Three Stories that Frame the Moral Life: God’s, Satan’s, and Yours

The following is longer than usual and Adapted from a talk given at Andrews Academy, Sept 9, 2014….


Seniors, Thank you for letting me talk with you on your special day.

Your motto “Bene in Christo” is in Latin. My friend, Dr. Nick Miller who teaches Latin in the Seminary helped me understand “Bene” meant “well,” as in living well.

So I plan to talk to you today about living well in Christ.

What do you need to live well? Money, looks, friends, good grades. Good posture. Good personality. Good religion.

These can help. But what you really need is to understand and be clear about 3 stories.

The first story is obvious. It’s the God’s story. You would expect to hear about that story at a church school like Andrews, in a religious place like a chapel, with a bunch of religious people like we have here today.

I am reminded of the pastor giving a children’s story at his church. He wanted the kids to guess what animal he was describing. “It has a bushy little tail, and it climbs trees and eats nuts.” I little boy got all excited. “Pastor, pastor, I know. I know.” But when the pastor called on him, the little boy got nervous and his confidence disappeared. “Pastor, I know the answer at church is always Jesus, so I guess its Jesus, but they way you described it sure sounded like a squirrel to me.”

Sometimes we religious folks start taking the God story for granted. But when I was in public school, both as a student and later as a public university faculty, I realized God talk was often considered crazy talk.

But if you just step back and see it for what it does…It is an amazing story this God story. The Trinity, the “consubstantial persons” the three in one…. flung into space all that is. They are Unbounded, Unending. Unfathomable. They will outlast everything and everyone. As Max Lucado put it well, God is so amazing “even God didn’t make God.” That is mind boggling stuff, powerful stuff.

Don’t lose that story. Once you leave the academy you may go places where that story is almost dead. People labelled me as Jesus freak in high school, but that story saved me. Was I glad to know that story, the God story. You can’t live well without staying close to that story.

But there is more than just the God story at work. He is not the only character in the plot. Something or someone else has wrinkled the pages of His story and the God part got distorted, blunted, smudged.

Satan whispered a lie and another story was born. “God isn’t loving. He doesn’t love me and He sure won’t love you.” The thing about lies, is they never travel alone and soon, a thousand lies later and the Satan story seems to have the upper hand:

God is Dead. Life has no meaning. The Bible is crazy. Christianity is for losers. Adventists are freaks.

This is the second story you need to be aware of and it won’t be hard to remember it, its blasted in the news: “Europe, teetering on major war in Ukraine; Heads being cut off in Syria. Young men being shot dead in Missouri. An Ebola epidemic, poised to ravish the world.” Bad stuff. Bad news. Bad story. The second story you need to keep clear about.

So, so far, we got just two stories we need to keep track of. The first story explains the good stuff. The second story explains the bad stuff. Flowers blooming, birds singing, a cool class of fresh cold water on a hot summer day. Good stuff, first story stuff.

Raging headlines of famine, disease and suffering. Bad story stuff. Your mind raging in your head telling you you are dumb or you don’t need God or you should not trust your parents or teachers or loved ones… Bad story stuff. Second story stuff. Lies.

But two stories are not enough. You need to know at least one more Story. Your Story.

Berrien Springs is a town with a company called Your Story Hour. It started in the 1940s and now boasts one of the largest collection of dramatized stories in the world. Stories about the bible, about famous events, about heroes. I love their stories. Gripping stuff. And they still keep producing them. Which is good to know, because they are missing mine and yours.

Your Story Hour is really Hebrews 11 on steroids.

Hebrews 11, for those who don’t remember, is called the hall of faith chapter. It mentions all the great stories and heroes of faith who slew lions, conquered whole armies with a dry bone, and turned the world upside down: Moses, David, Samuel, Rahab, etc… It is the Christian’s moral hall of fame.

But it ends with this simple but odd observation: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”

You see, great heroes of faith are still being made. God is not done. He has been planning something better and that includes YOU.

I was about 15 or 16 years old and I was starting to read my Bible more. I was starting to see the God story stuff and the great controversy stuff clearer and clearer. I was starting to realize that there was more to God than those who neglected Him had cared to tell me, and more to Him than the fear-mongers had tried to scare me into thinking. I also started to realize that there was more to the great controversy than just my teenage hormones raging in me (although I admit those hormone do add a lot to the warfare).

But that was also when I started to get a picture of the third story.

All those stories really came together for me in Isaiah 40-44. It is a majestic passage of scripture.

You Seniors took your scripture, Is 41:10, from that heart of that passage.

“do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

It was Isaiah 43 that brought home the overlapping power of God’s willingness to UPHOLD ME.

gather “the nations”…

Let’s see what they have to say about [all of] this,
how [do] they account for what’s happened.
Let them present their expert witnesses
and make their case;
let them try to convince us what they say is true.
“But you are my witnesses.” God’s Decree.
“YOU ARE my handpicked servant
So that you’ll come to know and trust me,
understand both that I am and who I am.
Previous to me there was no such thing as a god,
nor will there be after me.
I, yes I, am God.
I’m the only Savior there is.
I spoke, I saved, I told you what existed
long before these upstart gods appeared on the scene.
And you know it, you’re my witnesses,
you’re the evidence.”

