a week in the embrace of my tribe

shared by Holly Ringland on Facebook 11 August
via Danielle La Porte
truth be known, I claim membership of a number of tribes - the Uniting Church I describe as my tribe or tradition rather than denomination; my extended family I often refer to as my tribe.

on this occasion, however, I am speaking of another tribe, an international, inter-denominational, and to some extent even interfaith tribe. The Network of Biblical Storytellers. I found them long ago. I love them hard.

the first week of August this year I returned into their embrace, after a four year absence from the international gathering, and two years since our last Australian gathering. this year, I was welcomed to the scholars' seminar as well as attending the festival gathering, rounding out a full week of storytelling, biblical performance criticism, worship, friendship, and healing.

the thing about a tribe, or a community - healthy ones - is the mutual nurture of individuals within it, and of the whole. one both gives and receives, simultaneously, joyously, generously.

so I gave of myself this week, my gifts, energy, time, attention and affirmation. I gave love and friendship, stories and what wisdom they have offered to me.

I gave, and I received.

Having read the book before hand, I listened and participated in conversations about The Oral Ethos of the Early Church, by one of our scholars in the seminar, Joanna Dewey. This collection of essays highlights the orality in first century culture long overlooked, its importance diminished, in biblical scholarship. It also points to the correlating disappearance of women from the stories of Christian community and tradition as written culture served the move to hierarchy dominated by men. I am aware that the position of Dewey and others, who make bold claims for the nature of the first century oral culture, is strongly critiqued by some, and I am still negotiating my way to my own opinion. Our session on this book and subsequent dinner conversations through the week are trickling through my mind as I continue to reflect on how I might summarise the debate, and on what side of it I might land.

We told portions of the Genesis story, focussing on Sarah and Hagar, and I gave my storytelling to this mini-epic as we called it. (The epic telling is a feature of the festival gathering, with storytellers taking portions of the story and telling it in order one after the other, this was a smaller version of that). I brought to life the story of the second time Abraham introduces Sarah as his sister not his wife, and wrestled with the self-serving nature of his actions. It is also another instance in the story where the audience is aware that the narrative is winding around in circles, not necessarily following a strict chronology, with the 90 year old Sarah taken by a king as a concubine ... So the humour, the discomfort and head-shaking nature of this story was a feature of my telling, partly settled only in the moment of performance, as the audience showed me how to tell it with their chuckling: humour with a question mark.

Digital storytelling featured in our seminar sessions, and I received much more than I gave here - though what I received will enhance the gifts of poetry and story I share from now on. Jason shared some tools that are available for our use in telling the biblical stories digitally - I will mostly use them for sharing poems and non-biblical stories, for now at least. So it was that on returning home I took the poem I wrote in the airport and framed it with an image, using an online publication tool, 'A lonely fragment'.

Worship with this tribe is varied and different to anything many of us experience elsewhere. It is often simply an invitation into deep encounter with the story, and through the story, with the Sacred. Songs are simple, stripped bare in order to both invite all and connect deeply - a difficult tightrope to walk in ecumenical gatherings for worship. Many times through the week, I was deeply moved, though I could not have told you why. Perhaps it was that I had let down my guard, let God inside, after months of hardening with the struggle. I don't know; whatever it was, I softened some in response to the invitation, and worshipped more openly than I have allowed myself to in recent months.

Three times I had the opportunity to tell stories from (in)humanity : 'in defence of faith. elizabeth, dutch martyr' finished our seminar storytelling session focussed on fear and courage. Interestingly, at the close of the story, I walked 'through' Elizabeth's daughter, who I had very clearly visualised before me as Elizabeth read to her a letter. For one in the audience, at least, this 'worked', as she felt the daughter disappeared for Elizabeth as she walked towards her death. On reflection, I am not so sure. Perhaps it does work, Elizabeth leaving herself behind in her daughter; on the other hand, I think it is better to leave the daughter there, to have Elizabeth turn from her, and walk off stage to the left, as I have done before.
it happened that I opened Lighting the Fire the two nights I was there - this is an open storytelling session at the end of each day at the gathering. 'at peace. ode to st magnus' opened the first night's Lighting the Fire, and was well received. that night I delighted in a brilliant story from January, told with passion, poignancy and humour; another humorous tale of a catapult in a campsite; and a fairy story riff off the beatitudes, with delightfully rendered characters, from Ross.
the final night of Lighting the Fire was to feature those who had not told before. however, on such nights as that it can be helpful for an experienced teller to warm the evening up, and I was called upon for that honour. 'the sweet sound of grace' was not told as faithfully as it has been in the past - no, it was told faithfully, it was the singing that was unrehearsed and therefore a little pitchy, which disappointed me. but, again, much positive response to the story, and for the use of the lines of the song to frame it. Carole invited two young men to play with her drama bags in a telling of the story of Jesus calming the storm on the lake; we heard a wonderful story of learning not to be afraid of the dark; and the first half of Jonah from a teller you wouldn't know had only just begun in this craft.

