The Value of a Good Story

bibleNothing like a 16-hour car ride to bring people closer together.  My husband and I served as house parents for our daughter’s and her six best friends’ senior spring break this past week.  The week concluded with a 16-hour car ride home.  After a week of constant togetherness you would think these girls would have run out of things to talk about but apparently not.  In order to pass the time, they shared stories – personal stories of their own family vacations over the years.  The stories were humorous, and we all rolled in laughter together.

The stories did something more than offer laughter and a distraction though, they provided insights into who these girls really were.  Their stories:

  1. Provided a context, offering a glimpse into how their families function, what they value, and where they came from.  The stories provided the context that explained a great deal about why these girls said the things they said, did the things they did, and reacted the ways they reacted.  So many things we experienced in the previous week now made sense – because we heard their story.How often are we caught up making assumptions about a person based on our personal presuppositions?  We dismiss them – ignore them- shun them – maybe even judge them because we assume their actions, attitudes, and words come from a source we fully understand – like ignorance or rudeness.  Perhaps, however, if we knew their context we would understand why they have an attitude, where those hurtful words came from, or why to them the actions we find quite inappropriate are actually fitting.

    Hearing the stories from the girls in the back of the car gave me a glimpse into their context – their home life.  A context that I had assumed was similar to ours, but I came to realize was a home life quite unexpected that provided the correct perspective for truly seeing them.

  2. Their stories also created a connection that a week of sharing close living space, beach towels, and a common table didn’t.  In each of the girls’ stories, we saw glimpses of our own and discovered that the commonalities that connect us were much richer than the often louder external differences that separate us.  Sitting in the front seat of the car listening in on stories of family vacations of the past forged a bond with these girls that overcame generational, religious, political, and racial divides.J.F.K. in 1961 offered a phrase while giving a speech to the Canadian parliament that has been over-used and abused in the past 50 years, but it hit me in the face sitting in my car: “What unites is far greater than what divides us”.   We distance ourselves from people emotionally and sometimes physically because we think that our differences are too great to overcome and too profound to find a common language.  We make excuses that include: “we have nothing to offer them”, “they will never understand us”, or “we have no idea what they need ”.  We allow the things that are different – they are so old or so young, they are so conservative or way too liberal, they are way too progressive or so traditional, they look different, eat different food, speak a different language, wear different clothes, and even smell different – to become a barrier to connection.  But, when we listen to their stories we discover that they love, laugh, and cry just like us.  We discover the many things that we have in common – things that connect us.  When we see our commonalities and points of connection, the barriers become negotiable and the walls surmountable.
  3. And their stories compelled us to respond, rethink, and re-write.  Before our spring-break beach adventure I had developed opinions about the girls – who they were, what behaviors and attitudes they possessed, how I enjoyed them as my daughter’s friends, and how I didn’t. Through the week they all lived up to my expectations – I saw in their attitudes, behaviors, and words exactly what I expected to see.  When I heard their stories though, I was compelled to re-examine my own presuppositions, filters, and expectations and frankly their stories helped me see in many places how wrong I was. Their stories changed my attitudes and my thinking.  I was compelled to re-examine and truly see them for the first time without the blinders of prejudice.What blinders of prejudice are you wearing?  Do they blur your vision so that you can’t truly see the people in front of you?

    About ten years ago I began to have trouble seeing my dinner plate. I didn’t notice that anything else in my life was blurry –just my dinner plate.  Convinced that it must be something extreme wrong, I phoned my eye doctor, requested an appointment, and suggested perhaps my blurred dinner plate was caused by a brain tumor.  He was kind but did chuckle when he said – “oh the dreaded blurry plate syndrome”.  “You mean this is common?” I responded. “Only in people your age” he replied and went on to identify my out of the norm culprit as age induced poor eyesight!  A lovely pair of reading glasses later and my dinner plate came fully into view!

    Hearing the stories from the girls in the back of the car did the same thing that my reading glasses did for my dinner plate – it corrected my blurry vision and brought the girls into focus; I was compelled to see them.  The power of a story helped a middle-aged woman truly see!

The power of a story – It can bring laughter and offer a distraction, it can also provide a context and bring clarity, it can create a connection that overcomes apparent differences, and it can compel us to do something and change our thinking.

A seminary student in describing the impact of Scripture on faith formation in the home offered this insight: God could have filled the Bible with facts and figures to answer all of the scientific questions and give us wonderful statements of faith to memorize that would fill our minds, but instead He chose to tell a story.  The greatest story.

  1. A story provides the context
  2. A story connects
  3. A story compels and
  4. The Story through the power of the Holy Spirit brings hope, healing, and transformation.

St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises encourages the exercitant – a “person who sincerely desires to discover how he or she can please and serve God best” [1] – to contemplate the biblical story:

–          By the “sight of imagination” in order to see the details of the circumstances
–          By hearing to listen to what is being said
–          By smelling the fragrances present and tasting the “sweetness and charm”
–          By touching what they touched, where they sat and where they walked[2]

St. Ignatius understood that through engaging the biblical story with our imaginations and invoking our five senses we would in part grasp the context of the biblical story, understanding more fully the background and circumstances; we would connect with the biblical story in a personal, relational, experiential way; and the biblical story would compel us to do something – change our attitudes, change our hearts, change our thinking…we would be transformed, and we would discover how to please and serve God best.

How can you share God’s Story in such a way that people can truly picture it, smell it, feel it, hear it, taste it, experience it?  Help them see God in the biblical story and themselves!

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16, NIV).

You have a story of grace and forgiveness – you need to share it.  Those you serve and meet have a story – you need to take the time to hear it.  And we are compelled to share the greatest story of redemption, restoration, and love – you need to tell it.

“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  So he began teaching them many things” (Mark 6:34, NIV).

derrDr. Colleen Derr serves as Associate Professor of Congregational Spiritual Formation and Christian Ministries, Wesley Seminary

[1] From: Ganss, G. E. (1992). The spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius: A translation and commentary. Chicago, IL: Loyola Press, (p. 4).

[2] The Spiritual Exercises by Ignatius, the second week, “The Fifth Contemplation will be an application of the five senses”

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