Last week I had coffee with my friend, Eleanor Stanton, the associate pastor at the Presbyterian- New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs. She talked about stories, working with teens, about being a minister, about having cancer, and about being a minister with cancer. Throughout our conversation were implicit and explicit observations about courage. This is the first of two installments of that interview.
Jennifer: So, I have some questions for you about courage and about story. Let’s start with this. If somebody came to church on Sunday, somebody new in town, and there you are, you’re wearing your collar, your robe, and you have no hair. So they may quickly make certain assumptions about both your story, and your courage –
Eleanor: I thought you were going to say, my orientation!
Jennifer: Ha! No! So whether their assumptions are correct or not, odds are that they are going to be making them. What’s your response to just the fact that that happens? That whereas somebody else may not present a whole lot of clues, for example –
Eleanor: Well, when I first came back to church [after treatment for cancer] I wore my little bald head. For a couple of reasons I needed to deal with it in the sermon and – well, now I can’t even remember what text I was preaching on that day – but somehow it was going to get around to this. And the other part of that is that I work with the teenagers all the time trying to get them to understand that who they are right now is the manifestation of God’s perfection, of life’s design. God for me is the power of life that was, is and ever shall be, whether human beings are at the top of the heap or not. So for me to put on a wig – and I’ve got one, I just can’t seem to wear it very comfortably! – seems to try to hide what is true for me and about me right now, which is that I am bald. So one side of it was trying to be true to the message that I send to the kids, and that I feel in myself, which is that it’s an act of courage to be self-revealing.
Jennifer: Yes, there’s a nakedness. You’ve got a very naked head! It’s so shiny!
Eleanor: Yes, I glow! But the other side of that was that I realized that my very appearance would kick up in people who saw me their stories about how cancer has touched them. For some of them, it would be frightening. And I don’t want to frighten them! So I talk openly about what’s going on with me, to help give extra information that the story that I bring up in you is your story, it’s not necessarily our story that’s happening right now. And I’ve also thought about this for Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is our big night – there might be between two and three hundred people there. And there will be people there who come on Christmas Eve and they come on Easter and they’re tangential – they’re connected to our church, and they consider our church to be their church or they just want to go to a church on Christmas Eve. But they don’t know me and my story, so the bald head will be new to them.
So I’m going, “Alright, should I try to wear something on my head and make this easier for them? This has to do again with bringing up their stories. The good part for me about going through this is that my job requires me to read and preach on the scriptures, the Bible, and for me, I believe that all of them are testimonies of faith. In the United Church of Christ we’re not doctrinal, so we see the traditions of the church – the traditional stories that come to us that are not part of the Bible but they’re part of the tradition, are testimonies of faith, they’re not tests. I don’t have to affirm that I believe in the virgin birth. I do and I don’t, in that I understand what they were trying to say, that Jesus always was a unique child of God, just as I believe each of us is a unique child of God, and it is in our uniqueness that we get closest to that [God]. So [I want] to embrace what it is about us that is unique rather than trying to plaster over those things that make us different. So being close to stories that are testimonies and I believe true expressions of what the writer was trying to get across [is meaningful to me].
The Bible gives you stories where you can say, “Oh, look at that.” But only if you wrestle with them. If you engage with them. Because if you take them literally, you miss, I believe, the true meaning of the story. It’s like, you’re on the cruise ship and you see the top of the water and you believe that what you can see from the top is the complete embodiment of all that the ocean holds. But if you sink down, you see something quite different. So if you take it literally, you’re looking for an ark on some mountain in Russia. Or you think it’s “just a story” and we have this bias against story. I think it comes from “don’t tell stories,” which means lie, or “don’t carry tales,” which means gossip. Or being a tattle-tale. So there’s a negative sense there. If we say that they are “just stories” we don’t even go looking for the ark. But if you look down and you think about “what does it mean” –
Jennifer: Or “why would somebody say that?”
