Why Tell Stories?

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We hear a lot about stories and sometimes about the art of storytelling. That could very well be because it has been around since people populated the earth and developed language. Long before we read stories in books or even parchments using words in whatever language was ours, stories appeared as drawings or pictures found in caves in nearly every part of the world. They come to us now in every known medium and circle the globe nearly at the speed of light.

Stories help us make sense out of the world and classify the patterns of thought and experience into forms we can share with others while also helping us better understand ourselves. And stories are one of the things that seem to be loved by every human in every culture down through time. The stories we love most become ones that we recall long past the time we first heard or read them and our choices of them say a lot about us.

“The stories we choose to spend our lives with are a reflection of our values, and, therefore, our character.”

Wayne Booth

I once would have believed that each of us have memories of sitting on someone’s lap or beside them hearing a story when we were very young, but I discovered that was not true when I was still working as a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor. As a lover of stories, I found that some who came to my office were helped by reading a story because of how the author chose words to give a glimpse of insight or understanding that was more effective than a simple explanation. I loved reading to our children and the children in my classroom when I was a teacher, so it was a natural tool to use in my office. But I could never have guessed a person well into adulthood often shared they had never had anyone read them a story.

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Our language grows as we listen to stories and so does our awareness of the world we are born into and the possible place we have in it. The stories we hear fuel our imagination of other places and things and stir up dreams as well as adventures we want to chart. They give us a connection with the person reading it by the physical closeness to them as well as the inflection and expression they use as they read. Stories also seem to be stitched into our memories differently than words we hear in other ways. Even when we are older, many of us can recall a story we read or were told in our childhood.

Discovering that some who heard me read a portion of a story had never had that experience reinforced my desire to use that tool often. One of the favorites was You Are Special by Max Lucado, but there were others or portions of them also – The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams and The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen among them.

The adults I read to did not feel as though I was treating them as children but enjoyed experiencing the story and the connection it created for them that had sometimes been absent in their own childhood experience.

Stories are powerful tools.

Jesus knew well the power of stories and anyone who has ever had even a small exposure to the Bible has heard a few of the stories that He told. But even his disciples were curious about why He told stories and in Matthew 13 we see the exchange between Him and them as they ask Him directly why He uses stories. His answer?

“You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward a welcome awakening.”

Matthew 13:11-13 (MSG)
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His answer causes me to think that the stories not only stay in memories, but they can be used to plow up the ground of the person’s heart and mind to be able to receive the truth of the story and grow to gain insight into its meanings.

Perhaps that is also why we might be more likely to recall an illustration in a sermon on Sunday morning more than the specific points or scripture references that were used.

Stories are indeed powerful, and it reminds us of how vital it is to expose our children and ourselves to the very best stories because they will not only be remembered for a lifetime but also because they will help to shape the hearer’s view and understanding of themselves and the world they live in.

Stories can be used for great good beyond educating us but evil can also use them to mislead and deceive us, to persuade us to accept something we would not otherwise choose.

“We will be defined, as individuals and as a society, by the stories we choose to live and by those we value enough to pass on to the next generation. This is perhaps our ultimate responsibility as characters acting freely.  What stories will we tell our children and why?  What stories will they choose to tell in turn?”

Daniel Taylor in Tell Me A Story
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Do You Have What You Need?

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It’s that time of year again when students at every level are purchasing books and supplies that they need to begin new classes and new courses. Obviously, the number of possible books and supplies can seem endless, but to be prepared for the days ahead each student will need the right books and supplies for this particular season.

I recall this season well as both a mom and a former teacher. It’s a bit like a “rite of passage” as the summer nears its end, but for many of us the love of books we may have developed years ago lingers on. And I confess that I am one of those. If I buy a book, I am always reluctant to ever throw it away so usually I look for a new “home” for it with someone else who may need or enjoy it.

My life has taken many turns and at each one I accumulated a “library” of sorts. When I left teaching, I had stacks of books and materials I knew I would not need or use again. They had been my “tools” of the trade and served me well. There were assessments I found helpful, posters and borders for classroom bulletin boards, and a great many other things. Very few needed to be thrown out because I searched out other new teachers who could benefit from the “tools” and save themselves money in the bargain. (Most teachers spend a lot of money setting up their own classroom beyond what the school may be able to supply.) But I took with me a wealth of experience I had gained in teaching my special education students and relating with their parents and other teachers.

