We have a special Monday Meditation today, much longer than our normal writing devotional intended to encourage your faith-walk and writing. This is the Keynote Speech from our 2023 ICW Fall Gathering delivered by IDAhope Writers* founder, Angela Ruth Strong.
This morning I paid a dollar to anyone who would tell me a story. Whether that was the first time you’ve ever been paid to tell a story or not, that dollar symbolizes that your story has value.
I got to hear a story about the mysterious evacuation of a Goodwill store. And one about a woman whose namesake from the last century shares common similarities that sound like a curse. They meant a lot to me.
First of all, your story matters to others.
The idea of paying a dollar to hear your story comes from a college student at Boise State University (BSU). At one point, she was suicidal. She just happened to attend a debate on the existence of God. At the debate, someone asked the question, “What would you tell an individual who is suicidal?”
The atheist responded, “I’d tell them to seek help. To get counsel and take medication, if needed.”
The Christian responded, “I’d tell them that they were created with a purpose. They are not an accident. Their life matters.”
Judges ruled the atheist the winner, but it was the loser who saved her life. The girl sent the Christian leader an email stating, “I’m suicidal, and I want to know more.” Through Christ, and this man’s guidance, she found her purpose and she wanted to share it with the world.
She went on to open a booth in the middle of BSU where she offered to pay a dollar to everyone who told her their story. Since college students have more stories than they have cash, they took her up on her offer. In turn, she’d respond, “Do you want to hear my story?” Then she’d tell them about finding hope in Jesus.
Nobody paid her for her story. As for the Christian who lost the debate, he didn’t get any glory either. But because they both believed their stories mattered to others, they told them anyway.
I don’t know what effect her story had, except for the fact that it touched me and I’m sharing it with you. I’ve never met the college student, but her story mattered to me. Besides sharing her story right now, I also wrote about it for Christian Living Magazine. So, there’s no telling who else her story has touched.
The important thing is that she knew her story mattered to others because it mattered first to her. As should yours.
My second point is that your story matters to you.
The year after I started this writing group in 2009, my husband left me. I couldn’t function, and I let go of the reigns of IDAhope Writers. I even quit writing romance.
It’s a long messy story, but somehow, through the wake of destruction, I clung to God. He restored my life. And I learned what love really is.
Meanwhile, Pastor Saeed from Boise was let go from an Iranian prison. Do you remember that national news story? Did you pray for them like I did?
After being released and returning to the United States, Saeed’s wife, Naghmeh, filed for separation and claimed he was abusive. Most people were baffled, but I understood because I’d lived it on a much smaller scale.
A friend who also understood abuse suggested that I should write Naghmeh’s story. I thought, “I wish.” But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I wondered if I should offer.
I talked to my agent at the time. Both she and the agency president agreed to pray about this possible project. I was also headed up to a writing retreat here in Idaho, so I asked my writer friends to pray, too. The last morning I was in the shower when I felt like God had an answer in scripture. I got out of the shower, randomly opened my Bible, and the first verse I read was Psalm 102:18.
“Let it be written for a future generation that a people not yet created may praise the Lord.”
I started shaking, closed my Bible, pushed it away, and decided never to tell anyone about what happened. Because if I really believed God was giving me direction, then I would have to pursue writing Naghmeh’s story, and that was way out of my comfort zone.
But this story mattered too much for me to keep silent. I told my writing group about the Bible verse and ended up reaching out to Naghmeh. I even had Psalm 102:18 tattooed on the wrist of my writing hand.
I signed a contract to write Naghmeh’s story. We decided to title the book Released, which comes from the verse after Psalm 102:18. It reads, “The Lord looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
“Released” has a double meaning.
At that time, I also signed a contract to write a prayer book for divorced women. When I shared it with Naghmeh, she responded, “Okay, I’m ready to tell my story, and I want you to write it.” I pictured myself on stage with Naghmeh, encouraging all the brokenhearted women that their story isn’t over yet.
But then I had a plot twist in my own life. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Because of chemo, I couldn’t finish the prayer book by my deadline, and the publisher dropped me. Naghmeh also dropped me from the project.
I recovered from cancer, but I was lost. More than being hurt, I was confused. I’d felt led by God to write Naghmeh’s story. It had meant a lot to me, and I was halfway finished. But my work would never see publication. Was that really His will?
I lost the projects I’d poured my heart into. Now what?
I’d survived cancer. Now what?
My youngest child also graduated and moved off to college at this time. I’d spent over two decades being a mom. But now what?
Oh, and I also had a book made into a movie. My dream had come true. Now what?
It was a midlife crisis. I needed a new challenge. I needed direction. So I decided to become a flight attendant. One of the cool things about being a flight attendant is that I have lots of time to read. And I just so happened to be reading on a plane when I realized that God cared about me enough to teach me through Naghmeh’s story. Writing Released wasn’t for anyone else. It was for me to learn from.
