ElizabethBjorlingIt’s true: I have a secret identity. For four years, I have been a lunch monitor in our local middle school. Halting riots, talking down half-crazed lunch ladies, and dealing with the everyday drama of junior high lunch wildlife. Woven in between the, “Billy, don’t do that’s” and “Quit pouring ketchup on Leroy’s ______” are conversations about life, love, and unsolvable mysteries. Every so often, a student claims me as their youth pastor, or they pull me over, scrunch up their noses, and make comments like, “We heard that you are a priest.” But most of the time, my stealth identity remains. On those rare days when the curtain lifts between the chaos of the lunchroom and the hunger for something deeper than just a chicken patty, remarkable moments occur. Questions like: “What do you think happens when you die?” are the fruit of patiently planting intentional seeds in relationships over a period of time.

013 lunchtrayIn the Church, as we wind our way through the continual task of challenging students to share their faith with their non-Christian friends, we must be willing to ask the same hard questions of ourselves. What does it look like for us to take the risk of sharing Jesus with our non-Christian friends? I have to admit that before the lunchroom, besides my nominally Catholic elderly neighbors, I really had no non-Christian friends above the age of 14. As a “lunch lady,” I had many opportunities to build relationships with adults and students alike who had been estranged or hurt by those who claimed to be “good” church people. I was reminded of how deeply important it is for us as pastors to be practicing and teaching others how “to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love” woven in the context of learning the story of others. 

As a “lunch lady,” I had many opportunities to build relationships with adults and students alike who had been estranged or hurt by those who claimed to be “good” church people.
The art of engaging storytelling has no expiration date. Today, students especially are hungry for a story larger than their own. Why aren’t we telling the stories? I wonder if a bit of it is like our bike-riding skills, which have gotten so rusty from neglect that we have almost forgotten how. Or, perhaps, we feel much like our congregants, that our story isn’t really worth telling, so we stick to “safe” chicken soup stories. So much power of the lived-out gospel is lost when we stop telling and really listening to the heart of real, honest, and potentially “vulnerable” stories.

Recapturing the Story
The first place to start isn’t even with our stories, which, let’s face it as pastors, we sometimes have bad habits of telling. The true key to opening the door of possibilities is not just in the hearing but in the critical, active listening of others’ stories. It is in the very discovery and uncovering of others’ stories where common threads with our own can be found. When we make ourselves available to the stories of the lost, the broken, and the disconnected, holy moments are waiting. It is no wonder Jesus went to the people who needed someone to hear their stories. The pattern isn’t new; in fact, it is the same method Jesus used with the woman at the well and so many others, in listening beyond the words of their story to their point of need, of reaching their heart. As I began practicing what I preached, I was refreshingly encouraged to discover anew that the principles I was teaching my students really worked!

014 orangeTheir Story
Her name was Mary. Her hair was dyed black and hung shaggily over her eyes. Her clothes were baggy and black. Her posture was slumped and withdrawn. Her facial expression was classically sarcastic, with the occasional “just try me” challenge in her head tilt. When you asked her how she was doing she said, “OK,” accompanied by the half shoulder shrug. She often pretended to not even hear me. The day came when she and her equally non-conforming friend asked me the question: “If you had a month to live, what would you do with it?” I was so shocked that I asked them to repeat the question! As I regained my composure, I asked them what they would do. My friend responded quickly and flippantly; the apparent hurt and anger in her voice cut me to the quick as she said: “I would burn down all the churches!” Without blinking, I responded, “Would you let me know when you are going to burn down mine so I can get my computer out?” This question intrigued her and allowed me a little deeper into her world. Then, I asked why. Mary’s eyes dropped; her voice grew quiet; she slumped even more in her chair. The answer I received was riddled with pain, rejection, and an obvious challenge. Then, she quickly changed the direction of the questioning. The spotlight of inquisition was now on me. With my newfound knowledge of her hurt and disdain for the church, how would I respond in a way that would continue the conversation?

Over the next few months, I heard a little more of Mary’s story. Bit by bit, her responses became more open and welcoming. Through this exchange, I was reminded anew that my first priority was to hear her story. Where is it this troubled middle school, girl and her friend were coming from? What was their understanding of who Jesus is, who the Church is, and who individuals are? Often, I find that all these are separated with barely, if any, connections. In this case, these assumptions were confirmed. 

To recapture our true authentic stories, we must open ourselves to those places of insecurity, of questions larger than we are, to the very points of need where God met us.
After these exchanges, I have been more passionate than ever about training my students on listening actively and encouraging the stories of others. I never cease to be astonished that even our good, churched, “core”, students don’t know how to have eye-to-eye conversations anymore. We must start by teaching them how to have a conversation that goes beyond the surface level. We must teach them the basic principles of how to ask good questions and how to listen actively in order to encourage others to keep sharing. We must continue to challenge them to break outside of their holy huddle cliques to befriend those who are not connected to Jesus. Then and only then will any of us be gifted with the stories of pain, joy, struggle, and brokenness of those who do not come to our churches. When we hear where they are coming from, their point of need, it is tangibly evident how much God is already at work ahead of us.

015 cookieOur Story
Her name was Ann. Her past was so broken that it took many attempts between crazy middle school antics to hear this lunchroom supervisor’s story. It didn’t come out all at once, but as it did, I was blown away by the layers of confusion, questions, bitterness, and hopeless grief that entrapped her. As I heard her story, she began asking genuine questions about me and my life. I was reminded again: only after we have opened the doors of communication can we hope to have the opportunity to share our stories. I began to practice what I had been teaching my students, sharing just parts of my story. It is sometimes hard to remember that a recounting of our entire life story is not required to interest others in God’s story. As I had actively listened to Ann’s story, I had been prayerfully considering where our stories intersected. What portion or element of my story would intersect with her need? To recapture our true authentic stories, we must open ourselves to those places of insecurity, of questions larger than we are, to the very points of need where God met us. As God gave me hints about which parts to share, I gradually and naturally connected my story with Ann’s. We can teach our adults and students alike to listen prayerfully to find how some crumb or (more often) a whole chunk of our lives is not unlike theirs, and then share how God broke into our lives in those places, which is where the true transformative power is still at work! 

016 pb&j&bibleGod's Story
My mind goes back to an old familiar hymn’s phrase, “I love to tell the story because I know it’s true, it satisfies my longing like nothing else can do.” The story of God’s love for us only gets old if we tell it in a way that is impersonal or distant. When it is personal, when it is essential, when it is the only hope in the crisis moment of our story, God’s story becomes living and active once again. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is much more compelling when we talk about the journey there, when we give some history of how he understands rejection, and people not “getting” you. God’s story intersected Mary’s story; church people hurt him too, to the point of wanting to toss him off a cliff. God’s story intersected Ann’s story; he understood the loss of grieving for someone we love and being alone and abandoned. How we share this with those who are hurting changes the frame for how they hear and see a loving God in their lives, longing for relationship with them.

The story of God’s love for us only gets old if we tell it in a way that is impersonal or distant.
A few weeks ago, I received a frantic call from Ann: “Can I meet with you?” was all she said. During that conversation, many tears and stories later, Ann took another step in allowing God into her life in some beautiful and healing ways. I wish I had amazing endings for Ann’s and Mary’s stories of complete transformation, but they are still in process. The stories are still being told. The wilderness of the junior high lunchroom is still the holder of great stories yet to be heard and told. We all have a “lunchroom” of sorts God that has placed us in. Where is yours? What’s your story? How will you tell THE story?

ELIZABETH BJORLING is pastor of Preteen and Jr. High Ministries at College Church of the Nazarene in Bourbonnais, Illinois


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