What’s in a story?

It’s obvious that our lives are shaped by stories. Stories from the people we meet, stories we read in newspapers and novels, the meta-narratives we choose to shape our lives and now stories that proliferate on our facebook and twitter feeds.

Church is no different. We read stories from our scriptures, our liturgy retells our founding story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, our sermons often contain stories and even our intercessions can be a way of telling a story about individuals in the congregation.

This morning at Church our vicar interviewed two women who had just finished a year’s course on discipleship. One of them said that the best thing about the course had been hearing the stories from other participants about what God what doing in their lives. This made me prick up my ears.

For a while now I have been thinking that it is a shame we don’t hear more stories from people in the congregation about how they experience God outside church in whatever it is they spend most of their life doing: parenting, working, creating, socialising or praying. In my tradition there is little room for this kind of testimony although it is sometimes woven through a sermon.

I would like to hear more of this because I think sometimes as congregation we can feel that we are the audience seeing and hearing what God can do but it seems like that activity of God is limited to those of us who preach and lead. Hearing a range of stories from a range of people would remind us that we are all the people of God and God is active among us all, shaping us and guiding us day by day.

It might be clumsy liturgically, it might be hard to work out who speaks and for how long and of course we might hear the wrong kind of story – stories that don’t fit our understanding of God, stories that discourage us, stories that leave us hopeless or stories that simply glorify the teller.

The theologican James Hopewell discovered that congregations can be identified by the stories they tell. Carrying out his research partly from his hospital room while he had cancer, he categorised four kinds of storyteller: the tragic, the ironic, the romantic and the comic.  You can read about them here.

After a while of trying to kid myself  that I was a positive person, I realised that most of my storytelling is  ironic – the hardest tone in which to communicate the gospel we were told. It is an understanding of the world that is based on a rejection of the supernatural and seeks to show the world the way it is. Hopewell gives this example of someone with a ironic world view talking about religion: “I think we got to keep up with people. We got to know about the world and what’s going on. We have to help people live in this world. Can’t just talk about what Jesus did a long time ago. We have to know the facts about here and now and apply the teachings of Jesus to these.”

While this was not my full understanding of the world, it was the tone I often used to talk about faith and I resolved to monitor and change the dominant tone of my story-telling. I still love a good story that demonstrates the vagaries of the world. If you have ever heard me on my favourite topic – holidays – you know that I love to explain that wherever and whenever we go as a family we always have rubbish weather. I have stories of the worst floods in 60 years, campsite evacuations, freak storms etc

But I also hope I tell more positive stories about what God has done and is doing, about the wonderful things friends and neighbours can do together, about the hope we find in this city and the depth of faith we share across our traditions.

In the last few weeks I have found it hard to respond to the hundreds of stories on my Facebook feed about what is happening in Israel and Palestine. I share my friends’ outrage that hundreds of civilians are being killed, that the conflict is lop-sided and the context of occupation, settlement-building and discrimination is unjust.  But so many stories that champion one side seem to demonise the other. And what is more alarming is that many of these stories spread like wildfire but they may not be true. For example, this morning I saw a story about a TV screen that had been sent up on a Tel Aviv beach for Israelis to watch the shelling of Gaza. It had been shared thousands of times. Scrolling through the comments it emerged this picture was almost certainly a fake – a doctored image of the screen set up on Copacabana beach for the world cup.

In much the same way, our city has recently been subject to distorted images and manipulative storytelling as the media whipped up a storm over ‘extremism’ in our schools. Whole communities  have felt villified and flames of fear and suspicion were ignited with subtle innuendo, by the association of ideas and careless use of language.

I think social media is a fanastic way of telling stories and I love to hear about what is on my neighbour’s mind, to eavesdrop on the thoughts of my friends. In fact I am addicted to it. I have learnt so much from you and had so many ideas challenged, stereotypes dismissed and understanding deepened.

So if you are one of my many friends who care deeply about  the conflict in Israel Palestine, please don’t think that I don’t want to know or that  I don’t care. I do. Passionately. But I am  trying to be careful  about the stories I tell, the stories I like and the stories I share.

This clip tells a story of former enemies discovering the bond of humanity in the midst of loss, conflict and grief. There are many others that I have seen shared that give a glimpse of hope, a taste of reconcilliation and tell a story of hope. Please keep sharing those too.


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