Posts Tagged With: God’s story

A Fitting Story

IMG_3409Several years ago I spent a day at the mall with a friend who was teaching me how to select the best fitting clothes. It was a long and draining day of trying on dozens of jeans and t-shirts to see what sizes and styles worked on me. By the end, though, I felt renewed. I hadn’t been aware the difference the proper size could make in how I looked and felt.

These past weeks and even months I’ve found myself in another ill-fitting dilemma. This time with stories instead of clothes. Just as I used to hurriedly buy clothes so I could finish this chore I disliked greatly, I’ve attempted to inhabit several ill-fitting stories because work needs to get done: organizing property care projects at church; fundraising for ministry; and serving as my mom’s estate executor. So, I’m barreling my way through them not really thinking through the larger implications of the processes I’m using and my attitude.

Because these tasks are unfamiliar, it’s easy to pick an off-the-rack program and try to make it work. It’s been done and tested, right? Once I get through these tasks then I can get on with my real work. But slowly, those ill-fitting stories become the way I work and I lose my own style and the idealized ‘real work’ fades away. Sometimes the stories fit, but many times they just are not right and I’m left with a process that is too tight and doesn’t look like me at all.

Teachers, ministers, counselors, and writers are in the story business – helping others to understand the story of their lives as they find meaning behind the moment to moment details. As I’ve been thinking about my role in this work as a campus minister, I realize that I am tempted to tell others their story, or the one I think they should be following. I want to take the same jacket and put it on everyone, forgetting how uncomfortable that has been for me.

Recently I finished reading Eugene Peterson’s, Under the Unpredictable Plant that explores the vocation of pastor – not as the manager of an organization but as the pray-er and poet of the congregation. One who is interceding, resting on God for all work and the one who is in the midst of point out the poetry in the life of the church. Peterson sees Jesus’ gospel worked out in the lives of the people – not something that they need to have clamped down on them in the form of church programming or commanded disciplines, but something into which they can live and through which the Spirit is already working.

Thinking about the work of Christian ministry in this way, I realized that I can continue to struggle to fit into the clothes that others hand me or become frustrated with the inability of individuals to live in the story I designed for them. Or, I can stop. Take time to pray and enter God’s dwelling place to be changed. As Peterson reminds us, “Prayer rescues us from a preoccupation with ourselves and pulls us into adoration of and pilgrimage to God.” This is a first step of living a story that fits, to stop looking at myself and focus on God.

With this focus, it’s then possible to stop taking on responsibilities of living someone else’s narrative or trying to squeeze them into mine. I can see how God is working already, he is in these lives. As Peterson changed the focus of his ministry he describes how he “wanted to see the Jesus story in each person in my congregation with as much local detail and raw experience as James Joyce did with the Ulysses story in the person of Leopold Bloom and his Dublin friends and neighbors.” What would it look like to do this? To see the stories that truly fit each person.

Working in campus ministry, there is a truth that I do share the same jacket with everyone – God’s story, the Good News. However, this story is not one-size fits all in that everyone will look and act the same on the outside. Instead, its one size allows each person in their unique, God-created image, to live out this story. As Paul pleads for the Colossians to “. . . put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (3:10), we too are invited to put on this new self, our new clothes, our new stories. As Christ fits himself in our lives, the individual stories become more evident. Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses this beautifully in the familiar poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

It’s this new self that needs to be put on – a self dependent on Jesus Christ. Selves that, though grounded in the same story, reveal a myriad of images and fit well.

As I look again at the tasks before me, I’m seeking to find better ways to get them done. It’s not about trying to fit into a new program or another person’s expectations, but listening to and being part of the living story of Christ that is unfolding in my life and within the communities in which I am part. It may take time to try different ways of working out these responsibilities. But if my focus is on God, I believe I will find a better fit in the end. Who knows, maybe I’ll even find a spark of joy in the work I’ve been dreading.

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The Homemaking God

“The home is creation redeemed and transfigured, a place of grace that is inhabited by an indwelling God of unfathomable love.”  Beyond Homelessness

What is it to see the Bible through the lens of home?  Not some sanitized view of a 21st century suburban two-story house, but a compassionate view of God’s deep yearning for a place for his creation, his people.  This is the essence of Steven Bouma-Prediger’s and Brian J. Walsh’s book, Beyond Homeless: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement.

