There’s a Story Behind Every Tragedy

5.21.14The ladies I get to work with at a local in-treatment facility are nothing but statistics (at least in the world’s eyes). They’re the broken ones, the addicts, the relapsers, the drains on society. Early in ministry it was too easy for me to smugly judge them for messing up their life while on my way to my next Bible study (Good Samaritan, anyone?). And then I got to know them. The outcasts, the broken ones, the failures. I got to know their names. More importantly, I got to know their stories.

Here’s what I’ve discovered after working with recovering addicts for over a year now: there’s a story behind every tragedy. One of the girls that came through was a smart one. She grew up in a good home. She had a solid upbringing. She was raised in church. But now she’s trying kick her meth habit and get life back on track. If you saw her now, you’d be tempted to shake your head at a life of potential gone to waste. Shame on her. But you wouldn’t know her story.

I do, because I asked her. She had mentioned to me that life went south at the age of 19. So what happened when she was 19? She got pregnant out of wedlock, and her parents were more concerned with her losing her sports scholarship at college than the unborn life inside of her, so they forced her to get an abortion. She obeyed her parents, and her world came crashing down around her. Fast forward fourteen years, and she’s sitting in rehab after spending the last decade trying to escape (through drugs) the shame and guilt that she can’t seem to shake for a decision she intensely regrets. Years after the abortion she got married and got pregnant several times but always miscarried. She had to have surgeries and now has lost the ability to carry a child. She feels like God is punishing her.

On the outside she’s just another drug addict. Just another screw up. On the inside she’s a broken woman unable to move past a devastating choice forced on her by her parents. And now she has the shame of a decade lost and even more regrets piled on. She doesn’t know if she’s worthy to be on this planet. The next time your tempted to simply shake your head at a tragedy, realize there’s probably a story behind it.

This is Why the Church Exists

Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we get caught up in the urgent and forget the most important. Here’s a little reminder: the church doesn’t exist fill a community social calendar. The church doesn’t exist to pander to the preferences of who’s dropping the most cash in the offering plate. The church doesn’t exist as a museum to preserve a cultural ideal of days gone by. The church doesn’t even exist merely to platform solid biblical teaching.

The church exists to reach people who need hope. People like Lasha. Watch this video and be reminded why the church exists:

Blessed to Tell Your Story

blessedMonday we talked about the fact that we all have a God story to tell. A story that is in fact a blessing, although we might not see it as such. In Mark 5 we read the story of a demon possessed man being healed by Jesus. After he was healed, the man wanted to go with him.

18 As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19 Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” Mark 5:18-19

Jesus didn’t allow the man to follow him. Why not? Because the man was blessed with a story, and Jesus wanted him to go and tell it. Here are three ways in which your story is a blessing:

1. It’s a picture of God becoming visible in your world. God is invisible. He is Spirit. He is very much real, but he can’t be seen with the naked eye. But when you tell your GOD story, how God interacted with your life, God becomes visible to all those around.

2. It’s a reminder of who the main character is. This one is critical, because this answers the objections that we shared earlier, as to why we don’t think our story is a blessing (too flawed, too normal, too painful, too fake). The classic mistake we make is to think that we’re the main character in our story. And if we’re messed up, then so is the story. But we’re not the main character of the story. God is. He’s always been the main character. That’s why He’s God! So what if your story seems too flawed or too normal or too painful or too fake. Your GOD story isn’t the story of how awesome and perfect you are and how great life is turning out for you. Your GOD story is about a loving, forgiving God who pursued you even when you didn’t pursue him. Who forgave you time and time again, even though you continually made mistakes. Who loves you in spite of all your flaws. Who was there for you in your moments of deepest pain. Who brings life to your dead bones. Your story is about God, not you.

3. It gives hope to what God can do in others. Hope is the most valuable commodity in the world today. Millions of people live without hope. Without hope of a purpose, without the hope of a family, without the hope of forgiveness, without the hope of love. When you share your story of how God gave you purpose and family and forgiveness and love, you give them hope that maybe God can do that in there lives too. Believe me, there are people desperate to have something to hope in out there. People that are broken, hurting, desperate. We don’t give them hope when we pretend our lives are perfect and that there’s can be too if they follow ten simple rules. We give them hope when we share how imperfect and flawed we really are, but how God loves us and forgives us anyways.

You’ve been blessed with a story. It’s up to you to share it!

Why You Don’t See Your Story as a Blessing

blessedYou have a story to tell. Your God story. The story of how God intersected your life at key moments, in pivotal circumstances, with providential relationships. The story of how God intersected your life and you walked away forever changed. As Christians, our God story is a blessing, something given to us to bless others with. But many of us don’t see our story as a blessing. Perhaps we see our story as:

Too flawed. You don’t think your story is a blessing because all it reveals is just how much you were able to mess up your life. You drank, smoke and chewed, and ran with girls that do. You’ve got consequences, addictions, arrest records, broken marriages, kids you don’t see. You don’t see a story worth telling.

