I have a prayer letter to write. It’s been on my to-do list for the past three weeks now — each Saturday, I write it again in my planner for the following week.
Our family has been very busy lately, with more church activities than usual and visiting family members (cue cheers and tears of joy!). While sometimes I sit down to write a prayer letter and struggle to fill it, right now our lives feel full enough to provide more than enough content.
And yet I hesitate.
As I’ve thought about this week’s theme, a question has cropped up, one I’m not sure I’ve always kept in mind these past four years of letter writing: “Whose story am I telling?”
It’s my story, right? Mine and my family’s, that is. The story of our work and ministry, and of the everyday, as well.
My story, like each of ours, is embedded. It doesn’t stand alone. All of our stories, all of the stories of those who have come before us, weaving into each other and becoming history, are ultimately God’s story. As the one who first spoke the world into existence, who formed Adam from the dust and Eve from Adam’s own body, God not only authors but also stars. Not a cosmic clock-maker, God sustains and upholds each of us, every breath and blink. History — my story, your story, the stories of those past — is God’s story: the story of what he has done in the world. We are not insignificant or unimportant, as God graciously includes us in his work, but we are not the main thing. The main actor is God.
And so as I think about the past few months that have passed since our last prayer letter, I wonder what the difference would be between asking the questions, “What have I done in the past few months?” and “What has God done?”
The answer to the first is simple: very quickly, I can come up with lists, numbers, and photos to document my effort and accomplishments. See, here’s what I’ve done. Here are the people I’m serving.
The answer to the second, often, is a little less clear. God’s work is mysterious, and the way he works does not always fit neatly into my expectations or understanding. And yet, if our God is the one who works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose, then all things that happen in our lives are part of that work. We may not be able to connect the dots now, but we can speak of them in the context of a God at work.
When this question changes, the focus shifts in a way that also checks how I speak of others. To the first question, I quickly become the hero. It’s all about what I’ve done, and so others become supporting characters in the drama of my life.
D.L. Mayfield, in her memoir Assimilate or Go Home, writes about bringing a van load of refugee kids to her church’s Vacation Bible School. At the time she was self-congratulatory: “Because look at me! Driving a van full of children born into poverty and desperation, children who had never sung songs about hippos and Jesus before!” Yet she reflects, “As it turns out, I also believed that my refugee friends were a sort of prop: nominal, one-dimensional stories in the great saga of my own life.”
When the question, “What have I done?” prompts our story-telling, others, especially those we see ourselves as serving, become props to highlight our work and accomplishments. Their voices, their stories, become lost in our narrative, because all we see are how they are helping or hindering us. Are they a positive or negative contribution to the work we are doing?
But when we ask, “What is God doing?” we cannot view others so neatly. Suddenly the complexity of their lives comes into focus, and the mystery of what God is doing humbles us. Telling their stories requires reverence, special care. How much do we know? How much remains unknown?
How do you practice humility in telling others’ stories? When have you been surprised at what God was doing?