How to Discover, Embrace, and Tell Your Story
“Stories are verbal acts of hospitality.”
Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places
In the Spring of 2005, at around 4am, in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, I saw Elvis Presley.
Here’s how the story goes. When I was finishing up high school, my family moved to a higher-end suburb. Directly across the street from us—our driveways were practically touching—lived a man named Jerry Presley. If you’re from KC, you know the name. Jerry Presley is the first cousin and closest living relative of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. Jerry, ten years Elvis’s junior and a bit shorter, was one of the King’s most intimate friends throughout his life, a trusted confidant within the celebrity’s so-called “circle of five.” These days, Jerry is still making a living off his name and looks: bearing his cousin’s spitting image, he is a premier Elvis impersonator with countless stories to tell and can be enlisted for corporate events and cover concerts.
But the most intriguing and alarming fact about Jerry Presley is this: he will look you straight in the eye and tell you that his cousin—“You may have heard of him, Elvis Presley?”—is alive and well, living in the secrecy of South America. And what’s more: Elvis is coming back, any day now.
You thought you had interesting neighbors! In college, my connection to the King became a point of minor fame. For my freshman communications class, I gave a “persuasive speech” on the evidence for Elvis’s faked death: Elvis owed millions in gambling debt to Vegas sharks; the constant celebrity and fear of his debtors caused the King to cancel his final tour and hide away in Graceland in a deep depression, gaining over 60 pounds; the only witnesses to his body were members of the “circle of five;” the medical evaluator was the Presley family physician; the gravestone at Graceland has Elvis’s middle name Aron misspelled. I looked deep into the students’ eyes and asked: “Who misspells their son’s name on his gravestone—and then leaves it unchanged for decades? You wouldn’t do that. That’s because it’s not really their son that’s buried there.”
At the end of the long, winding speech, I gently dabbled the sweat on my forehead, brought the room to a hush, and told the students of my relationship with Jerry and some other insider information—I asked them not to share it with anyone outside the class—that confirmed this already compelling body of evidence. I finished with a statement like: “Even if you don’t believe me, even if you think this is all crazy, you should want this to be true.”
After a moment of motionless quiet, my professor, a semi-retired adjunct in her sixties, stood up, and with tears streaming down her face, began to applaud. Soon the whole class was clapping. I would later receive the highest grade for a speech in department history.
But, believe it or not, that’s not the end of the story.
A few years later, in 2005, I was visiting my parents for a weekend and stayed up late watching SportsCenter highlights of games I had just watched a few hours ago. Around 4:00am—I don’t remember exactly when—I turned off the TV and the lights and began to mosey on up toward my room. As I passed through the dark living room in the front of the house, something caught my eye. A large, light pink Cadillac with jet black windows was slowly rolling down the street. I watched at a distance as it turned and pulled into Jerry Presley’s driveway, shutting off its engine in the moonless silence of the night.
I hit the floor—Boom!—and army-crawled toward the window. The car sat for a minute, then two, and finally the front door of the house opened and Jerry emerged. Just then, and I’ll never forget it, the driver’s door of the Caddy opened and out stepped a large boot, and then a husky leg, and then a gargantuan man. He was impeccably dressed in an all-white suit, with a tall, white mane of hair and thick sideburns. Jerry embraced the man in a hug, and the resemblance was uncanny: the guest bore the spitting image of Jerry, except about ten years older and taller. My breath was taken away and my heart raced.
The guest turned and opened the sedan’s back door, taking out two full-size silver briefcases, and together the men walked toward the front of the house, making small talk. The older, larger man moved slowly but intentionally, with a certain rhythm in his step. As Jerry disappeared into the house, the guest paused to look up and down the quiet, dim street. As he looked back over his shoulder, his upper lip slightly curling up in the corner, our eyes met—locked in. For just a moment, we silently acknowledged one another, and then he stepped inside.
The door closed, the blinds were drawn shut, and the next morning, the Cadillac was gone. So too was Jerry. He was out for the weekend, swapping stories and sharing laughs, reconnecting with an old friend, his older prodigal cousin, the timeless mystery, the enduring myth, the King of Rock and Roll…
“I hope I can make it across the border.
I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.
I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
Red, The Shawshank Redemption
There are three marks of a great story. A great story draws you in, surprises you, and sends you out.
A great story draws you in through its characters, its scenes, its rising tension. A great story surprises you—even if you know where it’s going, it can still take your breath away. And then a great story sends you out—the first thing you do when you hear a great story, immediately you want to share it.
