I don’t know about your family, but whenever mine gets together we tell lots of stories. Take our trip to the beach last week. I was there with my dad, my younger brother, Julian, and my youngest brother, Warren (and our spouses and kids). When we get together we have no shortage of stories about growing up in the Wood household.
Both my brothers are animal-lovers, so there are plenty of remembrances about the dogs we had growing up. Warren has sometimes joined in to fondly recollect our very first dog, a black lab who we creatively named “Blackie.”
Except there’s a problem with Warren telling stories about Blackie.
My parents gave Blackie away about 3 years before Warren was born. When Warren originally told stories about the first family pet, I thought he was kidding around (and he does love to kid). But no – Warren insisted that he remembered Blackie. He could picture her. He had been there! It took some work to convince him that this was not possible; I think the defining piece of evidence was the fact that we owned Blackie while living in the Cherry Street house, and Warren was born after we moved into the Maple Street house. Warren finally conceded, but in that half-hearted way that says, “I still think I might be right.”
How could Warren remember a dog he never had? I’ll tell you how: through stories.
Warren grew up in a house where Blackie was a part of our family history. We occasionally made mention of her, pointed her out in pictures, speculated as to whether the “farm” she was sent to was real or not. Stories have power, and those family stories were Warren’s stories, too – in such a strong way that they became real.
What we remember is largely defined by the stories we tell.
I don’t remember every part of our Griswold-esque family trip out west, but I very much remember when a ten-year-old Warren repeated the word “Honolulu” for ten minutes during a very boring stretch of I-25. I remember because we love to tell that story. We tell it and retell it, laughing about how much we laughed about it back then.
I honestly don’t remember every family road trip we ever took; many of them are similar and simply blur into each other. But clear as day I remember the time when my mom took an on-ramp too fast, and Warren’s 64-ounce “Big Gulp” tipped out of its cupholder and covered the dash in a flood of Mountain Dew, and Julian (trying to sleep in the back seat) was thrown up against the car door by sheer momentum, and (best of all!) Mom let a cuss word slip in front of us kids for the first time. It makes me laugh right now just thinking about it – that’s a Wood family classic right there!
Now, where were we when that happened?
…I think it was on Julian’s college tour trip, which would be the summer between his Junior and Senior years of High School…
…Which would be when I was in college… and spending my summers backpacking…
…Which means I was not there when that happened.
And yet – man – I can see it clear as day. I can hear the car wheels squeak and see the furiously embarrassed look on my mom’s face.
That is the power of telling and retelling stories. They become part of us, even if we weren’t there.
That’s why we need to retell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection… again.
Earlier this summer we decided to do a series on the Bible of the four stained glass windows at Andrews UMC. Lexi (our awesome Duke Divinity School intern) and I came into the sanctuary to look them over. I gave her first dibs on the window she’d preach on; it seemed the right thing to do as her host for the summer. But internally I was seriously hoping she’d pick this window. I mean, I just preached on the crucifixion back on Palm Sunday, and on the resurrection on Easter. That was just a few months ago. What else do I have to say about an empty tomb?
But if there’s any story we need to hear over and over and over, this is the one. If we hear it enough it will become our own. We’ll remember it like an often-recited family story where it doesn’t matter that it happened years (or millennia) before we were born. We know this story. It’s our story. We were there.
It’s just after dawn on Sunday morning. The Sabbath was over, and thank God. It had been the most heart-breaking Sabbath of our lives. On Friday Jesus had been tortured, betrayed, crucified. That terrible Saturday was no day of rest for us. Our souls were torn up because we believed he was dead.
Sunday morning comes and we get up early. We’re anxious to go to the tomb. We want to prepare his body properly after its rushed pre-Sabbath burial. As we walk there I have a knot in my stomach. I couldn’t eat breakfast. I wanted to do the right thing for my Lord… but I dreaded seeing his lifeless body. I dreaded having to ask the guards to open the tomb. I dreaded them mocking us, again.
And then, just as we came up on the tomb… the ground shook. At first I thought something big had dropped somewhere, one of the Temple stones hitting the ground. But the ground kept shaking and I realized it was an earthquake. The next thing we knew an angel was dropping down from heaven! He looked… like if a person could look like lightening, that’s what he looked like. And the clothes he wore were brighter than any bleach could get them, like pure snow.
Those guards I was worried about? They passed out, they were so afraid! The angel stepped over them and rolled away the stone in front of the tomb. Then he must have been reading our minds (or our shaking knees!) because he told us not to be afraid. He said he knew that we were looking for Jesus, who had been crucified, but that Jesus wasn’t there – he had been raised from the dead! And we could go and meet him in Galilee!
So we ran – oh, we ran! We ran like little kids running toward their birthday party, like a woman runs to reunite with her lover after he’s been off to war. We ran, and our hearts were full of the good news!
Yes, we’ve heard this story before. But we need to hear it and hear it, tell it and tell it, until it becomes our very own. Until it’s like we were there.
Because this story has power.
This has been a terrible week. Too many unnecessary deaths, too much violence. As a white person who is a not a police officer, it has left me feeling grieved and powerless to do anything about it. Like: something needs to be done but what can I do? Is there anything anyone can do to change this, to keep things like this from happening again?
I believe there is power in this story. I believe if more people know the story of how God’s only Son died a sacrificial death for us – how God raised that Son from the grave and embarrassed death into submission – if more people really know this story as their own story then the way they live will change. The love God has for all of us will spread through this story. Death will be stripped of its power to crush hope. And we will be united by this story – our story – everyone’s story.
So read it and reread it. Tell it and retell it. Not just on Easter, but all the time. It’s our story… and our story has power.