The stories we tell ourselves matter
They shape the way we think about ourselves
They shape the way we think about others and our world
They shape the possible
By this light
May we find and learn the stories that lead to understanding
Let us tell the stories that lead to peace
Why We Tell Stories, by Lisel Mueller
Because we used to have leaves
and on damp days
our muscles feel a tug,
painful now, from when roots
pulled us into the ground
and because our children believe
they can fly, an instinct retained
from when the bones in our arms
were shaped like zithers and broke
neatly under their feathers
and because before we had lungs
we knew how far it was to the bottom
as we floated open-eyed
like painted scarves through the scenery
of dreams, and because we awakened
and learned to speak
We sat by the fire in our caves,
and because we were poor, we made up a tale
about a treasure mountain
that would open only for us
and because we were always defeated,
we invented impossible riddles
only we could solve,
monsters only we could kill,
women who could love no one else
and because we had survived
sisters and brothers, daughters and sons,
we discovered bones that rose
from the dark earth and sang
as white birds in the trees
Because the story of our life
becomes our life
Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently
and none of us tells it
the same way twice
Because grandmothers looking like spiders
want to enchant the children
and grandfathers need to convince us
what happened happened because of them
and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word ‘and’
From Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett
People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it's the other way around.
Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.
Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling . . . stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.
And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.
This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.
This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.
So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods.
A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.
It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.
The Neverending Story Theme by Limahl
Look at what you see
In her face
The mirror of your dreams
Make believe I'm everywhere
Given in the light
Written on the pages
Is the answer to a never ending story, Ah
Reach the stars
Fly a fantasy
Dream a dream
And what you see will be
Rhymes that keep their secrets
Will unfold behind the clouds
And there upon a rainbow
Is the answer to a never ending story, Ah
Show no fear
For she may fade away
In your hand
The birth of a new day
Rhymes that keep their secrets
Will unfold behind the clouds
And there upon a rainbow
Is the answer to a never ending story, Ah
Never ending story, Ah (3x)
Message, by Andy Pakula
In the US, it is obvious when the winter holiday season started. In fact, the whole third quarter of the year is arranged perfectly for celebration and shopping!
Halloween season starts the 1st of October and it’s time to buy costumes and sweets and to decorate and plan parties. In case you don’t know that, every shop will tell you. They are filled with spider webs, ghosts, vampire teeth, and every kind of Halloween merchandise you can imagine.
Then, Halloween comes and goes. You wake up on the 1st of November though, all the pumpkins and monsters have magically disappeared from the shops to be replaced by images of turkeys, pies, and happy friendly pilgrims. It is pre-Thanksgiving. The preparations begin…
And the very day after Thanksgiving - before you’ve even had time to recover from the gluttony of the night before - the Christmas lights and trees have appeared.
In some places, a nod is even made to Hanukkah with electric menorahs here and there amid the twinkling.
We are fully into the December holiday season.
Christmas and Hanukkah are both celebrated with light. They are both times for giving gifts. They are both joyous.
Most importantly, both are both holidays about stories - powerful stories.
Hanukkah tells the tale of an oppressed people who found hope in the defeat of their oppressors.
Christmas tells the tale of an oppressed people who found hope in the birth of a child.
Both stories offer a chance to think differently - to tell a story of possibility over despair. In truth, neither hopeful story was followed by lasting freedom.
The Israelites enjoyed a century of freedom from occupation, but were then conquered by the Romans.
The baby, Jesus of Nazareth, grew to be a leader, but the hope of freedom from the same Romans was destroyed by his arrest and crucifixion.
And we still tell these stories more than two thousand years later. We still light the candles and sing the songs and give the gifts and come together as families and friends and communities.
Stories can have tremendous power.
“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it's the other way around.” Terry Pratchett’s words are true not just in fantasy worlds of witches and magic. They are true here in this world of reality. The stories we tell as individuals, as communities, as tribes, as companies, political beings, as cities, and as nation shape us.
When we at New Unity tell stories of Mary Wollstonecraft and the way she challenged the sexist orthodoxies of her time, we are strengthened. We gain a bit more confidence that we too could challenge what others take for granted.
When we tell of Richard Price and how, from this room, he spoke out against the great powers of his day, something changes within us that bolsters our courage to speak out - to take risks for what we believe.
