“How could you live and have no story to tell?” declared the Russian novelist Fydor Doestevsky. Or in the more prosaic words of the Danish storyteller Isak Dinesen, “To be a person is to have a story to tell”.. But the story everybody has to tell is not a story of make-believe, but a story of their lives. To understand a person is to hear their story. However, the story we have to tell about ourselves is not just a set of facts, but always involves interpretation. It is how we make sense of our lives that makes the difference. The truth is that nobody lives life on an even keel. We all have ups and downs. The challenge is how we ultimately tell the story of those ups and downs. In the words of American psychologist Dan McAdams, will it be a story of ‘redemption’ or a story of ‘contamination’? It all depends on the lens we choose. To quote the philosopher Richard Kearney, “Storytelling is never natural. Every narrative bears some evaluative charge regarding the events narrated and the actors featured in the narration”.
I discovered this to be true when I sat down to write an account of my own life. The title, This Is My Story. A Story of Life, Faith and Ministry (Wipf & Stock 2018) was a deliberate echo of ‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine’, an old Gospel hymn associated with the Billy Graham ‘crusades’, which has its chorus ‘This is my story, this is my song, Praising my Saviour all the day long’. Writing with my grandchildren in mind, my initial motivation was to tell the story not of my life, but also of my faith. However, as I progressed in the telling I realised that in telling my story I was giving meaning to my life.
What is more, as I wrote I began to become aware of some of the modern theories relating to story. As a result I began with a quotation from the American writer, Daniel Taylor: “Our greatest desire, greater than the desire for happiness, is that our lives mean something. This desire for meaning is the originating impulse of story. We tell stories because we hope to find or create significant connections between things. Stories link past, present and future in a way that tells us where we have been (even before we were born), where we are, and where we should be going.” Significantly the book from which these words are taken was first entitled The Healing Power of Stories (1996) which was later published as Tell Me A Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Stories (2001).
These insights into storytelling have been developed by business coaches, when seeking to help senior managers who have lost their jobs and now seeking for a new position. Creating and telling a good story enables people to believe in themselves, which in turn makes a successful transition into another job so much easier. However, these insights can also help ministers when they face challenges in their life. When life’s very foundations seem to be shaken, what counts is how we tell our story.
The fact is ministry can be particularly tough. As has often been said, ‘churches make lousy mothers’. Indeed, after conducting a series of in-depth interviews with a group of retired ministers, I was so moved that, drawing upon the literary style of Hebrews 11 I wrote: “By faith they set out in ministry not knowing where the journey would lead them – by faith they lived in homes not their own – by faith they offered up their wives and children in the service of God – by faith they climbed the mountains, but also plumbed the depths of human experience – by faith they preached the good news and lived out the life of the kingdom – by faith they saw their churches grow, but they also saw their churches decline – by faith they experienced the love of their people, and by faith they experienced rejection and misunderstanding” (Retirement Matters for Ministers). But with one exception there was a ‘redemptive’ edge to their stories.
Thank God, we can become better pastors precisely because of the difficulties we encounter – we know from first-hand experience what it is to struggle and can therefore more effectively support others who are going through the mill. Furthermore, in spite of the pain and suffering, the misunderstanding and the rejection , through the power of forgiveness, we can emerge not as victims but as “more than conquerors”. In the words of pastoral theologian, Stephen Pattison. “Good, and indeed successful, Christian ministry which follows in the steps of its founder is born not from skill, power and knowledge, but from the experience of inadequacy, rejection and sorrow transformed by the love of God and then offered to others”. It is this that I sought to tell in This Is My Story.
Let me end -by quoting Guli Francis-Dehqani, the new Bishop of Chelmsford, who fled with her parents from Iran at the age of fourteen after her brother had been murdered. In her recent book Cries from a Lost Homeland (2021), where she told her story within the context of reflecting on Jesus’ last seven ‘words’, borrowing words from Annette Simmons, she wrote:
My hope is that by talking about my stories, you will start thinking about your stories….. Go tell your story; the world needs it.