Stories have the powerful ability to shape how each of us live in this world. What is the dominant narrative that drives your relationships, work, and values?

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, often told a magnificent story about Rabbi Israel to illustrate this point. Rabbi Israel would go to a certain place in the forest to meditate whenever there was misfortune threatening the Jews. He would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the disaster averted.

Some generations later, his disciple Rabbi Friedman would go to the same place in the forest and emulate his forebear, but he did not know how to light the fire. He did, however, know the special prayer. He would say the prayer in that particular place, and he achieved the same miraculous result.

Years later, Rabbi Marilyn would follow the same tradition. But in addition to not knowing how to light the fire, she also did not know the special prayer. She was, however, “in the right place,” and she hoped that was sufficient. And it was. The miracle was accomplished.

Finally, Rabbi Kathy, at her organ bench, her head in her hands, looked up to the living God and said, “Lord, I don’t even know the place in the forest, much less the special prayer or how to light the fire. All I can do is to tell the story, and that must be sufficient.” And it was. Wiesel went on to say that God made us because God loves stories.

Why does God love stories? Because they have the capacity to shape our lives. Recently, I read the following story that was recorded in Newsweek some years ago:

In 1988, in Demopolis, Ala., a little boy named Rocky saved his mother's life. Rocky was five years old. His mother was driving them to town in their pickup truck when they had a wreck. They went over a 40-foot embankment, out of sight from the road. The mother couldn't see, because of blood in her eyes. She could barely move, because her shoulders were both broken. And she sent Rocky away because she was afraid the truck would explode. At first he obeyed, but then he returned. Remember that Rocky was only five years old. He weighed only 55 pounds. Yet, he gradually pushed and carried his mother all the way up the 40-foot bank! He got her to the edge of the road. Someone found them there and took them to the hospital.

What especially captures my attention is this: all the way up the bank, he repeated the lines, "I think I can, I think I can." We recognize these from the child's story, "The Little Engine that Could." We realize that this was not a story he had heard only once or twice. Rocky had insisted that his mother and father read it to him over and over. It formed his character to such an extent that it focused his energies under pressure to save his mother's life.

As a Christian, my life is hopefully shaped by the story of God’s self-giving love in the incarnation of God’s son, Jesus, and the way he lived faithfully, forgave his enemies, challenged injustice, and loved without boundaries.

People of Jewish faith are shaped by the incredible story of the Exodus, where God brings liberation and freedom from oppression and injustice.

I talked with my good friend and Abrahamic brother, Shaher Sayed, the Prayer Leader at the Masjid in Burlington. He says that the story that shapes his faith is Muhammad’s immigration journey from Mecca to Medina, because it demonstrates a willingness to leave a very dear and loved place to live in a region that was unfamiliar in order to preserve the integrity of his belief.

The question for each of us is: Will we be willing to live fully into the story of our faith? Or will we allow other forces to co-opt the story of our faith traditions?

Turn on the television or the radio or sign-in to ever more present social media, and you are inundated with voices working to co-opt the stories of our faith traditions in the pursuit of an alternative agenda.

I challenge each of us to hold these voices up to the highest scrutiny, lest the true stories of our faith traditions be tarnished by the whims of present-day battles.

 

The Rev. Dr. Ron Shive is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Burlington. Contact him at rshive@fpcburlington.org