The Power of Story

As I walked out of the movie theatre recently with a friend he turned to me and asked, “So, how did you like the movie?”

We had just seen the new Star Wars movie and though I had enjoyed the spectacular special effects, I was a little disappointed with the movie as a whole.

“I wish they had spent less time on the special effects and a little more time on the story,” I told him. He nodded in agreement. “Yep, it could have been a great story.”

Human beings love stories. We beg for them as children, we love to retell them as adults. We spend thousands of dollars a year to have them told to us by movie-makers, writers, singers and other performers. When we get to know new people we want to learn things about them … hear their stories, as it were. We never tire of hearing stories, especially stories that move us in some way.

Stories are powerful. They have the power to change our lives for the better or for the worse. Stories can move us to take action. The proliferation of infomercials is a good example. Sales people know we are more apt to buy a product if we hear stories of others that bought the product and were happy. We hear enough “success” stories about a product, and we take action … we pick up the phone and our credit card and join the multitude of “happy customers.” Their stories moved us to action. Whether we’re as pleased as those who appear on the commercial is another matter. But it was the story of someone else’s happiness that moved us to action.

Sad stories can have the same effect. We hear of children starving in a far away country or of a family suffering in our own neighborhood and we’re moved by our emotions to act on their behalf. There’s something in their story that we identify with, that moves us to compassion, and finally to action.

Stories can also bring a form of immortality to people. As long as someone’s story is remembered they are never really gone from us. Families spin tales about long gone ancestors and their accomplishments to perpetuate family traditions based on that person’s life story. We’ve seen the power of story in the recent loss of John F. Kennedy Jr. The wall to wall television coverage of the search for the plane and the memorial services afterward is a testament to the power that family’s story has over the American psyche. It’s a tale of intrigue, tragedy, happiness, the power of dreams and unfulfilled potential. The Kennedys, through the power of their stories, and their deaths, become immortal.

Within the African American community this form of story as immortality is especially important as James Evans Jr. points out in his book “We Have Been Believers”:

“When a person dies he or she lives on as part of the community as long as relatives and friends remember his or her name. These remembered ones, or ancestors, participate in a kind of personal immortality. When that person’s name is no longer remembered — because there is no one left alive who remembers him or her by name — the process of dying is finally accomplished. However, the no longer remembered ones are not vanquished from the community. They are then referred to as the living dead and enter into a state of collective immortality.”

There is a similar growing tradition within the gay and lesbian community as well. Each year we hold pride marches to coincide with the riot at the Stonewall Inn when a rag tag group of gays and lesbians stood up to continued police persecution and flung the closet door wide open for the rest of us. We honor and celebrate their story every year.

With the advent of AIDS, people recognized the loss of many valuable members of the community, and decided to do something to remember these people and their stories. Thus was born the AIDS quilt. Through this project, we remember the names of the dead. However, just as Evans points out, even when the names are no longer remembered, they are still part of our overall story … woven into the fabric of gay and lesbian history.

Eric Marcus in his book “Making History” remembers the names of our ancestors in the gay and lesbian rights movement. Those proud and brave people like Troy Perry, Randy Shilts, Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen, paved the way for the freedoms we enjoy today. Their stories are ours. Our stories build upon theirs to form a rich, diverse, history of the struggle gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people face in this world.

As GLBT Christians we are just beginning to tell our stories. As we finally come to a place where we can reconcile our faith and our sexuality, we find an urgent need to speak out and share our journeys, knowing there are others out there who cannot give voice to how they feel yet. We speak so our brothers and sisters may hear and take comfort. But we also speak so the institution that has oppressed us for so long may hear as well. We tell our stories to show a doubting and condemning world that we too are God’s children, that we too know the grace and peace that can come through a relationship with Jesus Christ. We agree in our hearts with Paul when he says, “We too believe, and so we speak.” And like Paul, we know, our stories carry weight … they have the power to move people from indifference to compassion, from hatred to love, and from darkness into light.

The story we share is the greatest story ever told, that of God’s love for God’s people. John Westerhoff wrote in A Pilgrim People that the Bible,

“… is a love story between God and humanity; it is a story of a covenant made, broken, and renewed, again and again. God as creator, redeemer, and perfecter loves each creature, personally and as members of the whole human community. In return, we are expected to love God, ourself, and each other.”

The Bible is full of stories of how God’s love is showered upon all believers, regardless of sex, race, nationality or sexual orientation. Jesus himself was a superb storyteller, spreading his message of the universal love of God through parables.

Alistar McGrath in “Christian Theology” suggests that “to approach theology from a narrative point of view is, potentially, to be much more faithful to Scripture itself than to take a more theoretical approach.” That is because “narrative theology enables us to recover the central insight that God became involved in our history. God’s story intersects with our story. We can understand our story by relating it to the story of God, as we read it in Scripture.”

As we explore scripture and tell our stories we are able to see God working in and through our lives. As GLBT Christians that is a powerful statement to a world that believes God has abandoned us outright. Instead, our stories reveal the grace and love of God given freely to even people like us. Telling our stories is a form of strength that we must nurture and learn how to use effectively. As we speak our truth with the love of God in our hearts, we will begin to see the stony hearts of our opponents start to soften toward us. Through the telling of our stories we’ll see the Holy Spirit move our opponents … first to compassion, and then to action … opening their hearts and minds to the presence of God in our lives.

Stories in Conflict

Our opponents know the power of story as well. Visit any of the “ex-gay” websites and you’ll find testimonies similar to what you’ll find here. How can we discern what is the right thing to do when we are confronted with conflicting stories?

One way to judge is to see what stories result in freedom over bondage. Pay close attention to what is said in a story. I’ve read many “ex-gay” stories where the person will still talk about the “struggle” to not give in to homosexual desires. This person continues to repress their God given sexuality. They remain in bondage, a bondage perpetuated on them by well meaning but misguided persons in the name of God. Once we are free in Christ there are no more “struggles” of this sort … we live free from bondage and feelings that bring us guilt and shame over our sexuality.

Certainly we still face day to day struggles and the struggle to overcome the guilt and fear instilled in us by years of misguided teachings against being gay, bi or transgender. Those are to be expected. But, in telling our stories, in hearing the stories of others, there is a sense of relief and peace that washes over us … telling us that the Holy Spirit is moving through the words into our lives. As we embrace that peace, and reconcile ourselves to God, we are again made whole and freed from the bondage of sin that ensnared us before.

Test the spirits that come to you while reading and digesting conflicting stories. Paul tells us in Galatians 5:22-23, the fruit of the Holy Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control.” The stories that fill you with these feelings are genuine ones where God has moved. In this issue, you’ll encounter these feelings from people who have given their lives totally to God, to find their lives transformed, and the Holy Spirit fill them, as GLBT Christians.

As editor, I’ve read each of the stories you’ll find in this issue, and I’ve been blessed and moved by all of them. In each of these journeys I glimpse part of my own wanderings — the feelings of fear and rejection … the anger at God and society and the joy of coming home again to find the outstretched arms of our Creator welcoming us in a warm embrace. I know their wilderness and I know their joys as my own. I know their journeys have been authentic and graced by God’s love and presence.