The Power of Story
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
Aug. 6, 2017
On Wednesday night, we had a fun evening. Brian’s brother and his wife are in visiting from Tucson, and staying with Brian’s parents. So we all got together and ate and then instead of going to a movie, we decided to go to our house and sit around the table, eat dessert and talk. What we did was tell stories. Bruce: Do you remember gym class when we were in middle school? Brian: Oh yes, remember the short white shorts we had to wear? Bruce: I thought they were blue. Brian: No, they were definitely white—with a white t-shirt to match. Bruce: And white tube socks too! Brian: Remember how terrible gym class was. We had to hang from a ring, and I always slipped off. Then we had to do the peg-board, and I could only do one. Bruce: And then with hands curled up tight, we had to climb the rope—I didn’t get very far before falling off. Brian: And the mat was only an inch thick, so it did not break your fall. Bruce: I remember. Brian: Those were the good old times.
We all laughed as they told stories of their childhood.
Stories are fun….but they are more than that.
Stories are foundational, reminding us of our roots, where we come from.
Stories unite us as families of origin and families of faith. Stories are the basis of our faith.
The Bible contains many stories. When we think of the Old Testament, we may think of a series of “thou shalt nots” but much of it contains values that are embedded in powerful stories that teach a lesson and establish the foundation of their society. “When Adam and Eve at the fruit from the Garden of Eden’s tree of knowledge, the punishment powerfully illustrated the fate that may await anyone who ignores a divine order. Noah, who carried out God’s cryptic command to build an ark, survived the great deluge that followed – and personified the rewards in store for one willing to conform to God’s will.
It was no coincidence that, steeped in stories like these, the ancient Hebrews emerged as a unified society of people devoted to God and God’s commands.” (Elizabeth Svoda)
Stories are foundational…but they are more than that.
Stories are formational, reminding us again and again who we are and whose we are, forming us into who we are created to be.
Today’s Psalm 66 is a Psalm of Community Thanksgiving. It invites people to praise God—with songs and offerings, but above all with remembering what God has done. To do so, the Psalmist tells stories.
“Come and see what God has done: God turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot; we went through fire and water, but God brought us to a spacious place…Come and hear, and I will tell you what God has done for me.”
The Psalmist invites people to come close, and listen to the stories of their past, what has happened—struggles and triumphs. And through it all, how God was present and powerful.
Sometimes when we are going through a hard time, we don’t always see where God is.
But, after it is over, years later, we can look back and see how God was at work, trying to bring good out of bad, leading us onto a better path, forming us into who God wants us to be.
Stories are formational, teaching us, changing us, shaping us as people of God. Stories allow us to travel outside of what we think is possible. It is these stories of journeys—sometimes tenuous, sometimes exhilarating—that inspire us to navigate unchartered territories in real life.
In “The Power of Story” by Elizabeth Svoboda wrote this incredible true story: Back in the fall of 1999, Norman Conard, a history teacher at the Uniontown High School in Kansas, asked his students to come up with a project for National History Day. While brainstorming ideas, ninth-grader Elizabeth Cambers stumbled on an old clipping from US News and World Report. The story included the line, ‘Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-43.’
Elizabeth asked her fellow ninth-grader Megan Stewart to help her with her project, and during her free time, Megan pored over the story of Irena Sendler. She learned about how this unassuming young Polish nurse had created thousands of false identity papers to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto. To sneak the children past Nazi guards, Sendler hid them under piles of potatoes and loaded them into gunny sacks. She also wrote out lists of the children’s names and buried them in jars, intending to dig them up again after the war so she could tell them their real identities.
Imagining herself in the young nurse’s position, Megan could appreciate just how difficult her life-threatening choices must have been. She was so moved by Sendler’s gumption and selflessness that she, Elizabeth, and two other friends wrote a play about Sendler. They called it Life in a Jar and performed it at schools and theatres. As word got out, the students’ quest to share what Sendler had done appeared on CNN, NPR, and the Today Show. The power of Sendler’s story had turned the project into something much bigger than the girls expected.
Today, Megan Stewart – now Megan Felt – is programme director for the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, a non-profit organisation that teaches students about the lives of past luminaries such as Sendler. ‘I continue to be inspired by Irena Sendler daily,’ says Felt, who still marvels at the way a single story cracked her own life wide open, completely altering its course. ‘We want young people to be inspired by the stories they hear and realise that they also can change the world.’
Across time and across cultures, stories have proven their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation.
Stories are formational…but they are more than that. Stories are faith-full.
In the Jewish faith, to begin the celebration of Passover, a child asks, “Why is this night different than all other nights?” Then, an adult in the family answers the question by telling a story—the story of the Exodus, when God led the Israelites out of slavery, through the waters of the Sea and the wilderness and into the freedom of the Promised Land. This story of the past inspires faith in God today.
In the Christian faith, to begin the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, I say, “On the night Jesus was arrested, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat. This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And so we do, we remember by telling the story of the Last Supper. We tell the story of Jesus. We tell the story of sacrifice and salvation. We tell the story of our faith. This story of the past inspires faith in God today.
Stories of faith can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it. Stories can affect the way we think and even the way we act, the way we live our faith.
I had lunch with Dave Carver on Monday. He is the Pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Crafton Heights. The people of the community struggle with unemployment, poverty, and broken families. I googled Crafton Heights and the picture that came up next to the map was a crime scene. It is a place where the church plays a vital role in helping people find healing and hope and community. We drove past a building that said, “Open Arms.” I asked him about it. He told a story: Years ago, it was a dilapidated old movie theater. His church decided to buy it and turn it into a youth center, so they could give youth of the community a safe place to go and learn they are loved. The roof developed leaks and it was in trouble of collapsing and they did not have the money to fix it and thought they would have to abandon the building and the ministry. But, he said, the Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon came to the rescue. Tt the time of the insurance settlement from the fire of the Woodland Church, the congregation and session decided to tithe a part of the money for mission. And invited churches to send in proposals for grants. Crafton Heights did. CPCBA provided the money to repair the roof of Open Arms and allow the Christian ministry of Crafton church to continue. What a powerful story! I was glad to learn it and glad to pass on to you in case you did not know.
It is good to tell our stories. It is good to know our stories.
Our stories are foundational—they remind us where we have been.
Our stories are formational—they shape us into who we are as people of God, here and now.
Our stories are faith-ful—they inspire us to put our faith in action, as we go forward.
I invite you to look for opportunities to say to your children or grandchildren,
“Come and listen, I want to tell you a story…”