The Stories We Tell
This past Friday, I saw Life of Pi at the American Repertory Theater. It is a recent adaptation of the novel to the stage and is about a young man who tells the terrifying story of surviving a shipwreck. He first spins a fantastic tale recounting the details of a journey in a lifeboat filled with himself and four animals. When those listening reacted in disbelief and insisted on a truer version, he told a heart-rending, unembellished account of the events that left them speechless. He then asks them which story they prefer and they quickly say that the first story is the better one.
This week, I have been thinking about the stories we tell. In particular, I have been musing on what makes a story true, engaging, and able to be heard and understood by the listeners. In Life of Pi, both stories were true, but one was easier to engage with as a story of triumph and overcoming while the other elicited despondency and sorrow. I think the way we choose to tell a story–the words, metaphors, and images we use–determines the power of the story and its ability to be heard.
With these thoughts rumbling about in my head, I could not help but think of the most important story I know: our sacred story. I have heard this story told in so many different ways, all of them true and yet all of them different.
To begin with, there are the four tellings of our sacred story in the gospel writers’ words as they try to tell this story to four very different communities. These are the tellings we have the greatest familiarity with. We hear parts of these tellings each week as we stand to listen to the proclamation of the words from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. In these tellings, we find a fairly straightforward narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We hear about his teachings and actions as he moves among us as one of us. The words of these tellings are dear to us; we cherish them, memorize them, and wear them in our hearts. But, there are countless ways that our story is told.
Jesus himself is a storyteller. Often we hear his teachings begin with, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and frequently we hear him use everyday people and objects as a way to bring our sacred story to life. We can think of the parables of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Mustard Seed, and the Lost Sheep. Each of these parables is a different telling of our story, a way of sharing the core truth so that it can be heard and understood in different ways and by different people.
Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on my father’s lap with my sister and listening to another telling of our sacred story in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. The tale of four ordinary children stumbling into a magical world filled with mythical creatures, talking animals, and that all too alluring Turkish delight captured my heart in a way that the words of the gospels did not at that age. I could feel the children's excitement as they entered Narnia and met a faun and talking beasts. I was overwhelmed with sadness as Aslan allowed himself to be killed by the White Witch as payment for one of the children’s mistakes and I exulted in his triumphant return to life. I still cherish the way Lewis tells our story and return to it again and again.
I also think of the saints of our tradition who told our sacred story with their very lives. Saint Basil of Caesarea, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and Saint Gregory of Nazianus who told our story through academic inquiry and explanation of our faith. Saint Teresa of Ávila, Dame Julian of Norwich, and Evelyn Underhill who told our story through teaching others how to commune more deeply with God. Saint Francis, Florence Nightingale, and Fred Rogers who told our story in caring for others. Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Óscar Romero who told our story in their relentless pursuit of justice for all of God’s people. What a vivid way to tell our story by living it out through everything we do and everything we are.
Of course, this all brings us to the question, how do we tell our sacred story? Do we as individuals use words or imagination or metaphors or prayer or our very lives to tell our sacred story in our own way? And how do we as Trinity Church tell our story? How have we as a community told our story? How do we tell it? How will we tell it? I think these are important questions. We tell stories in our own way with our own words and in our own time and we must be intentional about how we tell our story. And it is not a burden, but a joy! The exciting part is that we get to tell the story of Jesus; we get to share the great love story again and again and again. We are called to be storytellers, so let us tell our story passionately each and every day of our lives.