I remember reading that again and again. Could it be saying what I thought it was saying? God was in trouble. No one ever told me God would be in a desperate place that he would need witnesses.

And He was inviting me to know Him, intimately, so that I could be his star witness.

That is when it came together, all three stories. God had always been God. He was the only real God, but the angry and sightless devil and the nations, fostered lies. False gods emerged and there were thousands now, and very very few believed the true God.

The two big stories were there, but the deciding story seemed to now be the one playing out with humans. Our grand and glorious God needed some witnesses to speak up for him. We were to be His primary evidence that He was God and His story was THE story.

I went weeks and years somber about that reality that I, a 15 or 16 year old kid, had to bail God out. It was a big weight.

Now, looking back, I should have read through this outrageous plan and seen the beauty and wonder and honor God was giving to me and to the human race.

Think about it. Me. A 16 year old kid as His main Evidence. If God was banking the whole thing on me, well, Houston, we had a problem, a real problem.

I was a 120 pound skinny kid who wore ankle weights to strengthen my legs so I could jump higher when playing basketball. I wore a corduroy suit to church and I let my hair grow down over my ears. I wanted to have a girl friend but I was at a public high school and praise God He kept me focused on the Bible more than girls. I was mostly a day dreamer who did my homework in the car on the way to school (and we only lived 3 miles away from school). I was more lazy than I want to confess right here in front of my very studious and hard-working daughter. Let’s just say. If God was pinning His hopes on ME, the whole universe was at risk.

I got news for you Seniors. God is pinning his whole story on you and your story. What do you think the cross is all about. He held in one hand His story and the other story. Took a good long look at it, and gave up His life, His story, so that you might have yours. (praise God, they had a plan that Jesus would come back to be here to help us with our story).

You are what the universe has been waiting for. That is the story that really matters now. Live your life well. Everything depends on it.

Kind of a lot of pressure to spring on you, your senior year. But, somebody needed to tell you. It might as well be me. It’s all up to you, the whole future of the cosmos… Good luck. Have a great year. See you later.


Okay. I can’t just leave you there without some more amazing news. At one level, this it is way way way too much pressure for you, to have to be God’s star witness. And on the other hand, this is way way way too much pressure on God to put all his eggs in one basket, your basket. But it actually makes sense.

If you want to know if a shepherd is any good at shepherding, you look at His sheep. If they are fluffy and healthy, then that dude knows what he is doing.

If you wonder if a teacher is any good, you see if her students are learning. In fact, the more challenging the students, the more amazing she looks if she can teach them something, anything.

It would make since that if a God claims to be God, you look at who He is Godding and you see if He knows that He is doing. So this bold call to be His witness is really a God level challenge He makes to Himself, a conviction, a confidence and a bit of bravado, declaring that He is the real God, the only true God, and that He is putting out His shingle as the one who can rescue anyone from anything at anytime for any future. That is what I call God talk. God talking about Himself with some real God level claims.

All he needs, is permission to do His God stuff in your life.

Psalms 139 help here. We usually focus on this passage when we want to talk about the specialness of babies and birth. And that is a good use, but it applies to our whole life: verse 13 gets us to the baby stuff:

“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

So, we are God’s work, woven with all our uniqueness from our birth…

 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”

So, here we have the God story linked to Your story. Your story started because God’s story was still working. People were still making love and you are evidence of that love. (so even your birth is a reminder God’s story still winning over the Satan stuff). Love is still winning (I assume Andrews Academy has explained how all that works biologically. If not, talk to Mr. Atkins. He will catch you up on the details you missed from your biology course.)

Bottom line. A God is only as worth the title if he can pull amazing things off: like your birth.

But, as we can see, He really can only claim that title, if he can also create a life out of your birth.

And that is what we see happening in verse 2. This marvelous God weaving miracles together does it for teens and adults too:

“You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.

God is not only at your birth, He is in it for the long haul.

David gets the implication. He falls down in praise and sings out:

Vs 6 “such knowledge is too wonderful for me, to lofty for me to attain.”

Okay. There it is. Your story is super important. Will you believe:

“YOU ARE his handpicked servant
So that you will come to know and trust me,
understand both that I am and who I am.

I admit, keeping these stories clear is not always easy stuff and working on your life story is not for cowards. Read Hebrews 11 to remind you why you need God on that Journey. And enjoy the ride with Jesus.

Dr. Suess put it well… Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” Today is a great day to start living that story.

While you start living that story, you will find the plot in your life, your calling. A calling is the thread that connects the many scraps of your life together, and give it meaning, direction, a purpose.

Dr. Jeff McMaster has written a wonderful book, and his title says it all: Finding Purpose at the Intersection of Passion, Ability, and Opportunity. As you look for, articulate, and find your plot at the intersection of a passion, and see the abilities God has wired in you and start seeing the opportunities, what a story you will build.

