Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Spiritual Discipline of Storytelling

When I first began my journey in discovering how to tell Bible stories in my own words, my focus was all about how to get the gospel in the heart language of those listening and to reach the nations. My mind was on using it as a tool for others. My mind was not so much on the gift it would bring me. I had no idea that GOD would surprise me with a deeper lesson for me. As COVID hit our area, I noticed that the consumption of the news and social media was creating a frenzy of fear. It only took about a little less than two weeks for me to realize this is not sustainable. I cannot live in a spirit of consumption. I am designed to create, not consume. So I made a conscious choice to remove the consumption and get on with creativity. The creative outlet I chose was birthed out of sadness. I had prepared for months for two big conferences and suddenly I was told that both were canceled. What was I to do with all that God had put on my heart? I still felt that I had something to say, so I decided to create short videos teaching a few of the truths God had given me. 

During the beautiful spring days, I would go outside and sit on my back patio and begin to go over the Bible stories that God had given me to teach. As I went over a story and took the time to record it, I discovered a sense of peace that reached deep inside me. I discovered that when I created and recorded the Bible stories, it did not matter that our world was crashing in with COVID and race riots because I had found a deep soul satisfaction in creating. It did not matter that I only had a handful of people actually watching the videos. What mattered was that God was calling the deep out of me. I discovered that the craft and practice of creating a Bible story to be told had become a spiritual act of worship for me because, over time, story crafting/telling had become a spiritual discipline. 

 What is a spiritual discipline? 

Richard Foster author of The Celebration of Discipline defines spiritual discipline as “habits, practices, and experiences that are designed to develop, grow, and strengthen certain qualities of the spirit– to build the ‘muscles’ of one’s character and expand one’s inner life.” Brett and Kay McKay expand the definition for spiritual discipline as “the habits, practices, and experiences that are designed to strengthen certain qualities of the Spirit—to ‘build muscles’ of one’s character and expand the breadth of one’s inner life. They structure the ‘workouts’ which train the soul.” Without even knowing that this occurred in my life, I discovered that the practice of learning how to tell a Bible story, and then telling it, had become a spiritual discipline that was strengthening my inner life. My soul was being trained by my story crafting! I discovered that peace, counsel, might, knowledge, understanding, and yes even a healthier fear of the LORD were taking place in me. This gave me a greater confidence and assurance in God’s greatness and goodness even amidst COVID and turmoil of 2020. I realized I was “centered” when most around me were in chaos. I enjoyed soul satisfaction and a greater sense of community both with God and others, even in their pain. I celebrated an overflow of organic truths pouring out of me as others were spewing fear, anger, hatred, confusion, or pride. I was convicted when I fell prey to my own fears and forgotten moments of who I am, who I belong to, and what I am called to do. The more I made the crafting and creating of stories to tell, the more I realized that the Word had become the meditation of my heart moving me from feeling frozen and heartbroken to joyful and worshipful. 

Why have we not given the rally cry for storytelling as one of the great spiritual disciplines? Do we have biblical precedence for Bible storytelling to be a spiritual discipline? 

The Psalmist Asaph prophesied that Jesus would use parables. 

 My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from old—things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. (Psalm 78:1-3) 

Jesus fulfilled the prophecy by speaking in parables. 

 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world” (Matthew 13:34-35).

We could also discuss how the disciples used stories as a part of their daily discipline in teaching others. Just a quick scan of the book of Acts reveals that telling the story of Jesus was what they did. Jesus and the disciples developed the discipline of telling the stories of Scripture and Jesus because it fulfilled and revealed truth. 

What is a spiritual discipline? 

A spiritual discipline is a practice that we do that helps us to become more like Jesus. It is the process of doing something so that we might become a vessel where people can find Christ! 

What made the disciples so effective as disciple makers? 

They simply told the story of Jesus. There were no schools on what to do, no seminary classes on what to say, no Sunday schools or City groups to help them create a strategy or plan. Their discipline came in following Jesus. They didn’t have to practice telling the stories. The stories were the overflow of what they were experiencing. As we read Acts, we discover they simply told the story of Jesus over and over. It was in their telling that their discipline showed up. 

