Earth to Angie: you must keep your stories small enough to serve the Big Story.
It is so satisfying to run arpeggios of my own words, fa-la-la-la-languid up and down a spiral staircase to nowhere. Or, more accurately, everywhere.
Sermon or email, blog post or prayer, I get into trouble when I try to accomplish too much. I write as though the pencil is at its final nub, and the hour is late, and I will not pass this way again. I cram cosmology into a Cheerios box, when what’s really needed is the balanced breakfast of a story.
Like cats and dahlias and the long-winded galaxy, we are made of stories and made for stories. If we don’t get our recommended daily dose, we wither, or turn to greasy scrapple like gossip and outrage. We leave the narrative and run naked to airy ideas and songs that sound true for being long and loud.
All the while, we need the earthy, oaten, limited life-food of small, sturdy stories.
In a previous life, I starved a kindly congregation with my begging bowl of words. Never trust a first-year seminarian to take less than eighty minutes of your time (let the reader understand that Thanksgiving prayers are no place for such creatures).
Every prance through the pulpit was a chance—the chance—my chance, my my my—to convey the whole thing. Grace and mercy and ontology and epistemology and Father and Son and Holy Ghost and Zechariah and Zephaniah and Haggai and Huldah and Mary and Martha and did you know that I know the meaning of the word hapax legomenon? Amen.
By the time I was done, everyone was hungry, and not just because it was 1:30pm.
But the day came—God hath mercy on first-year seminarians, for they are earnest—when I got it briefly right. Or rather, I got it right by way of “briefly.”
I don’t know if I was sleep-deprived, or my blood sugar was low, or I was preoccupied with my sincere crushes on certain long-dead theologians. (Surely I am not alone in this affliction.) But that morning, I preached a single story.
Elisha and his wingman are in a tight spot. The valley is filled with foes, and they have eaten a hearty breakfast of wrath undiluted by mercy. (This did not perform well in Kellogg’s focus groups, but Old Testament foes are not fond of Grape-Nuts.)
The wingman flaps his fears and almost loses his oatmeal. But the prophet knows how to turn this day around. “God, open my dude’s eyes.” And the great Eye-Opener grants his prayer, and the wingman sees flotillas of angels, and the whole inconvenience is over before lunch.
In a moment of incomprehensibly incarnating all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I summarized: “When God loves us, you don’t have to worry about even a billion bad dudes.”
Cowabunga. It was the most warmly received of all my sermons. The A/V guy projected a spotlight on the wall with the words, “Verily, the bad dudes with us art more than the bad dudes with them.” 2 Kings 6:16, RMV (Revised Moon Version)
And in the midst of high-fiber frippery, everyone got fed.
The story has retold itself a thousand times since. If I blog about a single cat, a singular incarnation of God’s smile in one place and time, I somehow get to say something about every cat and every kindness since the first tail.
But if I shoehorn the power of forgiveness and Vin Diesel’s film career and the feast day of St. Eusebius into one lithe little story, the meaning splatters on the linoleum, and the Milky Way leaks.
If I plant a sunflower seed, I get a flower.
If I garrison words all around the garden, we all get confused.
Test me: if I tell you that my favorite uncle owns an apron that says Legalize Marinara, do you not know more about him than if I belch a bloated rhapsody on everything from his first porridge to his favorite Psalm? If I tell you that Vassar has a Shakespeare Garden, do you not hear its soul better than if I chart the campus?
If I tell you that Jesus stopped everything because one bleeding woman touched his robe, do you not feel more loved than if I summoned all the dudes in all the lands to lavish you with testimonies and theologies?
I want to tell you everything, you know. I want to bear witness to every star, every impossible feat of mercy, every pancake, every rescue.
But I am made of stories and moon dust, flesh and limits. The Big Story is told seed by seed, Cheerio by Cheerio, note by note, awe by awe. Each tiny “oh” deserves its own sermon.
There is time to tell them all, here among the great flotilla of poets and prophets and first-year seminarians and amateurs of all ages.
We may forget what hapax legomenon means, but may we be daily defined as amateurs: those who love.
Love the little lyrics that sing us home.
Love the neighbors who need a daily bowl, not to be bowled over.
Love the Great Story enough to tell our small part.