We think of ourselves in the form of an unfolding story. When we want to recover something from the past, we rewind the film that is our life to see the narrative there. When we think of the present, we do so in a narrative. As we’re having breakfast we consider what lies ahead and what happened just a few minutes ago. Thinking about the future is done on the scaffolding of a narrative. Story holds it all together, gives it structure. All of this is an inner narrative that we couldn’t possibly tell, and if we could, few would have the patience to listen to all of it. The stories we do tell are culled from the narrative within us.
If we were asked to tell our inner story, that ongoing narrative about our life, most likely we’d be stumped. That story isn’t something we generally think about, nor is it easy to pin down. It is so close, so intimate, so much a part of flesh and bone, that we can’t see it. Yet it very much patterns how we live and what we believe about ourselves.
We have worked with clergy groups to help them become better acquainted with their inner stories, using several strategies to take them back to the cutting room floor to look for a “this is my story” plot down there. Perhaps the most striking strategy is inviting them to tell us their earliest childhood memory. Alfred Adler first developed this strategy with his therapy clients. When asked to recall an early memory, Adler said, out of the incalculable number of possibilities, people select those that have a bearing on their present life situation. These early recollections are laden with clues about their “Story of My Life.” Although they may not be aware of their life narrative, they are using it to understand the present and to anticipate the future with “an already tested style of action” (What Life Should Mean to You, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1931, 73-74).
Jesus lifted up the narrative of a small peasant village and challenged the dominant stories that supported the ruling classes in first-century Palestine. These wealthy rulers—including the Romans and the cooperating Jewish religious authorities—made up ten percent of the population. The other ninety percent were peasants, who produced all the wealth through agriculture. The ruling ten percent took two-thirds of all that the peasants produced, leaving them always living from hand to mouth and never far from starvation and death. The peasants were kept in their place by the dominant narrative of the authorities, which told them they deserved no better than what they had and that if they knew what was good for them they wouldn’t question this setup. Jesus challenged this system, and he often used parables to do so, as he does here.
Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend who comes to you in the middle of the night and says to you, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine on a trip has just shown up and I have nothing to offer him.’ And suppose you reply, ‘Stop bothering me. The door is already locked and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything’—I tell you, even though you won’t get up and give the friend anything out of friendship, yet you will get up and give the other whatever is needed because you’d be ashamed not to. (Luke 11:5–8)
In this parable Jesus paints a picture of a remarkable peasant commitment to hospitality. Villagers faithfully welcomed traveling strangers, fed them, and gave them a place to stay. The village was so poor that each act of hospitality stretched it to the limit. They scarcely had enough to feed their own families, let alone strangers. Jesus discloses the power of this hospitality when he says that even though you won’t get up and give your neighbor bread to serve the traveler out of friendship, you will do it “because you’d be ashamed not to.” To refuse would be to break the village honor code of hospitality.
The story told by the elite was that because the peasants lived in such dire circumstances they should fight with one another for survival. Hospitality was a silly and extravagant practice for people in their position. The ruling class had an investment in peasants treating each other inhospitably, because it served to demoralize them. A demoralized peasantry was much easier to manipulate and exploit. To his hearers’ surprise, Jesus told a parable that said their simple practice of hospitality was no small thing. It revealed the sharp contrast between their humanity and the ruthless inhumanity of the ruling class. The village practice of hospitality was a taste of the messianic banquet.
Jesus was not exhorting the villagers to do something more or something different. Rather, he was telling them that their inner story already expressed the dream of God. If they wanted to understand God’s dream, they needed to look no further than their own hospitality. Jesus paid attention to a piece of the peasant story that the elite had cut out and thrown away and that the peasants themselves hardly realized was part of the dream of God. This striking account expresses a major theological theme undergirding our work: God is constantly at work in each person’s story to realize God’s dream. A person may or may not discern this activity. We have seen, however, that when people have the opportunity to thoughtfully explore their inner story within a supportive community, the possibility of finding evidence of God’s work in that story is substantially increased. In a contemporary culture where the dominant theology depicts God as breaking into the world from outside, it is difficult to appreciate how the divine may be discovered within our stories.
It isn’t easy for clergy in particular to discern and hold on to their story, because they are subjected to many forces that try to impose narratives that don’t belong to them. As clergy enter into a safe, hospitable peer group, they begin telling things they can’t tell anywhere else—accounts of dysfunctional staff members, a bishop they didn’t trust, a humiliating encounter with a finance committee about their salary, their doubts about staying in ministry, their state of chronic fatigue, and their journey into spiritual wilderness. They also tell stories of success—figuring out how to deal with a thorny problem in the congregation, being excited by taking a different tack in preaching, experiencing transcendence as they offered pastoral care to a dying person. As they tell these stories they hear the sound of their own
We’ve used the metaphor of the cutting room floor to describe how people put together a story of an event. Most of the film of the actual event ends up on the cutting room floor. What remains is our particular construction of the event, crafted by us and a host of others to fit our particular way of looking at things. The gap between what actually happened and what we can tell about it is where narrative theory does its work. In this gap stories can be changed by going back to the cutting room floor and picking up discarded film. With this additional film, our participants could often find an alternative narrative with a different, more helpful plot.
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Adapted from Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership by Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Know Your Story and Lead with It:
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by Howard E. Friend, Jr.
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