Though the authors do speak to the most familiar definition of homelessness – not having a physical, stable shelter in which to live – they also expand what it means to be homeless.  Someone who has lived in a house, or series of houses, their entire life, but without a sense of place or connection to these spaces, can be described as being without a home.  Furthermore, destruction and abuse of the earth’s environment is another type of home breaking.  In their discussion of this larger view of homelessness the authors explore a variety of socio-economic, ecological, and postmodern issues.  Brokenness surrounds and infuses each of these perspectives and we see so many ways in which people and creation are displaced from that which God desires for us.

However, this book is not merely one more honest look at how our world is broken.  No, this book also explores God’s story through the eyes of homelessness.  Throughout the observations and arguments about homelessness, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh weave God’s story.  Starting with God’s creation of the ultimate home – to the brokenness that arises from people tearing this home apart – to God’s seeking to bring people back to a flourishing understanding of home – and ultimately to the new home that will be created when Christ returns, we are led into a dialogue between God’s Word (that living, acting word) and the world today.

This dialogue begins with the exuberant creation of the earth – exploding Genesis 1 and 2 into a symphony of joyous creation.

“It all began with joy.

In the beginning was joy,

pure, holy, ecstatic, life-giving, celebrator joy!

. . .

In the extravagance of love,

in an unspeakable generosity.

God had created a home,

a world of homemaking,

a world of care and affection.”

but then

“this world of blessed homemaking fell into a cursed homebreaking”

As I was drawn into this conversation I saw more intimately the connection of God’s story with this ever present social issue.  More importantly, it became more than another issue to address.  Assumptions and stereotypes that I held were made starkly clear to me.  Homelessness is not something we can just fix with enough money, education, and buildings. Neither is it a problem limited to certain groups of people or geographic locations. A deep reality of displacement – from one another, creation, and, ultimately God – is a fundamental consequence of sin.

Caught up in the text, I also became aware of the safe, comfort of home to which I cling.  A comfort that ignores the homelessness of others – and also of myself.  It’s quite easy to wrap myself up in the security that a physical structure and close family provides.  Furniture, insurance, IRA, family gatherings, all speak of a home, a safe place for the rest of my life. Yet, if I look deeply, its very safety provides a sense of displacement from the community around, and often even within, its walls.

Into this conversation the authors don’t bring a modern, multi-step answer to the problem. Do this and people will no longer be homeless.  Instead they explore hope in juxtaposition to the brokenness.  The hope that God promises.  Through the practice of Jubilee, the experience of Exodus, the very act of Creation and the rest of Sabbath, we have sign posts to the home that God desires for us.  These are home-looking celebrations and memories that are focused on the true meaning of home, not a mere buildings.

Furthermore, they bring us into Jesus’ mission to draw people out of homelessness.  “Much depends on dinner” as Jesus enters homes to share in the meals of ‘sinners’ and feeds thousands of people by simply thanking the Father.  He tells stories of feasts where the invited guests don’t arrive and others must be invited.  Who comes to the meals, who is invited, who is excluded, what is served?  All these questions provide a view into Jesus’ way.  A way that is open to all people now.  A way not popular with those in power, who already think they have homes and need to protect them.  This new feast  breaks into the lives of people to show that the homes they have created are only a poor substitute for what God desires.

These stories bear witness to the hope God provides and that we can then share with others.  Responding to this book is difficult.  There is so much to be done.  Yet, the authors remind us that “artists do not create hope; rather, they bear witness to hope” (317).  As sojourners on this planet we can share this hope – bringing others into the yearning for the true home and seeking to live in the shalom that God provides even now.

What does your home look like?  Where are you heading – towards a narrow definition of the 21st century good, safe life – or the fullness of the the homemaking God?

 

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Ministry of Prayer, Poetry, and Parable

Plans.  Posters.  Phone calls.   At this time of the school year in campus ministry it seems that I’m merely working to get things done and reach finals week along with the students.  So, these days I’m trying to get people to events and laying foundations for the next academic year.  Days are full, but at the end I look back and wonder what I have been doing.

What’s the point of it all?  Get a few people to a dinner.  Add to the list of students I’ve seen.  And then when things don’t work out I seek to plan my way to a better outcome.  After a while it seems empty, though this was a job that was supposed to be fulfilling.  You know, connecting with students, providing opportunities for them to connect with God’s Word, and helping local congregations to do the same.

