Serial vs Self-Encapsulated Story

I enjoy binge watching shows through Amazon or Netflix. I bounce between liking shows that have a long story arc that the screenwriters spread across  several episodes and shows that self-encaspsulate a story into each episode. Recently I started watching a show that started as a spy show with each episode being self-contained. Slowly this show introduced a story line that ended up taking them four seasons of episodes to complete. I did not want to pay attention that long to figure out what sinister conspiracy was behind everything. I gave up watching the show. I read the episode recaps on wikipedia to find my desire for resolution satisfied.

I want television shows to find a way to wrap up their storylines after a couple of episodes or one season. Stretching across several seasons to solve the purpose for the show wears me down. I think the television show “Lost” is a great example of a show that started off with a good balance between long story arcs and individual storylines that could be finished up each episode. Unfortunately the show “Lost” became lost in its own story after a while and ended up being a self-indulgent mess.

So I have been thinking about my disappointment in shows that can’t figure out how to tell a story with conclusions and then reflecting on what this means for my preaching. I know as a person in the pew listening to another preacher that I am not very patient with the preacher that has several false endings. I watched a person preach online, and behind the preacher I saw the band shuffling towards their instruments. The band thought the sermon was wrapping up. They knew the cadence of the preacher, or at least they thought they did. The preacher went on for several more minutes. I wonder if that preacher went on with his sermon as punishment to the band that assumed they knew where the sermon was headed.

Humbly, I notice that when I preach I have had this problem. I look at the people shuffling and moving in the pew. I want to tell them, “Oh no, you think my sermon is almost over but I have two more pages of notes. Buckle up and get ready.”

In my own life, I wish each day had a neat conclusion. Days blend into months. Years slide into decades. I still have not found too many neat conclusions in my life. Some stories just seem to disappear because sadly friendships slide away. I wish I was better at nurturing friendships. Other stories in my life keep showing up, even though I want to move on. Satan is amazingly adept at repeatedly turning up in my life.

Some days do develop as self-encapsulated plots. I am glad my marriage has been a long arc in my life that has no end in view. I think my marriage will not become like a show that has gotten lost in its own story because we have made a commitment to each other to remain faithful to the covenant of love. Each story in our marriage has its roots in our promises of love. The stages in our love to each other remain fresh and exciting because we are also connected to the great story that is developing between us.

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I trust that the long story arc of my relationship with God will remain fresh and exciting. I know the end. God is my eternal salvation. I know some days I don’t see the plot, and I get worried that my life is going nowhere special. But during these aimless wandering moments, I have found tremendous strength in rooting myself to God’s promises. The Spirit of God strengthens my soul in dark moments by keeping in my view the light of God’s love. I live in the light of the resurrection, but some days the shadows of betrayal on Holy Thursday seem to hang heavy.

My story with God is different than the television shows I binge. I don’t know how the shows will end, and when I do anticipate the ending the show loses my interest. I know how my story with God will end, but amazingly my interest in God does not get exhausted. I love God revealing the adventure of every day. I think God has figured out how to balance revealing the long story arc and the self-encapsulated story.

Do you see the story that God writes in your days? I hope you see that God fills the story of your days with His love.

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Promise Making and Keeping are the Stud Walls of Community

This month we continue our look at practices that cultivate and sustain community. Last month I wrote about the importance of enacting the practice of gratitude. This month I encourage us to live into our community with the practice of making and keeping promises.

I know I have become more cynical in my expectations for fidelity. My own parents divorced when I was seven years old. As a child I did not understand all the adult things that they were working out. All I knew was that my parents were no longer together. For a while I thought it normal that promises made would become promises that would become broken. As I grew up, I found that they both worked hard to make and keep promises to my brothers and myself. My parents divorced from each other. They did not divorce themselves from their responsibility to be parents. I am thankful for their fidelity to parenthood.

God is faithful even when we are unfaithful. Promise-making and promise-keeping are central to how God relates to us and how we relate to Him. Promises are the internal framework for the relationship we have with God. When we hit rough patches, we turn to God. We turn to God because the commitments He has made to us have been tested and proven. I trust in God. I trust I can put myself fully into His hands and He will do what He has said He will do.

handshakeI understand that we make promises in different ways. Some promises are formally made. When I was a kid, I would spit in my hand and shake my friend’s hand to secure our bond. When our oaths involve rituals, we raise our expectations for faithfulness. Now not all promises are formal, we also bind ourselves to one another in unspoken ways. Expectations can be set up by what we have previously said or done. The unspoken expectations in a community can be confusing because they are not shared on both sides. What unspoken expectations do you have of the people at this congregation? What unspoken expectations do you have of me as the pastor of this congregation? If I break the bonds we have together, please let me know. I understand how important faithfulness is to our relationship together.

We are not always faithful. When we break promises, we betray our relationships and weaken our community. When we are down in the pits of betrayal, the love of Jesus is the scaffolding upon which we will climb up to fresh air. The love of Jesus in the face of our betrayal and desertion is a part of our redemption. In this congregation we make and keep promises. In this congregation we will also experience betrayal and desertion.

9780802849854Christine Pohl, in her book Living into Community, wrote about how a troubled congregation that was trying to rely on its own strength found rebirth when they relied on the promise keeping of God. The pastor at this congregation was experiencing the meltdown of the church after the misconduct of a previous pastor. The congregation was suffering greatly from diminished prayer, attendance, gifts, and service. The mission of the church was largely abandoned. The remaining members felt burdened and hurt. They were wounded by those who left the congregation during the times of difficulty. In order to move forward, the congregation needed a way to forgive friends who left. They found redemption as a congregation from their time of crisis when they sought to rebuild their congregation on the strength of the forgiveness of Jesus.

We will be a stronger congregation when we practice making and keeping promises. Though it seems ordinary, consistency in showing up for worship and supporting the Gospel proclaiming ministry at this congregation is a part of the internal framework that supports us. During times of crisis and confusion, it can be helpful to be faithful to the tasks we know that need to be done. When the storms subside and the crisis is over, you will find that the damage is limited by your consistency in daily tasks. Keep centered on Jesus, and the swirling confusion around you will not appear as dangerous.