But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word; but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.
-2 Corinthians 2:14-17
A few months ago I received a letter inviting me to speak to a group of ministers on the subject of storytelling. It was a good letter and posed a number of thoughtful questions such as: How do you use stories effectively in sermons? How do you use a story to put a point across? To what degree do you make the point of your story clear to your listeners instead of leaving them to work it out for themselves? And so on. They were all perfectly reasonable questions to which I think useful answers can be given, but the more I thought about them, the more I found that something about them gave me pause. The trouble was that they were all questions that had to do with how to tell a story instead of what stories to tell and to what end; and the kind of stories they rightly or wrongly suggested to me were stories as anecdotes, as attention-getters, as illustrations, stories to hang on sermons like lights on a Christmas tree. Maybe I did the letter writer an injustice, and that isn't what he had in mind at all, but if so, all I can say is that that's the kind of stories I have often heard in church myself. And why not? They have their place. They can help make the medicine go down. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that even if I believed I could give some helpful literary advice along those lines, that was not what basically interested me.
And yet what the letter reminded me of is that yes, storytelling is itself immensely interesting and immensely important. Not just for preachers and preachers-to-be, but for Christians in general. Storytelling matters enormously because it is a story, of course, that stands at the heart of our faith and that more perhaps than any other form of discourse speaks to our hearts and illumines our own stories. It is related to what Paul is writing about, I think, in this passage from Corinthians. "We are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word," he says, and the image is a rich and painfully telling one.
Peddlers are people with packs on their backs full of things they want to sell, and the things they try to sell hardest are the things they think will sell best. Peddlers are less concerned with what the world needs than with what the world wants or can be made to settle for. Peddlers are salespeople who are interested less in the quality of what they're selling than in the success of their sale. So if the peddlers of God's word happen to be preachers, it's preaching as an end in itself that they're apt to concentrate on. They do their best to be effective, eloquent, original. They choose the stories that will go over best and be remembered to their credit longest. Or if we happen not to be preachers, then when it comes to just speaking of and out of our faith in a general way we, like them, tend to stick to the salesmanship of it and to speak of it whatever is easiest to speak and whatever we think will go down most easily.
We speak of books we've read and ideas we've had. We speak of great questions like abortion and conservation and the dangers of nuclear power, and of what we take to be the Christian answers to such questions. If we get more personal about it, we speak of problems we've hadproblems with children and old age, problems with sex and marriage, ethical problems and of Christian solutions to those problems or at least of Christian ways of viewing them. And if, in the process, we decide to tell stories, then, like the preacher as peddler, we may tell stories about ourselves as well as about other people, but not, for the most part, our real stories, not stories about what lies beneath all our other problems, which is the problem of being human, the problem of trying to hold fast somehow to Christ when much of the time, both in ourselves and in our world, it is as if Christ had never existed. Because all peddlers of God's word have that in common, I think: they tell what costs them least to tell and what will gain them most; and to tell the story of who we really are and of the battle between light and dark, between belief and unbelief, between sin and grace that is waged within us all costs plenty and may not gain us anything, we're afraid, but an uneasy silence and a fishy stare.
So one way or another we are all of us peddlers of God's word, and those of us in the ministry are more apt to be peddlers than most because as professionals we're continually being sought out to display our wares. We're invited to give commencement addresses and to speak about storytelling to people who travel miles to learn the trick. And so it's to all of us that Paul speaks. "We are not," he says (meaning we should not be, must not be, had bloody well better not be), "we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word; but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ." That's the whole point of it, he says: to speak in Christ, which means among other things, I assume, to speak of Christ. And when it comes to storytelling, that is of course the crux of it. If we are to speak, as he says, with sincerityspeak as we have been commissioned by God to speak, and with our hearts as well as our lipsthen this is the one story above all others that we have in us to tell, you and I. It is his story.
The story of Christ is where we all started from, though we've come so far since then that there are times when you'd hardly know it to listen to us and when we hardly know it ourselves. The story of Christ is what once, somehow and somewhere, we came to Christ through. Maybe it happened little by little-a face coming slowly into focus that we'd been looking at for a long time without really seeing it, a voice gradually making itself heard among many other voices and in such a way that we couldn't help listening after a while, couldn't help trying somehow, in some unsatisfactory way, to answer. Or maybe there was more drama to it than thata sudden catch of the breath at the sound of his name on somebody's lips at a moment we weren't expecting it, a sudden welling up of tears out of a place where we didn't think any tears were. Each of us has a tale to tell if we would only tell it. But however it happened, it comes to seem a long time ago and a long way away, and so many things have happened sinceso many books read, so many sermons heard or preached, so much life livedthat to be reminded at this stage of the game of the story of Christ, where we all started, is like being suddenly called by your childhood name when you have all but forgotten your childhood name and maybe your childhood too.
