Make room for storytelling, memoirs of faith as a spiritual practice

My father’s side of the family is especially good at storytelling.  I don’t know what it is about those LaGuardias, but their stories can captivate people for hours.

My late Grandpa Joe and one of my first cousins, Matt. …Two master storytellers.

It’s probably my Grandpa’s influence.  I remember attending barbeques (“grilling out” in the South) as a child and listening to him for hours as he told stories about serving in the Navy during the Second World War.  He told stories about his boxing exploits, of having a conflict with New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia for some obscure media mix-up in the 1950s, of causing mayhem in the streets of Brooklyn.

Then there’s my first cousin, Matt, a storyteller if there ever was one (a brother of three, all great storytellers), who still woos audiences with his tall-tales.  I still remember one of his creepy ghost stories he told me when I was five.  He scared me half to death then, and now I tell that same story every Halloween to kids in the neighborhood and scare them too.

My father inherited that storytelling gene.  Every time he talks about something that has happened to him, be it 20 years ago or 20 minutes ago, you have to decipher what is true and what is half-true.  Hyperbole is a common on that side of the family.

Perhaps that’s why I was so drawn to the Christian faith.  Christianity is, after all, a faith based on narratives told in a Book made up of many books.  Christianity’s Savior is a master storyteller–the “Great Parabler” in the words of my New Testament college professor.

And, even after all these years, I still love sitting down with Jesus, taking my place next to Mary at his feet, and listening to his stories.  “The Kingdom of God is like…”

It doesn’t matter how many times I hear those stories, they are still the greatest stories ever told.

Then there are the stories about the Storyteller.  They seem to be ghost stories at first–A few women meet what appears to be a ghost in the garden of Jesus’ tomb only to find out later that it really was Jesus in the flesh.  “Touch the wound in my side, Thomas.”  And it calls for us to believe in that Resurrection Story above all else.

Then there’s ministry.  Ministry is, in a nutshell, taking time to hear the stories of others–of people’s triumphs and celebrations, of their downfalls and of second-, third-, and four-hundredth chances at finding redemption.

These stories come at unexpected times, as gifts to be unwrapped:  In the hospital room, in a family room, in the church parking lot, on a porch, or while breaking bread together at the Oaks Family Diner.

If you listen hard enough and long enough, you can hear in people’s stories the echo of the Storyteller himself.  “You have heard it said, but I say to you.”  And there, in the midst of words, conversation, coffee, and great omelets (I prefer the “Dumpster” omelet myself) Christ shows up.

Anyone who has worked in prison or homeless ministries knows the power of stories.  Sometimes a story is all a person has to his name.

I guess the challenge for us, then, is to give people the chance to tell their stories.  Sometimes we are so quick to judge or figure out whether they belong, we don’t give people the chance to get a word in edgewise.

When I used to hang with street preachers back in Florida we were so eager to tell Christ’s story–still are; but I find much more power in hearing a person’s story first and then finding out where Christ shows up in the telling of their tale.

Storytelling is a spiritual practice that gets us beyond the pretense and pomp that sometimes distract us from being authentic with one another.  When we wear our “Sunday mask” too often, we forget that the sum of who we are is more than just how we get along for one hour on Sabbath morning.

Our stories, those very precious memoirs of faith, make up the totality of who we are and who we can become in Christ.

“Those who have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying!”

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Don’t miss out on the gifts that today brings

Albert Finney and Jessica Lang share a moment in “Big Fish” as Finney’s character, Ed Bloom, slowly passes away.

A short story by John Connolly* is about a recently widowed gentleman who visits a hotel room that he and his wife of 46 years frequented every year.

As the story goes, he falls asleep on the easy chair and wakes up to find a red suitcase that belonged to his wife.  At that moment, the door unlocks and in walks the younger version of his late wife.  He tries to talk to her.  No good.  He tries to touch her, but it’s as if he doesn’t exist.

Whether he or she is a ghost is irrelevant.  As the plot unfolds, we learn that the widow is in the distant past, early in their marriage, during a time when he missed his plane and failed to meet her due to increment weather.

The powerless widow looks on as his wife gets a phone call from her husband (the widow’s younger self) and tells her that he won’t be joining her. She hangs up and goes about preparing for the vacation without him.

Meanwhile, the widow welcomes this unique opportunity to be with his wife one more time, even if she can’t see or hear him.

Connolly paints a heartwarming picture of the rest of the evening: “He sat on the bathroom floor as she bathed, his cheek against the side of the tub…He was beside her as she sat on the bed, a towel wrapped around her head, painting her toenails and laughing at some terrible comedy show, and he found himself laughing along with her.  He followed the words on the page as she read a book he had given her, one he had just finished and thought she might like.”*

As I read this moving story, it struck me of just how much we take each day–and many people in our lives–for granted.  Life is fragile, and its only after death that we sometimes realize what we had in the first place.

