‘Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us’
Chapter 11: Sacred Stories
The hard work of life is remembering. Remembering who you are, remembering how you want to be in the world, remembering where you last left the kids. Down through the centuries our ancestors have told and retold stories to help us find our way. Sacred stories that remind us of our true identity. Soul stories to encourage us to pursue our deepest yearnings for freedom. Told from one seeking heart to another, these sacred stories function like a lighthouse — guiding us away from the shallows, leading us toward the more gracious depths of who we are.
When asked why he spoke in parables, Jesus told his followers (as paraphrased by Anthony de Mello): The shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story. All wisdom traditions entrust stories to embody their deepest truths. The Bible is full of stories. The Bhagavad Gita is a story. The Buddha’s life teachings are embedded in story form. The life of Muhammad is transmitted through story. Jesus’s life and teachings are communicated through story.
Science is also a story that seeks to unveil reality and dispel illusion. Behind the doctrine, the rules, the rituals, and the institutions of all wisdom traditions, you find stories that not only seek to transmit teachings but invite a deeper, more liberating experience of the self and the world.
The power of stories to free us, whether religious or secular, depends on the integrity and compassion of the tellers and the openness of the listeners. The sacred stories of religion are often at first glance amusing relics, utter nonsense, even potentially destructive — unless they are shared by people who are knowledgeable and trustworthy. Only within the sacred bond of compassionate teller and seeking listener can we know a story’s worth. It is within that trusting container where we can give ourselves to the story. There we can expose our hurt and longing to its plotlines and allow the story to read us. There we can allow ourselves to enter the story. Not as fact. More than fact. As a way of seeing, as a gateway to peace, as a pathway home.
There we can allow ourselves to fall into the story’s rhythms and feel its truths. The same way we might give our body to the steps of a dance in order to feel its joy. Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow, quick-quick, slow, slow.
I was in a lost, longing-for-meaning place in my midtwenties. For about six months I could hardly sleep more than a handful of hours. All the repressed wounds of my childhood were radiating out from me like a high-grade fever. There was a terrifying emptiness gathering within me, a gnawing sense of worthlessness, and the only way I knew to address it was to stay busy and distract myself from the anxiety by working and working and working. I became mindlessly driven, physically ragged, deeply sleep deprived. My marriage suffered and my health deteriorated. I began to obsess about finding a new job, certain that different employment would give me some sense of peace.
It took a good friend and colleague to recognize my crisis was more than vocational. Tenderly, persistently, he convinced me to join him on a contemplative retreat at a Franciscan convent. I agreed — but only under the ridiculous stipulation that I could commute home each night to catch up on work.
There are parts of ourselves that can’t be known, places within us that can’t be accessed without a story. The week at the Franciscan convent was destabilizing. Full of silence, prayer, long periods of solitude, I was forced to feel the stark, despairing state I was in. I was lost and hurting and had no idea what to do. Every morning the retreat teacher gave a talk and then offered a spiritual practice. Each talk was based on a story that sought to uncover our deeper nature.
One morning he told us the story of the prodigal son, one of the parables of Jesus.
A man has two sons. The younger son is restless, impatient. He goes to his father and asks for his half of the inheritance. The father agrees. The son takes the money, heads into the nearby city, and eventually spends it all on parties, prostitutes, dissolute living. A famine descends upon the land. Broke, desperate, working for a pig farmer to feed himself, the young man decides to return home, apologize, and see if he might be hired as a farmhand — a much better life than his current state. While walking the road home, the father sees his son and takes off running. Before the younger son can fully apologize, the father embraces him, places his rings on his son’s fingers, and instructs the servants to prepare a celebration.
Meanwhile the elder son is out working in the fields. He hears music and revelry. He asks one of the field hands to investigate. “Your brother has returned,” the field hand reports. “Your father is throwing a celebration.” The elder brother is greatly triggered by this news. Filled with resentment, he refuses to join the party. The father hears the response of his eldest. He leaves the festivities, goes out into the fields, and begs his son to join the party. The elder son is indignant. He reminds his father of his loyalty, frugality, and hard work. How could he celebrate a son who has been so self-serving, disrespectful, and wasteful? The father feels compassion for his eldest boy. He reminds him everything else he has belongs to his eldest. The father adds, “But we had to rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, was blind but now he sees.”
