A visitor to an Austrian refugee camp felt sorry for a little wisp of a girl, carrying a bucket of water along a muddy path. He asked her, “How long have you been without a home?” Surprised, the nine-year-old looked up at him and replied, “Our family has a loving home. We just don’t have a house to put it in.”
This vignette begins a newsletter edited by Dr. Rilling which was meant to offer commentary and sermon ideas for pastors set to preach during the upcoming season. Story took first place. Ah, the power and poignancy of a few lines of dialogue to bring one into a space and to set the stage. At once, we’re the visitor set on our heels by the child, who has shown us ourselves.
Story has the power to do this, and to accomplish it across generations and distances of miles, cultures and times.
Unless, we press for the facts of the case.
Was there really such a camp? such a visitor? such a girl? And would she have replied so? Is this a true story or just a fabrication? Did it really happen or are you just making this up? I’m not easily tricked, you know!
As soon as you ask all these things, you feel differently about the story. You erect walls of protection against, rather than opening windows to, the message and meaning in your midst.
While in our modern day rush to know exactly what happened and when, who said it and how, we may have honed our delivery so it is defensible and fact-checkable, but we also may distract ourselves from the truth at its core. That one could have a loving home without a ‘house to put it in’ is a truth we could all rally around. And, in fact, that may be just the truth we need to embrace to ignite our concern for those who, even without houses, have hearts capable of loving just as ours are.
Stories which inspire us with truth need not be factual, annotated or attributed. Oddly, they may have the power to teach us more about truth than ‘true’ stories do.
In Dr. Rilling’s day, it was not customary to attribute all quotes or verify all sources. He regularly uses poetry, lines from hymns, and conversations where “a famous preacher once said.” Only occasionally does he mark these with an end note. Perhaps if he had had the internet, many administrative assistants, and a schedule he could clear for several weeks, he might have included a few more clues as to his sources.
As it stands, I’m left to guess which words are his alone and which he borrowed from acquaintances in conversation, dinner guests (I understand that Billy Graham was one), fellow pastors, or the volumes in his study. At first, I found this uncomfortable, as it is so unlike the documents I read and the world I live in, but I’m getting accustomed to it. It makes for fewer stops in the reading and more flow to the story.
And the story, after all, sets the stage. All that’s left is to give myself over to the possibility that these words have something to teach me, and then I’m home free.