Last night, I stumbled across a post by Adam Walker Cleaveland on his blog Pomomusings entitled “The Importance of Story in My Life” It was written in response to a request by blogger and author Chris Brogan who is offering free copies of Donald Miller’s “life as story” memoir A Million Miles In A Thousand Years: What I Learned From Editing My Life to anyone who writes a post about the role of “story” in their life.
So here goes…
Stories have always been and always will be an important part of my life. Stories are life–the telling of words and images makes sense out of my daily experience, exposes me to the experiences of others and turns me toward the experience of God who creates and weaves all the stories into a masterful work of art with all its beautiful flaws.
When I think of the word “story,” I initially return to my childhood and the memories of my grandfather–still kicking at 84–who would read the daily newspaper comics to me before dinner (complete with voice characterization and details of everything happening in each panel) and would tell my younger brother and I bedtime stories, which he invented, about three pigs named Petunia, Gertrude and Curly-tail. Each story involved an incident where Curly-tail caused some mischief, got in trouble with his family but was still loved and forgiven at the end. And at the age of 5, I was amazed at how similar Curly-tail’s life was to mine.
As I grew up, I absorbed stories and books and magazines and newspapers like wildfire. When I was in high school, I became more aware of the power of oral stories, particularly sermons, whether preached on a Sunday morning or at a summer youth conference. A few years later, in my sophomore year at Auburn University, I was driving around in the rain trying to decide on a major and what I’d do with the rest of my life. I was listening to one of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories on the tape deck when I had this epiphany (my first sense of a calling by God) that I was meant to tell stories, more specifically I was meant to write and report them as a newspaper journalist. So for the remainder of my college education, I devoted myself to becoming a newspaper man. I enjoyed every minute of it, graduating in 1998 with a BA in Journalism and immediately returning to my hometown of Birmingham to be a reporter for the (now defunct) Birmingham Post-Herald.
At the same time I was working at the newspaper, I started volunteering as a youth leader at my home church of Shades Valley Presbyterian. While the career of a newspaper reporter was initially exhilarating, I realized more and more over the course of three years that it was less and less fulfilling. I felt my passions more stirred when I was with the youth at Shades Valley. And when covering news stories on the death of a loved one killed in a robbery or drive-by shooting, I felt a desire to do more than just write the story of a life remembered and move on to the next day’s edition.
I wanted to be a part of the life of the person who was grieving. I wanted to hold their hand and give them comforting words. I wanted to help them through this difficult chapter in their story.
So in short, I began to hear a second call to be a pastor who helps people see that their stories are part of God’s story–an incredible tale of forgiveness, redemption and love. As an ordained PC(USA) minister, serving as an associate for Youth and Mission & Outreach at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church in Duluth, GA, I love to tell the old, old story in the context of scripture and daily life, especially with others as I did in a sermon on Sunday Nov. 29, 2009, the First Sunday of Advent…
“This Is Our Story”
A few months’ ago I asked Molly T, one of our 8th grade Confirmation students, for sermon ideas, stories in the Bible and everyday life that would connect with their experience as young people of faith.
After taking a day to think about my request, Molly replied enthusiastically in an email: “You could preach on Psalm 78 by telling the story of God from generation to generation! You can start by telling the story of God in your own words, and then one of the High School youth can tell the story of God in their own words, and then a Middle School youth tells the story of God from their perspective and then a 5th grader does the same thing!”
I looked at the scripture, and the Psalm (paired with Molly’s idea) immediately grabbed my heart strings:
“…I’ll let you in on the sweet old truths, stories we heard from our fathers, counsel we learned at our mother’s knee. We’re not keeping this to ourselves, we’re passing it along to the next generation—God’s fame and fortune, the marvelous things he has done. He planted a witness in Jacob, set his Word firmly in Israel, then commanded our parents to teach it to their children so the next generation would know, and all the generations to come—know the truth and tell the stories so their children can trust in God, never forget the works of God but keep his commands to the letter.”
Filled with inspiration, I began thinking about the best Sunday to share this sermon with the congregation. I read the Psalm a few more times, discerning what it meant to share the stories we heard from our fathers and mothers to the next generation. I thought about God’s story, God’s words, God’s beginning and then my mind flashed to the Gospel of John 1:1-2, and suddenly I had that “Aha!” moment:
“In the beginning was the Word” …
“the Word was first,
the Word present to God,
God present to the Word.