In the effort to get a campus ministry up and running I’ve spent more time coordinating plans than working with people – clearly focusing on the area where I am naturally more comfortable.  Any creativity is pushed aside until another day when I have time.  But will I ever have time?  There are so many ways to schedule in this job with no set schedule.  What will appease funders and churches?  Numbers of activities and people.  But this can’t be all?

poetry magnetic piecesNot long ago a few new words broke into my broken ministry paradigm – Prayer, Poetry, Parable.  Eugene Peterson in his book The Contemplative Pastor seeks to redefine the 21st century job description of a pastor.  To return it to a practice of presence, of being, of breaking from the societal norms.  He does this not only through a set of beliefs, but also in a way of living.

 

  • “Words are the real work of the world – prayer words with God, parable words with men and women.”
  • “Words making truth, not just conveying it: liturgy and story and song and prayer are the work of pastors who are poets.”

These words were like the opening of a new world.  What if I focused more on prayer – that of my own and of students. To take time to listen to God and walk more closely with him in ministry.  Also, as I think of sharing with students it is easy to get into a rut of trying to explain a set of creedal beliefs.  A few get it, but many look back with blank stares.  So learning from the use of parables and poetry is a way to engage students in God’s story.  But it’s more than that, they are practices of creativity that mirror how God interacts with us fully.

From personal experience, I resonate with Peterson’s observation that “People are uncomfortable with mystery (God) and mess (themselves).”  Because of this he talks about helping people see the God’s “grace operating in their live” while paying “attention to the Word of God right here in this locale”.   In addition to being creative, this is a very peopled and placed and view of ministry – centered on God’s Word.

Though I may not be an ordained pastor, working as a campus minister requires similar break in the ordinary routine.  It can be tempting to step onto campus and fall into step.  To rack up activities, market programs, and speak the language of competition.  But is that what campus needs?  Another voice defending their turf – even if that turf is biblical truth.

Maybe what is needed is another type of voice – one that slows down and speaks differently in prayer, poetry, and parable.   This voice would invite others in to pray, engage them in the practice of poetry, and tell and listen to stories in a new way. Most importantly, it would interact with people in their place now – just as God interacts with us – not expecting them to come to one more event, but walking with them in their journey and drawing these individual pilgrims together naturally.

 

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Is this really God’s Story?

How are we telling God’s story?  So often my first instinct is to make the message palatable, connecting it to the needs of the person in front of me.  Do you need a better life purpose?  God has the answer.  What about a way to deal with evil?  That, too, God handily addresses.  Just believe God is with you in suffering and move on.  Maybe what I share is not a full-fledged health and wealth gospel, but I do really want people to like God’s message.  As if my re-creating the story will help God.  You know, God, your story is a bit bloody, challenging, and unbelievable at parts, so let me help.

I definitely don’t want to go to the opposite extreme and share only the hell fire and damnation stories.  But I have been moving too far away from the real story.  In the book, Telling God’s Story, John W. Wright explores how two larger narratives in our lives (personal salvation and national election) have eclipsed those that are in the Bible.  American Christians have often focused on how my/our lives are going to be okay – how I am saved and how I am part of God’s specially chosen people.  Once we see ourselves as owners of that final, happy ending of eternal salvation, we can continue in our lives without much discomfort – even through struggle.  A diagnosis of cancer is a test to my own faith, a flood shows how the community coming together and affirms that we are God’s special people.

As I thought about this more deeply, I started to see how this understanding of God’s story is quite shallow compared to what God shows us through his interaction with people throughout history.  In the American version, the story becomes a trite comedy merging together the narratives of the secular and sacred to such a degree that it can be difficult to tell the two apart.  Is there really any difference?  The focus – as in the literary definition of comedy – is on everything turning out for us in the end.  Being comfortable.  Resting in salvation.  Is this the narrative we find in the Bible?  Isn’t it rather a tragedy – something that wakes us out of complacency – in which we are never the heros.

Like pilgrimages, the biblical narrative is unsettling.  We want to travel toward a nicely tied up story that will change our lives with minimal effort.  Yet, if we really dig into this story, we find something else.  Pilgrimages work when they shake up our lives, when the liminal moments cause us to question the story we are moving towards and our place in it.  Perhaps these times make us confront our failings head on, turn from past ways, to be honest and move into a new story.  That should be the Bible – God’s word reading us instead of the other way around.  If we are honest, we see that life is a series of tragedies, a realization that all we do will fail.  The Gospel isn’t about a happily ever after, but a working out of God’s Word today.  In the midst of our groanings are the birth pains of the redemption God is working out.  It is humbling to not be in control of the story, but there is One who is.  The more we know of that One, the more we will allow Him to be the hero of our story, no matter how painful that is.

What story are you following?

