This is a story about stories. Or maybe it is stories about The Story…
I love stories. Ever since I learned to read, I could not get enough stories. I remember getting my first library card and the wonderful world of stories housed in the basement of the Carnegie Library in Bluffton, Indiana. My mother, somewhat proudly, complained that I would have all five books I was allowed to check out read before she could get me home. Trips to the library became a weekly event for me, my nose buried in a book as I walked the sixteen blocks home. My mother would chide me for reading in low light, and send me, book in hand, outdoors for some fresh air and sunshine.
A good story grabs me. I empathize with the characters, usually the heroine or hero. I have been known to argue with the authors: “Louisa, what on earth are you doing? Don’t you know that Jo should marry Laurie? (Little Women)” I live the story and at the end, I emerge abruptly. The end of a story leaves me questioning, crying for more. “What happens next?” Sometimes, if a story particularly engages me, I dwell in it awhile, taking the story past the place the author saw fit to end it. Often I dream it. My daughter particularly loves to tease me about my high school immersion into The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I read it so many times that I began to dream about it. But after the unsettling dream of orcs over-running my high school, I put it on the shelf for a time. Still, I wish I had never told her the story. When I laugh at one of her strange dreams, she likes to retort, “At least there weren’t orcs in my school!”
That is another thing about stories. We love to tell stories. Humans are storied beings. No other creatures tell stories about their pasts (at least, I do not think that is what whale song is, but you never know!). My family shared stories all the time. My paternal grandmother would talk about how her father immigrated to the United States with his two sisters. At my great-grandmother’s viewing, I heard the story again about how she, along with a handful of other faithful believers, established their old-world faith in the New World, building a congregation and eventually a church. Not all the stories were inspirational. I was troubled by the story about my great-aunt, who because of an illegitimate child, could only be a half member (whatever that meant!) in the congregation. And some stories were downright embarrassing. My aunt loves to tell me the story about how, when I was three and the whole family was at the lakes, I waded in and put my face underwater, and would not come back up. Everyone started shrieking at me, and finally (I do not understand why this was not the first response) my uncle waded in and grabbed me from the water. I squirm when she tells the story, and marvel that she never connected that experience to the difficulty she had in later trying to teach me to swim!
Yes, I love stories. My early faith was built on stories. I may not have understood worship at that German-Swiss Anabaptist congregation, with its plain slow singing, lengthy prayers and sermons (which were occasionally in German). But I thrived on the morning Sunday school and the stories: Old Testament stories about creation, Abraham, Joseph, Ruth, David, Elijah; New Testament stories about Jesus and the birth of the church and the missionary journeys of Paul. I lived those stories as a maid in Sarah’s tent, or a child at Jesus’ feet or one of Lydia’s many servants. They became part of my story. Thus storied, I never remember a time as a child where I questioned the existence of God. God was and is and always will be, and I knew it from the testimony of those ancient people and their experience with God in their lives.
JRR Tolkien once said that all stories, real or imagined, were part of the Great Story . I like that. As my faith has grown - even during the times where I, as John Ylvisaker aptly puts it, “wandered off to find where demons dwell” – I find stories mark pivotal moments in my faith. Stories attest to the presence of God in my life. There is the story of my mother’s death. That last night, I kept watch at my mother’s bedside while she lay dying. So clearly I remember the coolness of her fingers, the brightness of the town hall tower clock shining in her window. Then there was the moment when her labored breathing eased and an incredible look of peace came over her. Agnostic as I was at that time, I could not deny that at that moment, even if I had not been there, she was not alone. Jesus walked with her during that final journey.
And Jesus walked with me, even as I continued to run from him, in the months after her death. The two Christian co-workers who took the time to sit with me during lunch breaks as I remembered and grieved silently spoke of Jesus’ abiding presence. Even the novels by Andrew Greely, which I devoured, screamed “presence” and “grace.” I stumbled back to the community of believers and finally found home where God was waiting with open arms and Lenten soup suppers to nourish both my body and soul.
