Tag Archives: Story

What’s Your Story?

In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.
Nehemiah 9:33 (NIV)

Everyone has a story.

In recent years, I have started asking people a simple question:

“What is your story?”

I find that those I ask are often taken aback by the question. It’s not unusual for a person to sit quietly for a moment and size me up. I imagine that, at times, the person is questioning my motives for asking. I also assume that some individuals are pondering just how much they really want to reveal to me. A person’s story, the revelation of self, is an intimate gift. What an individual chooses to share with me, and how they frame their own story, says way more about the person than his or her mere words.

In today’s chapter, the Hebrew exiles gather on what was known as a “Day of Atonement.” They recounted the story of their people from creation, through Abram, slavery in Egypt, Moses, the giving of the law, the wilderness, conquest, kings, prophets, captivity, and exile. At the end of their story, they summed things up:

“In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.”

Nehemiah 9:33 (NIV)

I have been a follower of Jesus for almost forty years. No one knows my own story, my own journey, as well as I do. Like the returned exiles in today’s chapter, like everyone else, my life journey is a tale that contains both incredible blessing and tragic mistakes. I have witnessed and experienced the miraculous, and I have willfully exhibited misdeeds and immorality.

I find in today’s chapter a good example to follow. It’s a healthy thing to remember and to recount my story warts and all. In all of the joy and pain, the triumphs and trials, the blessings and mistakes of my journey I am reminded of God’s faithfulness, guidance, goodness, and abundant grace despite my many missteps.

In the quiet this morning, I’m recounting my story to myself. It leaves me with feelings of gratitude and humility in light of God’s goodness. It reminds me that the story is still being told. Thanks for being part of it.

So, what’s your story?

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Structure and Flow

In every province and in every city to which the edict of the king came, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating.
Esther 8:17 (NIV)

Over the past few years, I have served as a mentor to a group of teachers. I will typically review outlines and provide encouragement and advice prior to their message, and then give feedback after the delivery of their messages. It’s been rewarding to watch individuals improve their preparation and presentation skills, and it’s challenged me in a number of unexpected ways. I honestly think I’ve been a better learner than I have a  teacher in the process.

One of the biggest observations I’ve made over my tenure in this role is the importance of structure. If you have a well-ordered structure then your words and ideas have flow. The hearer, almost sub-consciously, follows the flow and ends up right where you want them at the end. Without structure, there is no flow. Transitions are clunky and the hearer gets lost not being able to follow how what you’re saying now related to what you just said before. When an audience is lost they check out. Casual observers rarely appreciate how a great story, song, play, painting, building, sculpture, movie, or presentation is almost always well-structured.

Which brings us to today’s chapter of Esther in which the villain, Haman, has been dispatched. Mordecai, his nemesis, is elevated to Haman’s position and given his possessions. It’s such a good story, but the casual reader does not realize that the story-teller has carefully structured the narrative in what’s known as a “chiastic” style. The author uses the same phrasing in both introducing Haman and then describing Mordecai’s redemption to highlight the reversal of fortune. Commentators Karen Jobes and Janet Nygren help us see the structure:

In the quiet of my office this morning I find myself thinking about structure and flow. The further I get in my life journey the more aware I’ve become that everything is connected. It’s the design of creation. Even a seemingly random sight of trees in a forest has what scientists call a fractal structure. Whether it’s my work, a message I’m giving, a story I’m telling, our weekly schedule, the vacation plan, our meal plan for the week, or how our living room is arranged there is both structure and flow. If I structure things well then things flow better and the results are generally good. If things are disjointed, disconnected, and there’s no real flow, then everything feels unstable and out of whack.

And with that, I enter the structure of my day.

Flow well, my friend.

To Be Continued….

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.
Acts 28:30 (NIV)

It’s always frustrating when a television series that I love comes to an untimely end. There have been a number of shows over the years that I wish had continued. What makes it even more frustrating when a smart, intelligent show gets cancelled is all of the mindless schlock that seems to perpetuate itself for decades.

As an amateur writer, I’m always fascinated how the writers and producers handle a show’s storyline once they know the show has been cancelled. Many shows are written from the beginning to contain multiple story lines or “arcs.” This allows for there to be a sense of closure after one season, or a part of a season, while leaving other story arcs open to lead into future seasons. So, what happens when the writing team is told that they only have two episodes to wrap things up for good?