Too normal. You grew up in a decent family, went to church as a kid, gave your life to Jesus at VBS when you were seven, and you’ve been in church ever since. You don’t feel you have a compelling story because you weren’t a drug dealer or convicted felon, because those are the ones the church loves to showcase. You’ve lived a normal church life. Nothing out of the ordinary. How’s that story a blessing? (How many folks with a story that’s ‘too flawed’ would give anything to have a story that’s ‘too normal’?)

Too painful. Some don’t like to tell their story because it’s too painful. Too many memories you try and keep locked away. Maybe it’s abuse, maybe it’s an addiction, maybe it’s a loss of a loved one that you still can’t see any redeeming value in. Maybe your story has something painful that still lingers today. It’s raw, and you don’t want to go anywhere near it. But it’s a part of your story; you just don’t see it as a blessing.

Too fake. What I mean by this is that on the outside people look up to you, respect you, say nice things about you. You’re a pillar in the community, a solid leader in your family. But on the inside, you know the truth. You project the image of someone who loves Jesus and is living right, but on the inside, there’s nothing there. It’s all a charade. You’re not even sure you believe in God anymore. The reason you’re in church is because of expectation, habit, duty. The story you let others believe isn’t the real story. If they knew the real you, well, you can’t have that now, can you?

The Bible is clear that our story is in fact a blessing, even though many of us don’t believe it. Wednesday we’ll discuss just how your God story is a blessing from God.

Good God, Lousy World & Me, by Holly Burkhalter

10.14.13Holly Burkhalter’s unusual journey to faith is a refreshing reminder that God is always at work in our world. Growing up in a religious household, Holly moved away from faith as an adult and for years had nothing but judgment for the evangelical community. Her arrival in DC coincided with the rise of Falwell’s ‘Moral Majority,’ and it left a bitter taste in her mouth.

Yet at the same time, she was at the front lines of social justice, advocating for those around the world without a voice. In effect she was doing God’s work without believing in God. She was a witness to the brutalities of genocide, sex trafficking, rape, slavery, greed, and injustice. In her words, the injustice in the world cemented her disbelief in God. It was the classic, “If God is a good God, then why would he allow such evil in the world?” A moral dilemma that many have debated, for Holly it was more than hypothetical; she was a first-hand witness to the brutality of the world. In her own words:

I’m not sure I was an atheist. No self-respecting atheist would bother to curse God daily for misery and injustice as vigorously as I did for forty years. I must have believed in something good to have felt so betrayed and heartbroken by every day’s fresh load of cruelty and suffering around the world . . . I wanted there to be a God who was good and whose creation mirrored it, and it just wasn’t there. So perhaps the term for me was ‘twisted, pissed-off, betrayed, former Christian.’ I can’t find that in the dictionary, but it’s what I was (3).

From this background, God led Holly on an improbable journey to faith. How she arrived? A mixture of ‘pivotal circumstances’ and ‘providential relationships,’ to use Andy Stanley’s terminology. “I had met three deeply faithful people: a Ugandan land mine survivor, a Roman Catholic bishop, and a heart-on-her-sleeve evangelical doctor. They were spending their lives entering into others’ suffering, and they believed that is the great and good mission of the Christian church” (67). Holly’s turning point was her relationship with Gary Haugen and the International Justice Mission. Their witness to her provided the support needed for Holly to walk across the line of faith.

All in all, the book is an incredible read to gain insight into someone struggling with, and eventually overcoming, some of the toughest barriers one can put before faith.

Lessons Learned

1. It’s refreshing to hear of someone’s story outside the evangelical ‘bubble.’ Growing up inside the evangelical bubble, it’s easy to assume that our persuasion of faith is the only (or at least preferred) way for people to find God. Holly found God without ever sitting in a Sunday School class or walking down an aisle. Her closest spiritual influences are from ‘mainline’ denominations, denominations that many evangelicals quietly look down their noses at. And yet God is there, working in places we might not expect. I love that.

2. I have unending respect for those who work with social justice causes. Hearing Holly’s work with various organizations continues my unending respect for those who work on behalf of ‘the least of these.’ For many Christians, the Bible’s commands to look after the widow and orphan are metaphorical. For folks like Holly, it’s a literal way of life. Anyone who works in her field should be commended by Christians and non-Christians alike.

3. Holly Burkhalter cannot pinpoint the exact moment she became a Christian. I respect that. As uncomfortable as it may may some evangelicals, Jesus never commands his followers to ‘pray a prayer,’ ‘ask Him into their hearts,’ or ‘walk an aisle.’ He asks us to follow Him. Salvation is both a moment and a process. It’s something that began before creation and won’t complete until we’ve left this world. Many times, we like to dumb down the process, to the detriment of the act itself. Holly knows she’s a Christ follower, but she can’t pinpoint the exact moment it happened. That’s okay with me.

