The Storyteller

It is gratifying to tell a story to a sensitive 4-year old. The stories don’t have to be particularly interesting with complicated plots, characters or climaxes. They sometimes don’t even have to be stories at all – just mere observations told with some real or feigned flair. But nonetheless they are received with appreciation and interest.
“Oh, look Marlon (my grandson), there’s a guy smoking a pipe. You don’t see that much anymore.” “Why,” said Marlon. “I don’t know. But my dad used to smoke a pipe but then he stopped smoking it when he learned from the doctor that it was bad for his health.” Health and/or moral lessons can be sneakily introduced this way. That story got retold to his parents later on when I wasn’t there. Too bad, because Marlon got the story understandably mixed up as he thought that I said his dad had smoked a pipe. My son-in-law had to tell him that ” Nonna was mistaken”. Shucks! I had to retell the story with emphasis on my dad, not his. By that time, Marlon was hardly interested in the retelling of a story that only included a change in proper names.

Sometimes my stories generate sympathy and compassion for almost nothing. “Hey Marlon, yesterday, I saw a guy carelessly throw trash out of his car onto the street. Boy, that wasn’t nice, was it?” “Why”, said Marlon. “Well, because we all need to work together to make our roads and communities clean and nice places to live.” Later, Marlon said, “Nonna, I’m sorry that you had to see someone litter from their car.” I was impressed that my non-story had such an impact even while feeling a tad guilty that my litter story had not nearly the emotional impact on me as my grandson assumed it had. Shame on me.

Storytelling is hot at the moment
There are books, seminars and workshops on Storytelling. It appears that we are all desperately in need of hearing a good story or, better yet, to be able to tell one. The goal is to create stories that are interesting, arresting, and even life changing. Libraries, clubs and shows advertise upcoming storytelling events. Good communication and sermons must include stories to hold the interests of its audience. That audience can sometimes be just one person like your spouse or child. This current trend has a way of making Storytelling sound like it’s the newest tool for good communication. It is almost as if before now, we were only communicating in treatises and legalese or worst yet, in grunts, texts and tweets. But Storytelling is hardly new. We have been telling stories ever since we humans have been sitting around camp fires rotisseriz-ing our wild drumsticks. We are hardwired for stories. Oral storytelling has been the ancient way of entertaining and efficiently teaching the younger generation of what was important for group cohesiveness and how to stay alive in a world rife with dangers.

We still do it.

I unfortunately got the “tell scary life stories gene” in spades as my daughters can testify. They are able to retell every, “once there was this person, and they did something and then something really horrible happened to them so watch out” story I ever told them. I am working on suppressing this anxious gene expression for the sake of my grandchildren. In fact, I am hoping to be able to tell them some of Jesus’ stories in winsome and engaging ways. And hopefully, like Jesus, I won’t do my Aesop’s fable-lesson- type-thing at the end of the story to make sure they get the point. Rather I hope to let Jesus’ parables do their own mysterious workings in my grandchildren’s hearts and minds; informing their understanding of God’s love and what He wants of them.

I have been attending to the parables of Jesus for several decades. I am often surprised how freshly they communicate God’s ways and wisdom. ” The prodigal son” (Luke 15) is a personal  favorite  when I am tempted to feel that God  doles out love and acceptance based on performance rather than faith in His love and sacrifice. My latest appreciation of this parable follows, thanks to Kenneth Bailey.

A very incomplete recap of Jesus’ story of the “Prodigal Son”
The story begins with a young adult son or teen who asks for his share of the family inheritance – a request that was unheard of in first century Palestine. The request amounts to a “you are taking too long to die so give me my inheritance now.” Jesus’ audience would have perked up immediately with this story’s beginning as it would have belied the cultural norms right from the get- go. A son behaving in such a way would have been punished but surprisingly the father grants his request and off the son goes to a “faraway place where he proceeds to squander his inheritance on wild riotous living.” Jesus then describes the son’s descent into self-inflicted poverty. Alone and starving the son remembers the stability and comforts of home and decides to take a chance and return. He, too, knows his culture’s expectations of how to treat such a flagrantly disobedient son. But he is desperate.

Jesus’ first century listeners would have assumed the ending to this morality drama. The father who is also a wealthy landowner and by implication a leader and one of the guardians of the community’s stability  would have the son killed, banished or, if inclined to show mercy, treated as an hired servant with no claim to a son’s status or affection. The latter is what the son is hoping for as we listen to his internal dialogue being practiced on his journey back home.: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son: make me like one of your hired servants.” (Luke 15:18-19)

And why not? There needed to be an ending that would help keep the community intact. After all, youth listening to a story like this would need to know that if you break the community’s rules , you could expect to be an outcast. How else would the long held traditions of elder respect and compliance be upheld? How else was a community going to be protected from chaos, corruption, and possible extinction unless the father or community elder did not exact the rules of tribal community survival?  Bringing the erring son to justice was certainly what the Jesus-listeners would have expected.. But no, this is not how this story would end. Jesus, no doubt, surprised his listeners with an ending of unimaginable love, forgiveness, and humility. “But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)

I like imagining the father hiking up his long robe to run ( older men in the Middle East don’t run. it is beneath them and invites shame) all the while thinking, “Who cares what the village thinks of me. Let the community be disgusted with my disregard to the village’s rules and let them think I am no longer worthy of their esteemed opinion and respect. I only care that I have my son back and I am going to throw a party!” To add more intrigue to this story, Jesus introduces a third character. The self-righteous follow-the-rules older brother who upon hearing of his loser brother returning and being thrown a party by their father is abhorred and resentful. He complains bitterly to his father for what he sees as an injustice of indulgence and favoritism. The father tries to woo the older son with love, as well. “Don’t you see? You had the benefit of always being with me and enjoying the comforts of home, while your brother was playing the fool and ended up almost starving to death, you had a stable life with friends and beef steak anytime you wanted it.”

