A few weeks back the title of my sermon was, "What Are Old People For?" It seems we have a better grasp of what old people shouldn't be used for: grandpas on the church softball team shouldn't be sliding into third base, couples attending their 50thhigh school reunion shouldn't be announcing that they are pregnant, and great-grandmas driving motorcycles shouldn't be passing you at 80 mph on the Interstate.
So, when we can't do those things anymore, what new gifts should we be bringing to the community? We should be telling more stories. But...and this is a BIG but...we should be telling good stories, even great stories. But alas, most of us struggle with how to compose a really great story. I'm thinking about this because yesterday I just finished leading my two weekend workshop on storytelling (for a district wide lay speakers workshop).
The group had two required assignments for the seminar: 1) to tell the class the origin-story of the congregation each one belonged to, and 2) to tell us a personal story about themselves. The origin-stories of their local churches were really bad. It was clear that I hadn't taught them anything the weekend before.
Sadly, I heard a lot about the cost of lumber in the 1880s, how many years some churches had to sing without an organ to accompany them, town notables who gave enough money to the church to have it named after them, and listings of people who served on the first committees. It sounded at times like having someone read a phone book out-loud. Facts...figures...lists of names (with no clues about personalities)...and vignettes.
There were plenty of vignettes. A vignette really isn't a story: it's a picture in our minds, a sound that still echoes in the memory. Vignettes are fragments of a lost story. Perhaps good questions can coax the story out of those who cherish their vignettes, but time and energy must be made for the coaxing.
One person told of a guy recalling how he had once helped to paint the church building. But in the course of the work, he accidently tipped over his bucket, splattering gray paint six feet below. That's a vignette, not a story. I asked, "And then what!?" But the storyteller didn't know what happened next. Did the paint land on the organist? Did young fellow get kicked out of the church? Did he say a bad word and have to put a quarter in the "swear bucket?" Was it the start of a life-long reputation for being a klutz? A vignette is a sweet (or ornery) memory that makes us smile...or cringe. But a story has to have more: conflict, agony, redemption, conversion.
Another person told of reading in the church history that in the beginning, the men had to sit on one side and the women on the other. I wanted to ask, "
What juicy sin (or imagined sin) instigated that rule in the first place? And s
ince they don't do that anymore, who started the argument to desegregate?" If you've ever been a part of a church that altered its customs, you
there was a wicked fight. Why does the price of lumber show up in our church histories...but not those dramas that probably
approach biblical proportions?
There was one anecdote I remember from those origin stories. This particular church caught fire...and the congregation congregated from all over town, in terror, to watch raging flames engulf their beloved building. The storyteller had tears in her eyes as she recalled watching her favorite stained glass window melt away, the window featuring a picture of Jesus holding a lamb.
The congregation, bereaved and adrift, took some time to see if God would resurrect them. He did. Now, in their new building, there is no longer a stained glass picture of Jesus holding a small lamb. But there is a weekday lunch program for the poor children in the town...a program not operating before the fire. And I thought, there may no longer be a "real" picture of Jesus feeding lambs in their church, but there most certainly is a "true" picture of Jesus at work in the church kitchen...every day.
Origin-stories are essential for helping us navigate our current mess. When a daughter of mine gets into the thick of life and finds herself in over her head, I usually notice. I can tell when her sense of self begins to mutate due to the insults and wounds and injustices that life throws her way. And I know then that it's time for me to regale her with her origin story.
So, no matter which daughter it is, I tell her how cruel the world was on the day she was born. (Even the weather was evil.) And then I tell her about all the people who had been waiting for her to be born, and how happy her birth made all of them. And I tell her about the early charms of her personality, her curiosity, her strength, even in childhood, her courage and creativity in handling trouble. Sometimes,only a good origin story, full of truth, can brush away the confusions and disorientation running amuck nowadays by telling a compelling story of those days.
After working on origin-stories, the class then turned to their second assignment: to tells of some of the deaths in their lives,
literal or figurative. Their story "deaths" included cancer, loss of a child, sexual abuse, divorce, forced relocation, firings, layoffs, betrayals...
Then I asked them what was interrupted (what dream, ambition, comfort, innocence) by that death. Then I asked them what person, unexpected, showed up in their life at that time and gave some gift to them, tangible or intangible. Then I asked them what other complications ensued as they were trying to get back on their feet. And finally, I asked them what new dream, hope, or ambition emerged in the resurrection of a very different "self."
Their stories were powerful. They even made me cry. Each storyteller immediately became a valued person in my heart.
Strictly happy stories do not make good stories for telling. A resurrection with no cross is a lousy story, a tale unable to touch the heart...or stir the soul of a listener. If all you can do is tell happy stories, it will eventually (or quickly) drive others away...they will reckon you fancy yourself better than them.
A retired doctor friend of mine, once a prominent oncologist and medical school dean in India, was trying to find a new life here in America. A devoted Christian, he decided to work with men in prison. At first, he told them happy stories about how good Jesus is and how God has blessed him. But he was frustrated, because his story had no believers in the jailhouse.
So, I asked him one day, "How many of your cancer patients in India died while you were their doctor?" He paused a long time, looked sadly at me, and whispered, "All of them." After noticing my surprised face, he explained, "It was rural India. We had nothing to help them. By the time they were brought to me, they were already almost dead."
So, I suggest he tell the prisons that story instead. I challenged him to go back to the jail and tell everyone that he was a doctor who lost ALL his patients, no successes! Tell them it felt to be a failure, to play ego games to preserve his self-respect. Tell them of those years when he was terrified of his own weakness, his uselessness.
A few weeks later, my friend reported back to me. He was amazed. Not only did they listen raptly to his story of struggle as an oncologist in India, but they eagerly asked him why he was so happy and strong nowadays. It was a little like that story Luke tells: when they let their nets down in deepwater, their boats couldn't hold all the fish they caught.
What are old people for? We're the ones who know where the deep waters are. We've been there. We've been down in them. And we have stories to tell. And if we'll be brave enough to tell of the darkest moments, people will be curious about the rest of the story. --Mike