Last week I had coffee with my friend, Eleanor Stanton, the associate pastor at the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs. We talked about her work with teens in the high school youth group, her pastoral counseling, her experience of cancer, and most of all, her use of stories. You can find the first part of our conversation here.
Jennifer: I’ve noticed that when you preach, you like to walk around and hold your printed page at your side. Did you have storytelling experience before you became a minister? What are the mechanics of how you do what you do when you are preaching? How did you come to that? How did you make that choice?
Eleanor: Well, as the baby of the family I was the entertainer! One of the first things I remember was mom teaching me “I’m a Little Teapot” and singing that for the family, and watching a lot of Shirley Temple movies. But I did not see that as a way to preach until I took a preaching class at [a UCC seminary near Boston]. The professor, who was also an ordained minister, was talking about narrative as the way of preaching that we were evolving toward. That the day of the 5-point essay had passed, and that that was an older style: “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them” didn’t engage people at an emotional level. The books that we studied, Preaching From the Heart, and some others, focused on narrative. He showed us clips of, in some cases really conservative preachers, but who used storyteller style. I remember saying to him, “I have a really big hurdle to overcome, because I’ve been hearing my minister for years; I can’t preach like that and he’s a great preacher. “ And my teacher said, “Really, what’s his name?” And I said [his name] and my teacher said, “Never heard of him.” It sounded so seditious and yet it was very freeing! He said storytelling is the way that is coming. And I said, “oh, I know how to tell stories!”
After that I began to deliberately cultivate and learn to tell stories better. I went to storytelling weekends and festivals to watch other storytellers talk about how you must use your body, or different voices, or just how they could paint a picture. So that has influenced my style. It was the affirmation of a teacher to say, “well, I never heard of this great preacher that you tell me you can’t preach like, but this thing that you can do, this is a valuable thing.” Somebody had to say to me that storytelling is a valuable thing. So that’s where I can’t think of it for myself, and I need some outside person to paint it, which is why your [Lion’s Whiskers blog] stories about courage are so important. Because for some people, it will be the first time that they get a clue that there’s a different way to be in a situation. You know, how do we deal with a lion? We run away. We give up. Clearly I cannot deal with a lion, I know what lions are like. Or – there’s this other way! That’s why I love your blog on courage because those particular stories – they’re lifesaving.
All these different kinds of courage – I love that too, because I come from a military family, I know what soldiers look like, especially when they come home from boot camp! I can’t do that kind of physical courage. But the courage to endure, to stay in a situation, and to not run away. I have developed more and more of that, of different kinds of courage. I like that there are different kinds of courage, and there are stories that show it, rather than just tell you. So people can see it. If you tell it as a story they see themselves in the story, and then they get to embody it. That’s the other reason why stories are important for children – they get to feel that vicarious thrill as Nancy Drew is scared to death but going up the stairs anyway.
Jennifer: Yes, you are definitely preaching to the choir on this one! [Stories] taught me how – or maybe reinforced what I already knew – this hardwiring of how narrative works, and how we can have these mental rehearsals for experiences. “Well, I’ve never done that, but I might.” Or just looking around at the world as a child, you look at adults and you see adults doing adult things. So, “I’ve never driven a car, but at some point I will. I’ve never gotten married, but maybe someday when I’m older I will.” So stories give you a way of – instead of it just being a piece of information – “it seems pretty typical that when you grow up you get married” – but to imagine it and to basically go through this rehearsal of what that might be like, and what you think your participation in it will be.
Eleanor: The rehearsal. What would it be like to move in that space? Which is also why it’s important to understand what are the stories that are the baseline stories that everybody knows in different cultures. If we know our story, we understand ourselves at a deeper level, but if we understand that in our culture – in America it’s the cowboy, the rugged individualist which has unfortunately run amok right now – but that’s our story, and it seems logical how we got to where we are today on that storyline. But what is the story for Arab countries? What is their story? What is the story in China or Japan? What are the Russian stories? Surely their stories have the same foundational effect and trajectory [for them] that ours do [for us.] So that’s why it’s important to know each other’s stories.
Recently I saw something about narrative medicine [at Columbia University]. And they’re calling people from the clergy to engage with this. The anecdote I read was that this chaplain was using this at a hospital with mental health patients – a psych hospital or psych ward – to share stories, to share their stories in the larger narrative of the Biblical story, and to help them maybe change their story or understand their story in a different way. And I became interested in that because I think that’s very powerful. And maybe that’s really where – not to negate all the cognitive therapy and behavioral mod – but I think it all happens at a deep story level. Can we place our stories inside some other big narrative? You know, the Bible has this narrative of: we start in a garden, we screw up, we end in a garden. It ends in a garden. God intervenes and makes sure we all come back to the garden in the end, so it has this very hopeful story arc. It goes to “love wins.” Everybody goes to heaven, even Gandhi! Many conservatives feel: nice guy, but he’s burning in hell because he didn’t accept Jesus.
