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It’s Our Job to Tell The Story

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating reflections from our 2016 National Gathering. Watch this space for thoughts from a wide variety of folks, especially around the question, What “stuck”? What ideas, speakers, workshops or worship services are continuing to work on your heart as you envision “the church that is becoming?” We’ll be hearing from ruling elders, teaching elders, seminarians, and more. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Martha Spong

As a pastor who is also a writer, I’m fascinated by how ideas circulate and how easy it can be to feel you missed the moment for getting in on a conversation.[1] What can I add to the public discourse? Maybe it’s enough to stay quietly where I am and plug away diligently at my sermons, being careful not to offend anyone with my theological stances or political opinions. I don’t really feel that way, but perhaps you see the point: it’s easy to stay small and safe.

Aric Clark is a friend-I-had-never-met-before, a fellow blogger (Two Friars and a Fool) and an author (Never Pray Again). I attended his workshop, “LectionARIC: The Art of Hermeneutical Vlogging,” in which he made the case that the basic work of hermeneutics is part of what it means to be a practicing Christian. He asked, “How is it we with the best story to tell are the worst storytellers?” I know I often stop at the idea level; unless I have the absolute deadline of a Sunday morning sermon, I may let a thought float away. Aric makes the point that there are plenty of people thinking about ultimate matters (pain, suffering, death, climate change, war) without the framework our beautiful and redemptive story can offer, and we are letting the conversation happen without us. Aric commends Vlogging, or video blogging, as a way to meet people where they are and start a conversation. If we want to share our story, we need to use the medium that will reach people.

What if we find that prospect daunting? T. Denise Anderson is a blogger (SOULa Scriptura) who is also an “in real life” friend and colleague; we’ve worked on the RevGalBlogPals blog and book together, so I know she has important things to say and a powerful writing voice. I was excited to hear her preach at closing worship. She did not disappoint as she sent us out with a message reminding all present that we are appointed by God and do not need to worry about going out there alone to do God’s work, nor to be embarrassed by it. We must not give this crossroads in the life of the church all the power. God is with us in the work. And we’d better not try to talk ourselves out of doing God’s work; “staying stuck and staying stagnant is not an option” for us.

It’s our job to tell the story.

[1] See Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic for a story about a book concept she set aside only to hear that a friend was now writing on the same somewhat eccentric concept.


martha spongMartha Spong is the Executive Director of RevGalBlogPals, an ecumenical ministry engaged in creating resources and community for clergywomen.

Narrative Theology in Practice: Decision-Making and Governance

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By the Rev. Dean J. Seal

Rev. Bryan McLaren was on the Krista Tippett radio show, “On Being.” He said something that jumped out at me when talking about the young spiritual seekers that he was encountering: “We don’t need to come at them with another set of rules. We need to bring them our stories.” This is a methodology that would be very hard to swallow for a faith tradition (Presbyterianism) that was founded by a lawyer. The Teaching Elders are supposed to handle narrative, and the Ruling Elders are supposed to delineate finely woven interpretations thereof. So our General Assemblies can seem to boil down to hair-splitting. Taking a stand on divestment, ordination standards, same-sex marriage, and other issues can take 20 years to resolve… or 20 years to make a new schism. And when schism breaks out, it’s as if we aren’t even inhabiting the same stories anymore.

There are ample reasons to be deliberate, especially in relation to governance. But Robert’s Rules of Order can prevent timely participation in the fast moving world; maybe reason and logic aren’t our prime considerations. Things that are not logical are not necessarily illogical; they can be transrational. Spirituality and the spiritual life transcend logic; they are about an experience of the Holy Spirit. And that is beyond human verbal constract. When speaking of spiritual issues, and the present sufferings of large bodies of human beings, it needs to be encountered directly. We have proved we can parse a course of action until we are blue in the face. What if our goal were to listen to stories instead? Not very pragmatic, but hear me out.

This is to me an essential character of theological practice, the pursuit of narrative. What is more central to our faith tradition than storytelling? Jesus was a magnificent storyteller; his 35 parables are so entrenched in our culture that  it’s part of our language when we have no experience of its provenance. How many people use the phrase “good Samaritan” without realizing that the Samaritans were considered the bad guys? The stories and parables about Jesus round out his biography, so that we can understand him as a man, as a God-intoxicated human of divine inspiration, as a Son of God (wherever you are on the continuum of Christology). It is through his stories that we learn and come to know him, and why he is central to us; the rest is commentary. Like pictures in a stained glass window, the image of the story can be told beyond the specific words. Those stories are worth telling, and worth hearing.

