August 25, 2019

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Experts have long debated what factors shape a person’s character and conduct. On the one hand, some experts claim that the nature a child is born with is the leading factor. These experts argue that the personality of a child, and ultimately the behavior of an adult, is locked somewhere in a person’s DNA. Some people are simply born with engrained bashfulness, while others are born with engrained boldness. Some are born with genes fostering empathy and kindness, while others are born with genes fostering selfishness and vanity.

On the other side, some experts claim that the nurture a child receives is the leading factor in shaping that person’s character and conduct. These experts argue that the personality of a child, and ultimately the behavior of an adult, is shaped by how parents and society treat the child. Infants who bond closely with a loving parent are more likely to show confidence and compassion. Children who are raised by abusive parents or children who endure traumatic experiences are more likely to exhibit disruptive and violent behaviors. 

More than likely the two factors are intertwined. Both the nature we are born with and the nurture we receive shape what kind of people we become. Maybe further research will untangle how the two factors are intertwined. This morning I’d like to complicate the mix by suggesting a third factor that shapes what kind of people we become. Stories can shape us, powerfully shape us. Stories can shape how we behave, what we believe, and what we become.

My evidence for this suggestion is admittedly anecdotal. I have not conducted or read any peer-reviewed research. I simply have some experiences to draw upon as evidence.

My first type of experiences comes from the history of the Jewish people. Long, long ago, nearly three thousand years ago the great Hebrew leader Moses initiated a tradition for the Hebrew people to observe annually. Once a year, after collecting some of the first produce from their vegetable gardens and farms, they were to hold a celebration, called the festival of first fruits. In ancient times once a year they brought the first batch of their garden harvest to a celebration at the iconic temple in Jerusalem. After presenting a basketful of fresh produce as a gesture of thanks, the Jews also recited a brief story, as we read in Deuteronomy 26:5-8.

“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt and lived there, few in number, there becoming a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians ill-treated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil, and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror with signs and wonders.”

In later centuries, after their iconic temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Jews could not bring the cornucopia as a thanksgiving offering, but they still recited the story annually on another holiday, at Passover. Whether earlier at the great temple or later in their local synagogues and houses, Jews were expected to recite annually the story of their founding. It would be as if all Americans were expected to recite at Thanksgiving a one paragraph story about the founding of our nation.

In the case of the Jews, even after they lost their national sovereignty, they kept reciting this story once a year, generation after generation, century after century. The story became engrained in their memory and psyche. Even after the Jews had lost their farms, their homes, their land, their freedoms, they still kept telling the story, the same story, year after year after year. Long after they knew it by heart, they kept telling the same story.

One of my favorite activities to do with my grandson Colton is reading story books. During our recent family vacation, two or three times each day, we sat down together for me to read books to him. Lisa and Ruth had bought some new books for us to read to Colton. But whenever I asked him what book he wanted me to read, he regularly chose the same one that I had read to him dozens of times when Lisa and I had previously visited Colton, Cameron, Anna, and the baby, Apollo. I have read the story of Corduroy by Don Freeman to Colton so many times that he can finish the sentences on every page (so can I).

I confess that I like the story about the little stuffed teddy bear Corduroy. In case you don’t know the story, Corduroy lives on a shelf with the other dolls and toys in a department store. One day a little girl expresses a desire to purchase Corduroy, but her mother objects because Corduroy is missing a button on his overalls. That night Corduroy searches for his lost button, accidentally mounting the escalator to the second floor of the store, only to have his search cut short then the night watchman spots him and returns him to the toy department. The very next day the little girl returns with all the money from her piggy bank, buys Corduroy, and brings him home. She welcomes him into her home and sews a new button on his overalls so he can be more comfortable.

I like the story about Corduroy, but I have read it so many times that I know it backwards and forwards. I repeatedly coax Colton into reading some other book, but he wants to hear the same one over and over and over. I confess that I have become tired with the story, in part because I already know what happens. But Colton, as do most three year olds, wants more than information, he wants an experience. And a good experience is worth repeating time and time again.