Of course, we can also make these same arguments rationally. We can argue from history that Mary and Richard did it and so can we. But a rational view of history might teach us that what Mary and Richard did was actually foolhardy - that it was unlikely to make a difference in the larger world. It
That rational analysis misses the deeper power of the story. The story touches not just the rational part of our minds. It is deeper. The story becomes a part of us and each time we tell it it grows stronger and more compelling.
And then we live that story in some new way and the stories build upon each other. As Terry Pratchett wrote ‘every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.’
Stories don’t need even to be true to have this effect. Most stories from traditional religion are untrue - or at least not true quite as they are told. And yet they are powerful. They change people and peoples for better or for worse.
This reality was brought home to me in this place a few years into my ministry here. We were having a congregational meeting to decide whether this congregation would boycott marrying anyone until we could marry everyone.
The stories of Mary Wollstonecraft and Richard Price were in the room. Someone objected that this small action would not change anything. The person leading the meeting turned to me and said ‘Tell the story about the bird and the snowflake.’ It was a story I had told some months before. She knew that no amount of rational argument could have the power that the story did…
It was deep winter and the snow was falling steadily upon the hillside.
A tiny mouse crept out of its hole for a little break in its long winter sleep. Drowsily, the little mouse looked around and twitched its whiskers, and would have gone back to sleep inside its hole, had not a tiny voice echoed from somewhere out there in the white winter world: "Hello, little mouse. Can't you sleep?"
The mouse looked around and caught sight of a tiny bird sitting, shivering, on a bare branch just overhead. "Hello, Jenny Wren," said the mouse, pleased to find some company on this bleak day. "I just came up for a bit of air before I go back to sleep for the rest of the winter."
But it was so good to find company that for a while, the mouse and the wren sat there together, huddled beneath the lowest branches of a pine tree, watching the snow falling and enjoying a little congenial conversation.
"How much do you think a snowflake weighs?" the mouse asked the wren suddenly.
"A snowflake weighs almost nothing," the wren replied. "A snowflake is so insignificant, it carries almost no weight at all. How could you possibly weigh a snowflake?"
"Oh, I disagree," said the mouse. "In fact, I can tell you that last winter, around this time, I woke up from my winter dreaming and came out here for a breath of fresh air, and because I had no companions and nothing better to do, I sat here counting the snowflakes as they fell. I watched them settling on these branches, and covering the pine needles with a blanket of whiteness. I got as far as two million, four hundred and ninety-two thousand, three hundred and fifty-nine. And then—when the very next snowflake fell and settled on the branch—the branch dropped right down to the ground and all the snow slid off it. So you see, just that one last snowflake weighed enough to make the branch sink down and all the snow slide off. So a snowflake does weigh something. It does make a difference!"
The wren, who was only a tiny, little bird herself and didn't think she had much influence on the great, big world around her, pondered for a long time over the mouse's story. "Perhaps," she thought to herself, "it really is true that just one little voice can make a difference."
Mice and wrens can’t speak and mice can’t count. Even if a mouse could count, 2,492,359 seconds would be at least 15 days of sleepless counting.
But the fact that the story is not true didn’t much matter. No arguing or logical rational exposition could have made that point as clearly as the story did. We became the first and only congregation in the country to refuse to marry anyone until we could marry everyone. Although our vow was not the final snowflake to make the difference, it added significant weight to the branch. It made a difference even though we could not have predicted it at the time.
It matters what stories we tell as a community. Some communities tell stories about the failures they’ve had and the ways they’ve been mistreated or duped. These stories too grow deeper grooves. They become ingrained in the being of a people. We can see the communities and nations who tell stories like this - people and peoples unable to trust - expecting to be mistreated - guarded and ready always to attack
It matters too what stories we tell as individuals. We can tell stories that paint us as weak or vulnerable or fragile. We can tell stories of our strength and our ability to rebound from a set-back. It makes a difference in how we act toward the next person we meet and that, in turn, becomes another story with power to shape us.
There is more than enough material in each life to tell true stories of every kind. In this community, we could focus on from the true stories from the 1990s about dwindling membership, lack of funds, and a fragile building. We could tell stories that reinforce notions of scarcity and vulnerability. Those stories are as factually true as the ones that give us strength and courage.
