As part of my ministry, I have been serving as a hospice chaplain for almost nine years now. When I stop to reflect on the things I have learned in walking with terminally ill patients and their families, one of the first things that come to mind is the importance of story. Many times, I have been privileged to sit with someone and listen to the story of his or her life. Sometimes I find myself at the kitchen table with a child. Other times, I am sitting with a spouse on a bench in the yard. Often, some of the deepest sharing takes place at the bedside of a patient. Wherever we are and whoever is speaking, one thing remains constant— the need to share our story with another person. I have come to understand, especially when dealing with the terminally ill, that one of the most important activities for us to engage in as humans is a review of our lives. We need time to reflect, to think about the things we have accomplished, and to voice the things that have mattered most to us. We need to give thanks for those we have loved and those we have received love from during the course of our days. This is the way we make meaning in life. Yet, I have also come to believe that this is a way we can offer worship to the God who created us.
Today’s Scripture passage from Deuteronomy reflects the importance of story. Here, the writer is setting forth some of the guidelines that will help shape the worship traditions of the nation of Israel for generations to come. As the worshiper approaches the priest with the offering of first fruits, he or she is to recite to the priest the story of Israel’s deliverance. The story begins with their ancestors, people without a land or a home. It remembers God’s blessings that were poured out upon the people, causing them to grow in number and to flourish. It celebrates that God heard their voices and delivered them from their Egyptian oppressors. It then concludes by celebrating the blessing of the land itself, the land that bore the first fruits, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 26:9). It is worship that engages the entire story of their life as a people. It is worship that gives a central place to the sacrament of remembering.
In his commentary on this passage, Ronald E. Clements notes, “To be an Israelite was to be a beneficiary of a long history of God’s gracious providence and care” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 2 [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998], 479). The Israelites were to give voice to this truth each and every time they approached the altar in worship. The story of their lives was a story marked by the grace and mercy of the Lord. When they began to remember exactly how they had arrived in that place of blessing, their hearts turned toward God in worship and thanksgiving.
It was not only about remembering the past either. People remembering the mighty acts of God in the past are also encouraged to persevere and hope, even in the midst of present difficulty. When the Israelites remembered the powerful hand of God at work in their past, they were encouraged to trust in God. Rehearsing the mighty acts of God offered assurance that the future was secure in God’s hands as well.
As we begin our Lenten journey, I can think of no better place to begin than at the beginning. We are invited to overhear the story of our earliest ancestors in the faith. We are encouraged to remember that even then, when “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor” (26:5), God was at work to gather and claim a people. God was seeking even then to redeem us and call us each by name. There are other stories to remember as well. There are the stories of other Old Testament figures that testify to God’s love and deliverance. We hear the stories of Daniel, Nehemiah, Deborah, and Jonah—and they become our story. There are the stories of the New Testament, and encounters with God’s Word made flesh. We hear the stories of the disciples, of the Gerasene demoniac, of the lepers, of the paralytic, and of Mary and Martha—and they become our story. We hear the stories of the early church in the book of Acts, and the stories of each church that has proclaimed the truth of Christ since the day of Jesus’ resurrection— and they become our stories.
Corporately and individually, we all have stories to tell. We remember all the blessings we enjoy. We think about the things we have accomplished through the power of God at work in us. We give voice to the things that have mattered most to us. We give thanks for those we have loved and those we have received love from during the course of our days. This is the way we make meaning in life. This is the way we worship. This is the way we prepare to celebrate the greatest gift we have ever received—the body of Christ given for us that we might live.
During these forty days in Lent, may we find a kitchen table, a bench in the yard, or the bedside of a friend, and may we share our stories. May we worship through the stories. I believe that if we listen closely, we will hear the good news of God’s amazing love, being poured out for us in ways large and small. Some of the places we see God at work may surprise us. Yet, at the end of the story, we, and all those with us, “shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD [our] God has given” (26:11).