Bailey, a theologian and Middle Eastern scholar who I credit for elucidating Jesus’ parables with exciting insights, calls this parable and other parables, metaphoric and deeply theological representations of God’s, “costly demonstration of extravagant and unexpected love.” He states says that this kind of love that only God can offer is for “the law breaker (younger son) as well as for the law keeper (older son in the story).” They both need it and so do we regardless of which brother we identify with.

Read, ”Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes,” by Kenneth Bailey.

Personal application
Is a story told to first century Palestine relevant for us? Well, it depends if you feel a need to be accepted and loved beyond your capacity to be deserving of such love. And it depends on whether or not you believe in a God whom you have let down no matter how little or hard you have tried to be good and self-justified. If you feel such a need as I do then this parable is a tear jerk-er of good news. And for sure it is much better and has more emotional impact than stories of people smoking pipes or even of litter bugs.

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What a dead rat on a grill taught me about caring for people

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in February David and I have been living in Buffalo, NY. Daughters, grandchildren and a cancer institute two miles from the apartment we rent year around made the decision to settle in for the duration of treatment. Adding to those blessings has been the small urban Buffalo Vineyard Church that we attend.

A debriefing session was held after church today about the Friday evening barbecues that the church hosts in Buffalo’s urban west side during the summer months. This urban church is small in number but its members, mostly younger than 35, have big hearts and active mission to the people in their urban community.

We sat outside after church eating snacks while discussing the usual questions posed during a debrief of a major church initiative:  “What went well, what needs to be improved upon, what lessons did we learn for next year, and how did anyone see God at work?”

I shared my story and Maryanne said, “Dona that can be the title of your next blog post.”  I have taken her up on it because among other things rats can be great ice breakers of which I will explain shortly, but first I will share another time when a rat played an important role in a social setting.

Senegal World Vision trip 2005

Eight of us were eating in a restaurant in a small town near villages we were visiting.  Our church in Juneau Alaska was partnering with World Vision and village elders to bring clean water to an impoverished area serving a couple thousand people.  As we were eating our meal a huge rat darted past the door keeper.  Women screamed, maybe some men, too.  Some folks jumped on chairs and others like me were in denial saying ridiculous things like, “That’s not a rat. It’s too big. It’s probably a gopher.”  The rat was frantically running underneath tables and chairs trying to avoid the door keeper whose powerful legs finally won the day when he soccer- kicked the “gopher” rat across the room, through the door into the dusty dirt road from where he came.  The room erupted with applause, cheers and high fives as we witnessed this great athletic feat by our door man.  We laughed, told our versions, commiserated with the other patrons of the restaurant about their versions. Met new people. It was one of the highlights of the trip.

West Side Buffalo, June 2014

The grills were being prepared as adults from the community were coming and sitting on folding chairs and children were running around waiting for the food to be cooked and offered.  Many folks from the church had their barbecuing tasks to prepare for and others like me were sitting around trying to get to know some people who were coming to this weekly event.  I set my sights on a group of three women who seemed to know each other well as they talked about things in the community of which I knew nothing about.  But being the talker that I am (not even chemo can take that away from me) I ventured into their space and introduced myself and they did likewise.  They asked me if I went to the church that was putting on the barbecue.  I no sooner said yes, then they told me that they had seen a dead rat on one of the five grills that was getting ready to be fired up. In fact, they emphatically told me that the grill had been leaning on the side of the church for two days with the dead rat on it for both days; and someone needed to do something about that grill.  I had the distinct feeling that that someone was meant to be me.  Two reactions came up immediately. The first was laziness.  I didn’t want to do anything about it because I figured a grill heated up to over a 1000 degrees would kill any left-over dead rat-ness. I said as much but they were not impressed and seemed annoyed.  “Someone needs to wash that grill with hot soapy water,” the women said again and again. I knew that someone was meant to be me.  My second reaction was disgust.  I didn’t want to get that close and personal with a grill that had been the resting place for a dead rat for two days. I wanted to shoot back by using my cancer card, “You do it, I’m in cancer treatment and don’t need this”. But I knew that this was not the way to make new friends.

After cleaning the grill with hot soapy water, the women invited me back over to their circle with a, “You did good, girl!”  We all warmed up to each other.  Finding out I had cancer they told me encouraging stories about family members who got cancer and were treated wonderfully at Roswell Cancer Institute before they died ( hmm…..not the most encouraging of outcomes) but I knew for them the question of life or death was not the point  of the experience.  It was that their loved ones and they by virtue of proximity to their loved ones were treated respectfully and lovingly at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. They wanted me to be encouraged by such an important truth: how we are treated by strangers whose job is to care about us is the point.  I was so glad for hot soapy water and the presence of mind to finally show that I cared for what they cared about. This was my story of how God was at work, even through a dead rat.

Galatians 6:9 “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we don’t give up.”