Giving Thanks for Stories

by | Oct 23, 2023

We give thanks to you, O God;
we give thanks; your name is near.
People tell of your wondrous deeds.

At the set time that I appoint,
I will judge with equity.
When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants,
it is I who keep its pillars steady.                              

Psalm 75:1-3

From week to week, the state of the world seems to be getting worse. The war in Ukraine continues, though it has been pushed out of the news by the war in Israel-Palestine. As much as we Americans want to help, we are hamstrung by the inability of our elected representatives to agree on a leader to allow Congress to act. I am embarrassed by the comfort and peace I experience in my life, as I try to imagine what it feels like to be trapped in a small piece of land like Gaza, with millions of people trapped without food, water, or power, but with bombs raining down on them relentlessly.

How do people survive through times when hope is nowhere to be found? People of faith—especially those rooted in the Jewish faith—have woven into the fabric of their being the ability, even the habit, of telling stories. More than anything, we tell the stories of God’s grace, God’s love, God’s great power to save, even from the most dire of circumstances. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, there are calls to tell the story of the ways God delivered the Hebrew slaves escaping Egypt, and other occasions of God’s mercy. In fact, many times God begins communicating to the Israelites by reminding them of their deliverance. As Jesus calls disciples to do his mission, one of the most powerful tools they use is to tell the story of Jesus’ healing power and love, and the miracle of Christ’s resurrection. Our reading of Scripture, and our offering of our own testimony, are ways we regularly tell the story of God’s story of constant care for the human condition.

As I mentioned, I sometimes feel ashamed for the ways God has blessed me. In fact, it was an issue as I began to prepare for ministry, because I could not understand why I was given so much. It seems insensitive to speak of the blessings some of us enjoy, especially when others are hurting. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15) And it is true that we must not flaunt our privilege—and most critically, we cannot act as if we have earned the privilege, because whatever we have, is through the grace and plan of God.

But I have learned that sometimes, people in pain need to be reminded that there will be better times, that God will come through, that there will be life, even out of the worst of circumstances. Each of us is part of God’s story of humanity, and each of us has stories to share. Sometimes, when there is nothing else, and sometimes, even when we have plenty of material wealth but little meaning, we need to hear God’s story anew in the lives of our friends, neighbors, and our saints and ancestors who came before us. And if we need to hear from others, we need to tell our story as well—sometimes even to ourselves, to remind us that God is alive, and blessing us with every day of our lives.

Holocaust survivor and human rights activist Elie Wiesel prefaced his novel, The Gates of the Forest, with this Hasidic parable:

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 man because he loves stories.

In the face of despair, may we be brave to stand up and tell our stories of God’s greatness—to ourselves, to each other, to a hurting world.