Category Archives: Stories

These are stories I have written about Bible characters or events; usually told instead of a sermon in an attempt to connect with hearts rather than just heads.

They are opportunities to meet Bible characters as real, live, just-like-you-and-me people. They are an attempt to put flesh onto the bare bones of the Bible story but, while they are intended to be true to the scriptures they may not take all the details into account.

USAGE
You are welcome to use these stories in any way you can, including adapting them for your own context. But please acknowledge where they came from and who wrote them (they do belong to me and being visible in the public domain doesn’t change that).
And please let me know what you did and how it went.

Rebecca: The Other Woman at the Well


This is a story based on John 4:1–30 (the woman at the well) and Genesis 24:34–58 (Rebecca, a wife for Isaac). 

These readings present us with two women (a few thousand years apart). They were very different from each other, but each of them went to fetch water from the well outside her village, and each met a stranger there who transformed her life.

And as I sat with the two of them and contemplated this intersection of their lives, the Samaritan woman, the one Jesus met by the well in Samaria, began to tell me her story, and I want to share it with you today. Listen to what she has to say.

My favourite character in the Bible has always been Rebecca. Probably because I was named after her, but I loved her story growing up. We lived in a small village in Samaria. We didn’t have much, and it was always my job to fetch water for the family. We girls from the village would gather round the well and chat for a bit while drawing up the water and filling our jars. It was hard work but we had such fun.

And, of course, I would dream about Rebecca, my namesake.

In my dream, I would come down to the well, and there would be a handsome stranger on a white camel. And he’d ask me for some water. And, of course, I’d say yes and offer to water his camels, too.

Then he’d put a gold ring in my nose and gold bracelets on my arms. He’d ask my father for my hand in marriage and Father would ask me, as Rebecca’s family did, ‘Will you go with this man.’

And I’d say, ‘Yes, yes! A thousand times, yes!’

But, not so he could hear. I wouldn’t want him to think I was desperate. Then he’d whisk me away to his desert kingdom, and I’d become his princess.

But, of course, that never happened. It was just a dream. Instead of a stranger on a white camel, all I got at the well was Sam and his smelly goats and Thomas’s grumpy camels pushing in.

And then, I guess, I grew up. The dreams became a distant memory, and I married Andrew. He didn’t have a white camel or shower me with treasures, but he did have a heart of gold, and I suppose that’s as much as a girl could wish for. And he reminded me of Abraham’s son, Isaac, Rebecca’s husband. Isaac, the gentle.

Like my Andrew, Isaac was quieter and more gentle than the other patriarchs – Abraham, his father, and Jacob, his son. Isaac always seemed to let others do things for him. He never seemed to do anything for himself. Even the business of finding a wife was something his father didn’t trust Isaac to do; instead, Abraham sent his servant off to his family up north.

Of course, you can’t blame Isaac. He was bullied and laughed at as a child by his half-brother, Ishmael. And then that terrible, terrible day.

He went on an adventure with his father, Abraham. They were going to make a sacrifice to God together. What child wouldn’t have been excited about that? But, suddenly his father is tying him up and putting him on top of the altar. He is going to be the sacrifice. How do you cope with that? I’m not surprised that he was an emotional wreck and couldn’t make up his own mind about anything. No wonder his father had to send off in search of a wife for him.

And, yes, Rebecca also seems to have manipulated him a bit, and his kids did their own thing. Even his servants weren’t able to stand up for him. Every time they dug a well for him, the servants of the Philistine king, Abimelech, would chase them away. Instead of standing up for themselves, they’d just go and dig another well somewhere else.

That was my Andrew, too. Never standing up for himself; always giving others the right of way. Ah, well. He died far too young. I miss him still.

It was all downhill for me after that. Andrew’s family threw me out of the house, and I had nowhere to go. I drifted back to the village I’d grown up in. I had no family left, and not many options. When Samuel asked me to marry him, I thought of the question they asked Rebecca so long ago: Will you go with this man?

I guess I didn’t have much choice, so I agreed, but he wasn’t like my Andrew. He was coarse and brutal. There was no sorrow when he died a few years later.

And then there was … well, suffice to say, there were five husbands altogether, each about as bad as the other. When the fifth one wanted to move to Sidon, well, I told him I wasn’t going anywhere.

Then I hooked up with Thomas, who was pretty much as lost as I was. Neither of us wanted to get married. Didn’t seem much point.

Of course, that put the uptight noses out of joint. But where were they when I was being brutalised?

So, I didn’t make it to the society weddings and wasn’t welcome around the synagogue. Even the well was a lonely place. I started going in the middle of the day to avoid the constant jibes and sneers of the prim and proper types. It was a lonely few years. But it was all I had.

And then ….
Well, what can I say?
One day, it happened.
My dream came true.

No, it wasn’t a man on a white camel.
But it was a man, and it was at the well.

I’d come to collect water as usual, and there he was, sitting there with a lost look in his eye; sad, perhaps, burdened. He was some sort of Rabbi, but he seemed to be on his own.

He asked me for a drink of water.

Well I got such a shock. Not because of my dream (although I did have a little chuckle to myself). But he was a Jew, and me? Well, I’m a Samaritan and a woman.

Jewish men don’t talk to strange women, even for a drink of water. And for a Jew to talk to a Samaritan woman? Well, that never happens.

And, anyway, he would have known there was something odd about me, fetching water in the heat of the day.