But God did not stop speaking at the end of the New Testament. Each of us has a story to tell, stories of sacred people, spiritual events that shook our world, miracle stories of people who have done amazing things beyond our grasp because they were spirit-filled. Narrative theology is the telling of stories that carry meaning. It can be Moses telling God he was not good enough to lead The People out of Egypt, or it can be something more current.

I produced a play (Marietta) about a woman who forgave the kidnapper of her daughter, before she knew how her daughter was. A true story. And Marietta Jaeger came to tell us about it. She explained that her first reaction was that she wanted to kill the guy, like anyone would. But it didn’t take her long to understand that first, that makes her into him; and second, it makes her into his second victim. In order to recover a life, she had to renounce vengeance, resolve to leave anger behind, and forgive this person. Forgiveness does not grant absolution; it means she has resolved not to be consumed by hate. And Marietta reminds us: “Forgiveness is not for wimps.” It is not an act of weakness; it is an act of strength. And even then an act of strength that she couldn’t manage without God’s help every hour of every day. How many times should I forgive him? Seventy times seven hundred billion.

We can learn from organizations like The Forgiveness Project in London, telling stories about forgiveness and reconciliation that are jaw-dropping. From the website:

“Bassam Aramin became involved in the Palestinian struggle as a boy growing up in the ancient city of Hebron. At 17, he was caught planning an attack on Israeli troops, and spent seven years in prison. In 2005, he co-founded Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants leading a non-violent struggle against the occupation. Since then, Bassam has not once picked up a weapon – not even when, two years later, his ten-year-old daughter Abir was gunned down and killed by an Israeli soldier.”

Who can bear to hear these stories? These miraculous, impossible  stories? Does it matter if Marietta is a Catholic and Bassam is a Muslim? No. What matters is that we hear these stories, that we give opportunities to hear these stories. There are several organizations of bereaved parents of children killed in the Occupation of Palestine. I would suggest finding a place in the next General Assembly where we either bring in speakers from both sides, or be in contact with them via video conferencing technology. We should listen to these stories with our hearts, informed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Instead of doing all the talking, we can do a deeper, more eloquent job of listening. We can see what happens if we are moved by the Spirit to have ideas, to think and to act, not just instruct others on how they should act. We should be hearing stories, hearing congregants, listening for God’s still, quiet voice.

The telling and hearing of stories can be a healing thing, for both the speaker and the listener. It’s what Therapy is made of. And because there is Narrative Therapy in the telling of any story, we should indulge ourselves in the healing power of this practice, without a preconceived idea of decision-making. At least for a while. The committee work will always be there waiting.

~

Rev. Dean J. Seal (MATA, MDiv) has a Validated Ministry in Interfaith Dialogue through the performing arts. His 9-year-old non-profit, Spirit in the House, has produced over 100 plays, storytelling performances, film showings and panel discussions. It has produced a Public Television show on Marietta, and 24 YouTube Videos on Forgiveness, as part of the annual Forgiveness 360 Symposium. Seal has also served time in Show Biz, writing for and performing on A Prairie Home Companion; Comedy Central; MTV (La Bamba in Hebrew) and America’s Funniest Videos (La Bamba in Japanese). As Executive Producer of the MN Fringe Festival, he made it the largest non-juried performance festival in the US, which it still is today. His book, Church & Stage, about the use of theater in the congregation, is available on Amazon.

photo credit: Jill Clardy via photopin cc

Biblical Storytelling from the 2014 National Gathering

One of the highlights of the 2014 National Gathering was the biblical storytelling that took place in worship.

Jeremiah 29 was told in a variety of ways–

In 22 voices:

By Jeff Krehbiel:

Then we learned to tell it:

 

There were additional stories told in worship, too:

Casey FitzGerald tells Matthew 10

…and Luke 2

Jeff Krehbiel and Casey FitzGerald tell John 16

MaryAnn McKibben Dana tells part of Jeremiah at the start of her sermon

 

Thanks to Casey FitzGerald, Jeff Krehbiel, MaryAnn McKibben Dana for sharing their gifts this way. If you want to learn more about biblical storytelling, check out Casey’s blog Faith and Wonder.

Create Testimony – Casey FitzGerald on Biblical Storytelling

This was a testimony from the 2014 National Gathering in Minneapolis, MN.

Shawna Bowman is the artist.

Jeremiah in 22 Voices

One of our storytellers at the NEXT National Gathering, Casey Fitzgerald, put together a video of Jeremiah 29 involving 22 voices. Listen, and watch, for the Word of God:

Check out Casey’s website, Faith and Wonder, for more videos of biblical storytelling, and suggestions for using these videos.