Tiptoe......................peeking through the gate

Southern Storytelling


    We are moving. Not across town or even across the state, but to a different culture and lifestyle. A small town in the South. If I wonder aloud whether we'll be happy here, someone is likely to ask, "Do you like the 1950s?" Our town still has 85 cent ice cream cones and a public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. People are nice to you on the streets. They smile, they spin yarns. Our Yankee son went to the paint store in town and returned an hour later shaking his head. "Everyone around here wants to tell you a story," he said. He was working for us by the hour and counting the cost!

Cotton Field

    Storytelling is a big draw for us. After all, the South did give us William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty. Long generations of family lore waft around town, embellished a bit more with each telling, perhaps.

    We've heard about the woman who came home to a surprise years ago. "Mr. X, his daddy had money. He had an 18-wheeler pull up one day while his wife was out. When she got home, the house was empty." Eudora Welty would shake that family down and get to the bones of that story!

    Or this one: "My Grandaddy told my aunts, 'Don't you ever marry a Fanwalter. You do and I'll disinherit-ya.' The second he died, both Daddy's sisters went after those handsome-crazy Fanwalters. Now I've got mixed-up cousins who have to live with Mama and Daddy because of a Fanwalter." Flannery would dissect the Fanwalters with swift strokes until one of them got her knife (or a bull's horn) in the chest...

      I hunger for stories. I learn through stories. There was a lesson to be learned from each of the stories mentioned above. Jesus taught through stories about widows and coins and pearls. I remember a week in my life when I was treated to storytelling in the South on a daily basis. The storyteller was a Northerner, actually, and not known for oratorical excellence. But perhaps by being in the South, he caught the gift.

     Pastor Will in my childhood church was movie-star handsome, wore cool sunglasses and knew how to have fun. He started our youth group and grew it into a powerhouse of spiritual activity in the area. But, as a kid, I overheard Dad telling Mom that he just didn’t get our assistant pastor and sermons. In Dad’s opinion, they were uninspired.

     Then came a spring mission trip to Appalachia. Pastor Will was taking our youth group down south, to paint and fix up a Christian boarding school. He also would run evangelistic meetings for several nights. Although my siblings and I were too young for the youth group, Mom and Dad signed us all on as support personnel. To me, it sounded like a lot of driving and a long week of hanging around feeling young and useless and wishing I were home.

     But that was not how things turned out. An unexpected treasure lurked right at the heart of our mission trip: Pastor Will’s preaching. Decades later, I can still see him standing at the pulpit in that tiny church, night after night, painting the Kingdom of God in stories that rippled with life, in images that lingered. The Kingdom of God, he said, was like a Lost Sheep. Suddenly, we were the sheep, shivering, cold, stumbling on the mountain in the dark. Then came the Good Shepherd!

     Another night, the Kingdom was like a dangerously poor woman searching for a single Lost Coin. Right then, we were vulnerable. We were riffling through drawers and closets in a frenzy of fear. Imagine our joy when she found the coin!

     And, best of all, on a brilliant Easter Sunday, Pastor Will and the rest of us were digging in a field in a humdrum way, tired and discouraged, when suddenly we happened on a huge pearl lodged deep in the dirt. Giddy with joy, we rushed off to sell everything we had to buy the field with the Pearl.

     After church all of us went down the sunny mountainside and knocked on doors of tin roof shacks to invite people to church. In one living room, we found Granny, huddled in a recliner in a corner of the room.  The family said she was just about to pass. As she lay there, chickens pecked away around her on the cracked linoleum floor. Granny whispered something to her family. Her son said, "Granny wants to know if you'll sing I'll Fly Away?"  Hymn books were handed around, and with aching hearts, we began: Some bright morning when this life is over, I'll fly away.. Suddenly, the glory of God wafted into that room, sweet and heavy with joy. Heaven and earth were joined!

     Easter in Appalachia has never left me. The sunlight streaming through the church and down the mountainside, and the golden glory settling in that tin shack all felt like God’s amazing love for His world. I took in forever that the Kingdom of God was worth everything we might give up on earth. It was a treasure that must be shared.

     On the way home, it seemed only right to bring up Pastor Will and his preaching. “Dad,” I said, “I really liked the sermons this week.” My father was not one for handing out compliments indiscriminately. I waited for his response, a bit nervous. “Yes,” he said with conviction, “I thought the sermons this week were outstanding. Pastor Will really seemed motivated.”

      Dad was motivated, too. Throughout the decades of his long life, he picked up grade school kids and elderly people and brought them to church. For years, he drove miles and miles to a bad section of another town to ferry a carless single mom and her three wild children to Sunday School. He invited co-workers at the college where he taught to services, and he encouraged me to invite my public-school friends.

     Dad knew that each person, north/south/east/west needs to hear the One Story that can “heal the brokenhearted and set the prisoners free” (Lk.4:18). The question now is: Am I motivated to tell it?


    (P.S.-- On this web site don't expect to see many real names of people or towns. An artful disguise is a kindly wrapping for many stories. But I hope to keep everything else intact and, above all, never to disguise the point of the tale.)