Under the influence of the tabloids at the super market checkout, I toyed with the notion of calling this “What Pastors Don’t Tell You About Those Stories They Tell.”
It’s all of that. In fact, what I’m going to say about stories we pastors tell from the pulpit is not universally accepted as the right thing to do. Some might accuse us of dishonesty or worse. I beg to differ.
Read it, then give us your assessment at the end.
1) Some stories the pastor tells as happening to someone else actually occurred to him.
Case in point. Last Saturday morning, while leading a deacon retreat for a church I once pastored, one of the men volunteered a testimony that gave me far too much credit for his coming back to Christ and getting active in the church. He’s in insurance, and was the agent for the fellow who had hit me and injured me slightly. At one point, he said–I have no memory of this–I asked if he thought the insurance company would be willing to replace my broken glasses. Something about that, evidently, impressed him, that I was not greedily grabbing for all I could squeeze out of the insurance company, and God used it to get his attention.
As I say, I have no memory of any of it; I barely remember the accident.
When I arrived back home, my wife said, “You can’t tell that story, though.” I agreed. In a sermon, it would appear self-serving or self-promoting, as in “look how wonderful I am.” So I won’t tell it.
Oops. I just told it, didn’t I? But it was to make the point: if I ever put it into a sermon, the story would work better camouflaged. I would tell it as though it happened to “a good friend of mine.” It did, of course; I’m a good friend of me.
That little technique–relating a personal story in the third person–allows a minister to make excellent use of some of his best illustrations without appearing to be boasting.
2) Some stories are composites.
A composite is a blend of two or more elements.
In order to drive a complicated point home more effectively or to keep from stringing together two similar but somewhat different stories, the pastor will combine the illustrations into one account. As a rule, the times I’ve done that, it occurred accidentally. As I reflected on some story from years ago, it ran together in memory with a story of a similar nature.
As a college student working with the Baptist young people of Birmingham, I recall hearing a story at one of our Saturday night youth rallies. It made such an impression on me that I told it thereafter, always giving credit to Tony Lee, the fellow who had related it. Then, a year or two later, I heard something similar–not the same story–on a long-play recording from Kenneth MacFarland, a well-known motivational speaker of the day. His was powerful and effective and the tale simply absorbed Tony’s story inside my mind.
To this day, I don’t know how much of this belongs to Tony and how much is from the recording.
The story–you did want to hear it, didn’t you?–concerned Tony’s late night job at a radio station which had him closing down at midnight every evening and walking home through the darkness. A cemetery lay between the station and his house, with a path across it which he often took in the daylight.
At night, however, Tony walked around the graveyard, a half-mile north, take a sharp left, then a half-mile west. One night, he decided it was foolish not to cut straight across the cemetery. After all, he was an adult–he must have been 20–and he knew there were no such thing as ghosts. So he locked the station, walked across the street, and went through the gate into the graveyard to take his usual path home.
What he did not know was that workers had been out that day and had dug a grave right across the path he was taking. In the darkness, Tony fell into the grave.
Under normal circumstances, he could have gotten out. But Tony was short and the night air had moistened the soil and it kept crumbling under his grasp. The edges of the grave slickened and soon there was nothing to hold onto. It was clear he was not going to pull himself out.
Now (according to the story), what Tony did not know was that earlier that night, another fellow had fallen into the same grave. He had long since given up on getting out, too, and had bundled up in a corner to try to stay dry and warm.
The other guy watches in amusement at Tony’s efforts to get out. He had done the same things with no results.
At this point, Tony begins to yell: “Help! Someone come get me out of this grave!”
He gave that up. Common sense told him no one on the planet would respond to that cry!
Now finally, the fellow in the corner of the grave decided to introduce himself and relieve Tony’s anxiety. He threw back his covering and said, “Mister, you can’t get out of here.”
But he did.
I can still hear Kenneth MacFarland saying, “If you are properly motivated, you can do anything!”
How much of that story belongs to my friend and how much to the motivator, I have no idea.
And the truth is, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a story. I doubt it happened to anyone.
I’ve not used it in a sermon in decades–it’s far too long for the small payoff at the end–but it was a staple in my youth-centered messages for years.
3) Some stories are true fiction.
A speaker or pastor can sometimes load more truth into a made-up story than he can relating something that actually happened to an historical person.
The best way to make this point is by telling what I did.
Perhaps a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated our part of the world, I was put on the program of a statewide children’s gathering to talk about what God was doing down here. Now, speaking to any group is a challenge, but addressing a couple of hundred 10-year-olds is about as hard as it gets for most of us.
So, I decided to put the New Orleans story, as we called it, into a narrative about one household. I created a typical family, had them living in St. Bernard Parish, mom and the kids going to church every Sunday, Dad having no use for the Lord but spending every Sunday in his boat or in front of the television. When the hurricane was approaching, he sent the wife and kids to Dallas to her parents, determining to stay in Chalmette and ride out the hurricane and take care of their property.
That happened a lot.
I called the man James, as I recall. James watched on Sunday as more and more of his neighbors drove out of the subdivision headed for higher ground. By evening, the place seemed a ghost town. And that night, the winds arrived.
Long story short, James spent Monday watching the hurricane batter his neighborhood, then he watched with horror as floodwaters rushed into his streets and began entering the homes. By evening he was in his attic. By nightfall, he had hacked a hole through the ceiling and was sitting on his roof. Here and there, he spotted a few neighbors on their housetops, too.
James was rescued by emergency workers on Tuesday, eventually he rejoined his family in Dallas, and when he was able, he returned to his flooded home to salvage what he could. That’s when he encountered first responders coming down the street carrying and chain saws. They cut the tree from across his driveway and encouraged him.
Later, disaster relief people helped him clean out the flooded debris from his home. A few weeks later, another team of volunteers helped him gut out the house, tearing out carpet and wall-board, everything down to the studs. And still later, they helped him rebuild.
At each stage, when James asked the volunteers who they were and why they had come at great personal cost to help people like him–all strangers–they responded that they were Christians. They were there because of the love of God.
Eventually, James was won over by their Christlikeness.
That happened hundreds of times.
Twice that day, two boys came up to me and asked, “Is James real?”
At this point, I had to make a decision. What to tell them, how much detail to give.
I told them the truth. “James is real,” I said. “We have had the story of James repeated hundreds of times in the New Orleans area.”
The Scripture says of Jesus that He never preached without telling stories (Mark 4:34).
I find myself wondering about the stories He told….
Did any of them happen to Him and He just decided to tell them in the third person in order to keep it simple and uncomplicated?
Were any of the lengthier stories He told–maybe the Prodigal Son–composites, made from two or three accounts of various people which He cobbled together for clarity and effectiveness?
Were some of the stories fictionalized, told of some person in general but no one in particular? “A certain man had two sons….” (Luke 15:11) Surely, from the ringside seat of eternity, our Lord had seen variations of that story played out thousands of times through the centuries.
So now you know.
It’s okay to tell. We call them “secrets,” but they are open secrets.
Pray for the preacher. It’s the greatest and toughest job in the world.