There are few people who have mastered the art of storytelling better than bestselling author Max Lucado. His books, sermons and conversation teem with great stories.
“Can I share a brand new one with you?” Lucado asks, when I ask him about his knack for finding a good story. “I love it. It’s just happened 10 days ago.”
Of course I do.
“I was driving through Texas and my wife and I found ourselves out in West Texas – about 10 hours from where we live – about an hour from my hometown. So we said, “Let’s go through and see the cemetery where my parents are buried.”
“We went through to the cemetery. It’s a small West Texas town – a cowboy town. And my dad, when he died back in 1985, he had this idea of planting a tree that’s not indigenous to West Texas. It’s called a live oak tree – you don’t need to know anything about the trees, just that it doesn’t grow out there. But for some reason he liked that kind of tree and he got permission from the city to plant a tree on his grave site. And I can remember the day we buried him, that tree was just a sapling. I could wrap my hand all the way around it.”
“Now, since it’s so far away, I don’t go to the cemetery very often. I mean, in the 30 years, maybe four or five times. And now the tree’s big. But here’s the story. That guy – my dad, that rascal – he carved a heart in the bark that was small that when it was a sapling, we didn’t see it. As it has grown, the heart has gotten bigger and bigger,” he continues.
But there’s still more.
“And guess what? In the middle of it – I just saw this last trip – are initials of me, my brother and my two sisters! Is that not the greatest story? The greatest story! And I thought, my dad, I love him. I could just see him in heaven, saying “Ha ha! It took you 30 years to see it, but there it is!”
He hasn’t told anyone this story yet, he says, but he’s been working it into a sermon he will preach on the weekend at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he is the Teaching Minister.
“I am writing a sermon, for this weekend and, and I said, “You know, your father has carved his love in a tree as well. Doesn’t that work? You can just see where I’m going, can’t you?”
“Stories like that are solid gold because they will stick in someone’s memory” – Max Lucado
And that’s the point, because Max Lucado doesn’t share stories in artistic indulgence. He’s a storyteller because stories engage the human heart.
“Stories like that are solid gold because they will stick in someone’s memory,” he says enthusiastically. “People will go home from church and they won’t be talking about my doctrine, but they’ll say, ‘That Lucado story and what his dad did!’. That’ll connect.”
Lucado also weaves deeply personal stories from his own life throughout his books.
“I’m pretty open. The days that ministry has been hard for me are the days that I’ve tried to appear like I’ve got it all together. That doesn’t work for me. In fact, I do a lot better when I try not to. I’m just an open book,” he explains.
Though there are stories he can’t or won’t share – “because they involve friends or other people” – he says “if something happened to me, I’m pretty willing to share it if I think it’ll create intimacy between me and the reader, and also create an opportunity for that reader to, to turn their heart toward God.”
Take his new book, You are never alone, in which – for the first time ever in print – Lucado discloses his experience of sexual abuse as a child.
“I didn’t share it [previously] because it’s a genuine miracle in my life. I felt healed from it,” he explains.
“When I got into ministry back in 1979, and I began hearing stories of people who had been molested, I would think, ‘OK. That happened to me, but I don’t carry the wounds. I really don’t carry a wound from it. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t avoid authority figures because of it. I don’t think I have intimacy issues because of it. And many people do.”
Lucado is acutely aware that his many other sexual abuse victims do carry the wounds of their abuse in a way he does not and offers two reasons that might explain it.
“Mine was limited and contained to a very short period of time,” he says. “So if somebody has experienced this over weeks and weeks from somebody, especially in their family, I get it. That’s a whole different league.”
And also, as the incident in the book beautifully reveals, Lucado experienced Christ’s supernatural healing as a boy.
“I just think Jesus healed me. I just think he said, ‘I’m going to come and heal this boy. I don’t want him to carry that’. That’s why I shared the story,” he says.
The same acceptance of God working in mysterious ways can be seen in his approach to writing.
“Early on it dawned on me that I’m not a real bright person. I’m not a real academic. I’m a drunk who became a Christian,” he says. “And I think that has really shaped my thinking.”
