The story of your life

Journal[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Story.”]

Today we’re going to talk about “Story”: about the story that we’re telling with our lives, but perhaps more importantly, about the story that God is telling in, through, and with our lives.

Story, #1: God never wastes an experience.

A mentor of mine first said this to me about ten years ago, when I could agree with it in theory but I couldn’t attest to it in experience—and maybe right now you’re where I was, but stick with me.

Let me give an example: I remember feeling for the longest time that the fact that I didn’t have one place where I could call home—I spent 16 years in Hong Kong, 8 years in England, 3 years in California, and 3 years here in DC; my parents are in Hong Kong, my best friends are in London, one brother is in California and the other is in Australia—the fact that I felt a constant sense of not-quite-fitting in, not-quite-feeling-at-peace-with-life was a deficit, something to be overcome.

But over the years, as God has continued to fine-tune my soul to his reality and his presence, he’s been showing me that this longing for home, this present discomfort—even this—is what he’s used to ground myself fully in him—that God is my home, in a way that no place ever could be.

All along, God has been weaving all the disparate and—what I thought were—mismatching threads together into a tapestry that has me here now at The District Church, doing the things I love and feel called to (theology, music, and justice)—after a long time wondering how those things would ever fit together. I’m in a place where—for my job—I get to cultivate a community that might be—even just for a few—a home away from home and a family away from family, because through my experience, I know what it’s like to not know where home really is.

God isn’t done yet, by any means, but the point is that it wasn’t until I realized what God was calling me to, less than three years ago, that I began to know in my experience—and not just in my head—that God doesn’t waste an experience. And that’s true, whether you’re in a place right now where you can see that or not.

Maybe the thing is that you’re in the middle of something right now—a degree, a job, a relationship, a chapter in your life—and you don’t actually know where it’s going, you don’t see it going anywhere, you can’t figure out how it’s connected to anything meaningful. Maybe you know what God’s called you to or what passions he’s placed within you or what kind of life he’s asking you to lead, and what you’re doing right now—well, they don’t seem to be lining up or meshing.

I wonder if the Apostle Paul, when he was a young man, learning his father’s trade as a tentmaker, wondered what on earth he was supposed to do with that craft. He already knew he loved studying the law, he knew he loved rhetoric and philosophy and debating with people; there must’ve been occasions where he thought to himself, Who needs tent-making? And yet that same skill would pay the bills for him to do just what God called him to do—though perhaps he wouldn’t see this for many years; and that’s just one—very small—way in which Paul could attest, as he wrote in his letter to the Romans, “God works all things together for the good of those who love him” (8:28). In other words, in the story that he’s writing, God doesn’t waste an experience.

Story, #2: Conflict is an opportunity, not a setback.

In our day and age, we like things to be a certain way, specifically our way; we like things to be comfortable, and we do whatever it takes to keep from being uncomfortable, from facing any sort of conflict. But, as author Don Miller writes, every good story involves—indeed, needs—conflict:

Conflict fills a story with meaning and beauty. Not only this, but conflict gives value to that which we are trying to attain. And conflict is the only way a character actually changes. There is no character development without conflict.

Think about it: every time you’re faced with a challenge or a hurdle or an unknown, you have a choice, either to go back to the comfort of what you knew and the way things were, or to move forward, through the discomfort, and learn a new skill, a new way of life, a new perspective, and to grow.

In American culture, we’re conditioned to avoid conflict.

  • We build highways that bypass poor neighborhoods so we don’t have to walk through them and be reminded that there are people in need living right among us.
  • We watch news channels we agree with and read books we’re pretty sure we’ll agree with and subscribe to blogs we already know we’ll agree with, so we don’t have to deal with that opposing viewpoint or how it just irritates us.
  • We hang out with friends we mostly agree with and we avoid those difficult conversations, those conflict moments, where we’ll realize how different we are and we’ll have to talk about why we think what we think; or maybe we don’t give our friends permission to truly love and care for us by challenging us, having difficult conversations with us, saying the things we need to hear but we really don’t want to.
  • In our relationships, we avoid commitment and vulnerability and genuine intimacy—not just physical or sexual intimacy because we run to those things, often using them as facades to block out genuine intimacy—so that we won’t have to deal with things like sacrifice and confrontation and tough but honest conversations, those things that are integral to the success of a healthy relationship.

