How To Tell A Story

(Part 2 following the post from Monday, "Can You Hear Me Now?")

For some of us the idea of God wanting to speak to us, wanting to paint us a picture of his care and love is an idea that is as foreign as hot ice. We have thought at times that God might be speaking, but what we feel like he is saying is, “read that Bible of yours and make sure you are following all those rules.” We imagine his gaze as a tightly drawn scowl peering out over a pair of cosmic readers that are pulled down low on his heavenly nose. The problem with all of this is that the laws of God are not some playground line drawn in the sand that he is daring us to cross so he can punch us in the jaw. The heartache of sin is not a heavenly haymaker waiting to happen. The heartache comes because we have messed up the story, we have ruined the metaphor. We were created to mimic and point to the character of God to the world around us. When we break his laws we have become renegade storytellers, giving truths about the kingdom and person of God that are not true and do not represent who he is at all. We become the kid in the choir singing out of tune, or the t-ball kid running to third instead of first. The song sounds terrible and our team may lose the game. It has nothing to do with imaginary lines and everything to do with our responsibility to get the story right.

A few years ago I recorded a song that needed to have some gang style vocals on it (not gang as in street gang, gang as in a lot of people singing the same thing really loud). I was leading worship weekly for an amazing group of students in Birmingham Alabama and thought it would be cool to use them for the gang vocal section. After our service one night I asked if those who were willing would stick around to sing on the song. We all crammed into a classroom where we had already set up some microphones and the gear necessary to capture the sound. I stood up before my new recording buddies and gave them the simple plan. Sing with volume and sing with passion. There was only one very important rule. If you were tone deaf please don’t sing. I asked them to either step out of the room or, to avoid embarrassment, mouth the words with no sound, just do not shout out your wrong notes on the recording.  I love tone deaf people singing at the top of their lungs to Jesus (I grew up listening to my Dad do this very thing on a regular basis) I just didn’t want that sound recorded on the song. We recorded the section a few times and it was done. The funny moment came later that night when I listened back to the recording. I still don’t know who, but someone had stood in that room, right in front of one of the microphones and shouted with passion and volume all of the wrong notes. Tone deaf on another level. The take was ruined. It took something that was meant to be beautiful and moved it to the realm of a Saturday Night Live skit.

Singing and playing the right notes in music is important. An orchestra cannot seek out their own truth as they play Beethoven. They cannot speak their own mind when trying to represent the ideas of Bach. The will of the composer is represented with black ink on the white pages of the score. If the violins decide to “do their own thing,” or “find their own way” the performance is ruined. The magic of the symphony is dependant on the players submitting their efforts and their will to the creation and story of another. Something magical happens when people join their lives to do this. If you have never been to the symphony you need to GO! It is a powerful and emotional thing. It is a beautiful picture of storytelling and an earthly reflection of the mind of God.

Some may find this idea restricting, as if God is trying to stifle and cram them into a boring mold or box. However, just because we have been given a specific part to play does not take away from our creativity within that role. A lot of people these days view greatness and achievement only through the lens of individualism and a disconnect from the expectations of others. Creativity has been hijacked into the realm of only those things that are new or different. King Solomon chased this idea for a long time until he exclaimed in Ecclesiastes that, “there is nothing new under the sun,” chasing the next new thing left him saying that everything was meaningless. That is a pretty glum view of things until you understand that fulfilment isn’t found in finding the new, it is found in revealing the truth of the timeless. What if we are so busy trying to get people to accept and understand who we perceive ourselves to be that we are missing our mission to proclaim to others who God actually is.

I am not anti creativity. Creativity itself is a representation of who God is. God is honored in those who seek to expand the bounds of how we can see and experience the truth of God. However, if we only focus on the delivery method of the story; celebrating the sound, ambiance, or feel of a thing instead of what that thing is seeking to reveal, we have moved from creatively expressing the timeless into idolatry. For example are we moved by the God the song is singing about or are we moved simply by the feeling of the song itself? As we see creativity in action are we overwhelmed by the greatness of God or only by the imagined greatness of the artist? If you are in the American Church you have probably sensed that we live in a perilous time. Our culture is shaped by famous preachers, communicators, and artists. We are in love with that which is new and fresh. We give our money and affection to people and creations that speak of God but point to the individual. Even in the church, in the form of a song or a sermon, we can be in danger of hijacking God’s story in our insatiable need to tell our own. Sometimes we sing, blog, paint, or write only to the glory of our story and creativity. Our skill is meant to point to something outside of ourselves. Our skill is a gift from God to be used in the worship of God. The Psalmist understood this balance when he wrote,

    Give thanks to the LORD with the lyre;
        make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
    Sing to him a new song;
        play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
    (Psalm 33:2-3 ESV)

This playing and shouting was to reveal the majesty of God and not the shouter. God is the one who has spoken and continues to speak. He is the storyteller, our voices simply seek to point to what he is already speaking and has spoken. In that same Psalm listen to what the Psalmist is trying to get us to see,

    By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
        and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
    He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
        he puts the deeps in storehouses.
    (Psalm 33:6-7 ESV)

If the storytelling becomes the end and not the means we have stolen the spotlight in a script that was not meant for us to play the lead. We are singing out of tune. We are not communicating our part with skill. God has chosen a people for himself for a specific purpose. If you are in the family of God you have been given a vital role in the script, a unique part in the symphony. Are you playing it? Do you know what your part is. Peter writes,

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
(1 Peter 2:9 ESV)

We are meant to declare the excellencies of Jesus. Your life and voice have been given purpose in the story of God.

A crazy thing happens when the players in the symphony strive to play their part with skill and precision. When they are selfless in their expression of another person’s idea and creativity, people are actually drawn into their individual skill and storytelling. To reject the story would bring shame and chaos, accepting it brings appreciation and accolades. They are known not for their rejection of the status quo but their ability to communicate with passion something bigger than themselves. God wants to do the same. We are not meant to fade into the shadows, we are meant to shine. Our accolades however are not found in the applause of men, we are seeking the applause of the master storyteller himself. The old song I’d Rather Have Jesus captures this beautifully

I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause

I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause

I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame

I’d rather be true to His holy name

This goes hand in hand with Paul when he writes,

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,
(1 Peter 5:6 ESV)

As we play our part with skill, submitting our desire to tell a different story or sing a different note to the story and score that has already been written, we find our purpose and our place in God’s design. We do not throw up our hands in despair that all is “meaningless” rather we have found meaning in the grand narrative of the eternal God.

We are a part of something bigger than a symphony. The story God is telling is infinitely more complex than a song. Why he has chosen us to be the players in his creation is a mystery. We are imperfect contributors on a good day. Our voices are often out of tune. Our sense of timing and rhythm is tragic at times, but the song goes on. We must learn to “play skillfully” with the instrument of our lives, our speech, and our conduct. This is not reserved for certain moments of our day, we have been chosen to play a part and tell the story in every aspect of our being. The book of Colossians says,

  So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
(1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV)

Every aspect of our existence is subject to the story of God. Whatever we do is written into the script. No breath is to be wasted. No taste to be discarded. No tactile sensation is outside the narrative. No second is a throw away. The way we eat tells it, our sexuality tells it, our family tells it, how we treat one another tells it, how we speak tells it, the whole of our experience here is meant to reveal the mind of God. Because of this, food is no longer simply for our enjoyment, sex is not a means to happiness or fulfilment, and art is not simply a means of self expression. They are meant to express God. We are no longer a people striving to find ourselves, we are a people striving to reflect the one who has found us. Again Paul writes,

  Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
(1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV)

Let us play our parts with skill.