Much of the foundation of Christian faith and life lies in the listening and telling of stories. Stories that are between 2,000 and 4,000 years old; stories that have been curated over the centuries by religious councils and collated into what we know as the Bible. Some of those stories are funny. Many of them are confusing. Some are touching, more than a few are violent; and others produce epiphanies of faith and insight.
For many years, biblical stories have tended to make me feel anxious or guilty, not only because I did not know their content very well – but I didn’t always know what they were supposed to mean. Other people could cite unequivocal messages from certain stories, but I couldn’t. And given the trend in contemporary comedy and media to produce a laugh or a message within 15 seconds, our attention spans have shrunk to the point that we don’t listen all the way through.
That has been changing for me in the last three years, which I attribute to the increasing use in the diocese of Dwelling in the Word, a practice which involves reading a biblical passage – twice, by a female and male voice; listening to what the text says and then listening to a partner about what the text says to them. It’s not a contest, nor is it some abstract theological exercise. And Dwelling in the Word is not some biblical drive-by, where we read a passage and then move on. A signature passage for Dwelling in the Word is Luke 10, which I have read in various groups over 150 times in the last couple of years; enough times that I can tell the story of Jesus sending out the 70 myself. And the more I listen and tell the story, the more it says to me. Surprisingly, the stories don’t get old, because the verbal and dramatic license of the reader – and my partner, not to mention the Holy Spirit, generate new insights most every time. I have come to love these stories, and the exercise of telling and listening to them, because they open up avenues of creativity and imagination in the soul, and deepen my faith.
I have been taking this appreciation and love for stories on the road. This summer I was invited by four different congregations – St. Mary’s, Sparta; All Saints’, Millington; Grace, Madison; and St. John’s, Boonton, in some cases to eat and/or to walk – and in every case to Dwell in the Word.
I can say that in each visit we had fun – kibitzing about the challenging pronunciation in some of the texts, hearing the creative report-outs from various pairs, and opening up the possibility that different people hear the story differently. We learned from each other, and in the process relationships deepened because the conversation was about what the impact the story had on one another. There was – and is, still a temptation for people to hear what they think they are supposed to hear; but my excitement for this process has to do with the fact that people are mastering these stories by increasingly letting go of expectations to receive a specific message and accepting the invitation to have the story speak directly to them – and then they can recount their insights in their own voice.
The stories don’t change, but our relationship to them grows. And God’s presence deepens – as we become confident and competent in being storytellers ourselves.