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Jadell Forman

Character Development

My journey toward understanding "story."

Once, in my twenties, I flew to my parents' hometown to bond with my dad's side of the family during Thanksgiving. I was staying a week at Grandma's house, the hub of activity despite the fact that the dinner would be at Uncle Matt's. Throughout the days prior, I'd been overhearing conversations about who would bring what. Grandma asked me if I'd bring a blessing.

"Sure," I said, and began brainstorming. "How about some cookies?"

"That would be very nice, but we'll have plenty of desserts," Grandma explained.

Back to brainstorming, and later: "How about if I bring homemade bread?"

"That's a lot of work. You don't need to do that," she consoled.

More brainstorming. I rehearsed what I knew of the menu, then presented another idea. "How about muffins?"

"You don't need to bring anything," Grandma said with a look of exasperation.

"But you asked me to bring a blessing!"

"I'd like you to say the prayer."


Around Uncle Matt's table, once all the people and food were present, I was on.

"Let's all hold hands," I instructed. After Uncle Matt and a few others made nervous remarks, I prayed, said amen, and Grandma thanked me. Relatives began passing food, and I began my encore. "Now, let's say something nice about the person to our … right," I said, choosing Uncle Brian's side.

His wife quipped, "Your uncle just about passed out when you asked us to hold hands. Don't push it."

I didn't.

Not into mushy stuff, my family shows love by telling and retelling our funny stories—including that one—whenever we gather. So, early in life, I joyfully jumped on their already-in-motion bandwagon.

My dad is our star storyteller. Around the dinner table of my childhood home, he still tells stories to us and any guests, often laughing so hard he can't talk. When my brother and I were little, and our family sat at the dinner table, Dad and Mom asked us to recap what happened at school. They laughed at our stories, retelling them—even decades later—like an inside joke. I felt like I too was a star in our show, and was learning that the yarns of our story knit us together, as did stories in books that we read as a family before bedtime.

Conversely, other well-meaning loved-ones unraveled that knitting by setting up a false dichotomy between fiction and truth. These Christians, who were like family to me, said truth is found only in facts, not fiction. Wanting to faithfully follow Christ, I devoted myself exclusively to propositional truth-telling and the Bible.

Suddenly, propositional truth-telling, not story, was the means for bonding with people. The chill of sectarianism seeped in, and I felt homesick. Yet despite what turned out to be a decade-long reduction of my faith, God was weaving a story of redemption.

After college, and on staff at a writer's conference, I chauffeured fiction author Francine Rivers. On the airport-to-venue drive, I mentioned a difficult truth I had learned but didn't feel comfortable writing, and she said something like, "Write it in fiction." That shocked me. Later, she introduced me to Karen Ball, then fiction editor for Tyndale, who also championed fiction as a means for communicating truth. I was confused. Although I felt comfortable with these two women, I was still uncomfortable with the dangerous world outside propositional truth.

Eugene Scott, a fellow conference staff member and our writers' club chaplain, was into fiction. I didn't understand him either. But we remained friends, which would prove to be essential to my redeemed understanding of story.

In late 2006, my small group leader loaned me The message. Every time I read in it, I heard God's word anew. I bought an unnumbered version, and became enamored with the sound of God's unnumbered narrative. After eight months of simply reading, I dug out my church's how-to notes for narrative Bible study, and began implementing that tool for the first time, along with a format for praying the Lord's Prayer. Narrative-study-based prayer infused me with confidence in hearing and responding to God's words. I was ecstatic with my empirical discovery, and affirmed in my faith. For example, my narrative study of Revelation, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel four years ago still assures me of the timeless truth that God is in control, allowing me to let go of a felt need to interpret every move in the Middle East.

During this time, I was earning my master's degree in Education with an emphasis in curriculum. My advisor, Dr. Calvin Roso, affirmed my reunion with narrative/story in three ways: i) he embraced my desire to write a curriculum based upon my stories of growing up as a shepherdess, ii) he taught that Jesus used many teaching methods, including story, and iii) he recounted how he had taught high school literature, exegeting timeless truths from literary classics, basing his lessons upon Daniel 1:4.

Re-enter Eugene. Shortly after grad school, I began working with Eugene, turning his doctoral dissertation on narrative truth-telling into a workshop designed to help people discover God's purpose in their story. During the development process, I discovered God's purpose in my story. This experience changed my life, and I saw clearly what I'd always known tacitly: God is beyond propositional truth-telling, and so is truth, and so is story. All of the knitting, unraveling, and loose endings that had gone on before added up and helped with this plot turn in my story of story.

As Eugene and I presented that workshop at our church retreat, and as I helped people discover God's purpose in their story, I sensed again that nourishing dinner-table communion in which stories knit people together.

Finally, just as Grandma had clarified that "a blessing" is not a baked good, God the Author has clarified that "story" is a blessing.

Jadell Forman is a writer and illustrator, compiling her stories into several books, including Good Shepherd, Guide Me: Field Notes from a Shepherdess, about growing up on a sheep farm, and the metaphor of God being our shepherd. She sometimes blogs here.

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