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What fiction has taught me about the story of God

My first memory of a storybook includes the Fisher-Price record player, an illustrated version of “Snow White,” a tone to turn the page and having to stop to flip the record.

Shortly thereafter I remember a series of “I Can Read” books arriving that included “Morris the Moose.” This is how I remember written stories coming into my life. Later in childhood and throughout adolescence, the stories that caught my interest were on stage and the movie screen. In fact, I studied TV, film and theater production. For the most part I was behind the scenes doing my part to tell the stories we had to tell, with an occasional foray on stage. Before I was a pastor, I worked briefly in live news production. Looking back now, I can see how the stories – and telling the stories – drew me in. There is nothing quite like a compelling story.

I have likely seen every episode of the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy.” I do not watch each week because I am seeking medical advice; I know this is not an accurate portrayal of the practice of medicine. Every week I come back to an ever-changing cast of characters I have come to love through the art of powerful storytelling. I have wept as favorites died, struggled with addiction or moved on to a new hospital. I have celebrated when people fell in love, welcomed children and lived into a fuller version of themselves. The storytelling is compelling because not only is it well written, it mirrors life out here in the world. I have seen myself in character arcs dealing with issues like anxiety attacks, infertility, the loss of a parent, professional hurdles, exhaustion of being a new parent and, most recently, in the end of relationships as my own marriage has come to an end. Beyond seeing my own experiences, this particular show works in things that are happening in the world. This medical drama has taken on what it is like to live through COVID-19, racial disparity in medical treatment and some of the tough political topics of present day. This past year, more than ever, the storyline has provided me with a catharsis to process the incredible grief and pain of this time. A well-told story leaves me weeping on the couch facing my own sense of personal loss and rage at broad injustice.

Stories are powerful tools in teaching, in learning, and in processing our lived experiences. I recently finished reading “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai. Part of the story follows gay men through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, a crisis that shaped my education as I came of age, but not one that I am old enough to truly remember. Although fiction, I encounter experiences that I could never have lived. I feel compassion for the characters, and I see their anxiety about a virus taking their friends’ and lovers’ lives. This history was made all that more relatable in a pandemic as a virus wreaked havoc on the world.

After years of reading theology and memoirs, I have returned to my first love, fiction, as I choose books to read. Each novel takes me into worlds I would never experience otherwise. I have read about a woman who bakes bread to alleviate the pressure to marry from her Muslim family. I did not move from my couch as I read a thriller about a family staying in a remote cabin. I saw myself in parts of “Evvie Drake Starts Over” and “The Dearly Beloved.” My heart breaks every time I read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Reading stories allows me to travel to other places, witness the living of other lives and helps me to grow compassion for fictional characters whose experiences mirror those in the world.

While reading fiction would be a hobby for my off-work hours, it absolutely informs and shapes the way I do my work as a pastor. As someone who preaches, my job is to be a storyteller, to tell “the greatest story ever told.” Each week I am to stand up and teach about the radical, life-changing love and grace of God as experienced through Jesus. It is my call to continue to tell the story of God, to come alongside people and gently point out where their story and God’s story are intersecting. (Spoiler alert: It is pretty much all the time.) The story of God does not end in Revelation; we are living it with each breath.

The practice of crafting a sermon is to tell this story over and over again and draw connections to our lives and our own stories. It is when we can see ourselves in the biblical text that we begin to experience God in a new way. Ultimately, we are a part of God’s story. The stories of our lives are wrapped up in the story of God. They are inseparable. In our weekly rhythm of worship, as we preach or listen, we look at a part of God’s story from the past that holds truth in our present. Reading fiction helps me not only build compassion for characters, but for real-life people as well — whose stories are not ones I lived. The art is in weaving together a variety of experiences to dance with the Word of God, so that we might grow in faith.

Fiction gives me exposure to the craft of storytelling. The way a writer develops a story to keep my interest helps me to craft sermons that (hopefully!) keep the interest of my listeners as I tell the story of God and our stories. It is my hope that after hearing a sermon, a person can leave and have seen their own life intersecting with the lives of the people in Scripture even though we live thousands of years apart. I hope that these are stories that help us to feel joy, contentment, safety, grief, compassion, a stirring to respond to injustice, a stirring to act on our faith and a prompt to support each other.

I recently did a “blind date with a book” activity at Barnes and Noble. I bought books obscured by brown paper wrapping based on a three-line description. I had no idea what the contents would be or if I would like them. The allure of the mystery drew me in; there was something brilliantly exciting about unwrapping each of those books. Neither was a story I would have chosen for myself off the shelf, but both were wonderful stories I was glad I read. I think this informs ministry because it teaches me to listen to stories I may not have chosen, but are important nonetheless. This happens all the time in preaching. There are Bible texts I would avoid for all of eternity if I could; they are just that uncomfortable and leave us with little hope. There are also the stories of other people that I encounter that I can never fully understand. Trusting that a story I cannot live is a valuable story and one worth listening to is an immeasurable ministry skill. Our world is divided everywhere we look, and it’s easy to shut out experiences that are different than our own. Listening pastorally means I listen to things I do not believe to be true. I listen to pain I can never know. I bear witness to anger that just does not make sense. I hold before God the shattered pieces of others’ hearts. Expanding my reading options allows me to grow these capacities along the way.

Stories allow us to find our way when the world seems overwhelming. They can point us in a new direction. Stories help us escape the pain of the world if but for a moment. They can inspire us when we are bored of mundane schedules or take us on adventures when we are struggling with the winter blues. They help us leave behind the demands on our time. They are relatable tales that help us expand our thinking, our compassion, our hearts and our understanding. In many ways, they are the echoes of the lives we are living or hope to live.

Stories can come alongside Scripture to illuminate passages of truth, challenge us to live deeper into our faith and expand our thinking beyond our own experiences. Stories allow me to expand how I preach the Word. They allow me to imagine new ways of living and inspire me to tell the stories of faith with new enthusiasm. The words of the Bible may become the stories of our hearts, inscribed there, to carry us, inspire us and uphold us through everything life brings. Our stories, the ones we are living, the ones we learn from Scripture, are all a part of God’s ever-unfolding story that we are living in the present moment. May we live boldly the stories of our lives grounded in the stories of faith, knowing we are living not only our story but the next chapters in God’s story.

REBECCA GRESHAM-KESNER is pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Medford, New Jersey.