Today I read a short paragraph that I found deeply challenging simply because of its pithy succinctness:
Bad religion has always favoured escape, passivity, irresponsibility. By dint of fixing one’s eyes on heaven above, one does not see what takes place on earth here below. The upward-looking must come to an understanding with the forward-looking. (Louis Evely).
I like this quote. I like the simple recognition that there is bad religion. It can use good things but misdirect them, and here the idea is that contemplation and human hope can be oriented away from the reality of our lives and (as Evely goes on to say) away from where God calls us to live and move—and that is the future, the way forward. Faith is not meant to be an escape, but in fact a means of engagement with reality, sometimes the most costly form of engagement.
In my last post I wrote about the importance of listening and how listening can actually change the world, or at least the situation of those with whom we live. Now I want to explore one way in which speaking can help us move into the future, into hope. This is about the sharing of stories: and that is both an activity of listening and speaking.
I’ve written before about the power of stories to bring life. (See my posts, ‘Life stories bring life’ and ‘Bring back story’, for instance.) The recent death of Elie Wiesel reminds us of his brilliant saying, ‘God made man because he loves stories’.
Now I want to add some thoughts of the wonderful writer and teacher Henri Nouwen, who wrote that story telling can be a form of ministry that opens doors and invites people into a new space: here we can search and explore, but also a story can sketch ‘boundaries to help us find what we seek’. So Nouwen wrote, in The Living Reminder:
One of the most remarkable qualities of a story is that it creates space. We can dwell in a story, walk around, find our own place. The story confronts but does not oppress; the story inspires but does not manipulate. The story invites us to an encounter, a dialog, a mutual sharing.
This remarkable paragraph invites us to see a most fundamental aspect of what the ancient Hebrew faith understood as God’s saving or liberating purpose: to provide space, room to live. God is not so much wanting us to live in heaven as to live well on earth! It is not really about looking ‘up’ at all, to some other place and time. It is about looking differently at this place and time: in a sense to look forward or to look into this time and place, to new possibilities.
How can we look, this way? Nouwen suggest that one crucial means is the sharing of stories. The operative term here is sharing. Stories are not done to us: we share, telling and hearing. This is a form of conversation and reflection together, a participation. (That is why in fact we need to learn to listen, to hear together—it takes effort, even energy at times.)
Nouwen also tilts at some of the unhelpful ways of speaking or even narrating: stories shared in this positive, creative way do not manipulate or oppress. There can indeed be story-telling which has these effects: that happens if, for example, only one group or part of the community ever get to speak, to share their stories. ‘Children should be seen but not heard’ was a dictum in earlier generations. Often, in workplaces or social groups, some people never get to speak. I’ve noticed over many years that at conferences it is often only some people who ever get to ask their questions. The power of the microphone, the power to speak is very real and the exclusion of some voices is equally real. For this reason, we often invite small group discussions, as a basis for evoking questions from the conference floor, as a way of including far more voices.
Story telling can be a vital part of family and home life, work places and neighbourhoods: and it is astonishing just how little it occurs now in our hurried city life. To create contexts for sharing stories, to make space for stories that make space, that would be a revolutionary activity. It has to begin with looking forward, looking into a space and possibility. And that may take some courage, but I am convinced also that it brings life, re-creation.
Finally, for those of us interested in teaching and preaching (or in communications that rescue those cultural forms into something more creative and life-giving): it is worth taking Nouwen’s ideas above and applying them to how we read a scripture passage, for instance. It too is a story, even if it is not actually in narrative form. Some people, some time, chose to write like this, to express their experience and story this way: and this text then invites us to enter into it—perhaps to identify with someone, some themes or experience, or indeed to reject it and critique it—and thus to ‘walk around’ the text and explore its offerings, its parameters, its invitation. And if we can engage with a text like this, then our presentations might do the same: inviting people also to look up and look ahead, in hope.