Years ago, I and a few others formed a national training team for congregations that were in decline and trying to make a new path. Among other things, we would have congregation leaders, in these training sessions, ponder their histories, the stories that made them who they had become. Our training team would often share our own pivotal stories, to sort of prime the pump, to help people think. We wondered, in our planning meetings, if our stories ever got old, as we had to listen to each other’s stories over and over again. Said one team member: It’s not like your pivotal stories change; they are your stories. They just are.
Today, I’m thinking about that again, as I begin the challenge of forming a sermon for Christmas Eve. How shall I approach this in a way that keeps fresh a story that so many have heard so often?
It ain’t easy. (For the record, my sermon title for Christmas Eve is “unswaddled.” We’ll see how it goes.)
I mentioned Sunday that I learned recently that Woodside (back in the First Baptist Church era) was a stop on the Underground Railroad. That’s a pivotal story.
This week, at Hymn of the Month Club, Paul brought in a Christmas carol by Franklin Elmer and Lenore Lanterman. He had found a collection of carols they wrote together here, and this first one we’ll sing in worship Sunday with our new Pick Up Choir. (Come and join in — practice at 9:30 and sing at 11 am worship; no long-term commitment required.) Anyway, while he was telling us about the carols, we learned that Rebecca, our new accompanist, was taught piano by Lenore, and the piano in the chapel was the instrument on which she became a pianist. Isn’t that a great story? Pivotal for Rebecca, and now coming back around to Woodside.
Thursday evening (tonight at 7), our twice-monthly Daybreak worship happens again around the theme of story, and I hear through a grapevine that Linda Angus will be sharing a story of her own.
Years ago, among the stories that shaped me, I lived with an alcoholic. When she found the courage and will to seek sobriety, she learned how powerful it was to be able to tell her own story to a group of people who would understand — to claim her victories, confess her failings, own up to the times she’d hurt others and take stock of the events in her life that made her who she was. Plus make some people laugh, a part she enjoyed quite a lot. As the songwriter says: “my past has brought me brilliantly to here.”
The thing about stories is that the power they have is in the telling. In our stories we can empathize, commiserate, be understood, develop and deepen relationships, and find the meaning of our lives.
It is true for people and for congregations.
Shortly, we’ll gather on the O Holy Night to hear a story that is foundational for people of a certain faith. Though the story is old and oft repeated, no one ever has heard it exactly the way you hear it.
We’ll gather on another holy night, the “longest night,” to recognize that all stories aren’t joyful, that even our pivotal stories can take something from us or leave scars behind.
We won’t tell stories aloud during either of those services; but when we do it well, worship helps us connect our stories with the story, to make us part of something much bigger than we are alone.
It is community. Beloved community.
So I invite you: in whatever circles you gather this holiday, consider telling a story. One that adds to the wonder and meaning of being you. Listen to the stories of others, and hear what they are telling you that they aren’t saying in so many words.
And, then, if you get a chance, and it doesn’t feel too weird, maybe tell someone why the Christmas story matters to you. (Are you fondest of shepherds or sages?) Or tell them a Woodside story and invite them to come hear a story here.
You are a story. You have a story. You are part of Woodside’s story, a story we’re writing together.
In this season of storytelling, I just wanted to remind you how much you matter.
With you on this journey that is advent,