“When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers.”Deuteronomy 6:20-23
“When I was a little boy of about six I used to drive the horses and rake hay, and a couple of times we hit a ground hornet’s nest and those horses would take off like a shot straight ahead, running as fast as they could until they couldn’t run anymore, and there I was just holding on for dear life trying not to fall off.”
My wife’s Grampa is eighty-eight years old, going on sixty. Tomorrow if it doesn’t rain like it’s supposed to he plans to put up some sixteen foot 1×12” shiplap on the roof deck of a pole barn he’s building. “Gotta get all my scaffolding under a roof,” he says.
Since Gramma unexpectedly died just before Valentine’s Day, pretty much every Tuesday evening my wife loads up the van with all the kids, a wonderful smelling something in the crock-pot, some hot fresh rolls, and maybe even a pie, and heads down to Grampa’s. I leave from the office and meet up with them there.
Grampa has stories. Lots of them. He grew up in a cabin that resembles Lincoln’s first home and was the only white kid in an all native-American school. As a kindergartner, the other kids held his face in a puddle so long he nearly drowned and ended up with pneumonia. He’s had the measles – three times. He spent time in the Air Force working intel over in Germany in the same building as Johnny Cash. He has accumulated a lifetime of hard work building stuff, mostly houses, and it yields an almost endless supply of entertaining stories. There was that one job where a neighbor’s kid kept coming over and bothering the masons until they told him he could fill his coat pockets with mud then sent him home (he never came back after that!), that one time his helper was cutting a cantilevered beam twenty feet off the ground and did a Wylie Coyote and cut himself down, and there he lay on the ground with the saw still in his hand – and running. A year and a half ago when he was only eighty-six he whispered to me that he’d fallen off a ladder installing a beam over a garage door. Got in too big a hurry, he said. “Don’t tell Gramma!” he told me, laughing.
Stories grip our attention, capture our imagination, and satisfy some deep craving of the soul. I’ll never forget the man who would fall asleep every week during my sermon, then instantly wake up the second I began telling a story – and fall right back to sleep as soon as it was over. Can’t say I blame him.
We love our storytellers, from the anchor who reads his script with perfect solemnity (and non-regional diction), to the singers strumming ballads, to the actors we pay gazillions of dollars to tell a story really well. But the goosebumps you get when Mel Gibson yells “Freedom!” at the end of Braveheart. . . the laborer truly is worthy of his wages.
The power of a good story seems to be that it takes all the abstract complexities of our world, which are almost unfathomable, and teaches them in a way that is so pleasurable one can hardly turn away. After five years of reading college textbooks, I lost any joy in reading until several years later I picked up The Lord of the Rings, and as the saying goes, couldn’t put it down:
“What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we? I wish I could hear it told! Do you think they’ll say: Now comes the story of Nine-fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom? And then everyone will hush, just like we did, when in Rivendell they told us the tale of Beren One-hand and the Great Jewel. I wish I could hear it! And I wonder how it will go on after our part.”
Stories tell us they tell us what life is like, for better or for worse. By showing us the glory of virtue they almost drive us to pursue courage and integrity, as my many childhood viewings of Davy Crockett and subsequent battles in the front yard against the River Pirates proved. Stories teach us how to spot a wolf under the sheep costume. Old ladies distributing apples seem so harmless, after all.
Stories give vivid hope that Romans 8:28 is not just wishful thinking. Jack trading the cow for some beans really was pretty dumb, and his mom was right to be upset, but in the end, it worked out pretty swell for both of them. Some stories are tragic and remind us that life is harsh, and though I wouldn’t admit it then, I’ll say it now: I cried when Old Yeller died (and vowed to never watch it again, a promise kept for thirty years and counting). Sad stories remind us that life is hard for everyone, and that’s comforting somehow. Alice’s story is by far both the saddest story I’ve ever written and the most eagerly read. But sad stuff is a necessary condition for a satisfying ending, a la Kenny Rogers’ Coward of the County.
No doubt the book of Genesis is the result of God’s directing Moses’ pen but it’s almost certainly also the result of generations of Grampas telling their Grampa’s stories around a campfire. God told his people to tell stories. When Dad goes out and breaks Lenny the Lamb’s little neck and the kids cry out in shock, “Why’d you do that?” God said, “Tell them the story about how I got the slaves out of Egypt.” When passing by the Jordan river and there’s this pile of rocks and the kids say “What’s up with that?” God said “Tell them about crossing that river at flood stage on dry land.” They’re cool stories, and tell the kids where they came from, Who is with them, and where they’re going.