The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one.”
The writer of John’s Gospel was, in the opening lines, following the command of God in the psalm to “tell the stories” of God “so their children can trust in God, never forget the works of God.”
And then the second “Aha” moment occurred and I thought, “There’s no better time to start telling the story of God’s works from one generation to the next than on the first Sunday of Advent!”
This is the season in which we prepare yet again to tell the story of the ‘coming’ of Emmanuel (God-with-us); the Christ child, “the Life-Light that blazed out of the darkness”, “the Word (that) became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”
And is it not at this time of the year when we are often the most aware of how God’s story affects our own stories? Presbyterian preacher and author Frederick Buechner reminds us that:
“It is absolutely crucial to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present.”
The presence of God in our stories calls us to do nothing less than to share them with others. So sit back and listen now to some stories, told from one generation to the next about “the marvelous things God has done”—from me to Amy L., an 11th grader, to Matthew H., a 7th grader, and to Shea O., a 5th grader.
“Listen dear friends, to God’s truth, bend your ears to what I tell you”… “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”
This beautiful description of God dwelling among humanity, found in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, has been a favorite passage of mine for several years. I have become especially fond of those words since I returned from a recent church mission trip to Honduras, where I saw the image of God—the flesh and blood Word in the neighborhood.
One late morning, I convinced myself that my 178-pound out-of-shape body could push a wheel-barrow filled with a single 100 pound bag of cement up two steep hills in extremely hot and humid weather. It wasn’t long before I discovered how dumb I was for exerting myself beyond my limits. But I was too stubborn to stop, especially when a guy nearly twice my age were passing by me with a 100-pound bag on his shoulder.
9-year-old Hector Samuel, who was playing in an empty wheel-barrow with his friends, a couple of yards behind me, quickly realized that I was having trouble and decided to walk along beside me. Hector Samuel never said a word but his face seemed to calmly say “It’s ok, you can do this. Take it one step at a time.” Every time I stopped to rest, he stopped. And every time I picked up the wheel-barrow of cement, Samuel began slowly walking with me.
When I reached the top of the first hill, I told Samuel (in English) that I couldn’t go anymore. I was sweating buckets and breathing rapidly. Samuel (who spoke only Spanish) stared at me for a couple of seconds. He knew I was tired but wasn’t initially sure what I was communicating. I pointed to a couple of the men in his village who were about 50 yards away on a plateau that separated the first hill from the second hill. I then told Samuel I needed the two men to come and finish taking the cement the rest of the way.
Without hesitating, Samuel hollered at the men in Spanish to come and help. After men of the village took my bag of cement, I stumbled up to the resting tent where other members of our mission team offered me water and Gatorade and carefully watched over me for the next half hour.
In Hector Samuel, the men of the village, mission team members, the Word became known to me. Flesh and blood met flesh and blood in the love, kindness, support and strength of friends and strangers… of young and old…of native and foreigner. One generation helped another generation by sharing in God’s marvelous works; by telling and living out God’s story in word and deed; by witnessing the one-of-a-kind glory, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.
This is my story.
A reading from the Gospel of John, Chapter 5, verses 1-9:
“Near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there was a pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda, with five alcoves. Hundreds of sick people—blind, crippled, paralyzed—were in these alcoves. One man had been an invalid there for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him stretched out by the pool and knew how long he had been there, he said, “Do you want to get well?” The sick man said, “Sir, when the water is stirred, I don’t have anybody to put me in the pool. By the time I get there, somebody else is already in.” Jesus said, “Get up, take your bedroll, start walking.” The man was healed on the spot. He picked up his bedroll and walked off.”
This week, a monumental and life changing event occurred in the lives of millions of teenagers nationwide. November SAT scores came out…Ok, so maybe that’s not that big of a deal. Life will go on no matter what score we get or what Grade Point Average we have, but sometimes that’s hard to see with all the pressure we’re under to be the smartest and the most successful.
I think that the sick man in the story makes the same mistake that a lot of us make without even realizing it. He dwells on the fact that he will never be the fastest — just like we’re all hard on ourselves for not being the smartest, or the prettiest, or the richest — and he is so focused on this predicament that he fails to see the bigger picture. He thinks his choices are to fail or to wait for someone to hand him the perfect solution. Even when Jesus says, “Do you want to get well?” he is making excuses and thinking of logistics.
