Reviewing and renewing Biblical faith through story and study

Saturday, June 09, 2012

A Story like Jesus


By David Edgren

One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could touch and bless
them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him. When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children.  I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”  Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16 NLT).


What would it have been like to be a child in the above story? Imagine the emotional roller-coaster you would have ridden. When you woke up that morning, Mum tells you, "We're going to see Jesus today!" imagine your excitement! You get dressed in you best clothes. Mum brushes your hair. And finally, after a long morning Mum says, "OK, let's go!" She tries to carry you but you're too wriggly with expectation. She lets you walk, even though it's a long ways. You're so excited and can't stop talking about seeing Jesus. Then, when you finally get there, some men say Jesus is too busy to see you. Imagine the crushing feeling. Can you feel the tears welling up in your eyes? As your mother leads you back out of the crowd, you hear another man's voice. He says, "Let them come. Do not stop the children! I want to see them!" What a feeling! He wants to see me! Mum let's go of your hand and you weave through the legs and hands and robes until you break through the crowd and - there HE is!
Jesus wanted to be with children and they wanted to be with Jesus. Because he told great stories. Because he cuddled them. Because he laughed when they did. Because his smile was as sincere and kind as his eyes. Children wanted to be with Jesus because he loved them – and they could feel it.
In one of his many stories, Jesus said people have four responses to his teaching. Some, like a rocky footpath, barely take notice – nothing sinks in. Others, like shallow soil, burst into action with new life but fizzle when things heat up. A third kind of hearer, surrounded by thorns, is choked to death before they can mature. And finally, there is a forth listener who, like good soil, is healthy and ready for the Word and becomes both blessed and a blessing as the harvest multiplies in them and through them. This is who we, as parents, teachers and leaders want to be – good soil growing the Word in our lives and in our children.
While he held a child on his lap, Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Why? What intuitive receptivity or ability does a child have that adults lack? Somehow, kids 'get' the Kingdom of God. The story gets through. Children are good soil.


Like a Child

In 2007 Oxford University initiated a focused anthropological study entitled, the “Cognition, Religion, & Theology Project”. Their goal was to understand why humans, across the globe and through time, have faith. Every culture has religion. Why? What is it about humanity that results in us having belief in a higher power? Where does the reality of God or gods come from and why do humans, across the cultures, believe?
In July 2010, Oxford University held a Cognitive Science of Religion convention to reveal their findings. 41 papers were presented on various aspects of human faith and religion. Intriguingly, much of the research focused on children and their faith. It seems, the scientists discovered, to understand human faith we must first understand a child’s faith.
Various findings suggested that in imaginative play all children include a "God" figure – a higher power or omniscient being - even children from non-faith backgrounds. Their invisible friends are more likely to be immortal than natural. One paper memorably quipped that invented playmates tend to be more “godlike than doglike.” Children’s imaginations do not create pets to play with, but instead wonder and wander toward God.
Another interesting finding about the faith of children was that children understand God's immortality before they understand human mortality. Eternal life makes more sense than human death. Scientists were amazed by this finding. To Christians, it is perfectly reasonable because we know God’s original plan for life did not include death. Childlike faith understands this intuitively.
It would seem, those who believe most authentically, make-believe most authentically. Jesus calls us toward an experience of faith in which the imagination is fully engaged – like a child. Notice what Jesus did not say: The Kingdom of God belongs to children. He did say, "The Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”
What is the similarity Jesus is calling us toward? In storytelling, a story becomes effective when the listener exercises the “suspension of disbelief.” This is the ability to enter the story-world – to let go of "reality" while enjoying the story. You have undoubtedly experienced this during a movie or while reading a book when your mind stops saying, “this is just a story” and starts allowing the story to come to life – allowing it, in effect, to be true.
Most children are able to suspend disbelief as quickly as you can say, “once upon a time”. Adults take a bit longer. This ability to fully enter a story and forget the cares of the world, for a time, is part of what it is to be human.
One Christmas season I was acting in a walk-through Christmas pageant. Each group of people came to our scene for a matter of minutes and then continued the story by walking to the next scene. As Herod, it was my job to exude a selfish arrogance that betrayed my words that I too wished to “go and worship the child.” Once the audience had moved away, I would leave the stage. But, in one group, a little boy did not stand and leave with his group. Instead he remained seated on the grass and stared at me as I sat on my throne. As his group entered the next scene, his sister rushed back and grabbed his shoulder, “Come-on! We’ve gotta go!” The boy jolted back to reality. Confused, he looked at his sister and, in a startled voice, said, “He’s not the real – ” then his head snapped back to me and he proclaimed, “You’re not the real Herod!”
This is the suspension of disbelief done as only a child can do it. He was so lost in the story that it took a shake and a shout from his sister to get him back to reality. Those who believe most authentically, make-believe most authentically. Good soil brings the story to life. And this is the childlike reality that we are called to imitate. We are to be engaged with the story like a child. Childlike faith - the faith required to get into the Kingdom of God - is a faith that gets lost in the story.


Disciple-making Storytellers

If God truly wants us to get lost in the story of His presence, power and provision then there should be somewhere we can turn to engage in the story. And there is. The Bible is full of stories. Seventy-five per cent of the Bible is story! Why so many stories? Because God knows we need stories to hang our faith on. He made us as creatures of story. I know I am on the right track when I find myself lost in the epic story of God and His Kingdom.
So, how can we engage with the Bible in a way that disciples our children and us? Perhaps the easiest way is to ask your children to tell the stories with you. They will need paper, pens, paths, paint, seeds, songs, waves, sunshine, noise, trees, rain, pictures, fruit, fields and time – lots of time. Because kids really get God’s Kingdom and to tell Kingdom stories takes time. As adults, we get too easily caught in the trap of explaining and proving. Children, on the other hand, get lost in exploring and playing.
If you are a parent or involved with leading children, please take the time to make-believe your way through the Bible with them. In every family, church, classroom, and at every stage of childhood, this retelling and re-enacting of the story will look, feel and truly be different. That is ok. In fact, that is important. The story of God’s Kingdom is one that builds layer by layer with each telling.
Let your imagination come back to life – become good soil, once again. Enjoy the Bible as the storybook of the ages. Let it speak to you and through you in a way that is beyond belief. Tell the Story. Tell it with your life and with your lips. Tell the Story well. And it will make belief.


