I started training to be an early years teacher in 2005. The first class I had hands-on experience of teaching was in a small village school and was a Nursery class comprising a dozen or so three and four-year olds. This academic year, those Nursery children are in Year 6, their final year of primary school. I happened to be driving through that same village this week – I moved away from there a few years ago – and as I passed the school I couldn’t help thinking about those children. I wonder how things have panned out for them: how they’re doing at school. I wonder whether the various enthusiasms they had as three-year olds for quad bikes, dancing, tractors, Bob the Builder or horrifically cutting each others’ hair while their teacher isn’t looking are still important to them as they prepare to go on to secondary school. I wonder how their families are, how village life is panning out, what has happened next in all those long-running family feuds and village tensions. Is that long-suffering, well-loved cat I heard so much about still alive? All those stories remain unresolved in my mind, driving curiosity.
Wanting to know how a story ends is human nature. When Friends Reunited came on the scene, a lot of the interest in it stemmed from suddenly being able to find out what had happened to people from previous chapters of your life. You could flick through the intervening chapters and look at what they’re doing in life now, catch up on major life events and (unless we were very good at resisting temptation) measure our progress in life against theirs. Facebook continues that ability to effortlessly catch up on each other’s stories – and the compelling nature of story is reflected in Facebook rolling out their Timeline (whether we wanted it or not!) as a means of flicking back through the chapters of each others’ lives.
What happened next?
Think about all the stories in the Gospels which we don’t know the answer to. Just take one chapter from Matthew’s gospel. In Chapter 9, there are lots of healings. I won’t look at them individually, but have you ever thought:
- what happened next?
- what went through the mind of that person who was healed?
- what happened to members of the crowds who witnessed some of these events?
Pretty much anything can become a story when you reflect upon it, but this can take practice and doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Having time and space to meditate, pray, reflect and just consider simple things can lead you into creating stories which tap into eternal truths. It might seem dangerous and alien to be talking about making up stories about Biblical material, but let’s be clear what I’m talking about. This isn’t rewriting scripture, it is engaging with it in a way which draws us further into it. Our natural predisposition to impose a narrative, to seek a story can lead us to open our hearts and minds to the work of the Holy Spirit to guide us into deeper truths which, discovered through story, are often more easily taken to heart.
Finding God’s stories
I worship at Ripon Cathedral. The oldest part of the building dates back to Saxon times – the 7th century Saxon crypt. Being down there in St. Wilfrid’s Chapel, modelled on Christ’s tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it is easy to recreate the burial of Jesus and the discovery of the empty tomb in your mind (which, indeed was the whole point of Wilfrid having it built that way). Story and narrative is built into church architecture… but not always in the way in which the builders intended. An ancient place like Ripon Cathedral seems an obvious place to ponder stories, and there are plenty of those documented in the history of the Cathedral. However, I recently found myself dwelling on a story which stretches back even before the very earliest parts of the Bible were written.
A long time ago, on a planet not far, far away…
During evensong I looked down at the floor and saw it is made of a stone in which prehistoric creatures are fossilised. These are sea creatures who lived and died millions of years ago and became embedded in the sea floor before being compressed and fossilsed then unearthed, millennia later, and worked into smooth stones for construction. I’m told these stones are made of marble which was reworked from a mausoleum in the 18th century before being laid as the chancel floor. Imagine the timescale of all that. Imagine their story…
…and as I imagined and dwelt upon these stones, I had a glimpse of that timeless aspect of God before whom history unfolds as an epic story. All stories have a storyteller and a point of view. The wonder of our faith is that we sometimes get these glimpses, these insights through grace of how the story seems from the point of view of the Author of All. The Incarnation seen against an eternity of time is spectacular: the infinite storyteller entering decisively into the story. The death and resurrection of the Word-who-was-in-the-beginning-of-All… a decisive narrative turning point and so much more.
And so, pondering those ancient, fossilised creatures who witnessed the power of the sea and were pressed into their present form by immense forces in God’s creation before being worked by men into a polished floor, I leave the last words to the author of Psalm 93 which suddenly put the story I was exploring in my head into context:
The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed in majesty and armed with strength; indeed, the world is established, firm and secure.
Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity.
The seas have lifted up, Lord, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea — the Lord on high is mighty.