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LITURGY, Volume 18, No. 2, March 1991
AND PREACHING: TELLING YOUR STORY
by Edward Sellner
Sunday evening in July 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered
an address to the senior: class of the Harvard Divinity
was evidently the kind of address that caused some consternation
among his listeners for the sage from Concord, Massachusetts
invited back to Harvard for another thirty years.In his
that night, Emerson spoke of a certain preacher ."who
me to say I would go to church no more." As he so vividly
snow-storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real,
the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast
looking at him, and then out of the window behind him into
beautiful meteor of snow. He had lived in vain. He had not
intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in
been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever
acted, we were none the wiser for it."
goes on to conclude that the major aspect of the
preacher's profession, "namely, to convert life into
truth," the man
had not learned. According to Emerson, "the true preacher
know by this, that he deals out to the people his life -
through the fire of thought."
of course, was not the first - nor the last - to
listen to a sermon in which the life and personality of
preacher are completely absent. He did have the gift of
for many of us what constitutes effective preaching. He
helps us by
analyzing, in his own poetic way, why the words of preachers
homilists frequently are so quickly forgotton after they
a good story or some dimension of storytelling that
reveals the learning that has taken place in the preacher's
life, his or her reflections remain ethereal, abstract,
creating little fire and not much light.
Anonymous and storytelling
non-denominational, non-ecclesial organization which
recognizes the value of storytelling for spiritual growth
important dynamic of mentoring is Alcoholics Anonymous.
many persons and events contributed to the formation of
began quite simply with two people revealing to each other
were. Two people openly and honestly acknowledged their
through sharing their life stories.
Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of A.A., later wrote
the book which gave the fellowship its name: "The spark
that was to
flare into the first A.A. group was struck at Akron, Ohio,
1935, during a talk between a New York stockbroker and an
physician." Somehow during that talk a bridge was formed
away from experiences of isolation, alienation, and loneliness
new experiences of community, fellowship, and common bonds.
simple event of sharing, A.A. grew to a world--wide organization
discovered its own definition and purpose:
Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who
share their experience, strength, and hope with each other
may solve their common problem and help others to recover
two men involved in that encounter Bill Wilson, the
stockbroker, and Dr. Bob Smith, the physician, became the
co-founders of A.A. Both of these men, after their meeting
night, began to use an approach to helping other alcoholics
sober which Bill had learned earlier. Hospitalized numerous
for his alcoholism, a disease little understood by society
medical profession at that time, he had cried out for help
in desperation to a God whose existence he had previously
Years later he described what happened:
the place seemed to light up, blinding white. I knew
only ecstasy and seemed on a mountain. A great wind blew,
enveloping, and penetrating me. To me, it was not of air,
Spirit. Blazing, there came the tremendous thought, "You
are a free
occured that night in his hospital bed, the experience
changed Bill's life dramatically. Discharged from the hospital,
maintained his sobriety and gave expression to his new-found
by joining the Christian evangelical movement called the
Group at Calvary Mission in New York.
of evangelizing to anyone who came along, however, Bill
concentrated his efforts on reaching out to alcoholics like
Enthused about his own conversion experience, he evidently
at people, telling them what they had to do to be saved.
approach had little or no positive effect upon his alcoholic
listeners, and may even have contributed to their drinking
the end of six months no one whom Bill had tried to help
sobered up. Finally, a friend of Bill's, Dr. William Silkworth,
advised Bill to simply tell his story about drinking and
life was changed by following the basic precepts of the
Group, so that others could identify their stories with
simple method of storytelling was to become for Bill and
A.A. the most effective way of helping people like themselves.
language used would shift from "sin" which the
emphasized to "sickness" which named many alcoholics'
drinking, and the way of transmitting hope was to be found
those stories shared.
historian Ernest Kurtz says that this storytelling is in
fact "the practice and indeed the essential dynamic
of A.A." It is
the way members of A.A. minister to each other and help
their ongoing recovery.
of storytelling in A.A.
than fifty years after Bill Wilson's and Dr. Bob's initial
meeting, storytelling in A.A. takes a variety of forms.
Bill Wilson's example, it is used, first of all, any time
intervention is made by a recovering alcoholic to stop someone
whose alcoholism or abusive use of drugs is destroying his
life. In those encounters, frequently when someone is especially
defensive and hostile about his or her drinking (as Dr.
Bob was when
he first met Bill Wilson). A.A. says the best thing to do
share your story with the other person of how the Twelve
changed your own life.
Bill Wilson advised, based on his experience of what works:
"Never talk down to an alcoholic from any moral or
hilltop; simply lay out the kit of spiritual tools for his
inspection. Show him how they worked with you. Offer him
same approach to storytelling is used by family members
when they seek to confront the alcoholic about the destructive
effect of that person's drinking. Rather than merely pointing
accusing finger at the person who may be suffering from
or chemical dependency, they share their stories with their
one of their own experience of powerlessness over his or
drinking and behavior. Frequently through Alanon
especially for family members), these family members share
themselves have found help.
forms of intervention are based upon the philosophy of
A.A. which in effect advises: Don't try to play God in people's
lives by taking responsibility for their recovery. Definitely
try to get them to change out of guilt or shame, since they
have plenty of that! Befriend them, first by acknowledging
accepting your own form of powerlessness. Then, when you've
experience change by facing your own struggles, tell your
how that change came about. Only in that form of exchange
the individual is receptive to seeking help and joins A.A.
