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?

Identity Theft–Living Who We Are in 2015

Every New Years our family has a tradition. We watch the same movie. But when the Richardsons do anything, hey, we go big or go home. We don’t watch just any movie. We watch The Lord of the Rings, extended versions, all three films. It’s a long day. 

Big as in big screen. As in, a big white bedsheet.
Because I do own a projector but I do not own a TV.
whatevs, guys.

If you are as good at nerding out as we are, you know that the character Aragorn is the man destined to be king. Yet for several hours worth of film (and the first 86 years of his life), he hides from that destiny. He’s kind of the Robin Hood of Middle-earth, swooping out of the woods to do good things for helpless people, then going back into hiding. He’s a Ranger, a lone Ranger, uninterested in the responsibility of being a king.


Until he is told quite succinctly (and when an Elf-Lord speaks it’s usually succinctly) to stop it. No one else can do this job, he’s told. It’s yours whether you will or not. “Put aside the ranger; become who you were born to be.”

I love that moment. The big shining sword comes out (it’s a huge shining sword. Seriously. No one could actually swing that thing), and it’s time to face true identity.

Sometimes I think God says the same thing to me. What are you afraid of? Why are you hiding behind lesser responsibilities? Why are you messing around with meaningless, trivial things when there is a kingdom at stake here? 

Why are you content to live a small life? 

Wasn’t kidding when I said we go big, was I?

Ouch. God is worse than an Elf Lord, people, when it comes to telling it like it is.


We hide from who we are. Too often, more often than not, we don’t even know who we are. But I am convinced that most of our life’s battles would be significantly easier, even over, if we knew the answer to these questions: 

Who am I? Who am I meant to be?
 Why aren’t I? 

They’re questions it’s good to explore in a new year. It’s never too early–it’s never too late–to become who you were born to be. And the best place to look is in the beginning.

Really. In. the. Beginning.

Three times in Genesis 1 God uses a phrase when he talks about the creation of human beings. 

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

“In our image.” 

You know, if something is said three times in Hebrew scriptures, it’s pretty serious. Like, Chicago getting mildly excited if the Cubs win the World Series serious. It means the thing mentioned is not even up for debate. It’s settled.

So, the point is, God meant this emphatically. 

You are made in my image. Each one of you.

Every single human on this earth. All sizes, all colors, both genders, even all the kinds of baptists. Even when you really, really don’t feel like you’re living up to your end of the deal. That’s who you are, plain fact. Are you ready to stop being anything less and become who you were born to be?


Soon after that pinnacle of creation in Genesis, a slinking, sneaking scoundrel (I do love alliteration) stole our true identity from us. And here’s the kicker—we let it happen. We walked right into it. It wasn’t like a stranger hacking into our credit info at Target. We opened up the account and said, “Have at it. I don’t want to be what God made me to be. Let’s try something else.”


It didn’t end well. 

I don’t know about you, but in this new year I think I’d like to take back what was stolen from me. I want to be what I was born to be. Time to put aside the sometimes-heir-sometimes-child-often-roaming-ranger and accept the challenge of being the King’s image bearer, not just in creation fact but in daily life.

So for a few weeks, let’s explore this idea of identity. Who are we? Who were we born to be? Why aren’t we being that? 

“People are portrayed as the pinnacle of creation, endowed with dignity as those made in the image of the Creator. They are made in order to serve God, not as slaves but as partners, whom he delegates to do his work in the world.” 

Are you ready to learn to be a delegate? I am. What do you think being made in the image of God means?