A few days ago, I attended my 12-year-old son’s school Christmas concert. While his is not a church school, the event took place at a local church. My son was taking the role of a shepherd from Bethlehem, trying to explain to his boss why he had lost all his sheep after he and his mates had run into town to find a child in a stable. He insisted that he had nothing to do with the cut-price lamb being sold in town the following morning, and he swore that he’d not been drinking when he had heard great noises and seen lights in the sky. While he was performing, Cardiff was hit with the most ferocious hailstorm that I have seen in years. So, as he said the words “there were great noises in the sky”, the heavens opened and the church’s stained-glass windows sounded like they were about to shatter. I overheard one parent say to another on the way out, “I loved the wonderful sound effects when the shepherd was speaking!”
We hear so much these days about rechristening Christmas as the “winter festival”, but this event, based in a church and introduced by the local vicar, was very much rooted in faith. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say it was based around a story – a story of a newborn that gives flesh, heart, and spirit to all our hopes and desires, all our needs and wants.
I have always loved stories. I remember running home from school as a child, out of breath and with legs aching, because I didn’t want to miss the TV programme Jackanory, where a famous person sat in a big armchair and read from a children’s novels. When I go out to visit schools now, despite all the technology available, I’ve noticed that school children still love to sit and listen to teacher simply reading a good storybook, just as they love to hear a nighttime story from mum or dad.
The reality is, of course, that people of all ages get stories and people have always loved telling and hearing stories – from amphitheatres of the Greeks and Romans to the Elizabethan plays of Shakespearean England. The popularity of TV programmes, soap operas, films, and books bear witness to the fact that stories are still a language people can understand. If we, as a church, want to connect with generations that are seemingly lost from our congregations, we need to be looking to story.
With all this in mind, I’ve often been tempted simply to tell a ten-minute story instead of a sermon on a Sunday morning. I wonder if I’d get complaints? “There’s not enough exegesis”; “there’s not enough teaching”. The lack of explanation in Jesus’ parables, of course, would have confused some people, but he urges us in the Parable of the Sower to make our own interpretations. “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear”.
In fact, the writer Rob Lacey made a detailed assessment of Jesus’s words and teaching. In his book Are we Getting Through?, he concluded that Jesus spoke to the general public in two different ways: he either told stories or he asked questions. These stories were memorable, intriguing, and vivid, using images and objects that the people of his day could identify with (sheep, coins, trees, vineyards). Yet, in the two thousand years since Jesus, the church seems to have decided it knows better. Our church services rarely include stories, not even in many of our sermons! Furthermore, we Christians are far more inclined to give answers than ask questions.
And it’s not only Jesus either. Our faith is founded on story. The recent Channel 5 series The Bible has shown just some of the wonderful tales of faith and courage from Genesis through to Revelation. Story is integral to our faith, from Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph and his colourful coat, Moses, David and Goliath, and Samson and Delilah, to the stories of Christmas and Easter, the parables, and the adventures of St Paul. And the great thing about these magnificent stories of our faith is that every story has two levels – two “storeys”, if you like. In other words, they have the story itself, wonderful and fantastical. But, beyond that, is another level, another “storey” – and that is how does the story speak to us? What profound and eternal truths can we take from the story?
So, this Christmas, why not do two things. First, why not start to really listen to stories. After all, God speaks to us through stories. Ask yourself, what is he saying to you? Allow his story to inform the stories you engage with – the story of a small child born in a dirty stable, a story of hope, a story of peace, a story of love. How does that story relate to the stories you listen to? How can the stories you hear inform your faith, teach your faith, challenge your faith.
But, secondly, I challenge you to tell stories this Christmas. You’ll be with your friends and families, so have the confidence to share stories with them – tales that you find fascinating yourself or tales of your own life. My own daughter is obsessed with stories of my childhood. Almost every dinnertime, she will suddenly say: “Tell me a story of when you were young, daddy”. I must admit, I’m running out of little-mischievous-Trys stories by now, and am tempted to start making some up! But it’s not only children – in the same way that my daughter loves hearing my stories, when I go to visit parishioners I love hearing their stories about their lives and families.
But, in telling stories this Christmas, why not also allow those stories to interact with the spirit of the festive season. Share stories, ones you have read or seen on television, and explain how they have inspired you towards Christ’s hope, compassion, and forgiveness. But, perhaps most importantly, tell your own personal stories by letting people know how your lives have been transformed by his story – the eternal story of peace and love that began when “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in the cry of a newborn.