I have a friend whose dad, Norman, is the very best storyteller I know. When we are able to get together, I get excited beforehand about the prospect of getting to listen to him tell a story. In fact, I hope that he will tell stories that I’ve already heard him share time and time again. The best thing about his storytelling, is that even when he repeats a story, it seems like it’s the first time he’s told it. He tells the story by creating a picture. We are able to put ourselves in the story and see clearly the characters he describes. Everyone wants to hear these stories repeated because they are delivered with such passion, humor and truth.
Do you know anyone like that? A consummate storyteller? Someone who can tell the same story and elicit the same response each time?
While story telling may not be my personal gift, I do firmly believe that each of us has a story to tell. And I believe that God longs for us to share those stories. In fact, our scriptures encourage this act over and over again.
And so today, we continue our series “Amid the Cold of Winter”. As we look at various spiritual practices to sustain us through the winter months, this week we are going to consider the practice of storytelling.
Former bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Thomas Hoyt, Jr. wrote that, “testimony happens in every vital Christian community.”
Perhaps, like me, you have memories from your youth, of testimonies being shared at church on Wednesday or Sunday nights, or perhaps at a revival or youth camp you attended. And perhaps, like me, you spent a good portion of your life, thinking that your testimony didn’t amount to much and maybe wasn’t even worth sharing. It’s hard to live up to those stories of missionaries living in the bush of an African nation. It’s hard to compete with the stories of those whose lives were headed down a dangerous path until they found Jesus. Many of us feel too “normal” or “plain” to have much of a story to tell.
In our scripture today, the Psalmist gives us an example of how we are called to share our stories- our testimonies. We aren’t asked to make up a grand epic, but instead we are called to praise God for all that God has done. A testimony tells the truth about who God is and what God has done in our lives.
The Psalmist says “from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.” Even as we grow older, we can still claim the wondrous things that God has done. And we can make known the ways that God has taught and led us.
In church, we tell our stories when we sing collectively. We tell our stories when we offer up prayers for those whom we love. We tell our stories when we share in Sunday School class. We tell our stories when we serve our community. But we all benefit when we hear the actual testimonies of each other’s lives. How God has been real for each of us. Where God has shown up when we were misguided or tempted. Who God has been in the midst of the joys and the sorrows of our lives.
Outside of the church, perhaps no other organization relies more heavily on the importance of stories than Alcoholics Anonymous. What makes AA work is that there is a constant invitation to tell your story- and an equal invitation to hear the stories of others.
Part of my own story is that I am the child of an alcoholic. My dad has been sober now for 25 years. He has found sobriety with the help of his faith most broadly, but through the help of Alcoholics Anonymous more specifically. In the past 25 years he has shared his story with countless meetings and he has sponsored countless men in recovery.
But he has also been on the receiving end of the stories of others. When I asked him about why he believes AA is so effective, he responded that “One thing that keeps members sober is that it is their responsibility is to help keep others sober.” And that is done through telling stories. Sharing the struggles. Sharing the challenges. Sharing the mistakes. And sharing the successes.
And isn’t that how our faith testimonies work? We have a responsibility to share our stories of how God has moved in and through our lives- in the midst of the struggles and challenges. The successes and the mistakes. Sharing our stories of how the Good News has changed and shaped us, but also how it continues to do so.
And like AA, it is a process of storytelling that is never done. 25 years later, my dad still shares his story at meetings, and the story has grown over these two and a half decades. And there are parts of his story that speak more specifically to certain individuals. He continues to tell his story so that others might be encouraged. He tells his stories so that others might live.
And so our faith stories continue to grow. Even if you have had a seminal experience with Jesus at some point in your life, that is not the end of your story. Your story, no matter how old or young you are, is still in the works. It is still worthy of being told.
Your story- whether it is one of contentment or one of struggle- one of gratitude, or one of despair- it longs to be told.
God’s story is vast. God’s ways are mysterious. It’s imperative that we help make God accessible. That we tell of God’s ways in our own lives. That we tell of what God has done that is tangible, believable, relatable.
Telling stories isn’t only about miracles, but it’s also about the mundane.
Where has God shown up in your life in simple ways? In relationships you’ve built? In choices you’ve made? In love you’ve both given and received?
When we share our stories of faith with others, they are inspired to live more fully into the Gospel as well. And hopefully, they are in turn, are inspired to share their own stories with others.
