Fr. Brian Cavanaugh, TOR
Holy Spirit Friary
1235 University Blvd.
Steubenville OH 43952


Picturing the Kingdom of God
September 1996


While I knew that I wanted to focus on the concept of storytelling within the preaching ministry, initially I was unsure how I might develop the topic. Then the title of this article revealed itself through the wonders of computer technology--by simply keying in the search phrase "compare AND kingdom" into my computer Bible program.

Let me explain a bit further. Mark 4:30 is the actual verse containing that phrase, but what a difference the translations (New American Bible, Revised Standard Version, New American Standard Bible) provided! The New American Standard translates the word "compare" as "picture." Bingo! This was the angle or slant I was searching for in developing a direction for this article. Storytelling is a way the preacher can assist the congregation in envisioning a connection between the biblical word, the stories of their lives and the kingdom of God.

Janet Litherland says:

"Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds. Consequently, stories often pack more punch than sermons. Want to make a point or raise an issue? Tell a story. Jesus did it. He called his stories ‘parables.'"1

In fact Mark 4:34 says, "he [Jesus] did not speak to them without a parable..."

Other examples of Jesus' use of parables and stories are found in Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8, Luke 13:8. Such stories and parables teach a natural wisdom of morality, of healing, of compassion, of values and ethics. Frank H. Seilhamer says:

"Parable is the translation...of two Greek terms that mean ‘to throw along side of.' What is involved is a story created to be thrown along side of a true-life situation to drive home the central point the storyteller is trying to make. As Jesus demonstrated, a good picture is worth a thousand words that slip by, unillustrated in strokes which a person can visualize, then pin to their memory."2

Stories, parables, fables, anecdotes, illustrations, etc., help us to see the "bigger picture" in life. They help us to understand there is more to life than our own limited spheres of experience. They create pictures in our mind and open up our imagination to comprehend a greater dimension of life than we are normally used to experiencing. Stories are vehicles that take us to far off places, places we've never experienced ourselves.

That is what Jesus tried to accomplish with his disciples and with the crowds that flocked to hear him speak: to take them to a place where there is new way of living, loving and healing; a new world that these people could never have imagined on their own. Such is the task to which we are called in preaching God's Word to his people about the kingdom of God: to open people's imagination to picture a new way of living, loving and healing.

As I use the term "imagination" I realize there are some people who think of it as being equated with the term "fantasy," or being unreal and bizarre. That is not how I view imagination.

"What is it, then? Imagination is the capacity we have ‘to make the material an image of the immaterial or spiritual.' It is creative power... a good story is good precisely because somehow it rings true to human life...from it a moral or spiritual truth is extracted."3

Stories and parables provide fresh insights into truths that are repeated from the pulpit week in and week out. These truths become so familiar and well known that people no longer hear them. The creative use of the imagination through storytelling dresses up these truths in new garments so that we take notice of them.

The rabbi was once asked: "Why does the parable possess such great influence?"

The maggid replied: "I will explain this by a parable":
"Truth was accustomed to walk about as naked as he was born. No one allowed him to enter a home, and everyone who encountered him ran away in fright.

"Truth felt greatly embittered and could find no resting place. One day he beheld Parable attired in colorful, expensive garments. Parable inquired: ‘Why are you so dejected, my friend?' Truth replied: ‘I am in a bad situation. I am old, very old, and no one cares to have anything to do with me.' ‘Nay,' retorted Parable, ‘it is not because of your age that you are disliked by people. Look, I am as old as you are, and the older I grow, the more do I seem to be loved. Let me disclose to you the secret of my apparent popularity. People enjoy seeing everything dressed up and somewhat disguised. Let me lend to you my garments, and you will see that people will like you as well.'

Truth followed this counsel and dressed himself in the garments of Parable. Ever since then, Truth and Parable walk hand in hand, and men love both of them." 4

In my own preaching experience, I discovered this same factor. People, by and large, did not hear or pay attention to the naked truth. But when the same message was dressed up in the garments of a story, or a parable, they not only listened but took the message home with them.

For me, storytelling was not really a conscious decision. It emerged from within me as natural as could be for a priest of Irish descent. This is not to say that I have not spent considerable time researching storytelling as an art form, or that stories just pop up easily. For over 20 years, I have collected numerous books on the storytelling, volumes of story books and have written out in composition books enough stories to fill eleven volumes, so far. The difficult part for me, however, is trying to describe my approach to using storytelling within preaching when I am asked about the how's and why's of storytelling.

As for the process I may not be so articulate; but as to the effect of storytelling, I can speak with clarity and certainty. My mother says, "You give them something to take home with them." And when I was being transferred to a new assignment, a young man in his early 20s who faithfully came to Sunday Mass said, "Who will tell the stories when you're gone?"

In researching for this article I came across some interesting historical background material on the use of stories and parables in preaching. In the chapter "Religious Storytelling," in The World of Storytelling it states:

"The exemplum is a classic fable or popular anecdote to which has been added a moral...They were used in sermons, much as parables were used by Christ. The oldest known Christian examples occur in the homilies of Saint Gregory the First (c. 600)....In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, certain monks developed the narration of the exempla into an art that was very successful. This was in large measure due to the example set by the Dominicans and by prelates such as Jacques de Vitry; known to have compiled a number of collections of sermons with stories." 5

Jacques de Vitry was a translator of a major collection of sermon stories written in the thirteenth century by another Dominican, Jacob de Voragine. Jacob's collection became known as The Golden Legend.

