It was a hair past noon. We were sitting at the second booth in from the door. He had ordered a grilled chicken salad—dressing on the side, and I burnt ends with fries. *Cue mouthwatering* Famous Daves BBQ at L and South 120th. It was conveniently just around the corner from his work and we both loved their food. Sitting there sipping on my glass of sweet tea (though no southern, half a bag of sugar, make your lips smack sweet tea), he said to me: “I’ve been thinking about our narrative.” I knew he would bring tremendous leadership to the position, with gifts of unique insight regarding the community and wisdom on how to try new things with care and creativity. His humble ability to look at and discern the ways a group, in this case a congregation, coalesces and coheres for the sake of a common mission blew my mind. I had mostly suggested the lunch for the sake of visiting casually and getting to know better my parishioner. He, on the other hand, was on another (deeper) wave length—processing through what message we as a congregation in rural county Nebraska, right outside of the BIG CITY, were hoping to send and how we would communicate it to not just those within the building but also our neighbors beyond the church. Suddenly out on the table before us, it sat there, begging to be cut into and consumed—a colossal question: What is our particular accumulative story as a community of faith, worth sharing with others, honoring our identity and pointing towards our outreach? I think about that unexpected conversation from time to time, especially when people share with me their personal stories and the Guiding Spirit inevitably moves us to think about the uniqueness of each individual story, how the Body of Christ is formed from the knitting together of these many narratives, and their affect/effect on/by the the gospel narrative at the heart of the faith that binds us.
Again, yesterday, it happened. Over Mediterranean bowls, at a new-to-me place, on the west side. As he tells me about his education, some of the eclectic jobs he’s worked, and a personal passion fueled by his faith and core values, there the Spirit is—HELLO!—like a switchboard operator, connecting calls by putting plugs into particular jacks. Swapping stories, we were now part of one another’s narrative. Each time I visit with a parishioner, I’m amazed by their unfolding life story—this occasion was no different. Absolutely fascinating. Many hours later, I’m still in awe. And for whatever reason, the Spirit drew both his and mine to converge in this time and place through our congregation. Crazy to think the church—St. Martin’s in particular—was the means by which our paths crossed. At many and various points throughout the conversation, names and faces came to mind as I was listening—similarities in others’ stories, shared experiences, ideas of how So-and-so could connect with or complement this person on such-and-such. Relationships elucidated, other new ones imagined. It is in these holy moments that two things are made explicitly clear to me. First, I am reaffirmed that being invited into and blessed by hearing people’s stories is what most gives me energy in/for ministry. As an introvert, I thrive on one-on-one encounters. And as I learn more and more the make up of our congregation, I feel it helps me to speak faithfully in my preaching, teaching, and leading in this context. Secondly, I am reminded how a BIG PART of my work as a pastor is to be a curator of narratives. I am entrusted (privileged) with people’s personal ins and outs, and with confidence I am to handle them with care—keeping them safe, continually learning from them and, when appropriate, letting them contribute towards something that might encourage, inspire, or comfort others. These stories impact how other narratives are heard and shared, just as they each represent the impact of a myriad others.
So, then, how does the narrative of Jesus fit into all of this? Though it’s not an ever-changing story, in its unfolding it changes us. The spoken Word takes claim of its listeners and draws us into it—to live in, through, and as a result of it. We are grasped ahold of and redefined by this story in a way that our identities, relationships, and purposes—all that we are is rewritten new. The church orders its life around and from this living narrative. Everything from our liturgical seasons to the fundamental practices of worship and milestones of the faith journey are impacted by Jesus’s story. It is efficacious and relevant across borders and generations. The story of the Crucified and Risen Christ gives us life both in the present and the promise of new life in the future time to come. Amidst a sea of narratives, each competing for our attention and allegiance, the gospel narrative is the only sustaining message. Instead of those messages of scarcity, deficiency, and uncertainty we so often hear, the story of Jesus speaks abundance of grace, perfect love, and confidence in God’s future. Whereas the world tells us to buy the constant narratives of fear and despair, Jesus’s freely gives to us hope and promise. The church’s message to the world should be: Your life won’t be the same—but not in the way we’re so use to hearing and conditioned to believe. Instead of the usual “buy this…eat this…believe this…” the Incarnate One says to us: “freely receive this…be fed and nourished by this…trust this…” The narrative of Jesus binds individuals and communities together across time, place, and differences as one in Jesus. Just as this story is still ongoing, it does not allow us to remain complacent or cemented. It draws us outward, beyond ourselves, to go, engage, hear, and be changed by the stories of others—adding another thread to the growing tapestry of the Body of Christ. More than just our mission statement—most don’t even know what that is, its purpose, or importance—what is our particular accumulative story as a community of faith, worth sharing with others, honoring our identity and pointing towards our outreach? What is your story? How is the Spirit weaving it into this congregation? How has the narrative of Jesus shaped yours? I bet it’s an amazing story worth sharing. I hope you will.
– Pastor Andrew