Donald huddled in the corn field behind his boyhood home. He was scared. His mother hovered over him and two of his sisters whispering comfort in their ears and a reminder to stay quiet. Donald’s father, William, yelled from the back porch of their home into the dark night and swaying cornstalks. He was drunk… and, this was not the first time. The kid’s mother, Ellie, had coached them well knowing their dad struggled with alcohol and had an abusive tendency when he had too much. She told the kids, “When I say, ‘It’s time,’ crawl out your window and slide down the pole to the back porch. Run out into the corn field, lie down and hide until I come for you.” And so, here they were again; protected only by the night, the corn, and their prayers. Donald’s father would scream into the field, “Ellie, I know you’re out there and if I find you I’ll kill you!” Often, William would pass out or the safety of daybreak would give way for Ellie, Donald, and his sisters to make it back to the house. This was one of the many chapters that would shape the story and direction of Donald’s life.
We’ve all got a story. If you and I were to sit down and I said, “So what’s your story?” you would not likely start by telling me your social security number, your home address or your phone number… you’d start with some story that set your life on the course that has brought you to this moment in time. Some would tell about a fork-in-the-road moment from childhood and what a difference the fork you chose made. Some would tell of a significant relationship or an accident or an illness – some pivotal event that carved the course of your life. What’s your story? Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are constantly seeking to make sense of our lives and the lives of others based on certain stories. When you get together with old friends from high school that you haven’t seen in a long time, what do you do? You start telling stories from high school – you try to reclaim the shaping events you shared together as a way of knowing them and being known by them. It’s like a Chris Farley character nervously conducting an interview. Instead of coming up with questions to ask, he simply says, “Remember that time when….” and he would rattle off something from the past and say, “Remember that? That was awesome.” We like to tell stories that remind us of who we are.
What happens at every Presidential State of the Union address? The president brings guests to sit in the gallery – stories of people that reinforce a spirit of resilience or achievement. Every President names some facts and some alternative facts but what takes the night? – the stories of the people. However, because we are all operating from different guiding stories, we see what happens in the world in very different ways. It’s why the “State of the Union” address can be cheered by one person while another finds the same speech appalling. Two people, looking at the same piece of art, or listening to the same song, or looking at the same issue, can see things in two very different ways. Why? Because of the stories we’ve lived and built our lives around from our beginning until now. As a Psychology major in college, this reality was mind blowing. The study of people and the way we see the world. The human experience is phenomenology fascinating.
What is your story? And perhaps the bigger question, “What is the guiding story of your life?” When we find our way into the Christian faith, we have a new narrative to lay over the stories of our lives. And within that narrative, we try to process what we see and read about Jesus through the lens by which we’ve seen our lives outside of the faith. If you’re a literal person, seeing most everything in black and white, you interpret the faith in a particular way. If you’re a scientist or an artist or a CPA or something else, you’re bound to interpret the story of faith through a very particular lens as well. We are processing these stories and counter stories all of the time – and they are, without a doubt, shaping our lives.
The Christian story – in a very small nutshell – is a story of “God-with-us.” This has been narrated in scripture and retold in and through the life of the church over the centuries. We are creatures made in the image of God, called to be faithful stewards of God’s good creation. We see who we are as inseparable from God’s promised action in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and the ongoing work of God’s Spirit.
John, the Gospel writer, takes on the task of telling the story of Jesus. I can only imagine the process of that task. He didn’t write thinking, “I’m shooting to be one of the top four Gospels that make it into the Bible that people will hold up as sacred and authoritative for the rest of time.” There was not an essay contest that was posted in town square – “Get your story in the Bible!” with medals awarded for the best offering. In fact, it was an oral culture that existed solely on spoken stories. You were told the stories, you learned the stories, and you told the stories to the next generation. This is how tradition and faith and life were passed on – not Wikipedia. But… Something happened that compelled John to write the gift we have come to know as The Gospel According to John. Take time this week to read the beginnings of the other three Gospels as well: Matthew, Mark, Luke. Each one tells the story differently – but with some similar motive – to speak a story of salvation into future generations. Some thing – someone – happened, and every future story would be colored by this story of Jesus.
The first chapter of John is called the prologue – a breaking in of the cosmos into the dullness of a mere-existence-based approach to living. He would write to reveal the true nature of what it means to live. Laying this in-breaking of the Word (whom he would identify as Jesus) against what surely was a formative story to him, the work of Genesis, he writes almost the continuation of the divine creation as narrated in Genesis 1. In Genesis, God proclaimed, “Let there be light.” John, wants humanity to hear that in Jesus, God proclaims, “Let there be life.” “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John goes on to describe this beautiful framework upon which we are invited to lay our own personal stories. He describes a dark world, a tough and sad and often hopeless reality. And into that world, a great light comes to illuminate what is true and pure and holy – something that can enter the darkness and resurrect it into something transformational. Resurrection literally means, “to stand again.” So there’s this existence called our reality. It can be aimless, dark and painful and can literally cut the legs out from under you. But… John says… “But… there is a way to stand again.” And thus launches his story about Jesus as the Christ… the savior of the world… the one through whom we can stand again, be resurrected, start again. Here. Comes. The. Hope. “Are you ready for it?” That’s the prologue – setting us up to receive the following stories of Jesus as worthy and able to give us new life – if we’ll just live our lives by this guiding story. That sounds easy enough, right?
