StoryTellers - thrive UMC Official Blog


I want to start this morning by telling you a story. It was Wednesday, November 2, 2016, just before midnight. You have to understand, I’m one of those weird, superstitious sports fans, so I had my Cubs ball cap on in rally mode, accompanied by the same jersey and t-shirt I had worn for the previous 6 games. I had been standing up – for good luck – behind my recliner since the Indians hit a home run that evaporated what had once been a 5 – 0 lead for the good guys. I paced nervously as I watched history unfold. The Chapman meltdown. The rain delay. The Schwarber base hit that solidified his epic comeback tale. The walk to Rizzo. The Zobrist go-ahead RBI. The threat of a late rally from Cleveland. And then, dear friends…

Two outs. Bottom of the tenth. Last chance to dance for the Indians. A player whose name I’ve forgotten and didn’t bother to look up hits a bouncing ball towards the gap between third and short. A charging Kris Bryant comes up with it and slips on the throw to first, adding a little more drama to what will surely go down as one of the most dramatic baseball games in history. And then the out heard around the world. After 108 years, the Chicago Cubs had won the World Series, bringing the longest championship drought in the history of professional sports to a glorious end.

Now you might think that was my favorite part, but you would be wrong. It was all the stories that emerged in the following weeks. The man who wrote the name of his recently deceased wife on the impromptu memorial fans created along the outfield walls, right near where the pair had first met. The Iowa man who held on just long enough to see the Cubs win it all before passing from cancer mere hours later. Or the North Carolina man who drove all through the night to his father’s grave site in Indiana to keep his promise that the two of them would listen to the big game together.

I mean, come on, how can you not be romantic about baseball?

I’ve spent some time thinking about why the Cubs win has resonated with me so much. I became a baseball fan in college, and basically picked the Cubs because of my friends and the Triple-A Iowa Cubs here in Des Moines. My only other connection to the city was dating a girl from Chicago for a couple of years. Most of my family is baseball indifferent of fans of the Minnesota Twins, which is basically the same thing. And yes, my affinity for the team has grown over the years, but it isn’t a full and rich history, steeped in long-standing game day traditions. At least, not yet.

So what is it? Like I said before, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this because how I spend my free time is my business. I think the answer is that I love story. My mother is elementary school teacher and she stressed the importance of reading to me from a very young age. Just one of the many things she ended up being right about. I would list all of the other things, but we are supposed to be out of here by noon. Anyway, I was read to every night before I learned to read myself. By the time I reached middle school, I was tackling books well beyond my age level, mostly so I could get a free pizza from that accelerated reader program. Do they still have that? Eventually, my pizza-related motivations were overcome by a genuine love of story and narrative.

In reality, I think we all do. In a 2012 article for The New Yorker, writer Adam Gopnik says: “Gottschall’s encouraging thesis is that human beings are natural storytellers – that they can’t help telling stories, and that they turn things that aren’t stories into stories because they like narrative so much. Everything – faith, science, love – needs a story for people to find it plausible.

Think about the story of the 2016 Chicago Cubs. I only told you about one game, but truth be told, the entire playoff run was ripped from the pages of a Hollywood screenplay. Aside from being good for sports, it’s just a really good story. I have spoken to several people who are not fans of baseball under normal circumstances, but watched every game of the World Series and rooting for the Cubs. I would argue that they weren’t rooting for the Cubs as much as they were tapping into their natural desire to witness a good story. Adam Gopnik posits here that we as people not only love narrative, but that story is paramount to how we understand pretty much everything. Gopnik gives us three examples: faith, science, and love. I think we can all conjure up several examples of each. The Notebook is all three, am I right guys?

For the last couple weeks here at thrive, we’ve been talking about finding and defining our purpose. I have come to believe that purpose cannot be divorced from narrative. If we take the time to examine the stories we are living everyday, we can discover meaning and purpose in them. So this morning we are going to talk about stories and narrative and, in so doing, talk about our purpose.

In his book, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” Donald Miller shares this realization he had while writing a screenplay from his successful memoir “Blue Like Jazz”:

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but it’s obvious now that in creating the fictional Don, I was creating the person I wanted to be, a person worth telling stories about.

So this naturally begs the question: what kind of person is worth telling stories about? Acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin says that characters in a story have to want something and if they can need it, that’s even better. So first off, the kind of person worth telling stories about is a person who wants or needs something.

Now of course we all want things. I pretty much always want gummy life savers. I could make an argument that sometimes I need them, but again we probably don’t have that kind of time. The story of Chris wanting gummy lifesavers isn’t really worth telling – probably for a number of reasons – but the one I want to focus on is that it lacks what Sorkin says is the second essential for a character in a story: opposition. There has to be something or someone standing the way of the character getting the gummy lifesavers, otherwise it’s not really a story worth telling.

