Rob Lee: The Night Shift and the Story of God

In September of last year, we had the Day1 Advisory Council Meeting. I’m lucky to be a part of an auspicious group of theologians, bishops, preachers, and thinkers who help guide Day1’s preaching ministry that runs through the airwaves, and I take that honor very seriously. Which is why that particular September day was especially difficult for me.

I had just left my pastorate at a church that I had served for two years. I felt like a ship without a captain not being in the pulpit regularly after those years of abundant preaching. I felt lost, and worst of all I had to tell our host and executive director Peter Wallace to take the name of my church off my nameplate for the Zoom meeting. I had loved that church and they had loved me, and though our parting was amicable, it felt like the pain of re-living past church trauma simply by admitting I had left the church.

The reasoning behind my parting was clear - my newly adopted children needed my attention, and so I became something I never thought I would be: a stay-at-home dad who works the night shift at his local Hilton Hotel. Now don’t get me wrong, I still was preaching regularly and scratching that itch. But to be a dad, to be a dad who stayed at home and helped his kids get to daycare, dance practice, and pre-kindergarten was something so foreign to me I felt like I needed to scream into the abyss, “This isn’t me, I know this isn’t me, it can’t be for me.” But then the little moments of grace crept in - the girls and their snuggles, hugs, and remarks that couldn’t possibly keep a frown on my face. It was those moments that reminded me of the story of why I wanted to adopt them in the first place - of why their story fit so well with mine, and why the compelling nature of their story resounded with me and echoed down the halls of my life. I was meant to be their dad - this is my story.

The book of Nehemiah has a similar account of Ezra opening a story to the people and reminding them of who and whose they were. The story was complicated, nuanced, painful, and sad. Yet it made sense - it made sense why land, king, and country had been torn away from the people of Israel because God’s faithfulness had overwhelmed them. They could run, yes; they could be expelled, but their story could not be overridden by pain and despair. God had different plans.

The Hebrew Bible reminds all of us that we are a people of a story. The story hasn’t always made sense in the moment. In fact, it seemed downright fanciful and damning at the time. But that is where God’s story intertwined with ours becomes something drawn from the ashes of despair into the realm and reign of redemptive possibility. There is no escaping the story God has for you - and God is bent toward bringing you into that story you never knew you needed until you reach it. That’s God’s holy intuition (and sometimes humor) reaching into our lives and creating livelihoods. Christians have a word for that move: we call it vocation.

Vocation is more than a paystub; it’s a holy calling on your life to be like Ezra. To be so full of the love of God that your life proclaims a holy and abiding story. It is through this telling and re-telling of the story of God that we see our own calling, our own vocation, our own livelihood. We are called to be storytellers of God. Whether you are telling the story from the Hilton Garden Inn’s night shift in Statesville, North Carolina, or you are proclaiming it from the great cathedrals of the land, you are most importantly sharing the lifechanging love of a liberating God. This story is so worth saying that it oozes from your example and from your life - even the parts that aren’t as neat and tidy. We see this in Ezra - it was not only the story but the example of the prophet that brought forth the sense and understanding of the narrative. We need some modern-day Ezras, people willing to seek justice and compassion as part of our livelihoods and vocations. We need people who risk loving wastefully for the sake of the story. We need people willing to endure and therefore become trustworthy. We need people who are so consumed with the possibilities of the story of God, and so full of that story, that there is no question what’s going on.

We need the story to make sense. Whether you are at a hotel front desk counter from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weeknights or in a high-rise corporate office, we need you to line up your life with the story of God we recognize in Scripture, in tradition, in reason, and experience. We need the story to make sense so that others might go and do likewise. We need the story to come alive so that even in our tombs we might hear the whispers of alleluia and resurrection. We need the story to draw us to where we dare not go so that we might see an empty grave and a risen Lord. We need the story to draw us back to our center and to our redemption. We need the story to make sense.

The point of the story is that we are all headed home together, both figuratively and literally. If my two daughters are happy, every night shift is worth it, every preaching engagement in a distant land is meaningful - because their story is imperative to mine. Perhaps that’s what Ezra knew so well. We are bound together toward the kingdom and bound for the kingdom. There is no getting there alone.

May we be bold in stepping out in the name of our stories - and may we be wise to see the interlacing of each and every story on this earthly plain. We are in this together, and the story of God will make sense once we admit that. The story of your night shift, of your day job, of your church, of your community, is being redeemed, restored, and renewed.

Like that old hymn goes, “I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory, to tell the old, old story, of Jesus and his love.”

Won’t you pray with me?

God of Prophets and Stories, remind us that you beckon us toward home through a story - the story of your Son. Help us to be so in love with him and his message that we might align our story with yours. Help us to reach out to others with that all-consuming, life-altering story. This we ask in the name of the one in whom we have more future than past, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.