“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa
One evening about a month ago, several of us were gathered in Sutton Loop Park near Maplewood UMC to discuss the book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, by Tish Harrison Warren. At one point, a woman and a little girl passed. The little girl approached our group and proceeded to tell an improbable story of how she got her stuffed bunny. Afterward, the woman told us the story wasn’t remotely true, which had been apparent. But one person said, “The stories we tell ourselves are always better than reality.” So it was with the origin of the bunny, and so it is with us.
My wife, Charlotte, and I tell stories about our first date; about being snowed in together with her sister, Valerie; about our wedding day; about various pets; about our first night in our new house with no heat; about disastrous, dilapidated cars; about our daughter, Monica, growing up; and myriad other small “adventures.” Most of them are true but I’m sure others are exaggerated or clouded by time and recollection. But that’s okay, it just makes them that much better.
We tell ourselves stories, fables, myths, that are better than what really happened. Sometimes these stories are for the purpose of saving face, of creating a new narrative that makes us look better, braver, smarter, more noble than we were. Other times, they foster a sense of community. In the United States, our national identity is built around the stories we tell—and have been told—about our country’s history. We tell stories about Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and more. We tell ourselves that they were good and noble men, and we overlook their flaws, because it fits our national narrative, until someone digs up the flaws and reveals their feet of clay.
Other cultures and societies also have shared stories. We can imagine the Israelites sitting around the fire, telling, and retelling the stories of Moses, Miriam, Joshua, and the Exodus. Later, they would have told stories about Jacob, David, Solomon, and more. They would have told stories both of Israel’s greatness and of its conquest and captivity. Writer, speaker, and self-described “Christian humanist” Daniel Taylor points out that, “Human beings are story-shaped creatures. . . . Whenever we have to answer a big question — who am I, why am I here, what should I do, what happens to me when I die? — we tell a story.” (https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-life-shaping-power-of-story-gods-and-ours)
During the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples to “‘Do this in remembrance of me.’” (Luke 22:19). Each time they shared the Passover seder, they were supposed to tell and retell the story of Jesus, not just the joys or happy parts but the entirety of his life, death, and resurrection. There is no hope without the resurrection and no resurrection without the cross. Just as the disciples were urged to tell all of Jesus’ story, the sad parts and the joys, we can be encouraged by the gospel’s story of hope in every part of our own lives.
At Maplewood UMC, we tell the stories of Al Rohlfing, Walter and Mildred Blackwell, Emmett and Velma Jordan, and so many more. Each of them is a part of our history. And someday, you and I will be part of the story of MUMC, part of what makes us who we are as a church and a community, and succeeding generations will—I hope—tell stories about each of us.
Christ came to give each of us a new story, to make us part of God’s community. Each one he met; John the Baptist; the twelve disciples; synagogue ruler Jairus; Mary, Martha, and Lazarus; Nicodemus the Pharisee; Zacchaeus the tax collector, and many more; each was set on a new and different path. We don’t have to remain mired in our “reality,” whatever it might be. We don’t have to remain as we are. God can give each of us a new story, a better story. We can be part of God’s story, if God is at the center of ours.
“Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear;
Things I would ask him to tell me if He were here:
Scenes by the wayside, tales of the sea,
Stories of Jesus, tell them to me.” (Tell Me the Stories of Jesus, vs. 1, William H. Parker.)
Copyright © 2021 by David Phelps