Tell us the Story
I have this recurring memory of sitting on my grandfather’s lap as he would tell us the story of Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch. He didn’t need to read the story from a book, but made the tale come alive with his animations, character voices, and lively descriptions. “Tell it again, Grandpa!” my brother and I would exclaim over and over again. Grandpa also had this signature clicking sound he did with the back of his throat that sounded like the clopping of a horse. It was a sound that no person in the following generations has ever been able to recreate. Grandpa has since passed on from this world, but his stories remain.
I grew up with stories. Some of my earliest memories are of when my pastor father dressed up in biblical clothing and in front of the congregation told the Parable of the Talents in first person. As a kid I’d spend hours outside in the woods reading the biographies of real-life missionaries going all out for the sake of the gospel. In high school my history teacher would have us role play various trials of early American colonial life where we took on the life of the historical characters. I later became a history major in college because of the impact Mrs. Wren had on my learning.
Not just for Children
Stories are perceived to be the stuff of children, so you would think I would I later leave these behind as I transitioned into adulthood. However, the opposite actually happened. My understanding of the power of story solidified all the more strongly as an adult, both as a college student in Kenya and as a language student in Central Asia.
For ten years I dreamed of going to Africa because my childhood best friend was from there. As a junior in college I was able to finally realize this during a semester abroad at Daystar University in Kenya (see picture above). Slowly and then all at once I could see, touch, taste, and experience the land I grew to love from the stories I heard as a child. However, at this time of my life I was also at a spiritually low point due to a series of personal crises over the previous months. Because of this my semester abroad in the land I had only dreamed about became perhaps the hardest I’d ever experience up to that point. Angry at God and angry at the world, it felt like I had been taken completely out of my context and stripped bare. I would have stayed there, too, if God hadn’t used something unique to draw me out of the muck of my life. Because what really saved me that semester were the stories. And the music.
The Power of Story
At one of the last chapels of the semester, I was able to share my story of spiritual transformation with the student body. It was a talk I would title “Just Tell Them The Stories.” As I shared bits and pieces of my own testimony, I told my new friends that it was their stories that brought me back to God. These friends from all parts of Africa had experienced civil war, political regime changes, economic hardship, famine and drought, and real persecution at the hands of the enemy. Some had not seen their families in a decade. Yet at the same time these very friends were joining hands singing at the top of their lungs in unison, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul!” And I found myself weeping at their joy. It was by sitting down and listening to them tell their stories, which pointed to the faithfulness of God in their midst, that I was able to understand God’s hand in my own story. And my life would never be the same.
Ten years later I found myself serving in Central Asia. Most of my days as a language student were spent one-on-one with a teacher from the local Muslim community. And rather than using a traditional learning approach that involved learning the alphabet and and tackling grammar, my language program involved telling stories. For the first several months I wasn’t supposed to write anything down. I was just supposed to listen. Listening soon gave way to repeating what I heard, but not much more. For my first four months not a written word was supposed to be exchanged. As a literacy-based Westerner that some might describe as a visual learner, I resisted and I “cheated” at times. However, once I began to let go of all that and trust the oral process, the stories began to take shape. We played with toys, walked in the market, attended cultural events, worked our way through children’s picture books, and described the cartoons we’d watch while the TV was on silent. By the end of my first year of language school I was sharing stories in the heart language with my Muslim teachers about people like Noah and Abraham and Jesus. We’d compare how our stories are similar with theirs. Relationships were formed as a result. And this all happened through the device of story.
This has been my journey with Story. Today the impact of story is not lost on me. In fact, I am now investing my life in an organization that is all about cultivating Christ-centered leaders in a storycentric generation.
What about you? How have stories made an impression on you in your life?