Sunday, January 12, 2014

Learning from the Great Raconteur

I can still remember the fascination I experienced the first time I heard the word ‘raconteur’.  The way it was pronounced made it sound to me like the man in question was being called some kind of dark-rimmed-eyed mammal who’d decided to take his show on the road!

(insert groan here)

In reality, though, the word raconteur refers to “a person who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way – from the French: relate, recount.”  In popular culture this term is used to describe someone who is the life of the party, a person who can hold the attention of the room and name drop with the best of them as he or she beguiles hearers with interesting tales. 

Harvey Cox said this: “There has never been a better raconteur than Jesus of Nazareth.”

While the titles of ‘Lord’, ‘Son of God’ and ‘Messiah’ are the ones most often associated to Jesus, I also like thinking of him as the Master Raconteur.  In the gospels, Christ is the life of the party.  On every page we find him spinning parables and stories that captivated the minds of both sinners and saints. 

My hunch is that Jesus probably told and retold those same anecdotes over and over again.  He told them so often that when the time was right, his disciples had little problems getting them down on parchment.  Jesus used those parables not simply to entertain, but in order to point his hearers towards what life in the Kingdom of God would look like.  The Master Raconteur, he knew his audience and knew when to use each anecdote for maximum effect.  And that small group of men and women who followed him around day after day got a steady dose of life-giving and worldview changing ideas.

It would be safe to say that there is really just one main model for preachers or pastors in churches today.  These ministers address the same group of people over and over again, week after week.  It hasn’t always been this way, though.  Not that many years ago, itinerant preachers would travel crisscross the country on horseback.  One Sunday they would sermonize to one congregation and the next they would be in another small church.  These preachers would often give the same homily multiple times before starting the cycle over again.

Our ministry here in Mozambique looks more like those itinerant ministers.  We work with about 50 churches all over the province of Cabo Delgado.  Our family is responsible for visiting about a third of them.  So, I will often preach the same sermon for weeks at a time before switching to a different message.  In working with growing disciples, Rachel and I will use the same set of studies over and over again.  In counseling people one-on-one, I’ll pull out an example from my bag of parables and apply it to that situation. Much of our ministry is teaching and storytelling and so we use the same stories over and over again.  This itinerant ministry allows us to get a lot of mileage out of our repertoire of stock stories.

It has been extremely helpful to carry around my bag of stock parables to use in different situations.  And while in developing one’s own bag of rhetorical tricks, it is certainly good to create and field test the stories, I have… ahem… borrowed… ahem… many of them from others and adopted them for myself.  Certainly biblical stories and allusions to the text are essential, but the people we are working with are part of a culture that is predominately illiterate and biblically illiterate.  So, to meaningfully connect with them, I need to tell stories and make connections to what they are familiar with.

Here are some samples of stock parables/stories that I, as an Apprentice Itinerant Raconteur, consistently use: 

Be a funnel not a cup – A cup can only receive so much, while a funnel can be continually filled.  This is great for reminding disciples that they must pass on what they are learning to others or they shouldn’t rightfully expect to learn anything more.

The dangers of being a spider – Some church leaders like to control everything.  They sit like a spider in the middle of their web and if they sense movement of any kind, they’ll run over to take charge of that.  This image is great for encouraging people to remember that it is healthy to relinquish control… I mean, nobody wants to be a spider!

Xima and matapa – Meals in this part of Mozambique are typically made up of 1. xima (corn or cassava made into a loaf that looks like a big heap of mashed potatoes) and 2. matapa (greens, beans, or meat to accompany it).  Our friends would think it bizarre to eat either of these things by themselves – they must be eaten together.  So, whenever I am talking about two things that need to go together, like for example, baptism and repentance, I will say that they are like xima and matapa – you can’t have one without the other.

Lonely charcoal won’t work – In many of the villages that we work men make charcoal to sell in the city.  Everyone knows that one piece of charcoal alone will not get hot.  It is easy for our friends to see that humans also need to be around others of a similar mind if they have any chance of getting a fire started.

The papaya vs. the mango – Papaya trees grow tall and begin producing fruit very quickly, but they won’t last long.  When the papaya tree dies, the tree’s wood is soft and squishy – not good for burning.  Mango trees, on the other hand, take a long time to mature but will end up blessing a community for years to come.  As we work with young churches, we often remind them that slow growth is usually the kind that yields long term stability.

Wear your helmet! – Here in Montepuez it’s common to see a person driving a motorcycle with a helmet strapped to the back of the seat.  Because of the heat, traffic cops don’t usually enforce the law about people wearing the helmet.  As long as riders have the helmet with them, that is usually good enough to avoid a fine.  But, if the person is in an accident, having the helmet tied behind them won’t do any good.  This image is a good reminder that it isn’t enough to just know what is good and true, we have to also actually wear it/do it.
Stories like these can help key ideas stick in people’s minds.  They feed imagination and imagination is the motor providing motivation for moving forward.  These linking stories function like rhetorical plumbing.  They are the pipes and spigots that keep concepts flowing to soften the soil where the Word can be received.

I know that I have a long way to go to come close to approaching the same level of storyteller and itinerant raconteur as Jesus, but I hope my attempts at imitating him will bear more and more fruit.

At church this morning, Armindo, a young man I’ve been discipling for the past few years preached the sermon.  He shamelessly ‘borrowed’ one of ‘my’ stock parables.  Did he cite me as his source?  No.  Did it bother me?  Not a bit.  Because that is a hint, a small piece of evidence that these subversive stories are wriggling into the hearts and minds of our Makua-Metto friends.

May God grace us to become better Kingdom Storytellers as we learn to imitate the Master Raconteur.

Grace and Peace,