, at the grocery store… at church. All these people carry stories.

In a 2010 lecture at Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing (a celebration of story if there ever was one), author Kate DiCamillo spoke beautifully on the power of story—stories have the power to make life, the hard truth of it, bearable. Stories give the ounce of strength we need to take that next step into the darkness. Stories make a place for us to rest our broken hearts.

Stories have power.

In her short story called “The Birth of Water Stories,” Katherine Vaz’s narrator asks, “What are your miracles, and how are they different from the ones you planned for? Please tell me. You must tell everyone.”

When our miracles are different than the ones we planned for, there is usually surprise, and often pain, and always story.

There’s no way I can talk in depth about the power of story in one blog post. There are far too many things to be said, too many stories to be shared. This is an introduction. A beginning. Too many thoughts in too little space.

Stories aren’t going anywhere. If anything, they’re becoming an increasingly important and valid mode of discourse in a postmodern (or post-postmodern) society. At any rate, stories help build that multi-reflective surface of the metaphorical disco, which is importance enough.

_____

When have you been moved by stories? What do you think of the power of stories? What are your miracles, and how are they different from the ones you planned for?

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2 thoughts on “Why stories?

  1. “When our miracles are different than the ones we planned for, there is usually surprise, and often pain, and always story.” Wow, that’s a beautiful line right there.

    I often find surprise, pain, and story in the miracle of answered prayer, especially prayers of desperation that I could not imagine how God would answer. So many stories come from the prayers we pray when we finally submit to original Writer.

    Looking forward to your series here, Alyssa.

    • Thanks, Diane. I like your thought about prayers in submission — but gosh do I have a hard time submitting! (Or, for that matter, recognizing answered prayers when the answer isn’t the one I was looking for.)

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