Holocaust survivor and human rights activist Elie Wiesel included one of my favorite stories as a preface to his novel, The Gates of the Forest.
“When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer,” and again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.
God made human beings because God loves stories.”
We are indeed story loving people. Our identity is formed and shared in and through stories. Three times in the last few weeks I have met with friends I had not seen for quite a while. How did we choose to reconnect? We reconnected by sharing coffee and stories. We shared stories about what we’ve been up to since we talked last. We shared stories about what people we love have been up to as well. “Tell me one more story” is not just the request of a child who doesn’t want to go to sleep, it is the request we all make of one another when we get together.
If you need more evidence of the power of stories in our lives, be sure to watch the Academy Awards this Sunday night. Movies, which are simply stories brought to life on the big screen, play a powerful role in our culture. They inspire us and get us talking with one another. They entertain us and distract us from the stresses of everyday life. They bring couples, families, and friends together to create a shared experience not just in viewing the movie together, but in discussing and replaying the experience for hours and days after.
In our Living Compass 2013 Lenten Booklet, this week’s entry talks about the Academy Awards (which take place this Sunday evening), movies, and our love of stories. The entry appears below, and the entire booklet can be found at www.livingcompass.org/lent.iml
“The Stories and Scripts of Our Lives”
Religious truths are communicated primarily through stories, with the Bible being the most well known collection of religious stories. The Bible contains hundreds of stories of Jesus, Paul, Moses, Sarah, Ruth, and countless others. The stories are there to teach us and to show us how peoples’ lives have been transformed by God. Together, the stories create a narrative, which for we Christians, is the primary narrative that informs and guides our lives.
All families, cultures, and religions tell stories to both entertain and to pass on essential truths. In our modern culture, movies are a dominant form of story telling. Tonight’s annual Academy Awards extravaganza is a reminder of just how important movies are in our culture. Like stories, movies come in every genre: comedy, historical, religious, drama, family, and mystery to name just a few. Some movies are simply for entertainment, while others embody and teach important values about character, relationships, and meaning. While a movie involves many different creative talents, the whole process starts with the writer. Without a writer, without a script, without a story, there would be no movie.
While each of us has been formed by the stories of our families, culture, and faith, we have also each been given the freedom to be the scriptwriters of our own lives. We get to write the stories that define our lives and our relationships. We get to decide if the relationships between the lead actor or actress, ourselves, and the other cast members will be marked by compassion or conflict. We get to decide what values and belief systems will influence the choices we make. We get to create the story line this is our life.
So how is the story/movie of your life going these days? Are you excited or bored by it? Are you content or frustrated? Whatever you may be feeling, the good news is that the movie of your life is not finished yet! The story/movie is still being written. Are you unhappy in an important relationship in your life? Are you unhappy in your work? Have you lost a sense of purpose or meaning in your life? If so, there is time to expand and rewrite your script rather than continue to write a story you are not happy with or that is not fulfilling. We cannot write a new beginning, but our Christian narrative promises us that we are free to begin writing a new ending today.
Our freedom to write and rewrite the scripts and stories of our lives is one of the greatest gifts God has given us. And remember that the greatest award for a well-written, and well-lived life, is not an Academy Award, but rather the peace and joy–the “right spirit within us”– that comes to us and our loved ones when we dare to dream and create such a life.