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My new turn from teaching to become a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and Independent Marriage and Family Therapist required new and different “tools” for my workplace. Little-by-little I began to acquire a new “library” to help equip me with what I needed. It didn’t take long until the bookshelves in my office were filled to overflowing and bookshelves at home were filling up as well. The result was choosing the very best of these for my office where they would be readily available at a moment’s notice. As a result, those who came to my office and know me well would chuckle as they would tell you their memory of times in my office as I was sitting listening to them. I would turn in my chair and reach for a particular book and a particular spot in the book to share something with them that was exactly the area we had been focusing on. They were often puzzled at how I could do that so easily. Little wonder my difficulty with deciding what to do with the large number of books and resources on those office shelves when I retired 7 years ago. (Our bookshelves at home were already full…my husband reads many as well.)

For me there was no real mystery about what my clients saw me do. I think I have a relationship with most of the books I read (some more than others) and the most significant ones will have places underlined and highlighted or marked with post-it flags to alert me to the exact places I want to remember. Some of those are ones that first ministered to me. Over the course of my careers and life, the Lord has been helping me prepare for each day and season with the things He knew I would need.

He knew the books that would help equip and shape me, the conferences where notes and resource lists would help me. He also knew that when my children were young and I was enjoying staying at home full-time that there was more time to immerse myself in the Bible and what that would do to shape my beliefs, values, confidence, courage, and understanding. When our children went off to school, you could often have found me sitting in my favorite chair reading for big chunks of time. To all of these, the Lord added my experiences as well as those of others who intersected my life along the way. He wasted nothing and taught me the value of not wasting them either.

Those things and that knowledge was what brought a smile to my face as I was reading the Gospel of Matthew in The Message rendering and came to this verse where Jesus is speaking to his disciples:

“He said, “Then you see how every student well-trained in God’s kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it.”

Mt. 13:52 (MSG)
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You never really know how what you are reading, watching, listening to, or thinking about will be something the Lord tucks away for one day in the future. You may not even recall that you have it tucked away, but suddenly He can and will often bring it to mind as something for you or someone else at just the right time. You don’t need to be a teacher, counselor, ministry leader, or writer. The Lord delights in using each one of us in some of the most unexpected places and with people we may not even have met until that moment. I love how the writer of Proverbs reminds us of that idea:

“The right word at the right time

    is like a custom-made piece of jewelry,

And a wise friend’s timely reprimand

    is like a gold ring slipped on your finger.” Proverbs 25:11-13 (MSG)

The Lord wants us to be equipped for what He calls us to be and do, those He wants us to connect with and those He will allow to intersect with us. But the great news is that He is in the business of doing it before we even realize or recognize that He has done it. He is really that GOOD!

You cannot imagine perhaps how whatever is happening in your life today might have use for Him or how what you are reading, watching, or listening to could be a benefit at some future point. But I can tell you from my own lived experience that it is just like Him. I am guessing the boy who showed up on the hillside to listen to Jesus preach and had a small lunch of 5 loaves and 2 fish would be the first to jump up and agree!

Lucy could never have guessed how Aslan would use her…

The Only Woman in the Room

From the time Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in November 1914, anyone who saw her was impacted by her beauty. No one failed to notice her whenever she entered a room. She was adored by her father, a prosperous banker in Vienna, and given every opportunity he could afford including a private tutor beginning at age 4. Unlike many other parents at the time, her father encouraged her curiosity and desire to know how things worked. Their times together included him explaining to her the intricacies of various inventions without doubting her capacity to grasp the information. And it was perhaps this that led her mother to be more critical of her skills and slow to commend her for anything she did.

Marie Benedict tells her story in The Only Woman in the Room and gives keen insight into this fascinating woman whose beauty would open many doors for her throughout her lifetime. It would be this beauty that attracts Fritz Mandl to her when she is still a teen after seeing her live acting performance on stage. His extravagant gifts of roses sent to her dressing room each night piqued her curiosity, but when he wanted to call on her and her father discovered who he was it became evident that this relationship was one she could not avoid and might be key to the safety of her entire family.