A Great Story Draws You In
Have you ever thought about why everyone loves a good story? We are hard-wired to consume, adore, and retell stories over and over again. This is why people have been telling fables and jokes since the beginning of language. This is why fiction exists in basically every culture and in every generation of humanity. Sure, the stories look and sound different across the centuries and across oceans. But whether you are on the street side in India, on a farming crew in Ethiopia, or going to a movie in St Matthews—you’re going to hear story after story.
We are, by nature, story-lovers and storytellers.
Story-telling is central to the people of God, the dominant genre in the Word of God, and one of the primary forms of evangelism in the New Testament church. Much was taught and practiced on the use of testimonies in evangelism and discipleship in the 20th Century, but do you really know why testimonies have been so powerful—from Paul before the council in Acts 26 to side-yard conversations with our neighbors?
Before we can share our own stories of faith, we have to recognize what makes stories, in general, so deeply compelling and engaging.
A great story includes all sorts of unnecessary details in order to draw you in. The sights, the sounds, the feel, the hopes and fears, these things drive us into another world. A story is a door to a new world, where anything can be possible, where all of our dreams can be satisfied and all of our enemies defeated. The minor details might be unnecessary, but they are never meaningless—in fact, if you read the whole story above, you probably remember where I lived in high school, who was taller than whom, what color the Cadillac was, the time of day the “sighting” took place, and a number of other nonessential facts. But these are exactly the hooks that grab your memory and draw you into the moment. In literary speak, it’s called “setting the scene.”
A Great Story Surprises You
The better the story, the more it gets ahold of your imagination. Not just your intellect or your reasoning, but that childlike part of you that still likes to wonder and hope. A great story, whether it’s a true story or it’s fiction, is so compelling that “you should want it to be true,” even if it’s not.
The moment of surprise is what we readers or listeners are dying for—once you’ve read a book once or seen a movie once, you’ll never have that moment again. Like when you realize the great fish in Hemingway’s The Old Man in the Sea is actually a shark. Or when you discover that Edward Norton’s character is actually Tyler Durdan in Fight Club—you’ve gone the whole movie without hearing his name or seeing him interact with more than one person at a time. Or: in one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption, when Andy Dufrense breaks free from prison. Even if you know a story’s ending, it can still leave you speechless and “allergy-eyed.” At the end of Shawshank, in the greatest two minutes or so of cinematic history, Red gets out of prison and travels across the country by bus. His voice softly brings the whole story to a pristine conclusion.
“Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’. That’s goddam right. I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the type of excitement only a free man can feel. A free man at the start of a long journey, whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
Red walks across the beach, luggage in hands, and discovers his old friend Andy fixing up an old boat. Long-awaited hug. Fade out. Darkness. Tears.
A Great Story Sends You Out
Great stories draw you in, surprise you, and then send you out. You go out thinking about the story, retelling it in your head and re-interpreting it. (Was it really Elvis? Maybe it was an impersonator-friend? But could it be?!?) Then you can’t help but tell it again to others. As a preacher and teacher, I know this to be true—I’ve had some of my best stories come back around to me from totally unexpected people, while other stories have just fallen flat, going only to wherever it is boring stories go to die.
My writer-pastor friend Mike says when we hear or witness something incredible, we are made witnesses. We bear witness to what we’ve seen or heard. You can’t hear gunshots in the middle of the night and not tell your neighbors. You can’t have a baby without posting a picture to Instagram. And most importantly: You can’t experience the life-altering grace of God and not want to tell others about it.
“In a court of law I’ve found that
whoever tells the best story, wins.”
President John Adams, Amadeus
Consider the stories of Jesus: around supper tables in Galilee, while traveling through Samaria, while praying in the Garden. If you look carefully at Jesus’s use of words, you’ll discover that there’s no distinction of “holy language” versus “common language.” This is significant. For our Lord, all language, all words, and all stories were sacred and beautiful.
Why did Jesus tell so many stories and teach with such rich, memorable illustrations? Some Bible commentators will note that it’s because storytelling was the standard genre then. (After all, those poor commoners were far less literate and capable of following linear teaching.) But that can’t be: you don’t see Pharisees telling beautiful, rich stories. No, they’re smug bastards. They are teaching laws and doctrines, exact points and (probably) sub-points. They (probably) taught with a chalkboard behind them and a finger in the air and a frowned look on their face.
Jesus, on the other hand, the greatest Communicator of all time, the great Word made flesh, told elaborate stories, quick, punchy parables, discussed critical Hebrew narratives, countered arguments with shockingly simple principles, overcame trap questions with compassion, and on and on. He essentially used every form of human communication to compel people toward God.
We don’t need a lot of research to tell us that we remember stories better than facts and statements.
