Telling Great Stories

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What was your favorite story as a child? Mine was Ferdinand the Bull. I didn’t think most people knew about Ferdinand, but he was special to me. Something clicked  between me and a bull who didn’t want to fight—just wanted to smell the flowers. I just wanted to sit under a tree and read a book. Or on the couch. Or in bed, under the blankets late at night. Or anywhere, really.

Leave me alone, and let me live peacefully. Ferdinand found that difficult as a bull intended for the bullring. I found it difficult as the youngest of seven kids.

I knew what it felt like to be different. Can another INFJ raise a hand, here?

As an adult, the stories that have shaped me, not surprisingly, revolve around second chances and grace and the least among us doing great thing. Lord of the Rings. Les Miserables. Pride and Prejudice. (Also, stories about women who aren’t afraid to say what they mean. And then sometimes have to apologize.)

Stories Change Us

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I will never forget the gut-punch feeling while sitting in a dark theater in December, 2001. My family watched The Fellowship of the Ring roll out on the big screen in Bozeman, Montana. (There was only one big screen in Bozeman.) We were only a couple months out of 9/11. The horror was still raw, the fear still tangible. And then Gandalf said the words I have never been able to shake.

To Frodo’s exhausted, “I wish none of this had happened,” Gandalf replied, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

It meant something. It still means something to me—enough to make me write a book and speak to young adults everywhere I can about the wondrous ability of Tolkien’s stories to change us.

Stories mean something. We read them, watch them, are changed by them. From the beginning of humanity, people told stories to connect and to reflect who they were and who they wanted to be.

I’ve been taking some time to preach through Jesus’ stories lately. Because if any stories are going to change us, those ought to.

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Jesus’ Stories Change Everything

Often when we read Jesus’ parables, we read them to extract a moral. What does he want us to do? How should we act? In the words of the rich young man, “What must I do for the kingdom of God?”

What if Jesus wants us to live the story—plot, character, climax, and conflict? What if he wants us to read it like he meant it—like a story, not a morality play? In fact, as a writer, I know the latter is a terrible way to write a story. We dare not tack on a moral at the end or we make it cliche, a trite tale that bashes the reader over the head with our Bible. (It’s kind of the way Christians tend to make movies . . . )

That’s not Jesus’ way.

Jesus drops a story in the listeners’ ears. The he lets them figure it out. He makes them figure it out. Jesus is not a bash-them-over-the-head sort of guy. (Although he has no trouble being a turn-the-tables-over sort of guy. That’s different.)

So what is the purpose of Jesus’ stories? They paint us a picture of life as it should be. His tales hold up a portrait, a landscape really, of the kingdom of God. This is what it looks like, guys. And he asks— Is this the story you want to tell as your own?

Jesus tells stories to help us imagine a world that aligns with how its supposed to be–to help us create our own story and tell it out. We study parables not for the moral of the story but for our story within them. What do they contribute to our tale? And how does out tale fit in God’s great kingdom, of which we are a tiny, tiny part yet still a meaningful one?

We tell stories to see the world as it should be and then go there.

In Jesus’ “introduction” to his parables, he gives another reason for telling them. To sort out who is truly listening.

That is why I use these parables, For they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand. This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that says, ‘When you hear what I say, you will not understand. When you see what I do, you will not comprehend.

For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes— so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. (Matthew 13)

Jesus returns to the ancient shema—the call of God to truly hear and listen. From its beginning in Deuteronomy, the shema asks more of God’s people. They are to listen to his words with open ears and hearts, willing and wanting to respond to God’s words at all times. That’s the meaning behind “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Jesus means don’t simply hear—DO.

So the parables are stories to help us find our place in God’s great story. They are also sifters to see who is really listening. Jesus is preparing to leave his followers, and he needs to know who is in and who is a hanger-on. Not that the hangers-on aren’t welcome, but they aren’t where he’s going to get his team for building the church when he is gone. He’s looking for hearers and doers. And the stories separate the ones who want to work at it from those who want the fireworks and free fish.

Just think about all the people who were Cubs fans last year but not this. That’s the difference, my friends.

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When do we listen, really listen, to stories, as I did in that dark theater sixteen years ago?