The retreat teacher invited us to personally interact with the parable. We were sent out to find a solitary place to meditate on the story, with instructions to try and see, hear, taste, smell, and feel the story as if we were there. He encouraged us to go wherever the meditation took us — allow ourselves to become one of the characters, place the story in a modern setting, or change the characters from a father and two sons to a mother and two daughters if helpful.
I found an empty basement classroom in the convent, sat alone in the dark, and as instructed, gave my imagination over to the story of the prodigal son. I saw the dust of the road, heard the goats and sheep in the nearby field. I saw the sons, the eldest responsibly and dutifully heading out to the fields, the younger son pacing, dissatisfied. As if it were an old home movie, I watched the story take place within me.
I have no idea how much time passed, but then something happened. Like a lucid dream, I fell into the story. I could smell the dry earth, feel the sun on my back, hear the distant laughter and music from a party. I was the elder brother. I felt depleted, isolated, hopeless, full of resentment — and then surprisingly, in the midst of this story-dreaming, I felt a visceral sense of overwhelming welcome, a sense of being held. An unburdening, a release, a compassionate embrace. I wept, and the aloneness and fear and sense of failure I had been carrying dissipated.
When I finally pulled myself together, I immediately wondered if I was having some kind of psychological breakdown. The experience was so powerful I thought I might be losing my mind. I went to find the retreat leader, Morton Kelsey, who was not only an Episcopal priest but also a trained psychotherapist of forty years. I assumed he would offer a diagnosis and recommend medication or therapy or possibly even some time in an institution.
Troubled and disoriented, I found Morton in the cafeteria and asked if he would meet with me. After evening prayer we found a quiet place to talk. I told him my experience of the meditation, fully expecting him to become alarmed. Instead he told me a story, one about growing up with a father who could be quite remote and demanding. He then asked me about my own upbringing, my relationship with my parents. I answered as best I could.
Then he told me a story about his first job. Back and forth we went, like village bells answering one another across a valley, with various experiences from our lives. Whatever note I struck in my story, he would strike a similar note, allowing me to feel heard and understood. For almost three hours we sat facing one another, telling stories, back and forth, back and forth, until there was a deeply felt connection. Eventually the hour became late, our words spent. Morton stood to leave, and I suddenly realized he had not answered my question.
“But what about the meditation? Was it a breakdown?”
“Well,” he said thoughtfully. “What do you think? We’ve been talking for hours. You seem calm. You’re speaking coherently. Your body seems relaxed. You don’t seem agitated in any way. It doesn’t appear to me you are having a psychotic break. Maybe it was something else? Maybe it was Divine Love. Maybe it was God.”
“There must always be two kinds of art,” writes poet W. H. Auden. “Escape art, for humans need escape as we need food and deep sleep, and parable art, the art which shall teach us to unlearn hatred and learn love.” My experience at the Franciscan convent is the sacred story of how I began to live from a deeper awareness of love and truth. It was the beginning of a healing season for me that included therapy, long talks with my wife, a commitment to spiritual practice, a different approach to work.
My friends who are secular humanists would tell it another way. They might describe my experience as a breakthrough of the unconscious or of transference of care from teacher to student. I’m okay with that. But since it is my sacred story, I tell it in the way that feels most true for me.
Your sacred story may have a different setting. Maybe it takes place at a bowling alley, a community center, a mountain lake, a grandmother’s kitchen, a desert plateau, a detention center, a Girl Scout camp. Maybe your story begins in divorce, the wake of grief, the ecstasy of nature, a quest for truth, a near-death experience, a restless longing for love. And in your story you might replace the Episcopal priest with a molecular biologist, a Holocaust survivor, a cognitive therapist, a Buddhist nun, a Native American elder, the old guy who lived next door. And in your story, instead of a Jesus parable, there might be a conversation about galaxies, a pilgrimage to your mother’s home village, a letter from a trusted friend, a mindfulness practice, a month of solitude in a Minnesota cabin, a heartfelt conversation with your best friend’s father, a stranger’s confession in an AA group.
