Telling Stories and Asking Questions
What Jesus Teaches Us About Preaching
by Richard Foth
A blend of Betty Crocker, Mother Teresa, and the CIA, the dean of women at Bethany Bible College 50 years ago was not part of an institution. She was an institution.
Seventy-something May Swanson taught homiletics and the Book of Colossians, played matchmaker without apology, and — of most interest to me — had a unique collection of 33 1/3 long-play records of Dr. Peter Marshall, pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., preaching on Sunday mornings in the mid-1940s
If I close my eyes, I can still hear that ringing Scottish burr, as Marshall began one of what he called his biblical newsreels: “It was a fine spring morning in Jerusalem during Passover week. The sky was powder blue and the birds sang a chorus to the sun, as Simon the Cyrene made his way down into the city crowded with Jews from every nation of the Mediterranean Basin. …”
I would sit in her apartment by the hour listening to those imaginative stories. Only years later would I recognize that, on the backstroke, I was learning to preach by story.
One simple way to preach by story is to do what Marshall did: Take the core stories of the Scriptures and retell them, either as a character or an observer. To preach by story is to ask, “I wonder what he or she was thinking when such-and-such was happening? How had they happened into this scene? What produced the feelings expressed in the narrative?”
In a day of short attention spans and 140-character communiqués, when e-mailing and texting are happening as you speak on Sunday morning, what engages the listener? How about a question that your listeners cannot answer with a yes or no, or a phrase such as, “Once upon a time”?
A question or a story turns a monologue into a conversation and captures the imagination. Imagination is the key. Why? Because of what Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge because imagination has no limits.”
When I read Jesus in the Gospels, His stories and questions raise the issues and make the points. We should not be surprised. He was The Teacher and those were the practices of the culture and the day.
Yet, underneath it all is our design. God designed us, hardwired us if you will, to communicate in certain ways. Questions and stories are those ways. Jesus knew that.
In His culture, people often answered a question with a question. So, questions were the Petri dish from which many of His stories grew. And, both question and story have a common core: information. A question gathers information; a story shares information.
Questions are the most natural place we go in conversation. It is reflex. Whether it’s the 2-year-old that forever asks “Why?” or the 32-year-old with a catch-in-the-throat waiting for a reply to “Will you marry me?” questions are the stuff of life.
Every culture uses stories to share history, to entertain, to educate, and to instill moral values. In the past, the one who told the stories often evolved into the group historian. We call the one who put stories to song in the Middle Ages a troubadour. With the advent of the printing press, things changed. But, storytelling never did.
That being said, how does the function of question and story inform our preaching? How might we think differently about the construction of a message?
If the point of a message is driven by, what my Wheaton Grad School professor Dr. Lois LeBar called, “The Big Arrow” (i.e. What do you want the listener to walk away knowing, thinking, and feeling?), how do we frame that message through question and story?
Ask a question to begin a message. Instantly, you engage me. To say, “Driving through town the other day, I had this thought: Why does. …? or What do you think was in God’s mind when He. …?
Begin your thoughts with narrative. I am there. “The year was 1940. The Nazi blitzkrieg turned London into Dante’s Inferno every night. The ‘crump’ of bombs and the wail of air raid sirens drowned out the melodies of The Andrews Sisters. There was no way the British people could survive. Except for a group of young aviators who said no.”
Age makes no difference when a story starts. We are present. We are involved. We are connected. Why? Because storytelling is profoundly personal.
When you tell me a story, I catch your look, inflection, and tone. I hear pace and timbre and enunciation. When your voice softens, I listen more closely. You do not need to complete the sentence for me to get the meaning. You, in fact, are an author. You are an audio book.
When I listen to preaching, the stories stick. Trust me, most people will not remember your Scripture reference for more than a few hours. For sure, they will not remember the points you have labored over for more than 48 hours. But they will remember the moving story and its point for a long time.
Within the past year I have had several people in different locales walk up and say, “I have never forgotten the story about so-and-so that you told in such-and-such a place, and I refer to it often.” Usually they are referencing a time more than 20 years ago.
Why do stories affect us so? Because we are all storytellers.It is our native tongue. Something we instinctively learn. Studies show we are able to tell stories at the age of 2. Jerome Bruner has documented how little children at this age, as soon as they can start to talk, show that they understand the stories that their families tell them, and they start to tell their own stories.
Jesus, the Storyteller
That being said, we should not be surprised to find that the Author and Finisher of our faith employed questions and stories. He was born into an agrarian age. Peasant farmers were the order of the day. The country was quilted with hundreds of plots of land, where people on the lower rungs of society eked out their meager fare year in and year out. Most were illiterate. Their libraries were compilations of word pictures.
Their rabbis consistently used questions and stories as the heart of their pedagogy. It was a teaching style that synched with the listener’s world. Rabbis used common images — a field, a lamp stand, a sower, a loaf of bread. Markets and houses and fields and fishing boats were pictures in the book.
The most common form of story, of course, was the parable. A parable is a metaphor, which literally means to “carry across.” By definition it compares two things that are unlike each other, but implicitly have something important in common.
Madeline Boucher writes: "The importance of the parables can hardly be overestimated … all of the great themes of Jesus’ preaching are struck in the parables." Perhaps no part of the Gospels, then, can better put us into touch with the mind of Jesus Christ than the parables.”
When I was a young pastor, I believed what professors told me both in college and seminary: “You do not get your theology from the narrative.” I no longer believe that. I have discovered the Kingdom through story.
Jesus is the master of story, and He chooses to present the appeal of His kingdom that way. His approach changes the landscape because He speaks of the kingdom of God, an invisible Kingdom that touches the native longing of the human heart. More than that, His kingdom challenges (and trumps) all my other kingdoms.
