Friday, April 22, 2011

Tell me a story; tell me the truth!

When my daughter was much younger, and I'd be driving her to preschool (or home), she'd ask (well, demand), "Baba, tell me a story!" I had a repertoire of about three (without venturing into well-know fairy-tales). They usually were populated by my daughter, me and monsters. . . .friendly monsters. They were stories I made up and varied a bit, usually with the sole purpose of entertainment. If there was a point, it probably had something to do with appreciation, or overcoming, of difference (since we almost always made friends with the monsters and their parents).

Often, these days, the word/concept of "story" has these kinds of connotations -- something made up, perhaps with a point, often to entertain; the "truth" of the story is not assumed. And, if the account we tell did actually happen, we usually don't call it a "story" to keep it a bit separate from something that's "simply" a story.

This all came home to me this week as I became surrounded by sacred stories. We are in the midst of the Jewish festal season of Passover. In the Christian calendar, we have entered into the most solemn time of the year, the three days leading up to Easter. Both of these "seasons" have meals and rituals that serve to help re-enact sacred stories. The telling of the story is a re-entry into the story. The command that Moses gives the Israelites concerning the celebration of Passover is quite direct: "You shall tell your child on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt'" (Exodus 13.8). The child becomes a participant in the story of redemption -- but more than a story, in the miracle/act of redemption.

Likewise, in parts of the Christian tradition, there is a great hymn often sung on the Saturday night prior to Easter Sunday. In that hymn, known as the Exultet, are the following lines (emphasis added!): "This is the night, when you brought . . . the children out of bondage in Egypt. . ."; "This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell . . ."; "How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight . . ." The point is that THIS is the night -- not some night in the past. We are participants in the story-no, participants in the event itself.

The events of the past -- whether the Exodus or the Resurrection -- are re-lived, made ALIVE again in the telling of the story. The great stories of the Hindu tradition are made alive in festivals; the Jataka Tales of the Buddha likewise. These stories have great power; that's why they've held the attention of minds, hearts and souls for so long.

I heard a teacher of Torah (Avivah Zornberg) the other day say that "Over and over again, God says to Moses, Moses says to the people, "All this is happening so that you shall tell the story" (from an interview with Krista Tippett on OnBeing). The event compels the story; and we must tell the stories again and again, anew and anew. The Hagaddah (the Passover story) has been re-worked for many different communities, celebrating different kinds of liberating events from different kinds of oppression. Different contexts lend a very different sense to the weekly celebration of the Mass (as the amazing composition "Mass" by Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein amply shows).

So we tell the stories that speak truth to us. We hope that our children will hear them and, in the words of a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them." With those stories, we can better face the less-than-friendly monsters out there!



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