But there he was, against all that was holy, asking me for a drink of water.

I mean, Jews won’t even use our utensils! So, what was he going to drink my water with?

So, I said to him, ‘You’re a Jew. What are you doing asking me for water?’

Then he said the strangest thing. He spoke about God’s gift, and he said if I only knew him, I could ask him for life-giving water.

Oh, oh, I thought. There goes my dream. I’ve got a crazy here.

I should have walked away then. But something kept me. So, I told him that without a bucket he’d have trouble getting any sort of water. Or did he think he was better than our ancestor Jacob who dug the well thousands of years ago?
Sheez, these Jews!

But he wasn’t put off at all. ‘Whoever drinks this water will be thirsty again,’ he said. ‘But anyone who drinks my water will never be thirsty again. It will be a spring within you, welling up to eternal life.’

Well, I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I said, ‘Please, give me that water. Then I’ll never be thirsty, and I’ll never have to come to this hateful well again!’

Then he told me to call my husband.

Ah, here comes the sales pitch, I thought. He’d be in trouble if he tried to negotiate with a woman, so now he needs my husband.

‘I haven’t got one,’ I told him.

What he said next, shook me rigid. ‘That’s true,’ he said. ‘You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband.’

This was getting personal, so I tried to steer the conversation into a religious debate. These Jews are always so self-righteous about their religion, I knew I’d trip him up.

But, somehow, we weren’t taking about religion. We were talking about God and having a personal relationship with him – being in touch with God instead of doing religious things.

It was exhilarating, but also frightening, as all the old rooms and hidden places of my life seemed to be exposed. But it wasn’t like he was pointing fingers. More like just opening them up and healing them with a gentle touch.

Then we spoke about the Messiah, and I said I longed for him to come, because, surely, the Messiah was the one who would explain all this to us and make it real?

Then he looked at me. And in a calm and gentle voice, he said, ‘I am he.’

Just like that.
And, suddenly, I knew.

If anyone had said to me then, ‘Will you go with this man?’ I would have jumped up and cried, ‘Yes, yes! A thousand times, yes!’ Camel or no camel.

Suddenly, his disciples were with him – they’d been buying bread or something. They didn’t say anything about him talking with a woman.

But I knew what I had to do. I left my jar and ran to the village. I called all the people, who’d ignored me (or worse) most of my life.

‘Come see a man,’ I said. ‘Out by the well. He seems to know everything about us. He told me all I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?’

I must have sounded crazy. I don’t know why they didn’t laugh at me. But they came anyway. And they warmed to him, as I had. They even asked him to stay, which he did for a couple of days – and healing happened.

The village folk began to see in him what I had seen, and they believed as I had done.

I realised, later, that my dream had, indeed, come true.
No, no white camels, and none to ask me, ‘Will you go with this man?’
But it was my own voice calling in the same way: ‘Come see a man ….’

And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Whenever I see someone in distress, someone in pain, someone lost or left out as I was, I tell them about Jesus. And I invite them to come to him.

So, I ask you, as they asked the other Rebecca, will you go with this man? Will you walk with Jesus?

Will you open your heart to him, as I did, and let him see the dark places, the scary places, the sad places of your life?

Will you let him bring healing and hope to your broken world? Because that’s what he did for me and my village, just as he did for my name’s sake so long ago, the other woman at the well.

Thank you for listening to my story.

[See also: Rebecca: A Prayer from the Well]

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A pregnancy, a donkey, and an update


A visitThe Internet is a place full of shadows. People come and go; they visit this blog as I visit others. One or two leave a comment, which is a most welcome and tangible sign of their visit.  But most leave no more than an echo; something the system picks up to say that someone was here, visiting this page.  Who they were and how long they stayed; whether they were challenged, horrified or simply indifferent, the echo doesn’t say; they are simply shadows.

I wrote the story, “A pregnancy, a donkey, and a whole bunch of questions” for an Advent service on 28 November 2010, and I posted it here two days later.  There wasn’t much interest that year, and only 210 visitors looked at the story in the whole of 2011.  This year, 2012, must be the year of the donkey, or the journey, or whatever, because 245 people viewed the story in November alone, and another 280 in December so far.

No doubt many of those who came, left with nothing more than a quick glance.  Others perhaps stayed to read the story. What I’m interested in is whether someone out there has tried to use the story themselves somewhere else.

I used it again last Sunday at another church here in Pietermaritzburg.  The response was very good, with the general comment being, “It finished too soon. I want to hear what comes next.”

Telling storiesIt’s not often a preacher gets asked for more!  Which is why I believe that we should tell more stories.  There are risks in telling stories, which we don’t always want to take. With a sermon we lay the foundation, prepare the listeners, and then we draw them to the main point.  The message (we hope) is clear, and it can be summarised in a few words.

A story is its own message.  There is usually (as in the great stories of the Bible) an overall message of God’s grace, of God’s involvement in the world, of our struggle with God’s call, etc., but how people connect with the story is out of our hands.

In this story of Mary and Joseph’s journey, it is not the dialogue or their assumptions that matter.  The key is simply recognising that the conversation took place; that Mary and Joseph were real people like us, who would have asked the same questions we ask, with the same fears.  Yet they found a way to engage with God, and to trust him for the impossible future to which he was calling them.

