Telling Great Stories

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What was your favorite story as a child? Mine was Ferdinand the Bull. I didn’t think most people knew about Ferdinand, but he was special to me. Something clicked  between me and a bull who didn’t want to fight—just wanted to smell the flowers. I just wanted to sit under a tree and read a book. Or on the couch. Or in bed, under the blankets late at night. Or anywhere, really.

Leave me alone, and let me live peacefully. Ferdinand found that difficult as a bull intended for the bullring. I found it difficult as the youngest of seven kids.

I knew what it felt like to be different. Can another INFJ raise a hand, here?

As an adult, the stories that have shaped me, not surprisingly, revolve around second chances and grace and the least among us doing great thing. Lord of the Rings. Les Miserables. Pride and Prejudice. (Also, stories about women who aren’t afraid to say what they mean. And then sometimes have to apologize.)

Stories Change Us

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I will never forget the gut-punch feeling while sitting in a dark theater in December, 2001. My family watched The Fellowship of the Ring roll out on the big screen in Bozeman, Montana. (There was only one big screen in Bozeman.) We were only a couple months out of 9/11. The horror was still raw, the fear still tangible. And then Gandalf said the words I have never been able to shake.

To Frodo’s exhausted, “I wish none of this had happened,” Gandalf replied, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

It meant something. It still means something to me—enough to make me write a book and speak to young adults everywhere I can about the wondrous ability of Tolkien’s stories to change us.

Stories mean something. We read them, watch them, are changed by them. From the beginning of humanity, people told stories to connect and to reflect who they were and who they wanted to be.

I’ve been taking some time to preach through Jesus’ stories lately. Because if any stories are going to change us, those ought to.

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Jesus’ Stories Change Everything

Often when we read Jesus’ parables, we read them to extract a moral. What does he want us to do? How should we act? In the words of the rich young man, “What must I do for the kingdom of God?”

What if Jesus wants us to live the story—plot, character, climax, and conflict? What if he wants us to read it like he meant it—like a story, not a morality play? In fact, as a writer, I know the latter is a terrible way to write a story. We dare not tack on a moral at the end or we make it cliche, a trite tale that bashes the reader over the head with our Bible. (It’s kind of the way Christians tend to make movies . . . )

That’s not Jesus’ way.

Jesus drops a story in the listeners’ ears. The he lets them figure it out. He makes them figure it out. Jesus is not a bash-them-over-the-head sort of guy. (Although he has no trouble being a turn-the-tables-over sort of guy. That’s different.)

So what is the purpose of Jesus’ stories? They paint us a picture of life as it should be. His tales hold up a portrait, a landscape really, of the kingdom of God. This is what it looks like, guys. And he asks— Is this the story you want to tell as your own?

Jesus tells stories to help us imagine a world that aligns with how its supposed to be–to help us create our own story and tell it out. We study parables not for the moral of the story but for our story within them. What do they contribute to our tale? And how does out tale fit in God’s great kingdom, of which we are a tiny, tiny part yet still a meaningful one?

We tell stories to see the world as it should be and then go there.

In Jesus’ “introduction” to his parables, he gives another reason for telling them. To sort out who is truly listening.

That is why I use these parables, For they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand. This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that says, ‘When you hear what I say, you will not understand. When you see what I do, you will not comprehend.

For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes— so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. (Matthew 13)

Jesus returns to the ancient shema—the call of God to truly hear and listen. From its beginning in Deuteronomy, the shema asks more of God’s people. They are to listen to his words with open ears and hearts, willing and wanting to respond to God’s words at all times. That’s the meaning behind “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Jesus means don’t simply hear—DO.

So the parables are stories to help us find our place in God’s great story. They are also sifters to see who is really listening. Jesus is preparing to leave his followers, and he needs to know who is in and who is a hanger-on. Not that the hangers-on aren’t welcome, but they aren’t where he’s going to get his team for building the church when he is gone. He’s looking for hearers and doers. And the stories separate the ones who want to work at it from those who want the fireworks and free fish.

Just think about all the people who were Cubs fans last year but not this. That’s the difference, my friends.

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When do we listen, really listen, to stories, as I did in that dark theater sixteen years ago?

We listen to stories when we appreciate our need for them.

I mean, if we’re prepping for a test, and we think we’ve got all the time in the world, or we know more than anyone else, we’re not likely to really listen when the teacher is reviewing. We’re going to be in the corner on Facebook, or doodling in the notebook, or catching a nap. We don’t feel our need for the information.

Jesus didn’t force morals or tell his point straight out because he wanted people to realize their need. We usually only realize that when we’re made to work for it. If it comes easily, we don’t know how much we really need it. When we do realize it, we are really to change. He wanted to force that work. Because—

Good stories change us for the better.

and then—

People who are changed tell good stories.

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That’s the point of the parables. To get us to tell good stories with our lives. We will never do that until we have ears to hear Jesus’ stories and know that they aren’t intended to give us a new law or some behavior to check off but a completely new story arc.

We tell stories to see the world as it should be and then go there.

We do that when we let the stories sink through our ears and change our very hearts.

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

Next week, we will begin looking into some of those stories. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear some of yours.

Also–what was your favorite story as a child? What’s your favorite now?

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Pumpkin Pie (To Be Grateful)


This year, we are staying home for Thanksgiving. The past few years, we have traveled, and we will miss seeing family. But this is the first year that child #3 is away at college, and she would have to drive five hours home and then six hours farther and do it all over again a few days later. It’s too much. 

