The Stories We Tell

Yesterday I spent time writing up the stories in the article I am sharing with you in this email.  But I became exhausted by the end of the day and did not have the energy to finish my analysis of the stories. But maybe that depletion of creativity was the Holy  Spirit’s way of saying, ‘ I have a better plan.”  I am sensing that the better plan is to share these stories with a select group of people and to invite their responses.  And then to reflect on and integrate and share their responses.
I think this storytelling format is great and we could use it in some LifeGate settings.
This is not an assignment.  Do not respond unless you feel led to. Hopefully you will enjoy the stories.
E. Daniel

The Stories We Tell

The stories we tell, they tell on us. In the midst of telling a series of events we reveal our hearts. We reveal what is important; what is painful; what brings joy; what are the things we value and what are the things that put us in turmoil and conflict; what are the things we grieve and what are the things in which we delight.  At some level we want to be understood. But we are not always certain that it is safe to reveal our deepest longings. So we tell stories, sometimes to reveal and sometimes to hide our true feelings.

We listen to one another’s stories. We listen to what is said and what is not said. We listen to what is stirred up within our own emotions by the other person’s story. We trust that as we listen we will understand . And if we understand we will be able to more fully appreciate the other. Then relationships will deepen and distances between brothers and sisters will be shortened. That  is the hope. And thus we dare to tell our stories.

It was no doubt because of sentiments like those just expressed that the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society planned an evening of story telling at 7 pm on September 19, 2011 at the James Street Mennonite Church. Two story tellers were chosen. The instructions were simple: each tell a story followed by the other, till each had told seven stories, each a story of 2 to 4 minutes in length. The story tellers were to avoid sermonizing or commenting on one another’s stories or allowing the other’s story to influence the story they told. They were to tell stories that revealed their humanity.

The two persons chosen were presented as exceptional Mennonite leaders. These leaders were in many ways polar opposites.

Miriam Book, Swiss-German, grew up in Lancaster County in a stable Mennonite farm family. Growing up she was actively involved in the Paradise Mennonite Church where her father was a pastor. As an adult she worked in a number of Mennonite institutions: Eastern Mennonite Missions, Philhaven Hospital. She was lead pastor at Salford Mennonite Church; worked at Mennonite headquarters at Elkhart Indiana and now is an interim pastor of a large Mennonite Church in Nebraska. She married later in life to Jim Lapp, a Mennonite leader whose first wife had died.

Lawrence Chiles, an African American grew up in a troubled family in Bronx, New York. He spent time in prison and later was helped to freedom from drugs through a time at Teen Challenge. He was influenced and shaped by many different church groups within the Christian family: Pentecostal, evangelical  and Mennonite. He got a college degree and then a masters degree. He is now pursuing a doctorate. He has founded three different community centers, successfully pastored a number of urban churches and worked at Eastern Mennonite Missions as a consultant to churches in urban settings.. He is married to Neireida, a nurse with Puerto Rican ancestry. They have three adult children and a number of grandchildren. Lawrence is presently bishop of a network of  25 churches called Koinonia Fellowship of Churches. This network is part of Kingdom Life Network, a global fellowship of churches, a number of whom have Mennonite roots.

Following is a summary of the stories as they were given during the evening:

Miriam #1.  I have long had a call to pastor. I had had multiple opportunities to preach earlier my life but I was not affirmed as a pastor. Finally in the year 2000 I found myself behind the pulpit as a pastor. I asked myself, “What is my identity as a female pastor?” I met a woman who said to someone about me, “There is my pastor”. I was identified as “ my pastor.”  This felt good. A parishioner asked me to pray for her on the phone. This increased my sense of what it means to be a pastor. One day I saw three little girls behind the pulpit playing with a microphone. I realized my journey was catching on. I said to them, “Little girls can preach too.”

Lawrence #1.  I grew up in a family of nine brothers and sisters. My father was a hermit and mother was shy.  My primary school teacher always made me feel good when she would say to me, “Good morning, little Lawrence.”  I began to think, “She likes me.” One day I asked to see her after school. I said, “Could you and I get married, Mrs. Jones?”  She thought for a minute and then said, that any one she married would have to do well in math. So I worked hard and improved my math grade. Then I went back and asked again if she would marry me. She agreed that my math had  improved. She said that she would marry me under two conditions. One, her husband would have to agree and two I could not tell any of the other boys. I agreed to her terms and one afternoon after school we had a little ceremony, just the two of us, and I married Mrs. Jones.