Unfortunately, to relive an entire day with one whom we have loved and lost can only happen in fiction.  How many of us, however, wish to spend just one more day with a loved one, even if it is only in some far-fetched dream?

Connolly’s short story teaches us that we should enjoy each person while we can and appreciate those individuals with whom we share our lives.

That’s easier said than done.  Too many of us miss out on today because we live in the past.  Our regrets throw us into an endless cycle of self-pity.  Some of us can hardly forgive ourselves or another, and our relationships become victims of our own myopic narcosis.

Others live too far in the future, always assuming that there are better days to come and greener grass on the other side of next week.  We’re so busy looking elsewhere we miss out on what is happening around us.

I’ve heard many people tell me to enjoy my children while they are young.  “Time flies,” they say.  I believe them.  If it weren’t for a little patience and a whole lot of attentive self-discipline, I can see just how easy it would be to miss out on the little, daily treasures that happen when I enjoy them with each passing moment.

Each day–each person–is a gift, even if it means finding something wonderful about how your wife puts on her nail polish or how your husband throws popcorn at the television during an ill-fated Bulldogs game.

“So do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus told us in his mountaintop sermon, “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own” (Matt. 6:34).  When we live in the present, we can enjoy all that God has given us.  Otherwise, we miss out on life only to find ourselves wondering, “Where has time gone?” accompanied by ghosts of years past.

Source:

*John Connolly, “A Haunting,” in Haunted (New York: Ace Books, 2009), pp. 68-78.

*p. 77; edited for space.

As clergy and as God’s “Church,” we have failed our society in so many ways

When I read about shootings at the Game Stop and at a house party last week, I became angry to hear that so many locals were killed or wounded by gun violence in our neighborhood.

I was angry because it hit so close to home. These shootings weren’t in some far off slum, but happened near places where my family frequently shops.

As I prayed about these feelings, I started to ask a different question, one related to my calling as a clergy person “on mission” in an economically and socially diverse county: How have I failed these young people who were perpetrators of such crime and violence?

I certainly know that we are all responsible for our actions. The only person who can pull a trigger of a gun is the one who holds the gun. But, as a Christian who is called to be God’s “light to the world” (Matt. 5:14), how did I fail to shine a light to people who have chosen such unwise decisions before they even reached full adulthood? That I failed the victims and their families?

As a clergy person who speaks on behalf of my profession and the “Church” (with a capital “C”) in my community, I feel that I need to repent for failing these young people, the many like them who are tempted to live such senseless lifestyles, and the victims. (We are certainly our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and their blood cries out from our soil.)

I repent that we clergy have been so focused on building our churches, we have failed to build stronger families for the sake of our young people. God’s basic unit for a stable society is not primarily the church, but the family.

Many children in our community grow up in single-parent households or in poverty, and there is a lack of appropriate resources for negotiating conflicts when they arise. I applaud non-profit agencies like Family Promise that fill the gap and are rallying churches to this cause.

I repent that we clergy have focused for far too long on the ministries of our churches rather than being missional churches. Missional churches rarely focus on programs for the sake of self-serving attendance; rather, these churches reach out to the community in creative ways, like those that support tutoring or life-training programs.

I repent that we clergy have neglected to intentionally implement reconciliation in a diverse county. This diversity creates ongoing tension and affects our children. One step towards reconciliation is to make race and class relations in the church a part of God’s healing process for healthier communities. Martin Luther King, Jr., once encouraged churches to “be rid of every aspect of segregation” because it is “a blatant denial of the unity which we have in Christ” and “destroys community.”*

Trinity Baptist has tried to break this bad habit by sharing our building with an African-American and a Moldovan congregation. We fellowship together when we are able and work towards greater partnerships in our businesses, schools, and families. We define our differences and similarities and agree to disagree at times, but always work towards unity in all things.

I repent that we clergy have focused more on individual salvation than on the redemption of entire neighborhoods. Many of us still think that when we save one person at a time that that’s enough. God works in the lives of individuals, but God also brings about His redemptive purposes in the midst of political, economic, and social systems, especially where justice and inequality is concerned.

This means that we must change the way we read Scripture. We must focus on Scripture, not so much to win a “culture war” or to reinforce our own status quo opinions, but to teach others how to read the Bible for themselves and bring about a variety of “readings” from the margins of society. We must read the Bible with our children and with others who differ from us.

I know that these confessions might mean little in the short run; it will take us a long time to adapt to the needs of our county. It will take even longer to cut through our theological and political differences in order to see the greater good that can be done for the sake of God’s ever-expanding Kingdom.

In spite of our own failures, we can keep repenting and confessing so as to allow God to transform us and work in our lives–and in our community–in new ways. Our young people are depending on us.

Sources:

Martin Luther King, Jr. “Paul’s Letter to American Churches,” in Strength to Love (New York: Pocket Books, 1963), 160.