Earlier this year, at my Ann Arbor church, one of the pastors spoke on the power of story. Specifically, he encouraged us to consider the stories of our lives and how they intersect with God's story. I find that church going people tend to call the good stories testimonies, and the bad ones prayer requests. In general, it is the good stories that are most shared and celebrated in big church settings. These are the stories where people find themselves in a tough spot in life, and somehow God works through the icky situation, and the individual shares some sort of happy, redemptive ending.
We hear these good stories and think, if God worked like that in that person's life, certainly He can do the same in my own. And so we continue to pray for the bad stories in our lives, trusting that, at some point, there WILL be a turn around.
But mid-way through this particular sermon, I got uneasy. To help illustrate his point, the speaker played a video clip of a woman at a "rowdy"African American church, telling the story of how God miraculously freed her of a brain tumor. Shouts of joy, Hallelujah, and Praise the Lord rose up from this woman's congregation. Truly, it was a good and amazing story of how God healed her body and enabled her to continue on living.
But that Sunday morning - at my church in Ann Arbor - I wasn't encouraged in hearing it. Instead, I left church thinking about my friend Alicia who passed away this past fall from a brain tumor she had been battling, and wondering how much time my friend Marty had left before he would do the same. I knew Marty could still be healed, but when I stuck the letter in the mail a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't so sure he would be. Well, as it turns out, Marty did receive my letter - in time - but today I received the heart wrenching news that Marty has passed on to be with God in His perfect peace and presence. His fiancé's plans for a wedding have been replaced by a funeral. :(
While I was at my church in Ann Arbor, hearing the good story testimony of healing, someone at my church in New York, shared the other story - the unhealing in his life. My lawyer friend Teresa insisted I listened to the podcast (which I did and you can too if you'd like). The main point of the sermon is that the focus of our faith should be relational - not transactional. The pastor who spoke (AJ) reminds us, the Christian journey isn't about what you can get God to do for you, but rather it's about God being with you every step of the way.
At the tail end of the talk, AJ invited a member of my NYC church to share his struggle with lyme disease that he and his family picked up when he was a kid.
In his story of unhealing, he shared the following:
We’ve been to healing services, redemption ministries. We’ve fasted; we've prayed together; I’ve had people pray over me and tell me I felt the disease leave you; you are no longer sick. And the next day you wake up and you still have the same pains. How do we reconcile it? Now here’s the thing I’ve had to wrestle through all of this. God doesn’t promise us health, he doesn’t promise us a spouse, money, a job, he doesn’t even promise friends. He only promises us one thing, and if you read your Bible you will find this is true: that he will never leave us and he’ll never forsake us; that even in the midst of our darkest times he will be there with us. That’s the promise that we have. So as I’ve cried out to God, I’ve sobbed to God, I’ve beat my pillow and I’ve even cursed God he’s made one thing abundantly clear to me: that is, never value a sign or promise more than your relationship with me. (*Transcribed by Teresa)
This man has decided to continue to choose God, even though God hasn't chosen to heal him. I'm confident that both Marty and Alicia did the same in their final days here on earth.
But I'm beginning to think, these are the types of stories we need more of in our church sermons and gatherings - stories of trusting God through storms, even when there is no glorious outcome.
* To hear the entire podcast of living a relational faith, the sermon is posted here: http://tgcchelsea.com/media/ and is titled
THAT YOU MAY HAVE LIFE | 02 (AJ Sherrill » 12 January 2014)
Also, if you like the sermon, AJ just released a book called Quiet: Hearing God Amidst The Noise