“Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”

–Researcher/Storyteller Brené Brown

In third grade, my Sunday school class elected me preacher for our effort to develop our own worship service. I promptly forgot. The next week I was called on to “come preach.” Walking to the lectern, I decided to just read from the Bible. I said something like, “Please turn to Matthew 37.” Whatever book and chapter I said, there weren’t that many chapters in that book. I can still see Mrs. Patterson mouthing “There’s not one.” I ended up just reading whatever the last chapter of the book in question was. That left an impression on me about the importance of preparation.

I preached my first prepared sermon when I was 15. I then started preaching regularly. In high school, my senior English teacher encouraged me to join the speech team in college. I did. I did some debate and some oratory. My senior year I finished in the top six in impromptu and duo interpretation, and I won the state championship in after-dinner speaking.

The highest compliments I have ever been paid came in the context of preaching in college convocations. My rookie year teaching, a senior said my sermon was the best she heard in four years. She told me the gal beside her had been trying to study but eventually slammed her chemistry book shut when she couldn’t stop listening to my address. At the next Christian university I served, a student said, “I have really bad ADHD, but when you finished, I looked at my watch and realized I had listened to you for 45 minutes. I’ve never been able to listen to anything that long. When I did a devotion for a faculty meeting, my graduate teaching assistant said, “If I had heard you speak in chapel in my high school, I would have come here as an undergrad.”

One of the highlights of my professional career arose from speaking at a breakout session of the national Teaching Professor Conference. My address was titled “We’re Going to Need a Bigger Boat—Addressing Controversial Issues in the Classroom.” After I spoke, a woman approached me in the loud room, introduced herself and said, “I was out in the hall with no intent to attend this. I came in to find out what you were doing that was making a room full of professors laugh so much. I direct faculty enhancement. I want you to do this address for my entire faculty. We will have you in the main auditorium and on closed circuit TV to our 17 satellite campuses.” Incredulous I said, “Seventeen satellite campuses? Where did you say you are?” She said, “Penn State University.” A few months later, I was honored to address several hundred fellow educators at one of the world’s foremost universities.

Growing up on a farm, I learned storytelling from adults as we spent hours shucking acres of corn and stringing bushels of beans. I have been a teller at Moth Nashville and several times at TenX9 Nashville. Remember that student who told me my chapel address was the best she heard in four years of college? I told stories linked together in a common scriptural theme. Later, a staff member said, “That was so engaging. I’d love to hear you do a normal sermon sometime.” I thought, “Hmm. Jesus taught in parables.” When we gather around a fire, we stare into the same exact same image that our earliest forebears saw. Everything else has changed: the color of the sky, the shape of plants and animals. But glowing embers link us to the earliest humans. The stories we tell around the fire link us to each other.

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