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Study Bibles

“Study Bibles are ruining community.”  I recently heard this statement at a conference on narrative and the gospel.   I may not like a lot of the study Bibles out there, but ruining community?  Really?

It used to be that people would read the Bible and seek to understand how it related to their lives through their interactions within a Christian community.  Pastors and other teachers would lay the foundations of how to understand God’s Word and friends and family would share stories of God working in their lives.  This was an interactive, living approach to God’s Word.  However, with study Bibles available for everyone from women to firefighters to environmentalists, an individual can select one that will speak just to her, get the answers, and then be on her way.  There is no need to engage with others in our faith walk.  The answers are neatly laid out for us.

This seems like an efficient way to learn.  It is also a lot safer for my ego.  If I’m not living up to the expectations I read in God’s Word, only I need to know about it.  It’s also much easier to twist the Bible to mean what I want if I’m not reading it with other people who are aware of my weaknesses.  But as we rely primarily on distant experts and stop sharing our stories with one another there is a loss of real community in our churches.  We become a group of individuals finding our own way to live out the faith and trying to convince others that we are doing well.

So what might be a response to this focus on individual faith – whether prompted by study Bibles or a multitude of other reasons?

  • Where do we find places to dig more deeply into our lives and connect with others?
  • Places where we can learn from one another as we see how God is working?
  • Places where it’s okay to tell about the mess in our lives, as well as the joys?
  • Places where questions and failings are welcome, and forgiveness is ready?
  • Places where we can be affirmed that we are living in God’s grace and encouraged to go out and live more fully into the story where we are called?

I find that such moments occur not within programmed structures or alone in study, but in the throes of life.  Sometimes it’s around meals or over coffee.  It can also happen in a writing group,  at a ball park, or among whispered voices in a chapel  These are places where we can open God’s Word as we are with others, connecting our stories with God’s.  Such building and living in community is definitely not efficient nor focused on knowing the right answer, but it is biblical.  It’s also quite freeing.

Maybe it’s time to promote a new type of study Bible.  The added “helps” in this Bible would change depending on the group involved because they would be developed out of Christians living in the midst of one another’s stories as they center their lives on God’s Living Word – Jesus Christ.

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Are you a Pilgrim or Tourist this Holy Week?

Are you on a pilgrim path?

What’s the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist?   For a time I struggled with exploring this difference.  Innately I knew that when I was exploring the Canterbury Cathedral in England – visiting Thomas Becket’s murder site, walking up to the altar, and even lighting candles – I was a tourist.  However, only days later, when I stepped out of a bus onto the streets of Haworth, the home of Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Bronte, I knew that I was on a pilgrimage.  I had very different relationships to the stories that drew me to both places.  One was to gain knowledge and the other to encounter the place of a well-loved novel.  On a pilgrimage, a significant, personal connection to the place and its related stories motivates the travel.  In contrast, the intention of tourists to see the sites as other and outside of themselves often keeps the journey on a recreational level.

This difference has something to say about the way we travel, but also the way we live our faith.  In the book, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today N. T. Wright speaks directly to this idea.  While leading a group through the Holy Land, he reflects on how the stories, theology and place merge to bring faith to life.  The essence of pilgrimage especially comes to the forefront upon entering Jerusalem.

As Jesus heads to Jerusalem – and we follow in his steps whether in Jerusalem walking the via dolorosa, in church as we participate in worship services, in our homes reading the Bible, or in the community serving others – this is not a simple journey to revel in the upcoming passover holiday and see some sites along the way.  It was and is a journey into the very midst of God.  Wright explores how the “The road to Jerusalem stands for the deeply inviting, yet deeply threatening, journey into the presence of the one true God, where all is known and all is unknown, where all is asked and all is promised” (64).  This pathway requires listening, sacrifice, time, questions, and trust on the part of the pilgrim as we enter the story.  It’s possible to stand afar and watch as a tourist, but if you’re truly on the journey, you’re in the midst of the mess interacting with the reality of the people and situations along the way.

As Jesus’ journey continues to the garden of Gethsemane the story becomes more intense.  Jesus does not skip over this place of profound suffering.  He could have gone to another location, kept walking out of Jerusalem, knowing he was pursued.  He could have changed his teaching to be more in line with what people wanted.  He could have even called down legions of angels to fight.  Instead he stayed, prayed, sweated.  He remained with God in the pain of suffering.  This is pilgrimage.  Meeting the difficulties of the place and story head on.  Can we do any less?