And yet each of these moments could be an opportunity instead:

  • an opportunity to be challenged to mobilize your community to help the poor;
  • an opportunity to see things from a different perspective, to see how God has been working in someone else’s life in a way different from how he’s been working in yours, and to experience a little more of the vastness of God;
  • an opportunity to see growth in your character, to become a better person, more like the person God created you to be;
  • an opportunity to love and be loved, to know and be known, to see and be seen, to experience genuine intimacy.

So don’t let conflict moments drag you down; don’t let difficult encounters drop your head; don’t let yourself get cynical and jaded or whiny or self-pitying; don’t simply shrug your shoulders. God wants so much more for you than that; God is capable of doing so much more in your life than that.

Instead, look through God’s eyes: how can you instead make this—whatever it may be that’s in front of you—an opportunity not just to speak out the story of what God has done in your life but to live a better story, to allow God by his Holy Spirit to tell his story in and through and with you? It’s an adventure we’re on, and we get to be a part of the best story that’s ever been written by the most imaginative and resourceful Artist that’s ever created!

BUT it’s not all sweetness and light; that’s not the world we live in. Jim Collins writes in Good to Great that one of the characteristics of a great leader is that he or she faces the brutal facts of reality, so here’s the honest truth:

Story, #3: We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.

You may have seen the amazing video, “A Pep Talk from Kid President to You,” by now. Kid President is a boy called Robbie Novak, and he actually has a condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta—that’s “Brittle Bone syndrome.” In his ten years of life, he’s had over seventy breaks. But Robbie hasn’t let the tough parts of his life get him down, he hasn’t seen his condition as a setback but as an opportunity—the pep talk video is actually dedicated to a two year-old girl who recently had a liver transplant. And he’s not trying to be successful—it’s not about fame or money; he’s just trying to do a little something to spread hope and joy and to encourage people to make the world more awesome and maybe to dance a little more. That’s the story he’s telling with his life. [See below for “The True Story of Kid President.]

It was actually Mother Teresa who said, “We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.” There is no guarantee that if you follow Jesus, if you seek the kingdom first, if you allow God to use every experience, and to see conflict as an opportunity rather than a setback, then you’ll immediately be wildly successful and life will be smooth sailing.

Actually, you may face more trials and more opposition, and you may be asked to give up more, to sacrifice more. One of the things Jesus said to his disciples was, “In this world you will have trouble.”

I’m sure you can attest to that; I’m sure you can see in your own experience that life is not easy, that opposition is great, that things are not as you wish they were, even when you’re trying to do what God asked you to do or what God called you to do.

  • God called you to love these kids, but man, couldn’t he have made them easier to deal with?
  • God called you to be in this city, but couldn’t he have made it a little less expensive or a little safer?
  • God called you to be generous with your time and with your money, but couldn’t he have made it cost a little less?
  • God called you to safeguard the sanctity of marriage and to value the gift of sex, but it’s hard to be faithful, even in your thoughts, and it’s hard to wait.
  • God calls all of us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him, but the world in which we are called to do justice is so broken and sometimes seems to be beyond redemption, and the people to whom we are called to be merciful are just so irritating and ungrateful and unworthy and sometimes just plain bad, and it’s so hard to walk with God when there are a hundred other things pressing on our time and, “Well, God, you’ve just been too quiet lately …”

But do you remember what else Jesus said to his disciples, several times just so that they wouldn’t forget it? “I am with you.”

Whenever I’ve had to make big decisions in my life—about a school or a job or a relationship or moving to another country—God has always said the same thing to me: “You choose; and whatever you choose, I am with you.”

Maybe God didn’t tell me what to do at those moments so that I couldn’t blame him if things didn’t go the way I thought they would; maybe God wanted me to grow up and take responsibility, to think through my decisions wisely, to exercise stewardship over the intellect and the relationships and the community and the connections that he had given to me—we’re not just called to be responsible with our money, after all.

That’s what faithfulness is: to do what we can, where we can, when we can, with what little knowledge and resources and time and faith we may have. If you have but a mustard seed of faith, God will use it. If you have only two pennies to give, God will use it. We’re not called to give what we can’t give; but we are called to faithfulness, trusting that God will do the rest.

Remember, as Kid President says, “You were made to be awesome,” because you were made in the image of God and our God is an awesome God. So:

What story are you telling with your life? What story are you allowing God to tell through your life?


