Mortals Telling Stories on the Threshold of Mystery (with apologies to Ray Barfield)

I wonder what the story is.

I wonder what the story is.

You never meet an individual. Oh, sure, you can run into someone standing by herself in the line at the coffee kiosk, exchange greetings, and have a two-way conversation analyzing the coffee, but the fact is: she’s responding with a style, using vocabulary that she learned, and referring to cues she picked up from a vast community of family, friends, colleagues, and culture in which she’s been soaked for years.  When you take the time to learn that history, a “typical business woman” in a suit grabbing a Pike Place at Starbuck’s – almost a cardboard cut-out – becomes Elaine from Savannah who needs a shot of caffeine to escape the lethargy induced by the long drive from Georgia the night before after visiting her ailing mother over the weekend.  Listen a little to the story and watch texture and depth emerge.

Be careful before you entertain all the assumptions that go with regarding this as a "typical country church."

Be careful before you entertain all the assumptions that go with regarding this as a “typical country church.”

I’ve found this to be the case with the congregations with whom I’ve worked over the years, both as a parish pastor, and now as a chaplain. There really is no typical congregation. When you take the time to enter into the particular history of a particular congregation, you discover unique nuances, stories, and traditions which give character to that group of people, regardless of the denominational label they carry.

I began grappling with this reality at the outset of my pastoral career in the early ’80’s. I had been a psychiatric chaplain at the University of Louisville Hospital and had made the shift to local parish ministry at a little Baptist church by the name of Muldraugh, in Muldraugh, Kentucky. I’d arrived at that church, a Ph.D. student in the psychology of religion, and thinking I was God’s gift to these people, that I had the insight for which they’d thirsted and for which they’d be eternally grateful when I imparted it to them. After a few months getting to know the leadership’s names and holding forth in the pulpit, I led a deacon’s meeting in which I revealed the analysis I’d made of the church based on a very good book on congregational dynamics I’d been reading. After I showed them my little chart of where I saw the church heading in the future unless they adopted my particular program, the group fell into silence. Then the chair of the deacons exploded in fury. There isn’t enough room in a short blog entry to reveal all his insights into my pastoral incompetence, or his very colorful language which included questions concerning my genetic origins.  I don’t remember how the meeting ended, but someone offered a weak prayer of dismissal, and I staggered out into the night.

Muldraugh Baptist Church, Muldraugh, Kentucky, on a cold winter's Sunday.

Muldraugh Baptist Church, Muldraugh, Kentucky, on a cold winter’s Sunday.

Later that week, one of my personal, lifetime heroes emerged from the blur. Ernest Ennis had been at that deacon’s meeting and he invited me to his house to drink tea, eat pecan pie (gooey pecan pie), and “just talk.”  After he congratulated me on a “fine sermon this past Sunday,” and reflected on what he’d learned from it, he began telling me stories.  I learned his story. I learned how Mr. Ennis, an engineer and a brick mason, had partnered with three other church members to lay the masonry which composed the walls of the church building.  I learned how the congregation grew from the engineering personnel drawn to Fort Knox at the beginning of World War II and about how that church provided a place of comfort during the early years of a war that seemed fraught with dread.  It dawned on me that I’d been regarding Muldraugh Baptist Church as a cardboard cut-out.

I began going to Mr. Ennis’s house every Thursday afternoon and that investment of time in what Charles Gerkin has called a “living human document” was a major part of what taught me that my books were good beginning points. The substance of my ministry, though, would occur as I immersed myself in the narrative of this particular group of people. When I learned their stories, which in turn composed their Story, I learned that Muldraugh Baptist Church wasn’t at all “typical.”  This congregation possessed depth, character, and texture.

It was about this time that I encountered James Hopewell’s insights in his book, Congregation: Stories and Structures, published after his death. Hopewell illuminated how each congregation possesses stories which the congregants know, or at least sense, and these stories define what sorts of programs and ministries will be successful. It behooves pastoral leadership to know the stories before they try to introduce innovative initiatives. Otherwise, you’re dead in the water before your ship is even launched.  You could very well learn this truth at a painful deacon’s meeting.

RAY BARFIELD is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Christian Philosophy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He received his MD and his PhD (in philosophy) from Emory University. He is a pediatric oncologist with an interest in the intersection of medicine, philosophy, theology and literature.

RAY BARFIELD is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Christian Philosophy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He received his MD and his PhD (in philosophy) from Emory University. He is a pediatric oncologist with an interest in the intersection of medicine, philosophy, theology and literature.

This lesson, first learned more than 25 years ago, comes to me again as I work with Support Teams in our community.  It reminds me that compassionate listening stands as perhaps the greatest skill I can develop and nurture. Indeed, in reading the reflections of a physician by the name of Ray Barfield, active engagement in the narratives of the people we serve is essential for all versions of health care providers. As Barfield says, “If we want a better medicine, we have to become better . . . storytellers.” In a beautiful phrase, Barfield describes the people we serve as “mortals telling stories on the threshold of mystery.” When the people we serve understand that we’re empathetic participants in the ongoing narratives of their lives – where they’ve confronted tragedy, handled adversity, and found some measure of humor and resolution – we go a long way toward weaving a community of health and wholeness.

I’ve come to see our Support Team effort as one means of entering into and nurturing the collective narrative of the communities in which we live. As such, there isn’t really a template for making Support Teams happen beyond being present, listening, and blessing. Indeed, we’re all mortals telling stories on the threshold of mystery.

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