What he doesn’t realize is that for those 38 long years, he has had the power all along, through his faith, to help himself by moving forward. Instead he wastes half his life doubting himself, unwilling to put his faith in God and take a risk.
Sound familiar? I definitely see myself in him. I can remember many times where my insecurity held me back. When I was younger, I played basketball on several different church leagues. I was never the best one on the team, but I was ok. In the eighth grade, I tried out for the school basketball team.
On the day of tryouts, I was pretty intimidated by how well the other girls played and it made me nervous—so nervous, I played terribly. Halfway through the tryouts, I gave up and walked out. I had no faith in myself and never bothered to ask God for help—for patience, confidence and courage.
I have lots of regrets like that. So many opportunities that I missed out on because I was hard on myself…because I didn’t ever look to God and have faith that God would help me move forward through challenges I was facing. I think that Jesus’ message is that through God, we are far more capable than we give ourselves credit for. We underestimate the awesome things God can do through us when we put our faith in God.
So, like Jesus said to lame man, “Get up…start walking.” Or “start doing” whatever it is you’ve never had the confidence to do. It’s not easy. The author Marianne Williamson reminds us that “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” But if we remember that it is God who makes us powerful, it can make it a lot easier to get up, pick up all your baggage, and walk away from all that’s holding you back.
This is my story
I feel that the words of the psalmist in Psalm 78 stress the importance of religion in life, especially in a world filled with terrorists, pollution, bureaucracy, and disease. Faith in God provides hope for all who believe in him. Without passing the story of God down to younger generations through word and deed, faith in God would never spread.
The many wonders of God- the creation story, the Exodus from Egypt, King David, and the coming of the Christ child which we prepare for during Advent- would never be known. The stories of Jesus’ ministry open so many opportunities in my life to feed the homeless, meet new people, strengthen my relationships, both with friends and with God.
The story of Pleasant Hill’s ministry offers me many opportunities to share God’s story through mission work. I like helping other people who need it, but there’s also that selfish part of me that goes so I can feel good about myself, and doing God’s work always achieves that goal. I feel God calls me, and everyone else, to do good by helping others. Mission work also teaches me important values like respect, keeping an open mind, love for all of God’s creation, and the importance of cultivating a good sense of humor.
This is my story.
A story that reminds me of God is Mathew 14, verses 15-21 – Jesus feeds 5000. In this story, Jesus feeds 5000 people with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. He blesses this food and God multiplies it, making enough to feed everyone with leftovers. I chose this story because it’s amazing and it connects with my life.
In this story God teaches me that he is powerful, and that people are very important to him. God cares about his people and makes sure that they get what they need. It also teaches me to share what I have. Sometime at lunch, if students don’t like their food, I share part of mine. Usually my lunch only makes me happy, but now 2 people are happy.
Also, I like to help with Family Promise here at church. We bring food in to feed families who are homeless, and I like to play with the kids. The kids don’t have friends when they stay at our church, and I reach out to them. Throughout my life, I try to help people the way God helps us. Hopefully, people will catch on and help others as well.
This is my story.
The hope for the story of God is that it catches on, and helps others help others. And as the story catches or hooks the next person and the next and the next, we all begin to see how our stories connect and intersect with another person’s and God. As Buechner puts it: “…all our stories are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here.”
And that “one vast story” is incredibly messy as Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne notes in a recent issue of Esquire Magazine:
“I have a friend in the UK who talks about ‘dirty theology’— that we have a God who is always using dirt to bring life and healing and redemption, a God who shows up in the most unlikely and scandalous ways. After all, the whole story begins with God reaching down from heaven, picking up some dirt, and breathing life into it. At one point, Jesus takes some mud, spits in it, and wipes it on a blind man’s eyes to heal him…In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay ‘out there’ but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, ‘Nothing good could come.’ It is this Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard and rabble-rouser for hanging out with all of society’s rejects, and who died on the imperial cross of Rome reserved for bandits and failed messiahs…It is this Jesus who was born in a stank manger in the middle of a genocide. That is the God that we are just as likely to find in the streets as in the sanctuary, who can redeem revolutionaries and tax collectors, the oppressed and the oppressors… a God who is saving some of us from the ghettos of poverty, and some of us from the ghettos of wealth.”
My friends, this is our story.