I’ve observed that some try to wrap up all of the loose ends, which leaves things feeling clunky, because not all of the story arcs have been fully fleshed out. Some introduce a tragic end to the protagonist which allows for a reason that the series has ended. Much like the untimely end of a loved one in real life, this option leaves viewers grieving for what “might have been.” Sometimes the writers simply let the series end without ever trying to give viewers closure. This, in turn, reminds me of Wendy.

Wendy has always been an avid reader. She tells me that when she was a young girl she never wanted to put a book down in the middle because she was afraid the story would go on without her. Instead of “to be continued” the next time she picked up the book, she feared that the story wouldn’t wait for her.

I mention this because in today’s final chapter of the book of Acts we find Paul arriving in Rome to wait for his trial with the Roman Emperor, Nero. The tension of the story has been building as Paul appeals his case to Caesar and makes an epic journey, including shipwreck, to Rome. In this final chapter, Luke tells us that Paul rented his own place, was allowed to live a relatively free existence with his Centurion guard. He met with the local Jewish population. He “welcomed all” who came to see him and continued to proclaim the Message of Jesus.

And then it ends, as if the show suddenly got cancelled. Luke simply leaves the storyline there, and we must assume that his historical narrative, penned for a man named Theophilus, was wrapped up and sent off at this point. Luke leaves the rest of the story open because it hadn’t happened yet.

The rest of Paul’s story is left for us to piece together from the writings of early Christians and Roman historians. In July 64 AD the “Great Fire of Rome” broke out for six days. According to the Roman historian, Tacitus, only four of Rome’s 14 districts escaped damage. Nero blamed the fire on Christians and immediately set out to persecute them. It is documented that Nero had both Paul and Peter executed, which is consistent with his persecution of Jesus’ followers. The exact dates and the specifics surrounding the events and executions were not well documented at the time.

In the quiet this morning I’m smiling as I think of a young, curly-haired Wendy, with her nose in a book, convinced that the story will go on without her. Indeed, as the story of Acts comes to an abrupt, even unsatisfying end, I’m meditating on the fact that the story did go on. We know that Paul was executed and that the Message of Jesus continued to spread despite horrific persecution. The story continued, and continues to this day. Having taken up the mantel of faith in my youth, I am a part of the same story; Just a wayfaring stranger traveling through this particular story arc, in this particular chapter, during this particular point in the epic.

I only hope that I to play my part as faithfully and as well as those in Acts who led the way.

Have a great day, my friend.

Life, Death, Sacrifice, & the Multiverse

However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
Acts 20:24 (NIV)

Over this past week Wendy and I watched the third season of the Amazon Prime original, The Man in the High Castle. Most every television or movie drama hinges on some kind of threat to life. Someone’s life is in danger. Someone is trying to escape those who seek to end his or her life. Someone’s life had been taken and the protagonist must find out who did it before more people die. In The Man in the High Castle the writers throw in the twist of the multi-verse, the theory that parallel realities exist and people known as “travelers” can slip between them. Nevertheless, seeking to stay alive and striving to avoid the threat of death don’t change. They are always the common themes.

As I read today’s chapter, the themes of death and life are just as prevalent as they weave themselves through Paul’s story. The Jews plan another attempt to assassinate Paul, so he changes his travel arrangements. A boy falls from a third-story window and dies, but Paul miraculously brings the boy back to life. Paul then declares to the elders of the believers at Ephesus that he will not see them again on this earthly journey. Even though Holy Spirit has continually revealed that prison and persecution await, Paul is ready to face it: “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.”

Here we have yet a different twist on the theme of life and death: the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a higher purpose. Paul has faithfully followed the footsteps of Jesus. Self-sacrifice is the way of Jesus:

  • “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
  • “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
  • [Jesus] said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
  • “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

In the quiet this morning I find myself wrestling with the themes of life, death, and self-sacrifice. In a relatively safe midwest American existence the threat of death is incredibly low. The odds for a long and relatively easy life are incredibly high. So, what does the way of Jesus, the way of self-sacrifice mean for me on this journey? In a culture that values a “better life” as defined by the acquisition of things and the accumulation of bucket list experiences, what does it mean to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow? I live in a completely different reality that Paul, Luke, and the Ephesus elders. I know what self-sacrifice looked like for Paul, but what about me in this place, in this century, in this reality?

