The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
All Things Are Connected
Early on in my time of parish ministry, I learned a humbling lesson. It has shaped the way I lead worship through many decades.
In our small parish in rural Iowa, there were several youngsters who always came forward for the "children's sermon" before going to their Sunday School class. One morning, none of the kids were there, so I stood before the congregation and said, "Well, since there aren't any children here this morning, we'll skip that part of the service and move on to the anthem."
The good folk of the congregation -- who were normally fairly polite and reserved -- literally shouted, "NO! Tell the story!" So I did.
After church, several of the members admitted that they often got more out of the children's story than they did out of the "big sermon." I realized, even then, that they were not telling me that I had exceptional skills as a story teller and educator (sigh). No, they were letting me know about the limited impact of my wise and scholarly preaching (sigh, again). Ever since, I have included the children's story, even when no kids are there.
In many churches, the adults listen very carefully to the message that is given to the tykes. It is a very human, and often humorous, part of the service, where we are reminded that kids do say the darndest things. On a deeper level, it is a time in the service when the leaders are challenged to strip away the complexity of the day's worship theme, and tell a story that speaks simply and truthfully to our hearts and our minds.
After I figured out that grown-ups listen attentively for spiritual insight in the story time, there were a few occasions where I was guilty of using that liturgical moment primarily to slip a barbed message to the elders. That's cheating the kids -- and it is usually a pretty transparent strategy to the adults. The story needs to be directed at the children, but that doesn't mean that it can't speak to the adults, too. So a good storyteller will (1) make sure that everybody in the room can hear what is going on, and (2) look for the ways in which multiple layers of meaning can speak appropriately to all who are present.
In my current work with Eco-Justice Ministries, I don't serve a single congregation. I am free from the weekly challenge of finding a creative and meaningful children's story. (I get to write these Notes, instead!) As a guest preacher in many churches, I can develop a small collection of great stories that can be used as I travel around. Those few, carefully selected and well-polished narratives do make me look like a good storyteller (finally!), and they do speak on many levels to diverse congregations.
Here's the gist of one of my favorite stories, All Things Are Connected. It is an old African folktale, from the area that is now known as Congo. A very gifted storyteller who did a brief internship with Eco-Justice Ministries shared it with me, from the book by Pleasant DeSpain, Eleven Nature Tales: a multicultural journey. The full version of the story in the book is worth reading, and telling. (NOTE: The fairly negative review that Amazon.com posted from Publisher's Weekly is for a different book.)
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Long ago (of course), a cruel chieftain ruled a small village. He used violence and fear to force the people to do anything he demanded. Only a wise and elderly grandmother was brave enough and powerful enough to speak truth to the chieftain.
Near the village was a large marsh. Every night, the gentle croaking of frogs provided a calming backdrop for the people's sleep. (Here, I get to make my "ribbit, ribbit" frog sounds.)
One night, the chief had a bad dream. The anxiety that woke him up made him hear the frogs as an annoying sound, not a relaxing one. He shouted to the frogs to be quiet, but they kept on singing, and kept him awake the rest of the night.
The next morning, the sleepy, angry chief called all of the people together. He told them to go to the marsh, and to kill all the disobedient frogs. In fear and with deep regret, the people ran to do what he had ordered -- all except the old grandmother.
The woman told the chieftain, "Your demands are foolish. I'll tell you what is true: all things are connected." The chief was baffled by this message. "You will see!" she said.
That night, all was silent in the village. The people were restless without the familiar sound of the frogs, but the chief was delighted, and he slept soundly.
A few days later, another sound was heard in the quiet evening: Zzzz, zzzz, zzzz. Swarms of mosquitoes bit everyone in their sleep. This was upsetting to everyone, and the chief's anger flared up again. Her ordered the small bugs to leave him alone, or he would have them killed, too. But they just kept biting him.
In the morning, the chief again called the people together, and ordered them to the marsh to kill all the 'skeeters. But there were far too many insects. Without frogs to eat the larvae, the mosquito population grew quickly, and soon they overwhelmed the whole area. The people and all the animals suffered from the hungry mosquitoes.
The villagers packed their belongings and moved far away from the insects -- and from the abusive ruler. As the chief sat all alone, he finally understood what the old grandmother meant when she told him that all things are connected.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org