What other stories could I tell? How we moved to Lima, Ohio – aka Lost In Middle America - ostensibly for my spouse to accept a promotion, only to discover that God, who works in mysterious (and often secular) ways, had brought us to this place! How I stumbled on my home congregation, Zion Lutheran, through the Internet (yes, I “googled” Lutheran churches in Lima, and they were the only one with a website), and discovered not only a community in which to grow and thrive, but also a new calling. How God provided for us through that summer that Tim lost his job and I became the sole bread-winner on a part-time job. I could tell seminary stories: about the last-minute CPE assignment; about the extremely last minute transfer Tim got the day we, after picking up and leaving everything like Abraham, moved into seminary housing; about the day I despaired of purchasing new jeans for my daughter only to find a donation of several pairs in exactly her size on the seminary free table.
I could tell you the story of my journey with my daughter into the world of mental illness. How even in the devastation of receiving her diagnosis of bi-polar disorder, I realized that God was at work here. We were blessed to have such an array of services for her – in Lima there are virtually no children’s mental health professionals and absolutely no hospitals. Then there was the day when I learned that to get her into a needed residential program, we had to give custody to the state. Crying and fighting with insurance and marshalling the efforts of NAMI and the ombudsman, I was surprised by God’s presence again and again in the most unexpected places. A pastor from Cincinnati, calling to arrange a supply preacher, noted my distress and asked about it. She then shared her own journey with her daughter through the difficult world of mental illness and residential placement. During a phone call with my insurance’s mental health specialist, I pleaded for a way out of the terrible decision we had to make, only to have the insurance guy liken my decision to the story of Solomon and the two women claiming the same infant (1Kings 3:16-27). Talk about being surprised by grace! There was the professor who listened to me grieve as only someone who had faced the same decision could. Or the terrible morning when I cried to God in agony and anger, questioning where God was in the pain and heartache and mess, only to be brought to my knees at the foot of the cross, recognizing that God knew – God was there in the suffering and pain, carrying me. There was no where I could go where God was not (Psalm 139).
My stories outline my faith journey. I learned as a child that God loves us. My rebellion against that love as a young adult later showed me that God never leaves and there is nothing God will not do to find that one lost sheep. I learned grace in the community of believers, breathing relief in my soul in learning that, although some communities may condemn members to “half salvation” because of certain sins, there is nothing I could do to make God love me less, and – even better – there is nothing I can do to make God love me more! My story is one of God’s love and provision, presence and grace.
Telling and listening to our stories are an integral part of faith. We tell the Great Story and listen to each other’s stories. And in listening, we discover the places where your story and my story met the Great Story - the places where grace prevails, love abounds and God is present. God listens to our dreams, hopes, desires and stories. The witness of the scriptures is a dialog between God and the world. The Gospel we share is a story of good news. We imitate God when we listen to each other’s stories and our faith communities flourish when active listening and storytelling is practiced.
The challenge is to discern the story being told in various places in the congregation’s life. It is easy to discern the story in worship, Bible studies, small group discussions, and pastoral counseling situations. It can be harder to hear the stories told in the mundane matters of congregational life – the council meetings, budget discussions, annual congregational meetings, for example. Beneath the surface in each of these, are stories of faith and life and God – we just need careful listening ears to hear them.
So we’re going to spend some time telling and listening to stories. Trying to see how our stories connect with God’s story. This month, we’re going to talk about how our stories and the stories of the world around us give voice to our prayers. During the Lent mid-week worship, we will be studying Psalms of Lament, and Jesus’ lament in Matthew 26:36-46. Each one of these laments tells a story about faith in times of sorrow and trouble.
How do the stories in these laments offer prayers for ourselves, our community and the world?
What are your prayers for the church, the world, and all in need?
What are your prayers for yourself, family and friends?
These aren’t rhetorical questions. I really want to know.