The clerk at the Christian bookstore told my wife: “I’m giving you this for free; someone at your home needs it,” as she slipped a booklet titled King of Kings into the shopping bag with the other purchases. Late that Halloween evening while reading the illustrated story on the life of Jesus, I made a decision to accept the clearly printed statement: “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life; no man comes unto the Father except through Me.”
I was raised in a religious environment, which was rejected during college, and which resulted in my becoming a “mushy-minded 1960s liberal” for the next fifteen years. But with the critical decision to accept the invitation for a living relationship with Jesus in place of relativism and dead religious practices, he immediately experienced a full turnabout in perspective. The compromise and confusion were gone: Even though the world calls good evil and evil good, I’ve known which is which since that evening. It was my first experience with the transformational power of the gospel story, a story I shared regularly thereafter.
The next two decades were committed to completing my secular career in technology; but immediately upon retiring at mid-fifty, I began what I’d been yearning to do for a long time. My wife, Barb, and I spent our initial three post-retirement years performing volunteer work related to Israel and the Jewish people, often with our residence in Jerusalem. As is true of most missionaries returned from the field – perhaps especially those having experienced the incessant excitement of Jerusalem – the ordinary hum of life stateside was too tame by comparison.
I returned to the classroom for a follow-up challenge; not as a student this time, but as an instructor – one without formal training who was simply operating by gifting and invitation. The opportunities arrived without delay in a variety of venues: recovery centers, K-12 public and parochial schools, churches, a camp, a state prison, and a county jail. Along with the opportunities came the sought-after challenges, many of them undisclosed and unanticipated, such as gaining credibility, maintaining order, administering discipline, holding attentions, adjusting to systemic behavior permissiveness, understanding imposed limitations, garnering supplemental materials, and curriculum degradation (not only the compromising for political correctness, but the reading materials permeated with vampirism, sorcery, comics, and rebellion). Collectively, these were overwhelming.
Accepting my personal deficiencies as a teacher was easy; now it was time to lean more fully on God for resolution. After several weeks filled with a sense of failure bordering on serious depression, I was inspired to try sharing a couple of nonfiction stories in the classroom. These had been so meaningful to me that I’d never forgotten them and had occasionally rekindled the stories in professional and personal circumstances.
During this experimental phase, I uncovered two negative and two positive ubiquitous truths regarding human nature and modern education respectively. The negative truths were that most people were settling on unwholesome role models as their personal heroes while simultaneously lacking discriminating mentors; and that positive character is on the decline and rarely formally practiced, taught, or upheld as a behavioral model. The positive truths were that people of all ages love true stories – even more if they’re also entertaining; and that well-constructed stories have the power to guide and motivate where other approaches fail and are only modestly successful or enduring.
Following the introduction of the stories, immediate improvements were noted in all challenge areas, which were readily attributable to the new strategy. Thus encouraged, I sought, researched, outlined, and shared more stories. But not just any stories would do. The expectations imposed on their selection were sufficiently weighty that only the very best qualified. Literally hundreds of concepts were pursued, with only a couple dozen emerging as acceptable for further development and regular oral presentation.
The stories were designed to blend into a variety of standard subjects, but all had celebrating heroic character as a common theme. They focused on the value to be gained from understanding the circumstances of ordinary men and women whose lives exhibited extraordinary altruistic attributes. As a bonus, the stories often opened opportunities to talk about God, the Bible, and Christian principles for life. Every subject, location, and age level now received stories woven into the core instruction whenever certain favorable classroom conditions were met, and they were nearly always met because a story lesson reward of ten- to fifty-minute duration created the necessary motivation. It wasn’t long before I became known as the Storyteller.
I underscore that I did not invent this method of instruction; its universal effectiveness was simply confirmed when applied in his many engagements. Wise men over the millennia dramatically utilized stories to aid their goals, and their related successes are well recognized. My own teaching story continues to evolve as I share nonfiction stories in the classroom. After the stories were collected in a printed anthology, I had a refined tool to aide my storytelling goals of providing quality hero choices and helping build virtuous character in the students, regardless of their circumstances, so they too were better equipped to finish well.