Stories that have nothing to do with cancer

Cancer metastasis tempts me to see all of life and relationships pivoting around the cancer diagnosis. If I’m not careful cancer becomes the only lens from which life is observed. It’s clearly understandable. Cancer demands attention. But as it turns out there is so much to life that cuts into the self-absorbed cancer life.

Story telling

I love stories; especially the real-life ones.
I love telling stories and not just stories about me and mine.
I love other people’s stories and draw awe, inspiration, humor, human pathos, delight and enjoyment from them as if they were mine.
I just don’t enjoy stories; I absolutely need them to keep me grounded and connected to people and to God.
Heroism, desperate need met by extraordinary compassion, grit and human feats of endurance, discovery, invention, sacrifice, visions, dreams, revelations and miracles are stories that I will tell if I have been privileged to know of them. I tell many, many, many stories.

A story of dear friends
india to usaAudra and Jeremy are adopting a Down syndrome 19-month-old – nicknamed Hank – who is in an orphanage in India. They have never adopted or fostered. Audra has never been in a foreign country other than Canada (that doesn’t count), but she could not be more fearless, committed and excited. Passionate love has taken hold of her. Before she was dissuaded by the adoption agency Audra was determined to foster Hank in India for 3 to 4 months until the last court hearing and all documents were in place for her to bring him home. Audra and Jeremy were undaunted by obstacles; even the challenges of leaving her other three children in the care of Jeremy, the Dad. This couple was propelled by extraordinary and extravagant love. They only knew love’s longing to take Hank out of the orphanage, care for him, and ultimately bring him home to be part of his new family and church community; each which await his arrival with joy and anticipation.

The Bad Math of Jesus

God as shepherd and us as his flock is a common motif in the Bible for describing God’s love and devotion for us.

This parable is one of my favorites for describing the extravagant love of God towards his children.

Matthew 18:12-14

Jesus said, “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them Jesus_the_Shepherd004wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

So, what is the big idea in this story? The extravagant love of Christ can look foolish, indulgent, and possibly even irresponsible at times.

Phillip Yancey has called this the ‘atrocious math’ of Jesus.

The shepherd leaves the 99 on a hill, not in a sheep pen or in the care of another shepherd. No! He leaves them on a hill, vulnerable and unprotected so that he can seek after the one sheep that has wandered away.

Does the shepherd not care about the 99 because his favorite sheep, Fluffy, is the one who wandered off? Of course not. There are no favorite sheep in this story. There’s no Fluffy or Nemo or Benji because this is not a story about animals. No one sheep is the hero in this story. The only hero is the shepherd who wants his sheep, all his sheep, home with him. And he will put himself and the other obedient 99 at risk in order to go after one foolish and wayward sheep to bring her home. The extravagant, sacrificial love of God is the big story here.

Audra and Jeremy’s love for a disabled child is today’s big story for me. But this love is extravagant and some including myself had wondered whether it is too extravagant. Extravagant, sacrificial love motivated by Jesus’s spirit and example is only thing that can explain it. And Audra and Jeremy would agree. They see it as a calling given by God of which they are delighted to follow for the rest of their lives.

Be inspired but more importantly respond to the calling of God to bring you home. And when you do don’t forget to be grateful and thank Him that his heart is bigger than his numerical calculations.

The Storyteller

It is gratifying to tell a story to a sensitive 4-year old. The stories don’t have to be particularly interesting with complicated plots, characters or climaxes. They sometimes don’t even have to be stories at all – just mere observations told with some real or feigned flair. But nonetheless they are received with appreciation and interest.
“Oh, look Marlon (my grandson), there’s a guy smoking a pipe. You don’t see that much anymore.” “Why,” said Marlon. “I don’t know. But my dad used to smoke a pipe but then he stopped smoking it when he learned from the doctor that it was bad for his health.” Health and/or moral lessons can be sneakily introduced this way. That story got retold to his parents later on when I wasn’t there. Too bad, because Marlon got the story understandably mixed up as he thought that I said his dad had smoked a pipe. My son-in-law had to tell him that ” Nonna was mistaken”. Shucks! I had to retell the story with emphasis on my dad, not his. By that time, Marlon was hardly interested in the retelling of a story that only included a change in proper names.

Sometimes my stories generate sympathy and compassion for almost nothing. “Hey Marlon, yesterday, I saw a guy carelessly throw trash out of his car onto the street. Boy, that wasn’t nice, was it?” “Why”, said Marlon. “Well, because we all need to work together to make our roads and communities clean and nice places to live.” Later, Marlon said, “Nonna, I’m sorry that you had to see someone litter from their car.” I was impressed that my non-story had such an impact even while feeling a tad guilty that my litter story had not nearly the emotional impact on me as my grandson assumed it had. Shame on me.