Jennifer: So do you see either ministry as a whole or your ministry as a way of helping people put their stories into context? Is that part of what you think of as your role?
Eleanor: I believe that our lives are made better when we put our stories into some integrative whole where we’re not isolated, which often we do to ourselves before even society does it, although society has plenty of ways of sidelining us. But that if we put our story – no matter how bad – into a bigger structure, we can thrive in a way that we hadn’t realized we could. I mean, Africans were brought here and were introduced to Christianity because it was the religion of their white masters who didn’t consider them fully human, only partially so, and yet they embraced it and it became part of how they flourished and lived, because the story itself is the story of liberation and love. I think Jesus’s message is: the people who you think God really loves and the people you think God really hates, you’re wrong. It should make all of us very humble! So they were able to put their story of slavery into a bigger story: Joseph was sold into slavery, Joseph was watched over, and Joseph came to a place of prosperity. Okay. Maybe that’s possible for us. Or it is possible for us. Or childlessness. Or too many children, — all of these things are in there, which is why I know that the stories are true [on this level], because all of the human experience is in there. It’s why I like the Psalms. They’re whiny sometimes. Many of them start out – “how long, how long?” And they’re not guilt-ridden, it’s not “my life is so bad and I’ve caused this, please forgive me.” It’s “my life is so bad because You turned Your face away. You were off having a coffee and this wouldn’t have happened, so turn Your face back, because if You’d been paying attention this wouldn’t have happened, so pay attention!” They’re in your face. There is this wonderful relationship with and tension with the force of life that makes the green shoots to come up.
Jennifer: So the Psalms are proposing some mutual accountability?
Eleanor: Ah! And no matter if they start as “my pillow was wet with tears all night,” they end with “yet will I pay to the lord.” I really don’t think it’s a literary thing where they all have to end on a certain note. I think that when you engage with what it really feels like if you’re a person of faith, or even just sensitive to what’s going on, you understand that there’s something that keeps you breathing in and breathing out and keeps you going until breathing in and breathing out is not such an insult. I’ve talked to parents who’ve lost children, and breathing in and breathing out just hurts them, because they don’t want to be. They don’t have a present relationship with this energy. So yes, I think that’s what I’m doing with my ministry. People want their religion to be relevant in their daily life. It can’t just be a stained glass window that I go and look at and it’s really nice and beautiful. I appreciate the Tiffany glass exhibit in the museum, but I don’t live with Tiffany glass. I live with Corelleware. I need something that works with Corelleware. I think that finding your story within the larger trajectory helps you, because the story has its own power that pops up when you least expect it.
Jennifer: Tostoy has this wonderful quote about stories. He said all stories are either, “a man (or a woman) goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.” Does one of those feel like it lives in your life more than the other does?
Eleanor: The man goes on the journey feels like much of the Old Testament stories to me. And a stranger comes to town feels like the Gospels, especially with the Christmas story. The unexpectedness like “no, not really?!” It’s like you’re pushing someone out of the way, saying, “I’m here to see the Dalai Lama, I’ve been waiting in line,” and you’re pushing aside the Dalai Lama because he isn’t wearing his glasses and robes and just dressed in a t-shirt and you’re just “no, no get out of the way!” So, a stranger comes to town. I think that in many ways the stranger is God.
When I go on a journey, and I find that my faith is a journey, I often feel myself accompanied. But I don’t always see my companion. Not that my companion is invisible, it’s just that in my head I think I’m here all by myself. It’s like the two-year-old who thinks when you play peek-a-boo that you’re really not there. So in many ways we can see throughout the Bible that it is God who keeps faith – the prophets do a lot of yelling, but Jeremiah had this real pathos. God is like this 15-year-old girl who’s just waiting for the phone to ring and you never call! And you cheat on her with other girls! And it’s really this pulpy love. And it’s hard sometimes to believe that there’s this great power that has this pulpy love for me. I think many people feel they are slightly unworthy of this pulpy love, which is why their own hearts are hardened. So yes, I find myself on a journey, and have experienced that in times of trouble I find myself accompanied usually only in the rear-view mirror – it’s like I came through the really stressful survival mode, and it lightens up a little bit I can see there was this [companion] keeping watch over me and I can reconnect.
We finished our conversation by talking about the story of the Good Samaritan, which I’ve retold on this blog, and Eleanor talked about God as the annoying neighbor who asks challenging and cringe-making questions, not the nice one who comes over and shovels your sidewalk when it snows. To make clear how reviled the Samaritans were by the original audience of that story, and how problematic the tale would have been for them, she retold it this way: in her understanding of the story, if she were the traveler attacked on the road, the Samaritan would be one of those evangelical preachers who proclaims “God hates fags!” or who wants to burn the Koran. It would be that one who helped her, and tended her wounds, and paid for her to stay in a motel. “And then I’d have to deal with that,” she said, grimacing as she put her coat on against the December chill. “That’s how annoying God is.”
And that’s the power of stories. Whatever your faith, whatever your traditions, we here at Lion’s Whiskers wish for you all good stories. Be of good courage!