The Jehovah's Witness appears on the doorstep, or somebody who's gotten religious corners you at a party, and embarrassing questions are asked in an embarrassing language. Have you been born again? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? And yes, yes, you want to sayhalf humiliated, half appalled and irritated, torn in a dozen directions at once by the directness and corn of it, tongue-tied. You wouldn't be caught dead maybe using such language yourself, but oh Jesus, yes, in some sense your answer is and has to be yes, though to be asked it out of the blue that way, by a stranger you'd never have opened the door to if you'd known what he was after, makes the blood run cold. To be reminded that way or any way of the story of Jesus, where you came from, is like having somebody suddenly produce a picture of home in all its homelinessthe barn that needs cleaning, the sagging porch steps, the face in the dusty windowwhen you've traveled a thousand miles and a thousand years from home and are involved in a thousand new and different things. But the story of Jesus is home nonethelessthe barn, the steps, the face. You belong to it. It belongs to you. It is where you came from. God grant it is also where you are heading for. So that is the story to remember. That is the story beyond all stories to tell.
The story of Jesus is full of darkness as well as of light. It is a story that hides more than it reveals. It is the story of a mystery we must never assume we understand and that comes to us breathless and broken with unspeakable beauty at the heart of it, yet is by no means a pretty story, though that is the way we're apt to peddle it much of the time. We sand down the rough edges. We play down the obscurities and contradictions. What we can't explain, we explain away. We set Jesus forth as clear-eyed and noble-browed, whereas the chances are he can't have been anything but old before his time once the world started working him over, and once the world was through, his clear eyes were swollen shut and his noble brow as much of a shambles as the rest of him. We're apt to tell his story when we tell it at all, to sell his story, for the poetry and panacea of it. "But we are the aroma of Christ," Paul says, and the story we are given to tell is a story that smells of his life in all its aliveness, and our commission is to tell it in a way that makes it come alive as a story in all its aliveness and to make those who hear it come alive and God knows to make ourselves come alive too.
He was born, the story beginsthe barn that needs cleaning, the sagging steps, the dusty faceand there are times when we have to forget all about the angels and shepherds and star of it, I think, and just let the birth as a birth be wonder enough, which heaven help us it is, this wonder of all wonders. Into a world that has never been famous for taking special care of the naked and helpless, he was born in the same old way to the same old end and in all likelihood howled bloody murder with the rest of us when they got the breath going in him and he sensed more or less what he was in for. An old man in the Temple predicted great things for him but terrible things for the mother who loved him in what seem to have been all the wrong ways. He got lost in the city and worried his parents sick. John baptized him in the river and wondered afterwards if he'd chosen the right man. It wasn't just Satan who tempted him then because for the rest of his life just about everybody tempted himhis best friend, his disciples, his mother and brothers, his enemies. They all of them tempted him one way or another not to go off the deep end but to stay on the bearable surface of thingsto work miracles you could see with your eyes, to feed hungers you could feel in your belly, to heal the sickness of the flesh you could touch, to be a power among powers and to avoid the powerless, the sinful, the deadbeats like the plague in favor of the outwardly righteous, the publicly pious.
But "like a root out of dry ground," he came, Isaiah says (53:2), and it was down at the roots of things that he moved all his life like a moledown at the undetected sickness fiercer than flesh, the buried sin, the hidden holiness. "Cleave the wood, I am there," he says in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. "Lift the stone, and you will find me there" (77), and it is always far beneath that he is to be found and deep within that his most shattering miracles happen. He made precious few friends and a mob of enemies. He taught in a way that almost nobody either understood or wanted to risk understanding, least of all the ones who were closest to him. And in the end they got him. And forget all the grim paraphernalia of his death, because the obscenity and horror have long since been ritualized out of it. They got him, that's all. He wasn't spared a damned thing. It was awful beyond telling, god-awful. And then it happened.
However we try to explain it, however we try at all costs to avoid having to explain it because it was so long ago and seems so wild and crazy and because so many other more plausible, manageable things have happened since; whatever words we can find for telling the story or for watering it downwhat happened was that he wasn't dead anymore. He wasn't dead. Anymore. He was not a ghost. By comparison, it's we who are the ghosts. The worst we know of darkness, any of us, was split in two like an atom. The explosion shook history to its roots, shook even us once to our roots, though it's sometimes hard to remember. The fallout continues to this dayfalls imperceptibly, without a sound, like snow or ash, like light. Only it is not death-dealing. It is life-dealing. You and I are here in this place now because of what little life it dealt us. Because of this story of Jesus, each of our own stories is in countless ways different from what it would have been otherwise, and that is why in speaking about him we must speak also about ourselves and about ourselves with him and without him too because that, of course, is the other story we have in us to remember and tell. Our own story.