Monday morning. More questions than answers. I’m gonna keep wrestling with this one.

Have a good week my friend.

The Hard Facts

As for the other events of Solomon’s reign, from beginning to end, are they not written in the records of Nathan the prophet, in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite and in the visions of Iddo the seer concerning Jeroboam son of Nebat?
2 Chronicles 9:29 (NIV)

In today’s chapter, the author of Chronicles concludes his account of Solomon’s reign. He chooses, however, to leave out some pertinent facts provided in the eleventh chapter of 1 Kings.

Solomon was a womanizer. He married 700 wives, most of them were daughters or women from foreign royal families seeking to make political alliances with the king. On top of that, Solomon kept 300 concubines. Solomon’s wives worshiped foreign gods, and they convinced Solomon to build altars and temples to their gods. Solomon even worshipped the gods of his wives, including a couple of nasty ones who demanded child sacrifice.

By the end of his reign, Solomon’s years of conscripting slave-labor had created political problems for him. The nation his father worked so hard to unite was falling apart. Rebellions and uprisings began to occur. Prophets began prophesying the end of the united kingdom. Solomon resorted to assassination to maintain power and rid himself of threats.

All of this, the Chronicler fails to mention.

We can only assume why the writer of 2 Chronicles whitewashes Solomon’s story. Scholars believe that the Chronicles were written at the time the Hebrew exiles returned from captivity in Babylon. The temple needed to be rebuilt, and the Chronicler’s account may have been intended to drum up support for the new temple by glorifying Solomon and the old temple. This scholarly assumption concludes that the Chronicler chose to focus on Solomon’s glory and  leave the inconvenient truths buried in the bibliography.

This past Sunday at our local gathering of Jesus’ followers I gave a message about “Story.” Over the centuries the institutional church has turned the concept of “witnessing” into a host of systematic programs for communicating the theological concepts of salvation. However, when Jesus told his followers to be “witnesses” He simply meant for them to share their stories about their experiences with Him. In the opening lines of the letter that became 1 John, Jesus’ disciple literally gives the testimony “I heard him. I saw him. I touched him.” John’s story is how his experiences with Jesus transformed him from being known as a “Son of Thunder” (because of his anger and rage) to “The disciple of love.” Each of us has a story. Each of us has a God story whether that story is how we came to believe or disbelieve.

We also choose how to tell our stories, how to give witness, and what that testimony will be. We may choose to tell our story differently depending on the audience and the circumstances. This is  not only common, but I would argue that sometimes it is even wise. Nevertheless, our stories all contain hard facts. I made huge mistakes in life. I became addicted to porn as a child. My first marriage failed. I was unfaithful. I made a complete mess of things. A big theme of my God story is the grace, forgiveness, and redemption God has shown me despite my being a complete boogerhead. I can’t tell that story without also sharing some hard facts about what a deeply flawed person I am.

This morning I’m thinking about my story. I’m thinking about the hard facts of my life. My life journey is riddled with big mistakes I’ve made. To this day I struggle with being self-ish and self-centered. Wendy can give witness to my melancholy and pessimism, my emotional overreactions, and complete blindness to anyone or anything other than what I’m focused on in the moment.  But there’s also the story of my journey, of God growing me up, freeing me, and giving me second chances. There’s a story of transformation that has come from following Jesus and what God has done in me. It’s a good story.

For whatever reason, the Chronicler chose to leave out the hard facts about Solomon. It makes me sad. Our stories are much more powerful and interesting when we’re honest about the hard facts. Even tragedies make powerful stories from which we can benefit.

Family Business

Solomon gave orders to build a temple for the Name of the Lord and a royal palace for himself.
2 Chronicles 2:1 (NIV)

My great-grandfather owned a hardware in Rock Valley, Iowa. He had four children, but my great-grandfather concluded that the family business could only support two. He raised his two eldest children to learn the business. The two younger children were left to find their own way. My grandfather was one of the latter. He went on to college and became an educator. It was only in the final few years of his life that he shared about the conflict and relational mess caused by the “family business.”

