What’s Your Story? (7/18/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Scripture reading: The Great Commandment
When I first arrived in Chicago for my final extended residency at Chicago Theological Seminary, my class—the class of 2005—got together the first evening to relive old memories and catch up on one another’s lives. One of the people we were expecting to join us did not show up, and once we learned we would be missing a classmate, everybody asked, “What about Ken? What’s his story?”
As it turns out Ken is simply taking a one year sabbatical from the program, but those words kept ringing in my ears—what’s his story; what’s his story.
We’ve all got a story. Each of our lives is a story—a true story, but nevertheless a story. I recently read a book called The Sacred Romance, written by Brent Curtis and John Eldredge, which really examines this notion of life as a story. Many of the insights I pass along this morning are from that book.
The first thing we notice, when we think about our life as a story, is that for the most part, we get to write it ourselves. Oh, there are lots of surprises along the way. If we had complete control of our story we would not write in all the tears and tragedies that are a part of every human life; but still, generally speaking, we are each the author of our own story.
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Elie Wiesel (EL-ee VEE-zul) wrote, “God created man because he loves stories.” And I think he’s right, because there are billions of human stories going on in the world right now! Bible scholar Eugene Peterson claims we cannot escape the fact that each of us is in a story, largely of our own making. He writes, “We live in narrative, we live in story. Existence has a shape to it. We have a beginning and an end, we have a plot, we have characters.”
Since we are responsible for writing our own stories, we have to ask ourselves some serious questions. Who are the characters in my story? What is the plot? What is the meaning—the purpose—of my story?
As for the characters in our story, we don’t always have a lot of say in that. I’ve had a couple of bosses along the way that I would not have written into my story had I the power to stick them in somebody else’s. I’ve had neighbors that fell somewhat short of Ozzie and Harriet, and would have happily written the Cleavers into the next-door house if I’d had that type of power.
But for the most part, these are bit players. We really do get to choose the main characters in our story. Our spouse—this isn’t the Middle Ages when the person with whom we would spend our lives is picked by our parents. We have nobody to thank—or to blame—for our spouse other than ourselves. Our children may not always live up to the state of perfection we dream for them, but the fact is they become the people they are largely through our shaping of them. I mean, if you’re upset because your kid is a smart-alek, the first place to start looking for somebody to blame is in the mirror. As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
The other major characters in our story—our friends, our fellow church members—these are people we choose to be in our story. By the way, allow me to compliment each of you on the wise and prudent manner in which you have written the people of this church into your story. I can say with all honesty that my own story would suffer greatly if not for all of you.
Once we get the characters in place, we have to develop a plot. As a minister, I deal with the plot of people’s lives often. Sadly, the time I most often do this is at their funerals, or memorial services. But it is then that it becomes most evident that our lives are indeed stories, and they are amazing stories. Eugene Peterson is right. A human life is a story with a beginning and an end, and a unique and surprising plot unfolds in between.
People often tell me that they could handle the life of a minister, with the exception of the funerals and memorial services. They say it would depress them to spend so much time around death. I tell them that the first thing required is to believe with all your heart that the love of God actually does overcome death. I don’t know how that plays out, but I do believe that God’s love is higher and deeper and wider than the furthest limits of our imaginations, and I believe that we do not die into nothingness, but rather die into the arms of God.
But beyond that, memorial services remind me time and time again of the wonder of human life. Everybody’s story is so amazing. Really! When I meet with a family who has lost a loved one, I don’t say it in so many words, but what I basically ask is, “What’s his story? What was she all about? How did her life begin and end, but more importantly, what happened in between. What was the plot?”
And it is always a story that should read like a great novel. There are highs and lows and laughter and tears; there are plot twists and subplots that add spice and mystery to the movement of the story; there are days of unspeakable joy and moments of horrific sadness. Human life!
And while fate sometimes intervenes in ways that are not under our control, we really do, for the most part, write our own stories, page by page, detail by detail. Taken by themselves, the little details don’t sound like much. But add them together, and you’ve got the equivalent of an epic novel. He gave $200 every Christmas to the Salvation Army. She taught herself to paint in her spare time. He volunteered at the homeless shelter. She had a gift for business—she was a master of the deal. He was a great athlete in high school. She had a brilliant legal mind, and could remember dates like nobody we ever knew.
All the details, along with the characters and the plot, form the rough outline of our story. But there is something more. There is something else that determines the true quality of our lives. In the book The Sacred Romance, they say there are two themes that are at work underneath each of our stories. One is the sacred romance, and the other is the arrows. We can think of these two themes—these two forces—as hope and despair. The story of our life is a battle between these two themes. The sacred romance is the notion that life is a beautiful gift, and that we should treasure every breath. The arrows are all those things that happen along the way—all those shots to the heart we take as we go through life—that keep whispering from somewhere very deep within, “This is all meaningless.”
These two themes are at all times beneath the surface as we write the story of our life, and the way the story reads—the way our life unfolds in this beautiful and frightening creation—depends largely on which theme we nourish—which theme we spend our time cultivating: life as a sacred romance, or life as a series of incoming arrows; a life of hope, or a life of despair.