Should we not desire to share our encounters with God with excitement, fervor and confidence? It may difficult or uncomfortable the first few times you share your testimony, but it will become easier. You will see the ways others are moved by your vulnerability. You will have the opportunity to be known more honestly and loved more deeply even as you point others to Christ.
Do you remember Paul Harvey’s radio show “The Rest of The Story”? I delighted in hearing this radio program come on in the car while riding around with parents. Paul Harvey would tell a story- the details of some person or company or event with which the general public was familiar. But he would tell the deeper story. The tragedy of one’s life, a delightful direction one chose to take- an aspect of their story that wasn’t more broadly known. No matter where we had to go, my parents and I would sit in our drive way or in a parking space to wait and listen until he finished “the rest of the story”… finally giving away who or what he had been talking about the whole time.
I think that radio program was so successful, because we want to know people’s stories. We want to know what makes them who they are. We want to hear about their life experiences. And the same is true of faith stories. It’s far less compelling to hear someone’s fine-tuned, close-to-perfect version of themselves. We are drawn toward hearing the fullness and vulnerability of another’s story. As Christians, we want to hear the ways that Jesus has shown up in each of our lives. Not the ways we have muscled through on our own. Not the ways we have maintained control or an image of perfection. But the ways that the good news of Jesus’s grace, God’s unconditional love, and the Holy Spirit’s presence impact us in our everyday lives.
The Bible is full of people telling their stories. And we know that Jesus himself often spoke in stories. Recently, I heard a guest on NPR say, “There’s a reason that we ask for bedtime stories and not bedtimes facts.” Stories bring us in. They share truths with us while showing us humanity. They connect us to one another. The early scripture writers knew this. The Psalmist knew this. The prophets knew this. Jesus knew this. The members of the early church knew this. Testifying to who God is by sharing our experiences draws us to love and understand all of God’s creation more fully. And hopefully, testimonies elicit a response from the listeners. Jesus’s preaching and teaching caused his followers to drop what they were doing and follow him. Peter’s testimony on Pentecost persuaded many to join the new community of believers. Testimonies move us to seek out God with new and renewed intention.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth he is very clear that we need not have the “perfect” words or sentiments when sharing our stories. We need not be the consummate story teller for our stories to be worthy and important to be shared. We can share our stories with weakness. We can share them while trembling. We can trust that God will use us in our nervousness so that those listening will see and understand God more clearly.
Sharing our stories is not about our own ability. It’s not about our own wisdom or our own intellect. It’s about vulnerability. It’s about honesty. It’s about allowing God to use us to help someone else know God more fully.
A testimony is not about education. It is not about intelligence. It is your story. Your encounter with God through Christ & the Holy Spirit. We don’t have to have all of the answers or understand everything about God or the scriptures to share our stories and shed light on the faith for others. You are equipped to tell your story. Today. Without reservation.
You’ll often hear me say “we experience God through the stories of others.” Throughout Advent, I hope you were able to access our Advent stories- video devotions that involved several church members who were willing to share their own testimonies. Each one brought a wonderful word of encouragement to each of us while also giving us insight into who God had made each of them to be. Some brought us to tears. Some made us laugh. Some had all of their thoughts written out ahead of time. Some spoke off the cuff. But all of them testified to the love of Jesus in their lives. Their story-telling gave us all a gift- a chance to know them better, and a chance to know God better.
Again, in his writings on story-telling and testimony, Bishop Hoyt reminds us that having a testimony to share implies that we are witnesses- “witnesses [who] must speak the truth as they have seen, heard and experienced it.” It is vital that as believers we can be witnesses to what we have seen, heard and experienced in the person of Jesus Christ.
I’d invite you to consider this as a practice in these weeks of winter. When have you seen Jesus at work in the world? What have you heard from the Holy Spirit? How have you experienced the fullness of who God is in your life? But most importantly, how might you tell your story- your testimony- to someone else so that they might be inspired and encouraged to connect more deeply with their own faith? Who is one person who could benefit from hearing your story today? Perhaps it’s a family member? Maybe it’s a group of friends? It could even be our entire church!
Story telling is about telling the truth. About who you are and about who God is. What is the truth you have to tell about who are you? In what ways do you struggle? In what do you find joy? And what truth do you have to tell about Jesus?
Story telling is about offering hope- hope that comes from knowing that Christ walks with us on our individual journeys, but also Christ walks among us collectively. I encourage you to join me in the spiritual practice of storytelling- a practice that can encourage and sustain those who are telling and those who are listening amid the cold of winter. I invite you to tell your story.