Holy Week: The Greatest Story ever told

christsfaceBy Matt Sapp

There’s great power in being able to tell a great story. For the last few weeks I’ve been listening to professional storyteller Donald Davis with some of my ministry friends.  You should watch him. He’s great.

He’s helped me think about the nature of story, specifically the idea that story is much more than objective narrative; it’s more than just the facts.

Story, Davis argues, is more than simply telling what happened.  Story is interpretive.  It’s the way we choose to frame what happened. so story becomes the way we choose to remember what happened.  If past is prologue, then story becomes the way we choose to introduce our futures.

The greatest story we will ever tell is our own, and there’s great power in how we choose to tell our stories. We tell our stories to let people know who we are, so each of our stories ends with an often unspoken, “…and that’s how I got to be who I am today.”

Within each of our stories is the source material for a first-class tragedy, a hope-filled comedy, or an inspiring, wonder-filled fairy tale.

So the question is, “What kind of stories are we telling about ourselves?” How are we choosing to frame the narratives of our pasts? Do we tell our life stories so that we get to happy endings?  Are we telling a tragic story of woe? Or are we whimsical enough to tell a story that’s so full of fantastical details and child-like wonder that it must be too good to be true?

Each of our lives provides material to tell all three with candor. The choice of which story we tell is ours., and the story we choose to tell about how we got to be who we are today has tremendous power to shape who we will be tomorrow.

Here’s the thing: I am tremendously invested in how you choose to tell your story.

In part, I am invested because I care about you, and I have a selfish motive as well.  I care about how you choose to tell your story because none of our stories is entirely our own. We are connected, you and I.

The details of your story might be your own, but the narrative arc is ours. In the largest sense there is no your story and my story. At least I don’t think so.

I believe very firmly that we are all part of God’s story, which makes this week a fantastic time to talk about story because God’s story (and ours) will unfold before our very eyes next week.

The story of Holy Week is one of the greatest stories ever told.  It is a story of great celebration, of epic betrayal, of inexpressible sorrow and unspeakable joy, of brazen power struggles filled with great suspense and unexpected twists—and a surprise ending that NO ONE expected.

Yet, it is OUR story: the story of the Christian faith is a story in which each of us are invited to play our parts.

That, first, makes us characters in God’s story.  More importantly, it makes God the author and director of our stories.  Although we might be people who have the power to choose how we interpret the narrative of our pasts, God has the power to shape the way our stories end—and it’s fantastic!

Holy Week is all about story.  It is a story from our past that tells the story of our future, one in which our stories turn a corner.  My story, your story, every story hinges on the events of Holy Week.

As Frederick Buechner describes it, next week the tragedy of our lives meets the comedy—the good news—of the gospel, and they intermingle to form a fairy tale that’s too good NOT to be true!

So sometime on Easter, this Sunday afternoon, when you’re home from church and Easter dinner is fading into memory, do me a favor: Make God’s story your story by remembering the message from church that morning.  Smile, and say under your breath, “…and that’s how I got to be who I am today.”

How I love to tell the Story

atelier-storytelling-mobileBy Joe LaGuardia

I love a good story.  Before I came to the South, I thought I had mastered the art of listening to and telling stories.

It was around the table with my family in New York that I heard captivating stories as a child.  My uncle, married into the family right from Italy, debated politics with my father, cursed the Pope to places I could not repeat as a child, and told stories of the mafia in the Old Country, all in broken Italian and shaking fists.

Then there were my cousins.  One recited lines from the Terminator movie in a generic Schwarzenegger accent and showed off his single, cross-shaped earring inspired by George Michael.

His brother was a master storyteller, telling us stories all of the time, especially when it came to his career.  One year he was in the Air Force.  Then he worked at an airport, then as a cop, then a dancer.  More recently, he’s been an air marshal, in the FBI, dug holes at a cemetery.  He is now in law school, but no one really knows for sure.

When you live with Italians, storytelling is in your blood.

But then I moved to the South.  It was here that I heard mountain stories of the Appalachia, immigrant stories of Miami, ghost stories of the Georgian coast, and Bible stories by the likes of Fred Craddock, Clarence Jordan, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest Hemingway.

This is also the place that I heard stories about the church and the story of the Church.  It is where I came to understand–and believe in–the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of God’s salvation for all the world, north and south alike.

That was the old, old story that really made a difference in my life.

We all need a reminder of what the Gospel is.   It comes from the Greek word, euangelion, from which we derive the words evangel and evangelical.  It was a message of good tidings often used in the wake of a battle.

