Friday, September 24, 2010

Storytelling in the Christian Community

By Linda Goodman,CLS,United Methodist Church, Petersburg,Virginia District

(c)2002 Linda Goodman

“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the Lake. Large crowds gathered around him, so he got into a boat and sat down, while the people stood on the shore. The Jesus used stories to teach them many things.” Holy Bible, New Century Version, Matthew 13: 1-3

Since the beginning of Christianity, Christians have used stories to teach. Christ himself set the example is this regard. When asked by his disciples why he used stories to teach people, Christ answered that stories were vehicles that could reach those who “see, but don’t really see” and those who “hear but down really hear” (Matthew 13:10-13). Stories make plain what esoteric sermons choose to cloud with mystery. Even those who are uninitiated usually get the point.

When I began my training to become a Certified Lay Speaker in the United Methodist Church, I was required to prepare a five-minute sermon to present to the class. Rather than deliver a traditional sermon, I chose to share a personal story about an evangelistic effort I had been a part of that, while intended to bring comfort to its recipients, actually caused pain to those it sought to aid. I learned a great deal from that mistake, and I believed that my audience could learn from it as well.

The class instructor and the class at large supported my approach. I began delivering story sermons whenever I was asked to speak at a church To my delight, I found that congregants who hear stories are eager to hear more.

For ten years now, I have taught a course on Storytelling in the Ministry for the Lay Speaking School at the Virginia United Methodist Assembly Center in Blackstone, Virginia. The course fills quickly and usually has a waiting list. People are hungry for stories that help them make sense out of God’s purpose for their lives.

The class that I teach is divided into three parts. The first part covers stories taken directly from the Bible: David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, The Temptation of Christ, and many others. I encourage students to look at the stories from different angles, and the results are delightful. Some tell the stories from the viewpoints of non-traditional narrators (for example: a member of the ninety-nine sheep, disgruntled because the shepherd has left them to search for one sheep who was foolish enough to get lost). Some choose to reset a story in modern times. Others tell the stories as they are presented in the Bible, with all the drama, action, suspense, and sincerity that entails.

The second part of the class covers traditional stories that illustrate Christian Principles. The story of the Three Little Pigs, for example, teaches the same lesson as Christ’s parable of the wise man who built his house on the rock and the foolish man who built his house on the sand: only a firm foundation can withstand assault, whether it be from nature or a predator. In a similar vein, The Three Apprentices, by the Brothers Grimm, teaches that it never pays to make a deal with the devil, no matter how harmless it seems at the time.

The third, and by far the most popular, part of the class covers personal stories. The power of personal stories is undeniable. Why is the personal or family tale so special? The reasons are many and varied.

First, they are entertaining. Who has not been to a family gathering without coming away with a treasure trove of family stories to be passed along from generation to generation? When my family gets together, storytelling is the main event. We laugh, we cry, we try to outdo one another in bringing forth obscure memories. Through these stories, I have come to feel that I know intimately relatives that I have never even met.

Second, they are remarkable teaching tools. Many times I have sat through sermons that stressed the importance of forgiveness. As I listened, I could not help but think to myself that some things are unforgivable. That changed on March of 2002 when I heard Master Storyteller Ray Buckley share the story of his journey to forgive the man who caused the death of his wife and only child. Buckley, a Native American and devout Christian, was visited by his father after the tragedy. His father told him to write the name of the man on a peace of paper and then draw a line through the name and write the date in red when he had forgiven the man. Understandably skeptical of his father’s advice, Buckley followed the man’s trial. After the man’s conviction, Buckley visited the man’s family and formed a relationship with the man’s son. Through this relationship, Buckley gained the strength to visit the man in prison. Forgiveness, Buckley learned, is not only possible, but necessary. I continue get chills up and down my spine when I recall Buckley’s tender account, at the story’s end, of drawing a line through the man’s name and writing the date in red. If he could forgive the unforgivable, perhaps I can do that, too. That is what his story taught me.

Third, they nurture community. I have personally seen communities brought together by the compassion evoked by stories told about a person or place. In one instance, the community created by these stories saved a teacher’s job. In another, a community gathered its resources together to give a fatherless family a Christmas it would never forget.

Fourth, they can be instruments of healing. When my mother died suddenly, my grief was compounded by the fact that I had never had the chance apologize for an argument that I had with her the night she passed away. A Christian grief therapist suggested that I use storytelling to help me heal. I took her advice and wrote The Radio, a Christmas story that illustrated my mother’s self-sacrificing and unconditional love for me. That did not help much (I never doubted my mother’s love). Then I wrote The Bobby Pins, a story about a birthday present that I had given my mother, the first birthday present she had ever received in her entire life. That story was exactly what I needed: it made me realize that my mother knew that I loved her. Our argument was just one moment in our relationship. It did not define what we felt for one another. I realized that God had sent me this powerful memory to help me heal.

Fifth, family and personal stories inspire the listener to become a storyteller as well. Who has not listened to a personal tale being shared without being reminded of a similar event in his own life? When you share a story of your Christian walk with others, they will be inspired to share their own stories. The message will reach an audience far greater than the one you see.

Storytelling is a powerful tool for teaching the Christian principles by which we try, not always successfully, to live. Christ set the standard that all Christians strive to achieve. Christ was a storyteller. People are hungry for stories. As a storyteller, I seek to satisfy this hunger. As a Christian, I seek to share what I have learned from life through stories that touch the hearts of the Christians and non-Christians alike.

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