Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Storyteller

I love my job. There's not much more to say than that. So what is a typical day in the life of a storyteller like you may ask? Well, there are no "typical" days, but let me give you a glimpse into one day - today.

Magical Moments
I began my day bright and early as a guest at Bethany United Church of Christ. I was there to perform my show, "Lily and the City of Light," for their combined Sunday school classes -- meaning everyone from children up to older adults. In my interactive telling, many children came up to take on the characters in the story, but what happened towards the end was truly amazing. The last character in the show is the King. I turned to the crowd and said, "Hmm. . I wonder where the King is?" A hand shot up in the second row and before I knew it a man was on his way up making his way towards the designated "throne." This man happened to have Down Syndrome. He sat down in the chair, assumed the King's robe and crown and sat up as tall and stately as he could. It was evident to all that something magical was about to happen. There is a point in the story where Lily is offered the gift of a beautiful new heart to replace her dirty, beat-up heart. Before accepting it, she asks the King -- "But whose heart is it?" The typical response which I give the King to say is: "This is my heart, but I want you to have it." However, before I could even get the first words out of my mouth, this man held out the heart to the girl and said, "This is the heart of Jesus Christ." I don't know if words can do the moment justice. In fact, I'm certain they can't. It was beautiful and remarkable and profound in ways that defy explanation -- in ways that only a heart can understand.

Yes, This Storyteller Makes House Calls
After the morning at the church, my next stop was a Cafe in Berea where I was to be performing at the birthday party of a 7 year old girl. She had seen my show, "The Monkey and the Crocodile" at a library last year and had greatly enjoyed it which had led to her mother setting up this party performance. The theme of the party had actually been designed around the theme of the show I would be performing. I know because I received an invitation and saw how closely they were tied together. When I arrived at the party, I walked in and began to scan the room for the mother and the birthday girl. Imagine my surprise when the mother spotted me, introduced herself and then informed me that her daughter was not at the party. She'd fallen sick with strep throat a few days prior. She'd been on antibiotics and the doctors had said that she wouldn't be contagious and would be able to attend her party, but she'd woken up that day and just hadn't felt up to it. Her parents hadn't wanted to cancel the party on such short notice, so there was the mom, hosting a lovely party complete with food, balloons, party favors and entertainment, for everyone else's children while her daughter remained at home with her husband. I felt so bad for them. Then her mother told me: "She isn't upset about missing the party or her friends or any of the rest of it. She was just upset about missing the story. So I was wondering if after you perform here at the party if you might be willing to go to our home down the road and just tell the story to her." How could I resist? My heart went out to the girl and her family. Of course, I said yes. So once I'd finished telling the story "Dog Tails" to a crowd of eager party-goers who each had their own dog tails provided by the mom via Oriental Trading Company, I headed on over to the house where the young girl and her father were waiting for me. When I walked through the front door, I found the girl sitting on the couch in a jumper. Her father informed me that she had changed out of her pajamas just for the occasion. And so I told them the story -- with her and her father playing each of the parts. To see the smile on her face and the flair with which she said each of the lines was priceless. To watch her giggle as her dad portrayed the wolf in the story and tried out different voices for his character was nothing short of delightful. To be able to facilitate an experience like that where a father and daughter could enter into the world of imagination together, well, let's just say that to be part of something like that is truly priceless. Again, it positively defies words.

It's days like these and experiences like these that remind me that there is nothing else I'd rather be doing. As a storyteller, I am privileged to meet so many different people. And these people open up not only their hearts, but also their homes, to me. In many cases I start out almost a complete stranger. But through the power of story and the interactive nature of my work, I never leave that way.

My job does not offer me a robust benefits package. There is no 401k or insurance plan, no vacation time or paid holidays. Really, there is not even a steady paycheck -- I work if and when the work comes, and some seasons are fuller than others. But for all my job may be lacking, I cannot imagine myself doing anything else -- for it is filled with experiences so magical on which I could never put a price tag. To be both a witness and a facilitator of these moments is a tremendous gift for which I am extremely grateful.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Boundaries and Rules

A few weeks ago we had a terrible ice storm here in Northeast Ohio. The ice storm caused the power in our house to go out for over 24 hours. So rather than stay in our home where the temperature was steadily dropping, we decided to seek shelter at my parent's house.

Now an interesting thing happened while we were there. You see, our 5 and a half month old dog, Blitzen, is still in the process of house-training. Estith and I often laugh because when he has to go outside, he makes it very clear to us. He barks. He growls. He howls. He stares. He will even try to nibble at your leg if you don't take his other signals seriously. This happens just about every time he has to go out without fail. However, while we were at my parent's house, I discovered that Blitzen had had a few accidents. These accidents occurred without any previous warnings. There had been no barks, no growls, no bites to warn me that he had to go, and I began to wonder about the cause of his relapse.

Then it occurred to me. In our house, we have gates up all around the house and doors that we can close in order to limit Blitzen to one small area of the house -- primarily, the kitchen and living room. In my parents' house, on the other hand, everything is very open. Blitzen had free range of the house without any gates or doors to confine him. He could easily get out from under my watchful eye, do his business and return without me even knowing it.