It’s always a question of which stories we choose. The ones we choose are the ones we strengthen and deepen - the ones that will become increasingly part of who we are. The stories we choose are the stories we give power over us.
Stories can be old and new and false and true and they can all have power. Stories have come from different place over time. Religion. An oral tradition. Books. Films. Television. News - whether real or fake.
It matters what stories are told and what stories we grab hold of. It matters how women are portrayed. Can we have fairytales where women are strong and rescue the weak but handsome man?
It matters how LGBT people are portrayed - can there ever be same-sex love in a film that ends with happily ever after?
It matters how Muslims are portrayed. Must they always be the terrorist villains?
Anyone who is other than straight, white, and male has seen themselves routinely portrayed in our big budget films in ways that poison others against them. This is not political correctness. It is making a choice about the stories that will create the people of our time and of the future.
Most of us have the sense right now that our society is moving in a dangerous direction. We have seen it here in the UK, in the US, and across europe. We can be sure that there are stories told that help to drive and reinforce those changes.
Politicians know the power of stories. While they have always selected the stories that would support their cause, we seem to have entered an era of post-truth politics where stories are increasingly fabricated with no concern for what is true.
We know that those whose views we oppose have stories that keep their positions strong. We know they have stories that reinforce their mistrust of people with values and perspective like ours.
And we have our stories too. Some of them help to keep us hopeful. Some make us feel weak. Some keep us from understanding our opponents and reinforce our mistrust.
We need other stories. We need stories that exemplify values of compassion and decency and justice and love. We need stories that reinforce the belief that there is goodness in everyone. We need stories that help to change hearts - our own and those we consider opponents.
I’ll tell another story that I have told here before - a story that touches my heart deeply. It is a story that I think speaks to who we are and who we must be in this challenging and challenged world.
It seems that a Christian monastery had fallen on difficult times. There were only five monks left in the “motherhouse,” the Abbot, and four others, all over the age of 75. Clearly, it was a dying community.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery, there was a little hut that a Rabbi for a nearby synagogue used as a hermitage of contemplation. The next time the Rabbi came to the woods, the Abbot visited him, and asked if by some chance the Rabbi could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The two old men read the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments together; they commiserated about the lack of the faithful. “Dear friend, can you give me a piece of advice about my dying order,” asked the Abbot? “No, I am sorry,” the Rabbi responded, “I have no advice to give…the only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you!”
When the Abbot returned to the monastery, he was asked, “Well, what did the Rabbi say?” and the Abbot responded, “He could not help us, and the only thing he mentioned as I was leaving was something quite mysterious; he said that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks that followed, the monks pondered what he meant – whether there was any significance to the Rabbi’s words, “THE MESSIAH IS ONE OF US.”
“If so,” said one, “he probably meant the Abbot. He has led us for more than a generation. On the other hand, Brother George is a holy man, a man of wisdom and light – he could be the one. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Thomas – he gets nasty at times, but come to think of it, he is almost always right. Maybe the Rabbi did mean Brother Thomas. Well, he almost assuredly did not mean Brother Jacob -- He’s so passive, a real nobody -- but then he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him…maybe he is the messiah. Of course the Rabbi couldn’t have possibly meant me – I’m just an ordinary person. Yet, suppose he did. Suppose I am the Messiah.”
And as the old monks continued to reflect and talk about the Rabbi’s mysterious comment, they began to treat each other with extraordinary respect, on the off-hand chance that one of them might be the Messiah. They began to treat even themselves with utmost dignity and respect.
Well…as strangers visited the monastery from time to time, they sensed an aura of strength and presence that permeated the atmosphere. It was strangely compelling. They began to bring their friends…and some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while, one asked if he might join…then another…and another –
Before long, the monastery had become a vital center of spiritual hope, love and joy.
We need to tell stories that remind us of human goodness and the power of mutual respect and care. We need to tell stories that will strengthen us and that will move our world from division to relationship, from suspicion to trust, from violence to gentleness, and from hate to love.
Let us tell ourselves, one another, and anyone who will listen the healing stories - the loving stories - the hopeful stories - the compassionate stories - the strengthening stories. Let us tell the stories that can build the world of which we dream.
The stories will tell change us and they change our world
Attend to the stories of your life and the stories of your community
Tell stories that create strength
Stories that create understanding
Stories that create hope
Stories that show the power of love