My Story Week 3 - "I Decided to Stay"
Today we are continuing the sermon series that we started a couple of weeks ago, a sermon series entitled, "My Story: Living the Story You Want To Tell." One of the keys to our learning during this sermon series has been this very simple, but profound idea that we've returned to a number of times: The decisions you make today determine the stories you tell tomorrow."
And it's not always the big decisions that determine those stories. Sometimes it's the hundred little things you do every week, and not the one big decision that you had to make that truly makes a difference in the stories you tell later.
Here's the deal, one day you are going to tell a story about this season of your life. Hopefully you'll tell a story that you're proud of. Hopefully you'll tell a story about how you started some good habits that helped build a foundation for the future. Hopefully you'll tell a story about how you stopped doing things that kept you from wanting what God wants for your life, how you stopped and changed direction.
Because, the decisions you make today determine the stories you tell tomorrow.
Over the course of this sermon series we're going to be digging deep into that truth as we think about what happens when we decide to start, when we decide to stop, to stay and to go.
Today we're going to be talking about what it means to stay when you really want to go. I know what it feels like to want to leave--when it felt so much easier than staying. But sometimes the best decision we can make is to stay when it would be easier to go.
My first two years as a pastor were extremely difficult. I was called as an Associate Pastor of a small church not far from here, and although many people were glad that I was called, there were a few that weren't all that thrilled. There were more than a few days during those first couple of years that I thought about quitting, starting over again, going back to school and finding a new career.
I had church members lie about me, try to discredit me, embarrass me in front of our elders, attempt to get me in trouble with our denominational leadership... a host of fun things.
But I stayed. I stuck it out, despite the fact that it would have been a lot easier to leave. Over time the critics faded, the people that didn't want to change either got happy or got gone, and once that happened our church started to grow and flourish in ways that I never thought possible. God used me in that little church, taught me, shaped and molded me. And if I had left when it was easy I would have never been ready to move to the next place, the next challenge.
True confession time. There were times in the first couple of years of my ministry here at First Church that I considered quitting, too. Man am I glad I didn't. God has been so good, and I would have missed out on so many incredible blessings if I had.
We all have had those moments. The moments when it feels like it would be easier to leave than to stay. Maybe it was in a relationship, or our marriage--when it got so painful to stay in it, or to even be in the same room with the other person. And we started fantasizing about what it would feel like to leave, to just walk out the door.
Or maybe it was with a job, or a career... and you found yourself thinking about quitting, storming out, shredding your name badge, dumping your trashcan over your boss's head. One of my favorite movies is the cult movie classic "Office Space." There's a scene where the main character is asked if he's going to work later in the day. "No, I'm just not going to go anymore." He's asked if he's going to quit his job. "No, I'm just not going to go."
Maybe you decided to quit school--it got too difficult, too complicated and the thought of doing everything that you needed to do in order to get your degree and finish all the requirements was just too overwhelming, and it seemed so much easier to leave than to stay.
Sometimes people leave churches for the same reason. They get their feelings hurt, get mad at the pastor, decide they don't agree with that one thing, or a bunch of things. And instead of thinking about all of the relationships they have, the good that could be done, the community they are a part of--they decide that it would just be easier for them to leave and find another church or no church.
Most of us don't enter into these kinds of decisions lightly. I say most of us, because there are some people who just can't stand being uncomfortable at all--and they'll leave at the drop of a hat. But for most of us, we agonize over decisions to leave or to stay. And in the end, we often simply do whatever will bring us the most comfort anyway. Because far too few of us embrace the notion that sometimes the best decision we can make is to stay when it would be easier to go.
There's a great story in the Bible that helps us understand this a bit more fully. The story is from the book of Ruth, which is the Old Testament. Ruth is an extraordinary character in the Bible--a strong, capable, determined woman who was willing to do whatever it took in order to be faithful, loyal and constant.
Let me give you a little background. The book opens with death and famine. Naomi was a woman of Hebrew descent who finds herself in a foreign land, mother to two dead sons, and mother-in-law to two young widows. Her sons die in a famine in the land of Moab, the historic land of a tribal people who were enemies of the Hebrew people. Her sons had married Moabite girls, and then died before they had children.
Naomi decides to leave Moab and return to her homeland in Israel. She still has family there, and despite the fact that she would be dirt poor, she believes it's better than starving. She tells her daughters in-law to return to their homeland and find husbands. One of them decide to leave and does so tearfully and sorrowfully. But the other, Ruth, tells Naomi that she's not leaving, and will return with her to her home country.
In Ruth 1:15-16 we find this exchange between the two of them:
15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
What was Ruth really signing on to here? She's forsaking her home, her people and her religion. She pledges her loyalty to Naomi, claiming that not only is she willing to go with her, but to also become like her--to worship the same God, to become Hebrew in every sense of the word. In other words, to lose her own identity as she had always known it, and to find it again in Naomi's world.
In the moment it would have made much more sense to leave. She was still of a marriageable age, and could have started all over again in familiar territory. Instead, she stepped into an uncertain future with no man in her life to protect her and care for her, which was, in the ancient Near East, a scandal.
