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APCE keynoter says stories can save us, and he weaves a few to explain how

Mark Yaconelli delivers his first keynote to educators and pastors gathered in St. Louis

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Good Free Photos via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Since the Covid pandemic began in early 2020, we’ve gone from lockdown to shutdown, Mark Yaconelli told those attending the APCE Annual Event Wednesday during the first of three keynotes he’s scheduled to deliver. He saw plenty of examples of shutdown during a 91-stop book tour he completed last year following publication of his “Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us.”

“There’s an overwhelm,” Yaconelli reported, especially among the young people he spoke with while touring the country. “They weren’t sure there would be a future, and there’s this sense of shutting down.”

He saw the same thing during an APCE pre-event when he asked workshop participants to write a brief version of their story. “The heaviness people are carrying: the medical issues, financial crises, unstable churches, vocational discernment — all kinds of stuff,” he said. “The invitation is to slow down and listen for the cry.”

One role of the Holy Spirit is as Paraclete, one who listens and answers the cry, Yaconelli said. “What brings us out of the shutdown is being slowly coaxed and warmed to life, and that begins with the senses.”

At the United Church of Christ congregation in Southern Oregon that Yaconelli attends, the pastor started a Radical Jesus Group that meets weekly. During the first meeting, people shared ideas for the ministry they dreamed to accomplish, including doing more for the unhoused, initiating a Pride parade, and doing something about what they were hearing on a particular talk radio program. “Everyone had an idea of how we can save the world God is not fixing,” Yaconelli said. “The Radical Jesus Group felt exhausted.”

The pastor suggested they go home and pray about it. The next week, people came back prepared. After they’d shared their plans with one another, they were once again exhausted. “No one remembers who said, ‘What if we were radical Jesus to one another and see what that teaches us before we try it with others,’” he said.

The next week, one member who’d struggled with her weight for years asked if a member of the group would walk with her each morning. Someone volunteered. Another worried about credit card debt, and an accountant agreed to help get the debt under control. “We did this for six months. People got more and vulnerable about what they needed,” Yaconelli explained. Slowly, the Radical Jesus Group “came back to life.”

The church installed showers in the basement for use by unhoused people and started a community breakfast. It helped launch a Pride parade and developed a counseling program. “All those dreams that came to people happened, and it came in God’s time as we became transformed people,” he said. “The work is to let God love you. That’s how we make it through this time.”

Mark Yaconelli

Yaconelli closed his talk with the story of a friend who was the child of functioning alcoholics. In middle school, she realized she was a bright student, and when it came time to her high school commencement exercises, she wore a gold cord, having graduated with honors. Her mother skipped the ceremony, and her father was there standing in the back talking to a drinking buddy. “I said, please, please, please, make some noise when they call my name,” the woman pleaded, but she walked across the stage “in silence and in shame,” according to Yaconelli. She threw away her gold cord and diploma and went home crying.

She eventually completed college and law school. When it came time to accept her diploma from law school, she paid students to cheer for her when her name was called, but they got distracted and failed to. That night she too began drinking and eventually ended up on the streets, losing 10 years of her life.

Finally, with the help of an AA program, she pulled herself together, got a job as a legal researcher, and got married. For her 40th birthday, her husband threw her a birthday party because she’d never had one growing up. During the gathering, he played a DVD of her law school graduation. Instead of silence when her name was called, her husband, a sound engineer, dubbed in recordings of himself clapping and hollering from throughout the auditorium. “It was awkward,” the woman said. “I went to the bedroom and fell apart.”

Her husband tried to apologize, but she told him, “How dare you put that up on the screen!” When she was all cried out, she got up and her husband was on the couch. Without saying anything, she replayed what he’d recorded on the DVD. “I watched the ceremony, this young woman trying so hard to prove to herself and others she had value and worth,” she said. “I watched her walk across the stage, and this time I listened and heard my husband in a hundred voices saying, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you,’ and this time, I heard it.”

“Our power comes from God,” Yaconelli said. “God’s love brought you into this calling, into this world. We have the power to speak healing and truth to a place that has gone deaf.” We have that power, he said, “because we know the healer. Amen? Amen.”

APCE’s Annual Event runs through Saturday. Check pcusa.org for continuing coverage.


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