The Remarkable Power of Story

 “In the future, your children will ask you, ‘What is the meaning of the laws, the regulations, and the case laws that the Lord our God commanded you?’ tell them: We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. But the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”

Deuteronomy 6:20, 21 (Common English Bible)


              My daughter, Rachael, was five years old at our move into a new home in Coppell, Texas. Shortly after settling into our new home, Rachael and I went exploring our new community. Near our home was a large, beautiful park and, within the park, a smaller, enclosed playground for children. Naturally, she wanted to meet the other children there in the playground, all engaged in their own play. I saw it as an opportunity to read while Rachael did what she does best – meeting strangers and forging deep and abiding friendships in little time. The playground was enclosed with a gate that had a safety design that only adults could open. Rachael would be safe as I turned my attention to my The New Yorker magazine.


              After completing a short article, I thought it wise to have “eyes on” my daughter. I did not see her. I wasn’t concerned because of the safety design of the gate. But I did think it prudent to place my magazine down and find her. What I found was Rachael being Rachael. Seated on the ground in a semi-circle were four other little girls, approximately Rachael’s age, with their focus fixed upon Rachael, who was also seated. Not wanting to disrupt whatever Rachael was saying that held the attention of four strangers, I drew near quietly. What I heard from the heart of a five-year old was, “I was a slave girl in Egypt and Pharaoh was so mean to me. But my God is bigger than Pharaoh and God came for me one day, beat Pharaoh up and took me home. I don’t exactly remember it because I think I was asleep in my daddy’s arms.”


              Where did Rachael get that story? From her father who received the story from his father who received the story from the Bible. It is a story that is captured here in Deuteronomy that occurs at a crucial juncture of Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt. Just before the people leave their forty year journey in the wilderness, cross the Jordan River, and take possession of the land promised to them, Moses instructs them how to shape and mold their children into one powerful, corporate story. It is a story that will give meaning, and purpose, and understanding of who they are as a people of God. The story will be a response to the children’s inquiry, an inquiry that asks, what is the meaning of the laws God has “commanded you.” In a subtle shift, the children express a certain distance from their parent’s faith – “commanded you.”


              Just as subtly, the parent’s answer is to breakdown the separation suggested by the children and includes them in the remarkable story of God’s deliverance, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt,” and “But the Lord brought us out of Egypt.” Questions about rules and laws in the faith community are answered in story. Stories are imaginative and embody fascination and richness that simple, direct explanations fail to provide. Stories invite the listener to enter, poke around a little, and locate a comfortable place to settle and claim a unique place in the larger narrative. The remarkable power of story was realized one bright, sunny day in a children’s playground area in Coppell, Texas: “I was a slave girl in Egypt,” spoke my daughter to four strangers. In those few words, Rachael entered the story, poked around here and there, and found herself belonging to something so much greater than one small girl. Rachael belonged to a people who have captured the heart of God.




Angels in Ohio State T-Shirts

 “Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guest, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.”

Hebrews 13:2 (Common English Bible)


              This past week I listened to a dear friend from Texas preach from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church of Galveston, via the church’s webpage. In his message he mentioned that his “thin place” was Mo-Ranch, a camp and conference center located in the hill country of Texas. The pre-Christian and Celtic people of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England identified thin places as places of uncommon energy, a place where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin. Experiencing a thin place is like standing on Holy Ground, experiencing the sacred in the midst of the ordinary. This term does not belong exclusively to the Christian faith but is commonly understood as a place where the connection to another world seems effortless, a place where uncommon insights and truths become palpable.


              Those who know me well have heard me speak often of my thin place, Bryant Park in New York City. Some people have expressed surprise. A beautiful cathedral or a lovely church or a widely recognized sacred place such as the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem seem more likely candidates for the selection of a thin place. Or, as my friend mentioned, Mo-Ranch in the beautiful hill country of Texas. Except, those who understand deeply the notion of a thin place know that they are not chosen. They chose you. Bryant Park chose me nearly twenty years ago. Located in mid-town Manhattan, Bryant Park provides a respite – an escape – from the high-octane movement of the city that surrounds it. That is what drew me into its lovely, landscaped oasis. Then, over time, I began to experience holy moments in Bryant Park.


              On one occasion many years ago, seated in Bryant Park on a Wednesday afternoon, I was quietly working on a sermon when a man “flowed” into the park as if lifted by some invisible force. He was draped in a purple robe; arms outstretched and as he entered, people quickly moving from him. Perhaps “scattering nervously” is more accurate. I remained in my seat, wide-eyed in curiosity. Then his eye caught my eye and he moved ever so gracefully toward me. Always interested in unexpected moments in the colorful and rich City of New York, I remained seated. Now standing before me, he asked what it was I was doing. After introducing myself as a Christian pastor working on a message, he gently took my hand, kissed it and gracefully floated on through the park and back into the city. Yes, though he was clearly mentally ill, it was a moment rich in mystery.


