John Lithgow’s one-person stage play Stories by Heart takes its inspiration from Lithgow’s childhood. Every night at bedtime, Lithgow’s father would read a selection from W. Somerset Maugham’s anthology of short stories, Tellers of Tales. Lithgow said his father held nothing back as he read. He inhabited the characters, added sound effects, and made the stories more than words on a page. Lithgow’s performance weaves reminiscence and memory through his presentation of two of the stories from the anthology: Ring Lardner’s The Haircut and P.G. Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred Flits By. Lithgow offers a wonderfully grand and outsized performance of both stories. In the second, by my count, he played eleven different characters!
At the end of the play, however, Lithgow comes full circle, recounting his father’s struggle in the aftermath of serious surgery. Lithgow relates that he could see his father fading, his will to live slowly being extinguished. In an attempt to stave off death, Lithgow reprises the role his father had played when Lithgow himself was a child. He picks up the volume of Tellers of Tales and begins reading to his father every night. Lithgow told his bedtime stories with the same verve his father had years ago. When he read his father the story Uncle Fred Flits By, he says that something wonderful happened to his father: he wanted to live again.
This engaging play reminded me vividly of why preachers preach. Like Lithgow, we have a book, a compilation of stories gathered over many centuries. Many of us grew up hearing the stories. We know many of the stories inside and out. Sometimes our congregations do, too. That very familiarity causes some of our hearers to check out once they hear the text. After all, they’ve heard it before, they know what’s coming, and so they wander off mentally. That makes it tough for us to win an audience and get a hearing. But, as preachers of the gospel, we keep telling the same stories over and over. When we’re at our best, we tell the stories with gusto and imagination. We inhabit the characters and inject some flesh and blood into the telling. We do this Sunday after Sunday, week after week, season after season for one reason and one reason only: we hope that in telling the old and familiar stories of God’s work in our midst, someone will want to live again.