Interview with Beth Guckenberger
A mission trip to Mexico in 1996 helped change the lives of Beth and Todd Guckenberger. As Beth tells the story, “We were painting a wall from blue to green and I said, ‘Didn’t we paint this from green to blue last year?’”
After that, the Guckenbergers sought out more compelling opportunities of service, and were moved with compassion for the abandoned children of Monterrey, Mexico. One year later, they moved to Monterrey. This was the initial step in founding the international arm of Back2Back Ministries, which provides orphan care in Africa, India, and Latin America.
Through this experience, Beth discovered that everyone has a story to tell, and she has recorded many of those compelling stories in her book, Relentless Hope, recently released by Standard Publishing (order the book by clicking here).
Learn more about Beth and her story at www.Back2BackMinistries.org.
How does reading true stories, like those in Relentless Hope, better connect us to faraway people?
It changes them from statistics to stories, from causes to people’s lives. God has moved me to be involved in orphan care. I know he has moved other people in other ways. If I focused on the numbers, I could be stunned into inactivity, not knowing what to do. What could I do for 148 million orphans? But, when I think of them one story at a time, then I engage. I wrote Relentless Hope so that anybody who reads it, in any setting, would engage in the stories to which God is calling them.
How did you get people to open up and tell their stories?
I just started interviewing people. I realized everyone has a story, and the more I was willing to listen to their stories, the more common threads I found. People who are struggling with the things I highlighted in the book are our Sunday school teachers, youth ministers, and neighbors. You name it. In telling our stories, we have an opportunity to truly fellowship with one another and engage.
Not all people’s stories have happy endings, but aren’t readers looking for happy endings?
We suffer from addiction, eating disorders, infertility, and infidelity. We have prodigal children and sick bodies. So, Relentless Hope is a collection of stories that say, “It’s not over yet.” It’s about believers who found themselves in difficult circumstances (either by their own hand or the hand of someone else), and how they keep extracting the precious from the worthless.
Finding the precious within the worthless can be daunting.
We had gone to the funeral service of a family friend who had committed suicide. At the service, the minister turned to Jeremiah 15:19: “If you extract the precious from the worthless, you will become my spokesman” (New American Standard Bible). I was sitting in the audience thinking, that’s exactly how I feel. This is worthless. To pretend it is anything else doesn’t make any sense. So many of the circumstances we find ourselves in feel worthless. However, if I can extract the precious from the worthless, then I can be his spokesman, then I can keep my head above water, and I can be a light in the darkness.
Why do you think telling one’s story is so therapeutic?
One of the tools of the enemy is to separate us and keep us in silence. When we’re in silence we’re not encouraging one another, praying for one another, and serving one another. So if he can make me feel like I’m not part of the game, like my circumstances bench me, then I sit in my own suffering. The Bible has about 30 commands for “one another”: to love one another, encourage one another, care for another. . . .
So you’re saying our stories help connect us to the body of Christ.
Talking about our stories “takes the teeth out of the tiger.” Maybe we are still bulimic, or infertile, or a victim of sexual violence, but God has put us in the middle of his body and the Christian church is the expression of God’s promises to us. So when we take ourselves out of that body, we miss out on some of the ways God wants to minister to us, or some of the ways he wants us to minister to others.
How do we learn from the stories of others?
Second Corinthians 1 says, when we suffer we are comforted, so that we can comfort others. I think we become less judgmental when we engage in people’s stories. I think we become less self-focused when we get involved in people’s stories.
Do you see yourself in others’ stories?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I think I recognize that I am the recipient of grace and I need to be a vessel of that grace to others.
One of the stories is about a dear friend of mine who was the worship leader at his church and he succumbed to an addiction to painkillers. He was pulled over and the police officer asked, “Do you have a job?”
My friend said he was the worship leader at a nearby church. The police officer said, “Is this any way for a worship leader to act?”
The worship leader said, “I don’t worship God because I am worthy, I worship God because he deserves praise.” At the end of the day, the only one worthy to be praised is the Lord. My job is to praise him, then to reflect the things he’s doing in my life to others.
What makes hope relentless?
There’s an unending source in the vine. I think we can limit ourselves by trying to manage our human expectations. Hope and expectations are different things. Hope is connecting into the vine and believing if I knew everything he knows, I’d be OK with today.
But can’t our failures ultimately quench any chance for hope?
One of the stories in Relentless Hope is about a man who was a youth director in a very large church, one most people would recognize. He was involved in youth ministry for 20 years, then made a poor moral choice that caused him to lose his job and his wife. In the aftermath, he was selling insurance.
He was missing ministry, so he put together a résumé, hoping some small church would allow him to volunteer in their youth ministry. He got a call from a really large church to direct all of its campuses. When he got to the final stage of the interview, and the senior minister offered him the job, he said, “I know you read my cover letter and read my story and had a thousand applications. What made you want to hire someone like me?”
The senior minister said, “We found in the church that everyone has a broken season, and we decided here we want to hire people who are on the other side of the broken season, because we have found they are better ministers of the gospel of grace.”
That is why the church is the size it is. It’s not because of how well the minister can craft a clever sermon; it is because that’s exactly where I would want to spend Sunday mornings. It’s a place where everyone feels welcome.
In Relentless Hope, I was trying to cultivate a conversation where we recognize that no matter what has been done to us, or what we have done by our own hands, no one is counted out of the game. Your story is not over.
How do the stories of others bring us hope?
I keep telling people, this is a testimony of the process, not a testimony of the results. We don’t have to wait for a happy ending. If we put all of our eggs (our hope) in a certain ending, then we hold that hope back. Then we’re holding our breath before our hope blossoms. But if we can believe God will lead us, encourage us, and convict us, then we can begin to have hope in the process of our story. If I have hope today that God will encourage me, strengthen, me, and save me, then I don’t have to wait for the happy ending.
Can Relentless Hope go beyond individuals to strengthen the work of the church?
I didn’t write the book just for people who have hard stories so that they’re not alone. I really wrote it for the church culture. Whether or not this is your story, or you understand all those stories today, I want to start the conversation in the church. The way we sound different from the world, the way we reflect him, is to open ourselves to sharing the precious.
Regardless of the news story, or the personal anecdote, we have a choice to focus on the page we are in, or believe in the story weaver who is crafting not just today, but the chapters to come. If we extract the precious, we can be a spokesman in any situation we find ourselves: in 9/11, or the tsunami, or in your neighbor who is getting a divorce—any situation we are observing or are living.
Brad Dupray is president of Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.