“I truly am – I mean, from my heart of hearts – grateful to be a Christian. I just, I really love being a Christian. I do! I tried ‘Plan B’ and it did not work. And I was a mess and I know I would have made a mess out of my life.”
Lucado has written almost 100 books with 130 million copies in print. He has been awarded the Christian Book of the Year award three times for his books Just Like Jesus, In the Grip of Grace and When God Whispers Your Name, and has appeared regularly on several bestseller lists including that published by the New York Times.
Yet Lucado’s books are marked by their accessibility to almost any reader. There’s plenty of white space on the pages of a Max Lucado read. Rather than seeking the reader’s admiration, his style invites a reader to journey with him as a fellow traveller.
“I know the lane I run in. I’ve got lots of books by really academic folks and I love those people – some of them are my dear friends – but they breathe air I’ve never breathed. And then I’ve got lots of books by people who are great leaders, you know, and they’re real challenging and convicting and I’ve never quite lined up there, but I appreciate those people,” he says when asked why he chose to write in the accessible style he does.
“Early on, it made sense to me to write books for people who don’t really like to read books. I have a heart for people who are maybe real busy or, or they just don’t read much, but they want to read more. And so I thought, “OK, I’m going to write to that person”. Once I found that niche, it’s served me well.”
You are never alone – a book-child of quarantine for lonely hearts
His latest offering You are never alone is a case in point. Described by Lucado as “a child of quarantine,” it might also be promoted with a tagline that reads “just what the doctor ordered”.
In fact, Lucado’s new release is so perfectly pitched to a reader facing the pandemic-induced tumult of 2020, that I suspend my knowledge of publishing timelines, and presume it must have been penned during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was finished, when all of this began,” Lucado says. “But I did have a chance to do the final edits [during lockdown] and that’s when I added the phrase describing this book as a child of the quarantine.”
Lucado says he “was so grateful that the Lord had placed this on my heart prior to the pandemic” so that its release – complete with a title message declaring “You are never alone” – would be so timely.
Originally entitled Awestruck, it was Lucado’s publishers who pointed out the book’s reoccurring theme of God treating the loneliness of people’s hearts, suggesting a new title that Lucado loved.
“There is such an epidemic of loneliness – it has only been exacerbated by the pandemic” – Max Lucado
“There is such an epidemic of loneliness – it has only been exacerbated by the pandemic,” he says.
He notes that that magazines tend to focus people on keys to their (horizontal) relationships with others (like communication skills, kindness, etc) – all of which are important, but which he believes come second to a relationship with God.
“I believe that we have to begin with a healthy, vertical relationship with God, because the truth of the matter is people are going to let us down, we’re going to disappoint other people, we’re going to be broken-hearted. And if we don’t have the vertical part, before we try to build the horizontal part, I think we’ll get into trouble.”
“We tend to place such high expectations on people to be the person that we need them to be to deal with our loneliness. And that’s unfortunate. Nobody can be the person I want them to be to deal with my loneliness except God,” he says.
“My heart is that people would read this book and look at the miracles of Christ and see that Christ is actively involved in their day-to-day lives. And he can be that relationship that truly can lift that cloud of loneliness from us in days like this.”
Discovering the Jesus who walks into the storm
Lucado describes the process as honing in on “the one little nugget” of truth he feels God is wanting him to notice. For example, in the key text that shapes You are never alone, the story of Jesus walking on the water comes alive.
“I’ve written about that story dozen times a dozen times,” Lucado says. “This was the first time it dawned on me that Jesus could have calmed the storm without walking into it. He could have just done it from the, from the beach or up on the mountain. But, you know what he said, “OK, I’m just going to walk into the middle of this storm.”
“I’m 65 years old, I have been reading the Bible since I was 10 and I’ve probably read that story a hundred times, but it hit me, so I thought ‘OK, I think that’s what the Lord wants me to really build this chapter around – the little nugget that Jesus meets us inside our storms,” he says.
“I know we all want storms to go away. But rather than hurry them away, what if we look for Christ in the middle of it? Where is he inside this storm?”