Her beloved Austria saw the rise of the fascist move in Germany and feared it would succumb and lose freedom. Fritz was a major munitions manufacturer with powerful connections all over Europe. With hints of potential threats to Jews, Hedwig’s father and mother’s Jewish heritage was one her father recognized could increase. That awareness caused her father to look at Mandl’s pursuit of his daughter differently than it might have at any other time. When asked for consent to marry his eighteen-year-old daughter by Mandl, 33, he gave his daughter a choice while also telling her it could provide safety for her and the family in the time ahead.

When Mandl chose to be in control of every aspect of the wedding including choosing the gown she would wear and the guests to be invited, Hedwig was disappointed but kept silent at the urging of her father. Married in a Christian ceremony, few of Hedwig’s family or friends would be invited.

Benedict masterfully weaves together how the marriage evolves as Mandl’s position grows in Austria and he declares his desire to keep the country free from Germany. His wealth and power put him in positions to know the most significant men of the time from not only his own country but others as well. Tasked with being the hostess in any one of Mandl’s extravagant homes, Hedwig begins to listen more carefully to the conversations of the men with whom her husband associates. It becomes clear to her that she is a “trophy wife” whose primary purpose is to be beautiful and obedient to her husband. Little-by-little she sees her own freedom eroding, but her background as an actress serves her well in playing the role her husband demands. That doesn’t prevent her from tuning into conversations indicating plans of the Third Reich and beginning to understand some of the inventions and their uses more than any of the men in the room could guess.

The beautiful Hedwig also known as Hedy sees the information she is gleaning as potentially vital to a path to freedom.

The true story of this woman whose choices make all the difference in this historical work of fiction reminds the reader of how often we can miss so much about a person when we only see what is on the outside. Her brilliant mind will never be lauded and applauded as her beauty is, but it will be the thing that she would most want to be remembered by. Her invention during WW II will be rejected by the U.S. Navy but will go on to be what leads to development of GPS, WIFI, Bluetooth technology, command, and control of nuclear weapons and more.

Who is this woman? You would know her as the Austrian born American actress, Hedy Lamarr, renamed by Louis B. Mayer when he brought her to Hollywood where she would go on to appear in 30 films over a 28-year career in Europe and the United States. The films she made are legendary, but the true story of her life was recorded in the 2017 documentary film Bombshell.

The documentary is a perfect complement after reading The Only Woman in the Room. As the film draws to a close the strains of Blue Danube Waltz begin as Hedy reads a portion of a poem (“The Paradoxical Commandments” by Kent Keith) to her adult children not long before her death in January 2000. These stanzas she reads give us a glimpse into the life she led and the choices she made:

“People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smaller men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.”

From The Paradoxical Commandments by Kent H. Keith

No Neutral Ground

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Choices face us every day. Sometimes even the simplest choices of whether to have chocolate or butter pecan ice cream seems to give us pause (especially if we like both). We have so many choices to make each day that we might wish we could remain neutral and not make any choice at all, but that isn’t how life is set up.

When we are a young child, a parent may choose when we get up. Even as a teen most parents have a limit of how long we can “sleep in” on the weekend. As adults we can choose to get up or not, but there is no neutral ground of “halfway up” and the choice brings a consequence for us either way.

In a world that has become increasingly polarized on nearly every issue and topic, it can be tempting to want to steer clear of all of them and find a cozy spot in the middle. That means we don’t “show our hand” on what we really believe and hope that means we stay out of the melee of both sides. But that might be what too many have already been tempted to do that has brought us to this chaotic place of polarization. We set aside deciding based on principles and values that we thought were important and would basically always be there no matter what our response. Abdicating our choice meant someone else made one and then someone else made one and little by little principles and values we believed would always basically be there no matter what we did or did not do began to disappear.

Down through history as conflicts have broken out between villages, tribes, and nations, some have attempted to stay neutral. There were reasons for that perhaps, but it meant they could not or would not decide there was a right or a wrong and it wasn’t affecting them at the time. But history also shows that most could not and did not remain neutral.

You see, inherent within evil is a desire for control and a lust for power and it is never quenched within its own boundaries and territories. It seeks more and more and as it gets more, the hunger is never satiated.


Evil slips in little by little in the hope we will not notice at the outset. It can start with a “white lie” or a “fib” that we believe protects someone or something and we choose it instead of the truth. That usually requires a more specific “lie” at some point down the line and most of us know that once that ball starts rolling there is rarely any turning back. We start deceiving more and more people and it becomes such a habit that we miss that we are also deceiving ourselves. Principles and values are long forgotten because we must keep up the image, the facade, or we and everything we have constructed with our lies will crumble around us. To not decide for what is good, right, just, and absolute truth, is a decision against them all. Even if we think or say we believe otherwise, that is what happens.

