A Sticky Sermon by Story Seeding

There is a sense in which godliness grows.  The Apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians that he planted the seeds of faith among them, Apollos watered those seeds, but, ultimately, God caused their faith to grow (1 Corinthians 3).

Sticky SermonThe basic concept of a sticky sermon is to plant biblical ideas in the minds of your hearers which, over time, cause them to grow in godliness.  Lately, I have been trying to develop this idea for my students in preaching class. What I’d like to do here is share and develop some of the basic tips and techniques for preaching sermons that stick in the minds of Christians.

There is a beauty to speaking with a Christian on a Thursday afternoon break and having him or her share what “Brother Bob” has been talking about on Sundays. Christians are to be salt and light in the world, so they need sermons which act as salting agents for their own minds–stimulating, seasoning, and preserving theological thoughts throughout the week so that when the opportunity arises, they are able to make biblical application to real-life situations in the workplace.

One of the techniques which can help to fuel this dynamic is what I call “Story Seeding.”  Story seeding is simple, really, but it requires a little forward thinking. Imagine you were preaching or teaching from Ruth 1, the scene in which Orpah kisses Naomi good-bye, while Ruth clings unwaveringly to her:

“Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or turn back 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” (Ruth 1:16).

Here is a beautiful picture of loyalty and faith. But focus on the reality of what Ruth is saying and doing. She is turning away from herSticky Sermon story seeding history, her roots, her homeland. She is leaving behind all that she has known of life in Moab, and she is walking by faith into a new reality and a new homeland, uncertain of her future, only certain of her commitment.

From this profound point, think forward to the week ahead. What major event will be taking place in the next week or two? What will people be hearing about or listening to or watching in the coming days?  The Olympics. Soon, the pageantry of the Winter Olympics will unfold on televisions across the U.S. The color of the flags, the drama of the opening ceremony, the excitement of the competition—these events will impact people in the coming weeks.

So, take your point from Ruth 1 and attach it forward to what people will be seeing in the coming weeks, and you have just practiced “Story Seeding.” Here is how it might work:

Don’t you just love the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics? Oh, I don’t mean the weird tribal dances or enigmatic references to post-Industrialism which have plagued the prior Olympic Games. No, I mean the real festival of ethnicity which takes place as nation after nation walks through the arena with athletes acting as standard-bearers for an entire people—waving the colorful flags in procession, swelling with great pride at having the opportunity to represent their homeland.

Now, focus on any one of those athletes and imagine that person as Ruth. Imagine this athlete in the midst of the procession setting down their nation’s flag and walking over to the Jamaican group and saying, “I will go where you go. I will live as you live. Your nation will be my nation. Your people will be my people.” Could you imagine the scandal? How could someone do that–just walk away from their homeland? Trade nationality? Trade identity?

This is what Ruth has done. And she didn’t do it for any negative reason—as an athlete from North Korea or an oppressive Communist regime might try to do. No, Ruth forsook her country, her history, and her homeland for a positive reason: “your God will be my God.”

Okay, okay… I don’t want to preach the whole sermon here, but you get the point. You are illustrating forward in such a way that your people will be thinking about your preaching/teaching point all week, and, when the Olympic event itself happens, your folks are very likely to have this biblical story stirred inside their heads. Your sermon has become sticky; it has stuck itself not just into their intellectual data folder. It has now entered their everyday lives at a practical level which they can easily share.

That is a sticky sermon point! Give “Story Seeding” a try and see if it doesn’t help your teaching and preaching stick.

Whose Story Is Adoption?

Most of the time when I read a theological article with which I disagree, I assume that I am in error and need to be corrected.  After further reflection, I often realize the author was more nuanced than I had originally suspected. So, I end up rethinking my own position in light of Scripture and reconciling the inward tension between my own beliefs and those espoused by the writer I happen to be reading at the time.

After reading “Not Your Story to Tell: A Gentle Plea to Parents Who Have Adopted,” I felt uneasy. I felt like the actors and Adoption Story to Tellactresses must have felt in The Truman Show, a movie whose premise was to prop up a false version of reality for the entertainment value it provided the audience. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Megan Hill’s article from the Her.meneutics Blog  was intentionally misleading anyone. I don’t think that is the case, and I certainly don’t believe the article was written for mere entertainment value. It was obviously meant to be a sincere plea for discretion by parents who have adopted children. To the extent that prudence and love are the aim of the article, I heartily agree.