So we know that we as human begins are wired to love good stories, and we recognize that a good story includes a character with a want or need and a force in opposition to that want or need. This type of story resonates with us on a primary level, probably because it happens around us and to us all the time. If I could say out loud “I want gummy lifesavers!” and they simply appeared, there is no force in opposition. But we know that’s not how life works. Instead I have to get up and get into my car and go somewhere to satisfy my want or need, which in and of itself creates the opportunity for other stories and characters to be introduced along the way. Sounds pretty good, right? More adventures, more characters, how fun and potentially exciting! But you know what the truth is: having to get up and leave my house to get lifesavers is annoying.

Do you know what I’m talking about, church? This is a pretty tame example, but that doesn’t make it any less true. We have a desire for our stories to contain as few obstacles as possible. The aforementioned Donald Miller puts it this way: Somehow we realize that great stories are told in conflict, but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are actually in. We think that God is unjust rather than a master storyteller.

It stands to reason that if we are designed to reflect God’s image and we naturally love storytelling, then God probably loves it too. We could run down countless examples of this in scripture, from he time Bale’s donkey talked to him – seriously, that happened – to the greater, over-arching narrative of a God whose love is so great, he actually died to restore relationship with his creation.

But I want to focus on a story found in Matthew 11 about John the Baptist because – as it turns out – we aren’t the only ones sometimes have trouble seeing the potential greatness in our stories. Matthew 11 finds John in a bad way: he is in prison and about to be executed. So he gets word to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Before we go any further, it’s important for you to understand that J the B was Jesus’ biggest fan. He liked Jesus way, way before it was cool. In fact, the Bible tells us that when their mothers met, J the B jumped for joy in the womb just because he was near Jesus. Now can you imagine going from that to: are you the one or should we expect another? I mean, for someone who has been so certain, this is an odd question to say the very least.

So Jesus gets the message and he says:

Go and tell Jesus what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is the man who does not fall away because of me.

You see, I think John is having trouble recognizing the potential greatness of his story. And I don’t blame him, I think given the situation any of us would have been the same. But it demonstrates that no matter who you are or how great your faith, when circumstances get especially difficult, you aren’t expected to sit back and say, “Boy oh boy, what a good story this will be!” John asks this question of Jesus because he’s thinking: if you’re the one, you will come save me from certain death. And Jesus tells him of the great things he has done and will do, all of the miraculous feats he has done, demonstrating that yes, he is the one who is to come. And he tells him that John’s life will not be saved, at least not in the way John thinks it should. Because that’s not the story being told.

Like Donald Miller says, good stories are often born in conflict. I believe we can’t divorce our purpose from narrative, and that means sometimes we will be called upon to carry the ring to Mordor and face the trials that come with it. Does that mean we all have to willingly embrace prison and death for a good story? I sure hope not. But I do believe it means that when our wants or needs barrel head first into opposition, we can take it and own it, knowing that it is a part of a story being written by the master storyteller… Stephen King… I’m kidding, you know who I meant.

So as most of you have probably gathered by now, I’m a bit of a talker. I actually have made it a point over the last few years to try not to monopolize conversations like I am want to do. But I still love hearing and telling stories. I’m lucky enough to have some of my best friends from college living here in town, and we all get together a couple times a month. After we catch up on the current events of each other’s lives, we typically end up sitting around telling stories. Now understand, these are not stories like the ones we’ve been talking about so far. These stories are much more… Well, silly. Like the time my friend Chris and I got snowed in at our apartment and spent most of the day trying to trap a mouse. Or the time my friend Cal got real excited about the PBR Bar, believing it to be theme after a certain Blue Ribbon winning adult beverage. He was more than a little disappointed to discover that “PBR” also stands for Professional Bull Riding. Or the time another friend, while out and about in Kansas City, paid a guy $10 to not sell him drugs.

Yep, that happened.

There are many, many more but you get the idea. A while ago I realized something about the stories I tell with my friends: more often than not, we’ve all heard them already. In fact, in most cases, one or more of us was actually present for the events of the story. So what is it about these stories? They aren’t particularly interesting, nor do they impart deep wisdom… or shallow wisdom. They are funny, but they aren’t that funny. So why would we as a group continue to tell them year after year, time after time? (IF YOU’RE LOST, YOU CAN LOOK, AND YOU WILL FIND ME… TIME AFTER TIME…)

Even if your stories don’t involve mice, bulls, or supposed “drug dealers”, I’m willing to bet that this has happened to you too. You’ve been sitting around with friends and family, telling stories that you have all heard before. It’s kind of like rewatching your favorite movie, you still enjoy it despite knowing every detail. Or it’s like, I have this friend who reads “The Great Gatsby” once a year. She must have the thing about memorized by now, but she still gets something from it, enough to read it annually.

All of this tells me that apparently when it comes to narrative, it doesn’t matter to us if we already know the ending, or even all of the details. I have this app on my phone called “Timehop.” It shows me pretty much everything I have ever posted on social media on a given date. Now aside from being pretty embarrassing, Timehop gives me access to almost all my memories annually. So I must not be telling these stilly stories to remember them, because technology does that for me. So there must be something in the telling. The act of writing, speaking, hearing, living a story must somehow be a part of who and what we are as people. In Matthew 5, Jesus tell us:

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and tramped under foot.