There is a depth to story that we rarely take time to ponder, let alone to tell and hear. Story is how we transform pain. Story is how we make something useful out of the absurd. A sacred story is a love letter expanding your heart with kindness. A sacred story is a treasure box filled with images of what matters most. A sacred story is a map, passed down through generations, directing you toward a fountain of truth. A sacred story is a medicine, a balm to relieve your fear and suffering. A sacred story is an angel in the night. A sacred story is a window that offers perspective. Sometimes a sacred story is a shield, a protector, a source of courage and love. Sometimes your sacred story is what gives you strength to face the real and present dangers of our world. Sometimes your sacred story spends years searching for you, trailing you through all your harried days, cornering you in some blue fluorescent rehab center, looking you in the eye, and saying, “Okay, here’s the truth.”
What are the images, the moments, the stories on which your soul meditates? What are the stories that remind you to unlearn hatred and receive love? Nigerian author Ben Okri declared, “We live by stories. We also live in them. One way or another, we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted — knowingly or unknowingly — in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly, we change our lives.”
Are the stories that shape you death dealing or life giving? Do the stories you hold as sacred heal, or do they exacerbate the suffering? Do they bring out your loving nature, do they cultivate freedom? Or do they bum you out, make you more afraid, anxious, resentful, and bitter? What are the stories you hold as sacred, the ones you tell your children, the ones you want remembered at your funeral? And are they any good?
Reprinted with permission from “Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us,” by Mark Yaconelli, copyright © 2022 Broadleaf Books.
Years ago, on a crisp autumn morning, I exited the busy streets of London and walked down the sterile corridors of the Royal London hospital. Local art hung on the walls in an attempt to make the ward more cheerful; fluorescent lights beamed overhead, bells were going off and “Code blues!” ringing out.
I was weary and my body was on high alert. For a week I had gotten very little sleep. A group of us had been tag teaming, coming and going, making sure a friend and her newborn son were not alone.
My friend gave birth without a husband or significant other, but she had friends by her side. The birth turned into a near-fatal experience and she had to spend a week in the hospital. Throughout that week she was accompanied by members of our community.
This little one had entered into our midst; he and his mother were decidedly not alone, even though they might appear so if you looked at the usual forms.
Being who we are, we broke most of the hospital rules.
One of the guys came to visit one afternoon and took the baby for a stroll, giving him a look at the London skyline while my friend had her dressings changed. Unbeknownst to him, he wasn’t supposed to leave the ward. Oops!
And visiting hours technically ended if you weren’t related, but we just quietly slipped in and out and kept acting like we belonged. We knew we belonged to one another.
The day before my friend was due to check out, I walked up to the nurses’ station and one of them casually said, “We’ve never seen anything like it.” Apparently, we had become the talk of the hospital staff.
She went on to say, “The love that flows out of that room…that mother and child are going to be OK. We just can’t figure out how any of you are connected, but it is clear there is love. I hope you keep doing what you’re doing.”
Over the course of my life I’ve seen strangers become friends and friends become family. My mother modeled this way of living. I experienced it in my youth group, and I’ve been chasing it ever since. This closeness is a million miles from our societal norms of isolation, individualism and self-reliance at all cost. And it’s a huge part of what makes my life sustainable as well as beautiful.
At the beginning of the year, I found myself in another hospital room, this time thousands of miles from urban London. I had traveled to Alaska, in the dead of winter, and arrived to find my mother on the brink of death.
I wasn’t alone caring for my mother in this hospital room, any more than I had been when I was caring for my friend and her newborn son.
Linda, 10 years my senior, arrived right on my heels from Texas. Linda and I shared the load at the hospital, one of us doing days and the other nights. Her daughter, who calls my mother Mimi, came for a few days as well. We were a true team.