A messenger, (angelion in the Greek), came to tell good news of a king’s victory in battle.  So good tidings included both the message and the messenger.  It is no wonder, therefore, that the same Greek word for messenger is also the word for angel, for angels were messengers of good tidings from God.

But the Gospel is also a person.  In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus is said to be “God’s word made flesh.”  Jesus embodied God’s good news and “glad tidings . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18, 19).

It is as if a bunch of guys were sitting around a campfire, debating how all of this redemption and salvation stuff were to occur, and one of them spoke up and said, “Well, God has to have a say in all this, doesn’t he?”

God did have a say, and that say was the Living Word of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was God in the flesh.  Jesus was God’s say in all of this and, in fact, God’s final say, “For all who believe in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

The Gospel is, therefore, about the person–Jesus–as well as Jesus’ message.  It is about the good news that God is victorious over sin and death.  God fought the good fight in sending Jesus Christ, and the resurrection spelled the end to every foe that ever threatened both man and creation.

With all of the stories I’ve heard through the years, I have found that the most power couched in the story of the Gospel.

Even today, it emboldens, empowers, and exalts all those who take God at God’s word.  And in a world in which good news is hard to find, the good news of the Gospel is as fresh as ever.

The death of revivalism in Baptist life? (part 3)

Revivalism is spreading in Africa, Asia, and South America according to Philip Jenkins, author of "The Next Christendom."

Penn State sociologist, Philip Jenkins, claims that Christian revivalism is spreading like wild-fire in South America, Africa, and Asia.  In these places, collectively known as the “Global South,” churches are growing exponentially.  Contrast this with North America and Europe, where revivalism is, according to one noted Baptist historian, on “life support.”

Over the past several weeks, I have been wrestling with the idea that only certain aspects of revivalism are waning in North America. I argued that the spirit of revivalism is alive and well.  (This is, by the way, my final article on the subject.)  In fact, many facets of revivalism can be transformative in a world longing for redemption and reconciliation.

Perhaps churches throughout the Global South, with all of its passion for revivalism and the Gospel, has something to teach us.  There seems to be certain ingredients in these places that make revivalism a perfect catalyst for soul transformation.   We might lack some of these ingredients, but they are not entirely lost.  Reclaiming them will do us good.

One ingredient is storytelling.  South America, Africa, and Asia are steeped in oracular cultures, which simply means that folks can tell really good stories.

Bestselling Asian memoirist, Da Chen, notes how storytelling inspired him to be an author.  When he was a child, traveling storytellers would come to his village to tell ancient myths of old.  It provided meaning in an uncertain and magical world; it gave the village a place among a vast cosmos that spanned the heavens.

We are a people of the Book; so, the act of storytelling is a natural way to spread the Gospel to our children, neighbors, and community.

One of the most powerful stories to tell is how you met Christ and how God changed your life.   Preachers do not have a monopoly on storytelling, and Jesus called all his followers to “tell the old, old story” of God’s love and forgiveness.

Another ingredient is mystery.  The Global South is rooted in tribal and mythical worldviews that lend themselves to the message of the Gospel.   People are accustomed to believing in what they can’t see–the mystery of the unknown–because they grew up steeped in the conviction that spiritual forces exist among mortals.

Although many people in our culture have become cynical about all things spiritual because of science and technology, there is still room for the mystery of the Gospel to compel people to respond to God’s call of salvation in Christ.

We see people being compelled by mysterious, spiritual acts all the time:  Yoga, the New Age/self-help movement, and horoscopes are spiritual practices that woo millions of Americans every day.  What these eastern-born rituals represent is a mystery that speaks to the deepest recesses of a person’s soul.  They provide meaning beyond a shallow, consumer-driven culture.

The mystery of the Gospel not only trumps these practices with eternal ramifications, but also offers hope rooted in God’s creative truth.

It’s hard to reclaim this mystery, however, when so many of us have simplified the Gospel into cliches, trite formulas, and marketing gimmicks.  No wonder why so many people see Christianity as a joke; why so many people read books like “The God Delusion,” by Richard Dawkins.

God will be not be domesticated by our subtle attempts to control that which is ultimately fascinating and mysterious–in the words of Rudolf Otto, the “mysterium fascinans.”

Our worship in church and our missions in the community can revive and embody both of these ingredients–storytelling and mystery–by continuing to reinforce the spirit of revivalism rather than the rituals of religiosity.

When we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit rather than some formula for evangelism of yesteryear, we soon discover that our faith is re-grounded in a relationship with a mysterious, yet intimate Storytelling God, who provides us with meaning and a place amongst the cosmos.