I asked some colleagues to send me a something about calling. I have a lot, but I am already running out of time. Let me share David Ferguson’s story. He knows about life stories. As director of Andrews University undergraduate leadership program he helps people figure out their stories and activate them. He talks about the plot forming in his own life:

“My sophomore year [in high school] began at a new school. I was excited and invigorated by all the new relationships, yet worried about what students and teachers would think of me. As I walked down the main hallway that first week the music teacher, Mr. Edison, came rushing past. He took a good look at me and stopped to engage in conversation. He had heard that I played the trumpet (I was a novice) and asked me to consider trying out for the select traveling band. I assumed he was confused about my level of proficiency. But he assured me of his confidence and arranged a tryout.

There was something infectious about Mr. Edison’s belief in me. I went through with the tryout and amazingly made the small band. In fact, to my horror, I learned I would be the first chair, first trumpet player. It seemed implausible that the other trumpeters could be worse than me. But, in fact, they were. Imagine the embarrassment of knowing that our band was unable to play pieces of music the conductor wished because the trumpet section was incapable of it. But, through it all, Mr. Edison conveyed deep conviction that we were the right players for the band.

Somewhere in the middle of that sophomore year I began to realize how motivated I was to avoid embarrassment. It helped that I wanted desperately to live up to the belief and risk Mr. Edison had invested in me.   So I began practicing 1½ – 2 hours each day. I spent energy and time motivating the other members of our section to practice as well. Through the course of that year we transitioned from the band’s biggest liability to its best section. And I learned something valuable. Fear can cripple and paralyze a person. It could cause them to turtle up, to play it safe till the storm of pressure and even opportunity passes. But the chemical reaction of mixing clear, motivating belief with that fear is a powerful thing. Belief liberates. Belief ignites action. Since that day I have sought to look at people through the lens of who they could be, their best selves, rather than whom they are in that particular moment.”

Seniors. in this room are the people dedicating their lives to work with you to make your story happen.

You are surrounded by a cloud of believers.

You are also surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. There are hundreds watching how you do it, so they can be inspired also.

Live well your story.

Five concluding points as you run out to enjoy your Senior year …

  1. Everyone needs freedom to create a story. God gives that. We teachers and parents are often slow at learning the power of choice. As Dr. Seuss said: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” God needs evidence but he won’t do any witness tampering. Leading the witness means to manipulate the person to say someone else’s words or live someone else’s life. No. You get to always choose.
  2. You have to know that when God formed you in the womb he didn’t make junk. Yes, you might be shorter than you wanted, taller than you hoped, plumper than you imagined, or like I was, skinny as a rail. But God purposely created you in His image. Work from the fact you are ALREADY made in HIS image. You will become more like Him, but you are already HIS KID.  Dr. Seuss reminds us not to let the crowd rob us of that uniqueness: “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” Be your unique self. Use that raw material to find your plot. Use your history to understand your future.
  3. Don’t diminish your story with lesser Gods. If a God is worth the title, then He better make your life better, not worse. Sex outside of God won’t do what God can do with sex in marriage. Money can buy some nice stuff, but it is a horrible God to serve. Fame, fortune, power. Not sufficient material for God level stuff. That is why, when it’s all said and done, when your story is over on this earth, if you stay with Him, your story will be better. His name is on the line. He has to show that He is the only true God. Trust that He will come through.
  4. Don’t worry. Detours happen. The plot thins and even gets lost, but God has alternative routes to get you back on your story and into your plot.
  5. Get help with your story. What do you think all these old people around you were hired to do. Parents and teachers are resources God has created to help you with your story.

And I work at a place that helps people with their story. I would not be a good friend if I didn’t tell you about  Andrews University. We are in the story building business. I  know we are only a couple of hundred yards up the street and some of you can’t wait to get out of town, but we are a school for building stories .

David Ferguson, who I mentioned earlier, runs an amazing leadership program that can take you in as freshment and give you classes, a certificate or a minor, on your way to being what you think God is calling you to be.

In fact, Next year, Andrews University is piloting Explore Andrews, a brand new program to help you find the plot, write the story.

Sometimes people go to College without knowing who they are, why they are there, and what they want to do with their lives. Maybe they are there for a career, maybe to make some lifelong close friends, maybe to find a spouse, maybe to find a career, maybe to form a calling. But sometimes it is hard to see the plot in the story.

I know that feeling well. Sometimes we just need to explore and that is what Explore Andrews will allow you to do.  As J.R. Tolkien’s great poem reminds us, “not all those who wander are lost.” To Explore Andrews is to turn some wandering into a clearer direction.

Now to back to your Senior verse of Isaiah 41:10.

If we keep these three stories in mind, I hope the text will come alive:

“do not fear, for I am with YOU; do not be dismayed, for I am YOUR God. I will strengthen YOU and help YOU; I will uphold YOUwith my righteous right hand.”

Thanks God, for believing in all of us so much.

Truly there is no God like YOU!


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