One of my favorite stories by Mari Sandoz is The Story Catcher. The story is about a young man of the Sioux who gains great honors for his daringness in battle, but his gift—or medicine-- is simpler and more powerful. His is medicine is in seeing. As he grows older he watches the warring between tribes, the buffalo hunting, the daily routine—and shows it all in pictures drawn. As time goes on the village eventually sees the young man’s gift and he receives a new name: Story Catcher, recorder of the history of his people. This was Sandoz’s last novel—it won the Levi Strauss Golden Saddleman Award and the Western writers of American Spur Award . . . plus it is a darn good story.
When I graduated from college I struggled with what I was going to do for a livelihood. I knew that I was never going to use my degree in Speech Pathology, so being a speech therapist wasn’t going to happen. Besides, how does a person who struggles and mumbles through life expect to help others speak? I thought about a career in the Air Force, took the Officer Candidate School test, and ended up being the first alternate. Being first alternate to get into the Air Force is a lot like having every number of the winning lottery ticket but one! It wasn’t going to happen. I had been accepted into seminary, but to be honest, coming out of college I sure was not seminary material. I know, some people still wonder about that one. Everything that I had on the horizon as possible careers was flaming out . . . life looked bleak . . . and the only think I really, REALLY wanted to be was a writer.
Wanting to be a writer I went and talked to my favorite college English professor. This guy listened to my story, smiled, and told me to pack my bags and get my butt in seminary. He explained that in seminary I would become a writer . . . and, he was right. Since going to seminary I have written a lot. As a minister I average approximately 60 sermons a year, and in nearly 30 years in the ministry I have written at least 1,800 sermons. Through in there five to 10 funerals and weddings each year . . . that is another 300 writings. Throw in a weekly column for the church newsletter, approximately 1,500 of those. The guy was right . . . I would write and write a lot. But I never felt as if I was a writer and a writer is what I wanted to be.
Someone once said that everybody has at least one good book in them. Well, I am still looking for mine. I am pretty sure that I have not become the great writer I wanted to be. I am a far cry from those great writers—and even a lot of those really crummy ones that I aspired to be like. I have yet to write the great American novel. Probably never will. It seems that I am still chasing that dream. But that is okay . . .
. . . that is okay because I recently stumbled upon what I have become . . . I am a “story catcher”. I think all clergy are. Everyone has a story to tell. Stories are how we introduce ourselves, discover commonalities and differences, build community, learn from each other, and begin to make sense of the world around us and the lives we live. One individual explained it like this:
Story is a map.
The map that gets one person through gets the next person through.
We depend on story to learn from each other,
to inspire values-based action,
to imagine the new ways forward.
What I have learned—after many, many years—is that I am a story catcher. I share the stories that others share. I share the stories so that people won’t forget . . . so that history is passed on . . . and, so that no one ever feels alone. We learn best from stories. Everyone seems to love a good story.
Now, please note, I did not say that I was a “storyteller”. A storyteller is different than a story catcher—though a person could be both. I am not a great storyteller—or as they say in the ministry, I am not a great preacher. I am adequate and have been lucky in that most of the stories I share can carry themselves without a great delivery. I don’t want anyone mistaking me for some great preacher because I am not . . . I am adequate.
The truth of the matter is that I may never become that great writer that I imagined and dreamed myself to be long ago in college. Nope, no great American novel here. What I am though is a person with a great ear who is not afraid to listen to the stories that others share. I have been privileged with hearing hundreds, thousands of stories over the years. Some have brought laughter, others tears, but all have made me step back and contemplate life. The stories have been too good not to share . . . and that is what I do. I write the stories that others share.
I am a “story catcher”. All clergy have the potential to be story catchers. We are losing our storytellers in our day and age, but we cannot afford to lose the story catchers. In the story catchers we discover ourselves in the words of other. It is a powerful moment of connection that has the potential to change the world. Maybe someday I will put all the stories together in a book and become that writer I dream of becoming. In the meantime, I will continue to listen . . . there are lots of great stories out there. In stories we have the potential to touch the holy . . .