By Richard Hendry, March 13, 2021
J.K. Rowling, novelist, screenwriter and film producer, says it well: “There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.”
I’m a storyteller. Always have been throughout the 46 years I have served the United Methodist Church as a pastor. I found that story-telling appeals to all ages regardless of education or experience. Once the children are gathered at the front of the church and I begin with “Once upon a time, a long, long time ago in a far and distant country…” not only do I have the children’s attention but the adults as well. Adults are not at all slow to say that this introduction causes them to settle in the seats and, in a sense, become children again. And, again, there have been one or two who state that my stories are the only reason they come to church. Well, maybe that’s true. In any case, there is always a moral to my stories, teaching which provides direction, so I am thankful whether it’s a story or a sermon that brings folk into the sanctuary.
My love for stories has been with me all my life. As a small boy, I would become so involved with a story, so immersed with the pictures formed in my mind that I believed them. For example, when I read Peter Pan and Wendy, I was convinced – by saying the appropriate words – that I could fly. I bounced up and down on my bed and took off, only to hit the floor with my chin. The scar is still with me and a reminder that not all stories are meant to be taken literally. My parents were astonished at my stupidity “What in the hell is wrong with you!” but I knew that the only reason I didn’t fly was because I didn’t have the required fairy dust.
After reading Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves I was convinced that access to the cave and treasure was in our back yard, situated between the fence and our old garage. There was about a four feet concrete cover with a big iron ring in the middle. I straddled that thing and tried for a year to move it but to no avail. It was far too heavy. Just as well I failed as this turned out to be a cover to the sewerage system.
I read children’s stories. Lots of stories. Stories from over the world. I began to realize with each story there was something to be learned and if one shaped that learning – with the mental pictures the stories produced – a simple, memorable message took a form which was not easily forgotten.
A Native American Proverb states the following, “Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” This was brought home to me in my second ministerial appointment where occasionally I would speak on a Māori Marae, which is a communal or sacred place that serves religious and social purposes. I found out that before I (or any other speaker) was to be heard, one must first give one’s Whakapapa or genealogy. This is a fundamental principle in Māori culture. Those reciting their Whakapapa proclaim their Māori identity – or in my case as a pakeha minister, indicating that I knew from whence I came. A man who does not honor his ancestors is not worthy of being heard. Thus, was added, an additional weaving to story-telling – and I found out a great deal more about my ancestors. In the process, I gained additional insight into who I was and the forces and decisions that helped motivate and direct my life. I also realized the importance of facial expressions and gestures and making eye contact with every listener. Those who have spoken to me many years after they heard me speak, still remember what I said – while I could barely remember the occasion. Stories, well-told, do, live in one’s heart forever.
My wife Lisa, and I, think I have memorized about 300 stories over the years. Stories to fit any occasion including being chosen as a political candidate for the New Zealand Parliament. Some 15 or so years ago, Lisa reproduced and alphabetized all my stories, or as many as she could find, which was a huge help and ensured that I didn’t repeat a story for three years. (Children remember stories and by three years they have moved along). Lisa has also used some of these children’s stories as a teacher.
Ten years have passed since I retired. Each year, Lisa and I present a booklet to the graduating seniors who listened to my stories throughout the years. Entitled: “Children’s Stories You’ve Heard More Than Once.” One is for “Brave Boys and Men of Might”, the other is “Strong Women and Wise Women.” We decided that ‘gifting’ these stories for these young people to take with them as they face life challenges is far better than any graduation card we might give. We’re told by the students that they remember the stories and they appreciate their copy of these “Once upon a time” remembrances.
Stories can be used in any situation; in any speech, on any occasion. Humorous stories break the ice. Once your audience begins to laugh and you have their full attention, you can take them (gently) wherever you choose. Tales full of pathos stir the heart and touch the soul and are the most memorable.
Storytelling, good storytelling, doesn’t require an advanced degree or a marvelous, well-modulated voice, but a person who has a vivid imagination and is ready to lose their identity for a brief moment, throw discretion to the winds and tell a marvelous story that will touch someone’s heart.
These final words are from Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks: “That’s what storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again.”