In the weeks we spent at the hospital, caring for my mother and getting to know the nurses and doctors, I realized they too were trying to figure out how we were related. In that dark and sterile room, I could clearly see, for the first time, that my mother was the first to imprint on me this woven patchwork of family.
Linda worked for my mother in Texas, helping care for my grandfather when he was in his final months, and she travelled to Alaska during several of my mother’s surgeries. Her daughter, Bianca, spent summers with my mother and stepfather in Alaska.
Linda calls my mother “Mom” and phones her frequently – in truth more frequently than I do. On this trip, I realized something my mother had realized and embraced for decades: Linda really is part of our family.
It wasn’t until I was on the brink of losing my mother that I realized how she modeled for me ways to love the stranger; how to trust that strangers can become friends and friends will become the family who bring richness to life.
Did my mother live this way – long before someone made up the word “framily” – because her capacity for loving strangers was naturally high? Or because she was so aware she couldn’t do life on her own? She grew up in a fragile family system, having lost her own mother to suicide when she was a young adult, and she craved a good and healthy family for my brother and me. So she wove one together from the patchwork of people that populated our lives.
I learned in these hospital stays that those who have people with them in hospitals get better care. It isn’t supposed to be this way, but it is. And yet, as I surveyed the wards this past January there were very few patients that had people really with them. I’m so grateful that my mother survived, and I’m sure it is in some part due to being surrounded by her wide, untraditional family.
Recently, The Atlantic revealed the results of the longest study on human happiness. The findings showed that deep relationships are the key to well-being. By all measures, they are simply the most essential characteristic of the good life. It isn’t wealth – it’s people, it’s relationships – that enrich our lives.
Seth Godin, in his CreativeMornings/NYC talk, “Thinking Backwards,” proclaims we are in the connection economy. This should be good news for people like me, who come from Christian backgrounds and claim to follow Jesus, but I’m not sure it is.
This leaves me wondering: Where is this runaway train of a culture that prizes individualism and self-sufficiency taking us? Does it take from us the one thing that truly makes a life good?
Long-standing traditions of hospitality to the stranger are embedded in our ancient heritage, dating back to ethical standards spelled out in Hebrew Scripture. However, many contemporary churches I know operate more like enclaves of race, class and privilege, more concerned with keeping tradition than offering sources of mutuality and deepening belonging as the early church did. Revitalizing a heritage of hospitality where friends become family offers something the world really needs right now.
Has the search for Mr. or Ms. Right narrowed our imagination of family and community? My friend who gave birth in the London hospital received more support than many wives receive from their husbands. But it wasn’t a one-way street; our caregiving was completely mutual, nourishing to us all. Those of us who don’t have children of our own cherish the very special relationship we have with this growing boy.
We spend the high holidays of Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving together as well as the ordinary Sundays enjoying the company of one another. We are friends, of course. But to say “friends” is an understatement. We are more than friends, more than community: we’ve done life together for well over a decade.
We are from different classes, hold different political views, and have different marital status. We’ve witnessed weddings and baptisms together, created campaigns, labored to build houses together, attended births and funerals. We show up for each other in mourning and celebration.
The “we” is both a small group that sees each other weekly and a wider network of friends that exceeds 100. These relationships were built in action projects and over countless meals. Even though our community life has changed as people move and organizations evolved, the people stay committed to one another.
We might describe these connections as “chosen family,” people that intentionally choose to do life together regardless of blood or marriage. It is a choice you have to keep choosing because with any relationship come bumps and bruises as well as joy and levity. All relationships take work and intention.
These hospital vignettes show a life full of connection and interdependence, but it’s because it is a life rooted in love. Love builds connection, connection breaks down boundaries and creates value. This gift and reality is born out of ongoing formation in ways of being that value belonging: they run counter to a culture of quick fixes and feel-good moments.
It takes sacrifice and repeated acts of showing up. I am learning – in the hospital rooms of 80-somethings and birthday parties for 8-year olds – that when we do this over time, friends become family. We transform our individual lives, yes, and also the possibilities for our collective humanity.
