My Cousin’s Sermon Reminded Me That Stories are Powerful

This is some Norman Rockwell-esque adorable: walking home from church in the sunshine with my grandparents, aunt, uncle, cousins, and second cousins.

Yesterday I went to Downs, IL (a tiny little town outside of Bloomington) to hear my cousin preach.  I was going out of low-expectation familial support, but WOW, it turns out my family is very talented.  Steve is three months younger than me, but he is already a phenomenal preacher.  He’s laid back, good at working the room, and really great at getting his point across.  So great, in fact, that over 24 hours later, I can still remember what he said.

With Acts 6 and 7 as the backdrop, Steve talked about Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  But the point wasn’t about death, or intensity of faith, or anything like that.  Instead, the point was about story.  

“Relationships happen in the context of story.”  My life is a story, and so is yours, and the ways in which our stories overlap create an even bigger story, and so on.  By “story,” I don’t mean “untrue.”  I mean we are hardwired to think in story, to see characters, conflict, and development.  We can think logically, but we are stories.

In his sermon, Steve made us look at the Bible in the same way.  The Bible isn’t a bunch of lists of “do this” or “don’t do that.”  It is a story.  It’s a story that tells us who God is, who his people are, and what he is doing.  All cool, interesting points.  But I liked where he went next even more.

In Acts 6 and 7, upstanding widow-helper Stephen is accused of blasphemy and is tried by the religious court.  Instead of defending himself point by point to prove his innocence, Stephen tells a story.  He essentially says, “You’re getting bogged down in the minutiae, but let’s zoom out and look at God’s story.”  He tells the story of a God who makes and keeps promises, who sends prophets to his people and saves them over and over again even when they keep resisting the help he offers.

Of course, telling stories are dangerous.  But we know that from the massively long list of banned books that scare narrow-minded people.  Stephen’s story infuriates the court, and they kill him.  So…maybe this is a hard sell.  But despite the seemingly negative outcome, it can’t be denied that stories are powerful.

I can tell you that God is a good and powerful God who keeps his promises, and that statement is true.  But it’s a statement, and easily forgettable.

Or I can tell you:

Five years ago, when I left Senegal, God awakened in me a desire to live overseas and serve people who were hurting.  I started applications to two mission organizations, but I felt like the timing was wrong, so I stopped.  I was confused and upset, but I threw myself into serving at my church and in being the best children’s librarian Dunlap had ever seen.  I learned how to plan events, organize staff, and teach people aged 11-80.  I fell in love with my Midwest life.

Then my grandpa died, leaving me $40,000.  Soon thereafter I visited a friend in Texas, who introduced me to people at Dallas Theological Seminary.  I pictured myself as a counselor, and I decided that $40,000 would be a great investment toward getting my Master’s degree.  Halfway through the program, I visited my brother in Seattle.  We sat on the chilly beach, watching the sun go down, and I told Roy that I was itching to go overseas.  I loved counseling, and I felt like this might be how I could serve people overseas.  But I was looking up travel opportunities and mission organizations, and nothing felt right.  He listened, and I tried to ignore my discontent by traveling for fun instead of for service.

Four months later, in St. Maarten, I got an email from old friends in Athens.  We talked, they offered me a job working at a safe house for women who have been sexually exploited, and suddenly the last five years made sense.  God had planted a desire in me, and then he gave me jobs and experiences and classes that would hone my skills, create new talents, and emotionally prepare me for…living overseas to serve people who were hurting.

Intellectually, I know that God is good and that he has a plan for me.  But I’m in a relationship with God, and relationships always happen in the context of stories.  The story of the last five years of my life reveal a God who is at work in the intimate details of my life, who prepares me for things before I know they exist, who keeps me at a safe distance from the thing that I want until I am ready to jump in with the talents and endurance necessary.  My story helps me know God far more than any list of qualities he possesses.

It is easy for me, like the Sanhedrin who tried Stephen, to get bogged down in minutiae.  How can I possibly raise another $12,000?  What if I cannot go to Greece in January?  And if I do, what in the world will I do after this year is over?  Clearly, by “bogged down in minutiae,” I mean, “worry.”  But like Stephen, I just need to step back and think about the overall story that God has told throughout history, and that God has told in my own life.  When my story gets tough, it is thinking back on previous chapters that will remind me of who God is, who I am, and what we are doing together.

So read the Bible like a story, and share your story with other people.  In fact, start right now!  Leave a comment, and tell me a story of what God’s doing in your life.

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