"His sermons had immense popular appeal, and they were rapidly copied by other preachers into all the languages of Europe. The Golden Legend was, next to the Bible, the most popular book of the Middle Ages." 6

Therefore, we who engage in using stories and anecdotes in preaching, are not being faddish, but stand in good company with a rich heritage.

Fr. Robert Waznak, S.S. describes the early Christians "as a community of storytellers....The stories were about Jesus of Nazareth who himself offered such spellbinding stories that they were told and retold by people who found in them a key to their own stories of faith and struggle. The stories of the Bible were always retold in a way that noticed the particular needs and concerns of the listeners. Contact with the original story was not lost, but the new listeners found relevance and renewal in the story retold because it involved them in a personal way."7

As preachers, our task is just that: to help people find "a key to their own stories of faith and struggle."

Now let us look at the role of the preacher as a storyteller. Marshall McLuhan said it so well: "The medium is the message." Likewise, the preacher is the medium through which the story or parable is filtered to the people. What I mean is, there is a big difference between telling a story in a sermon and becoming a storytelling preacher. A big difference! A story cannot be read off a page as if it were merely words. Stories demand involvement, entering into the story itself.

Two of the biggest factors, I think, in moving from simply telling a story to becoming a storyteller are risk and fear. Yes, it is a risk to get into a story so that it becomes real, or takes on life, with the nuances of voice inflections, posture, facial expressions that emerge from the story.

Are you afraid people will laugh at you? Or, are they laughing with you, within the story's setting? This was a big hurdle for me when I first began preaching. I was so overly concerned about what the congregation thought of my preaching that I was not willing to take many risks and venture into untried waters.

What changed my preaching style actually changed my future ministry as well. What began as personal journal-writing therapy of collecting positive quotations and stories quickly assumed new direction when I took what was then a big risk and shared some stories and quotations from my journals at daily Mass.

People would come up and ask for a copy of this quotation or that story. It amazed me because these were my "personal" stories and quotes, and other people found them helpful too! Gradually I took more risks and told more stories, and now people expect me to come up with a good story. And a bonus to storytelling preaching, from my experience, is that the congregation listens more attentively and enters into the story with the preacher.

An example of entering into a story is related by Martin Buber as he tells a story of his grandfather--who was asked to talk about his great teacher, the famous and holy Baal Shem Tov.

"The paralyzed grandfather replied by telling how the holy man used to jump up and down and dance when he was praying. Being swept up in the fervor of the narrative, the grandfather, himself, stood up and began to jump and dance to show how the master had done it. At that moment the grandfather was completely healed of his paralysis." 8

Now I will try to answer questions that might arise: Where does one find contemporary stories and parables to use in preaching? What kind of resources are available?

The first resource is so obvious that most people miss it--observation. One of my favorite "Yogisms" from Yogi Berra is: "You can see a lot just by observing." Life around us abounds with delightful stories if we could only pick up on them. They are in the people we meet and in the newspapers we read and in the news programs we watch. We could learn a lot by observing life.

Other resources can be found in collections of stories, of which there are quite a few on the market. However, if I told you that any books besides my own multivolume series--Sower's Seeds collection from Paulist Press--are my personal favorites, I would be dishonest. They are the first books I reach for whenever I am preparing a sermon or lecture.

But that is only natural because I've gathered and sorted through these stories over the years and included the ones that are most meaningful to me. In addition, an important feature of my Sower's Seeds books is the extensive cross-referenced theme index provided in each volume--a distinct feature that is lacking in most anthologies of stories currently available.

Still, I have been inspired by and am indebted to a number of wonderful storytellers, and I recommend enthusiastically the following resources, listed alphabetically by author:

William J. Bausch, Storytelling: Imagination and Faith;
Jack Canfield, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and multiple Chicken Soup volumes;
Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, and other volumes;
Edward Hays, A Pilgrim's Almanac, and The Christmas Eve Storyteller as well as his several other works;
William R. White, Speaking In Stories; Stories for Telling, Stories for the Journey and Stories for the Gathering;

As a final thought, let me encourage you to use stories, parables, fables, anecdotes, etc., in your upcoming sermons, lectures and teachings. You will find that people will begin to get the bigger picture as you help them envision what it would be like to picture the kingdom of God; to imagine a new way of living, loving and healing. They will enter into the story with you and take something home with them.

The master gave his teaching in parables and stories, which his disciples listened to with pleasure--and occasional frustration, for they longed for something deeper.

The master was unmoved. To all their objections he would say, "You have yet to understand that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story." 9

Endnotes:

  1. Janet Litherland, Storytelling from the Bible, Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether Publ., 1991, p. 3.
  2. From author's personal journals, source unknown.
  3. Walter J. Burghardt, SJ, We Would Like to See Jesus, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982, pp. 5-6.
  4. Howard W. Polsky, & Yaella Wozner, Everyday Miracles: The Healing Wisdom of Hasidic Stories, Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 1989, p. 47.
  5. Anne Pellowski, The World of Storytelling, NY: H.W. Wilson Co., 1990, p. 57.
  6. Sister Mary Hean Dorcy, OP, Saint Dominic's Family, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1983, p. 114.
  7. Robert Waznak, Sunday after Sunday: Preaching the Homily as Story, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1983, p. 27.
  8. Martin Buber, source unknown.
  9. Anthony de Mello, SJ, One Minute Wisdom, NY: Doubleday, 1986, p.23.

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