Monday, January 20, 2014

Telling the Story Part 6: How you tell your story is your story

And now the LORD says,…"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."--From Isaiah, Chapter 49, verse 5
In March of 1974, World War 2 finally ended for Hiroo Onoda.
According to news reports, 
The soldier became a war hero in Japan after he hid on the Philippine island of Lubang until March 1974. He only gave himself up after his former commander flew out and reversed his orders from 1945, which had instructed him to spy on U.S. troops.
After his death on Friday Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga praised his spirit.
"I vividly remember when Mr. Onoda returned to Japan. That's when I personally felt that the war was over," Suga said when asked about Onoda's passing during Friday’s daily briefing.
Japan had several dozen other men who stayed in various parts of Asia long after the war. Another hold-out, Sgt. Shoichi Yokoi, emerged from the jungle in 1972 to widespread praise in Japan.
Most Japanese troops surrendered when U.S. forces landed on Lubang in February 1945. After they left, Onoda’s biggest challenge had been survival. He stole rice and bananas from locals and shot their cows to make dried beef, according to The Associated Press.
When Onoda surrendered to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, he wore his 30-year-old imperial uniform, complete with cap and sword, all of which were in good condition.
After the war finally ended for him, Onoda bought a ranch in Brazil before returning to Japan to run a children's nature school.
In a 1995 interview with the AP, he said: "I don’t consider those 30 years a waste of time. Without that experience, I wouldn’t have my life today."
For good or for ill, our experiences shape us and change us.
Today’s reading from Isaiah is written during a time when Isaiah, like Hiroo Onoda, is on a long, enforced exile from his homeland.
It is a difficult time, the sort of time that makes people discouraged.
In a time of hopelessness for his people, Isaiah puts a unique spin on the story of Israel and the exiled people of Israel, Isaiah speaks a word of hope. Through Isaiah, God predicts a new leader.
"You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
Isaiah predicts that Israel will arise again out of the ashes of their defeat and exile. This renaissance will not be just a restoration of the former glory of Israel. Everything will be transformed.
Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, "Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."
In a moment of dislocation and discouragement, Isaiah brings a prophecy of renewal through the leadership of someone “deeply despised.”
In our time when we think of this prophecy we think of Jesus, how he came from a despised group-- poor Jewish people in the Roman empire--and how Kings and princes eventually acknowledged him as their leader, but this prophecy speaks in general terms about how change happens.
Mahatma Gandhi used to say,
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
Similarly, Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate this weekend, was no stranger to experiencing hatred as he sought to bring leadership to the cause of civil rights.  He had a lot of quotes about returning love for hatred, and about not becoming bitter.
“Love, he said, is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”
The story you tell becomes your story by the way you tell it.
Isaiah, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Hiroo Onoda and others who faced struggles and challenges and setbacks could have told the story of their struggle as a sad story, but instead they told a story of hope.
The people of Israel were driven from their homeland and stripped of their power. When Isaiah looked around him in the place he was in exile (Babylon, which is mostly modern-day Iraq), there were no signs of hope. The sounds of anguish and bitterness of his people must have filled his ears. But Isaiah saw hope, and heard hope, and gave a prophecy of hope. He found his hope in God.
Isaiah’s message is a one we all need to hear sometimes. We all go through times of struggle and setbacks.
I spend a lot of time talking to church members and Pastors and I hear a lot of complaints.
Pastors are frustrated.
Churches are frustrated.
Churches used to grow. Now mostly churches are shrinking. It’s mostly because the people who built those churches are not having as many children Nothing has happened to American churches as terrible as the things that have happened to Isaiah. Isaiah experienced radical changes in his life and his faith. The worship of Israel was centered on the temple that Solomon had built. In exile, the people had to go back to their earlier, nomadic ways for a time. They had been people of the land, and that land was Israel.
Now they would be people of a story. And so when Isaiah told that story, he did not tell a story of decline and hopelessness and defeat. He told a story of trials that would lead to an unexpected and unimagined kind of triumph. The way we understand it now his story came true through the ministry of Jesus.
What does this mean for us today?
How you tell your story is your story.
Are you telling a pessimistic tale of disappointment? Are you telling an unrealistic story about recapturing past glory? Or are you like Isaiah, open to letting God create a future beyond your previously conceived notions of success?
The choice is up to you.
This is part of a series. Read the introductory post here:
Read Part 2, about Offering Hospitality, here.
Part 3, about Telling the Story without Words, here.
Part 4, Talking about Faith, is here.
Part 5, Getting the Conversation Started, is here.

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