Several years ago, I read the Master Storyteller by Swarr, Gidoomal, and Araujo. I came across the word davar. These authors pointed out that davar is the Hebrew word for “Word”. The authors explained that davar is not just the Word, but it is the ability to fulfill what was spoken. They also pointed out that the Word can be spoken, written, illustrated, and/or experienced (p. 3). As I read this, I realized that is my heart cry. I long to be the person who speaks, writes, illustrates, and experiences the Word of God in such a way that others will be compelled to speak, write, illustrate, and experience the Word of God, too. So, I am praying that I davar. This can only happen in the process of time as I develop the habit of crafting and telling Bible stories. This discipline only comes through the struggle of pushing through in the story to get better each time I tell it. The discipline of experiencing the Word happens as I practice over and over and recreate new memory maps in my mind. And somewhere along the way, I discovered I am experiencing the Word of God in a new and powerful way. I discovered insights that no one had taught me before as I reflected and meditated on the story. It changed my prayer life, which changed my thought patterns and actions. I noticed that it then changed the desires of my heart and led to making specific life choices that honored God, and it opened doors of opportunity to share about God and His stories with others. The discipline of storytelling helped me to grow deeper and bear more fruit because the consistent, habitual commitment to learn, share, and teach a Bible story helped me to become more like Jesus. I moved from studying the Word of God to becoming like the Word of God. 

Can you honestly say that when you hear the Bible or read the Bible that you experience it? Why or why not?

In Hebrews 4:12, we are told that the Scripture is alive and active like a double-edged sword. We are supposed to experience the Word of God. I am a North American Oral Strategist or a Story-centric Discipleship Maker because I love to show others how they can speak, write, illustrate, or experience the Word of God. My goal is to help people actively engage with the Word of God. 

What is the process that must take place for something to become a spiritual discipline? 

“Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” (1 Timothy 4:7) 

For me, the process of Bible storytelling came in four stages. 
    1) The fear and frustration phase 
    2) The commitment phase 
           a) Learning the practice
           b) Repeating the practice 
           c) Developing the practice 
    3) The discovery phase 
            a) Perseverance & Time
            b) Develop Rhythm
            c) Grow in deep truths
    4) The fruitful phase 
            a) Soul Depth
            b) Soul Satisfaction
            c)  Spiritual Sense of Wonder and Awe
            d) Spiritual Sense of community with God and others

In the fear and frustration stage, I was a new graduate from seminary ready to change the world. I would go and teach based on a topical study method with three points like I was taught. It greatly confused me when I did not see life transformation taking place in the people. 

Here is a parable I wrote about my journey! 

A long time ago, a very passionate teacher gave her students every single detail of information she would learn, but she soon discovered that many were overwhelmed and did not understand what she was teaching. At first, the teacher thought something was wrong with her, and then she thought something was wrong with her students. The teacher felt frustrated and really struggled because she wanted to teach in a way her students would understand. Out of frustration and resignation, one day she simply told a story. To her surprise, her students were excited and were able to recall what she taught. The teacher caught the truth that a story enables people to engage the Bible and encounter Jesus so that life change happens. 

The commitment phase began as I started telling stories. I did not know that there was an oral culture or oral strategy for Bible storytelling, until one day I stood behind two pastors discussing Chronological storytelling. I knew immediately I had to know more. I asked a few questions and began the process of learning. This is when I discovered that there is such a thing as an oral culture and oral strategies for Bible storytelling. I was ferocious in my research to learn more. In my research, I uncovered that there was a network called the International Orality Network. 

At the International Orality Conference, I encountered Bible storytellers for the first time. THEY TERRIFIED ME! Don’t get me wrong, they were great at what they did, but that was my issue. They were great at what they did, and it scared me. Their practice had removed them from how hard it is for a literate learner to develop the craft. I remember one encounter with a storyteller that literally made me freeze as she demanded that I tell her a Bible story she just randomly picked from the Bible. It was as if my mind became a blank slate and there was nothing there to share. I couldn’t even pull up the story, even though I knew it well enough that in a normal conversation I would have brought it up easily. There was something about the idea of performance that made me freeze. A spiritual discipline is not about performance. It is about drawing near to Jesus. 

God knew I needed a different approach to learn how to tell Bible stories. He led me to John Walsh, Michael Forestieri, Don Falkos, and Phyllis Hostmeyer to find my rhythm for storytelling. As I sat under their teaching, I discovered different methods for learning a story and different styles for presenting a story. John reminded me often that it was okay to mess up and that, in fact, a “good Bible storyteller will fail” and that is okay. God is big enough and the listener is kind enough to grant room for improvement. 