Family business gets messy, whether we’re talking about an actual business run by a family or whether we’re talking about the day-to-day business of doing life together as a family.

Reading the first few chapters of 2 Chronicles, a casual reader is likely unaware of the messy family business behind the events. King David’s great passion had been to build a temple for God, but God made it clear that this was not what David was called to do. Solomon is tasked with fulfilling his father’s great wish and honoring is father’s legacy. The Chronicler gives us little indication of how Solomon felt about this, but I know a few children who have been tasked with carrying on a father’s legacy and the burden they feel when a family’s business is laid on one person’s shoulders. It’s not easy.

The other fact often missed by casual readers is the fact that Solomon was the last of David’s many children from several wives. Succession to the throne usually went to the eldest son, but David (who had been the youngest of his father’s sons) places his youngest son on the throne. Not only that, but Solomon’s mother was Bathsheba, the woman with whom David had a scandalous affair and later married. There would have been plenty of members of the royal household who would have been angry, resentful, and feeling left out. Young Solomon had plenty of family members wanting him to fail.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about family business. I’m kind of grateful that my own family, starting with my grandfather, moved away from the “family business” model as a path of vocation for subsequent generations. Family members have been free to pursue their own paths and passions. I’ve not felt the burden that Solomon felt of carrying out a parent or grandparent’s legacy. Some days it’s good to recognize the burdens that other people carry that I can be grateful not to have to worry about.

I’m also thinking about our daughters and the respective paths they’ve each followed. It’s been both surprising and fulfilling to watch them blossom and launch in different directions and to seek after God’s plans and purposes. I can’t wait to see where their paths take them.

As with all great stories, sometimes there’s really good, important stuff lying underneath the text I read. In the same way, the images I have of other people may not tell the whole story of what’s going on beneath the surface. The further I get in my journey the less content I’ve become with surface stories. I want to get beneath the text, I want to get under the projected image and grapple with what’s really going on. That’s where real relationship happens and where real transformation begins.

featured photo courtesy of Chris Beckett via Flickr

Final Words

The words of Jeremiah end here.
Jeremiah 51:64 (NIV)

Along my journey I’ve had the privilege of officiating a  host of funerals. Some of them have been family members with whom I’ve had a life-long relationship. Many have been complete strangers to me. No matter the case, I’ve always approached these meaningful events with a desire to honor the person, her/her family, and to comfort those loved ones by telling the person’s story well.

I usually start by simply meeting with the family and asking them questions. As I listen, a story begins to emerge about the deceased, what the person did with his/her life, how he/she impacted the people around them, and what his/her journey was really about. I’ve got to be honest, sometimes the story is heart-warming, and other times it is painfully tragic. Either way, there is always a story to tell.

One of the things I’ve most appreciated about this long slog through Jeremiah’s prophetic anthology is the realization that we have a fairly thorough retrospective of Jeremiah’s 40 years of prophetic works from beginning to end. Jeremiah had a very specific message to convey throughout his career: Babylon was going to destroy his city of Jerusalem and take his people into exile. Then, Babylon would eventually suffer the same fate. When the former happens as prophesied, Jeremiah sends the latter message with a servant headed to Babylon. With that act, the editors tell us that they are Jeremiah’s final words (though the story ends with tomorrow’s final chapter).

Jeremiah’s words were never popular. He was threatened, attacked, imprisoned, left to die, and yet he always remained “on message.” He stuck doggedly to the message God gave him. When the Babylonians showed him unusual mercy for his prophetic “support” of their invasion, Jeremiah didn’t hesitate to tell them that their turn was coming. He never backed down. He completed the job. He stuck to the mission.

This morning I’m thinking about the end of Jeremiah’s words, and it’s prompting thoughts about my own life, and my own story. Someday the responsibility will likely fall on someone to listen to my family members and to sum up my story in just a few minutes of oratory. With each day of my journey I slowly pen that story. I hope it’s not unlike Jeremiah’s: sticking to the mission, completing the course set before me. More than anything, I hope the theme of the story is love.