Miriam #2.  Over time I became aware of how aware I was of ‘what will people think’.  People usually thought good things about me and my sisters.  I remember hearing, “Aren’t those little girls cute”  As an adult I was working in marketing at Philhaven Hospital, a psychiatric hospital.. One day as I was leaving the building I saw some old acquaintances.  I had the sudden thought , “What if they should think I am a patient?”  I quickly made certain that my employee identification badge was quite visible as I greeted and passed them in the hallway. As I reflected on this I was surprised that I was still strongly affected by what people think about me. This was a blind spot revealed to me.

Lawrence #2. The 1960s were a troubling time for a lot of people including people in my school. Ms. Laverne Arnold was a Messianic Jewish teacher of mine. One day she said to me, “I noticed you were not rowdy today. Would you like to learn about Jesus?” I did not know who Jesus was but I appreciated her warmth and friendliness so I agreed to meet with her after school to learn about Jesus. And so this woman introduced me to Jesus. Years later a Mennonite preacher with dandruff on his coat loved me and discipled me. He taught me how to pray.

Miriam #3. This is a story passed down in my family about my father’s mother, Grandma Book. Early one morning Grandma Book saw a rat run through her kitchen. She was so frightened that she jumped up on the table and remained there till her husband came in from the barn. When he came in from the barn she anxiously informed him about the rat. He stated, “Just relax, I am certain you did not see a rat in this house.” To settle the disagreement he brought the dog into the kitchen to smell if there was a rat.  Rather quickly the dog flushed out the rat grabbed it in his mouth and shook it vigorously.  Suddenly the dog lost its grip on the rat in mid shake and the rat flew through the air and landed on Grandmother Books lap.

Lawrence #3.  While our children were still quite small we were working in voluntary service in a Pentecostal church in Rehersburg, PA.  Finances were tight and we had to make do with little. At one point someone gave us a large crate of oatmeal of all flavors. We tried to be thankful as we ate oatmeal day and night, trying to do more with less.  One day my son said, “Is this oatmeal the best we can do? My Sunday School teacher said that God owns a lot of cows so why don’t we ask for a cow?”  So my son prayed, “Please dear God could you give us a cow to eat.   Three weeks later a knock came at the door. An Amishman said I have just butchered a cow and I felt God nudging me to bring the meat to you in this house. Could you use this meat?”

My son immediately responded, “See dad, my teacher was right. God does have alot of cows and he had one just for us.”

Miriam #4.  As a single woman into my middle adult life, I often felt the pressure to marry. Although I had opportunities none seemed quite right. Then I found myself in love and planning a wedding. My friends encouraged and joined me in planning a ritual to recognize the importance of grieving the loss of singleness as I prepared to embrace my new married life.  Friends came bringing food to this event. As a part of the ritual I stepped from the sun room representing singleness to the living room representing marriage.  I crossed from the joy of singleness which few understand to the joy of marriage which many understand.

Lawrence #4   One day I was at home with the three children while my wife was at her nursing job.  It was a hot summer day. In mid afternoon the children came to me and said, “Dad, let’s pray for a miracle. And let’s allow God to choose the miracle.”  So we prayed for a miracle. Shortly after finishing our prayer, a stranger  knocked on our door.  He said, “ I am sorry to interrupt you, but I have business here in the city and I need someone to watch my horse for a couple of hours. Do you know anyone who would be willing to do that?” My children and I immediately received this as the miracle. We went to a nearby park and invited all the neighborhood kids to join us for rides on the  horse. And so a rather boring afternoon was miraculously transformed into an event to remember. One of my daughters said at the end of the day, “Let’s pray for more miracles!”