When we begin to understand the people of the Bible in this way, as their experience and their encounter with God becomes more real to us (and more like ours), we can more readily engage with their story, and their story becomes our story.  We can no longer ignore the challenge that their lives present; we can no longer say “well, it was all very well for them….” It wasn’t all very well at all.  Yet as they listened and responded to God’s challenge, they began to reflect God’s glory, and their light still shines for us today.

Their story is no longer a fairy tale of otherworldly people, whose feet don’t quite touch the ground, and whose eyes are constantly raised heavenward. They are people like us. God took his chance with them, as he does with us. He loved them in their misunderstanding and lack of faith, as he loves us. He reached out to them when they were farthest away from him, as he does to us. They had the same questions we have, and God answered them as he seeks to answer us.

What has been your experience of story?  Do they help or hinder your journey?

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Tears, Grace and an Alabaster Jar


A story based on Luke 7:36-50

Everyone knew Mary.  Not to talk to of course; no one did that except the children who taunted her at every opportunity—and her customers I suppose, but they only came out at night.

No one knew where she had come from; probably chased out of her previous village.  She had a one-roomed house on the edge of town where she had lived for the past few years.  Few people knew her name.  Whenever the women discussed her around the well she was ‘that woman’.

“Why she had to come here; it’s a disgrace.”
“Why the men at the synagogue don’t do something about it.”
“Probably because they’re men.”
“Yes, my husband thinks it’s a joke”
“I told my husband that if I catch him so much as glancing in her direction….”

A woman of ill repute she certainly was.  Of course there had to be men of ill repute too, but one never spoke about them.

The only person who ever engaged in conversation with Mary was Hannah.  Poor old Hannah.  She’d been ill for twelve years.  Bleeding, you know.  No one ever talked about it of course, or talked to her much.  Her illness made her unclean so she couldn’t go to synagogue, which pretty well cut her out of polite society.  No one would visit her or invite her over.  She and Mary would go to the well around mid-afternoon when no one else was there.  Mary would draw the water for Hannah of course—Hannah wasn’t allowed; couldn’t have someone unclean polluting the village water supply.

They made a sad pair: two outcasts reaching out to each other, passing the time of day.

Then Jesus came to the village—along with crowds of people.  Where they all came from I don’t know.  It turned out that Jesus was on his way to Jairus’s house.  Jairus’s daughter was very ill; some say she died and that Jesus resurrected her, but I don’t know about that.

Hannah and Mary were at the well when they heard Jesus was coming.  Hannah made up her mind.  “I’m going to speak to Jesus,” she said to Mary.

“He won’t talk to you in your state,” Mary said.

“I’ve heard differently,” Hannah replied.  “I’ve heard that he cares about outcasts like us.”

“This I’ve got to see,” said Mary.

When they saw the crowds, Mary thought Hannah would give up.  She wasn’t very strong at the best of times, but she was determined.

“Maybe I won’t be able to talk to him,” she said.  “But if I can just touch his cloak, I’m sure that will be enough.   There is something very special about him.  They say God is really blessing him.”

“Well,” said Mary.  “Any decent man who’ll give you and me the time of day has to be pretty special.”

They made their way through the crowd, ignoring the jibes and the sideways glances.  Mary was surprised.  Usually people would crowd her out if she tried this on her own but they didn’t like to touch Hannah, so they tended to made way for her, and Mary slipped along in her wake as it were.  At one point some kid shoved Mary and she stumbled—his friends laughed, but the two women pushed on.

When they were right behind Jesus Hannah hesitated, then she reached out and touched the edge of his robe.   Hannah pulled back quickly as if she had been burned.  Mary saw that something significant had happened but, before she could say anything, Jesus turned round.  “Who touched me?” he asked.

Of course everyone thought that was a pretty silly question, given the crowd, but Hannah and Mary knew exactly what he meant.

Then Jesus looked at Mary; she caught her breath; the world seemed to stand still as he held her in his gaze.  Then he turned to Hannah.

She heard Hannah telling Jesus what she had done and heard Jesus saying that it was OK.  “Your faith has made you well,” he said.  “Go in peace.”  Hannah was overwhelmed; she turned and stumbled through the crowd.

Then Jesus looked back at Mary and smiled.  Mary didn’t know when someone had last smiled at her.  Leered, yes, smirked; but a genuine, warm, caring smile?  She was transported back to when she was a little girl, and her father came home from the fields.  He would smile lovingly at her when she ran out to greet him, just as Jesus was smiling now. Tears filled her eyes.  He seemed about to speak.  But just then some men came from Jarius’s house and the crowd closed in around Jesus to hear what was going on.  Mary was jostled back to the present and fought her way out of the crowd, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Mary couldn’t sleep that night.  That smile; those eyes.  She felt as if Jesus knew everything about her: her childhood, her lousy choices, her miserable existence.  He could see it all but instead of turning away in disgust, as most good people would do, he welcomed her with a smile.  His eyes seemed to say, “It’s OK.”

She had to see him again, but where?  How?

She saw Hannah the next day.  Hannah was so excited.  She had been to the priest; in seven days she’d be clean.  She had also heard news that Simon had invited Jesus to supper that night.

Simon was a Pharisee, an important man in the village, always pointing out where others were breaking the law.  He always made a point of crossing the road or turning his back whenever Mary was around.  If anyone was to throw Mary out of town, it would be Simon.