We are men and women of sincerity, Paul says, and God help us if we're not because that's what we're cracked up to be, and sincerity you'd like to think would be the least of it. We are commissioned by God to speak in Christ, and to speak in Christ is to speak truth; and there is no story whose truth we are closer to than our own, than the story of what it's like to live inside ourselves. The trouble is that, like Christ's story, this too is apt to be the last we tell, partly because we are uncomfortable with it and afraid of sincerity and partly because we have half forgotten it. But tell it we must and, before we tell it to anybody else, tell it first of all to ourselves and keep on telling it, because unless we do, unless we live with, and out of, the story of who we are inside ourselves, we lose track of who we are. We live so much on the outer surface and seeming of our lives and our faith that we lose touch with the deep places that they both come from.
We have the story of our own baptism, for oneif not by water, in a river, then by fire God knows where, because there isn't one of us whose life hasn't flamed up into moments when a door opened somewhere that let the future in, moments when we moved through that door as Jesus moved out of Jordan, not perfectly cleansed but cleansed enough, with the past behind us, we hoped, and a new sense of what at its most outlandish and holiest the future might become. And God knows we have all had our wilderness and our temptations toonot the temptation to work evil probably, because by grace or luck we don't have what it takes for more than momentary longings in that direction, but the temptation to settle for the lesser good, which is evil enough and maybe a worse one to settle for niceness and usefulness and busyness instead of for holiness; to settle for plausibility and eloquence instead of for truth. And miracles too are part of our story as well as of his, blind though we are to them most of the time and leery as we are of acknowledging them, because to acknowledge a miracle is to have to act on it somehowto become some kind of miracles ourselvesand that's why they scare us to death. The miracle of our own births when the odds were millions to one against them. The miracle of every right turn we ever took and every healing word we ever spoke. The miracle of loving sometimes even the unlovely, and out of our own unloveliness. And the half-forgotten miracles by which we've turned up here now, such as we are, who might never have made it here at all when you consider all the hazards along the way.
And crucifixion is part of our stories too, because we too are men and women of sorrow and acquainted with grief. Maybe our crucifixion is in knowing that for all we'd like to believe to the contrary, we don't have the stomach for even such few, half-baked chances to give up something precious for him as come our way, let alone for giving up, in any sense that really matters, our selves for him. Yet we're raised up nonetheless. We're raised up, and we have that to tell of too, that part of our story. In spite of every reason to give the whole show up, we're here still just able to hope; in spite of all the griefs and failures we've known, we're here still just able to rejoice; in spite of the darkness we all of us flirt with, we are here still just a little, at least, in love with light. By miracle we survive even our own shabbiness, and for the time being maybe that is resurrection enough.
Two stories thenour own story and Jesus's story, and in the end, perhaps, they are the same story. "Cleave the wood, I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there." To cleave the truth of our own lives, to live and look beneath our own stories, is to see glimmers at least of his life, of his life struggling to come alive in our lives, his story whispering like a song through the babble and drone of ours. "Where he is strong, we are weak, God knows. Where he is faithful, we are what we are. Where he opens himself to the worst the world can do for the sake of the best the world can be, we arm ourselves against the world with the world's hard armor for our own sweet sakes. Our stories are at best a parody of his story, and if, as Paul says, we are the fragrance of Christ, then it is like the fragrance of the sea from ten miles inland when the wind is in the right direction, like the fragrance of a rose from the other side of the street with all the world between.
Yet they meet as well as diverge, our stories and his, and even when they diverge, it is his they diverge from, so that by his absence as well as by his presence in our lives we know who he is and who we are and who we are not.
We have it in us to be Christs to each other and maybe in some unimaginable way to God too- that's what we have to tell finally. We have it in us to work miracles of love and healing as well as to have them worked upon us. We have it in us to bless with him and forgive with him and heal with him and once in a while maybe even to grieve with some measure of his grief at another's pain and to rejoice with some measure of his rejoicing at another's joy almost as if it were our own. And who knows but that in the end, by God's mercy, the two stories will converge for good and all, and though we would never have had the courage or the faith or the wit to die for him any more than we have ever managed to live for him very well either, his story will come true in us at last. And in the meantime, this side of Paradise, it is our business (not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men and women of sincerity) to speak with our hearts (which is what sincerity means) and to bear witness to, and live out of, and live toward, and live by the true word of his holy story as it seeks to stammer itself forth through the holy stories of us all.