Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Story That Gives Life

Jerry was a good and kind man, dedicated to his church, his family, and his friends.  I liked him immediately.  He came in early in my pastorate to share with me the story of his life.

He began by sharing about a broken relationship in his early 20s; he was at the time of our conversation well into his 60s.  He had loved a woman and assumed they would marry.  When he proposed, she unexpectedly turned him down.  From that point on, in his view, his life had gone from misfortune to misfortune. He never found anyone else to marry.  He soon lost a good accounting job at a large company.  Throughout his ensuing career he bounced from job to job, never building up a pension.  He was convinced that the broken relationship and the lost job had set his life on a path of missed opportunities.  The story he told could have been entitled A Series of Unfortunate Events.
He saw the dark lining in every silver cloud.  If you asked him about his trip to the Metropolitan opera, he would complain about the cost of parking and the traffic.  If you commented on the beauty of a spring day, he would point out that allergies would soon flare up.  If you commented on the success of the Philadelphia Phillies, he would recount all the times they went from glory to “the basement” in a few short weeks.  His stock response to most things was:  “That’s a nasty business, that is.”  His experience of his daily life was colored by every loss and disappointment he had ever experienced. 

I suggested to him one day that he adopt a better storyline for his life; he had things in his life to celebrate.  Perhaps life had not turned out as he had envisioned when he was 22, but he had not endured a bad life; he had things for which he could be grateful.  There were some successes and joys along the way.  He said he would think about it.

I spend a good bit of my time listening to people talk about their churches.  Often those stories cohere around what God has done in them and through them, both in good times and challenging times.  The theme is blessing in spite of the circumstances. 
Other times I hear narratives of loss.  I hear about when the sanctuary was full, the pastor preached great sermons every Sunday and visited parishioners day and night, and the youth group had to be split into two groups because it was so large.  (I would point out that it is a universal human trait to remember vividly positive experiences and to recall  more dimly negative experiences.  I have been told this is why women are willing to give birth to a second child.)  The theme here is failure and a future without hope.

We would do well to frame all our stories with the assurance of God’s blessing.  Paul writes that God works in all things for the good of those who love God.  This does not mean that it was God’s will that the local food processing plant closed down and your town’s population shrunk by 30% over 3 years and decimated the giving base of the local churches.  It does mean that God can work through this event to foster faith and clarity of purpose and resilience in your church and parishioners.  Our storyline can shift from loss to the grace of God in all the seasons of life.  Think about it.

 Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State.