We discover when we keep reading the story that Ruth finds herself lower than a slave. She has to glean for food in the fields, and without protection or attachment could have been classified by the field hands and other workers as a prostitute or loose woman. She could very easily have been subjected to abuse or rape.
But the owner of the fields, a man named Boaz, saw her, and was smitten by her. He commanded his men to look after her and to make sure she came to no harm. He even shared his meal with her, a sign of favor and blessing. Eventually, Boaz marries Ruth and together they have a son named Obed. Obed would grow up and have a son of his own named Jesse, and Jesse would grow up and have several sons, the youngest of whom was named David--the great King of Israel.
Because Ruth stayed when it would have been easier to leave, she became the mother of kings. And when you read Matthew's Gospel in the very first chapter you will read a genealogy for Jesus, and will discover that Jesus' ancestry can be traced back to Ruth herself--a Moabite girl, who decided to stay.
Where is God calling you to stay right now--when it might be easier to go?
Is it your marriage? Your job? Your school? Your church? Is it in a ministry where you are serving, a community group or circle of friends? Some other kind of relationship with a difficult person?
Here's the thing, the stories we tell with pride are the stories filled with perseverance, courage, belief and overcoming. The people we admire are the ones who faced rejection and failure and kept at it. We hear of Albert Einstein being told as a child that he was mentally disabled. Or of Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team. Or Oprah being fired from her first TV job because she wasn't good enough for TV. We hear these stories and they give us hope, we love them. We wish we had more stories like them, to be honest.
The stories we don't tell with pride--if we tell them at all--are the stories where we quit, abandoned something or someone, walked away, left discouraged... Every single one of us has a story like that in our past. Some of us have more than one.
So what story do you want to tell?
Do you want to tell the story of how you left college because it got too hard, or you got married, had kids, got on with life and such and never really went back to it?
Do you want to tell the story of how you left your church, and the church before that, and the church before that--because: the music was too loud, the pastor was boring, or too exciting, or too young, too old, too long-winded, not long winded enough, too worried about numbers, not worried enough about numbers... Someone hurt your feelings, sat in your chair, ate the last muffin...
Do you want to tell stories about how you abandoned friendships that got too challenging? Do you want to tell stories about how you gave up on your dreams because you gave up hope of ever seeing them happen?
Do you want to tell stories about how your marriage fell apart, how it got hard to be in relationship, to admire, love and trust the other person? And how when you realized that it was going to take so much work, so much effort, sacrifice and grace to be in that relationship, you decided it wasn't worth it?
Or do you want to tell the story of how you persevered through the tough college schedule, the long nights of writing papers, the sacrifices that you made to make it happen? And then you got your degree at last even though you never thought you would.
Maybe you tell the story of how you stayed at your church through thick and thin, loving on it, serving it, finding common ground with those you disagree with in order to show how love is stronger than fear, praying for your pastor and realizing in the end that you are part of something that is way bigger than you are.
Or perhaps you tell the story about how you stuck it out with your friend, saw them through the tough times, showed grace and peace to them and learned so much about what it means to not only be a friend, but to have friends, which you may have thought was a kind of a mutually exclusive kind of thing up until now.
Maybe you tell the story of how your marriage was stretched to the brink of breaking. How you almost gave up, you wanted to and maybe even had a right to give up completely, but you didn't. You stayed. You stuck it out, and made your way through the valley of the shadow until finally you started seeing some light.
Listen, I don't say these kinds of things as a call for people to remain in abusive relationships, unhealthy situations, or anything that steals their humanity, leaves them broken, threatens their life... you get the picture. That's not what I am saying at all. And trust me, I know there are toxic people in this world that you and I would do well to carve out of our life--in loving and forgiving ways.
But what I am saying is that sometimes the best decision is not to walk away.
This past week my wife Merideth and I celebrated our 24th anniversary. Our friend helped us hook up some awesome new speakers in our house that enable us to play just about any song we can find on our phones or on the Interwebs. "What's 'your song'?" she asked us. "Why don't you play 'your song' over the speakers to see how it sounds?"
So I found our song on Pandora and hit "play now." The piano intro of Shania Twain's "You're Still The One" filled out entire house. And Merideth and I danced in our kitchen. We danced with our new puppy getting tangled in our feet, with our five year-old inexplicably running through the room and with twenty four years of life together behind us.
I know there were moments early on in our relationship when we were still tentative, scared of what we were feeling, afraid of what could happen if we went all in to the whole thing. It would have been easier to walk away at that point--to leave instead of stay.
And there were some moments when we both thought that was going to happen. I'm so glad we stayed when it would have been easier to leave. Because we stayed we have both experienced the most incredible adventure we could have ever imagined.
I don't know where in your life you might be struggling to decide whether to go or to stay. Our decisions today determine the stories we tell tomorrow, and in order to have a better story we need to remember that sometimes the best decision we can make is to stay when it would be easier to go.