Telling subversive stories

A couple of years ago I attended a short course about leading assemblies. As part of this we were addressed by a professional story-teller and in the question and answer session at the end someone asked him whether children were really interested in that sort of thing these days. To which he replied, “Oh yes, very much so”. In fact his observation was that children have been largely deprived of stories for too long. He said they`ve spent so much time in front of screens that hearing someone tell a story is both different and captivating…. His diary was very full. And this was all very encouraging to hear.

But of course, it`s not as if story-telling has gone away. The more I think about it story telling is as present as it ever was but it takes different forms. So for example think about the contents of many of our conversations; these are effectively stories. “You`ll never guess who I bumped into the other day” we might say and off we go telling the story. In fact, perhaps we know people who live lives that are so full of story-telling and drama it seems as if they`re living in some kind of soap opera!

And I wonder if you`ve noticed how, since the General Election many of the Politicians have spoken about the success or failure of what they call their `narrative`. It appears that `story telling` in this context is the vehicle for them to engage with us and to convince us that what they offer has some coherence or represents a wider vision for where the nation might go. I`m always amused by the way almost every party conference in the Autumn is given a narrative by the journalists. It`s a shame that it`s becoming such a tired and predictable formula but the story usually goes: Party leader under pressure, Party Leader needs to make the speech of their life…. and as long as nothing untoward happens Party leader is back on track. In other words, at 2pm things were dire- but by the time the applause died down the world was a different place and the critics were silenced …..(for now) just by having told a story; created a narrative.

I suppose what I`m getting at is that we are all telling stories and to some extent we all live by a story or narrative of some sort. We could think about the story we tell about our lives; our successes and regrets; the places we`ve come from; the jobs we`ve done or life`s key moments. We like to hear other peoples` stories: autobiographies and Memoirs are big sellers these days.

And communities and nations do the same. We tell the stories with pride or regret (often in equal measure) at moments of national anniversary or remembrance. These events are encouraged by the powers that be because they know how important it is to dictate the terms on which the story is told because the story you tell can profoundly shape attitudes and behaviour. This is especially significant when leaders wish to take us to war. On the one hand story-telling as propaganda can be manipulative on the other it can be it can be subversive or fire the imagination. I suspect this is also this is why the teaching of history is often so controversial.

And as people of faith we know a lot about story-telling…. at least we ought to. One of the best examples of it is in the Book of Deuteronomy….(5.2-3) Just before he delivers the Ten Commandments Moses tells the people. “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with US, who are all of us here alive today”. It might sound a obscure little text but what he`s doing is getting the people to enter into the story as if it were their own… He wants them to take themselves in their imagination back to that key moment in Israel`s story and to apply it to themselves; to see and understand themselves AS those people whom God has called and so to allow this to shape how they behave in the here and now.

And you might have noticed that this is what Paul is doing in our Epistle this morning. He`s painting the big picture of God`s purposes and telling the Ephesian Christians that they are now part of this story of the people of Israel. The narrative here is that Israel`s story is now their own and they`ve been drawn closer; they`re becoming what he calls a `dwelling place for God`.

And there are more modern examples of this kind of thing. For example, it`s this tradition of story-telling which was at the heart of the transforming civil rights work of Martin Luther King. In his `mountain top` sermon, given just before he was murdered he identifies himself with Moses and his congregation with the people of God when he said “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” This is why I say again, story-telling can have a subversive quality. Martin Luther King knew exactly what he was doing in using that Biblical imagery. It was the power of that story which gave the people their identity in God and helped them find their way in those trying times. He used that means of encouraging the people because he and they were facing the almost overwhelming power of the stories which the white dominated American State were putting out; stories which led many of the blacks to live a continuing narrative of metaphorical if not literal subjugation.

People often kindly ask me about what I get up to when I lead our school assemblies. Often as not there`s concern that our young are perhaps not getting to learn about the faith. Sometimes people will say, “They don`t seem to hear the Bible stories like we did”. Well, I always reply that when I go into school for assembly I take it that I have only one mandate beyond keeping the rumour of God alive. I don`t talk about `values` and I don`t go for `themes`; wherever I can I will tell a story… or should I say THE story.

But my concern is not so much for our children. My concern is for all of us who really haven`t understood the significance of all of this. We are immersed in some pretty strong narratives just now; stories about how the world is or should be run. We are surrounded by narratives about choice, consumption, individualism, the (apparently) free market, radicalism, tolerance and the `value` of a human life whether it`s related to the killing of unborn children or what`s delicately described as `assisted dying`. But wherever you hear these and other similar `buzz` words, you can be sure that there is a story attached; not just particular values but a narrative that we are expected to live or die by.

The question is how to we navigate our way through all of this? Well my sense is that you judge the truth of these narratives is by their results. To take the Lord slightly out of context, it is by their fruits you will know them. (Matthew 7.20) And more often than not the fruit of these other narratives is we see is despair: You know you`re caught up in it when you feel or find yourself saying “There`s no way out”. Or we conclude: “It`s just how things are; there`s nothing to be done”.. Or as one political narrative had it: “There`s no alternative”.

Presented with THAT kind of story-telling and THAT that picture of the world the people of faith turn to our Scriptures. We find a different and subversive story when we remember our time languishing in exile; when we were overrun by the suffocating embrace of the Babylonian Empire. And we tell the story of Isaiah the Prophet (Isaiah 43.19) who fired our imagination with the promise of the God who was doing a new thing.

This is how the Scripture stories work. When we learn to see ourselves as part of THAT narrative; then we begin to see just how provisional and inadequate the stories which surround us actually. Beyond the despair we begin to see that OF COURSE there`s an alternative. There IS an alternative because we`re in the hands of the God of Israel.

I want to suggest that`s the word for us this morning. Like those Ephesian Christians we need to understand ourselves as those who have been drawn into the People of God and into HIS story of where the world is going. I can do my best to teach the children the Bible stories but I want to ask how many of us not only remember them but are in the habit of referring to them as a means of getting our bearings in the events of each day and giving shape to our lives?

In other words, if you are despairing, lost, cynical or confused just ask yourself what story you are buying into. I say again the problem for the people of God in Isaiah`s day was that we had gone to sleep. We couldn`t see any other way forward than simply going along with the Babylonian account of reality. And if we are not to fall into the same kind of slumber again it`s to the stories of our forebears that we shall need to turn. To help us see that I so many ways we`ve been here before. To fire our imagination; to renew our confidence in what the Lord is doing in our day; to remind us of who we are, where we`re going and what resources are at hand.


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