See, I have another writer friend who went through divorce after I did. I’d supported her through her court battle and beyond. Then she wrote a book about it.
It’s not out yet, but she sent me the manuscript to endorse, so I was on the plane reading Once Upon a Divorce when I had my epiphany.
Her book is so good. It’s better than what I’d written in my prayer book. But also, she includes the advice I gave her. My message is still getting out there, but I don’t have to relive it.
At the same time I was reading Once Upon a Divorce, Naghmeh’s memoir came out. Someone else wrote it, and they titled it, “I Didn’t Survive.”
That’s a whole different theme than I’d worked with her to pen. Divorce is now Naghmeh’s platform, but it’s not mine. I’ve been…
Wait for it–
I wrote a whole lot of words that nobody will ever read. I thought they were going to touch lives and change the world, but God had other plans. But, touching my own life and changing my world was just as important. Because now I’m able to better write and tell stories from this place of healing.
Of course, I’m not writing only for me. My stories matter to God.
Third, your stories matters to God.
I was recently reading Exodus, and I made this crazy connection. When Pharaoh tells the Israelites to leave, God has them ask their neighbors for gold. The Egyptians give it to them. In that way, they plundered the nation without a battle. To me, this is an example of being “more than conquerors,” and it already blows my mind. But then fast forward to the next mention of gold in the story. The Israelites use the gold to build a golden calf. An idol. They take the gift God gave them and use it to build an idol. God knew they were going to do that, and He gave it to them anyway. I suspect He does this for all of us in a way.
I shared this crazy connection on social media, but one of my friends wasn’t as impressed. She’s angry that God killed all the firstborn Egyptians.
Okay, I’m not a fan of that either. There’s lots of tough stuff to swallow in scripture, but I believe it’s those tough stories where God has the most to teach us. It’s through wrestling that we are blessed. Like Jacob wrestling the angel. So I began pondering.
I ran across Psalm 78:34. It reads, “Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again.”
That’s a motive. And I’ve seen the truth in it. Tragedy brings people together. Heartbreak forces us to find a healer. But why can’t God get our attention in a less painful way?
Apparently, He wants to. Let’s rewind Psalm 78. Before He talks about slaying people, scripture says this:
Vs. 3: “I will open my mouth in parables.”
Vs. 4: “We will tell the next generation.”
Vs. 6: “And they in turn would tell their children.”
Vs. 7: “Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds.”
That’s the less painful way. It’s God’s plan for us. He’s designed us to tell stories. He called us to testify. We are to share our experiences so that those coming after us can learn from our heartache rather than their own.
This is why the story of the Exodus is repeated over and over in the Bible. It’s an illustration we can learn from. Readers see both the benefit of following the Lord’s direction and the consequences of going their own way. God’s offering an invitation. We are to tell others about our experiences because our stories have the power to change the world.
If you don’t like tragedy and heartbreak, either, let’s do something about it.
God’s way is story. Which is why it should be our way too.
Now, when I tell you your story matters to others, to you, and to God, that doesn’t mean God’s going to make you the next Francine Rivers or Frank Peretti. Often as writers, we feel like we have to prove our story matters by being on bestseller lists or winning awards. But the opposite should be true.
Because we already know our story matters, we are set free to cheer each other on and grow stronger together. That’s what this writing group is about, and I want to give you an illustration of how I see us growing.
I once attended an experiential seminar where we learned about ourselves by playing games. One game had us all line up with someone in front and someone in back. The object was to be as close to the front of the line as possible when time ran out. However, the only way you could cut in front of someone was if they let you in.
The most competitive players wouldn’t let anyone in front of them. Then there were those who got angry if someone didn’t let them in, so they quit and went to the back of the line to pout. I personally went to the most competitive person who I happened to have a relationship with and jumped in front of him with a big smile on my face until he laughingly let me cut.
The way we played this game is symbolic to how each of us lived our lives, and for me, it was also similar to how I managed my writing career. I had fun and felt like a winner, but I was also insensitive to all those behind me. Not to mention, I wasn’t prepared for the responsibilities of being out in front.
(Side Note: If you know me, you know I’m always in way over my head. I even asked friends on Facebook to describe me with a GIF, and my agent posted a picture of a pilot, in a plane, reading an instruction manual on “How to fly a plane.” Anyway…)
When the game ended, the leaders had our group make a big circle with no beginning and no end. We held hands as a team. In this new formation, we were united, and thus all winners.
The leaders of the training then explained that much of the world operates in a power model with a front and a back, but when we work together and help each other, we are operating out of a love model. We grow together. This is what Jesus taught. This is how stories unite us.
Your story matters because it’s our story, too.
*IDAhope Writers relaunched in 2023 as IdaHope Christian Writers (ICW) and a 501(c)(3) non profit.
About this post:
Beliefs represented by individual authors are not necessarily shared by all members of ICW.