By Michael Gallup
A feather fluidly descends upon an Alabama bus stop, resting beside the well-worn Nike tennis shoe of a slender, flat-topped man. As he awaits his bus with a box of half-eaten chocolates across his lap, he introduces himself to his neighbor and begins to tell his story. He has met Elvis, overcome a crippling disability, played football for Bear Bryant, met the president, gained and lost the best friend of his life in Vietnam, survived a hurricane, ran across America numerous times, lost his momma, and of course he tells us about Jenny.
We find ourselves like Mr. Gump’s neighbors captivated by his stories, by his life. This is a fascination that goes beyond Forrest and speaks to each of us; we are all lovers of story. Billions of dollars are spent each year in the consumption of various forms of stories, be it movies, television, or books. Take for instance the millions of young people, who despite their Attention Deficit Disorder, spend numerous, consecutive hours thumbing through 800 pages of a vampire love-story.
The desire for story begins in us early as we climb into our parent’s lap and with acute determination and cunning innocence ask, “Daddy, will you tell me a story?” This fascination grips us early and really never lets us go.
I love holidays at Grandma’s in Arkansas. No matter where you go, stories are in the air, stories of fishing, cars, childhood mischief, and of family members no longer with us. We gather around our memories and in the retelling, we relive them. From birth to death, something inside of us longs for a good story.
But why? What is it about stories that intrigue us so?
We could define story like the textbooks do, defining the component parts such as narrative hook, conflict, climax, and resolution. However, I believe something else is going on below the surface, something that gets at our love-affair with story: they deal the extremes of life, such as joy and pain, hope and despair, winning and losing, fall and redemption. And it is in these extremes that that life truly happens.
We long for stories because they give definition to our own stories, our own lives.
One of my favorite movies is Walk the Line, the masterfully-told story of the life of Johnny and June Carter Cash. It shows a deeply talented yet deeply troubled young man. Johnny, like so many in his field, watches from the sidelines as substance-abuse takes over his life at the loss of everything he loves. But at the height of his fall June sticks with him, protects him, nurses him, loves him.
Johnny can’t believe her love in the face of his sin, he knows and professes that he’s hurt everybody, he’s nothing. But June fights back, “You’re not nothing, you’re not nothing. You’re a good man, and God has given you a second chance to make things right, John. This is your second chance honey.”
Johnny emerges a new man and in some way, as we watch, we do as well. Stories like that resonate because we all know the depths to which we can fall and we wander if someone will ever love us the way June loved Johnny, we wonder if God will give us a second chance.
Stories help to remind us what it means to truly live, that life is more than our jobs, our school, our routines, but that life trips us up but also picks us up. Life and I mean real, abundant life is seen, perhaps exclusively, in those extremities of pain and joy, hunger and fulfillment, life and even death.
But there is something else foundational to a good story, something that gives force to these emotions and events, something, in fact the very thing, that makes story so personal for us: relationships.
This is the common thread of all of our stories; June and Johnny, Chris and his Dad, us and God. Even stories of solitude deal with the absence of relationship.
Because relationship is so foundational to story we find it foundational to life as well. We were created for the very purpose of relationship. But the relationships that make good stories are not just average run-of-the-mill relationships, if there is such a thing, but significant ones. These are genuine relationships, real, fully alive people struggling through life together, learning how to relate to one another and to God.
In a letter to the Roman church, a man named Paul guides us into the abundant life through the context of relationships. In fact the entire book can be seen through the lens of relationships.
The first 11 chapters deal with the theology of reconciliation, detailing how Jesus had mended the broken relationship between God and man. In the final five chapters, Paul explains what our lives should look like in response to these mercies of reconciliation; although we are many we become one in God, each gifted for the benefit of others, we must love even our enemies and be subject to authority, that the entire law is summed in love for our neighbors, that we must sacrifice our rights for the welfare of the weaker brother.
Paul ends the letter fittingly: “I’m sending so and so to you, tell so and so I miss them, I can’t wait to see you.” In his appeal for us to welcome one another, Paul goes to great lengths to welcome all he knows in Rome, he is indeed practicing what he preaches. But I believe Paul is saying something very specific about our stories, about our relationships in verses 9-16 of chapter 12:
9 Let love be genuine.Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
Paul begins this section by merely saying “Genuine Love.” In our English translations we have added the “let” and the “be” in order to make sense of it. But perhaps Paul is simply titling the following imperatives illustrating what genuine love looks like.
He deals with hope and charity, blessing even those who persecute us, and instructs us to weep with ones weeping and rejoice with the ones rejoicing. We are to participate in life with one another, in the extremes of persecution and hope, weeping and mourning. For when we cry together, we live and when we laugh together, we live. Core to a good story are good relationships, which begs the haunting question: “How much of our lives is worth telling?”
Genuine love is the foundation of genuine relationships. Yet hypocrisy, pride, and ignorance choke out our love, our relationships, our stories. So we spend $15 every Friday night to escape for two hours, because instead of risking it all and truly living, we’d rather play it safe and watch someone else live.
Oh, that our lives were even horror stories, but they are simply boring and not really stories at all. They are not good because our love and thus our relationships are not good, are not genuine.
My story is lacking because I love what is evil, I outdo others in pursuit of honor, because I am not daring in the spirit, I grow impatient in difficult times, and only extend hospitality to the familiar. I curse those who bless me, mock those who rejoice and ignore those who weep. I can not live harmoniously because I am the wisest person I know.
My story is not good. How is yours?
Michael is finding hope to live a better story in the grace and love found in relationship with Jesus. He is a husband and father and is preparing to plant a church in Little Rock, Arkansas.