              Another memorable occasion in the park was July of 2019. I had walked my son to his office in the city and then made my way to Bryant Park to have a frank conversation with God. If we learn anything from reading troubling passages in the Old Testament it is that characters like Abraham are perfectly content with confronting God with difficult questions. On one occasion, God appears poised to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham has no difficulty confronting God with that decision, bartering on behalf of the cities. So, following the example of Abraham, I seat myself in Bryant Park, bow my head, and close my eyes. I have an issue with how God has been managing my sense of call to ministry. In prayer, I let God have it. With head still bowed, eyes closed, I think, “Right, God has nothing to say.” Then, there is a tap on my shoulder and I look-up to see two young women with Ohio State t-shirts. “Yes?” I inquired. “May we ask you a question?” I nodded my permission. “Do you believe God speaks to us? God does, if we truly listen.” That day, in Bryant Park, I found myself seated before two messengers of God; angels dressed in Ohio State t-shirts.




Paying Attention to God

 “When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it. He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven.”

Genesis 28:16, 17 (Common English Bible)


              Early in my relationship with my wife I learned she liked yellow roses more than any other color. I also learned that she doesn’t much care for red roses. Whenever I am shopping at Publix I pass the floral department to see if they have yellow roses. If they do, and they are particularly beautiful, I purchase a dozen for my wife. I have done this now for thirty-three years. It isn’t a burden. I delight in making this thoughtful purchase because it brings delight to my wife. It would be a burden if I found that I couldn’t afford to purchase roses for her. And I would stop making this purchase if she ever tired of receiving them.


              Worship is paying attention to God. Naturally, as a pastor, many Sundays I am in the pulpit – I am at work. But, when I have a Sunday off, I am in worship somewhere. I go to worship not because I feel some professional obligation. Nor do I worship hoping to enjoy some inspirational music or hear a helpful sermon, though both are welcomed. I go to worship to pay attention to God. Paying attention to God causes me delight because I know it delights God. God created man and woman for relationship with one another and with God and all of scripture is one long narrative of God pursuing that relationship. As the purchase of yellow roses brings mutual delight for my wife and me, worship brings the same mutual delight for God and me.


              During this pandemic, in person worship is suspended to protect the health and well being of the congregation. This is no different than persons in the Bible who suffer from a skin disease being required to self isolate from the faith community until a priest declares them healed. Yet, people miss in person worship. I get that. So do I. I miss the community, the personal engagement, the sharing deeply in people’s lives before and after the worship service. Yet, First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach never suspended worship. Through live stream technology, worship remains available each week. What remains is the opportunity to pay attention to God – to cause God delight and to experience delight as a result.


              Here in Genesis, Jacob wakes from his sleep and realizes that God is present. His experience is that he was “terrified” which must not be confused with how that word is often used today. Jacob’s experience might better be described as one of astonishment and awe. Simply, Jacob experienced delight in the presence of God and details the experience as “awesome.” There may be times when worship becomes routine and rituals are simply repeated week after week. But we continue the routine because, in paying attention to God, we do not want to miss those occasions when, like Jacob, a most adventurous encounter occurs that results in mutual delight.





When Faith Is Not Enough

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?”

James 2:14 (New Revised Standard Version)

            Someone once declared that promised prayer has no power, only practiced prayer. That same observation can be applied to faith; profession of faith has no power, only practiced faith. Evidence of this unfolded one Sunday morning during my graduate studies. Sitting in a Sunday school class for young adults at the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, a young man asked permission to address the class. His intention was to make a simple observation and ask the class for help. Then the instructor would proceed to teach the lesson he had prepared for the morning. Yet, the young man’s comment became the lesson for that day.


This man began his comments by sharing that some years earlier he made a profession of faith in Jesus as his personal Lord and was baptized in that church. But, he was a graduate student, busy with not only the demanding rigor of his studies, but also working a part-time job to help sustain him as a student. Then, there was also this girl. He was “madly in love with her” as he put it and that, naturally, required some of his attention and time. In the economy of a twenty-four hour day, there simply was no time remaining for the regular reading of the Bible and prayer.


Now, this man has found himself in the middle of a weighty life crisis, one that was causing him to unravel. He turned to his faith. It was then he made a comment that has shaped my own understanding of faith, something that has given more texture, and depth, and color to my own relationship to Jesus than anything I found in the classroom. “I turned to my faith and found that I had done nothing with my faith and now my faith could do nothing for me.” Then, a long lingering silence draped the room. Wisdom of such depth rarely can be met with words. The instructor then, with a deliberate and careful movement, placed his lesson upon an empty chair and asked, “What can we do for you?”


The only help the student asked for was accountability. “Beginning today, I am no longer neglecting my faith. Hold me accountable. Call me each day and ask what I have read in the Bible and how I am responding. What I need more than anything at this moment is a faith that will sustain me. Hold me accountable. I cannot move forward without God.” Here was a young man who discovered the profound truth that merely professing faith in Jesus lacked power. Vital, life-giving faith that sustains us requires practice. This is precisely what James would have us hear, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?”