Nonetheless, I personally felt uneasy after reading the article. I felt that I could not approve of the vision of adoption it presented. It was emphatically endorsed on Justin Taylor’s almost always reliable blog. So—because I am a parent who has twice adopted—I expected to be challenged and informed. Instead, I felt berated and diminished by this article which assumed (but never proved) that my children exist in a self-contained story- bubble to which I apparently have no right of access.

The basic thrust of Hill’s article is that “adoptive parents are increasingly, permanently, and publicly telling stories that are not theirs to tell.”  Hill has in view the blogs and Facebook updates which include details about a child’s past.  Hill rightly notes,

…my child is not simply my possession or an extension of myself. He is a human being, made in the image of God, with a soul that will never die. And his story does not belong to me.

But Hill seems to take the last line a bit too far. Since when does my child’s story not belong at least partially to me? How can one so neatly compartmentalize my story from my child’s story? Where exactly is the dividing line between my son’s life, my daughter’s life, and my life? It seems to me that these lives are inextricably linked. And when people ask me about any of my 7 children (5 biological and 2 adopted), I see no reason why I ought to accuse them of “nosiness” and act as though they are violating a sacred tale. I tell background stories on all 7 of my children, and I hope my telling of those stories is not for vain purposes (as Hill asserts).  No doubt, there is some degree of pride in the stories, but, hopefully, God will continue to purge this pride from my heart so my story-telling really is redemptive.

Hill argues for keeping an adopted child’s story secret until the child can decide for himself or herself what he or she desires to be known. I think I disagree with such a closed-minded, self-encapsulated view of a human life. The Apostle Paul tells Christians, “You are not your own. You have been bought with a price,” indicating that individuals exist in unity in the body of Christ. Thus, your actions inherently impact others.  No one is an island.

Likewise, our stories are not exactly our own possessions either—at least not exclusively so. While I agree with Hill that we owe our own children basic, Christian love and, thus, must respect their stories, I also believe—and perhaps more importantly know—that their stories are not their own.  They belong ultimately to God.  Any way that I can see redemption in their stories, I am not only free to share those hope-filled flashes of insights with others, but I am actually obligated to share openly where I see God’s hand at work.  This is a thoroughly biblical notion—that parents and others ought to help children see the redemptive hand of God at work in their lives. How else can we be sure our children will understand themselves in relation to redemption?

All through the Bible, the stories of children and babies are told—seemingly without their consent. Details are shared from Moses’s abandonment by his parents (and God’s subsequent redemption of him). How about the origins of Isaac? Why was he even named Isaac? Was telling his story a violation of his right to privacy? What about Jacob and Esau? Were their stories only shared after they gave their consent?

In the New Testament, the child of Elizabeth leaped in the womb when he heard that Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, also had a child in her womb.  Should Mary and Elizabeth have kept this detail private until John the Baptist and Jesus could decide for themselves what ought to be told?

It seems to me that Megan Hill offers a good caution to parents that they must be discrete. Yet, her overall assumption paints the picture too narrowly and proves to be unfeasible in the end. If her instincts are correct, then the entire book of Ruth is misplaced.  The climax of the book is Naomi caring for the child Obed, who became the progenitor of Jessie and, of course, King David.  The content of the book is a re-telling of the unlikely providence which led to Ruth giving birth to a son fathered by Boaz, her kinsman redeemer. As with other significant figures (including Christ Himself), the child Obed had some questionable occurrences intermingled with an otherwise divinely-directed lineage. Ruth herself was a Moabitess, which, of course, meant that her family line harkened back to an incestuous encounter Lot had with his daughters.

The truth is, no one’s story is perfect. The difference between an adopted child’s background and a biological child’s background is not that one contains fantastic and dramatic themes which arouse emotions, while the other is squeaky clean.  The difference is designed by God only to illustrate how great is His redemptive power to move heaven and earth in order to accomplish His divine will and highlight His great love toward His children.

It seems to me that neighbor love actually demands that we—the parents—shape the redemptive narrative for our children—whether they are adopted or biological. What matters is that they see how God has brought them into a home where the peace of Christ rules, a home in which redemption is both understood and unashamedly on display.

I think a more helpful way to get the point across would have been for Hill to help parents know how to tell stories in a redemptive way, rather than in a way which highlights only the “juicy” details. Adopting parents have a story to tell, too. And their stories invariably involve the children they adopt. Acting as though the child has an adoption story apart from his parents is to deny the full, redemptive glory of adoption. In other words, to frame the issue as though the story belongs either to the child or to the parents misses the real point that our stories are not our own. They belong to God. Therefore, glorify God with your stories.