Plus, there are things moms recognize about that first year away. She would need “normal.” She already feels she’s missed so much. To miss The Great Christmas Tree Cut Down, the decorating, the “home” feeling down in your heart that says it’s all still there and all OK—that would be too much. Sometimes, you have to recognize that the intangibles are the most real things in existence.
I remember the feeling. My first Thanksgiving in college, I, too, came home. But it was not the home I had known for eighteen Thanskgivings. It was a home without the mother who always cooked the turkey dinner. (Although really, I think dad did quite a lot of it. He was the better cook. Just like in our family.) Without her sisters and their busy families, because it was without the glue that had held those extended family units together. Take out the mother, and you take out a network.
So I did what I suspect my daughter would do. I cooked dinner. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, lemon merengue pie, pumpkin pie, cranberry relish. I don’t even like pumpkin pie. But the offerings hadn’t changed in eighteen years, and they must not now. I set all the good dishes out. I did everything to maintain the illusion that this was normal. This was dinner as always. Though the universe might turn sideways, this would not alter.
I had no idea what I was doing.
I mean, literally, I had no idea how to cook. Mom hadn’t taught me, although I’d gained basic knowledge by watching. But as mentioned, she was not the better cook of the duo that was my parents. 

Beyond that, though, I had no idea that illusions failed. We hung on to the traditions, my dad and I, but we weren’t fooling one another. This was not the same, it never would be, and we had no idea how to navigate it into something else. I can’t say that we ever really learned.
This year is the first Thanksgiving with child #3 away at college, and it’s the last Thanksgiving with child #1 unmarried. Next year, she’ll have her own family with her own relationships and traditions to navigate, and we’ll have to learn a new dance. But—and here’s the big but—we will. (Yes, I did just say big but. I know you laughed. You can’t pretend.)
We will. I’ve learned some things since the fall I was barely eighteen.
Particular faces and specific dates alter with time and circumstances. Just like I no longer feel compelled to bake pumpkin pie because, in fact, we dislike it, some details no longer apply. As with the year we ate Thanksgiving burgers at the Hard Rock Cafe in the alternate universe called Orlando, or the Christmas dinner in Costa Rica involving coconut, pineapple, and spaghetti, traditions sometimes bow to present realities. And that’s OK. (Because, hey, we remember those two holiday dinners.)
The tangibles change. The intangibles remain the real things. That the things we do together happen, in some form, matters. When they happen or precisely how, not so much. That the feeling of home remains “it’s

all still there, and it’s all OK” matters. What the menu or makeup is, not really. That we recognize the fleetingness of “same” and express gratitude for the times we have matter. Whether there seems to be little or much to be grateful for does not.

Whether you’re sitting around a table with family Thursday or eating alone, swapping adult kids between tribes with the dexterity of David Copperfield or working all night to accommodate early (crazy) shoppers, stop. Find your intangibles. What matters? What doesn’t? When all is stripped away, what remains real? That’s what you have to be grateful for.  

what if it totally bombs?

Can I make just one more mention of Christmas before we wrap it up? Yes, it’s February. Time to move on. But it’s kind of relevant to the rest of the year, too.

We did something different this year for Christmas. Besides being away from home, which has never happened other than visits to family. We spent the break on a mission trip to Costa Rica. But that isn’t the different thing.

The different thing is that we decided, in light of having to save money for the trip, we would not buy gifts for one another this Christmas. We would give only what we made ourselves. This also worked in light of the whole “the point of going on a mission trip is other people” thing.

We’ve thought about doing something similar before. It’s often seemed like a good idea to focus on what we have and not what we want.  To emphasize Jesus, given the invaluable gift he gave to us.

But it always ended the same, for me. I like shopping for gifts. (Well, I like shopping online for gifts.) I love seeing my family’s enjoyment of gifts. YES–I completely enjoy seeing a giant pile of presents under a tree and hearing the sounds of ripping paper and frustration over bows that won’t come undone. (I may purposefully cause some of that.) I like the knee-deep ocean of sparkly paper, tissue, and random lost cats that my living room becomes after a massive gift-fest has been executed. I do. Report me to Overdoers Anonymous. It doesn’t happen any other time of the year.

Plus, there’s the nagging fear. What if we try something different and it bombs, totally? What if the kids hate it? What if I hate it? What if instead of being the hap-happiest time of the year Christmas becomes a giant letdown laid at the feet of yours truly? Mom the usual Christmas machine epically fails. Since it’s only once a year, this really matters.

You know what? It didn’t fail. More than once I almost caved and started shopping. I really wanted to. But I think, inside, all of us knew it would feel so wrong to come home from working with people who didn’t have enough money to buy school uniforms and diapers to face a giant pile of glinting paper under a tree. (Not to mention that the cats would have torn it all to pieces by the time we returned and very possibly peed on more than one box. Plus, the tree was very not cheery green anymore.)

Instead, we savored everything someone had made for us. We appreciated the thought that went into another person pouring themselves into a gift. We valued the realization that someone created something personally for us. We felt we’d done the right things for the moment. It was, possibly, the best Christmas ever.

Why is this relevant for the rest of the year? Because we fear change. All year round. We hesitate to do something other than the way it’s always been done. Why? The same reasons I did. We like the status quo. It’s known and comfortable. We don’t like failure. We fear that if we try something new, everyone will hate it. We’ll hate it. We’ll have an epic failure at out feet with no one else to blame.

Is there something you really want to change, but you’re afraid? Something new you’d really like to try to see if it’s a better fit, but you’re terrified of launching out?

I read a Dear Abby column years ago that I just loved. A woman asked her if she should forget her dream of medical school because, “If I go, I’ll be fifty years old in four years when I finish!” Abby’s answer was so simple. “How old will you be in four years if you don’t go?”

Don’t let fear keep you from changing something today you really want to change. What’s the worst that can happen? And–what’s the best? Whichever way it goes, you’ll have the experience of knowing you did the right thing for the moment.