Here is the story most of us remember, once upon a time there was a nomadic family, Abraham and Sarah wandering the desert in search of God’s promised land. Sarah was barren and in order to give her husband a son she told him to lie with her handmaiden, Hagar, a Bedouin slave. Hagar bore Abraham a son who she named Ishmael. In time, Sarah grew jealous of Hagar and had Abraham banish her and her young son to the desert to die. Hagar and Ishmael did not die but were saved by God and went off to found the tribes of Arabia, the ancestors of Islam. Sarah gave birth to her own son Isaac who inherited his father’s blessing and became the father of the Israelites.
This story, a compilation of Jewish and Muslim traditions, is in large part the histo-cultural reason for the millennia old conflict between Arabs and Israelis. Any one who tells you that “it’s just a story” is not appreciating the power the stories have to tell. What if this story had a different outcome? What if Sarah had not had Hagar and Ishmael banished to the desert? What if they had lived, as was the nomadic custom of the day, together in a multi female household and Ishmael and Isaac had grown up as brothers? Would the outcome be any different? I believe it would.
Stories do more than just entertain. Stories speak to our values, in fact, the oldest stories inform our values. Any of the German fairy tales inform much of our American work ethic: the boy who cried wolf, teaches us not to lie; the Jewish story about the Three Little Pigs informs our work ethic; the tale of the frog prince, teaches us the virtue of seeing the inner self. Stories are a means to meaning, or as the author Roy Hedin puts it:
“Stories are the central means by which we demonstrate our desire for a meaningful life. It is through stories that we convey our central wishes, fears, and values. It is through stories—and through the sense of our lives as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end—that we create a sense of purpose and direction. It is through the stories we tell and the stories that engage our interest that we reveal—and discover—where we are coming from and where we are going. It is through telling our stories and listening to the stories of others that we connect with them on the deepest level. And it is through the reshaping of our stories that we reshape our sense of purpose and direction in times of uncertainty, stress, and tragedy”. (From Roy Hedin www.meaningthroughstories.com)
No minister could convey to you the deeper questions and answers to life without the use of the many stories we use. Stories are more than just a tool to giving meaning they are a system by which meaning is conveyed most effectively. This is why stories are such a necessary part of our worship celebration. You will forget all the niceties of any well crafted theological argument, I can assure you, but if I start and end with a story, you will remember that. In fact, better yet, you will retell the story and there lies the real power.
Story telling is more than a recreation it is, in short, the “art of meaning”. Theology, the system of making meaning is simply not possible without stories.
Occasionally, I am asked if a story “really happened”. I smile that wily smile and reply “if it’s not true it should be”. Such an answer is akin to the best definition of a myth I ever heard from an eight year old: myths are something that are false on the outside but true on the inside. Whether the story is true or not is not the point. The story is the point. This is a church, not a court of law, our search for truth and meaning, is not a Joe Friday “just the facts ma’m” endeavor; it’s a meaning making endeavor. Most of the stories I tell you are true in the factual sense, all the stories I tell you are true in the mythic sense.
Myths are the cultural stories we tell to remind us of our deepest values and meanings. And we are so starved for myths these days. So unable to feel and experience the heroic in our lives. How can we go beyond the facts and the spin to the really important stories of our lives? We can remember and retell the old stories first. The bible, for instance, is a treasure trove of stories, as useful as any. Full of tragedy, wrong, right, justice, love, hate, pathos. These and much more recent myths begin to reanimate our lives with a different sense of meaning.
Stories help us make sense of life. This is why we do well to learn how to tell those stories. Better story tellers make better story hearers. More importantly, start this new year with the most important story of your life: yours. Your story is the stuff of legend already. You have as many adventures as any preacher, more so. I make to you today an invitation: write down some of those great stories from your own life and send them to me. I would love to read them. Let me know if I have your permission to use them in a sermon with or without your name. Share them with those who know you. William Ellery Channing put it so well: Let your life preach better than words.