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APCE talk is peppered with tales of feeling lost and abandoned

Keynoter Mark Yaconelli makes his point through stories about abandoned horses and a stuck vehicle

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Sergey Sokolov via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — APCE keynoter Mark Yaconelli, whose most recent book holds up the importance of storytelling, told a few compelling stories himself during his plenary talk on Thursday.

One day when his daughter was five, the Yaconellis were in their friends’ backyard for a barbecue. The yard was enclosed by a rail fence; beyond that was a 100-acre field. At one point, Yaconelli and his friend, Eric, looked up and saw their daughters across the field, each atop a horse. “Now, we don’t have horses. Eric does not have horses. As far as we know, our daughters don’t know how to ride horses,” Yaconelli said.

The men sprinted toward their daughters and spied a woman wearing a cowboy hat who assured the dads the girls were safe. It turned out the woman is a horse therapist who rehabilitates horses that are abused or abandoned. As colts, some had lived in a garage or small shed for months while the owner worked to find or build them proper accommodations. When she’s called to intervene, “We have to drag the horse because it doesn’t want to leave. This is all it knows,” she told the men. She uses the 100-acre field to help rehabilitate the horses.

Generally, the horse initially begins to cry. It doesn’t recognize the grass is food and the creek is water. She pitches a tent and waits. The horse will eventually go to the stream and drink. Then it will pull up grass and realize that this is food. “She said, ‘At that moment when it realizes it’s in a verdant field of food and water, it takes off running, elated, alive and full of joy,’” Yaconelli said.

We know this story, he said. “The teaching of the Christian faith is we cannot engineer our own freedom, our own transformation. We can’t think our way into the kin-dom of God,” he said. “What we’re practicing here is the way of surrender.”

The church “is in a different stage now. Many of us are shut down because of trauma, but we’re also in the dark. Nobody knows how to do church right now,” he said. We can’t grant our way, innovate our way, or think our way out of the darkness. “We have to do the one thing we all hate, which is to trust,” Yaconelli said.

It’s like we’re all living in a prison, “and we’ve gotten used to it,” Yaconelli said. One day Jesus appears and says, “Let’s get out of here.” But it’s dark and we can’t see anything, and so we tell Jesus, “You know, not right now. Thursday is pot roast, and they do a good job with the pot roast here.”

“Once in a while, Jesus says something really terrifying: ‘You know this prison system? It’s not even real. So let’s walk,’” Yaconelli said. Something like anger rises up in us. “My whole life is based on this prison system. Don’t take this away from me!”

When Yaconelli’s daughter was little, a family friend had a cabin on the Oregon coast. Both father and daughter had been looking forward to spending a day there together. “We headed to the beach, both ecstatic,” he recalled. The tide was coming in, and they came across a woman in distress standing by her car stuck in the rising tide. “That lady needs help,” Yaconelli’s daughter told him. Her father told her they couldn’t help her, but she persisted.

Inside the vehicle, Yaconelli spotted sleeping bags and whisky bottles. It was clear the woman had fallen asleep and the tide had come in. Yaconelli tried to dig her out, but “it was hopeless. I was angry and in despair that this was ruining our day.”

A woman walked up with several grandchildren. Everyone set to work digging, to no avail. A police officer showed up and said, “This happens every once in a while. You’ll never get that car out.”

“I said, ‘We need a truck,’” Yaconelli said. His daughter recalled the parking lot of trucks they’d seen at a nearby tavern. The policeman called the bar, and 10 minutes later, “two guys who looked three sheets to the wind” got out with a chain and pulled the car out. The woman and her dog hopped in, and they drove off.

“I am shaking,” Yaconelli recalled. His daughter could see her father was troubled.

“I have lived that situation many times in my life,” he said. His mother, who suffered from schizophrenia, would frequently disappear, “and I was never able to help her. I was in that place.” His daughter hugged him and said, “Dad, you did real good.”

“We went home and read books to calm me down,” he said.

Mark Yaconelli

“It’s strange. The most difficult emotion we have is helplessness. We’ll do anything to take control and make something happen,” he said. Just two years after beginning her storied ministry, Mother Teresa lost “all sense of God’s presence in the world,” Yaconelli said. “Her prayers fell flat. It all fell apart.” In her journal, she wrote, “In my soul, I am feeling the pain of loss, of God not wanting me … of not existing …”

For 12 years, she nonetheless continues the work, “but feels like she’s all alone,” he said. “She’s in the dark. In the dark, we learn we are being liberated. In the dark are ideas of God, which are too small and far apart. Our control mechanisms are too small and limiting, and they begin to fall apart.”

Imagine how she felt during those first two years, he said. “Look at all the people I’m helping! I’m feeling it in my body and my soul.” It’s taken away, and then after 12 long years, Mother Teresa has “an intimate experience of Jesus on the cross. This is thirst. This is hunger. This is abandonment,” she learns. “She has a deeper solidarity with the poor and the disenfranchised. She now feels a deep poverty within herself that unites her with everyone who’s ever been abandoned.”

“That’s the liberation,” Yaconelli said.

Follow pcusa.org for further reporting on the Annual Event of the Association of Church Partners in Education.


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