What about Adults?

While children engage with the Kingdom of God almost intuitively, adults seem to have lost the skill. Kids just get God. They take very little time to go from hearing the story to believing it to be true. An ancient Jewish teaching story about truth goes something like this:
Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the doors and was readily welcomed into the villagers' houses. They invited her to eat at their tables and warm herself by their fires.   
Adults engage with truth and belief in much the same way as children do, it just takes longer for the truth to have its way with us. We need to be softened through the power of parable. Our imagination needs permission to become involved in shaping what we accept as reality.
The scientific method has so overpowered our thought world that, even as Christians, we have become convinced that empirical proof is required to prove truth. Can it be tested? Has it been tested? Can I redo the test and get the same results? Then it is true. This is the Scientific Method.
Stories of faith operate on a different level of thinking. Religious truth does not typically do well on the empirical tests of scientific reasoning. Faith and science often seem at logger-heads and, with the Scientific Method as our reasoning strategy, the stories of our family, history and faith often get set aside by those who are “facing facts” or “growing up.” Story, it would seem, is no longer an acceptable garment for truth.
So, do stories still live in the hearts of people today? Or, is story-based-truth dead? Is there anywhere in our world where we can go to find myths to build our character — stories to shape our identity and our passion for living? Is there a place we can go today to hear stories of things beyond-belief and yet grasp them as believable?
We do not scientifically believe a boy bitten by a spider can shoot webs out of his wrists and scale buildings with his bare hands. Yet, globally, we sit for 90 minutes, enthralled as Peter Parker dons his Spiderman suit and fights evil - and we leave thinking, "I too believe that great power must be accompanied by great responsibility."
Yes, humanity is still very involved with the myth-making of superheroes, god's and goddesses. For well-told stories, our modern-day world goes to the movies. If we compare or equate theatres with churches, scriptwriters with theologians and actors with pastors, we become very antagonistic and uncomfortable. And, we run the risk of missing what is really happening.
People are not going to the movies to find their gods. They are going to the movies to find themselves — their values, their identity and their purpose. They are looking for a good story to hang their life on. The church has, unfortunately, stopped telling the story in all its compelling glory and fallen into the Scientific Method mind-trap.


Using Such Parables

We do not scientifically believe that a child was quietly sent here from a distant part of the universe, raised by human parents, that he walked among us as a man, looked like us, acted like us and yet when the moment of need arose he was revealed to be very unlike us as he emerged from a nearby telephone booth wearing his red cape and blue suit with the Letter S emblazoned on his chest.
Perhaps you were thinking of someone else. Someone who was sent from above as a baby, lived with unassuming human parents, grew up incognito in a nondescript village and revealed his true identity and purpose as an adult – miraculously healing people, saving people, raising the dead and ultimately emerging from death Himself. What would happen if this superhero - this Jesus of ours - was allowed the "suspension of disbelief" by the world today? What if His story was allowed into the hearts and minds of today's seekers of identity and purpose? What would today's myth-loving moviegoer do with Jesus if they really let Him in?
A few years ago, I took a youth group in Tasmania to see "The Passion of the Christ" on opening night. We were in the very first group to see the movie. Afterward, the theatre owner said to me, "In my 20 years of running this theatre, I've never seen anything like it. People just sat there." Through the entire scrolling of the credits we all just sat there. None of us left until the credits stopped and the lights came on.
A few minutes into the credits, a teenaged girl stumbled to the front, fell to her knees facing the screen, and wept. Another girl came and comforted her. Everyone else watched from their seats, stared into the screen or just closed their eyes in silence. No one wanted the lights to come on. No one wanted to go back to reality. No one wanted the suspension of disbelief to end. They wanted the story to be true.
As Christians we work so hard to get people to this point. We hope, pray and struggle to convince people, hoping they will realise their dire need for the story to be true.
Because, we know the Story is true.
And when a friend or family member reaches the point of desiring the story of Jesus – accepting that this story is true and is worth building their life upon – we have a wonderful opportunity.
We must tell them the Truth – in all its glory. And it is here that we blunder. Far too often, in our desire to tell them the truth of Jesus, we – as products of our scientific era – try to prove it to them. We pull out our charts, our historical data, and our proof texts. And in so doing we suck the air out of the room and the door slams closed. Their suspension of disbelief — their openness — crashes back to reality. The good soil grows thorns and becomes rocky once again. Their search for values, identity and purpose is hijacked by a science lesson. They were looking for a hero. Not a proof text. They were seeking a Saviour. Not a formula. They were hoping for a new reality. Not a refresher course on this one.
We must share Jesus in a way that engages people with a story they can hang their faith on. “Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables” (Matthew 13:34 NLT). Help people transition from the suspension of disbelief into accepting a new reality by sharing truth, not naked and cold but wrapped in story. Draw them to the presence of the God who is Love the way Jesus did – through story.
Providing facts without story leaves too much to chance. Like the Master Storyteller, be patient enough to tell a story – the right one – that brings life to truth. Be wise enough to save the story until the moment when it can be savoured. People don't need new facts, they need a new story. It’s easy to tell the truth. But to have the truth welcomed, embraced and embodied – that takes a story.