Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Story time matters...

Our annual Cinema Sermon Series begins this Sunday; several sermons of pairing scripture with film. First up: The Hunger Games, a 2012 adaptation of a young adult book series I found gripping. I know not every Plymouth Creeker is a big movie fan. So you may wonder why each year I take time out for this preaching practice. Am I bored with the Bible? Looking for excuses to watch more movies? Or is there…maybe…a deeper reason?

Well, I hope there’s more to it than subjecting y’all to my silver screen fascination! It has to do, basically, with Jesus, four year-olds and brain development.

Here’s what I mean: You may’ve heard about IOCP’s program called the Caring for Kids Initiative (CfKI). It supports low-income families in our community by offering scholarships for quality preschool. The program’s theory derives from research that strongly shows that good early childhood education helps poor children better prepare for kindergarten. And being prepared for Kindergarten helps them achieve better in school, graduate more frequently, avoid drugs and prison in later life, etc. A great investment for both society and these families. But to make sure their work was successful, in 2010 CfKI sponsored a study of themselves. They tested children with CfKI scholarships and not from similar backgrounds, and found that yes, indeed, CfKI kids scored higher than their counterparts in every tested measure.

Expect for one-“Story Comprehension,” i.e. how well kids who’ve been read books can tell you, after the fact, what happened. The main character’s name. The basic plot outline. Fortunately, gains in other areas justified continued CfKI funding. But because Story Comprehension is a vital component to childhood development, CfKI started a new program to combat the deficiency.

They call it Story Time Matters. It involves recruiting community volunteers who read books to CfKI kids and ask basic questions after the fact. Simple, right? And what do you know? After the program’s first year, CfKI kids showed improvement. Which not only increased scores, but set them up better for a life of learning. Because the program title isn’t just cute. It’s truthful. Stories matter.

Ever notice how Jesus used stories to make his most memorable points? “Who’s my neighbor, whom I should love,” a guy asked him. Jesus said, “Let me tell you about this good Samaritan.” “What’s God’s Kingdom like?” “Here’s a story of Sheep and Goats, a Lost Sheep.” “Who is God?” “Have you heard the one about that Prodigal Son?” Of course, his audience wasn’t just four year-olds beginning their brain’s development. Still, he knew that stories matter well beyond our developmental years.

Indeed, I’m convinced that how we understand our lives, identities, God is indissolubly linked to the stories we tell ourselves. About good and bad, hope and despair. “Who am I,” a person asks. Answer: a story about her birthplace, family, maturation. “Who is God,” the Israelites asked in Sinai. God answered, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of slavery in Egypt…” Stories matter. Story time matters, therefore, if we’re to grow in spirit and mission. That’s why we read the Bible, and why I preach on movies regularly.

You see, the method of storytelling that Jesus preferred- parables- worked for his audience. Oral communication was well respected. Plus, they lacked video cameras! Were he to live these days, however, I’m convinced Jesus would enjoy movies, film and Youtube. See them as opportunities to tell stories about everyday life (like the parables), communicated with dramatic impact. And that matters because we learn through stories, our brains are constructed through “narrative reasoning,” some say. What matters, then, are how well we tell the stories and what they’re encouraging us to believe. Are we convinced life has a happy ending? Does that provide us faith, courage and hope? I think telling the stories of God’s presence with us helps such good things grow in our spirits. And using contemporary storytelling forms like movies helps us integrate that divine story into the ones we tell ourselves.

Besides, stories are enjoyable! Jesus never said church should be bland and boring! So I hope you enjoy this year’s cinema series. Lights…camera…

Grace and Peace,
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