Go outside

Artist and computer scientist Jonathan Harris:

Go outside. It’s important to get away from technology and experience the world. You’ve got to see your world, see your community, see what’s not being said what needs to be said. That’s probably the best way to figure out what you’re going to say. For me at least, it’s impossible to have any good ideas while sitting behind a computer. Ideas come from life.

Thanks to Heather for this.

2012: Two weeks in

2012 is not even two weeks old and God has already begun his work in and around me. About a week ago, as I prayed about what God had in store for me this year, my mind was drawn toward the word “intentionality”–a theme I talked about in my New Year’s sermon (“In the beginning … rest”) and also in a recent blog. I got the sense that this would be a year of big decisions and big choices, with big consequences. At the time, I had no idea what those would be, but even in the last week, I’m beginning to see what God might have in mind.

This weekend, The District Church’s Leadership Community will be heading on its yearly retreat, for a time of spiritual renewal and re-visioning for the coming year. Last year, we had about thirty people; this year, our church having grown now to a community of around 250, we have over 50 people coming–and several other leaders weren’t able to make it this weekend! Please hold us in your thoughts and prayers as we get involved in helping this toddler-aged church learn to walk and talk.

As for myself, I’m learning to fill out my role as Associate Pastor at the church, moving from a manager and task-completer to a vision-casting, proactively-investing leader, with the remit to create, to innovate, to make space for other people to grow into their God-given potential. It’s, in equal parts, exciting and challenging, and I can’t wait to see how God does his alchemical work with what I have to offer. Discerning where and how to invest my time and energy is definitely a matter of prayer, and I’d appreciate yours for my continuing development in the calling God has for me.

Finally, I’m so stoked to inform you that–through the generosity of many of you getting this email–I’m now at over 50% of my target support for this year, after only two months! That’s not even including those of you who’ve said you want to support my work at The District Church but haven’t yet given! What an amazing testimony to your love and support; I’m so humbled, and glad to have you along for the journey. I count you as part of the ministry team without whom my work wouldn’t be possible! And as a reminder of how I ended up where I am, here’s a video produced by Lindsay, one of the storytellers (she’s a writer and photographer) at our church, from an interview we did last summer:

Spectacle over substance, quirk over quality

Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin has a fascinating post up, entitled “Driveby culture and the endless search for wow.” In it, he critiques how our culture feeds into and perpetuates our already-consumeristic (thanks to modernism) mentality, creating a shallower and more easily distracted society.

We’re creating a culture of clickers, stumblers and jaded spectators who decide in the space of a moment whether to watch and participate (or not).

Imagine if people went to the theatre or the movies and stood up and walked out after the first six seconds. Imagine if people went to the senior prom and bailed on their date three seconds after the car pulled away from the curb.

The majority of people who sign up for a new online service rarely or never use it. The majority of YouTube videos are watched for just a few seconds. Chatroulette institutionalizes the glance and click mentality. I’m guessing that more than half the people who started reading this post never finished it.

This is all easy to measure. And it drives people with something to accomplish crazy, because they want visits to go up, clicks to go up, eyeballs to go up.

Should I write blog posts that increase my traffic or that help change the way (a few) people think?

Should a charity focus on instant donations by texting from a million people or is it better to seek dedicated attention and support from a few who understand the mission and are there for the long haul?

It bears thinking about, especially for us as Christians. Do we seek to draw and engage people, online or otherwise, with substance or spectacle, with quality or quirk? With spectacle, with quirk, with cheap entertainment, we may draw more, and more immediately; we might have numbers to point to or more easily-categorizable statistics; and we might look, at least in the short-term, like we have found success.

But those we attract with such an approach are not, and will not be, the ones who will dig deep, who are genuinely interested, genuinely seeking, genuinely wanting to know more, and who are willing to sacrifice and work on the journey on which we are inviting them to join us, and more importantly, God. It is with substance, with quality, with genuine depth, that true change comes about and true disciples are made.

And that, going against the grain of culture, will be a challenge. But, as Seth concludes–and obviously, I’ve appropriated what I learned from him into my own framework of theology and life:

In the race between ‘who’ and ‘how many’, who usually wins–if action is your goal. Find the right people, those that are willing to listen to what you have to say, and ignore the masses that are just going to race on, unchanged.

We do the best we can with what we have and with what we know, and trust that God will do the rest.

It is his story after all.