Here Jesus tells us that we are essential. Salt was an important element at that time for two primary reasons. First, since this was long before Kenmore or the Maytag Man, salt was used in the preservation of food. Second, it was used as it is today, as a flavor enhancer. In this odd passage about salt, Jesus reveals our purpose: to persevere and enhance.

I believe one of our primary vehicles for accomplishing these two tasks is storytelling. Storytelling preserves. It makes sure the narrative of the shared history of our communities endures. It makes sure that the sacrifices of those who came before us and upon which entire nations have been built continue to endure. And – perhaps most importantly – it ensures that no one forgets that Evan actually paid a guy ten dollars to not sell him drugs. To be honest, over the years I’ve been less and less convinced that he was trying to sell anyone anything, but that’s for another time.

But our purpose as outlined in Matthew 5 is two-fold: to preserve and to enhance. I spent a good amount of time in preparation for this talk thinking about this question: how does storytelling enhance our lives? Where I settled is: community. The act of storytelling enhances our lives because it demands and sheds light upon that part of our purpose. You see, story requires an audience. Storytelling doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It occurs with, for, to, and often because of other people. I didn’t prepare this talk today to have it heard by no one. I prepared it for an audience. Storytelling demands community and we were made for community. Storytelling demands us.

It also enhances in another, perhaps more literal, way. The stories that have endured over time are often the ones which shed some light upon truths of the human existence. And that’s a fancy way of saying they are the ones that make people say, “Yes. Me too.” I believe it was C.S. Lewis who said – and I’m paraphrasing – the most powerful sermon is “me too.” Think about that story of John the Baptist I told earlier. Probably most of us haven’t ever been in prison under threat of beheading, but I get almost all of us I have prayed or thought or said out loud or maybe yelled to an empty room: God I don’t know what’s going on! If you’re so good, why don’t you do something?!? Only to receive the same answer – more often than not in the form of silence – that God gives John: because that’s not the way the story goes this time. During those moments of doubt and frustration, we should take solace in the fact that a man of great faith like J the B had his moments of doubt and fear too. I heard Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote Fight Club and many other things, say in an interview once that the best stories are the ones that inspire people to tell their own. The same could be said of good preaching too, if you ask me.

Part Three: Narrative is Our Purpose

Donald Miller, if a different book than the one I quoted from earlier, said this, which I really love: Relationships are teleological. They’re all going somewhere and they’re turning us into something, hopefully something better, something new… What else changes a but the living of a story? And what is a story but the wanting for something difficult and the willingness to work for it?

What a great word, right? Teleological? It is derived from the Greek word “Teleos” meaning purpose or end. Within the context of this passage, it is meant to suggest that relationships all have have a trajectory or an arch. It might not be an arch or trajectory that always makes sense, but it is there and it is driving towards something. Every single relationship in your life is a story that you are living, all of them heading somewhere. Sometimes the lines of stories will cross one another, like when Fonzi would pop in on Laverne and Shirley. And I think more often than not, the teleos – the end or purpose of each living story – it won’t always be clear.

I have said a couple of times this morning that I believe we cannot divorce our narrative from our purpose. The reason I think that is true is because: narrative is our purpose. Like I said before, we are designed to be in community, in relationship, with one another. And each one of those relationships in a story, each community is a narrative all its own. If we cannot tell stories without other people, we can’t live them either.

The best example I have for this is my relationship with God, which is turning out to be a pretty good story if you ask me. If you heard me speak here over the summer, you know that I’ve had up’s and downs, highs and lows, just like anyone. My story has included some periods of fear, depression, anxiety, and significant doubt. But it has also included times of happiness, accomplishment, meaning, and truth. It’s only in recent years that I’ve become comfortable sharing certain parts of that story. And the reason is that I truly believe that is what we are meant to do.

You see, I am not all that concerned with going to heaven or avoiding hell. I have a heard time believing that God worries that we will follow every rule and attend church every Sunday. I am far more interested in navigating this life, here and now. What better way to do that than with story? Stories that chronicle the times we have failed as much as the times we have succeeded. Stories of heartbreak and loneliness, as much as stories of love and community. Stories of doubt and stories of faith. Stories wherein we embrace challenges as they come, knowing that we do not face them alone. Let’s tell them all. Every single one. It’s not going to be easy, but it won’t always be hard either. And, as is true of most things, it’s easier when you remember that you aren’t alone.

I’ll leave you this morning with the words of Sylvia Plath, who wrote:

Perhaps one day I’ll crawl back home, beat, defeated. But not as long as I can stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow.

That’s my wish for all of us. That we would learn to make beauty from sorrow, stories from heartbreak. Because when all is said and done, I don’t want my story to have been easy. I want to have been damn good.

And I want it to be worth telling.