Telling stories

mysteries_eucharistI think that we are at our best as people when we tell the stories that carry meaning, but have enough “wiggle room” to let people stew over the story a bit. When I was a young child the “Uncle Remus” fables were part of the narrative in books and in Disney movies. Uncle Remus is a fictional character, the title character and narrator of a collection of African-American animal stories, songs, and oral folklore adapted and compiled by Joel Chandler Harris, published in 1881. Br’er Rabbit (“Brother Rabbit”) is the main character of the stories, a likable character, prone to tricks and trouble-making, who is often opposed by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear.

When I was called upon to tell stories to the young children in Kenya, I naturally went to some of the stories of my childhood. I remember the first story I decided to tell was the “tar baby” story. Naturally I had to think out how I would tell the tale in Kiswahili (I can’t remember what I did with “tar baby”), but the next day I was prepared. I told the tale with great flair, sound effects, and the appropriate gravity. At the end of the tale, I said the same words that had so often been said to me, “The moral of this story is….”

When the kids had gone, one of the elders asked me why westerners were so quick to fill in the blanks about the meaning and moral of the story. He explained that I should have just ended the story, because all the children understood they were supposed to take the story and mull it over, try it on, see where they fit in, and reach their own conclusions about it all. Later they would return to the story teller and announce their judgment. The elder explained that when the moral of the story was already announced, the story would never be internalized by the child. And moreover, you would never know how they received the story.

When the kids return, often the results can be expected and mainline, but sometimes an invitation to the story teller to re-enter the story again in order to plum an even deeper understanding. One of the children came back and said that the meaning of the tar baby story is that it is trouble that makes the monkey chew on hot peppers. Hmmm? Think about that one for a while!

At our best, Christians are story tellers. We are people who should gossip the gospel over the backyard fence without announcing the “moral of this story is…” We should simply tell the story of the shepherd who, having 100 sheep, lost one. But when he discovered that one had strayed, he left the 99 and went out to seek the one. And then let the listener respond, “Really? That makes no sense.” We can tell the story of the Samaritan who acts in mercy when others don’t and let the listener wonder why? Is the woman really that joyous over the recovery of a lost coin? Really? “Really” may be our first response to the mystery, but hopefully we recognize it is also an open door to enter into the mystery, to “try on” the story and see where we fit in.

In order to begin, all you need is the stories. We have a whole collection of them in the Bible. So go ahead, read the stories and mull them over, try them on, see where you find yourself in the tale, and reach a first conclusion about it all. Then tell the story to another. It is the greatest story ever told.

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