When we hear a good story, or read a good novel, or watch a good movie, or see a good play, we somehow move from our world into the world before our eyes. For as long as that story or novel or play lasts, I lose sight of being on the outside looking in, for somehow I become involved in the drama. For a short while I live inside that story. I feel afraid as do they. I feel sad as do they. I feel courageous as do they. What happens on the stage or inside the book shapes what we on the outside are thinking and feeling.

When I read Corduroy I see words and pictures on a page. My guess is that when Colton “reads” Corduroy he sees himself in the pages. At times he may be the bear looking for something he lost. At other times he may be the little girl cherishing her beloved friend. At times he may be the night watchman playing hide-and-seek. When I read I am looking for information, when he “reads” he is looking with his imagination for involvement. I think he sees himself in the story.

Because the story does not give me any new information, I readily become tired of it. But for a three-year old, because the story touches his imagination, the story is a genuine experience each time. He gladly relives the story time after time, because he can live in the story time after time. Reading the same story over and over takes him out of his world that is often beyond his control, where grown-ups make all the big decisions and where he occasionally loses his toys, and puts him in a world where a little girl makes everything turn out fine. Living in that other comforting world, for even a brief while, may account for why he wants me to read the story over and over and over.

Year after year after year after year for centuries, the Jews kept reciting the same short story. Surely after a few times hearing the story, they could recite the details by heart. Some might have even felt that reciting it was rote, almost tedious. But a few may have caught onto a distinct feature of the story. The story was told in the first person: “Myfather was a wandering Jew…the Egyptians mistreated us and made ussuffer… we cried to the Lord…and the Lord rescued us.”

In most good stories the story teller subtly coaxes us into another world, into the drama on stage or onto the pages of the book. Good story tellers use time honored crafts to wean us from our world as observers into their world where we share the feelings and angst of the participants in the story. We are unaware how much we are engrossed in the story until the curtain goes down and the lights go back on, when we are shocked to return to our normal world with our normal worries.

But this ancient Jewish story teller made the transition from audience listener to on-stage participant obvious. To make sure that Jews imagined themselves in the story, he put them overtly in the story, by forcing Jews to tell the story in the first person: “My father was a wandering Jew…the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer…wecried to the Lord…and the Lord rescued us.” 

The story was not merely intended to inform the Jews about what happened long ago; the story was intended, as are all remarkable stories, to involve them in what happened so they can imagine what might happen. Since God had come to the rescue long ago, God could do the same. Since God had offered them freedom before, they could seek the same. Since God had secured justice before, they should pursue the same. They kept on telling the story because they kept on wanting to live in it. Jews kept the story alive because in doing so the story kept their ideals and dreams alive.

There are many, many other stories in the Bible. Over one half of the Bible contains stories. Many are stories about what people did wrong. Some are stories about what people did right. A few are stories about what people should do. The prominent stories are about what God did. The overarching story boils down to this.

God made people to live in a beautiful home, but people got lost. They searched for home in all kinds of places and things. Never quite found it. In fact, they made things worse for themselves. At times God tried to help, but it never quite worked. Finally God emptied out what he had and paid a big price to win back all the people who were lost. He is gathering them up and bringing them to home finally where he will fix them all up.

That plot may sound vaguely familiar.  The sequence of events is similar to another story you may recall. A bunch of people got lost and mistreated down in Egypt. They looked for help. One day God came along and rescued them. He was bringing them to their homes in hopes of fixing them all up.

If that plot line from Deuteronomy sounds vaguely similar to the plot of a short story I have repeatedly read to my grandson, please forgive me, I seem to have that story on my brain. But it is a good story, which makes it worth repeating. People, like little lost toys, search all over for a home, only to make a mess of what we have until someone comes along to take us home and fix us. 

Do you have enough imagination to see yourself in that story?  Do you have enough honesty to put yourself in the story of being lost and looking for home? Can you believe God found you and is taking you home? I could hear that story over and over, not because I learn anything new. I’ve heard it all before. But I like it whenever someone tells it to me because I experience something renewing when I hear and sense that God found this lost soul.

Nature and nurture may make us by shaping what we are, but stories shape us by telling us who we are. We were lost but God found us. That is worth hearing again and again, but I won’t bore you now with hearing the same sermon again. Once for this morning is enough for us, unless, of course, my grandson were to ask me to read it again. For him I would read it again.