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Telling the story by heart

Even with 237 channels, cable TV may not have any stories worth hearing, but we do, says John Wimmer. Just open your mouth and tell it.

January 9, 2009

Editor’s note: This sermon previously appeared on the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence website and was originally delivered at the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Peer Learning Gatherings, August 7 and 9, 2006.

Acts 8: 26-40

Some of you know I broke my wrist on December 23rd. I was buying a last minute Christmas gift for my wife and slipped on the ice outside the clothing store. I ended up having surgery and came home with one of those I-V pain blocker pumps. I have to admit my pride was hurt almost as badly as my wrist: I’m too young to be so awkward and too old to be so foolish. But frankly what hurt most was that, after I had sacrificed my body on behalf of the Christmas spirit and my marriage, my wife returned the gift because she didn’t like it. I accused her of taking back my "Gift of the Magi." She, being a composer, responded by writing a Christmas carol in my honor -- "The Holly and the I-V."

The theme of our conference is I Love to Tell the Story: So as my uncle used to say, “I told you that story so I could tell you this one.”

I was forced to stay at home with my broken wrist for most of January, too helpless to go to work and too doped up on Vicodin to entertain myself by reading. So just about all I had to do was watch TV — something I almost never do. Because we have high speed internet access at home, we also have digital cable — so we get something like 237 channels. And as I was trapped there at home with my broken wrist, do you know what amazed me the most? I had 237 TV channels available to me 24 hours a day and there was absolutely nothing to watch!

Stories, stories everywhere -- movies, cartoons, situation comedies, reality shows, soap operas -- “General Hospital” and “Days of Our Lives” were what my grandmother used to call her “stories.” All that, but hardly a story that feeds the soul….

The thesis of Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, became real to me. At home with a TV flickering an endless stream of worthless stories, I couldn’t help thinking that our culture suffers from what I would call "story starvation."

When you take the story starvation of our culture and place it alongside one of the research findings from the Pulpit & Pew Project, an interesting challenge of pastoral work surfaces. Jack Carroll’s marvelous new book, "God’s Potters," is a wealth of information from Pulpit & Pew about the current state of pastoral ministry -- and it contains a finding that has puzzled me. The Pulpit & Pew survey asked clergy what are the most important problems they face. Some of the problems identified were “lack of agreement over the role of a pastor,” the “difficulty of having a private life apart from the ministerial role,” and thinking about leaving the ministry. Many familiar problems were listed. Among all the problems that pastors face, do you know which one had the highest score by far? Conflict in the church? Low pay? Long hours? Lack of a private life? No. The largest percentage of clergy in this section of the survey said the “difficulty of reaching people with the gospel today” was either a “great problem” or “somewhat of a problem.” Overall, 80 percent of clergy responded this way, making it far and away the biggest difficulty in ministry identified in this section of the survey.

Now place these two ideas next to each other: Our culture suffers from story starvation, and one of the greatest challenges ministers perceive is their difficulty in reaching people with the gospel today. I think the Scripture from Acts about the encounter of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch has much to teach us about this situation.

You know this story in Acts chapter 8 -- many of you have preached on it. It was a lectionary text not long ago. Philip is told by an angel to go to a road in the wilderness and there meets the never-named eunuch, minister of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch is reading from Isaiah as Philip joins him and asks if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch says, “How can I unless someone guides me?” They read the scripture together, and then, in verse 35, we read: “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture, he told him the good news of Jesus.”

Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture, and he told the story of Jesus. Let’s linger on these three sentence clauses for a moment as we think about story starvation and Pulpit & Pew’s pastoral problem of reaching people with the gospel today. I want to take each of these clauses from the scripture in reverse order.

1) Philip told him the good news of Jesus. He seems to have done so spontaneously. Philip didn’t have time to prepare a well-crafted sermon, he didn’t have to speak from notes, he just jumped right in despite the fact he was on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere. Another way to say it is that he just told the story of Jesus!