We listen to stories when we appreciate our need for them.

I mean, if we’re prepping for a test, and we think we’ve got all the time in the world, or we know more than anyone else, we’re not likely to really listen when the teacher is reviewing. We’re going to be in the corner on Facebook, or doodling in the notebook, or catching a nap. We don’t feel our need for the information.

Jesus didn’t force morals or tell his point straight out because he wanted people to realize their need. We usually only realize that when we’re made to work for it. If it comes easily, we don’t know how much we really need it. When we do realize it, we are really to change. He wanted to force that work. Because—

Good stories change us for the better.

and then—

People who are changed tell good stories.

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That’s the point of the parables. To get us to tell good stories with our lives. We will never do that until we have ears to hear Jesus’ stories and know that they aren’t intended to give us a new law or some behavior to check off but a completely new story arc.

We tell stories to see the world as it should be and then go there.

We do that when we let the stories sink through our ears and change our very hearts.

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

Next week, we will begin looking into some of those stories. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear some of yours.

Also–what was your favorite story as a child? What’s your favorite now?

Searching for Sunday — Why So Many Are Looking and Why Evangelicals Needs to Listen


“Wrapped now in flesh, the God who once hovered over the waters 
was plunged beneath them at the hands of a 
wild-eyed wilderness preacher.”

She got me at the beginning with the sheer beauty of that sentence and never let go. Rachel Held Evans, in her new book Searching for Sunday(out today), calls the church to regain its sacredness, passion, and yes, even its weirdness. As an evangelical who dearly loves my tradition and (usually) its people but has her eyes wide open to its harmful aspects, I breathed this book in. I live her frustrations and her passions about the church.

I don’t always agree with Ms. Evans. But I always love her humor, her willingness to “go there” on tough issues, and her heart for God. This book is no exception.

This book is above all a call to listen to, respect, forgive, and love beyond all of our abilities and even preferences for the greater reason that there is a Kingdom at stake, and we are spending too much of our time arguing over who should be in it and far too little making it look like Jesus.

We spend a lot of energy, time, and research in pinpointing why younger generations are leaving the evangelical church. I know I do. It’s a writing project I’m working on now, plus a topic dear to me as the mother of three in that generation and a former high school teacher with an unaccountable enjoyment of young adults. Yet the church tends to get defensive whenever someone actually tells them the truth about they ‘whys’ we wring our hands over.

Ms. Evans tells the truth. Her voice speaks for thousands who are feeling the same doubts, concerns, and fears but who simply leave without voicing them. Of course, “simply” is a poor word choice, because that decision is often anguished, never simple.

An excerpt of that truth in her own words:

“I was recently asked to explain to three thousand evangelical youth workers gathered together for a conference in Nashville, Tennessee, why millennials like me are leaving the church.

I told them we’re tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. Millennials want to be known for what we’re for, I said, not just what we’re against. We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff—biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice—but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask.

Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity, I said. We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus—the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.”

To flesh this out, she discerns our sacred need through themes such as baptism, communion, confession, and marriage. In each section, she poetically, theologically, and compassionately examines why we find these sacraments meaningful. What attracts Christians through the millennia to these same rites, these same words, these marks of Christ in life?

And how can we come to them trying to bring reconciliation and renewal to a church that desperately needs to see and hear those who don’t feel welcome in its doors?

In the chapters on baptism, for example, I love the bottom line truth of what it stands for that we can and should all agree on, whether or not we agree on dunking, sprinkling, or just about anything else.

“Baptism declares that God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life, so if you want in on God’s business, you better prepare to follow God to all the rock-bottom, scorched-earth, dead- on-arrival corners of this world—including those in your own heart—because that’s where God works, that’s where God gardens.

In the ritual of baptism, our ancestors acted out the bizarre truth of the Christian identity: We are people who stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare them powerless against love.
There’s nothing normal about that.”

The book is a cry to the church to stop trying to fix people or give them checklists to make them ‘OK’ before God (and more importantly, before us). It’s a call to come beside people and hear their faith cries. It’s a passionate request to be with God being with people, not over them.