Simon’s dinner parties were well known.  Naturally, only the most important people in the village were invited to sit around the table—usually when some dignitary was passing through.  Of course, according to our custom, anyone and everyone could wander in and listen quietly to the conversation.  Only invited guests could speak and interact, but it was always worthwhile listening to the discussions around Simon’s table.

“I’m going,” Mary said to Hannah.

Hannah was horrified.  “You can’t go there.  They’ll, they’ll….  I don’t know what they’ll do.  It’ll be the last straw.  Simon will have an excuse to throw you out of the village.”

“I don’t care,” said Mary.  “I have to see him again.”

There was no persuading her otherwise.  Mary spent the afternoon trying to work out what she was going to say or do.  She wanted to take a gift but she had nothing of value.  Her most precious possession was an alabaster jar of perfume; it was all she had that had belonged to her mother.  She decided to take it with her.  Whatever happened she mustn’t cry.  Tears had hardly left her eyes since Jesus had first looked at her on the road.  Was that only yesterday?  It seemed like a lifetime ago.  But if an opportunity arose to talk with Jesus that night there would be no time for tears.

Mary arrived just as Jesus and the other guests were being welcomed and shown their places.  No one noticed her at first, and when the stares and the whispers started Mary was already ensconced in a corner of the room.  Mary had eyes only for Jesus, and she noticed that Simon was not as welcoming of Jesus as he was of other guests.  He didn’t kiss him on the cheek or even offer him water to wash his feet.  Simon wanted to meet this Jesus but, it seemed, he didn’t want Jesus or anyone else to think they were equals. 

When the food was being served Jesus turned, saw Mary, and smiled at her.  Mary was overwhelmed; all her resolve went out the window.  All the pain and rejection of a lifetime, all the sin and failure, poured out in tears that rolled down her cheeks.  She fell at Jesus feet, weeping silently, her tears forming rivulets in the dust on his feet.  Soon the dust was washed away; she loosened her hair and used it to wipe his feet dry.  There were gasps from around the room as her hair cascaded down, and more as people saw what she was doing.   But she was beyond caring, or even noticing.  She remembered her mother’s perfume and she poured it out over Jesus’ feet. 

Simon was horrified.  The other guests were silent, waiting to see what Simon would do.   Everyone knew Mary’s reputation, except Jesus, it seemed.  How could Jesus not know?  If his prophetic powers couldn’t help him then surely basic social skills, and the reaction of the crowd, would tell him that something was badly wrong.  Simon was about to speak but Jesus broke into his thoughts.

“Simon,” he said. “Imagine two men owed vastly different amounts to a moneylender.  Neither could pay him back, so the moneylender cancelled the debts of both.”

There were chuckles from the guests around the table, and from others around the room; no one could imagine a generous moneylender.

“Now Simon,” Jesus said.  “Who would love the moneylender more?”

Well, no one loved a moneylender, but a moneylender who forgave debt?   The answer was obvious.

“The one who owed him more, I suppose.” Simon answered warily, irritated that Jesus was taking this disgraceful situation so lightly.

“You are right,” Jesus said.  Then he looked at Mary.  “Do you see this woman here?”

Well of course he did.  Simon wished he couldn’t, of course, and he certainly didn’t want any more attention drawn to her.

Jesus went on, “When I arrived you didn’t give me any water to wash my feet, or olive oil to anoint my head, and you didn’t greet me with a kiss; but this woman has washed my feet and dried them with her hair; she has not stopped kissing my feet and she has anointed them with perfume.  The great love she has shown, proves that her many sins have been forgiven.  On the other hand, those who have been forgiven little, show little love.”

Mary hardly heard any of this exchange.  All she knew was that here was a man who accepted her as she was.  For the first time in her adult life she was being treated with respect and love.

Then Jesus turned to her and she heard him say, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Of course, that caused another scandal around the room, but Jesus ignored it and said to Mary what he said to Hannah the day before, “Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace.”

“Peace?” Mary thought to herself.  She hadn’t known any peace since she was a little child, but there was peace here.  In spite of all the rejection, irritation and hostility around the room, she could sense a peace she had never experienced before.  Mary knew where she fitted in the story Jesus had told Simon.  She was the one who owed the most; probably more than anyone in the room.  But, perhaps unlike anyone else there, Mary didn’t take her position for granted, not even her place on the floor at Jesus feet.  She knew she was there by grace alone.  Jesus had reached out to her.  He had accepted her gift, the little she had to offer, and had welcomed her into his space.

Mary didn’t know what the future would hold, but she knew there and then, on the floor of Simon’s house, that whatever happened she would follow Jesus. 

She glanced up and saw Simon’s face; a shiver of foreboding travelled down her spine.  She didn’t know whether the hatred she read into his features was directed at her or at Jesus, but she had made up her mind.  She would follow Jesus whatever the cost, wherever it led.

The above story (based on Luke 7:36-50) was inspired by a friend who suggested that this woman must have seen or met Jesus before. Somehow that story just had to be told.  First told at Prestbury Methodist Church, 29 January 2012. Tomorrow I’ll post the prayer that goes with it.

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Plenty of Camels, Three Kings and a Baby


The following story was inspired by our minister who preached on the story of the wise men, and asked two questions.  First, which star are we following?  There are many to choose from in our over-stimulated lives.  The second had to do with the transformation of the wise men (they went home on a new road): on what new roads are we travelling?
 This story will, I hope, help you think about those questions.  For one, the wise men themselves were not always sure which star they were following, and unless our encounter with Jesus makes a difference in our lives and in our world (and leads us to new paths) then that encounter means very little. 
A photograph of three camels, taken at the Pyr...

