My Storytelling Ministry, Part I By: Marni Gillard

What I love about studying my religion for the first time since 8th grade is realizing what a STORY it is. I am, by profession, a storyteller. A story savorer. A myth wonderer. This is my life’s work. I was called to it as the prophets were called. I want to share how examining memories, the stories people tell me, and the stories of scripture and the saints’ lives has led me to storytelling as a ministry. Part of this ministry is inviting others to see their lives AS STORY. Part is teaching others how to tell faith stories. In Part II, I’ll explore more of how I’m becoming clearer at how God reveals God’s Self through Bible stories.

Every story is a gold mine waiting to be explored and mined for its gold. No person’s life is not a story. Nor is anyone’s life a bad story. Suffering through difficulties and savoring the sweetness of Life’s triumphs both lead us to the gold, if we are willing to mine for it. Our FAITH story – the Hebrew Scriptures we call the Old Testament joined to the gospels and writings we call the New Testament – these contain untold nuggets of gold as well. And those stories need mining as well. The Church’s history, containing the traditions it espouses, is yet another important story.

In this blog I’ll share some of what I’ve learned over decades working as a storyteller and new understandings about the nature of my story ministry. Finding the meaning(s) of any storytelling requires digging deep, as miners do,  for gold. My grandfather used to stand at the piano as my relatives took turns singing. He implored us, “Tell the story.” He wanted us to understand and feel the words we sang, so as to convey the meaning in them. From a young age I learned to examine poems and stories for meaning. Eventually I taught middle schoolers to find the stories they loved and ask themselves, “What meaning(s) does this story contain? Most stories contain layers of meaning. To discover multiple meanings over time a student or storyteller returns to them through study or retelling. Just as we might return to view a great painting or reread a powerful book, we learn more and more by returning to and re–examining stories by telling them. People sometimes think I’m like a therapist, helping them make sense of a moment in the past. I might do that, but I see myself as an artist, savoring the beauty of even a dark or troubling tale. I can help others see or shape a tale. And as I listen out a story, I watch for the gold threaded through it. But I try not to tell anyone what their story means. The meaning(s) will shine through for the teller with the support of authentic listening. My ministry includes listening to tales and sharing them. It also involves teaching others about the importance of deep listening. Every day I learn more how the memories we share change the people who hear our tales.

I didn’t feel guided to study my faith after I left Catholic education at age 13. I simply had experiences, all the while tending my relationship with God. I didn’t read the Bible or imagine that I should! But I knew Bible stories like the Tower of Babel, David and Goliath, the Annunciation, and the Finding of the Child in the Temple. Those and more were at work in me. When my Dad died suddenly in a car accident in 1964, the story of God never deserting those with faith kept me going. I felt sure God would care for my dad and my 5 siblings and mom, and God has. We didn’t talk about Dad much, however, and I was always hungry to hear anyone speak of him. My mother simply couldn’t. But she kept us connected to Church where God could work on us. At 16, just after Vatican II, during the Vietnam War, I was accepted as an exchange student to Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. There, I attended mass with a Catholic whom my Muslim host family had found to take me. Hearing mass in English as the vernacular shocked me, but Kuala Lumpur, once colonized by the English, included a multicultural population who spoke English well. Chinese Christian friends excitedly took me to Billy Graham video nights. Several gave me copies of The Good News for Modern Man to share with friends when I returned home. My faith had deepened, but the big untold story of my dad’s death made it difficult to speak God’s story to anyone.

I believe now that God guided me through countless challenging experiences: my first bout of depression at 17,  my first marriage and the birth of a son, an early divorce, good therapy to help me share my tight-held grief. I turned to God through it all. A kind priest encouraged me to explore the annulment process, so I might examine what beliefs I’d brought to marrying and look closely at the story of what happened in my marriage. Ironically, I then met a wonderful ex-Catholic “burned” by being forced to attend what he considered the joyless experience of mass. He’s still not ready to worship in a building, but he finds God in the silence of Nature. I trust God’s way of working on him and with us as a couple. Years back, I attended my first Buddhist retreat, curious to hear a speaker whose writings I admired. I loved hearing the story of how Thich Nhat Hanh became deeply connected to the Buddha at a very young age. He felt called to be a monk as a boy. I think God led me to the Buddhists to learn about SILENCE (storytelling’s opposite). I experienced insights in the deep silence and dreamt wondrous images following that retreat. Grace, all of it. Experience, stories, and God – my teachers.

A long-time devout Catholic friend recently told me why she left the church. Celiac disease led her to receive rice communion hosts but the Church outlawed non-wheat hosts well before gluten-free hosts arrived. It was her last straw. Years earlier, while very active in the parish where she raised her children, she had been emotionally hurt by a priest. Somehow the communion host “betrayal” brought up that buried hurt, and she left, angry. As we talked, she told me of a modern church where she’s studying scripture along with books about the historical Jesus and other spiritual leaders from history. When I told her I was studying theology, she asked, “But you don’t still believe all that stuff about Jesus being GOD, do you? Sure, he was a great man and probably a prophet, but he wasn’t GOD.” I feel her long untold, unresolved STORY has shaken her faith to the extent that a community could talk her out of her belief in Christ. She seemed to feel foolish having believed in Him all her life, as if she’d been duped.

This is my friend’s story. It is powerful and important, containing layers of literal and sub-textual meaning. It’s not a bad story. I hope she might, in time, come to see it as the story of an experience. Then she might mine it for the gold she’ll find. I want to hear my friend’s story again. I will ask, gently, for it. Not finding fault or arguing -simply listening with respect. I regret that I tightened up when she said, “You don’t still believe… do you?” I made it, suddenly, my story. I felt hurt by her words and her tone. But God is guiding me as He did those prophets of old. I trust God and the faith I’ve seen in my friend over the years. It’s her story to tell, not mine. But for the sake of this discussion, I share it as story. Soup for our souls. I will continue to listen, and pray for her. We’re friends. And God’s got her.

Would you keep me in prayer as I explore this new ministry?

I’ll be back with Part II after a while.

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