John Dominic Crossan notes: “Jesus was not proclaiming that God was about to end this world; but, seeing this as one view of world, He was announcing God as the One who shatters world, this one and any other before or after it.”1
So, when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom in Matthew 13, it is very different from the Roman and Jewish kingdoms the listeners knew. Here comes the parable-picture: The Sower, Wheat and Tares, Hidden Treasures, Good Fish and Bad Fish. When He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like. …” we are all ears.
The most compelling part of your preaching is the Jesus and His kingdom story in you. When you think about it, the earliest disciples did not have John 3:16 to reference. All they really had beyond their Jewish roots was what they had experienced with Jesus. That is what they told those who would listen.
The story of your own journey is at its core biblical. So, a 2,000-year-old Zaccheus’ story and your own 13-years-ago story are made of the same stuff. Randall Wallace, screenwriter of Secretariat and Brave Heart, recounts that as a small boy he had asthma. He says, “My grandmother would sit up and hold me at night when I had trouble breathing. She would tell me Bible stories and stories from her childhood. Often, I couldn’t tell the difference.”
When we tell Kingdom stories, we tell the truth. Whether those stories are from the Scriptures or from our own or others’ lives, we are truth-tellers. There is nothing the younger generations want more than the authentic, the real. Reality — the truth — sets everyone free.
When you use metaphor and story and questions, you create connections. So,when Jesus spoke, He created a photo album with His stories. I see pictures of people and settings with which I am familiar, and it attaches to another existing piece in my memory.
It isn’t just that Jesus used stories to make a point, is it? He understands us so well that He used stories to jog prior memories and frame new memories. The iconic preacher/storyteller, Fred Craddock, Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, says that a story is a reminder of something else in one’s experience. It causes someone to want to say something themselves, like, “I know someone just like that” or “I saw that yesterday.”
Jesus used stories that expose both the heart of the Father and the heart of every man. In Luke 15, when He challenged the blindness of the Pharisees, He told three stories: The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son.
He used common things — my work, my money, and my family — to make the point that whatever it takes to retrieve the “lost thing” is what we need to be about. In the future, the listener will have difficulty seeing a flock of sheep, paying for an item, or observing a young man without reflecting on the point that Jesus had made.
The beauty of Jesus’ stories is that they allow for blank spaces. By simply asking the question in a message: “Who are you in this Bible story?” it pulls a listener toward the Kingdom. Years ago Karl Olsson wrote a book entitled Find Yourself in the Bible. It encouraged the reader to read the stories and find the character with whom he or she identified. Like, in the story of The Prodigal Son (or perhaps more aptly, The Gracious Father), who are you? The prodigal? The elder brother? The father?
You don’t need to use a published book of stories to preach well. You need to observe life each day and form a takeaway. Your everyday encounters at the bank, gas station, or ballgame are all the wellspring for good preaching. Listeners identify with things they know.
That is certainly true of Jesus’ questions. Some questions are, of course, garden variety: “What are you talking about?” “What do you want?”
Other questions push me much harder to my reason for being: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Mark 8:36,37). Jesus riveted the listener with His questions. We do not see many characters in the Gospel record just walking away.
A good question imbedded in a message should be like an apple pie baking in the oven. Once the scent catches me, I cannot shake it.
When you put that kind of question at the end of a message, it carries the impact into the next week. One of my favorite messages called “Who Cares?” is also by Fred Craddock. He describes counseling a woman who was disillusioned with the church and life. Her comment was that “clearly no one cares.” He responded that he knew numbers of caring people. She asked, “Who?”
He closed his sermon with this question, “In the future, if I meet other people with your frustrations, may I give them your name?”
Finally, sometimes we have experiences in our lives that so illustrate the Kingdom story that it’s easy to make an entire message out of it. Charlie White was one of those. He was chief of staff to a powerful United States congressman, leading the staff and managing the time and focus of the congressman. As a retired Navy submarine captain, he did it with an authoritative, but humble style.
His boss traveled the world to spearhead human rights endeavors; Charlie was his sidekick. His boss followed Jesus with his whole heart; Charlie followed his boss, but he wasn’t buying the Jesus part. Not opposed, just not convinced.
When Charlie got terminal cancer and turned to Jesus, he did so without reservation. His life illustrated Jesus’ response to people bringing little children to Him in Mark 10:13 (and Matthew and Luke, as well). The point of “except you become like a little child” is, I believe, absolute dependence on Jesus.
I saw that for all his experience, intelligence, and power, Charlie was a child. When I caught that fact, it became an entire message. Charlie’s trust-curve over the last 6 months of his life was the main point.
On his deathbed Charlie’s body was skeletal, but his childlike trust was fully fleshed out. We agreed to meet later at The Father’s House. When I said, “You’ll turn around a couple of times, Charlie, and the congressman and I will show up.”
He grinned, and said, “I’ll like that.”
Days later we walked through a full-honors ceremony with flag-draped casket and horse-drawn caisson at Arlington National Cemetery.
Charlie, the child, was home.
More than once, when I have told that story in a church, a man walks up to me at the end of the service. He takes my hand, looks me in the eye, with tears in his, and says simply, “I am Charlie.”
I ask, “What would you like?”
He says, “I want to do what Charlie did.”
We pray. The lost sheep is found. The lost coin is recovered. And the lost son comes home.
The stories of Jesus challenge my view of life itself. The questions of Jesus inexorably call for me to give up my life and choose His.
So, here’s the deal: How do you want to tell the Kingdom story to your congregation this weekend?
1. John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 27.