Story starvation. Difficulty in reaching people today with the gospel. And Philip told him the story of Jesus.

Isn’t it odd that we who are stewards of “the greatest story ever told” possess just what a story starved culture needs, yet confess that our greatest difficulty is in relating the gospel to our culture?

In his book "Leading Minds" Howard Gardner offers this thesis about effective leadership. Gardner asserts that the most important skill a leader must possess is the ability to craft stories. Yet “story” has three elements for the leader. The first is one’s own story -- not just one’s personal history, but the values and motivations, the knowledge and experiences that have shaped a person’s way of life, their identity.

The second element is the cultural stories around the leader -- the stories of one’s people. These are the well-worn stories that a people know by heart, but also the formless, often fragmentary and forgotten pieces of stories that nonetheless still help make up the identity of a people. A true leader, says Gardner, has great skill and imagination in taking these two elements of story -- the personal and the communal -- and blending them into a new story. This new story uses a leader’s own personal story, yet also picks up cultural themes and forgotten fragments of meaning. The story formed by the leader takes formless longings and deeply felt needs of the people, as well as the story of their own lives, and puts them into words on behalf of the people. They narrate a cohesive story that weaves meaning into their own lives and the lives of their people in such a way that they give leadership to a new vision, a new story to which people can belong. This new story gives shape to the lives of people, pointing toward a way of life that gives identity, coherence, and meaning where there had previously been fuzziness and incoherence.

Lastly, says Gardner, such leaders live their own lives in fidelity to this larger story. There is integrity among their own story, the story they weave together for their people, and the shape of their own lives. There is coherence between their lives and the story they present to their people. In a word, they practice what they preach.

Gardner goes on to show how an interesting group of leaders did this in their lives and with their stories. He uses a dozen or so illustrations, people such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope John XXIII. But the point of this for us is the importance of story.

So here’s what the story of Philip and the Ethiopian have to say to a generation of clergy who struggle to relate the gospel to our culture: Philip told him the story of Jesus. Telling the story of Jesus is about all the categories Howard Gardner spoke about in terms of a good leader. The story of Jesus is our story. And the story of our truest selves is the story about how we have been engrafted into the story of God through Christ. We belong -- we live and move and have our being -- because we’re all characters who have been written into the plot of God’s Great Story. The Scriptures, the Great Thanksgiving Prayer of Hippolytus, the Psalms and great hymns of our faith, the story of our faith through the ages, theologians and the great councils and controversies of the church, the marvelous spiritual writings and stories of faithful saints carefully passed along to us over the centuries, these are all ways in which our story and the formless longings and hopes of our people are gathered up into the great Story of a Triune God who made us, redeems us, and calls us by the Holy Spirit to be the church.

There may not be a story worth hearing on 237 channels of cable TV, but we have a story to tell to the nations, a story of peace and light!

2) Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture, and told the story of Jesus.

…and beginning with this scripture…

I take this to mean that Philip started to tell the story at the point where the Ethiopian was ready to hear it. That is to say, Philip accommodated the story to the need of his hearer.

John Calvin spoke about God’s Word his way. Through Jesus, God’s own wisdom was accommodated to humans in a way we could understand. Just as you can’t teach a 2nd grader Trigonometry, you can’t expect the puny and child-like human mind to comprehend the majesty and grandeur of God.

So too in relating the story -- our story, the story of Jesus, the narrative of the “mighty acts” that make up God’s own story. The hearer of the story must be taken into account. Beginning with this scripture, beginning with the needs of our hearers….

And this is where the story, the hearer, and the story-teller all meet:

3) Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture, he told the story of Jesus

Philip opened his mouth. That’s how the RSV relates the verse. The New RSV says, “And Philip began to speak….” The Greek agrees with the RSV and says literally, he opened his mouth (στόμα). For some reason this idiom is more curious in Greek than English. We typically don’t say that one opens one’s mouth to convey that someone starts talking. We open our mouths for eating. We open our mouths when the doctor uses a tongue depressor and we say “ah.” We “open wide” for the dentist. But to tell a story?

