People enjoy hearing stories because stories take us somewhere. We are experiencing a revival of story telling in our country. You can find it on National Public Radio in the Moth Radio Hour and others. StoryCorps is a project honoring and celebrating the lives of everyday Americans by listening to their stories and broadcasting them on radio. Those stories are collected at the Smithsonian which also preserves stories from veterans sharing their experiences in war time.
Story telling was one of Lincoln’s great tools. He told stories to delight, to inform, and to convince his audiences to elect him and later to support his policies. If you’ve ever gone to hear a motivational speaker, you know you hear one story after another. Preachers and teachers will use stories to illustrate a point so we will want to listen to more of their ideas. Peter Guber wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the power of storytelling was central to his success as a business executive and entrepreneur. Among the other great storytellers are Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and Ronald Reagan. In our era Garrison Keillor became America’s best known story teller through the Prairie Home Companion radio show.
Here’s a story I never told before. Following my first year of seminary, I was assigned to serve a tiny church in Alberta, Canada, where farmers ranched and tilled the last available acreage before the foothills of the Canadian Rockies rise up. It was a ten-week summer assignment. The Hupkes family lived nearby and had several young-adult children running a small dairy herd. They said we had to go camping in the mountains while we were there, so close. They lent us a tent and sleeping bags. We had never camped before. It was July. We headed over to Lake Louise and then up the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 N.). On the second night we decided to camp across from the Athabaska glacier, the toe of which sat right across the road. We should have known we were at a high altitude. As we were settling down that evening in our tent two black bears came and climbed onto our picnic table looking for scraps. We thought it was delightful. They weren’t interested in us. The tent was a small square design with a single center pole telescoping upward to raise the roof. About 3:00 A.M. we awoke with the canvas down on our faces. The pole had collapsed, and the tent felt heavy. Poking our eyes out we saw four inches of wet snow had fallen! The pole could not bear the weight. Of course, we lived through that and learned some things. If you go camping, you must be ready to deal with the unexpected, especially high in the Rockies. We also experienced the kindness of people we hardly knew who helped give us an unforgettable adventure we would have otherwise missed.
My friend Tobius Mwanza, who lives in Zambia (Africa), told me how a legal dispute between villagers is resolved in the traditional way. After hearing the situation the village elders will consider the case by telling stories that seem to relate. Rather than analyzing the situation in technical aspects of law, they tell stories and then eventually it becomes clear how justice will be best served in the case. Telling those stories explains it to the people concerned. Hearing stories, they can grasp the truth more freely. Very few of us can operate well in a world of only abstract ideas. Stories make ideas real.
Jesus knew that and he is one of the most famous of all story tellers. His story of the prodigal son or rather the lost son tells you all you need to know about God’s character. (Lk 15:11-32) The father’s eager welcome to his wayward son who has wasted all his inheritance on sinful living tells us God will welcome anyone who turns from wrong ways to accept his love. God’s arms are open to anyone who returns.