I love camels.  Yeah, I know, I’m crazy.  No one loves camels, or no one tells anyone they love camels.  Most people put up with camels as a necessary evil, and camels certainly don’t love us; they hardly even put up with us.  Most people just use and abuse their camels; but before you start feeling sorry for the beast, rest assured, the abuse is mutual.

My father had me working with camels from childhood, almost before I could walk.  He was Master of the Stables for the late King Belzeor and I used to help him with his work.  It was hard work but I loved it and learned to love the camels too.  When I was growing up my favourites were Grouch, Rat and Sweets.  Those weren’t their real names but that’s what we called them.   Grouch was a real grouch, even for a camel, but he was a hard worker.  Rat wasn’t as bad as she sounds but when she was tiny she was skittish about rodents; rustle in the straw near her and she’d jump.  Sweets loved anything sweet—would steal dates from your pocket if you gave her half a chance; not everyone could handle that, but Dad was a master and I learned everything from him.

When King Belzeor died his son Balthazar took over.  About the same time I took over from my dad as Master of the Stables.  Like his father before him, Balthazar was a Magus, respected far and wide for his wisdom and learning.  He studied the heavens and could read the stars.  I was lucky enough just to be able to read a scroll.

A few years ago there was huge excitement in the household.  The master was setting off on a journey. That wasn’t so unusual but what was strange was that he didn’t know where he was going or how long it would take.  When we discussed the camels he would need I asked him about the roads he would follow.

“Roads?” he said. “Not roads; we’re going to follow a star.”

“Well this is going to be fun,” I thought.  Finally the stars had gone to the master’s head.  But he told me about a new star he had discovered to the west, which had appeared about four months before.  Two other Magi had also recognised this new star as something unique, and they would be joining us.  They believed the star represented a new-born king.  They seemed to think he was a Jew but why the birth of a Jew (even a king) would cause such excitement or warrant his own star, I had no idea.  My master and the other Magi seemed to think that this king would somehow be greater than his people.  Well I didn’t know much about politics but as far as I knew Jews and everyone else to the west were ruled by Rome, so this new king would have quite a mission ahead of him.

Anyway, crazy as it sounds, we followed a star.  Early each morning while it was still dark we would break camp and the master would point to the stars in the west.  “There it is,” he’d say. “Let’s be on our way.”

At first we didn’t know which one was the new one, but it wasn’t long before we could distinguish it and we would look for it in the dark.  We would follow it until a few hours after the sun came up then we would camp during the heat of the day.  Late afternoon we’d break camp and be on our way until just before it got dark.  Initially the star wasn’t around in the afternoons, and as the months progressed it would appear at different times of the day, but the Magi would do some calculations and use those for when the star wasn’t visible.

We had been on the road (not that we travelled much on a road) for about six months.  What a journey it was.  I could tell you a hundred stories—another time perhaps.

About six months after we started, the party nearly broke up.  I thought the Magi were going to come to blows.  They were usually so calm and peaceful we never heard their discussions.  This time their arguing was intense and loud.  We had crossed the Jordan River and had driven through Jericho, on our way, we thought, to Jerusalem.  That’s the Jewish capital where their king, Herod, had his palace.  But Balthazar had other plans.

“The star is not leading to Jerusalem but more to the south,” he said.

“Maybe,” said the others. “But the star is probably leading us to where the child was born; we want to know where he is now.  Surely the Jewish King will know where the next King of the Jews is, if he’s not in Jerusalem with him.”

But my master was not convinced; he wanted to follow the star. “We’re not following an earthly king, but one that’s known to the heavens,” he said. 

 “True,” the others said.  “But after so long in the desert, surely we owe it to our party to have a short rest in the city.”  I wouldn’t want to be disloyal to my master but, I must say, that sounded like a grand idea.  “And the star’s been with us all this time,” they added.  “It will wait for us.  A couple of days won’t hurt anyone, surely?”

Then they said we could hardly enter Herod’s territory, on our way to find his successor, without at least seeking an audience, and my master finally relented.  So we travelled to Jerusalem and spent a week there while the Magi met with King Herod.

I didn’t meet the King, of course, but I heard all about the visit.  It seems Herod didn’t know what his visitors from the east were talking about.  If there was a new heir to the throne he certainly hadn’t been told.  But, for all that, he was a gracious host, almost as eager as the Magi to know more and to join the search.

Herod’s wise men pointed to Bethlehem as the birthplace of this new king.  They quoted their scriptures:

“Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
You are by no means least of the leading cities of Judah;
for from you will come a leader who will guide my people Israel.”

“Clearly a gift from God,” Herod told them.  “Go to Bethlehem and find the child.  Then come back and tell me where he is so that I may also worship him.”

“Murder him, more like it,” was the reaction from the more cynical stable hands.

Jerusalem was great.  The King’s stables were lavish but the camels were restless, so it was good to be back on the road again.  We left early in the morning, well before dawn, and the star was there, just to the south-west where Bethlehem lay about eight kilometres away.  Would the child still be there?

As we reached the base of the last hill before Bethlehem, and looked up to the village, the star seemed to rest on top of the hill.  We stopped and stared.  Could this be the end of our journey?  We waited for the star to set but it didn’t move.  It seemed to be sitting on the hill, waiting for us, until it faded away in the light of the rising sun.

