Tell Me a Story


“He did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” (Mark 4:34)

Jesus “did not speak to them except in parables.”

So said Mark’s Gospel.

The sentence’s “them” were the people that followed Jesus around the countryside.

Parables, of course, are stories.

Remnants of Jesus’ tales and teachings appear in every Gospel; some seem complete and intact, others are partial, like shards of broken pots. Compared to a novel—say Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent book or the briefest of Alice Munro’s award-winning short stories—Jesus’ parables are spare. A few could easily be tweeted. Several parables might be page-turners, but only if the first verses began near the bottom of a page!

However, all possess a story’s most basic structure: a beginning, middle, and end.

We know them. 2,000 years later Jesus’ stories roam popular culture like restless travelers, eager to be part of the next big thing. Whether in a film or book, enduring or forgettable, blatant or subtle, Jesus’ stories are continually “resurrected.” Rich landowners, good Samaritans, prodigal sons, wicked tenants, and the vineyard workers have had more lives than the luckiest of cats. Even with our urban sensibilities, with most of us never setting foot on a working farm or doing more than driving past a cornfield, our favorite writers—from William Shakespeare to Aaron Sorkin—toss out references to tiny mustard seeds, lost sheep. or new wine in old wineskins.

Tell me a story, a child pleads.

I love the B&W photo of my Dad I’ve included. After all, I’m posting this (and many of you will read this) just before Father’s Day. Bonus for my family memories, mid-June is also near my father’s birthday. He died in 2012 at ninety-five years of age. Dad, in the picture, forever holds me in his lap, a book open and a story about to unfold. I can almost hear his voice. Dad often read to me. Mom read to me. My older sister read to me.

Stories keep us up past bedtime. They introduce heroes and villains. They conjure monsters beneath the bed . . . and conquer them before sleepy eyes shut.

I’ll wager you could easily tell me about your favorite story from a book or movie or TV show. Maybe I’ll hear about Perry Mason in a courtroom or Diana “Wonder Woman” Prince. Will you wow me with Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) or Jean Louise Finch (aka Scout)? Whatever your favorite tale might be, you’ll share it like it’s real. Those fictional people matter; they are harsh mirrors and warm blankets, demanding mentors and the best of friends.

Share with me an essential story of your life. If you tell it honestly, both of us may convulse in laughter or wallow in tears before it ends. If I shared with you, I’d tell about my divorce or broken leg or the time-I-was-lied-to-and-lost-my-job-and-innocence. And yet these “true” tales of our past, for all they reveal about who we once were or who we have become, will also—as the years and retellings go by—contain a tablespoon or a boatload of make-believe.

Like this . . .

For years I boasted to my wife I’d visited all the states except Alaska and Hawaii. After a trip to Juneau and a tramp near the Mendenhall Glacier, I claimed to have only one island state to go. But then, at my parents for Christmas years ago, we stumbled across my mother’s travel diaries. My family had taken two lengthy cross-country trips during my elementary school years. Those jaunts had transported me across scores of state lines. But darn Mom’s well-kept and legible notes! We never ventured into Montana. And why hadn’t we swerved across Rhode Island’s border on the way from New York to Massachusetts?

I had told a lie! And yet a truth.

A story truth . . . a tale of family adventures, of a little kid that witnessed a Grand Canyon and an Old Faithful and those high-rise tombs in New Orleans’ cemeteries. Truth be told, I haven’t been everywhere. Montana and Rhode Island remain uncharted territories. Truth be told, an essential story of my life was spending a thousand vacation hours in the backseat with my older sister and seeing-smelling-tasting a vast new landscape. As time went by, I added a few bonus states. As time went by, it was a story that helped me recall being a child in a world that seemed to stretch forever and contained endless wonders.

Jesus told tales. Mustard seeds and men left to die in a ditch. A woman on her hands and knees, seeking the glint of a lost silver coin or a rich man banishing his wedding guests to the streets. In the ancient tradition of make-believe and once-upon-a-time, Jesus spoke stories to people who were convinced they knew the stories of their lives.

We come to believe, in our old oft-told tales, there’s only sorrow, forgiveness is foolish and the rich get richer. And then Jesus tells a new story. We glimpse new, unexpected endings or beginnings.

Like the weary father, we can break into a run and welcome the lost one home. Like the tiniest of seeds, the barren ground of our old fears can be planted with hope and renew faith in God, our neighbor, ourselves.

Tell me a story. Tell me a page-turner or, better still, about the one that turned a page in your life.

Share with me how your life has changed . . .

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