Here’s the story. Here are the instructions. Clear as mud. We can all get the same box of pieces, have the same instructions on how to put that thing together and yet wind up with a varied version of picture on the front of the box. Why is this? Layers and layers of interpretation. A story is one thing. How you interpret it makes all the difference. The Gospels don’t offer us a list of abstract qualities that Jesus possessed – they share stories about his interactions with Pharisees and prostitutes, the rich and poor, tax collectors and children. Even the Gospel accounts themselves project a particular interpretation. Matthew is the priestly Gospel – He is the one that welcomes the Magi, the kings, to meet Jesus. Luke leaves the Magi out of his account but is sure to include the poor Shepherds – need them there. Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount (high, lofty sounding, king of kings). Luke has the Sermon on the Plains (lowly, down-to-the-earth, power to the everyday person) – a real underdog story. And we love underdog stories right?
It’s no secret that I’m rooting for the underdog later tonight. It’s a night when all our questions will be answered. And while it seems pretty bleak, I’ll be shouting, “Get out of the house, Jack Pierson. You have a wife and three kids who need you!” I think they’re fooling us all. Jack lives on after tonight. Why do some of you look confused? I can’t wait to watch the must-see episode of This is Us tonight. What underdog did you think I was talking about? Anyway – big day for the underdogs – don’t forget to unplug your crock pots tonight.
There is something about the character revealed in a story that can’t be conveyed by fact or doctrine alone. This is what made Jesus such a powerful teacher. He could have offered an elaborate theoretical discussion of the virtues of neighbor love but instead he told the story of the good Samaritan – and we miss the shock value of Samaritan of course. Jesus could have presented a philosophical discourse on the nature of God’s love and mercy but instead he tells the story of the prodigal son – another cultural shocker to his original audience. How else do you describe the essence of something… the character of it? You tell a story. And in the case of Jesus’ teaching and so many stories we tell – they are never just stories. They are invitations to see ourselves and the world in a particular way and act in accordance with what we see. And so then the big choice – your choice – my choice – the choice of every person who has ever lived: “What one story becomes the story through which you interpret all other stories?” And there is one. We may pull from a few competing stories now and then. We may struggle, especially, if our primary guiding story has ever been replaced by another one – even though that new choice may come with more clarity because you chose it as opposed to inheriting it from your family or someone else.
It was the intent of the WWJD bracelets – a reminder of a guiding story. No matter the scenario you find yourself, the sight of that bracelet was a reminder to ask yourself, “What would Jesus do in this scenario?” How does the Jesus story overlap my own in this moment? Maybe it’s a family ring that you wear as a reminder of someone whose legacy you carry in hopes of making him or her proud. Maybe your guiding story is a financial one or one tied to your ambition. We can’t control the stories that come into our lives but we can choose a guiding story by which to interpret those stories. I sat with a good friend this week, going through some tough things not of his own choosing and he says to me, “I believe in the biblical word, “Do not be afraid.” I was inspired by the guiding story of his faith and it strengthened my own guiding story of faith. My guiding story is summarized in what Jesus says was more important than anything else. “Love God. Love neighbor.” Love God with all that I am and love my neighbor as myself. That doesn’t answer every question we have and I fall short of that ideal often… but that is the story that is first prompted in my spirit when encountering every day, every person, every circumstance. I feel it is not just a casual answer of Jesus to some reporter, it is the sum of everything he ever did, every story he ever told, every reason he received the pain of the cross. When my life is done and I meet my Maker, that ideal is what I’m willing to say I staked my life on. When my kids sum up the life of their dad one day, I’m less interested in them saying, “His doctrine was flawless.” I’d much rather them say, “He sure loved God. He sure loved people. He tried to live like Jesus.” That’s the story I’m after even as my daily story encounters a thousand other stories competing for top billing. What story do you choose?
Remember Donald? The boy I mentioned at the open of the message? Fast forward to his teenage years and a particular pivotal moment with his father, William. They were shoveling corn in the corn crib when William stopped and looked at his son – the youngest of his ten children. He apologized to his son for his struggle with alcohol and the way he treated the family. He wanted desperately to quit. And his son, sixteen, seventeen years old says to his father, “Dad, I believe you. And I believe in you. I believe our faith gives us hope that we can change. I’ll pray that for you every day.” Just a teenager. His dad gave up drinking. A bond between father and son was fortified. Donald grew up and began a family of his own – three children, his oldest son named, William, after his granddad who had fought the demons and found hope in Christ, in sobriety. It was a story of redemption – one that created a future of hope, determination to overcome alcoholism every day of his life, a choice for his family — admiral characteristics Donald deemed worth naming his own son after. Donald was working in the hardware store of his little hometown when he felt called to ministry. He gave the next eight years to undergraduate and seminary education while serving his family and the church. Donald was my grandfather. Young William, named after his grandfather, is my dad. My oldest son, Dane William, carries that redemptive story forward in his own name. Those family stories, under the guiding story of Jesus, have greatly impacted my own. Your story matters. Not just for you… but for generations to come. Maybe it can be said of us, as John’s prologue said of Jesus: “From his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.” Receive the grace, my friends. And let it tell your story forward from now until forever.
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 The Shape of our Lives. (Kenneson, Murphy, Williams, Fowl, and Lewis. WIPF & STOCK. Eugene, OR. 2008.) This sermon series is shaped by this study. Its influence is evident in the selection of scripture passages and other support for the message.