This leaves me wondering: where is this runaway train of a culture that prizes individualism and self-sufficiency taking us? Does it take from us the one thing that truly makes a life good?
I met with a group of faith leaders recently to listen and process their takeaways from a grant-reading program. During the gathering, I learned of an African proverb: “Return to old watering holes for more than water; friends and dreams are there to meet you.”
This image of the watering hole reminded me of a moment in Jesus’ ministry when he retreated for intentional prayer and centering. The moment is recorded in John’s Gospel, when Jesus is making his way to Galilee from Judea after having led his disciples in a baptism service.
While on his journey, he arrives on ancestral lands, a plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph, and here Jesus finds Jacob’s well. Tired from the journey, he rests at this old watering hole.
Often, we as leaders misunderstand rest as a reward rather than a requirement. It is easy to believe that some level of ministry must be completed before rest is warranted. However, rest is necessary to sustain ministry.
As we determinedly engage in meaningful work, not being intentional in tracking our patterns of burnout leads to a belief that there is no place or time to pause and think about how we both practice and teach well-being and rest. In truth, rest and reflection build ministry.
For Jesus, pausing at the old watering hole brings the arrival of a new friend — a Samaritan woman. In conversation with her, Jesus reflects on the worship practices of the day. He engages in the reflective and discerning work necessary to determine the next steps for his ministry. His discernment is both active and generative and reveals the unique spaces where God is clearly moving and raising people up.
This encounter between Jesus and this woman was quite unusual; cultural differences between the Jewish and Samaritan communities bred distrust. However, an opportunity met Jesus at this well.
As with individuals, our institutions need rest. Summer may be just the time to take a moment for intentional respite. A recent Gallup poll found that Americans’ faith in major societal institutions hasn’t improved over the past year following a slump in public confidence in 2022. While this news may be disappointing to some, I believe it offers a great opportunity for the church to intentionally rest and reflect on the lessons learned by visiting some ancestral wells.
Institutions need unstructured time for leadership teams to be together to strengthen their connections, which in turn provide more energy and excitement for their work together. These moments of connection can invite us to embrace the countercultural wisdom tradition and allow our reflection to reveal how our faith practices can adapt to different eras without losing their core identity and strengths.
There are questions about how we should process the learning from the pandemic in a way that continues or reforms our work. However, ministry leaders are moving from one crisis to another, from pandemic to pending recession, even as the weariness of our bodies is calling us to stop. Likewise, the exhaustion of our institutional partners is affirming our need to press pause.
We need the space for an “aha!” moment, which may arise only when we take time to admit our exhaustion and allow the Spirit to guide us to some fruitful organic conversations. Those conversations may very well become an opportunity for conversion.
Rest and reflection can promote internalization of what it means to thrive. This meaning needs to be integrated into our customs and practices. It should help us become more curious about how the Holy Spirit builds surprising connections in spontaneous moments. These are the moments of affirmation needed to sustain our work.
Jesus’ pause reveals that faithful leadership requires a commitment to rest and reflection. Leaders are called to continuously retreat to fill the wells of our souls.
And it is not just ordained leaders; it is our teams, our advisory boards, our stakeholders. We have to begin cultivating a culture of rest and reflection that opens us up to Christianity’s surprise.
What if we saw our lack of rest and reflection as a form of unfaithful witness to the word of God? Would this perspective change our practices?
We open ourselves to connection with God and our neighbors through rest and reflection. These connections give us the stability needed to navigate the challenges of ministry and respond effectively in contexts that require discernment toward a particular telos, or end.
In his 1980 baccalaureate address at Spelman College, Howard Thurman said, “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. … It is the only true guide you will ever have.”
That sound, that holy sound, is the direction of the Holy Spirit if we will stop and listen for it, filling up at the well, pausing from what drains us. We can then connect with God and God’s people through surprising conversations, faithful witness and transformative worship. These connections convert our fear into courage, our deception into humility and our hatred into love.
Institutions need unstructured time for leadership teams to be together to strengthen their connections, which in turn provide more energy and excitement for their work together.