My master and the other Magi were very excited.  “The child is here,” Balthazar said.

I’ll never know how he did it (I’m not sure even he knows) but my master proceeded to lead the way through the village to a small cottage.  What a stir we caused.  I’m told that Bethlehem is where the famous King David was born but you wouldn’t know it.  The villagers don’t seem to have seen anyone royal or famous for the last thousand years.  They stopped and stared and followed along behind. 

But when we arrived at the cottage there was something about it, and about the couple who welcomed us, that made us catch our breath.  I can’t explain it but I’ve seen a lot of rich and powerful people, and people who like to think they are rich and powerful—aggression and contempt is what they do best.  But not this couple; they weren’t overawed by our pomp or frightened by our numbers.  There was a quiet confidence; a conviction that they were in the right place, doing the right thing.  But there was humility about them too, suggesting that they might not be too sure just what the “right thing” was.

And then there was the baby.

He was just a baby; just like any other baby.  But then, somehow, he was so different.  Perhaps it was his parents; perhaps it was the sight of these three powerful sages kneeling down in front of him, offering gifts.  Whatever it was, we all felt it—even the camels were still.

We wanted to know more, to do more.  I know it sounds strange (the whole thing was crazy from the start) but I wanted to follow this baby, this child, this…King.

I could see that Balthazar also felt it.  Tears had poured down his cheeks as he offered his gifts.  As he gave the child’s mother a gift of myrrh I heard him say to her, “I brought this gift for your son’s anointing, but myrrh is also a sign of suffering, and I fear the swords that will put him on his throne will pierce your heart.” 

I had no idea what my master meant (perhaps he didn’t either) but it was clear that the encounter with this family, this child, had transformed him.  “We are not going back to Jerusalem,” he told us that evening.  “We’re going to find a different path; a new road.”  And I felt sure that he was talking about something more than just the route we would take home.

I still don’t understand it all, but I knew at that moment that it was time to leave the star behind and follow this child, whatever it might mean.

Balthazar summed it up for me as we gathered around him.  “I don’t understand all that has happened,” he said.  “I sense that we have been in the presence of greatness, but a greatness unlike anything I have come across before.   I can’t speak for you,” he went on, “But I want to learn more about this child and tell people about him.  Where we met him, no one needs to know that, but how he has affected us, and what it means to you and to me, that’s something to think deeply about and to share with the world.  I doubt that anyone will remember a bunch of Magi coming to this place,” he said.  “But, if we follow our hearts and share what we have experienced, the world will be talking about this child long after we are all gone.”

Last week was Epiphany Sunday.  It’s the day we celebrate the coming of the wise men to Jesus, a symbol of his being presented to the world, the gentile world, our world.  This story is not meant in any way to improve on the Bible story, let alone replace it.  We have become so familiar with the Bible stories that we often fail to hear them anymore.  I hope that this (and other stories I write) will help us hear the story of the wise men differently and receive new challenges.

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Preaching and Storytelling


I have often tried to put my passion for preaching into words without much success.  I want to say something about preaching Gospel in contrast to preaching Law—something I feel very strongly about.  I want to say something about the work of the Preacher being different from the work of the Teacher—something else I feel very strongly about.  Richard Jensen (American Lutheran theologian, teacher, preacher) has put the missing something into words and I recommend his book, Thinking in Story: Preaching in a Post-literate Age (1995)

Two things were significant for me in this book.  The first was his understanding of preaching; there is a chapter on the theology of preaching which helped clarify my own thinking on the subject.  The second was his call for us to rediscover the art of storytelling—to fill the minds of our listeners with people rather than with ideas.

Theology of Preaching

I am wary of preaching law.  Most people (those who are listening to our preaching at least) know they have failed.  They just don’t know what to do about it or where to turn.  Law preaching tends to be either another round of condemnation leaving the listeners without hope, or some sort of motivational talk: Seven Steps to Spiritual Perfection.

Jensen says, “The law always kills.”  But most of our preaching on law “doesn’t kill; it just wounds people.” “Cheap law” he calls it; the counterpart of what Dietrich Bonheoffer called “cheap grace”.  And if we are only wounded, all we need is little of that cheap grace.  With just a little bit of help from God, in other words, I will be able to improve my life and all will be well.

“Costly law, in contrast, really kills.  It leaves me without hope in the world.  I respond to cheap law with the vow that I will be a better person.  I respond to costly law with a deep cry for help.”  Sinners slain by the law long for “a word that sets them free; that forgives their sins; that gives them resurrection life.  That’s what good preaching does!  It gives people life.  It announces, proclaims, life.”

Preaching is a saving event.  What we have to say—our ideas—are not nearly as important as what God wants to say and do.  The goal is not to transfer my words and ideas into the listener’s mind but to allow the Spirit of God to act in the life of the preacher and the hearer during the preaching event.

A Post-Literate World

Jensen’s main focus is on thinking and preaching in story.  He writes about the earlier shift from oral communication to the written word, and the shift today from print to electronic communication.

In an oral culture the communication is with the ear.  In a written culture the eye is used for reading; sounds are not important.  The transition from oral to written culture affected our preaching.  The words on a page can all be seen at once and can be revisited, dissected, and rearranged.  We can organise the words into a hierarchical structure of ideas.  So we turn the ideas into three points and try to help our congregation understand what we have so carefully formulated.