Macbeth described a life that had given up to the arrows. Remember Shakespeare’s haunting and unforgettable words:
I am sick at heart…
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
We all know people who have been beaten down by life; people for whom life seems to be “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.”
For others, life is like a fairy tale. They face the same situations, the same world, the same challenges as the person who gives in to despair, but they never lose their hope, their faith, their love. They just sense in their hearts that the good guys always win in the end. They somehow believe that regardless of the twists and turns in the plot along the way, and in spite of some of the uninvited characters who attempt to spoil the story, in the end, everybody lives happily ever after. That’s the way it is with fairly tales.
What is the difference between the person of hope and the person of despair? Some would say that it all depends on where we center our lives. What is the foundation of our story? People of faith seem to know that things will turn out okay. Pain is for a while—joy is forever. And that is because they anchor their lives—they center their stories—on the heart. Frederick Buechner says we live a double life—the person we really are inside—the person who lives out of our heart; and the person we show to the rest of the world. He writes, [Our true self] “gets buried so deep we hardly live out of it at all…rather, we learn to live out of all the other selves which are constantly putting on and taking off coats and hats against the world’s weather.”
I think what Beuchner is saying is that we all have our true self hidden deep inside, and our true self knows that this story ends right; but our fear, our doubts, and the countless arrows we’ve absorbed along the way make us put on our masks. We don’t really trust the story, so instead of being who we really are, we become actors. Today I’ll be the guy who can lose his best friend to cancer and not even shed a tear. That’s not me! The real me is bawling like a baby. That’s why I’ve got my tough-guy mask. Why, if I let people see the real me they might…might…might what? Discover that I’m a real flesh and blood human being like everybody else?
But ultimately the problem comes down to a lack of faith—a lack of trust in God. Because there is always that terrible little voice inside of us whispering, “This is not a fairy tale. It’s a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.”
Listen again to Frederick Beuchner in a book named The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale: “This is a world of magic and mystery, of deep darkness and flickering starlight. It is a world where terrible things happen and wonderful things too. It is a world where goodness is pitted against evil, love against hate, order against chaos, in a great struggle where often it is hard to be sure who belongs to which side because appearances are endlessly deceptive. Yet for all its confusion and wildness, it is a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good, who live happily ever after… that is the fairy tale of the gospel with, of course, one crucial difference from all other fairy tales… [the gospel] is true… It not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is still happening.”
The gospel—the eternally true fairy tale. The story where God creates us, and loves us, and we turn away from God; but God won’t let us go. God just keeps chasing after us, loving us, redeeming us, empowering us. In the Book of Genesis, the story of the universe begins as God speaks creation into being. Now, the story continues, as God speaks us into being. Each of us is a unique, once-in-creation word of God, a story on the very lips of God.
We are all in God’s story, but God does not write our story for us. We each get to write our own story. In that way, we get to help God write the story of the universe. God has given us the stage, and the lighting, and the set, and sent us out onto the stage…but without a script. We get to write our own play. We get to author our own story.
We get to choose our characters, and shape the plot, and enrich every moment of the story with an underlying theme, which can range from hope to despair. We get to write the story from whatever perspective we choose. We can pick any of a hundred masks to hide behind, allowing the world to see only the persona we choose to reveal in a particular act and scene. We can spend the entire play—every moment of our lives—hiding from the fact there is a real us—an authentic and unmasked human being—inside each of us, living in our hearts, and aching to be given some stage time.
And the really good news—the gospel—is that God loves us regardless of how we write our story. That’s the happy-ever-after part. We are each and every one of us a unique, once-in-creation word of God. We are each and every one of us special beyond words. We are each and every one of us loved by our Creator as if we were God’s only creation—as if we were the most important person who ever lived.
Elie Wiesel (EL-ee VEE-zul) was right! God loves stories. And Frederick Beuchner was right. We live these lives on the brink of happily ever after, because God’s story ends like a fairy tale. And it occurs to me, there is one character in each of our stories that probably makes all the difference in how the story unfolds. And that character is God. God, the author of all that is, has given us the freedom to write our own stories without including God.
I find that both amazing and frightening. We can write our own story as if God did not even exist. As one of my seminary friends likes to describe this illusion: me, world; me, world. We can write our own story as if it were not a part of a bigger story—as if ours was the only story that mattered. We can spend every moment of our lives hiding from the real person inside of us who is desperately trying to find a way into the world, but who cannot work through all the masks, who cannot risk being attacked by the arrows that inevitably fly our way.
It’s a difficult choice to make, really. I mean, we’ve been around. We’ve seen things. We’ve seen people open up to the world, and we watched as the world trampled them down. And the world tramples everybody down eventually, because regardless of how beautifully we write our story, the day will come when somebody stands over what’s left of our spiritless body and says, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
We get to write just about everything but our ending. And that’s when we hope our story was about something more than ourselves, something more than the glorification of the masks we’ve used to get us through life. That’s when we know that God must be a main character in our story. Because in the end, our story is but a chapter—a very important and very beautiful chapter—but nevertheless, just a single chapter in God’s larger story, which surpasses all understanding. And if we don’t write God into our little chapter, then our story truly does become a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.
May we always keep God at the center, dedicating our lives to the greater good; to the love of earth and all the people upon it, and to the glory of God.