or, because of the serious progression of his or her disease,
been placed in a rehabilitation program where alcoholism
dependency can be diagnosed and treated, storytelling becomes
significant part of ongoing recovery. A.A. presupposes (again
upon its experience of what works) that ongoing recovery
sobriety are not states that can be maintained alone; that
positive change needs a community of caring people who find
themselves by helping others stay sober.
in a series of weekly, sometimes daily meetings available
anyone, different recovering alcoholics tell their stories
spiritual, emotional, and physical breakdown and how they
changed by following the steps of A.A. Anyone who attends
meetings knows that this is not a maudlin or self-indulgent
in guilt or shame. Most often the meeting becomes a humorous,
sympathetic, and hopeful telling of what progress can be
day at a time. This form of witnessing to the mysterious,
power which has brought about that change, reminds every
their own passage to a new level of self-acceptance and
to a new
spirituality which now has meaning for them.
form of storytelling encouraged by A.A. is found in its
tradition of people acting as "sponsors" to other
alcoholics. According to A.A., a sponsor is simply "an
has made some progress in the recovery program (who) shares
experience on a continuous, individual basis with another
who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through
is presupposed about an effective sponsor (or, really, any
kind of mentor) is not the length of recovery or the "success"
the one doing the sponsoring. What is important are certain
qualities that the sponsor possesses: a deep respect for
person who is seeking help, a willingness to make one's
available even when it may be very inconvenient, and a commitment
ongoing change in one's own life that is shared mutually.
these qualities, of course, could be identified with simply
friend whose courage to be vulnerable and to share one's
and struggles invites another to do the same.
and effective preaching
what does A.A. and its storytelling have to do with
preaching, with what Emerson describes as the preacher's
converting life into truth? What can we learn from A.A.
improving our own approach to breaking open the scriptures
sharing their message of hope with Christians?
we look more closely at A.A.'s storytelling traditions,
certain principles can be discerned that have implications
anyone who is called upon to preach.
as Bill Wilson discovered, people do not respond by
being preached at - no matter how theologically sound our
is, how well prepared and articulate we are in its delivery,
even how personally enthusiastic we are about its content.
members of the congregation have the experience of being
or being adressed from some sort of spiritual mountaintop
entirely foreign to them, they receive the distinct impression
the preacher is (or feels) somehow superior to everyone
worse, they may come to believe that the Christian message
nothing to do with their lives. Such an approach can have
debilitating effect upon the listeners. It frequently produces
guilt, shame, hostility, and, sometimes most deadly of all,
Christian preaching is about the fullness of life, such
deadening approach does not help others appreciate the sacred
dimension of all life, beginning with their own. No wonder,
circumstances, people are tempted, as was Emerson, not to
church again. No wonder some parishoners' minds and eyes
the windows to find something beautiful and inspiring.
people do respond positively and thus are more open
to the preacher's message when they perceive, as A.A. recommends,
the preacher to some degree as a friend and fellow-sufferer.
will respond to someone who is struggling like they are
to live the
holy life and to personally integrate the meaning of the
gospels. All preaching is a form of spiritual mentoring,
others discover intimations of God's call and to discern
in other mentoring relationships, unless some level of trust
and even affection is present between preacher and his or
listeners, there will be little receptivity to the preacher's
message, and thus probably very little learning or discernment.
perception of the preacher as a friend who cares about them
person willing to share what has been learned in his or
school of suffering can make all the difference.
stories are a way of making a connection, of creating
bonds between the preacher and the congregation that allow
of God to touch people's hearts. Such a connection only
the preacher personalizes the Gospel message by telling
his or her life. By speaking from his or her own experiences,
preacher somehow taps into the experiences of others. To
upon the meaning of the scriptures for today in light of
from life is to invite others to do the same. We, in effect,
encourage others to value their own experiences as worthwhile
to be vulnerable
listen to the preacher when he or she begins to speak
honestly about life's great struggles: the search for holiness
wisdom, forgiveness and compassion, intimacy with God. Minds
eyes do stop wandering, and silence is frequently hard when
preacher starts to tell a story, especially when the preacher
to be vulnerable and speak from the heart. This language
heart, A.A. knows from years of experience, is perhaps the
effective way of getting others to listen and respond, for
from them attentiveness and, in the midst of their own struggles,
hope that meaning will be found. Our Judeo-Christian spiritual
traditions recognize this tool. As St. Francis de Sales,
figure whose ministry touched many lives, once said, "in
only the language of the heart can ever reach another heart."
of this, of course, presupposes a great deal of the
preacher. A good sermon is more than the ability to tell
story so that a connection can be made. Rather, as A.A.
any truly effective message depends upon the lived spirituality
credibility of the storyteller's life; that is, the preacher's
commitment to change and willingness to risk.
preach the gospel effectively today, One's own life must
immersed in a spirituality of conversion and reconciliation
starts with oneself. It begins with the acknowledgement
of one's own
human limitations and need for God. It is rooted in community,
the preacher recognizes, as does A.A., how much we all depend
each other as mentors and friends. Such a spirituality is
in a collaborative life-style arising from the conviction
example is frequently more influential than words, and that
itself is found in all God's People - even before the preacher
up to preach.
of all, the spirituality of the preacher is characterized
by gratitude for what his or her life experiences have taught.
preacher has come to see, as did the early desert Christians,
one's struggles are precisely where God's presence is revealed
where the soul is matured and purified. "Our God is
fire," the desert mother Syncletica tells us. "Hence
we ought to
light the divine fire in our-selves with labor and with
lovingly embracing those struggles and through our
reflection upon them, converting them into truth, we help
holy fire in others. We become, as Emerson reminds us, what
truly effective preacher is meant to be: someone whose storytelling
deals out life - a life passed through the fire of thought.