Searching for Sunday should be read by anyone in ministry, and there are many definitions of that, whether or not the reader is an Evans fan. In fact, I’d say especially if not. If a person truly wants to be a minister, he or she needs to delve into the truths of how the next generation (and many above it) are feeling about church and all its baggage. We dare not ignore the warnings that people are giving up on the institutional church (and their faith). We cannot pretend the reasons behind it have no basis – not if we say we are people of the Word who speak and believe the Word. We need to have the courage to listen.

Searching for Sunday is an informative and beautiful step in doing that.

I have been privileged to be on the launch team for Searching for Sunday, and I am lucky enough to have read its words before everyone else. But now — you no longer have to wait.

Find it on Amazon now.



When No One Wants To Build a Snowman


So, I didn’t exactly watch the Academy Awards this year. Didn’t exactly watch

any of the nominated movies either, come to think of it. At least, the Best Picture ones. Still, I am well aware of what won Best Original Song.


Do you wanna build a snow . . . something?
This is not opinion but an assumption–anyone with a young woman/girl in the house under, say, the age of 25, knows the Frozensoundtrack by heart now. That is an assumption I might bet on, if it was not against some promise I probably agreed to when I became a pastor. You know the songs.

One of my daughters has even learned “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” in Spanish. That’s how hooked we are.

I watched a sarcastic take on the movie a while ago, and one of the things the writer had issue with was how the sisters’ relationship remained healthy. Wouldn’t Anna have harbored just a teensy bit of resentment, he wondered? A slight tinge of, “Um, Elsa? Go fall off an iceberg. I’m done.”

He had a point. I wondered the same thing at times. If your sister refuses to let you into her life for years, would you feel like rushing off to her rescue and ultimately sacrificing yourself for her? Dubious, I’m thinking.

Do you wanna build a snowman?

Probably not.

Do Relationships Heal?

The more I think about it, the more I realize how amazing this healed relationship really is. Because you know, I’ve seen it. Up close and personal. In my own house.

For a number of years, I witnessed big sister locked in her “room” of isolation. I saw her unable to relate to her family, unable to let others in to the world she could not escape.

I watched her little sister sitting outside, thinking, “We used to be best buddies. And now we’re not. I wish you would tell me why.” The scene manged to depict something that maybe the writers never intended but that is too common in houses where things are hidden behind locked doors.

Having magical freezing powers was a social stigma in Arendelle. (It has a name. It’s called cryokinesis. How cool is that? Literally. Living with a mental illness has the same effect in our world. It shuts people behind doors. It keeps them from normal relationships. It terrifies them that someone will know. It ends up opening the door to really bad choices that seem good compared to the reality of now.

It tears apart sisters who just want to build snowmen like they used to.

In an animated world, I guess you can go back to the way things were once the storm is over and love has conquered. But in this world, it’s a little more complicated.

It’s hard to call through locked doors and get no answer.

It’s painful to trust and hope and have it squashed. Again. And again.

It’s scary to never know what normal is or how long it lasts.

It’s tough to have your life controlled by things you had no say in.

Sometimes, little sister just walks away. Maybe for good. You can’t blame her. But you wish for the Anna ending. The one with happily ever after. You know how unlikely it is. But you wish.

This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week. October 10thin particular is National Depression Screening Day, National Bipolar Awareness Day, and World Mental Health Day.It’s a week thathelps spread awareness of mental illness so those affected by it can get treatment and move forward with their lives.

I believe with everything in me we are all created in the image of God, and we are all deeply loved and known by him. Whether we choose to acknowledge that or not. Because of that, and yes, because I’ve lived it, I believe in treating those with mental illnesses like the beautiful creations they are. No one can do that if we don’t let the secrets out of the locked room and be real about loving people–no matter what.

People living with mental illness are our neighbors. So are their children, spouses, and siblings. Love your neighbor as yourself. Learn aboutmental illness. Learn about warning signs and what to do. It’s not a lack of faith or effort. It’s so much more complex than that. It’s just a few clicks on the internet to discover (from reputable sources, please) what mental illness is and how it affects you, me, and faith.

But those clicks might open someone’s door.

