I recently finished work on an MFA in Creative Writing—that is, I graduated with a degree in hand, the tassel on the cap moved from one side of the mortar board to the other. I never imagined I would immerse myself in the art of writing. But then again, all of us were neck deep in pandemic realities, peeking out into the world clothed in masks, paranoid with worry about whether or not we had been infected—and how it may have happened if we were. Many conversations began with the question, “How are you?” Yet, for once, space was held for people to express how they really were. We didn’t gather with one another around coffee tables with cups of egg coffee and a bar on a napkin in front of us. “Virtual” was how life together happened: sacraments, sermons, and worship.
Each conversation spoke into the realities we all faced. We mostly heard resonance between us. Out of a shared experience of uncertainty, we were fueled to tell stories of our own. Not all stories were gentle and graceful. Some thought sheltering in place hindered the economy and the freedom to worship and the ability to get back to the ways things were. The world was cracked open. And if we dared look inside, we saw a great many fractures along fault lines that had previously sat undetected, yet still present, under the surface of things. We spoke good news often through stories that connected Word and world. Though preaching often grew briefer, the stories told would, we hoped, break us open so our longing for community and healing, forgiveness and hope, life in the midst of death, and peace could be seen, and the fulfillment of our hopes could be ushered in through Word and water, bread and wine, tangible stories whose purpose was to announce and reveal the Word made flesh who still remains with us. God is with us, after all. As a result, we are held in hope.1
No heroes here
What stories might we tell one another to help us live into the good news that we are held in hope? The pandemic is far from over. People continue to be infected. The fractures of the world continue to reveal themselves. Congregations continue to wonder if they have a future. Pastors continue to wonder if they should continue in pastoral ministry. In the wider worlds, all the signs of fragmentation continue. News of hope is, indeed, good. In the face of fracture in the church and world, though, this news could also sound hollow. To tell stories of those who have faced and overcome difficulty, while heartening, may not speak into the kind of longing and lament our world is facing in this present moment. Stories in sermons may need to clear away the temptation to make someone out to be a hero—or even a survivor—in the face of adversity. This is especially true if the story we feel compelled to tell features something about us that puts us in a marvelous light. In all that faces us as a church in a world set ablaze and torn apart, there are no heroes here.
A place to begin
In the gospels, I’m often taken by the stories people tell one another about the ways Jesus encountered them. One of the themes of these stories is surprise. They hadn’t expected, they didn’t know, and they often didn’t know what to do with Jesus’ presence with them. There was no reason for Jesus to come to them, other than they were sick, hurt, or in need in some way. These gospel stories open up space for us to tell one another about how and in what ways we are surprised, fed, nourished, loved, forgiven, healed by Jesus. What if the emphasis on these stories makes room for us to talk about our brokenness, our sadness, our fear? What if we tell stories about times when we really didn’t understand what was going on, or a time when we just didn’t get it right? What if we give ourselves permission to not have all the answers, but to reveal how these stories about Jesus that others ask in, say, the gospels open us to tell about questions of our own? Here, preaching makes room for people to consider their own questions, their own brokenness and fractures, and the ways they have also been stunned to find that Jesus had been at work in their lives as well.
Stories we tell one another
In this season of Lent, I’m going to experiment with the stories we tell one another. I’m inviting several members of the congregation—one each Wednesday evening—to join me in discussing a particular portion of the gospel from the previous Sunday morning. The format is fairly straightforward. We’ll agree ahead of time which portion we’d like to explore. We’ll hold a conversation together to see how God might be working in that portion of the text that somehow illumines our faith and life. I will teach them something about improvisation—the “Yes, And” exercise—then we’ll consider how our stories have natural points of connection, in which one story invites and makes room for the other person’s story. These stories may not hold natural connection. As a preacher and writer, that’s actually interesting, and may open up further avenues for conversation as a result. Then we’ll invite those in attendance to turn and tell a story in conversation with others based on something that resonated for them in the stories they heard from the gospel, from me, and from the member of the congregation. We’ll also likely gather together after worship and share our stories with one another.
Through these stories, Jesus will walk alongside of us, listen, and speak a new story about and for us.
- For a reflection on this, see Paul Lutter, “Hope Has You,” Church Anew.