Saturday, December 20, 2008

Writing the next chapter in the story

Melissa and I spent 11 days traveling through the southern United States to tell a variety of people and churches what God has been doing at Cascade Hills.  It was a harrowing trip dragging a 3 year-old and a 1 year-old across two states, six airplanes, and four different sleeping arrangements.  But all in all, the kids did great and we got to catch up with old friends and meet new ones in droves.

The chief purpose of our trip was reporting--meeting with the leaders of several churches that support our work and to share stories of what God is doing.  We had a number of different opportunities to do that.  During the trip, I taught two different Sunday school classes, preached two sermons, elders's meetings, and several other informal gatherings where we presented.  With a belly full of southern cooking, I learned a couple of things:  first, that telling other people about the cool folks God has gathered at Cascade Hills is a lot of fun and energizing for me.  Second, that these kinds of stories really energize churches; it's so easy to get bogged down in the details of what we're doing that we forget that some of the stuff God has accomplished in our midst is amazing.  And third, that there is something powerful about the exercise of preparing to tell these stories.

In order to tell the stories, I had to call them up from memory.  I spent time prayerfully thinking through all that God has been doing (over the span of more than a year), a powerful exercise in itself.  I had to sift through  the tangle of what I wanted God to do, what I thought he should have done, what I had thought were my own failures--all that stuff that comes from living "in the now."  What came out of this time of "holy remembering" was a litany of good things, all centering around people and the transformation God had wrought.

But calling them up from memory was only the beginning; I also had to spend time prayerfully thinking through how to communicate all this in the various forums in which I knew I would find myself.  Telling the story of what God is doing at Cascade Hills in the context of a Sunday School class or a sermon requires that I bring my own stories up alongside Scripture and look for affinities and contrasts with The Story.  This is careful and dangerous work; I don't want to come off sounding like I'm Paul (or worse, Jesus) or that Salem, Oregon is a meaningful analog of 1st century Judea.  But still, the parallels are there:  God still seeks those who are lost; Jesus is still at work in his church through His Spirit and brings new life in amazing, surprising, unexpected ways.

I also had to be careful to be honest.  When presenting to people who are supporting us, it is tempting to over-sell, to omit my own failures and shortcomings.  I have to set the stories in their actual context as much as possible through the lens of memory and personal experience.  I dare not leave out my own struggle and the struggles of others in our church, because to do so diminishes the role of God who works in spite of our weakness.

Last of all, in preparing for telling these stories, I had to "translate" somewhat into the language of a different church culture.  This too is careful work, because I can very easily use words and concepts which are well known to us in our ministry context that mean nothing (or worse, something different) in theirs. I had to speak more carefully, listening to my own words and being sure to explain as needed.

In doing all this, I now carry with me a narrative of my own story against a backdrop of God's faithfulness.  To be sure, it is a partial truth from my limited and fallen vantage point.  But don't we all end up with a picture of a past like this, whether we are intentional about it or not?  Why not prayerfully, devotionally look together with God over our past and discover what He desires to show us?  Why not hear the story He is telling through our lives, and enjoy the next chapter?

Permit me to commend to you this exercise:  look over this last year and prayerfully search your memory for what God has done in and around you.  Make a list of those things which God has done in spite of what you had hoped and in spite of what you wished you had done.  Then, having that list, bring it alongside the Scriptures.  How did your story find continuity with God's Grand Story of redemption He is weaving out of our collective history?  Then take someone out for coffee and tell them the latest chapter in your story (gory bits and all) in language they can understand.

Trust me, this is a path to great blessing.

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