Jesus communicated the reality of the Kingdom of God in the form of stories:

  • The Kingdom of God is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
  • The Kingdom of God is like a farmer scattering seed on the ground.
  • The Kingdom of God is like a man who found a treasure hidden in a field.

But, in the world of print, we tend to organise Jesus’ comments about the Kingdom of God into a series of ideas: “The Kingdom of God has six characteristics.”

Thinking in Story

In today’s electronic world it is not the ear or the eye alone but a variety of senses that are massaged simultaneously, along with our emotions.

Educationalists and psychologists today would agree with Jensen when he urges preachers to engage more of the senses.  They would also agree that storytelling is more effective than the sharing of ideas neatly packaged.

It’s a bit scary, I must admit.  When I preach ideas, I’m trying to change your mind; I’m trying to get you to understand our relationship with God the way I have come to understand it.  And ideally, at the end of my sermon, you will say: “I understand what you are saying; I understand something new about God and what he wants to do in my life and in the world.”  It’s all very measurable.  But when we hear a story we may end up interpreting it very differently from each other; as we are drawn in, God’s Spirit begins his transforming work and the storyteller has little or no control.

Scary or not, it can have exciting consequences.  Jensen tells of having preached a story-sermon at a seminary.  It was just the story and when the story ended he said, “Amen” and sat down.

“Two days later a very bright student came to my office to tell me that this form of preaching didn’t work.  He and another student had discussed the text for two hours the day before and could not agree on what my open-ended story meant.

“‘Let me get this straight,’ I said.  ‘I preach a sermon on this text which led you and your friend to have a two-hour discussion of the text, and you reckon it doesn’t work?’”

If you are struggling with the organising of ideas into “three points and a poem” then this book is well worth reading.  I particularly like the idea of filling the minds of our listeners with people rather than with ideas.

What about you?  Have you had any experience of storytelling from the pulpit?

See also:

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Blind Faith: Bartimaeus’s Story


I want to tell you a story about someone who refused to just send off a shopping-list prayer and ‘hope for the best’.  His prayer was a determined effort to make a difference; in his case a difference to his own life.  And he discovered that, if prayer and healing don’t come out of a relationship with God, they just might lead to one.  (Mark 10:46-52)

BEGINNINGS
Bartimaeus was blind.  He went blind when he was five years old.  But Bartimaeus wasn’t the sort of person to sit back and wait for stuff to happen.  He had a cousin, Samuel, who was paralyzed as a young boy when he fell out of a tree.  Sam had given up on life.  His parents took him to the pool of Bethesda a few years after it happened.  They had tried everything else.  Bethesda is where an angel was said to trouble the water—the first person in the water when the bubbles came was healed, they said.  The problem is that there were just too many people there.  The family worked hard.  For a few years someone would stay with Sam all week and try to get him in the water, but even getting near was a mission.  Eventually Sam gave up and told them not to worry.  He began to make friends and enjoy the company, so his family would take him there at the beginning of the week and fetch him before the Sabbath.  No one expected him ever to walk again, least of all Sam.

BETHESDA
When Bartimaeus was about ten, his family took him along to the Bethesda pool.  Sam had already been there nearly 20 years, but Bart couldn’t stand it.  He couldn’t see the people but he felt the atmosphere.  “Everyone’s sick here,” he said.  “I don’t want to sit around with sick people all day.”

“But you’re also sick,” his Dad said.
“No I’m not!  I just can’t see.”
“Yes,” said his Mom.  “But here you can get better and then you’ll be able to see again.”
“But Sam isn’t better,” Bart said, “And he’s been here forever.”  Well no one could deny that, so Bart stayed at home.

GROWING UP
Bart made friends pretty easily and he played with the boys in the village.  But once he was old enough to start working, no one would have him.  His old friends were trying to find work themselves and saw Bart as a liability.  Bart’s family didn’t have much, and when his father died, his brother had to look after their Mom.  He would have helped Bart too, but there wasn’t very much to go around, so Bart decided to look after himself.  His Mom worried about him.  She said he should go back to the pool of Bethesda.  “At least you can get a bit of food there and, who knows, maybe you’ll be lucky and get healed.”

“I’ll be alright, Mom,” he said.  “A couple of friends of mine have got a plan.  We’ll be fine.”

He didn’t tell his mom that his friends were also blind and that the “plan” was to beg.  And for the next 15 years or so, that’s what he did.

“And what’s wrong with that?” he said to his brother a few years later.  “You’re stuck here trying to make ends meet, and me?  I’ve seen the whole country.”
“Anyway, I’m owed something,” he went on.  “There are plenty of fat cats who’ve got more than enough and to spare.  It’s their duty to give to the poor; especially if the poor happen to be blind as well.”

A lot of that was bravado, of course.  What he said was true enough, but Bart wanted to see; he wanted to see more than anything else.  But he wasn’t going to sit around a pool moping about what he didn’t have.  He was going to make the best of what he did have. 