His behavior made me reflect on the importance of boundaries. Anyone knows that it's a bad idea to bring home a brand new puppy and give him free range of your house, unless you want your carpet to have a permanently foul odor. We also know that it's a bad idea to hand a 16 year old a set of car keys and tell them they can come home whenever they feel like it. I'm sure that in both of these cases, the puppy and the 16 year old would like to have such complete freedom. However, there is an equally good chance that they would not know how to deal with it well, and eventually would have to pay some consequences which might not be too pleasant in the long run.

Make no mistake, I fence Blitzen in because it's convenient for me. I don't want the hassle of having to clean up all of his messes, and I certainly don't want to deal with any foul odors. But I'm fairly certain that Blitzen is not going to enjoy being in a room covered in his messes for very long either. So the boundaries protect him too.

A lot of people are quite skeptical of rules. And I'll be the first to admit -- if rules are bad, I'm not saying they shouldn't be challenged. However, rules, in general, are meant to protect us -- sometimes from other people, but every bit as often from ourselves. I think about the 10 Commandments. Here's a list of rules that a lot of people don't want to follow because they feel it limits their personal freedom somehow. And certainly it does. However, these rules, when followed, are not burdensome. Rather they are boundaries that keep us from making a mess of our lives and the lives of others. They protect us.

As Blitzen demonstrates his trustworthiness over the course of the next months, I will be able to take down some of the gates and barriers that prevent him from having full range of the house. It's not that I'll be changing the rules. The difference is that he will understand the rules without needing to be told, without needing that visual reminder. The Bible speaks of a day when God's law will be written on our hearts and minds instead of on stone tablets. When we grasp this and allow the rules to become part of our very DNA, we have more freedom than we ever imagined. Not freedom to break rules, but freedom to live by the rules that give life.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Full Armor

People say that getting a new puppy in the winter is a pain. And when they do I imagine they are referring to all of the times that you have to take the new puppy outside in the cold weather. But I didn't have the option of getting my dog in the summer because summer is way too busy for me, so winter had to do. At any rate, these people are right. Taking the dog out into the cold hour after hour is a pain, but I don't mind the cold so much. What I mind is the fact that I have to put on my boots, gloves, jacket, and hat to go out; then come back in and take it all off, only to repeat the cycle numerous times throughout the day. It definitely cuts into my productivity and takes up a lot of time.

Many of you will be familiar with the Bible's exhortations to put on the full armor of God. As I struggled in and out of my winter clothes today, I couldn't help but think of this passage which comes from Ephesians 6:11-18 and says:

11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.
12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

This is quite a list, and this full armor wouldn't be a pinch to get on and off. I can't help but feel like what I have to do to get ready to go out into the cold is a lot like getting fitted with this armor. Putting all my winter "armor" on takes time, and then it's a hassle to take it off -- especially if I'm doing it only 5 minutes later. But unlike my winter armor, God's armor is not meant to be put on and taken off all day. We're meant to put it on and leave it on. If we don't, we're going to waste precious time and be less productive for the Kingdom.

And yet many of us live like this armor of God is something we can put on when we feel like it and take off when it's inconvenient or makes us stand out in a crowd. We've got to get over that mentality and appreciate the fact that we are meant to live in it 24/7. First, we've got to take the time to get into it. Then, we've got to live with the courage, conviction and abiding faith that allows us stay in it.

Frozen on the Outside

It's been cold. And snowy; and wet; and icy. All of the conditions that make me not particularly excited about going outside. My dog, Blitzen, on the other hand, thinks this is the perfect weather for playing. (Yes, I'm sure his name doesn't help the fact. I'm starting to think I should have named him Sunshine or some other summery-sounding name.) Blitzen doesn't seem to mind that our backyard is like a giant sheet of ice that sends him slipping, sliding and sprawling. He doesn't care that I have to make an effort just to keep my balance; at times, forcefully pushing into the snow/ice mixture to try to get some sort of grounding for myself. Blitzen is fascinated by all of the changes that have taken place outside and loves exploring them.

Blitzen particularly loves the tall evergreen tree that sits at the border between our property and that of our neighbor's. He loves to run underneath it and then wildly run back out. But a few days ago when the storm first began, he was quick to notice that the tree was different. It's branches were frozen and rigid instead of soft and pliable. In order to prevent myself from falling due to Blitzen's constant tugging at the leash, I too had to get close to the tree, and as I looked closer, I discovered something interesting. While the outer parts of the branches were frozen solid, the branches closest to the trunk retained their life and vitality.

I couldn't help but draw a parallel to our lives with God as I observed this tree. When we are exposed to the world and the fierceness of the storm going on it and all around us, it is so easy for us to become frozen and cold, and in a lot of ways, dead. This is why we need to stay connected to Jesus -- for the parts of us that stay closest to God stay alive and vital despite the storm. As I reflected on this, I was reminded of Jesus' words in John 15:5 which say: "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."

Jesus is the vine -- or in this case, the trunk of the tree. Oftentimes, we are busy spreading our branches and spreading our influence on our own. We want to see how far we can get -- we keep stretching and stretching and forget that the most vital part of us is not how far outward we can grow, but how deeply we can take root. Winter is a good reminder of this.