The stones had been piled high on the rich mahogany of the communion table; rustic, dirty, surprisingly holy in a sacred space that is otherwise meticulously clean. Men and women, young and old carried them to the front of the sanctuary each of the last four weeks during worship. Eleven stones, heavy with memory, forming a simple altar that eclipsed the stately candlesticks and floral spray with its earnest presence; an offering to the God who brought us this far and whose voice we yearned for still.
Our pastor of twenty-five years, Mike Queen, had just announced his retirement. We’re a long-tenured staff, not accustomed to changes in leadership. Now we stood on the banks of the Jordan, trying to imagine what life on the other side of the river would be like without the only leader most of us had ever known. How would we call our people to move through the swirling waters of transition when we as leaders were hesitant to get our feet wet? How would we keep the fear of giants in the land at bay in the grip of uncertainty? Where would we find the resources to walk as those who believed that God would make a way—a safe place to cross we couldn’t yet see?
We would remember. We would remember because, as Walter Brueggemann reminds us, memory and hope go hand in hand.
So for four weeks in worship following Mike’s announcement, we did what we as a congregation had been taught to do for more than two decades. We told the stories. Our story. God’s story in this place.
When their children asked, “What do these stones mean?” the Israelites were to tell them the story of what the Lord had done among them.
An old man brought a stone for the jail ministry and the young inmate he had taken under his wing, who was now leading a Bible study of his own. A young man brought a stone for the Tuesday evening meal for the homeless, started as a random act of kindness by his tenth grade boys’ small group over twelve years ago. There was a stone for the law enforcement center, in whose purchase God’s hand was at work—a place of incarceration that had now become a place of redemption for at-risk kids, teen moms, and families in need. There was a stone for the soup kitchen that no one thought our downtown, fine china, big steeple church would house, and one for the contemporary worship service whose guitars, drums, and screens found a home in a 140-year-old sanctuary with stained-glass windows, acolytes, and ministers preaching in robes.
For four weeks they came forward—proud, grateful, emotional—and told their stories. We already knew the power of those stories. Just three months earlier, noticing a pervasive malaise and discouragement among many of our colleagues in positions of church leadership in our region, we invited anyone who was interested to come to our congregation and hear what God had been up to among us. We wanted to offer encouragement, sharing our stories as a possible catalyst for imagining what God might be up to in other congregations and how God wanted to lead them in new directions.
Over 350 pastors and lay leaders from eight states and several denominations showed up at our activities center, hungry for hope. We called the event Hopeful Imagination, borrowing the title from Brueggemann’s book, and for two days we told the stories.
Now, three months later, we needed these stories to encourage us.
What are the God stories in your congregation? In your own life? Those moments when you experienced God’s presence, when help came at just the right moment or doors opened unexpectedly, when you were more than you expected you could be, guided and lifted up by a hand you could not see.
Your God stories are different from our God stories. But if we notice them, if we remember them, if we tell them faithfully, they change us. They can transform how we see ourselves and redefine what we believe is possible when God moves among us. They give us courage to move forward because they remind us that making a way is what God has done in the past and continues to do in our present.
Stories inspire hope and imagination.
Over four weeks we brought forward eleven stones during worship, telling stories. This day was different, though. This was the fifth Sunday, and there was only one stone left. As the congregation sang, dozens of our children made a human chain down the long aisle of the sanctuary. The twelfth stone passed from one small hand to the next, its weight bending the children’s frames, until it reached the communion table where the last child lifted it high and gently placed it on top of the others that had come before it. This was our Ebenezer, our stone of hope—a reminder that the God who was with us in the past would lead us into God’s future. The one who gave us our story was writing it still.
“Consecrate yourselves,” Joshua told the people, “for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.”