One evening last week Maisy asked me to tell her the story of Andy's and my trip around the world. That happened the first year of our marriage, 15 years ago. I began to tell her the story and both kids got really interested. They kept leaping from their seats and going to the art piece on the wall that has thumbnail photographs asking, Was that here? Is this a picture of that?
When I had finished they asked if I would fill in the time between then and now, with stories. I started to talk, and they listened with laughter, gasps, shouts and rapt silence, we went on and on, through our time in New Jersey, our new puppy, longing for a baby, Owen’s birth and moving to Minnesota, getting a new home and making friends, and by the time I got to Maisy as a baby, an hour and a half had gone by and we all leaned back with a satisfied sigh.
I think that somehow Andy and I got cooler in their eyes (You lived in California!? You’ve been to Rome!?) But also, they had a better sense of who they are and where they came from, the narrative of their lives and their family, and I noticed in the telling of it all the places I said, “And we prayed for…” or “And it was just what we needed…” or “We didn’t know what to do…” and “God took care of us.”
Last week we talked about the Ten Words – the words God gave to the people to define them no longer as slaves, now as free, as belonging to God instead of Pharaoh. These were rules for the free life, the life of living free for relationship with God and others, as wholly fully who the people were created to be.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as knowing or hearing them, they had a very difficult time believing and trusting that God would care for them, and seeing themselves as responsible parties in the relationship – that who they were and how they lived mattered to God.
Repeatedly they distrusted God, turned away from God, begged to go back to slavery, complained about what was happening, doubted God’s provision. When they finally did arrive at the doorstep to the Promised Land, Canaan, they didn’t believe God could get them in. So God tells that generation that what they’d feared would happen all along would come to pass after all, and they would indeed die in the wilderness. It is the next generation, their children, who will enter the Promised Land.
In the middle of all this, Moses dies, and leadership changes to Joshua, who leads them in the bizarre conquest of Canaan and all the battles that follow as they begin to establish themselves in the land and their identity develops. And now, we come to the point in their story where Joshua is coming to the end of his life, speaking to the children of those who passed through the waters about the choice set before them now that they’ve arrived in the longed-after promise. So he gets up and gives a speech.
Except, it’s not a speech, it’s stories.
He tells the stories of who they are and where they came from, by telling them the story of God with them. Their own story. He reaches way back and begins, God says, Long ago, your ancestors lived beyond the river… and he begins to tell them about Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Esau, and Joseph in Egypt, and then Moses and Miriam and the Red sea and how God delivered them.
He stands there and tells them the stories that brought them to this point, the situations and experiences that made them who they are. But these stories are not just about them, they are God’s story, God’s love and faithfulness and anger and forgiveness and how God has dealt with them all through the past to this very moment, the fulfillment of the promise that has shaped them for a generation.
And he reminds them of the covenant God made with their parents, and says to them, Now it’s your covenant, and it’s your turn to respond to God. Choose this day who you will serve. There are, and always will be, many options from whatever lands we’ve come and those we bump up against, but as for me, and my household, we will serve the Lord.
You are invited, always invited, to claim your own chosenness, to live in the covenant with God, to participate with God in what God has built you for – life in the freedom of God, life that shares in hope and healing, life with God as God instead of whatever other gods rule the land.
And in the hard times along the journey they’ve remembered the covenant, and now, in a good time, when it seems they’ve reached what they’ve longed for, the people are reminded again who it is who holds them, who has been faithful in the past and promises to be faithful in the future.
God is our refuge and strength. No matter what happens.
If the very mountains themselves crumble, God is our help. Bigger than nations and armies and might, bigger than deadlines and pressures and test scores and test results, God is the one who holds us – the Lord of Hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Be Still and know that I am God.
This is the same advice given to theIsraelites just as the Red Sea opens up – be still and watch me be God for you. Be still and know that I am God.
There are always plenty of other gods vying for our attention and our worship, gods of commerce and power and winning, gods of competition and jealousy, gods of selfish satisfaction and disconnected apathy. The world is always ready with an answer to tell you who you are and who you really belong to, or don’t. Take your pick, there are plenty to choose from.
But know that you are choosing.
There is no ignoring that. So be intentional about it.
Will you serve the gods that seek to enslave you again, or will you serve the God who sets you free? The God who has been faithful to you for generations and who sees you and knows you even now?
I spent this week at a conference on storytelling –but not just stories, our own personal stories. True stories. Stories of meaningful things in our lives, things that end up making us who we are. Stories that have shaped us. And it was a reminder that ordinary-looking people are all extraordinary: brave, weak, complicated survivors, filled with so much beauty our eyes brim up and overflow when they reveal even a small part of it to us.
Big stories or small, funny or sad, it turns out we all have more stories than we could ever count hiding underneath our skin. And we hardly ever revisit those stories, but when we do, they are wells, springs that bubble up, that continue to feed and nourish us. Our old stories can tell us new things, show us new insights, be places God meets us again in completely new ways. When we revisit our stories we remember who we are and are reminded whose we are.
The conference included one evening when seven of these people stood up in front of strangers in a restaurant, sharing stories under the theme “Love Hurts.” The organizer had gotten a local music group to play at the breaks between stories – though the musicians didn’t know anything about the event until they arrived.
After hearing about a broken-hearted college crush, a father and son struggling to be close, a child showing someone the way home on a dark night in a foreign place, a friend’s suicide attempt, and an estranged friendship that is longing for closure, the musician got up and said to the crowd, “There is more power in this room than all the electronic devices in the world.” Our stories are powerful. It turns out that through the telling and receiving of these stories we experience God.
But how often do we stop, in our crazy-busy lives, to receive our own, or anyone else’s, stories? We’re so forward-focused and driven that we struggle to look back, unless it’s with regret or the briefest bout of nostalgia. Consequently, we miss the rich gift that is our lives, and the way God’s story is played out within it. God has always been with us, and is always up to something in our lives, even when we haven’t recognized it.
This is the 4th commandment, by the way. Stop. Remember, Observe. Do this regularly. See again that you belong to God; see again that you are free to love and live. Live in the story you are in, soak it in, share the stories of others. Pay attention.
Tonight we are lingering on Psalm 46. Filled with scenes of God’s deliverance and care, God’s promise and God’s presence. Times of turmoil, fear, unknown, when the things around us seem too big, or when we ourselves act as though we are bigger than we are. God is a refuge, strength, a present help, nourishes us like a stream making glad a whole city, dwelling among us, holding us steady. Cease striving, it says, be still, stop running, and know. Be still and you will know.
Being Still with our Stories:
Now it's our covenant. It's our turn to respond to God. We are going to take a few minutes and hold open our lives to God, inviting God to help us to remember God’s presence, to meet us in our own stories, in the ways God has been present to us in the past. So that we may be fed from that spring, so that we may move into our week with a deeper sense of whose we are, and how God has brought us to this place, and a wider welcome for who we are, and who God has made us to be. And we will do this by being still, and letting the Spirit of God speak to us through our own memories, imagination and open hearts.
We moved into a guided prayer time, from an exercise shared by Mark Yacconelli, "Praying Sacred Moments," that asks people to recall a moment they felt was sacred, to engage the senses in remembering the moment, to allow the sense of God's presence from that moment to swell within them even now, to consider a symbol they could take from the moment to help them recall and connect with how God met them in that time, and finally, to discern if there is an invitation from God in the experience that could impact their life now. Our time ended with floating tea lights on water - representing all that we are carrying in prayer to God - as a way of entrusting ourselves to God's care.