Telling Great Stories

IMG_6587

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

IMG_6588

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.

IMG_6591

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.

IMG_6590

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.

IMG_6589

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?

I Am Not Mrs. Havisham

My oldest daughter and I spent a couple hours every week last spring doing something that could be considered strange. We came to our church building and organized. We put things in plastic boxes (I have a bit of a plastic box obsession), labeled them, tossed junk, and generally created some order in a place where, just like home, things had been randomly torpedoed anywhere and everywhere after use. 

Why strange? Because we knew there was at least a 50/50 shot that we were going to be leaving the building and becoming a mobil church. It seemed to make little sense to organize a moving target.
What was the point if we’re going to pack up and leave? Why make sense of the place we’re in if it’s not our place to stay? I’ve made peace with it, theologically. It’s because of something I heard preached not long ago, and something that swirls around in my head often.
This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem:“Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away!And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29.4-7)

Consider wherever you are home. That it is not permanent is no reason not to unpack.

I listened to this Switchfoot song not long ago, and I pondered this idea of unpacking.
Until I die I’ll sing these songs

On the shores of Babylon

Still looking for a home

In a world where I belong


Where the weak are finally strong
Where the righteous right the wrongs
Still looking for a home
In a world where I belong.

The “Not Yet” is out there. But right now,
I’ll get my feet wet.

We live in a tension between the now and the not yet. Now is what we see and feel and know. Not yet is the world God has promised, the reconciliation of all things broken by the Fall, the regeneration of a Garden that held all perfection. Jesus awakened us to this promise, also promising that the Kingdom was here now, seeable and knowable, but not complete. It is not yet, but yet it is.

We cannot grasp this paradox.
But still, we must live in it. And we must not live as those who refuse to unpack and organize. With Jeremiah and his kin, we have to learn to put down our roots, plant our crops, and seek the welfare of our world. In a manner only God can orchestrate, perhaps that is precisely the way the Kingdom will show itself in the now.
I tried not to unpack when we moved to Chicagoland. The plan was to be here for a year and then to move on. To just about anywhere else. I hated it, and I intended to follow through on that plan.
Should I mention now that we’ve been here almost twenty years? It’s not where I want to be forever, but can you imagine if I was still living unpacked? Can you picture the strangeness if I had decided not to leave my house, not to make friends, not to become attached to anything because I was leaving soon? I read about Mrs. Havisham in 9th grade. (Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. Sorry if you didn’t have the pleasure/torture.) I do not want that level of weird.
Yet that is what so many Christians do. This world is not our home. In fact, this world is a downright scary place out to get us. At least, that’s the narrative playing on many an evangelical playlist. We circle the wagons and pull in, fearing the city we live in rather than seeking its welfare. We grow cobwebs around our souls Mrs. Havisham would envy.
But what if going into the city (town, farmland, foreign country, fill in the blank) around us is the only way God ever planned for His Kingdom to come here and now? What if we are Plan A, and there is no Plan B?  .And what if we sit in our homes (churches) protecting ourselves, waiting for the signal that it’s time to go, and that kingdom is still crying to be realized? What if we’re missing a LOT of chances to see His power displayed here and now because we’re so afraid to go out in its strength and see what happens?

Seek the welfare of the city you are in. 

That means learning about it. Finding out who lives there, what they dream of, what they need, how they think. Seeking welfare implies finding the brokenness around us and joining people to heal it.  .It is people who go out their doors to do what Jesus did—heal, feed, teach, forgive, love.

I want to be able to say I unpacked. I stayed. I did all I could to organize and make sense of the place I was put in so that others could find what they needed. I made it my home and made my home a better place. Not because I don’t know there is something better coming. Rather, because I do. I know about that place where the righteous right the wrongs. I know how unspeakably beautiful it will be. Well, I don’t know. I can’t know. But I can imagine.
While we will always live in the God-given tension of longing for home, we are also already there. I don’t understand this. But I know what to do when I’m at home. I unpack and get to work.