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Sustained by a Story

Photo of Jared EllisJared Ellis | Bio

Jared Ellis

Jared is the preaching minister at Fellowship Regional Church in Iola, KS, with a satellite campus in Caney, KS. He is also the host of a long-form interview podcast show called The Homilist, which explores the various aspects of preaching. 

I grew up in a very hospitable home. There were always people at my house. When company would come over, all the furniture was moved out into a massive circle in the living room and there, my father would entertain dozens with his stories.

I remember sneaking into the living room, leaving my friends and crawling in under his dining room chair and lying down just to listen. The effect that his stories had on me and those who were listening was powerful: shock, surprise, anticipation, empathy, sadness, laughter. But these were not mere emotions to me, they were tactile, not vague feelings that eventually dissipate into the ethereal.

No, they were substance. They were something like glory, weight.

He wielded that gift with such power, force, and precision that he could hold the entire room in his hand, using only words. It was, and is, a weightless experience to be caught up in story. Story arrests time. It puts its finger on the second hands of our lives and stops our internal clocks, and carries us away. When you are there, you are not hungry, you are not tired, your chair is not uncomfortable, your mind is not distracted, and tomorrow’s plans go on hold. Is it possible that the feeling that accompanies great storytelling is something like being in the timeless existence of God? I believe so. It’s genius.

Can you think of a better form of treatment for those struggling souls that occupy these steeple-laden sanctuaries? They are time-poor, over-worked, under pressure, internally wilting away, using one hand to keep all the plates spinning and the other to keep their masks tightly fastened to their faces. Busily, they polish their veneer and patch their crumbling stucco as if their lives depend on it. Unknowingly, they paint their tombs white in an attempt to beautify their dry bones. What do they need?

They need a weight-less experience in the presence of a time-less God, who has an all-encompassing message about a love that knows no bounds, a love that cares nothing for one’s best-laid plans.

This is where you and I, the storytellers, come in.

It is always somewhere on the road between your best-laid plans and Damascus that He appears. The Incarnate Word, the embodiment of the story, the Logos—He overwhelms us with a kindness that brings us to repentance. Then from both the center of our being and still somewhere beyond the heavens, we are introduced to our new life. Our new life is something of a cyclic experience, like that of a revolving door. We come in from the cold, warm ourselves at the altar, catch fire, and then we return—but this time to preach.

First He calls to us, “Come and follow me.”

Then He says, “Take up your cross and die.”

Finally He says, “Go unto all the world . . . preach.”

Come. Die. Preach.

Fear strikes the first blow. We question our worthiness, yet we trust.

Come. Die. Preach.

Discouragement creeps in. We doubt our effectiveness, yet we hope.

Come. Die. Preach.

Then pride takes root in our heart. We falter, then we repent.

Come. Die. Preach.

Then we age. We feel relevance evading us. We learn to rest.

Come. Die. Preach.

A few years back, I hit a wall in preaching. It is what Stephen Mansfield refers to in 10 Signs of a Leadership Crash as “losing the poetry.” I had “lost the poetry” of it. I don’t know if I had reverted back to my father’s living room, desperately seeking the applause and power that my father possessed in storytelling, or if I had confused my occupation with my identity, or if I simply needed a break, but for whatever reason, my soul was no longer in it.

I called a veteran preacher who had been in the same church for 40 years. I said to him, “I’m exhausted. It isn’t fun anymore. I’ve lost my passion. I’m tired of not feeling it anymore. Am I making a difference? Have you ever been here?” That was a stupid question. He laughed. Then, like an old west gunslinger, he drew his ivory-handled answer from his holster of 40 years of preaching experience and fired. “You just got to preach yourself out of it. Just keep going. The fog will clear.”

It was as if he had shot this demon off my shoulder from over the phone. I was instantly relieved. But why? Because he told me a story.

You can hear the story in his words, can’t you? “You just got to preach yourself out of it. Just keep going. The fog will clear.” Do you hear it? In those sixteen words, he told a story. Can you see him?

It’s the eleventh hour on Saturday night. He’s pecking out the Word of the Lord on a worn out typewriter with a quickly fading ribbon. He’s tired. He has kids at home. He feels guilty that he’s not there. His mind is racing. He’s fantasizing about quitting, not even showing up tomorrow. He sits back in his desk chair, takes a breath and then begins to read what he’s written.

That is, he begins to preach the sermon back to himself.

Line by line, he listens to his own instruction and he obeys it. He places himself at the foot of the cross again. He prays honest prayers again. He sees his own weaknesses. He submits them to Christ. He confesses his doubt and anger. He repents. The words heal him.

He types the final page number at the bottom, and then before pulling the paper from the spool, he types, “Just keep going. The fog will clear.” He shuffles it to the back of the stack. He turns off the light and locks the church door. Once again, the words of life did their work on the preacher.

When he returns in the morning, he will be refreshed and renewed, tired but invigorated. Once again, he came in out of the cold, he was warmed by the altar, and he caught fire. Come. Die. Preach.