What to Do With a Great Story

You hear it, see it, read it, or experience it. All your senses come alive. “This is one I’ll remember a long time,” you think, and sure enough you do. For a long time afterward, your mind reels with the possibilities. What can I do with this great story? What sermon will it fit? How can I work it in?

I’ve sometimes facetiously said that a great story will fit my sermon next Sunday. The sermon may have to be reworked, but that story will fit.

Like the time my wife and I were dining in Baby Doe’s restaurant on the mountainside in Birmingham, Alabama. At the time, we were living in Columbus, Mississippi, and were visiting relatives back in our hometown. As the waitress came and went, I noticed her name was Auburn.

That’s when I decided to get cute.

“Your name is Auburn,” I said. “I’ll bet you have a sister named Alabama.”

The smile I had hoped to generate did not appear. She said, “I have two sisters, Tulane and Cornell.”

I said, “Yeah, right.”

She said, “I have four brothers — Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Duquesne.”

I said, “Lady, I don’t believe a word of this.”

She said, “My father’s name is Stanford and my mother is Loyola. They were engaged before it occurred to them they both had colleges as names, and they decided to do this to their children.”

I was speechless. But she wasn’t through.

“When we were little, we were on the front of Parade magazine, in Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and on Art Linkletter’s Houseparty (an old daytime television show some will remember).”

She said she was married and had two children. I said, “Let me guess. You’re married to Gardner-Webb. Or Truett-McConnell.”

She said, “My husband’s name is Ron Harris, a good old American name. But my children are Slippery Rock and Agnes Scott.” She smiled and said, “I’m teasing about that.”

Auburn said she used to work as a flight attendant on Southern Airways, the carrier for our Golden Triangle Regional Airport at Columbus-Starkville. A few months later, flying back from Dallas, I asked the flight attendant, “Did you ever know a stewardess named Auburn?” She laughed. “Auburn Bardwell — had all those weird-named brothers and sisters!”

Auburn’s story made my sermon the following Sunday. I forget what I had been planning to preach, but the message ended up dealing with the significance of names in our culture, in the Bible, to God, and in Heaven (where we will receive a new name; see Revelation 2:17 and 3:12).

Every good storyteller I know will tell you that he/she sometimes embellishes a tale to make it better. (I admit I’m not above doing that myself, but in ways that do not change the integrity of the account.) However, the above tale about Auburn’s family is word-for-word as I remember it. I’ve told it so many times, it’s fixed in my head forever.

Our governor told a story the other evening that has had tongues wagging ever since. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was delivering the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s congressional message late Tuesday night, February 24. Now, his performance — and that’s what it was — has been dissected and criticized ad nausem, so I’ll not get into that, except to say he’s a lot stronger than the way he appeared in that short program. “Sixty Minutes” did a feature on Governor Jindal last night (Sunday, March 1) and presented a much more balanced view of the man who is as smart as a whip and reportedly has a great future in politics.

A day or so after Hurricane Katrina, the governor said, he walked into the office of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee (since deceased) and heard him cussing into the phone. He had some government official on the phone and was angry. The sheriff was saying, “If they want to arrest somebody, they can arrest me!” When Bobby, then a congressman from this district, asked what was going on, the sheriff said, “We’ve got the boats lined up to rescue people off their rooftops. But some government person won’t let them leave until they show registration and insurance papers.” Bobby agreed this was ridiculous, so the sheriff shouted into the phone, “And Congressman Jindal says you can arrest him, too!”

Local newspaper columnists have discussed and rehashed this story, to the point of checking to see if Jindal was even in the area. Critics had said the congressman had not shown up until many days after the storm. But not so. People in the sheriff’s office vouch for the accuracy of the tale.

Now, the question here is, “You’ve got a good story to incorporate into a message. What do you do with it?”

Every pastor faces this quandary from time to time.

If his Tuesday night message to the American people is Governor Jindal’s answer to that question — and it surely must be — then we have to conclude he drew the wrong principle from the story.

The governor said the account points out why the people of this city do not believe in government, that we believe in the power of the individual.

And yet, that is not what that story shows. After all, the sheriff and the congressman were part of the government of this land, and presumably they were doing their jobs well. Had Mr. Jindal thought that story through, he might have drawn an entirely different conclusion from it.

The people of New Orleans and Louisiana — this entire country, we might add — do not trust bad government. That’s the point. We need good government and never moreso than at the present. (Analysts have correctly pointed out that no state in the union demonstrates dependence on federal government more than Louisiana in the three-plus years following Katrina. So, the governor’s application misses on several points.)

