A few days ago I was talking with one of my preacher friends who was really struggling with what to preach this coming week. We had just been talking about different church culture, and my friend took this opportunity to explain something to me that I will never forget.
He preaches at a church that is in a poorer area of town and is primarily African-American. He had been toying with the idea of preaching a sermon on suffering. And I had asked him, “Is your church going through a season of suffering right now?” And he said, “Yes, but…”
Then he, very gently and pastorally, proceeded to explain to me that he didn’t know of a time in his church’s life when they hadn’t been suffering. This, he said, was one of the differences between inner city/suburban churches, or lower socio-economic churches and primarily middle class ones. We can forget that suffering is integral for the story we signed up for.
Donald Miller’s “A Million Miles in A Thousand Years” was one of the best books I read in 2009. So when I saw this video of his recent talk summarizing it, I wanted to share it here. And here’s why. Miller’s point in his book is that, while most of us want to live better stories, we consistently run away from things that would make our stories compelling. Particularly, in regards to hard times.
Did you ever wonder what makes a story good? What makes one story more compelling than another? In Miller’s words, ““Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.” The common thread between all great stories is that someone wanted to accomplish something and it was worth a fight.
Now to be clear, this is the one part of ministry I like the least. Actually, it’s the one part of life I like the least. Sometimes I feel like a young, white Rodney King. I wish we could all get along. But this is one of areas I’m trying to grow the most in. Because the truth is any life worth living is going to have it’s detractors. People won’t share the vision you have for life, and might even try to stand in the way. But that doesn’t mean that it’s still not exactly what God created you for.
In fact, the conflict might be a sign that you are on to something.
I’ve often wondered about James 1:2-4 , “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds,because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” This isn’t exactly the Scripture you want to hear when you’re going through a rough time in your life. But James’ knows what he’s talking about here.
He’d seen his brother Jesus live 33 years, and 30 of those years were undocumented. In fact, the only time in Jesus’ life that we know about, he lived with almost constant opposition. As if, the Son of God himself, needed a struggle to make sense of his story.
Conflict is at the center of a good story. So why have we tried to organize and structure our lives in a way to innoculate ourselves from the very thing that we need. To carry on the conversation from last week, why do we assume that if we have God’s favor that will ensure smooth sailing? I don’t know of a single, developed character in Scripture who walked with God and didn’t face hard times…often.
I remember being in Rome a few years ago, touring St. Peter’s basillica, staring up at the Sistene Chapel, and Michelangelo’s Pieta. It was awe-inspiring to say the least. But the next day we toured the Roman Catacombs and it was a different kind of awe-inspiring. We were walking where men and women who were following Jesus even when it was costing them everything, we were standing in the same halls as the earliest martyr’s (although to be fair they probably weren’t sipping Fanta while they were standing there).
One of the earliest Christian thinkers, Tertullian, once said, “The blood of Christians is the seed of Christianity. We’re like the grass, the more it is mown, the more luxurious it grows.” And he’s right. The reason I believe, and probably the reason you believe (if you do) is because brave men and women embraced the story they were dealt, even though it meant losing a lot.
It’s been said that churches are born in caves and die in Cathedrals. And I’m starting to understand what that means. We operate the best in settings that we try to avoid. I’m convinced that we were created to live better stories, both corporately and personally. We were meant to live epics, not the trivial mini-stories we get so caught up in.
Because no one cries for a guy trying to buy a Volvo.