In the discovery phase, I started crafting my own style of Bible storytelling. In the process of practice, perseverance, and time, I developed mental memory maps for Bible storytelling. The journey was not easy for me. I felt like I was working my way up and over a very big mountain every time I practiced telling a Bible story. In the practice of preparation and process of time, I discovered that I had a sacred rhythm that grew out of this process. I started to notice deep truths that no one showed me. I would hear directly from God. I could tell that God was calling the deep out of me, and I felt closer to Him and richer from having spent time studying a passage to be able to tell it well. It was during the practice of preparing stories during COVID that I realized that it was no longer as hard for me. What used to take weeks and sometimes longer was coming to me in an hour. And it doesn’t take as much for me to go back over a story I learned a few years ago. In the past, I would have to relearn it, but now I can recall some of them without practice. 

The fruitful phase brought about blessings I never anticipated. The fruitful phase showed me that the discipline of learning Bible stories moved me from viewing Bible storytelling as a tool to a craft that brought forth creativity, which then inspired change. The Bible was no longer about consuming because it was what we should do each day. The Bible became my lifeline to creativity. I noticed that the more I was in the Word of God, the more I was with Jesus, and the more I was transformed. 
I noticed that the practice of storytelling developed my personal: 

  1) Soul depth 
  2) Soul satisfaction 
  3) Spiritual Sense of wonder and awe 
  4) Spiritual Sense of community with God and others 

I would like to say that I chose to make Bible storytelling a spiritual discipline, but I did not. It was a practice I did because I knew it was an effective tool, but overtime God surprised me. He wanted me to see that Bible Storytelling was a spiritual discipline that draws people closer to Him. Those that study His stories will know His character and what pleases Him. 

I found that when I studied Bible stories to tell, I found things that God revealed to me personally and I would later read a commentary and discover that He also showed it to someone like Charles Spurgeon or Matthew Henry. I was shocked to discover that God would give me such deep insight just from preparing a story to tell. One of my favorite revelations happened as I prepared the story of Jesus calling the disciples. As I studied this story and wrote out the character traits of God, I realized that from the names given in this short passage I could see Jesus’ history and mission revealed just through the names He was called. I realized that I feel God’s pleasure as I prepare Bible stories. I know His delight in me and this causes me soul satisfaction. 

One day I remembered a quote made by Eric Liddell, he British runner who won the gold medal in the 1924 Olympics. The story told is that Eric’s family were missionaries and one day his sister was reprimanding him for neglecting his responsibilities to God by running. Eric responded that when he runs, he feels the pleasure of God. Our spiritual discipline will cause us to know the pleasure of God. I know that there are those that would argue that Eric Liddell’s discipline in running is not a spiritual gift, but the concept of knowing God’s good pleasure at work in us when we seek to do His will stands true. 

Philippians 2:13 says, “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” 

Just as the discipline of Bible storytelling gave me soul depth and soul satisfaction, it also taught me how to focus more on the character of God and His work around me to grow my spiritual sense of wonder and awe. My respect for God grew as I learned more about Him and His work. The spiritual discipline of studying Bible stories reminded me that God is present and at work unleashing His power and authority in my life, just like He did with those in the Bible. This caused me to want to tell others of His glorious deeds. I could not help but sit with wonder and awe as I grew in my God-confidence. I found that the discipline of Bible storytelling helped me recover what I had lost. Bible stories allow us to discover truth while we uncover the mystery of God, which allows us to embrace God’s beauty, and creativity around us. But even more important is what He has done for us through His Son Jesus where all the treasures of heaven are hidden. 

My newfound God-confidence spilled over into my relationships. The discipline of learning how to tell Bible stories made me grow in my relationship with God and others. I found myself loving God more and loving others more. 

Essentially, God used the discipline of Bible storytelling to grow me personally, corporately, and spiritually. All of those are end goals for authentic spiritual discipline! 

The spiritual discipline of learning how to tell a story will bring about an inward awakening and depth that will in turn build interpersonal communication and community. As we put into practice the telling of God’s Word, we will see a transformation in our community because the spiritual discipline has transformed us. 

When I set about on this journey of learning the art of storytelling, I did it so that I could reach the nations, but what I discovered was the LORD used it to call the deep out of me! 

Will you join me in the rally cry to call storytelling a Spiritual Discipline?

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