Sunday, January 27, 2013

Diocesan Ultreya - Stories God's People Tell

This is the text I wrote in preparation for this year's Diocesan Ultreya in the Diocese of Alabama. I didn't speak from the text or from notes, so it didn't quite come out this way. But here's the text anyway.

I come from a long line of people who don’t tell stories. The closest my mom gets to telling a story is relating to me how she went to the store and bought six packages of boneless, skinless chicken breasts because they were on sale. My father is even worse. I still don’t know anything that happened to him during the first thirty years of his life. I’ve met some of his college friends who give me the impression that there are indeed stories to be told, but I still haven’t heard any of them. My grandparents were all appropriately wise for their age, but none of them had any stories to share. They always seemed interested in hearing what I had been up to lately, but they never told me about life on the farm or life in the mill.

The theme for this Ultreya is “Stories God’s People Tell,” and you’d expect that all of the presenters here this weekend would be story tellers of one sort or another, but my people don’t tell stories, and that includes me. When my dad tucked me in at night, he would act like he had a story to tell, but really it was just the same exact story over and over again every single night. It was about an animal who got lost in the woods, and my dad did manage to mix things up now and then by switching out a turtle named Fred for a frog named Ralph, but really nothing ever changed. By the time I was 15, I lost interest. But that hasn’t stopped me from telling my children that exact same story with those same character variations.

Whether it’s tucking in my children or standing in a pulpit, I’m not really good at telling stories. I tried that thing, which some preachers call “narrative theology,” when the preacher gets up and simply tells a story or two and trusts the congregation to figure it all out, but it didn’t work so well. It was Palm Sunday, so I told a heart-breaking tale that no one seemed to get. In fact, all it did was make people angry at me because they didn’t like how the story ended. (I kind of figured that was the point of Palm Sunday, but I learned my lesson, and I’ve stopped trying to use stories as sermons.)

Actually, no one person in my family is a particularly good story teller, but, if you get two or three of them together, there’s a good chance you’ll hear some fabulous tales. Every time I heard stories about my mother’s childhood, it happened when her brother and sister were visiting. What my mother would never say by herself she opens up and shares freely when surrounded by her siblings. It’s as if they lubricate each other’s memories and stimulate each other’s willingness to disclose chapters from the past—each drawing out of the others their own version of a shared encounter.

My mother is the middle child, so the versions of the stories that resonate with me usually involve her older sister instigating some sort of trouble at the expense of her younger brother. There’s the story of the time when my aunt convinced her brother to hold a leaf up to his forehead while she shot through it with a bb gun. That my uncle still has his sight, she claims, is a credit to her marksmanship. Then there’s the story of the cracked marbles, which apparently were a fad way back then. My aunt heard that glass marbles got those cracks by dropping them from a high height into a pan of sizzling grease, so, when their parents were gone and she was babysitting, she managed to catch half of the kitchen cabinets on fire.

My mother liked to remind us that every time my grandmother came home and surveyed the damage she would turn around silently, get in her car, and go for a drive. It was the way she dealt with things. One Easter morning, when she unknowingly put a canned ham in the oven to cook—can and all—and it exploded, sending shredded meat and grease dripping down the kitchen windows, she went for a drive. When the police called to inform my grandparents that my aunt had been arrested for stealing stop signs, she got in her car—not to pick up her daughter from the police station but to go for a drive. Somehow almost all of my mother’s childhood stories end with my grandmother behind the wheel of a car, and, for some reason, by the time she came home, everything was ok.

When I stop and think about those stories, which pour forth so freely when my mother and her sister and brother are gathered around the dinner table, I start to wonder whose stories they really are. Each sibling fights the others to convey his or her slant on the facts of a particular event. Despite the objections of her siblings, my aunt will remind the other two that it was Uncle Stewart who actually dropped the marbles into the oil. And my mother, the dutiful middle child, recalls most of the tales with less drama and exaggeration than her siblings. But none of the stories is voiced until they are all together. And, although any of them could tell the story without any help, none of them has exclusive rights to them. They are shared stories—both in the original experience and in the retelling.

Think about the stories that define who you are. What are the childhood stories you cherish? Some of them come from moments that were shared with other people—relatives or friends. And some of them are stories that are deeply personal, purely private—moments that no one but you really knows. I can’t say for sure, but I’m willing to bet that you’ve got some stories like those of my mother and her siblings—stories of mischief and the trouble that came from it and stories of angry parents who eventually forgave you.

But if you had to pick just one story—one story that had a particular hand in shaping you into the person you’ve become, one story that sums you up as well as any other—what would it be? Or, to put it another way, if you thought about your whole life as a story that you could tell, what would that story sound like? Would there be a part in which you wandered off for a bit before coming back home? Would you tell a story that involves feeling like an outsider who then gets drawn in? Would there be mischief and trouble and remorse and reconciliation? What is the story of your life? As a child of God—as someone whose life has been redeemed by a God who loves you—how will you tell your life’s story?

The truth is that there is one big story that unites us all. It’s God’s story, and it includes people like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Joshua, David and Bathsheba, Peter and Paul, Matthew and Mary Magdalene, and my mother and your mother, my aunts and uncles and your grandparents and great-grandparents. There is one big story, and it includes all of us. It’s a story of sin and redemption. It’s a story of wandering in the wilderness and being called back home. It’s a story of brokenness and deep healing. And it’s it our story. It’s your story. And it’s my story. But it’s also a story that doesn’t belong to any of us. It’s a story that we all share.

As Christians, we are called to share our story with each other and to share it with people who haven’t ever heard a story like ours. We’re called to tell our story—not because it’s ours to tell but because it’s God’s and he wants us to tell it. Some of us—me included—find it hard to tell our story because it seems like it’s about us, and we’d rather talk about someone else. But, when we’re with brothers or sisters, parents or children, somehow the stories come out more freely. That’s because in those moments we’re not just telling our story. We’re sharing a story with other people who have lived it with us. But’s that exactly what the story of your life really is. It’s a salvation story that is shared by every woman and man and child on the face of this earth. It’s the story of the prodigal son. It’s the story of the bent-over woman. It’s the story of demon-possessed man. It’s the story of the Samaritan woman. The story of your life doesn’t just belong to you. It’s shared by all of us. So tell it. Share it with people who know that same story—who have lived it out in their own lives. Share it with people who haven’t heard it yet but who already know it in their bones. As one of God’s people, you have a story to tell. And it may be unique to your own experience, but it’s also a story that we all share along with you.

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