Midweek Musing: stories, gifted

This time last year I was celebrating finding a tribe to belong to and love. Twelve months on, the annual gathering of the Network of Biblical Storytellers was happening again in Washington, D.C., and I was presenting or performing every day. Last week, I told you about what I did in the scholars seminar, which takes place before the Festival Gathering. This week, I will reflect on some of the gifts I received from others, individuals, and the gathering collectively. You will find reflections on the contributions I made to the gathering in this month's newsletter.

Elizabeth Adkisson draws you into the story with her very presence. She is grounded. She sees her audience and you know you are seen. She sees the story and its characters, and through her eyes, and the movement of her body, you see clearly the places and the people.
Elizabeth told several stories that I heard last week; the one I remember most right now is the story of the walk to Emmaus (in Luke) after the crucifixion of Jesus. I have told this story, even crafted a dramatic and poetic telling of it for worship, and I have heard it countless times over lifetime in Christian community. This was the first time I felt their sadness, as Elizabeth expressed sorrow in the voices and characters of these two walking and talking with the stranger. How bland are our depictions of this moment, too often when reading it aloud; or how quickly we jump to the wonder of recognising the resurrected Jesus, because we know where the story is going. In this encounter, I appreciated the wonder so much more, because I had first properly felt the sadness, disappointment, misunderstanding of those two trudging home from Jerusalem.

night on the verandah of the 4H Conference Centre

The Network of Biblical Storytellers takes biblical storytelling seriously. Through the week, conversations explored ways to do what we do better, we named honestly what was working and what was not, listened for the voices of the next generation, and committed to reflecting with the board on all this. The board itself acts with openness and transparency, presenting finances with accountability to the broader membership, communicating the work it does on our behalf. In particular, the international missions of partnership with people in countries such as Haiti and the Philippines, encouraging biblical storytelling in places where oral storytelling is more accessible and appropriate than written texts; and the Academy for Biblical Storytelling, which offers professional development for biblical storytellers as performers and as teachers of this craft to others. Masters students of the Academy produce resources that add to the library of the Network in support of our mission to encourage others to know the biblical stories by heart. We also hear from our founder whenever we gather, Tom Boomershine, who challenges us to keep growing and developing as a network. And we commit to telling the biblical stories in all their breadth, the challenging ones and the comforting ones, and this year, the ones with uncovering of 'feet' and tending flocks among the lilies – including all the nuanced euphemisms you can imagine!

The arena, our games hosts and resident DJ
The NBS doesn't take itself too seriously, however. We have an Olympic Games night each year, since 1996 when the actual Olympics were happening in Atlanta. Every year we let our hair down and play very silly games, with sheep vying for drinking water, talking selfies with as many people as possible, creating skits to advertise something from a bible story (such as sealis for Jacob with his two wives and their two servants, the winning advert). We laugh together – oh, how we laugh together.
Because we also wrestle together with challenging biblical compositions, and conflicting ideas about how to go about our mission; and we cry together, because the stories stir us deep within.

Speaking of doing things together, we do a bit of singing and praying together over those three and a half days, too. In our praying I saw another gift, profound in its generosity, welcome, and love. For many years, Rabbi Rachmiel (Rock) Tobesman has participated in the festival gathering, a Jewish storyteller entering the stories and praying with this bunch of Christian storytellers. Twice Rabbi Rock led our praying, calling us to prayer with a haunting horn as we remembered those who had died and were on our hearts, and in our closing worship with Aramaic and English words of prayer. Rabbi Rock also tells stories and leads workshops, and his presence is for me a witness to hope of better relationships between Christians and Jews, between people of different traditions more generally. Story is something all humans share, and when we give space to each other's stories, to each other in the story, we make possible healing and wholeness for each other.

Marti Steussy (our keynote speaker) spoke to us of the Bible, of inviting it to breathe. Rather than assuming there is one right way to receive biblical texts, she reminded us of the vitality and life of these compositions, their range of possible meanings - within boundaries; their danger, so treat them with respect, and their hope, so receive them with joy. These stories draw you in, especially when, in biblical storytellers, they are embodied and given breath.

I haven't even mentioned our featured performer, this year a singer-songwriter, telling stories through music. Andrew Landers told those stories that made us laugh and made us cry, made us wonder at God's love, lament at human lack of it, and revel in the miracle of life. Check him out for yourselves: Andrew Landers


GoTell Tom said…
Thanks, Sarah, for this great summary of the Festival Gathering. It helped me remember the details of the week. It was such a wonderful week for me, my best week of the year. I continue to be amazed at the energy and creativity that is generated by people telling these stories. As a sometimes English professor and college English major who is familiar with a broad range of literary traditions, I am surprised at the distinctive impact that these stories have in comparison, for example, with Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, both of whom I treasure. And I am very grateful for your contributions to the community and to this FG. Peace, Tom
Thank you, Sarah, for this wonderful reflection on our week together in DC. Having enjoyed an entire week face-to-face with the NBS community, Tom and I are experiencing withdrawal. The letdown is somewhat like the day after Christmas when I was a child. Glad to be home, but we sure do miss the deep connection of people gathering around the biblical stories. Good to have this online connection through your musing, Sarah. And by the way, you are part of why the Seminar and FG were so meaningful!
sarah said…
Tom and Amelia - thank you. I was so glad to spend more time with you this week, sharing stories, gleaning from your wisdom and experience. You, also, are part of why Seminar, FG, and the network are so meaningful xx

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