JERICHO
“Jericho!” he once said to his brother.  “Jericho.  That’s where the money is.  Everyone comes to Jerusalem for the big festivals, and they are usually very generous to people like me.  It’s part guilty conscience; they want to make up for all the bad stuff they’ve done before they go to the Temple; and it’s part showing off how good they are.   Whatever!  It works for me.  But in Jerusalem there’re just too many people and you don’t get enough exposure.  But Jericho?  It’s perfect.  Before Jericho everybody’s busy focusing on the journey.  Beggars are just a nuisance.   But once they’ve reached Jericho and had a rest there, the focus is on Jerusalem.  It’s the last stretch, and they start to think about what they are going to do, and that’s where I come in.  I’m part of their preparation.  I’m the opportunity to start putting things right and fixing the wrongs of the world.”

“And after the festival?  When everyone’s going home?  What then?” his brother asked him.

“Well, some people still have money left they are willing to part with, especially if they’ve had a good time.  ‘A good festival, was it?’ I ask with a bit of pain in my voice.  Then they feel sorry for you, and a bit guilty that they can travel to the festival and you can’t.  But you don’t get as much as when people are going to the festival.”

SAM
Then came the day his cousin Sam was healed.  The one at the pool of Bethesda.  Thirty eight years he’d been at that pool—every single week.  He’d given up being healed long before.  Every now and again someone would offer to help him into the water but he’d wave them away.  “Oh, don’t worry about me,” he’d say.  “Help old Joseph over there rather.  He’s far worse off than I am.”  His family wondered if he’d know what to do if he got his legs back.

Then one day he walked into the village.  Yes, walked!

Thirty eight years.  He was 12 when his family first took him; now he was an old man of 50.  After everyone got over the shock of seeing Sam on his feet, he told them what happened.  Jesus, the preacher from Nazareth everyone was talking about, had walked in among the sick around the pool.  He hadn’t made a fuss.  No one seemed to recognise him. 

“I didn’t know who he was,” Sam said, “but he stopped and crouched down next to me.  He looked at me—probably a few seconds, but it seemed like eternity.  Then he said, ‘Do you want to get well?’  I mean, what a stupid question; but somehow it wasn’t.  He seemed to be looking deep inside me and asking about things far more profound than my wasted limbs.  I wanted to say, ‘Of course I do!’ but I wasn’t so sure anymore; so I told him how the water thing worked and how difficult it was to get in.  Then he said, ‘Get up, pick up your mat, and walk.’ ”

“What?” everyone blurted out at once.  “Just like that?  After 38 years, just ‘get up and walk’?”

CHOICE
“It’s crazy, I know,” Sam said.  “But for the first time in 38 years I stopped and looked at myself.  I’ve always waited for other people to help me and I’d given up on any sort of useful life.  I guess I’d become comfortable with the impossibilities.  Now suddenly I was confronted with a possibility; and here was a man saying to me, ‘It’s up to you.’  It’s the first time anyone has said that to me.  Nothing has been up to me; everything depended on other people.  And in those few seconds I saw everyone who had ever helped me and worked so hard for me.  People whose help I’d taken for granted, and probably abused.  You folk!  And I thought, ‘Yes!  I do want to get well.’  And as I began to move, I felt such unbelievable pain in my legs as they started to come to life again.  It lasted about a minute but by then I was on my feet.  I was gobsmacked, and by the time I had enough sense to thank the man he was gone.  Of course I got into trouble because I was carrying my mat on the Sabbath.  I tried to tell them that I wasn’t really working; it was just part of the healing process.  They didn’t believe me; wanted to know who had done it.  Well, it was only later that I saw Jesus in the Temple and realised it who he was.”

BART
When Bart heard about Sam’s healing, he was determined he would see again.  “Jesus is going to heal me,” he kept saying.  Sam tried to play it down a bit.  “There were hundreds of people at the pool.  Jesus only seems to have healed me that day.  I don’t know why.  How do you know he’s going to heal you too?”

“He’s healed blind people too.  I’ve heard,” Bart said.  “If I just get close enough to him; if I can just look him in the eye.  Well, ok, if he just looks me in the eye, I know I’ll see again.  Then I’ll be free.  Then I can do what I want, go where I like.  I won’t ever have to follow anyone around again.  I’ll find my own way.”  There was no persuading him otherwise.

“Next month is Passover,” Bart said.  “Jesus is sure to go to Jerusalem and he’s bound to pass through Jericho; and I’m going to be there.”

JESUS
Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.  When Bart heard that Jesus was in the crowd passing his spot, he shouted as loud as he could.  “Jesus! Son of David, take pity on me.”

People on the fringes of the crowd were trying to hear what Jesus was saying as he walked along, so they tried to shut Bart up.  But he was having none of it.  He was determined to see again. 

“Jesus! Son of David, take pity on me,” he shouted even more loudly.

Jesus stopped and told his friends to call Bart.  Bart jumped up, dropped his coat with his day’s takings in it and ran, stumbling to Jesus.

And you know, Jesus asked Bart virtually the same question he’d asked Sam: “What do you want me to do for you?”

Well there was no hesitation from Bart.  He’d been waiting for this all his life.

“Teacher, I want to see again,” he told Jesus.

“Go,” Jesus told him.  “Your faith has made you well.”  Just like that.   No drums, no fanfare.  And Bart could see.

He was ecstatic.  He wanted to run the 30 miles back home to tell everyone.  He was free.  For the first time in his life, he was free.  He stood blinking in the light for a bit; then he looked long and hard at Jesus, who had already started on his journey to Jerusalem, and Bart made up his mind.  He followed Jesus on the way. 

A story told at Prestbury Methodist Church on 11 September 2011
For Sam’s story, see John 5:1-15

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