Eleanor: Exactly! In my experience of life, there have been times when I have just been – psssh – everything I knew just got swept away. I was just having to deal with something and I didn’t know how to deal with it. And yet something held me up. For me, something that seems to be there when my strength is failing is like the water that holds up the ark. And so I can see God’s faithfulness even when other people see – well, some of the little children say God blamed the animals and God killed the animals and that was not good, and what about the dinosaurs?! And then there’s “well, every culture has a flood story.” And they do. Even African creation stories have a flood story – so people say, “well, that’s just a memory of a flood and it doesn’t mean anything.” But no. I think that our stories, if we will engage with them, if we will be a little vulnerable to them, and let them change us, we can see how they can give us clues so we can survive and thrive.
I [am fascinated by] the Bible and specifically the Gospels – I just find Jesus of Nazareth so compelling and tricky – and you know it just blows me away trying to get a handle on him. I find him just such compelling person that it’s why I am a Christian, because I cannot look away from – as Einstein called him – “that luminous figure in our Gospels.” I consider the Gospels, the story of Jesus, the way of transformation. So if you think that the stories are “just stories” because they’ve admitted we can’t get any closer than a generation or so after his death and we know that the Gospels are faith proclamations, that they are not about reporting, they are about telling something that was true for that person – if you say, well we can’t know, then you don’t realize that it’s a way. In Mark’s Gospel, which is the earliest and simplest one, the word “way” is used – hmmm, 64 times? Jesus was always saying “follow me,” and so if you look at it that way, and you look in the story, and you use what has come to be called narrative criticism or literary criticism – instead of looking at historical criticism, saying what was the culture when the story was written, we say, let’s just look at the story as story. Where’s the action, where’s the tension, who’s the main character – if you step in that way and you actually try to live that, something transformative happens for you.
So maybe we downgrade or degrade stories as a way of distancing ourselves from the challenge of: what if you took it seriously? Gandhi, once he read the Sermon on the Mount, made it a daily discipline – and he was asked, “how do you, as a Hindu, hear the Sermon on the Mount? Blessed are the poor in spirit, how do you think you hear that differently from Christians?” and Gandhi said, “Well, I think he meant it.”
Jennifer: Yes, “it’s just a story, so therefore I don’t have to read it very carefully.” That’s an interesting point. We can dismiss it [the story].
Eleanor. But children believe stories. And in many ways I think Jesus was saying, unless you become like a child, you miss the Kingdom of Heaven. Which I think he meant is here. That when you begin to live in this transformed way, everything is different. So unless you believe and then take it in…
Jennifer: So this raises an interesting twist on my thesis. What you’re proposing is that people are actually afraid to engage with stories – is that fair to say?
Eleanor: I think that some people can be afraid if they truly look at a story, there’s part of them that’s uncomfortable – some stories can make you uncomfortable, and for some people being out of their comfort zone is a very fearful place.
Jennifer: Right. So, I’ve been promoting this idea that stories will help us develop our courage –
Jennifer: You have to be able to approach the story in order for it to have an effect on you. If you can’t even approach the story then there isn’t going to be the development.
Eleanor: There’s another piece: the wonder of stories. The cardinal rule for storytellers is: don’t explain the story. This is not some fable that has a summation line, or the old way where we said, “And so, dear Reader…” We don’t do that. We don’t explain a story. But stories are tricky. Stories have their own power, even when we’re afraid of that story, to wind around our ear and stick around –
Jennifer: And get in!
Eleanor: Yes! Yes, especially if as a storyteller you give enough detail that you start moving the furniture around in somebody else’s head. So if you say “and they gathered around the kitchen table” everybody sees a kitchen table. Now, mine looks different than yours does, and as long as I don’t tie it down too specifically to being a particular kind of kitchen table, you’re at the kitchen table too. So good stories can – so there’s the power of story. And many times the storyteller’s ability is only part of the delivery system, but the story has the power to stick with you.
The story of the Lion’s Whiskers – I told that story at church at our last talent show, and I told it at a ministers’ retreat to a group of ministers because we were talking about story. And the ministers loved that story because of course it’s the Gospel story. The only way to get to the other side of this problem, or to fix it, is if I go in thinking I know what fixing it looks like, and I am transformed by trying to live the thing. The woman has to get the whisker from the live lion, and then she’s given new eyes to see that her child is like the lion, and she lives into a new reality. So the ministers have different ears and they hear yes, it’s the way.
to be continued... in the next installment we continue discussing the power of narrative to carry us through dark times