Miriam #5. I was lead pastor at Salford for a number of years. During this time the church grew. These were good years. Then I was called to pastor a large Mennonite Church in Nebraska. This church had Russian Mennonite background in contrast to the Swiss German background of my prior experiences. In April we moved to Nebraska. We were warmly and graciously received by the people. We were given all kinds of food. As we were being welcomed I heard the soft murmur of doves. A woman gave me an afghan which she had made. She said, “I am not bribing you, I just want to express our joy and gratitude for your coming.  As I sat for the first time in this large, well filled church, I thought I could hear my mother say “Miriam, Miriam!”  I took this to mean that she was affirming my journey as a pastor. I recalled her having said earlier in life that maybe I would someday take my father’s place as pastor of Paradise Mennonite Church.

Lawrence #5.  I went to college in North Dakota. Soon after arriving on campus I was surprised to see the girl who had been engaged to my best friend.  When I asked her about Jerry she said that they had broken up.  I thought I would be a gentleman and I asked her out for dinner. In the course of our conversation at dinner that night I said, “ Since it did not work out with you and Jerry, why don’t you and I get married/” She was taken aback by this comment and responded, “You are uncouth.” Soon after this she announced her intentions to leave the campus and go to Puerto Rica. I said to her, “You can run but you can’t hide.” Several years later she came to my graduation. As I was stepping down from the platform after receiving my diploma, I saw Nereida standing in the front row. She was holding a sign with the single word “Yes” written in big letters.

Miriam #6. Stained glass windows have always beckoned me. There were no stained glass windows in my home church at Paradise Mennonite. But every summer a group of us would travel to northern Pennsylvania to hold a Summer Bible School. We used a small country church for the summer Bible School program. And I still remember the fascination I felt and the beauty of the stained glass windows of that little country church.  Later when I was studying at the London Bible College in England I recall gazing at the beautiful stained glass windows on which it was written, “Woe, to me if I preach not the Gospel.”  And now again in this Mennonite Church which I pastor are stained glass windows. One has a scene on which is written, “Glory to God in the highest; and another scene with the words, “Let the children come to me;” and a final scene with the words, “ Peace be onto you.” These stained glass windows have been like markers in my life.

Lawrence #6.  I as age 17 and I was in prison. I had grown up with an abusive father. I had a rather severe stuttering problem. I would often ride the subway to avoid school because of my shame at my stuttering problem.  I was not expecting to have God show up to me in prison because  I thought God only helped people who were saved.  And I was not saved.  But the Lord did show up and He said to me,  “I will be your God and you will not stutter.” God is still in my mouth!”

Miriam #7. My parents are now gone. It is a new season. It is at times painful to go to Book and Lapp family meetings.  We look through family scrap books and we remember.  It is difficult to sing “God be with you till we meet again.” Tears keep me from singing. Some are gone and some are ill.  One of the family has lost spouse but we are joyful the spouse is in a new place.. I remember that life is also about parting.

Lawrence #7. My wife is a nurse and she works in an HIV clinic in Philadelphia. Several years ago we moved in to Philadelphia. We moved into a largely Catholic community. It somehow became community knowledge that I was a bishop. The title means nothing to me but to these Catholics the title carried a certain aura. They are in a Catholic community.  One of my neighbors threw a large party at his house. He said to me, “Bishop do you drink?” I said yes I drink or I would die. He said come on over to my party and bring your favorite drink.” I got a bottle of grage juice that looks like wine. They all laughed at my grape juice. But then they said, “ Pray for us that this party will go well.” I prayed, “Dear Jesus, please show up at this party. “  Then as the evening wore on one at at time would come to me and begin to share their inner pain. One saie, “My son was just killed, and I can’t stand the pain of the loss.”  And so over time our home has become ‘The Nicodemous House’ where people of all stripes come at night.

Question and Answer Session 

Following the stories each story teller could ask a question of the other.

Lawrence to Miriam. How are you experiencing pastoring?

Miriam. I need to be in touch with the inner call.  I have found increasing confidence in ministering.

Lawrence. I grew up under a woman pastor who said she was called to help people like me. She was called to raise up and train leaders for the harvest.

Miriam to Lawrence. What was the most difficult sermon for you to preach.

Lawrence. The most difficult sermon for me to preach was the sermon I preached after a fight with my wife.  I could hardly wait till the sermon was over to apologize.

Favorite pass time of Story Tellers

Miriam.  GardenIng ..

Lawrence.  Restoring old clocks.

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