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Friday, March 31, 2017

Tell Your Story

Let the redeemed  of the Lord tell their story—
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe, 
  those he gathered  from the lands,
from east and west, from north and south.
-Psalm 107:2-3 (NIV)


My friend Bobby Ross is a Christian journalist. I don’t mean that he’s a journalist who happens to go to church. I mean that he’s a believer in Jesus who seeks truth and professionalism in his reporting, and who is guided by his faith in whatever he does. He’s been a religion editor for the Oklahoma City Oklahoman, a religion writer for the Associated Press, and is currently chief correspondent for The Christian Chronicle. He also writes for getreligion.com, a website that deals with the relationship of mainstream media and religion.
     Bobby just posted a story in the Chronicle that I think is a must-read for everyone who is attempting to follow Jesus in our world. It’s actually intended for the leaders of churches, schools, and ministries, but there are some points in it that are essential for every Christian who wants to take walking by faith and sharing their faith seriously.
     Bobby starts where the psalmist does: with story. Too often, I think, we try to live by other people’s stories. We look at ourselves through the eyes of the people in our world whose opinions we value most. We do our jobs according to the expectations of our superiors. We try to live a faith that’s been handed down to us by our parents, or shaped by whatever experiences of church we’ve had. None of that is bad, of course. But could it be that we don’t know our own stories? Could it be that we struggle in living and sharing our faith because we’re having a hard time figuring how a self-image derived from others’ opinions of us, a job that we do largely by standards imposed on us, and an inherited faith can be woven together into something coherent?
     The fact is, I have a story that is not yours. Our stories may be similar in some ways. We certainly should be aware of the many ways our stories affect others outside of ourselves. We may even have a common faith. But my story is my own. I have come from a place and lived a life that no one else has. I have a relationship with God that’s unique. It’s informed by the relationships others have had with him. It’s understood in categories largely shared with others. But the story of my life and my relationship with God through Jesus is mine. It’s not better or more normative than yours, nor is it inferior or less normative. It’s just mine, in the same way yours is yours.
     And so there’s no one more qualified to tell my story than me. I should be an expert on my story. Oh, I know, sometimes other people know us better than we know ourselves, but that just highlights my point. They know us better than we know ourselves because we don’t know ourselves. We haven’t learned our stories.
     We need to, though, because our stories need to be told, especially in those places where they intersect with God’s story. We’ve thought of sharing our faith, evangelizing, witnessing, whatever you prefer to call it, as convincing others to believe in some lifeless doctrine. We should have been telling our stories.
     “Let those redeemed by the LORD say so,” the psalmist more literally says. It’s true, of course, that God has redeemed all human beings through Jesus. Or, at least, all who believe, if you’d rather put it that way. But he has more particularly redeemed you. Maybe you can talk specifically about the addiction he’s helped you overcome. Maybe you can speak about how your temper is being tamed. Perhaps the Lord has redeemed you by teaching you a deeper and stronger faith in the midst of suffering. You might rather talk about how he has brought you from despair and grief to hope and purpose, or how he is using a particular talent or passion of yours to touch others, or how your job has been transformed into a ministry by his touch. The possibilities are endless, and that’s the point. It’s your story. The only similarity with mine is that we’ve both found redemption through Jesus. 
     Bobby’s column insists that we identify our audience. He doesn’t mean that we need to isolate an audience to whom we want to communicate, to the exclusion of others. He just means that we need to think about those to whom we have the opportunity to tell our stories. Who are they? What are they like? What are their experiences, their strengths, and their blind spots? In short, however well we may know our own stories, we need to know something about the stories of those to whom we would speak. Where do they come from? What do they value? What are their fears, and what are their hopes? We need to learn their stories so we’ll know how ours intersects with theirs, and how our experience of the Lord’s redemption might be most relevant to theirs.
     The rest of Bobby’s column leads us to consider how we tell our stories. He talks a lot about new media, and I’m reminded of how amazingly simple it is to tell our stories to large numbers of people. Through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, blogging, and numerous other outlets, we can creatively and efficiently get our stories told. We can use photos, videos, words, music, or any combination to get across the message we want to get across.
     Unfortunately, we don’t always put a lot of thought into what stories we’re telling. We post something or the other because we think some of our friends might like it — again making the mistake of playing into the expectations of others. We might not give a thought as to the story it might tell if we post this video or retweet that political story or favorite this blog post. We need to remember, perhaps, that the story we should be telling in every aspect of our lives is a coherent and consistent one. It’s ours, but it isn’t only ours. It has the imprint of God’s story all over it. And it’s now a vessel for the gospel of Jesus.
     The church has always used technology to communicate. Paul used Roman roads and the latest in sailing-ship technology. (Even if it failed on him now and then.) From architecture to the printing press, from radio to TV to the internet, there’s always been an impulse in the church to use technology to tell the story of the Lord’s redemption. That’s a good impulse, even if we sometimes get the how-to wrong. For all its pitfalls, social media, the internet, and other modern technology are wonderful tools we can use to tell our stories.
     So figure out what your story is. Consider the ways God has redeemed you, and is currently redeeming you, in Jesus. Then figure out how you can use the opportunities, settings, and tools God has given you to tell that story in a consistent and authentic way.
     I can’t wait to hear it.

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