Thinking in stories

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What is the narrative that shapes us? When Obama first ran for president, he presented us with a national narrative in which what united us was greater than what divided us. It was a narrative of hope, even if it did get a little carried away with itself sometimes. When Trump ran for the presidency he conveyed a narrative of national decline and the incompetence of those in power, but promised that he could make America great again. Each narrative, in its own way, shapes the events and actions that follow.

We are creatures who think in stories. We don’t picture the world as a set of data points; we imagine a story. My grandparents left an old world in Sweden and Denmark where the future was limited and came to the United States where the future was open. By hard work and the grace of God they overcame the challenges and obstacles they faced, built new lives and launched their children forward into even greater success. That’s our family story – a far different one than those who were brought against their will in slave ships. Depending on the story you tell, you will see the country differently, either as a land of promise or a house of bondage, a land of milk and honey or a land of bricks and straw.

We are creatures who think in stories. Confusion and anxiety reign when we can’t figure out the story line. And sometimes, when the unexpected happens, we have to radically revise our stories. I used to tell the story how Deb and I met in first grade and I kicked her in the shins – a sign of true love. But the story didn’t end the way I imagined, so I had to find a new way to tell the story: of two people who loved each other as best they could but were too young and inexperienced to overcome their mistakes.

We need to have a story. It locates us. It gives meaning to our past, shapes our understanding of the present and gives direction for the future. When Anna’s life was suddenly cut short, we struggled to make sense of the tragedy – which means we searched for the story that would make her life complete. So we tell of the lives she touched and the difference her death made in the lives of others. It’s why we endow scholarships in her name, and her fellow students campaigned for MADD, and the college built a memorial to all its students who died. We need to find the story that helps it make sense.

Congregations need a story too. Are we an aging congregation slowly sliding towards our end, or are we a welcoming congregation serving the community with our building and bearing witness to the grace and love of God?  Are we a shrinking congregation growing ever more dependent on the income from the users of our building, or are we a faithful ministry for whom God has wondrously provided? The story we tell reveals the future we expect to have.

And what is our human story as we face the storms and perils of wars and a changing climate? Are we devolving into petty nation states fighting for resources or building a world that is more just, responsible and compassionate? The story we imagine has deep and important consequences for the choices we make.

We are creatures who understand ourselves through story, and the church (the whole people of God) is the caretaker of and mouthpiece for a deeply important story. We tell a story that begins in a garden and ends in a city without fear. We tell a story where all that is is good and we are called to care for it. We tell a story of a divine presence that treasures all creatures and saves them in an ark. We tell a story of Abram and Sarai whose lives are shaped by the promise of blessing for the world. We tell a story where God delivers slaves from bondage and teaches them to be a community of justice and mercy. We tell a story of our infidelity and God’s continuing faithfulness. We tell a story that confesses Cain rose up against his brother Abel but Jesus laid down his life for the world – teaching us to see and be faithful to all people as our sisters and brothers.

We are a people who tell a story of an empty grave and the triumph of love. We see the world through this story. It gives us strength when we lose the thread of our personal stories. It gives us hope when we wonder about the outcome of our national story. It gives us courage when facing the challenges of the human story. It inspires us to service as individuals and congregations.

We are a people who see the world through this story of love and redemption. And we are a people to whom this story is entrusted for the sake of the world. The gates of hell cannot stand against it, says Jesus. And we are told to carry it to the ends of the earth. It is what makes us a peculiar people. It is what makes us a people of courage and compassion, hope and joy.

This reflection was first published in the May 2017 parish newsletter of Los Altos Lutheran Church

Image: By Mk pictures (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons



About dkbonde

Pastor, Los Altos Lutheran Church
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