God is a master story-teller. The life-stories that He writes are frequently unpredictable, contain unexpected twists and turns, and leave His people breathlessly murmuring, “I never saw that coming!” Yet, like any good story-teller, God knows where each one of His stories is headed before He even begins writing it.
Have you ever felt the awed satisfaction of hearing a finely crafted story? Despite the hardships that the characters face and the conflicts that drive stories along, truly good tales leave their readers with a sense that every unexpected turns was necessary and even worthwhile in the end. In fact, the unexpected and undesired parts of the story become valuable parts of an incredible work of art. The lives of God’s people are full of such stories and reflecting on them can offer us a glimpse of the often overlooked Church that C.S. Lewis described as “spread throughout time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners” (The Screwtape Letters).
This week, I want you to delight in the masterful story-telling of our Father and to see a tiny sliver of the triumphant Church that He is creating. I would love to be able to offer you these stories over a crackling campfire, but, since this is not possible, please indulge me as I spin a few of the tales that have recently astounded me. The first takes us back almost 1,600 years ago to a prominent household in Europe…
- St. Patrick
The patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick was born in Britain. Although he was born into a Christian family, St. Patrick was not particularly interested in Christ during his early years. He certainly did not aspire to be a great religious leader! One day, when St. Patrick was only sixteen years old, he was kidnapped by pirates who took him to Ireland as a slave. Things must have seemed bleak to St. Patrick as he labored away tending animals that were not his own. He had been ruthlessly torn from his family and all of the dreams that he had for his future had been shattered. Yet, somehow, amid the agonies of slavery, God moved into the center of St. Patrick’s life. Eventually, St. Patrick escaped from slavery and began his studies in a monastery. St. Patrick could easily have spent the rest of his life living in relative comfort and ministering to friendly, god-fearing people. However, God had other plans for him. One night, St. Patrick had a vision in which he heard the voices of the people of Ireland calling for him to come back to them. Ready to do God’s will, St. Patrick returned to the land where he had been enslaved in order to teach the Irish people about the God he loved. The rest of the story is, as they say, history. As the Bishop of Ireland, St. Patrick helped to draw the Irish people away from pagan worship and introduced them to the one true God. Because of his work, his saint day is still celebrated, 1,500 years after his death. Yet, none of the stories that we know of St. Patrick would have happened if God hadn’t thrown a few unexpected twists into the life that he had originally envisioned for himself.
The second tale is much more recent. It begins not far from where I am writing this, in a little, colonial town called Leominster, Massachusetts…
- Johnny Appleseed
Most adults who were educated in the American school system would recognize that a picture of a wild-looking man wearing a cooking pan on his head was an image of Johnny Appleseed. Most would also remember hearing stories about Johnny Appleseed’s wilderness adventures and legends about his prolific apple orchards. However, many would be surprised to discover that Johnny Appleseed (born John Chapman) was a real man who grew-up in a small farmhouse with his eleven siblings. When Johnny Appleseed was in his early twenties, he decided to leave his home and to explore the frontier, though he had no idea what he would do when he reached the wilderness. At some point during his exploration, Johnny had a vision of angels who showed him a wonderful place that was surrounded by apple trees. The angels told Johnny that his mission was to travel around the United States and to plant apple trees wherever he went. Now, I might be wrong, but I imagine that Johnny Appleseed never expected that his life’s mission would involve scavenging apple seeds from cider mills and rowing two canoes full of apple seedlings across a newborn nation. Nonetheless, he committed himself to carry out his calling while continuing to live his life in a way that reflected his love for God. His generosity towards struggling families was more legendary than any of his animal adventures and many pioneers remembered Johnny Appleseed reading to them from his Bible on evenings when he stayed in their homes. In short, because Johnny Appleseed was willing to carry-out his unlikely calling, he became a blessing to countless settlers and a bearer of God’s truth to those who welcomed him into their houses.
My next story is relatively modern, but requires us to journey back across the Atlantic Ocean to the city of Alencon, France, known for its beautiful lace…
- The father of St. Therese of Lisieux
Apparently, St. Louis Martin did not set out to be the father of a Saint. In fact, as a young man, he traveled to the Alps and attempted to join the monastery of the Augustinian Canons of the Great St. Bernard Hospice, where he hoped to embark on a life devoted to religious devotion and thrilling mountain rescues. However, St. Louis was turned away from the Hospice because he did not know Latin. His plans dashed, Louis began a business as a watchmaker and eventually met a woman named Zelie Martin who had also been denied a religious life. The two fell in-love and decided to marry but determined that they would not consummate their marriage and would instead use their relationship only to further their religious devotion. Shortly after their marriage, however, the priest who counseled them suggested that God had other plans for their marriage and that they should be open to all aspects of marriage. Taking his advice, the Martins went on to have five living daughters, all of whom pursued religious lives. God used their love for one another and their careful, faithful parenting to shape their youngest daughter, Therese, into one of the most well-known modern saints. In fact, because of the way that St. Louis and St. Zelie loved one another, raised their children, and lived their lives, they were canonized as saints in 2015.
The final tale begins in a dusty settlement in the north of the Fertile Crescent ten generations after the Great Flood…
- Abraham (the patriarch)
While nomadic living was common in the ancient world, the Bible tells us that Abraham’s family had settled in a particular place. For a while, Abraham and his wife lived with them, however, God eventually told Abraham: “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others” (Genesis 12:1-2). I would imagine that this was a big change of plans for Abraham who, until that time, probably was not expecting to become the famous father of a great nation. It also required huge sacrifices – Abraham had to leave his family, his way of life and many of the comforts that he was used to in order to follow God’s plan. Nonetheless, we are told that Abraham, “Obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith – for he was like a foreigner, living in tents…” (Hebrews 11:8-9). It took God a long time to fulfill His promises to Abraham. In fact, it took so long that when He finally blessed Abraham with a son, his wife Sarah laughed in disbelief (Genesis 18:12-14)! Then, just when Abraham must have thought that he could finally see God working out His plan, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. God waited until Abraham had raised the knife to kill his son before He intervened by providing him with a substitute offering (Genesis 22). Yet, even with all of the surprises in Abraham’s life, God was faithful to Abraham and eventually gave the Messiah through Abraham’s family line.
Do you see what I mean about God being a master story-teller? The life-stories He writes are absolutely beautiful, reflect His glory, and are utterly unexpected! It makes me wonder, what kind of twists and turns does God have planned for our lives and are we ready to embrace them as part of the great story that He is writing for His Church?
Moses, Will. Johnny Appleseed The Story of a Legend. Philomel Books, NY, 2001.
Welborn, Amy. Loyola Kids Book of Saints. Loyola Press, Chicago, 2001.
Wust, Louis & Marjorie. Louis Martin: An Ideal Father. Daughters of St. Paul, 1957.