Storytelling is hot at the moment
There are books, seminars and workshops on Storytelling. It appears that we are all desperately in need of hearing a good story or, better yet, to be able to tell one. The goal is to create stories that are interesting, arresting, and even life changing. Libraries, clubs and shows advertise upcoming storytelling events. Good communication and sermons must include stories to hold the interests of its audience. That audience can sometimes be just one person like your spouse or child. This current trend has a way of making Storytelling sound like it’s the newest tool for good communication. It is almost as if before now, we were only communicating in treatises and legalese or worst yet, in grunts, texts and tweets. But Storytelling is hardly new. We have been telling stories ever since we humans have been sitting around camp fires rotisseriz-ing our wild drumsticks. We are hardwired for stories. Oral storytelling has been the ancient way of entertaining and efficiently teaching the younger generation of what was important for group cohesiveness and how to stay alive in a world rife with dangers.

We still do it.

I unfortunately got the “tell scary life stories gene” in spades as my daughters can testify. They are able to retell every, “once there was this person, and they did something and then something really horrible happened to them so watch out” story I ever told them. I am working on suppressing this anxious gene expression for the sake of my grandchildren. In fact, I am hoping to be able to tell them some of Jesus’ stories in winsome and engaging ways. And hopefully, like Jesus, I won’t do my Aesop’s fable-lesson- type-thing at the end of the story to make sure they get the point. Rather I hope to let Jesus’ parables do their own mysterious workings in my grandchildren’s hearts and minds; informing their understanding of God’s love and what He wants of them.

I have been attending to the parables of Jesus for several decades. I am often surprised how freshly they communicate God’s ways and wisdom. ” The prodigal son” (Luke 15) is a personal  favorite  when I am tempted to feel that God  doles out love and acceptance based on performance rather than faith in His love and sacrifice. My latest appreciation of this parable follows, thanks to Kenneth Bailey.

A very incomplete recap of Jesus’ story of the “Prodigal Son”
The story begins with a young adult son or teen who asks for his share of the family inheritance – a request that was unheard of in first century Palestine. The request amounts to a “you are taking too long to die so give me my inheritance now.” Jesus’ audience would have perked up immediately with this story’s beginning as it would have belied the cultural norms right from the get- go. A son behaving in such a way would have been punished but surprisingly the father grants his request and off the son goes to a “faraway place where he proceeds to squander his inheritance on wild riotous living.” Jesus then describes the son’s descent into self-inflicted poverty. Alone and starving the son remembers the stability and comforts of home and decides to take a chance and return. He, too, knows his culture’s expectations of how to treat such a flagrantly disobedient son. But he is desperate.

Jesus’ first century listeners would have assumed the ending to this morality drama. The father who is also a wealthy landowner and by implication a leader and one of the guardians of the community’s stability  would have the son killed, banished or, if inclined to show mercy, treated as an hired servant with no claim to a son’s status or affection. The latter is what the son is hoping for as we listen to his internal dialogue being practiced on his journey back home.: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son: make me like one of your hired servants.” (Luke 15:18-19)

And why not? There needed to be an ending that would help keep the community intact. After all, youth listening to a story like this would need to know that if you break the community’s rules , you could expect to be an outcast. How else would the long held traditions of elder respect and compliance be upheld? How else was a community going to be protected from chaos, corruption, and possible extinction unless the father or community elder did not exact the rules of tribal community survival?  Bringing the erring son to justice was certainly what the Jesus-listeners would have expected.. But no, this is not how this story would end. Jesus, no doubt, surprised his listeners with an ending of unimaginable love, forgiveness, and humility. “But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)

I like imagining the father hiking up his long robe to run ( older men in the Middle East don’t run. it is beneath them and invites shame) all the while thinking, “Who cares what the village thinks of me. Let the community be disgusted with my disregard to the village’s rules and let them think I am no longer worthy of their esteemed opinion and respect. I only care that I have my son back and I am going to throw a party!” To add more intrigue to this story, Jesus introduces a third character. The self-righteous follow-the-rules older brother who upon hearing of his loser brother returning and being thrown a party by their father is abhorred and resentful. He complains bitterly to his father for what he sees as an injustice of indulgence and favoritism. The father tries to woo the older son with love, as well. “Don’t you see? You had the benefit of always being with me and enjoying the comforts of home, while your brother was playing the fool and ended up almost starving to death, you had a stable life with friends and beef steak anytime you wanted it.”

Bailey, a theologian and Middle Eastern scholar who I credit for elucidating Jesus’ parables with exciting insights, calls this parable and other parables, metaphoric and deeply theological representations of God’s, “costly demonstration of extravagant and unexpected love.” He states says that this kind of love that only God can offer is for “the law breaker (younger son) as well as for the law keeper (older son in the story).” They both need it and so do we regardless of which brother we identify with.

Read, ”Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes,” by Kenneth Bailey.

Personal application
Is a story told to first century Palestine relevant for us? Well, it depends if you feel a need to be accepted and loved beyond your capacity to be deserving of such love. And it depends on whether or not you believe in a God whom you have let down no matter how little or hard you have tried to be good and self-justified. If you feel such a need as I do then this parable is a tear jerk-er of good news. And for sure it is much better and has more emotional impact than stories of people smoking pipes or even of litter bugs.