Rudolph and Me–Misfits R Us

I gave my life to Jesus when I was 16, and I’m a quick study. Within a couple years, I was teaching backyard Bible clubs and could exegete the wordless book right alongside the kids who’d grown up singing “The B-I-B-L-E.” (Which was also big in backyard Bible clubs.)
As a shiny new believer in an uber-liberal university, I grabbed all the support I could and was soon fluent in quiet time, servant leadership (although, as a woman, I probably should have been more just plain servant), and telling people about Jesus, whether they liked it or not.
The perfect family. 
By the time I was a young married six years later, I tuned in to Focus on the Family every day, volunteered at a pregnancy clinic, and suspected that anyone who voted democrat probably would not be standing next to me in heaven singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
At 32, with three kids and a perfect life, I had read all the books. I knew exactly what to do to make sure it all stayed that way, blessed by God.
Until I didn’t.
Until I looked into the face of a raging child, screaming obscenities at me, cuts on her arms and traces of drugs in her eyes. Mychild. I cried out to that God for whom I had planned this perfect witness of a life. Begging for those black and white answers that had promised so much but suddenly seemed far less clear. 

He didn’t answer. Crickets from Jesus. You know, the Jesus who said trusting and obeying were the way to be happy all the day?
Happy” doesn’t quite describe the feeling of walking up to a stranger’s door to ask if your daughter spent the night there. It doesn’t encompass the terror of wondering if she spent it anywhere safe. It never applies to watching her once-sparkling eyes turn away from yours and seeing the fresh razor marks she tries to pull her sleeves over.

I had stood on the promises, and they dropped me. Hard.

Only later did I understand that it wasn’t God’s promises that had let me fall but the words we had put in His mouth.

I was a Christian, a pastor, and alone, with a bleeding, devastated heart where faith still resided by the smallest of glimmers. A spiritual misfit? What kind of pastor has a suicidal heroin addict for a daughter? It’s a great way to avoid eye contact in meetings. Everyone avoids looking at you. If only they’d avoid talking about you, too.
In fact, I’ve been something of reverse spiritual misfit. I started out conforming, not questioning whatever “they” told me I needed to be a good Christian. A weakling who believed I was strong. I look in the mirror now at a woman I didn’t know was inside during all my years of certainty, wounded where I needed to be, questioning what I always should have, strong because I know I am weak.
My sureness that I knew how to do this Christian life thing got hit by a 7.8 quake. When things shake to that magnitude, something is bound to shake loose. Questions bubble up from deep underground. Questions like, what is certain and what’s rubble in this mountain I’ve created? If it all comes down, what will be left to stand on?
If you stripped the gospel down to Jesus, to all he’d said and done, what was surely still there? And what had we added because we needed to be sure we were on the right track to make the grade? To be quite certain we were in control of God?
If you ask too many questions.
And you kind of like gray areas.
Asking questions like these can turn you into a spiritual misfit. It can get you looked at funny in the Christian blogosphere.
So can starting to ask questions like, “Who is really my neighbor?” Not my theoretical, nice biblical neighbor. My real, complicated, dirty neighbor whom maybe I’ve never chosen to see.
Looking into the faces of kids who hurt and who drown that hurt in drugs and any other self-destructive behavior they could find made me question all the people I had been certain were “other.”
Many of those kids wandered in and out of my house over those years. Kids I would have ignored before. Kids I would have feared. Kids I would have judged. But in my house, at my table, with names and pasts and brown eyes that echoed all the hurt they’d ever been dealt and all the bad choices they’d made? They were no longer sinners who needed to get their acts together. They were lost kids. They were my kids. I was the sinner who needed to get it together. Wait–hadn’t I always had it together?
Asking questions like, Why not love the unloveable? Why not forgive the unforgivable? Why not admit there is no difference between me and the junkie in the ditch or the immigrant running the border? No difference except Jesus, and I didn’t earn that difference no matter how many points I stacked up in the rules column. Those get you uninvited to speak at Christian ladies’ luncheons. You’re not safe anymore.
I’m not safe. Thank God.
I accept risk where I once demanded safety. I don’t just accept it—I revel in it. It means I’m alive. It means God is alive in me. And anything—anything–is worth that.

It is a good feeling, this spiritual misfitism. I’m not sorry to have lost what I believed was my salvation to find who I know is.