First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
October 21, 2018
“What’s Your Story”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
17For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. 19I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. 20No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 21They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. 24Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
There we were, after an all-day drive to get to camp, I mean literally, all day. None of this mamby-pamby four-and-a-half-hour jaunt that it takes to get to Mimanagish. I mean, the leave-at-five-in-the-morning-to-get-from-Salt-Lake-City-to-Colorado-Springs-in-time-for-dinner journey. But there we were, finally at camp and I was nervous as all get out. When we got all checked in, I found out I was placed in a cabin of complete strangers. Nope, didn’t know a soul. I think it was my second time at camp. I was maybe 16 or 17. And I was just about to spend an entire weekend sharing living, bedroom, and bathroom space with a dozen people I did not know.
After dinner, after the big group singing and silly games called “ice-breakers” which, for introverts means an hour and a half of bucking it up and pretending that you’re having fun because everybody else looks like they are, after all of that, we go to our cabins so that we can “get to know” everyone in our family groups. After going over the usual rules we are each given a piece of paper, folded in half like a church bulletin. Printed at the top of the cover page are the words “I Am” followed by several dots….
The instructions are to write down five things that define or describe us.
Of course, the first question is… “will we have to share these?”
Five things to complete the sentence… I am…. That we will be willing to share.
Pretty easy: write your name, your age, your gender, …. where you’re from…. And maybe your birth order: youngest. There. Five things about me.
Then we are told to open up the page and write five more things about ourselves.
Okay… I am… tired, glad to be here, lover of… whatever kind of animal you are a lover of, a skier/skateboarder/jogger… fill in your own hobby or favorite activity or two.
And then we were told to write down five more things and then five more things.
You should try it some time. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Remember, it has to be things that you would be willing to share with a group of strangers.
It’s a challenge to come up with 20 things that honestly describe who you are and that you would be willing to share with others. On one hand we are all carrying around this humility gene that tells us we’re not supposed to talk about ourselves too much, even though we might be really good at math or can tell really funny jokes or can sing really well. But, we’ve been taught that it’s arrogant to talk about stuff like that.
The other reality is that we live in a world that points out the multitude of ways we are not perfect or ideal…not good enough, even in the things we are really good at: the ways we are not happy enough, wealthy enough, successful enough, fit enough, faithful enough, smart enough. So, even if did have the ego to toot our on horn, we live in a society that says even the best aren’t good enough.
And then there’s another part, the third side of the coin, so to speak, that involves that little nagging perceived shortcoming that ends up taking up way too much of our energy, our focus, our lives. It’s that thing that surfaces during a employee performance review… that one little thing under the heading “needs improvement” that follows a whole list of things under “excelling at or meeting expectations.” It’s the B- in the midst of a bunch of A’s and B+’s. It’s the single comment from your family about the slightly overcooked broccoli when the dinner conversation has been filled with how great the meat, the salad, the potatoes, even the neatly folded napkins were. When you have a whole list of affirming things to rejoice in and just on thing that isn’t quite up to snuff and where does your attention go? To that one thing. You sweat over it. You fret over it. It keeps you awake at night. It makes your blood pressure go up. You spend an inordinate amount of time Googleing “How to cook broccoli.”
It’s sometimes deeper than that, though. Sometimes that third side of the coin is really big and sometimes it feels like the whole coin that defines who we are. Disabilities, Mental illness, addiction, survivors of … any number of things, childhood, adulthood, divorce, life.
I now realize that as I was sitting there in that cabin with a dozen or so kids that I did not know, trying to figure out what I could write about myself that was honest, would be safe to share, and wouldn’t come across as me being too arrogant, that I was beginning to figure out how to tell the story of me. I was trying to figure out what shapes the narrative of my story.
What is it that shapes the narrative of your story? How is it that you tell the story of you to yourself and the world around you? Do you focus on the long list of positives? Or do you zone in on that one or two thing, sometimes big and sometimes small that tends to take the light out of the room? What part of your life’s journey do you let shape the story you tell the world and yourself?
As we continue deeper into this Season of Gratitude. Not from the perspective of your parents or your teachers or your bosses or even your pastor. Start with Gratitude. For what can you truly say you are grateful for and let that start to shape your narrative, your story. It doesn’t have to be huge stuff because sometimes we can’t find the huge things. Sometimes we have to start small. What is it that brings a smile to your soul? If not for a lifetime, perhaps for a brief moment? The sound of a chickadee on a summer morning? The fresh scent of pine after a storm? The release that comes from a good-tear streaming belly laugh or the freedom that comes when deep grief is freely expressed and you don’t care that your nose runs when you sob. Those things, little or big for which you are grateful. And let those be the things at the core of the story of you.
It’s not about denying those parts of our lives that are hurtful or damaging or unhealthy. It’s about letting the helpful, healthy, life-giving things shape our story. It’s about giving gratitude for the things that have gotten through the challenges, the things that bring joy, even in the midst of hardship, the things that make it worthwhile to go through the hard, hard work of recovery, the things that help us rise above negativity and divisiveness. The things that give life, real life. Once we recognize that which gives us reason to be grateful and live into that, our story begins to change. The hardships, the difficulties, the degrading aspects of life have less and less power over us.
So it was with our ancestors in faith so long ago. After decades of living in exile, as they were preparing to return to Jerusalem, it’s as if they were stuck on the bad part of the story. They were about to go back to a place that had not been their home for a very long time – a place many of them did not know except through the stories they had heard from their parents and grandparents. There would be people there they did not know. What would they list as their 20 things about us paper once they returned to Jerusalem and got all checked in?
Part of their story was bad… really bad. But not all of it. So the word of God came to them through the prophet and told them to leave the telling of the old ways behind for God was about to add a new chapter to their story, a good one, a healthy one and one that deserved all the energy and focus they could give it. And the thing that made it the best part of the story of all is that, even through all the bad and hard stuff, God had not forgotten them. God had not given up on them. God had continued to be their God and, as hard as it was at times, they had continued to be God’s people.
That. That was what would be put at the top of the list of twenty things about them: They belonged to God. Period.
It was time for them to remember, not the painful things of the past, but the little (and sometimes big) things that shaped them as they had lived out the covenant of being God’s people. That was the narrative from which they would draw their strength. That was the narrative that told the story of who they were as a people. That was the narrative that gave them life.
And it’s ours as well. Yours and mine. A narrative centered on the One who gives us life, takes us through hard times, gives us the sunrise as a reminder that each an every day is the opportunity to live into the gratitude of the things that make our souls sing.
May the narrative that you begin or continue to tell this day begin with gratitude and continue along the path of that which is worthy of the energy you will give it.