I like this story: “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.” I’m not crazy about dying, but being “gathered to my people” sounds kind of exciting and I wouldn’t mind experiencing that; I expect that why it’s written that way. We really do think of death in those terms anyway – Alice isn’t with us anymore, but she’s with Gramma…
Good stories are healthy to the mind and soul. Bad stories are just as powerful, and equally unhealthy. A story unconsciously imports really complex things into one’s mind and heart, but whether those things are good or bad depends on whether it’s a good or a bad story.
It’s no coincidence that Drag Queen Story Hour is hitting libraries across the nation, and looking to get your kids’ eyes and ears there, not to hear some boring lecture from a man dressed as a woman, but to hear him read a story like this one:In Red: A Crayon’s Story, “a blue crayon mistakenly labeled as “red” suffers an identity crisis in this picture book…” In one cute, beautifully illustrated story an entire (and entirely unbiblical) worldview of what it means to be a person, where our identity comes from, and how to think about people who “mislabel” us comes silently streaming into unsuspecting little minds, and those ideas are not quickly or easily corrected.
Here are some more bad stories that might be more familiar: You’ve heard the one about how the bourgeoisie was oppressing the proletariat so they just wiped out the rich guys and everyone lived happily ever after (except the millions that starved to death, but who’s counting?). Replace bourgeoisie with “privileged” and proletariat with “oppressed,” and play it again, Sam.
You’ve heard of the one about the poor woman whose life was going along really swell until she ended up with a clump of cells in her uterus and if she didn’t do something about it this thing would grow up, pop out, and ruin her life, so a hero came along and dismembered the thing before it was too late and she lived happily ever after (except for this and the millions of other babies like it that died, but who’s counting?).
The postmodern age in which we now live is defined as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Translation: We don’t trust the great stories that have long explained the world and tie it (and us) all together. When we lose our stories, we lose our identity, our place in the world, our sense of belonging and purpose. Stories codify and embed in our hearts our origin, our problems, our solutions, our purpose, our virtues, our destiny. The stuff that matters. Is it any wonder that when we have been told for decades now that we randomly came from disordered nothing, for no apparent reason, to no apparent purpose, that our lives sometimes feel so pointless? Is it any wonder that without a meaningful story to encapsulate and explain reality so many in this age of extreme affluence (historically speaking) are ungrateful, discontent, and ready to tear the world apart? No, the world isn’t a perfect place. But most of us never had to, like Grampa, grab one end of a buck saw at ten years old, work in the woods all day, then come home in time to milk the cows by hand, finally head into a cabin without running water, electricity, broadband internet or Amazon Prime. Was survival even possible before frozen pizza?
When God decided to give his people a Book by which they could properly understand themselves, their world, their problems, and Him, he gave them a coherent, unified story: In the beginning, it was good, then the bad guy almost destroyed the whole world, but an unexpected hero came to the rescue, and he died fighting evil but came back to life and he and his friends and family lived happily ever after. It’s a tale as true as the North Star, deeper than the ocean, brighter than the sunrise.
Tell your kids stories. The good stories. The old stories. Tell them about the lunatic tilting at windmills, about round tables and knights and dragons and damsels in distress, tell them about Lions, Witches, and Wardrobes, and tell them Grampa’s stories about the good old days and how he married Gramma when she was only sixteen, and stayed true to her for over sixty years. Tell them about the little girl with cancer and how good mommies always cry themselves to sleep when they lose their kids. And above all else, tell them the Greatest story ever told, because they have a part to play in that one. Tell them Jesus said they can have the kingdom, the one where you can do anything you want, because nothing you want to do is off limits. Tell about the guy who left family and friends at the City of Destruction and went on Pilgrimage to find the cross and be rid of his burden, how he went through the Slough of Despond, fought with Apollyon, was chained in the dungeon of Giant Despair and mercilessly flogged at Vanity Fair. Tell them it was worth it, because after nearly drowning crossing the final river he reached the Celestial City, the “happily ever after…”
Tell them a story. After all, it’s for the children.
top image, though randomly poached from a Google search is, I hope, a glimpse into my future