Wineskins Archive

February 6, 2014

The Redemptive Power of Stories (Sep-Dec 2003)

Filed under: — @ 5:18 pm and

by Karen Hill
September – December, 2003

Scribbled on a Christian bookstore sack, the letter began, “Instead of killing myself tonight, I’m going home and read a story to my kids.”

The letter writer—a mom named Pam—had purchased a book as a farewell gift to her children. Her intention? She would write a note in the book, leave it on the kitchen table, and then “dispear forever.” But God led her on a detour. On the way home from buying the book, Pam’s car broke down before she could carry out her plan. As she waited for help, she picked up the newly acquired book and began to read Tell Me the Story. Written for “tweens” by Max Lucado, the book is a collection of stories that convey the Gospel message.

“I was touched by the stories,” Pam said. “I felt as if I was really able to know Jesus in a new way. Now I’m holding onto the words in your book. I feel like I’m holding on to Jesus.”

A story saved a life.

Butch penned his letter on a donut shop placemat. He told of a sad, solitary existence. Out of touch with family, failed and forgotten, the wanderer did not believe God could love him. A nearby Christian bookstore havened him. There he spent his evenings staying warm and letting the pages reconstruct his view of God. “Your stories made me feel like God paid me a personal visit…it really is possible that He loves me.”

A simple telling replaced despair with hope.

Not every telling of a story will save a life, but story can redirect a path, heal a hurt, break emotional barriers, give insight, inspire courage.

I’ve seen firsthand the power of story. As Max Lucado’s assistant, I’ve read and listened to thousands of stories like those of Pam and Butch. I’ve witnessed God’s children being influenced and changed by books and preaching alike. Because of this, I have come to value the capacity of a story to connect timeless truths with hungry hearts.

As children, stories help us learn. But we never outgrow our basic yearning for the medium of story. “Stories that instruct, renew, and heal provide a vital nourishment to the psyche that cannot be obtained in any other way,” says educator Clarissa Estes. [Stories] “provide all the vital instructions we need to live a useful, necessary, and unbounded life—a life of meaning, a life worth remembering” (Clarissa Pinkola Estes, The Gift of Story, New York: Ballantine Books, 1993).

An effective story is the one that is repeated long after the sermon has ended or the book has been shelved. If quoting Scripture is difficult for you, you can at least recall and retell the story of the passage.

On the page, a writer has time to energize the reader’s thinking. Together, writer and reader create a partnership that lifts them into an imaginative realm. Like designing his own movie set, the reader, with the help of the author, draws the world in which the action takes place.

Oral story-telling can change lives just as written stories altered the lives of Pam and Butch—and yet, an oral telling presents a greater challenge: Seizing the listener’s interest and holding it captive until the tale is told, conquering meandering minds and overcoming the distractions inherent in a group setting.

Our biblical teaching models understood this struggle. To overcome the obstacles of short attention spans and interruptions, Jesus, John the Baptist, and many Old Testament priests and prophets didn’t just lecture, read, or relate a tale. They often employed visual aids—props—to hold the attention of their followers.

Imagine Jesus stopping to pluck a fig leaf, stroke a lamb, or shuck an ear of corn as he shared a story featuring those “characters.” Imagine the Savior using props to bring home a point.

Is it possible that the Savior’s grounding in Scripture prompted him to follow the practice originated by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in leading his disciples to spiritual knowledge? Prophets of old planted into the soil of Scripture the seeds of metaphor, antithesis, epigram, paranomesia, and all manner of symbolic expression. God himself directed them in the use of what some call “action-parables” or “dramatized parables,” even requiring the leader to gather props to extend the message.

Dry bones, stones, boiling pots—prophets employed all of these and more. The prophet Ezekiel was particularly adept at the technique. On one occasion, having received detailed instructions from the Father, Ezekiel assembled a tile, drawing instruments, pieces of wood, and an iron griddle. His assignment? Help the people understand the coming siege of Jerusalem. First, the prophet drew a map of the city on the tile. Then God told Ezekiel to construct a mock-up of fortifications and use the griddle to demonstrate the wall of separation between God and his people (Ezekiel 4:1-17).

At Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, we often utilize props to support story. We’ve discovered that props intrigue the worshiper, raise the engagement level of the individual, and increase the ‘staying power’ of the message (according to Edgar Dale’s “Cone of Learning,” we retain only twenty percent of what we hear, but fifty percent of what we hear and see. Using props ramps up the learning experience).

When it comes to visual aids, we take the apostle Paul’s advice to heart: “Live creatively, friends” (Gal. 6:1 MSG). We try to live creatively when looking for props that are unusual, unpredictable. Some might even fit into the ‘real doozies’ category. Our recent prop list includes parachutes, life jackets, suitcases, an antique gas pump, Ovaltine, a pile of sand, and a fishing net, to name a few.

To buttress a message on our need for God to guide us through an evil world, we built a jungle on stage. We covered a ramp and platform in traps—wild animal traps, rat traps, every kind of snare we could find. A young boy was blindfolded and his dad led him through the maze so that he wouldn’t be caught. A powerful visual demonstration of theme.

Two of our favorite props were Flo and Joe, a couple of pink and blue modeling clay characters used to soften the tone of a forthright lesson on sex. Imagine the minister, Max, dancing “Flo” and “Joe” around the pulpit as he preached…

When Joe meets Flo, something stirs deep within their dough and the two know—they will be better together than ever apart. So the two covenant to live for each other. Forget Bo and Mo and So-and-So. Joe is Flo’s dough. And Joe resolves, no mo’ running to and fro. So Joe and Flo become one dough. And when they do, their Maker smiles.

Normally, props do exactly what we intend them to do—intrigue the worshiper and implant the message in hearts. Occasionally, however, we have been slightly prop-challenged.

One Sunday we piled life jackets beneath the pulpit. When Max asked the audience, “Does anyone need a life jacket today?” a woman in the third row ran to the stage and grabbed one.

If clay puppets and life jackets and rat traps help us understand scriptural truths and give us a clearer grasp of God’s love, it may be because we’re simply following the teaching strategies of our scriptural guides, whose parabolic instructional practices keep on standing the test of time. After all, perhaps the most effective visual aid in history was a simple box lunch.

It is a remarkable story. And though it happened on a hillside long ago, the story is still changing lives today. The characters: thousands of hungry worshipers, a band of uncertain disciples, a Savior, and one ordinary little boy with a extraordinarily big faith. We retold this story at Oak Hills as a musical performed by our middle school students.

The scriptural version was expanded to give context to the miracle and to imagine who this young boy might have been.

When the curtain came down, a middle-aged businessman, normally reserved and quiet, ran down the aisle. Tears, words, and joy flooded out as he cried, “Now I understand! God loved me even when I was so alone as a child…you told my story on that stage tonight!” It was a moment both startling and affirming. The loaves and fishes had fed yet another famished heart.

An age-old tale healed a long-held hurt.

The changed lives of Pam, Butch, and David witness the value of story in biblical instruction. A well-told story with a clear, profound message can lead us on a journey toward understanding. Whether on the pages of a book or from the lips of a teacher, whether relying solely on words or using tools to demonstrate the message…the story, implanted in the heart, connects us to the Father and keeps him before us.

Best of all, a story can bring us closer to the greatest storyteller in history. “He always used stories to teach them” (Mk. 4:34).New Wineskins

Karen Hill

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