In an episode of the old Andy Griffith show, Barney is railing against county employees. They’re all a bunch of flacks, just clogging up the system, pigs at the public trough. Sheriff Andy says to his deputy, “Barney, did it ever occur to you that you and I are employees of the county?” Apparently, it hadn’t.

One of the hardest things a pastor ever has to do is refrain from using a great story because it presents someone — a family member, a church member, a friend, someone! — in a bad light. Nothing reveals his level of maturity like his ability (or inability) to lay that story aside. The time may come — in another state, years later — when he can pull it out and use it. But not now and not here. The price for a powerful illustration is sometimes higher than he needs to pay. And, if the person paying that price is the victim of the story, a faithful pastor will use wisdom and exercise mercy and find something else to tell.

In his outstanding book, “The Preacher as Storyteller,” Austin Tucker says, “Sometimes you will find a story that is so compelling that you just have to use it. You may prepare a whole sermon just to fit that story. That is not bad if you really do wed the story to the right text and theme. The danger is double, here, however. You may end up with the tail wagging the dog…. The other danger is that the preacher will count on the strength of one story and not give due diligence to searching exegesis of the Scriptures and submission of the story to the divine truth in the Word.” (p. 146-147)

Michael Zigarelli illustrates the power of the right story by telling the effect one had on his 11-year-old son, also named Michael. In his book “Influencing Like Jesus,” Zigarelli tells how his son (like his dad) fought battles to control his temper. The responsible father tried numerous methods to assist his son, but, “not one of them ever had the effect of reading him a story from Bill Bennett’s ‘A Children’s Book of Virtues.'”

So, what we have here is a story about the power of a story.

Genghis Khan, the 13th century Mongolian warlord, also fought endless battles with his temper. One day he was out hunting with his pet hawk who would find game for him to shoot. They were alone in the woods and after some hours, Khan grew thirsty. When he came upon water dripping from a ledge, he made a cup of a large leaf and collected enough to drink. At that moment, the hawk swooped down and knocked the cup from his hand, spilling the water.

Khan was infuriated. The hawk had never done such a thing before.

Patiently, Khan held the cup under the drip and collected more. Again, the hawk knocked the cup from his hand.

Khan screamed at the bird and warned if he did it again, he was dead.

This time, when the hawk knocked the cup from his hand, Khan grabbed his sword and struck the bird, killing him.

By now, the water had stopped dripping. An angry Khan climbed the rock ledge to find the source of the water. There at the top, he saw a large poisonous snake, lying dead in the water, blocking the flow. The water Khan had been trying to drink was poisonous. His pet hawk had seen the snake and had tried to save his life. “Khan’s uncontrolled anger caused him to repay the heroic bird with death.”

Zigarelli tells what happened when he read this story to Michael.

“My son, an animal lover, sat in stunned horror, transfixed by the picture of this poor, dying bird at the feet of the sword-wielding soldier. Tears filled Michael’s eyes (an unusual event). He couldn’t sleep for hours that night. The story triggered a flood of emotions — and, I think, a flood of revelation — that no punishment, no Bible verse, no parental relationship ever had. Through the story and the picture, he felt for the first time the destructive power of improperly released anger, and it had a profound effect on him for a long time.”

Zigarelli concludes, “A great story shakes people from their comfort zones and gets them asking questions they’ve never considered asking.”

“Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Jesus to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He spoke this story to them, saying….’A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father….'”

The Master Story-teller, Jesus, illustrates better than anyone the power and proper use of a great story. His “Prodigal Son” tale in Luke 15 is almost universally acclaimed as the finest example of the art.

Someone once criticized me for telling too many stories in my sermon. I said, “That reminds me of a story.”

4 thoughts on “What to Do With a Great Story

  1. Auburn’s brother Stanford was the one time US attorney in Baton Rouge. The senior Stanford really liked higher education and wanted his kids to live up to their names!

  2. Thank you for sharing the Genghis Khan story, I needed to hear that. I have had to deal with my anger over the years, and ask God and others’ forgiveness for it, and that is never easy to do.

    I thank God for you and this blog, it has helped me and many others too, thanks for being an important part of our lives, everyday.

  3. Joe: This past Wed. morning I was attending a Legislative Prayer Breakfast in the Capitol Annex at Frankfort. One of the state legislators was giving the devotional.

    He told the story about a time when he was speaking before a large group. He had a list of remarks that he was going to make. When he got up to speak sitting on the front row were about 4 or 5 blonde ladies. He put the paper aside and went on with his speech. After the meeting was over one of the ladies on the front row came up to him and asked what he had put aside. He handed her the paper with the remarks as she looked at him.

    Then she said, “You made a very wise decision” and walked away.

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