It can seem as if we can avoid making those hard decisions where we stand for what we say we know is true and right, but if we believe that it will never catch up with us, we are deceived. That is something history also shows us even if the revelation comes long after the wrong choice. The world was set up that way when God created it and us and chose to risk giving us the gift of freedom and choice. And from the outset we proved we struggled with making the right choice and that resulted in the loss of freedom.

Many of us grew up hating the subject of history when we were in school and now we live in an era where we choose to forget, ignore, or seek to rewrite it.

Our stories construct our history of choices. They give evidence of our character and our testimony. Scripture teaches there is no neutral ground. We must make a choice of good or evil, God or his enemy. There are many verses in the Bible that point to this but reading in Matthew this week points to one that is succinct:

“This is war, and there is no neutral ground. If you’re not on my side, you’re the enemy; if you’re not helping, you’re making things worse.”

Matthew 12:30 (MSG)

The verse and the passage where it is found has grabbed my attention all week. Am I helping? If so, how am I doing that in my daily life and choices? Am I making things worse? What have I said or done that might result in that? Those questions sound harsh, but they have echoed in my mind and heart as I consider whether the choices I make represent the decision I made to be a believer in Christ who stands for truth above opinion, what is right versus what is convenient, what is eternal versus what only lasts for the moment.

Like it or not, history will catch up with us and reveal the truth – there is no neutral ground.


Choosing Can Be Difficult

Bow River, Alberta, Canada
Bow River, Alberta, Canada Photo by Pam Ecrement

I cannot recall when I first came to grips with how much I wanted the option to choose something for myself. I am confident it began in early childhood. It usually does for all of us. It can be those pesky things about what we play with and whom we play with or what we want to wear or don’t want to wear, and so on. Early on in our lives that desire to be unfettered by the choices of others pokes its head up above the surface.

What I didn’t recognize for so much longer was the responsibility that was mine when I was allowed to choose. I couldn’t blame anyone else when I was the one choosing.

After that began to dawn on me, I think that most days I went along making choices and not thinking a great deal about them. So many daily choices can seem inconsequential at the time and many of them truly are, but not all. Sometimes the consequence of the choice does not show up for a very long time so it can be easy to forget my part in it.

I can choose to eat only the things I like and only go to bed or work when I feel like it. The first day I make such a choice is easy. It is even easier to do so a second day because I usually experience no consequences for it at the time. I won’t notice the effect on my health for perhaps a long time. I won’t notice that I actually reduce how many options I increasingly must choose from if those patterns aren’t healthy.

Small choices develop patterns of choices over time that lead to results I never bargained for.

I can easily forget that choice was first of all a gift from my Creator at the very beginning. It was and is a powerful gift! He wants me to choose to love Him and devote my life to Him. He could have made it a mandate for His creation, but He didn’t. And choices are often not easy.

“Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”

J. K. Rowling

An easy choice seems to cost me nothing. An easy choice fits in because it agrees with everyone else’s choice. An easy choice looks good on the outside.

I wonder if God gives us so many opportunities to practice choosing because He knows that at some point the things we must choose between will not be at all easy. Some of those things will come from small things we thought had no meaning or consequence. Some of them will come as a bolt out of the night and expose our cowardice when we try to avoid the choice that has come to us.

Each choice will finally highlight what we believe. It will also expose whom we believe and whether we are willing to risk being identified with Him, risk following Him, and risk trusting Him when it isn’t easy. Each choice will expose areas of unbelief as well.

In every great story, every great movie, the character in the story learns of a choice that is set before them. The tension in the reader or the audience grows steadily as the character grapples with the choice. In The Matrix Neo is offered the choice between the blue pill and the red pill without clear assurance for what will happen with either choice.

Frodo chooses to accept the ring and the challenges that come with it, but as he comes to realize how difficult that path is in The Fellowship of the Ring he says, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” The ever-wise Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times but that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given you.”

I think one thing is certain. The choices I make today will prepare me for the choices ahead. The truth that I bury in my heart will form the foundation of what I believe. That foundation will help me face the choice between what is right and what is easy.