Our guest post for today comes from William Boekestein, author of one of our latest titles in the popular CF4K Trailblazers series. The Trailblazers series, geared for tweens through to teens, feature some of the great Christian men and women from across history in these exciting biographies.
In front of me sat a few dozen prisoners including men who were serving life sentences for murder. One of the men in the room was in his seventies. Others were in their twenties. The men had lived hard lives. They had caused deep pain and experienced crushing disappointment.
From a homemade lectern in the front of the room I began to read—a story for children ages 8-14—about a man who lived and died 500 years ago.
Perhaps most of us in that prison room had misgivings when I started to story-tell. But as the chapter came to life the men seemed to lean into the story. Some fought back tears. Others seemed engrossed in thought.
These convicted men grasped that the hero “had the sentence of death” in himself (2 Cor. 1:9). He was heading for war. He had already said tearful goodbyes to his wife and small children. He steeled himself to use courageously what was left of his time on earth. His story touched theirs.
In the end, the protagonist struggled to stay alive amidst “blasting muskets, groaning men, screaming horses, mud-slurping boots tromping through the marsh, pain [and] loss of blood.” After echoing Jesus’ words, “They can kill the body, but not the soul,” he slumped over dead.
The story was over.
I closed the session in prayer, but only after a protracted pause. The only sound came from a few whirring box fans swirling the heavy heat around the room. Perhaps the pause should have been longer. Stories can be like Paul Simon’s visions that are planted in our brains and linger in the sound of silence.
But the story wasn’t really over. William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Whenever we hear a good story it mingles with our present experience. As the reader revives the story, the story revives the reader. It was for this reason that, when invited to speak to this group of several-dozen convicts, I chose to read a chapter from a juvenile biography. I chose this story because I wrote it. Maybe it is better say, it was a story that I was privileged to put my name on after it came alive to me. It had become a story that I wanted to see reborn into the imaginations of a group of men that needed a story.
The listeners were students in a reformed Bible seminary that holds classes within their penitentiary. While serving long sentences they are trying to live for Jesus and serve as restoring instruments in the hands of their heavenly Father. I was invited to speak to them about the life of reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531). For the first half of the class—before closing with the story—I lectured. I told them facts, hopefully meaningful facts.
As a child, Ulrich Zwingli worked hard to sharpen his mind and fuel his imagination. As a young pastor, he labored tirelessly to promote biblical change in the churches of Switzerland, his beloved homeland. In the pulpit, he opened God’s word, showing Christ’s beauty to everyone who had ears to hear. As a churchman, Zwingli strove to strengthen the ties between reform-minded people, including Martin Luther. In the home, he fervently loved his wife and children. In broader Swiss society, he was both wildly popular and passionately hated. In Zwingli’s world people of unlike faith could not conceive of coexisting peacefully. Switzerland became divided, Catholics against Protestants. By the 1530s, Zwingli’s State of Zurich had become largely isolated from the rest of the mostly Catholic confederacy. In 1531, a sort of cold war flared into a heated civil conflict. Serving as a citizen-chaplain, Zwingli was killed on October 11.
These facts are important. But when facts are woven into a story they stop merely telling and begin showing. They help us feel and dream. They can bolster courage and strengthen hope. Stories can remind us that the strands of our lives are woven into a far grander tapestry than we sometimes realize.
Prisoners serving life sentences need facts. They need to be able to live and die standing on the granite-like facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But even these pivotal facts are told in a story, the greatest story. All redemptive stories are tributaries that swirl us into the roaring river of God’s grand plot.
Prisoners need stories. So do you. Maybe you need this one.
William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His most recent book is Shepherd Warrior, a lively retelling of the life of Ulrich Zwingli.
Where to Buy:
Ulrich Zwingli: Shepherd Warrior by William Boekestein is available at any good Christian bookstore. If you don’t have a Christian bookstore near you, you may want to consider purchasing a copy from one of the online book retailers listed below: