I come from a family of storytellers.
Actually, I come from a family of slightly exaggerated storytellers. We tell good stories and we feel free to alter the details to spice it up a little, too. I love to listen to a story, or read one, or even watch one, almost as much as I like to tell them. A great story leaves an indelible mark on our hearts. Like a great melody, it inhabits and haunts and pulls up feelings with a simple phrase, reminding us we have been changed by our listening. We are no longer the same.
Today was “Mountain Sunday” at our church (as well as Stewardship Sunday and Thanksgiving Sunday and the Last Sunday in Ordinary Time). The title refers to the music we sang and heard today, which came mostly from Appalachian and gospel traditions, both of which know of and speak from a deep acquaintance with both suffering and gratitude. And so, our service began
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
traveling through this world of woe
but there’s no sickness toil or danger
in that bright land to where I go
From there we wandered across rivers and up and down mountains through our songs and scriptures, until it was time for Carla, our associate pastor, to preach. She began her sermon by talking about stories and then saying she was going to tell part of hers, I leaned in. She told us about how her family settled in Charlotte and survived the coming and going of the textile mill, and how they built homes to be close to one another. As she talked about their Thanksgiving traditions, she told of one tragedy that had befallen the family – the death of a child – and how that marked the holiday for all the years after. As she described one of her relatives, she used a descriptive phrase that turned the story from information to incarnation as she spoke of the “sacred sorrow so bound up with his gratitude.”
Her words landed on me with resonance and power. In the same moment, I knew she was right and I wondered how it is the two are so inextricably tied together. From my English teacher days I remember a story needs conflict or suffering to move it along and to move it toward redemption or reconciliation or even disappointment. What the stories tell us is we were built to learn from our suffering, not simply to endure it. Perhaps that is how stories were born in the first place – the good ones, anyway. Carla had a phrase for that as well: good stories are those that shape our souls into vessels to hold our gratitude.
Her words made me wonder what kind of story I’m telling and how well the stories I hear and tell mold my soul into a thanksgiving tank, if you will. So many of the gospel hymns tell stories of heaven. We even closed our service with a rocking rendition of
some glad morning wihen this life is o’er
I’ll fly away . . .
Many of those songs were born out of suffering, yet their response is more than asking for relief. It’s not about getting out, it’s about getting through. Gratitude grows when we trust that suffering is not the last word.
The story is not yet over.
Suffering that doesn’t breed thankfulness turns to despair. Gratitude that is not informed by grief may quench our souls only briefly, but quickly evaporates. Memory – remembrance is the thing that binds the two so essentially and stories remind us to remember, as the saying goes, who we are and whose we are.
And I remembered this morning, thank you.