Once Upon a Time

I have had most of my granddaughters with me for the better part of three weeks and paradoxically, I feel both tired and younger.  The days I have had all five (all between the ages of 7 and 10) I am definitely tired. But their wide-eyed expectation keeps me going from early in the morning until they are tucked in at night.

I tell the girls a bedtime story every evening.  I have no idea what story I am going to tell until seconds before I begin. It usually involves young girls on an adventure not exactly endorsed by their parents, but one that ends with children or animals being saved from peril.

I’ve known pastors who spend no more than one hour in sermon preparation.  They think it does not show.  It does.  But the pastor is so engaged trying to pull together cogently connected paragraphs that the sermon seems better than it actually is.  The pastor’s brain is working hard.  Not so the audience.

There are a lot of reasons creating a sermon on the fly is a bad idea.  Foremost among them is the difficulty of pulling together didactic information without forethought.  Telling a story is different.

We are narrative-based creatures.  We do not sleep without dreaming, and we do not dream in mathematical equations.  We dream in stories.  Our need for story is downright physiological.  Therefore, our brains are wired for stories.  That is one of the reasons I prefer narrative preaching.  Everyone loves a good story.

Good stories always have the same wonderful elements.  There is a protagonist who wants something with which the audience can identify.  There is an antagonist who wants to stop her.  Suspense builds to a dread/hope axis.  The audience dreads one outcome and hopes for another.  A good story always makes sure the audience gets what it wants, but not in the way it expects it.  The element of surprise is the icing.

I have a friend who once considered investing in a Broadway musical about a traveling executioner. I had a hard time imagining a story with an executioner as the protagonist.  So did audiences.  The show flopped.  You should be suspicious of a playwright who ignores conventional narrative wisdom.  We want our heroes to be flawed, but we want our stories to be redemptive.

There is another interesting truth about humans and stories.  We want the hero to behave better than we are likely to behave in real life.  There was one day in the last couple of weeks in which one particular granddaughter had difficulty with the truth.  As a grandparent, I do not believe it is my job to be the moral police; parents get to do that.  But I do need to keep the peace.  She showed little contrition.  She just wanted what she wanted and was willing to be untruthful to get it.

However, when story time came she desperately wanted the hero to make the right decision and tell the truth.  It seemed rather ironic.  Filmmakers know the audience is always moral.  In their real lives the viewer may have just embezzled massive sums from their employer, but when they show up at the movies they want the hero to make the right decision.  We are an endlessly fascinating species.

Since the girls were staying for a longer period, this summer’s stories turned into the bedtime equivalent of a ten-episode summer cable series.  That allowed me to create a story arc with a fair amount of complexity.  After I finished each evening, I was more eager than the girls to find out what was going to happen next.

Bedtime stories take on a life of their own.  You do not always control the outcome.  I cared about the characters I had created.  Would they find redemption?  Would the hero do the right thing?  A lot was at stake, especially the sweet dreams of five little girls.  I needed to get it right.

I always left each episode with a cliffhanger.  There would be collective groans, “Please GramPaula, tell us what happens next!”  “Ah, but you must wait,” I said.  I had ulterior motives.  It is easier to get five little ones to bed when they know the answer to a cliffhanger will be revealed as soon as they get under the covers.

This current series ended with everyone safe, but forever changed.  That felt about right.  Isn’t that about all any of us can hope for?

The New York girls left early this morning.  All five granddaughters will be asleep in their own beds tonight.  I will be sitting in my living room missing them monumentally.  To take my mind off the loneliness I will watch one of those summer cable series, hoping the protagonist makes the right decision and the writers and show runners are smart enough to know to give the audience what they want, but not in the way they expect it.

And so it goes.

4 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time

  1. Beautiful, Paul! Tears in my eyes!

    Especially love the quote, “We want our heroes to be flawed, but our stories to be redemptive.”

    Amen and Amen!


  2. Wow! The ability to make up a short story, let alone a series on the hoof is very impressive! I never thought about this before, but is writing a blog post a bit like writing a sermon?!! Sorry if this is insulting to your sermons which I appreciate are more profoundly bd in content. But it is usually worthwhile to allow a blog post to brew over a few hours or even a few days; only rarely can you whip out good content in an hour.
    Your grand daughters are blessed to have such an involved grandmother. My daughters have always had a lot of input from my parents and it has made them very rounded and thoughtful individuals. There is something so nurturing and accepting about a grandparent’s love.


    • What a beautiful story ,you and your granddaughters. Since meeting you back this spring at the Mission Gathering Church in San Diego I could actually visualize you with the girls so sweet.


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