Consider the question, “What is the kingdom of God?” In school, I learned the technical definition from scholar GE Ladd, “The Kingdom of God is the realization of God’s will and the enjoyment of the accompanying blessings.” Who’s going to remember that? Graeme Goldsworthy’s definition is much better: “The Kingdom of God is God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule.” But consider the pattern of Jesus’s teaching—he didn’t define, he illustrated: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”
So much of our facts and statements in teaching and writing are meant to “push” people—to convince them, challenge them, win them over—into obedience to God. Much Bible teaching is more reminiscent of Pharisaical finger-pointing than Christlike storytelling. If I see another tweet that starts with “Christian, you should…” or another blog article with “What the Bible actually means is…” I’m going to quit the internet cold-turkey!
One of my favorite authors, the late Dallas Willard, once wrote that no one was ever “pushed” into fellowship with God; people are only “pulled” in. What a beautiful image. We’re never going to push people into a deep and abiding, mature walk with Christ himself; we can only invite them into what a walk that we are experiencing. This is why stories are so incredible.
Eugene Peterson’s statement that “stories are verbal acts of hospitality” is dead on. Hospitality is the distinctly Christian practice of creating space for people to be themselves, discover the grace of God and be filled with the Spirit. In hospitality, we invite people into our lives and into our homes. In storytelling, we invite others into our past and into our own unique experience of God in this world.
Telling your story is a deeply biblical means of grace for every generation, but our cultural dialogue is especially conducive to this form of communication. Postmodernism, or whatever we’re calling it now, loves unique narratives, personal exploration, and stories of redemption, but challenges statements of truth and preachy exhortations to changed lifestyle.
One communication researcher, Annette Simmons, makes a surprising case for more storytelling in classrooms, presentations, and business meetings.
“People need more from you. They want to feel your presence in your message, to taste a trace of humanity that proves there is a “you” (individually or collectively) sending them this message. The absence of human presence in today’s high-tech lifestyle leaves people starved for attention. Stories help people feel acknowledged, connected, and less alone…. The missing ingredient in most failed communication is humanity.”
Our culture’s openness to story—rooted in our shared humanity and fragmented share of God’s glorious image—is actually a great opportunity for thoughtful Christians to “pull” others into the Story through our own mini narratives.
“Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds toward men.”
What does your story mean? Counselor Dan Allendar—a great writer and storyteller, though not a great theologian—writes in To Be Told that embracing and rehearsing our own unique stories leads us to four realities. In my summaries:
God is the Author
We are used to considering God our Authority in life, he writes, but not our active, generous Author. “God is not merely the Creator of our life; he is the Author of our life, and he writes each person’s life to reveal his divine story.”
Nothing is Random or Meaningless
“Neither your life nor mine is a series of random scenes that pile up like shoes in a closet.” This is a needed reminder for us. Everything that happens to us, both good and bad, happens under the loving, watchful sovereignty of our Father. In Psalm 107—which my friend Crockett pointed out to me after I taught on Story yesterday in Sojourn’s leadership school—a refrain to remember and be thankful is repeated four times. This song is a helpful “pull” back to God’s providence in our stories.
I Am Living Within My Story
Dr Allendar continues, “This is where things start to get exciting. When I study and understand my life story, I can then join God as coauthor.” I don’t love the ‘coauthor’ language, but it is true that stepping into our story enables us to better walk in ongoing nearness to the Father as his plan for our life unfolds.
Telling My Story is Necessary
“There is the necessity and blessing of telling our story to others… God is the Master Storyteller. His self-revelation is captured in a sweeping narrative and then given to us in the Book that grips our heart and captures our soul. God also creates a story with each person’s life—a story that we were meant to tell… God is calling us to fully explore, to fully enjoy, and to fully capture the power of the Great Story, the gospel. And we are to invite others to immerse themselves in the Great Story. One way to do this is by listening to our lesser stories and then telling them to others…. And consider this: if you don’t like your story, then you must not like the Author. Or conversely: if you love the Author, then you must love the story he has written for your life.”
So, what’s your story?
Ask yourself: “What about God am I most uniquely suited to reveal to others?” Consider every opportunity to tell your story an opportunity to bear witness to God’s love and faithfulness to you throughout your life—how he was present in everything.
If you’re speaking with a non-Christian, especially someone hostile to the faith, consider starting not with the fallen nature of humanity, but with your own. In telling our stories, I think, “deep calls unto deep.” What’s deepest and truest of us connects with what’s deepest and truest within others. What could be more challenging than someone who says, “I don’t have all the answers, but I know this: Jesus has changed my life”? What could be more shocking than, “Christianity’s not most essentially about doctrinal points; it’s about getting to experience, deeply and personally, life with God”? What a great testimony it is to say: By his grace, every moment of my life story reveals this great hope:
God is real, Jesus is alive, and grace changes everything.