From my practice and reflection, I have noticed the importance of emotion in storytelling. I offered a workshop that explored this element of our craft, and the conversation we generated was broad ranging, contained differing perspectives, posed interesting questions, and seemed to offer something helpful for most who were gathered in that room on Friday afternoon. I certainly found the workshop an injection of energy of which I was desperately in need. And a number of people expressed the desire to see me 'do' what we were talking about, and encouraged me to offer such a follow up workshop next year.

Brice & Ross with their gold medals
NBS Friday Night Games
Friday night games is a highlight of the festival gathering, when we come together for an evening of fun and frivolity. I hadn't joined any of the teams, but did join my new friends off to the side in a bit of boogying to the music accompanying the games. At one point, Brice even taught me to waltz, in one of my favourite moments of the whole week. I'll never forget the feeling of watching my dance partner with complete trust, in order to move in time with him, nor the simple and profound joy of the dance. Throughout the evening, we in the back row laughed - oh, my did we laugh - at the mad attempts to capture selfies in the opening game, our disagreement over the hokey pokey (which Ross knows as the hokey cokey), and at so many little things one couldn't possibly remember now! It was such fun, and we wished we could have more time, now that we knew a few more people a little bit better.

Saturday came, however, and people went; one by one, we left our tribe for another year, and I felt incredibly sad. Kindred spirits who are far from where I live; dear Australian friends going home and I am not; challenges still to face on my return - it was a sadness that in some ways has not lifted yet, days after our goodbyes.

But there are promises of visits within our small island, and back to my big island home all to look forward to; connections have been made with collaborators in scholarly and storytelling projects to anticipate with joy; and we have Facebook, email, twitter and more to facilitate connection across the distance, to make it feel not quite so far. I parted on the wings of one last gift, a ride to the airport (I was the only one going to that airport, and the taxi fare would have been considerable), with one of the scholars whose work has had an inspiring impact on me, and who, among the many others there that week, affirmed me as a storyteller and a scholar, delighting in the project of my research, and welcoming the gifts I have to offer.

I found this tribe long ago, and have loved them hard from the beginning. This week I found and was found by them once more and more deeply, and the story of our love is just beginning.

I attended the NBS scholars' seminar and festival gathering with the generous help of:
sarah tells stories patrons and donors
the Ken Leaver Scholarship
New College
the Network of Biblical Storytellers Int'l.

Connect with the Network of Biblical Storytellers: Facebook – webpage – twitter


MOREthanHUMAN said…
Thank you for this, Sarah. Seth Godin's 'Tribes,' led me to one of my creative tribes.
Wendy Johnston said…
Oh Sarah! I've never met you but we have mutual friends you have told me magnificent things :)
I love the "tribe" analogy.
I too am a storyteller and the NBS is one of my tribes too.
And I love them.
I couldn't make the Festival Gathering this year and how I missed it.
I'm an Aussie chick a long way from home in Belfast.
Wendy J
sarah said…
Wendy - your name has been mentioned to me with such affirmation and joy. I hope we might connect in real life one day, but for now, I am delighted to connect with you here. Thank you. If you're in Edinburgh, please look me up! Sarah
Annette Buckley said…
Sarah, such a great reflection on your time at the Gathering. The gift of your participation would have enriched them all. I would have loved to share it with you, but perhaps another time... In the meantime, I do hope you get to meet up with Wendy sometime. You are both precious members of my 'tribe'.
sarah said…
miss you, Annette, and looking forward to sharing stories with you sometime, hopefully, soon x

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