4. Her faith has survived one of the greatest moral questions posed by this generation. “If God is a good God, then why would he allow bad things to happen to good people?” A variation of this question has been posed by millions of people over the years. Considering the onslaught of evil in the world today, it’s one of the greatest arguments skeptics have to battle against God. Holly Burkhalter wrestled with this very question, in a tangible way that most armchair philosophers never will. And yet she came through the other side as a believer. If there’s hope for her, there’s hope for anyone.

5. Her belief in God was destroyed and then restored by other Christians. Her faith in God was destroyed by Christian relatives who walked through some very difficult times. Her belief in God was restored by other Christians who lived out their faith for her to see. As believers, we can never underestimate the impact our actions will have on the belief journey of those closest to us.

6. Be a Sharon. Sharon was the Christian friend instrumental in Holly’s salvation story. Sharon didn’t preach. She didn’t argue. She was present. She listened a lot. She displayed selfless love. She simply lived out her life and joy in Jesus, and she presented a peace that Holly longed to have. It’s a beautiful picture of how our lives should lead others to a relationship with Jesus.

Everyone Has a Story

12.12.12 copyEarlier this year my family went down to New Orleans for a short vacation. While there, I able to engage in a favorite past-time: people watching. “People watching” sounds much nicer than “creeping,” so I’ll stick with that.

Two guys captivated my attention while there. The first guy worked at the New Orleans Insectarium. He was in his late 20s, and he screamed ‘beatnik’ with his Shaggy-like beard. He looked like the guy who would hit the hippest coffee shop in town after work. Here’s my favorite part: his job at the Insectarium was to hold live roaches and let paying guests (like me) play with them and pet them. That’s what he did all day. He sat on a stool and played with roaches. Where was that job on Career Day in high school?

The second guy that captivated me was in the New Orleans Aquarium. While we were eating lunch in the Aquarium Food Court, he was sitting behind a portable hot dog stand, waiting to sell someone a hot dog. No one came. For the entire 45 minutes we ate lunch, no one came to his stand. So he just sat there, staring blankly into space, for 45 minutes. He was young, early 20s. He looked fit. If this is what he did all day, where did he find his purpose?

Have you ever encountered someone and tried to imagine what their life was like? Next time you see someone on the sidewalk, pay for gas, or have someone bag your food at the grocery store, try to imagine their life. What’s their story?

Your story is the sum total of your life experiences, your childhood, your difficult circumstances, your personality quirks that you inherited from your aunt, the twisting, winding road that brought you to where you are today. That’s your story. The question is, how many stories do we really know? If we don’t know someone’s story, we don’t know them.

Spend some time and find someone’s story this week. See what it does to you.

Image courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net

The Great Mandate

BIG Idea: Tell your story.

Have you ever wondered what we’re really here to do? Christians, I mean. After we make that fateful decision, while we’re sitting around waiting for heaven, what are we supposed to do here on earth? Just attend church a bunch of times and rack up extra Jesus points? Live it up here on earth while we still can, throwing the occasional “please forgive me” up to heaven? Plug KLove into our ears and drown out the sound of the rest of the world dying? More potlucks, maybe that’s it.

Our mandate is found on a dusty hillside 2000 years ago, where a band of misfits gathered together. They were by no means the best and brightest of the day: illiterate fisherman, social outcasts, former prostitutes. And yet this rag tag group would soon change the world. Their lives started ordinary enough. Some were raised in the monotonous family business of fishing. You got up, you fished, you went to bed. That was life. Some fell victim to the darker side of life early and couldn’t find a way to break out. Others wandered through life, searching for meaning. And then one day they encountered a remarkable man named Jesus of Nazareth.

He changed their existence. He redirected the purpose and passion of their lives, and then he was crucified. When all hope was lost, Jesus proved his power over death and rose from the grave. Truly he was the Son of God. Now risen and victorious, Jesus gathered with his small group of followers and gave them a simple command that changed the course of human history. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8

This one sentence changed everything. It would soon topple the greatest empire on the earth. It would direct the course of history for entire continents. And 2000 years later, we would still be implementing this edict. The key this mandate is the word “witnesses.” Christ wants his followers to be witnesses to what they saw, taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. But what does it mean to be a “witness”? How does that translate for a 21st century American Christian today?

Simple. Tell your story. That’s what Christ was telling his followers. Tell the story of what you saw, what you experienced, and what I’ve done in your life. Tell your story to everyone you meet. Take this story to the furthest reaches of the planet. But above all, tell your story.

That’s it. That’s the Great Mandate we’ve received. No commendations for consecutive VBS’s in attendance or number of beautiful Easter dresses. Just a command to tell your story.

So, are you?

QUESTION: What does it mean to tell your story in your everyday world?