In the early days of the pandemic, a highlight each day at my house was pulling up John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” as dinnertime viewing. My laptop joined us at the table each evening to provide a few bright spots amid the dire headlines. The stories of COVID patients being discharged from the hospital to cheers and applause, Zoom singalongs with the cast of “Hamilton” — in the spring of 2020, these bits of brightness felt like a lifeline to me.
And I’m not alone: a recent study from psychologists in the U.K. dug deeper into the “why” behind the seemingly obvious phenomenon of the positive effects of good news on our well-being.
The implications of that “why” should spark our imaginations for the way we tell stories about our work in the world. Your ministry might be changing lives in all sorts of ways — but the stories you share about your ministry might be doing that, too.
Research has long confirmed the effects of seeing bad news on our minds and our health. On the one hand, it makes us feel worse — but on the other, thanks to evolution, we’re wired to pay attention to anything that might threaten us.
This particular study, though, looked at the effects of seeing good news stories after bad news stories, as a kind of counteractive antidote.
“The group that was shown negative news stories followed by positive ones fared far better than people who were only shown a negative news story,” writes one of the researchers on the study. “They reported less decline in mood — instead feeling uplifted. They also held more positive views of humanity generally.”
The good news that made the biggest difference for this group? Stories of kindness, of human beings showing up for each other.
The researchers tried out other kinds of positive news, seeing “how people exposed to a negative news story followed by an amusing one (such as swearing parrots, award-winning jokes or hapless American tourists) fared.” But when it came to overall uplifting effects on participants’ mood and hope for humanity, parrots and tourists were no match for acts of kindness — stories “such as acts of heroism, people providing free veterinary care for stray animals, or philanthropy towards unemployed and homeless people.”
The research pointed to several reasons why seeing stories of kindness may help counteract the doom and gloom of the 24-hour news cycle — for example, the writer notes, it can “remind us of our connection with others through shared values” and can act as a kind of “emotional reset button, replacing feelings of cynicism with hope, love and optimism.”
In the conclusion to her news piece on this study, the researcher writes, “Perhaps including more kindness-based content in news coverage could prevent ‘mean world syndrome’ — where people believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is, leading to heightened fear, anxiety and pessimism.”
Of course, the world is incredibly dangerous for many, many people — and positive headlines are no match for the harsh reality some of our neighbors have to face each day. The simple act of reading good news is not, in itself, the way to a better world. I think, though, that the researcher’s article on this particular study intends to critique the way news coverage takes advantage of our threat-detection wiring. The researcher wants to push those working in news media to consider balancing their coverage and including true stories of kindness along with the bad news.
I think, too, that there is a challenge here for all of us who work in Christian institutions, whose job it is to share the good news we’ve been given.
“The Good News Jesus embodied was news. Something to share, to proclaim,” writes Debie Thomas in a piece for The Christian Century provocatively titled “Reclaiming the E word” (the “E,” in this case, being “evangelism”). “We’ve become so adept at articulating who we are not and what we reject. But can we also articulate who we are? What we affirm?” she asks.
Can we share the good news of how we strive to embody the good news?
Of course, we should be thinking about the logistics, the concrete results, the returns on investment, the actual tangible work that we are doing and the difference that we are making. There is something, though, that I don’t want us to lose sight of — the fact that the way we share about our ministries matters, because the effects on the people who see our stories might be greater than we can imagine.
I have the immense privilege and joy of getting to work with various teams here at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and hear about the impact our grantees and partner organizations are having in the church and the world.
Seeing their inspiring stories, acknowledging the hope they give me, stirs up in me a greater urgency and a heightened awareness of the stakes in my communications work. How can I help get the word out about these incredible ministries, not to boost web traffic, but to help change hearts and lives?
The stories we tell about our ministries matter. We never know who might be listening, watching, hoping for the relief of seeing an act of love on a loveless day.
Here’s what I want to know: How do you share the stories of kindness and care that come out of your ministry? Send me a note — I always enjoy more good news.