I was one of those rare teenage guitar players who actually knew how to read music. The running joke of the time was,“How do you get a guitar player to be quiet? . . . You place a sheet of music in front of them.” In contrast to me were the piano players who knew how to read music, but who couldn’t play anything without the score. The best way to keep them quiet was to take their music away from them. Many Christians today are more like those piano players than the guitar players. If you take away the Bible from some people they are stumped. This is because they are overly dependent on the written words of the page.
Wait a minute! Did I really say that? Can a Christian be too reliant on the written Word of God? Consider this: every December a church-goer hears or reads the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke 2. Everything sounds so familiar. Yet, how well do you actually know that story? Try telling it by heart without referencing your Bible. If you are not able to retell it accurately, you may be overly dependent on the written text.
Most people will only put in the time and effort to learn a song by heart if that song is especially meaningful to them. My wife Cheryl and I discovered years ago that we could learn Bible stories like we learn songs. To this day, we review and practice our stories with one another on a regular basis, sometimes when we are in the car on a long road trip. Result? We are always ready to share God’s Word with people. Since we have a large invisible Bible repertoire in our memory, we can select stories to fit a particular situation. This idea of a “heart Bible” provides great opportunities for the Gospel.
When we were in Guatemala about six years ago, our hosts told us about a nearby village that was especially hostile to the Gospel. Others had tried to plant a church there, but were run out of town. Cheryl and I decided to pay a visit. Standing outside the first house stood a woman with her arms crossed and an uninviting look on her face. We greeted her; she only glared at us and muttered. Her son, a teenage boy, sat at a table doing his schoolwork. I greeted the boy and asked his name. He responded, “Gerson.” I smiled and said,“O I like that name. Do you know what that name means and where it comes from?” He shook his head and smiled and his mother took a few steps closer to listen. I said, “Gerson comes from the Bible. Moses gave his first son that name because Moses was living in a foreign land. Do you want to hear the story?”
At this point I could have pulled out a Bible to read the story. But I believe doing so would not have been well-received as I was not the local priest but some stranger from another country. It was much more informal and personal to simply tell the story.
So I shared Moses’ story from Exodus 2 explaining, “The name Gerson means foreigner. It’s an important name because Jesus was also a foreigner. He didn’t come from here on earth but from heaven in order to save us.” This was our first encounter in this village and now it is home to a new church.
On a plane returning home from a trip, my seatmate welcomed me with a big smile and talked non-stop. I prayed for an opening to share the gospel. He made it clear he was a devout Muslim. He owned an international textile business with branches in Honduras, Pakistan, Hong Kong and other places. At one point I asked, “Have you ever heard any of the parables of Jesus?” He asked what I meant. “Jesus crafted these amazing stories called parables where he used ordinary situations in life to explain spiritual truths. Would you like to hear one?” He did. Without taking out my Bible, I told him the parable of the laborers in the vineyard from Matthew 20. I selected this one both because I knew it well but also because I hoped the man would relate to the owner of the vineyard who has to hire and pay his laborers. After telling the parable, I explained how in the kingdom of Jesus this whole idea we have on earth of merit doesn’t exist. Instead, Jesus’ kingdom is based upon grace. I could have read the story to him and he would not have objected. But telling him the story was more personal and powerful. It communicated to him that the story was important enough to me that I knew it by heart.
The parables of Jesus are indeed worth learning and telling.
Recently Cheryl told the story of the Good Samaritan in Sunday School for grade schoolers. The kids gasped when the priest and then the Levite walked passed the beaten and naked man lying on the road. When she finished the story, the children applauded. In this technology-dominant age, Cheryl looked the children in the eyes and told them the story without notes, without extra comments, without a screen. Cheryl concludes by asking the children to repeat the story. This shows the kids that they are capable of being storytellers too.
Are you a parent or grandparent? Develop your own growing library of Bible stories in your heart and tell them to your family. Are you a Sunday School teacher? Learn the stories, tell them and invite the children to repeat them. Do you lead a Bible study? Expect your group to go beyond talking about the Bible. Make it a practice to tell what the Bible says, especially if you are studying narratives. Are you an evangelist? Go beyond explaining doctrinal truths. Let the stories of the Bible speak for you. Are you a preacher? Learn to share God’s stories without reading them and encourage God’s people to do the same.
Thank God for musicians who can both read music yet also sing or play melodies from their hearts to the Lord and for others. It’s an even greater joy and privilege to do the same with the stories of God’s Word. “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.” (Colossians 3:16a)