So what does this mean for our walk today.  Those of us who have not been to the Holy Land are still on a journey of following Jesus.  As we become more enmeshed in God’s story, we go to the places that are uncomfortable, ask the questions of which we don’t know the answers or know we won’t like the answers, and seek God deeply.  Following Jesus’ path from his final meal with the disciples, to the garden and eventually the cross and tomb, where do you find yourself?  Are you a pilgrim or a tourist on this Holy Week journey?

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Opening Up God’s Story

My earliest memories include hearing by mother reading me Bible stories before bed and learning the same stories in a Sunday school class.  However, I have to be honest.  Even though I remember stories from that beloved nighttime ritual and those hour-long classes on Sunday mornings, I can’t say they really left me with any life-changing ideas.  The stories were nice – Noah surviving, Samson winning, God caring, Jesus dying and rising.  I knew the stories, and believed they were true, but they did not really change me.  They were a bit too neatly wrapped with cute pictures and closed-answer responses.

Another thing too neatly packed for me is church doctrine.  Like Sunday school lessons, doctrine can flatten out God.  Yes, it may make it simple and easy for people to know exactly what they must believe.  It helps to weed out errors and can put a person at ease.  But what kind of ease is it?  Underneath I feel something is missing when someone says don’t worry, all you have to do is simply believe in the Gospel – Jesus came, died, and rose.  This may be true, along with much well-thought out doctrine. But to me, it also leaves out something – the soul of the Bible

When I look at the Bible I see more than a list of facts, a set of dogma which leaves me cold.  Or, a nicely formed children’s story.  I see a truth – not a tidy creed – but a narrative of people living in the midst of relationships, God’s interactions, and questions.  Yes, God is there in the midst, but not in a flat, uni-dimensional way – a cardboard form that can easily be torn and manipulated.  It is a dynamic, multi-dimensional truth of God that we can’t understand, but we can trust even without knowing everything about it.

Mystery exists in this narrative.  It’s easy to see God in the victories of the Bible – Daniel  being saved from the lions and Peter escaping from jail.  However, sometimes God is hidden behind questions – when we wonder why he hardened Pharoah’s heart or question why he wanted Israel to completely decimate some of their enemies.  God’s description cannot be neatly stated once you piece together the truths throughout the Bible.  It seems contradictory at times.  Yet, in these enigmas we see God at work in the midst of unexplained suffering – the kind we regularly encounter even today. This is a story I can hold onto.

Running the race, leaving the land, wrestling, following the cloud – the images used in the Bible to describe people’s interactions with God are active.  Even those related to the law – share them with your children, write them on your hears – don’t refer to only a mental affirmation.  In the Bible we don’t have so much an end point to reach, but a story to live.  Because God can not be contained in a cleaned-up children’s story or a neatly formed doctrine, we are not alone on this journey.  God does not remain safely on our shelves.  He ventures out with us – and eventually we may even turn and venture with him.

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Such a Time as This

And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?  (Esther 4:14b)

Esther was just a Jewish girl in exile who had been selected by King Xerxes as a favored member of his harem.  She fit in with the others and kept her religion to herself.  It was not in her nature to cause dissension or to bring unwanted attention to herself.  Maybe life in a harem was not what she would have chosen, but she fulfilled her duty there and eventually became queen.  She probably would have been comfortable playing the role of queen for the rest of her life.  It was definitely better than living in the pain of exile and on the margins of society.

However, it wasn’t long before she realized that she could not forsake her past.  A new edict stated that all Jews in Xerxes’ territory were to be killed.  She was safe for the moment because no one knew her ancestry.  But how long would that last?  Her Uncle Mordecai didn’t think it would be long.  Furthermore, because she had access to the King, she of all the Jews could do something about the death decree.  Ugh.  She was in a comfortable position, holding a revered role in a new story.  But really what appeared to have been a whole new story was just a part of that older story she thought she had left – God’s story of saving his people.  So, she returned to that story and risked her life.

Many things today can take us out of God’s story – that work of reconciling people to himself.  We get caught up in the rush to build our lives with a career, friends, and family.  It’s safe and we receive affirmation from society.  However, it can also numb us to the pain and brokenness of others.  That is until we stop and listen to the Mordecais in our lives.  Have we been placed in specific positions for such a time as this?  Are we in positions to play a small or large role in helping God redeem his creation?

Today is Purim, the Jewish holiday set aside to celebrate the story told in the book of Esther.  What better way to observe this time than to join in God’s continued saving ways in the lives of people around us.

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