Here we are helped in a wonderful section of the book by Jean Leclercq, "The Love of Learning and the Desire for God," perhaps the best book ever written about monastic life and culture. In your peer groups many of you are practicing lectio divina. Leclercq, a monk and a preeminent scholar of Benedictine monasticism, explains how lectio and meditatio -- meditation -- are related. In the modern era, Leclercq says, we think that we learn principally with the eyes and the mind, through reading in silence. But in antiquity as well as in the Middle Ages, one learned primarily through the lips and the ears -- as you know, they were chiefly oral and aural cultures. In that kind of culture, Leclercq points to the special spiritual connection between story and speech, the ear, and the heart. In the monastic world, these were connected to receive spiritual nutrition in much the same way that food, the mouth, and the stomach are connected to receive bodily nutrition.

Early church and monastic leaders like St. Augustine, Gregory the Great and others used Latin phrases (that are very difficult to translate) in order to attempt to convey this connection. Augustine spoke of the ear as the palatum cordis -- the heart’s palate, or the heart’s taste buds. Similarly, Gregory talked about how the word of God enters our lives by way of the ear, a process which he called in ore cordis, thereby calling the ear the mouth of the heart. As you know, Benedictine monastics recite the psalms several times a day -- but Leclercq says they sometimes described it as masticating, or chewing, on the Word of God. This mastication was not the mouth working on food, but the ear chewing on the Word.

Therefore, to recite Scripture or to tell a story was to offer words that are like food for the ears of a hearer to chew on. Lectio and meditatio, then, were saying words out loud, a way of telling the story -- but also a way of offering and receiving spiritual nutrition. Reciting Scripture and stories of the faith are like food. Not food that enters the body by the mouth to be digested by the stomach, but food that enters and is masticated by the ear to be digested in the heart. Opening your mouth to speak, the ear, and the heart, Leclercq teaches us, are all bound together in the way the gospel is made known to us. Telling the story of Jesus is about opening our hearts and then our mouths, speaking words so that they may enter and be chewed on by the ears of our hearers, so that God’s great story becomes the spiritual food on the heart. To truly tell a story, then, is to tell it by heart….

Story starvation. Difficulty with reaching people with the gospel today.

Did it work for Philip? The Ethiopian had already been chewing on the words of Isaiah. But after Philip had opened his mouth and told the story, the Ethiopian looked at what was probably no more than a fetid mud puddle and said, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Nothing. To return to the language of the Pulpit & Pew survey, Philip overcame the difficulty of relating the gospel to someone in the culture of his day by telling the story of Jesus….

So now we begin to see the whole story -- how the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian is a story about the importance of story. It is a story that prods us amid a story starved culture to tell the story. Not a story for story’s sake, but a story that tells us who and whose we are. God has written us into the narrative of creation and redemption. That is to say, God’s story is about life and our lives -- God’s way of life and our way of life, bound together in one great story.

Let me close with these words. We’ve been talking about the gospel and the story starvation of our culture. But let me also say that pastors and churches, pastoral leaders and parishes, denominations and judicatories, seminaries and professors, foundations and donors -- perhaps even some of the people you work with -- they’re all starved for the stories you have to tell about your own SPE project and how it is touching the lives of pastoral leaders.

God’s story, your story as a project, the stories of the pastors you serve are all bound together into a magnificent story that must be told for Sustaining Pastoral Excellence itself to be sustained. For in the end, this effort will not be sustained by the money of any foundation. It will be sustained by the foundation of God’s own story and how our efforts are connected with that story.

So, find those stories in your project. Train yourselves to spot them. Learn the details and take them to heart. Then open your mouths and tell the stories! Tell them over and over again, to anyone who will listen. Repeat them so well and so often that they become polished to a high gloss. Chew on them with you ears, digest them in your hearts. For only when you do so can you truly tell the story by heart….