33 - The Practice of Stillness - Part 7: Story
There is a grand narrative at work in the universe, a direction and purpose the whole world is engaged in, and you are a part of it. There is a story being played out, and you are a chapter in that story. And, the same author writing that grand narrative also has a great story to write in your life. But you have to learn how to listen in a new and surprising way in order to step into it. I don’t know if you remember the movie “Stranger than Fiction” with Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson. It’s about a rather stoic tax accountant who suddenly starts hearing a voice narrating his life, and an author writing a story who doesn’t realize that her story is coming true. It’s one of my favorite comedy’s, but it illustrates two important things about life. There is a narrative being spoken over each and everyone of us, every day, by the author of the universe. But we are also writing out our own counter story without often realizing that we’re making it come true. I’ve talked about this already in terms of meaning, and also in terms of vision, but not in terms of narrative. We were made to live within a story. We cannot help but at least attempt to wrap up the random events of our lives into the binding of some kind of book-like package. We must know that our lives are not without meaning. We are desperate for some kind of vision that gives us the feeling we are heading somewhere worth getting to. It’s why we love movies and books. It’s why we are drawn to story. We want to know that our lives have a beginning, a narrative, a climax, and a conclusion that all fit together, make sense, and have a happy ending. There is reason we thirst for this structure to our lives, and a reason we languish in limbo when we cannot sense it. We’ve all been there. We’ve all had days where our lives just don’t make sense, or when the grand conclusion we’d been moving towards comes crashing down and falls apart. That’s call the anti-climax. When we’re writing our own story, that happens a lot. We’re basically just throwing darts in the dark and hoping something sticks. We’re hoping that our hoping is enough to materialize some kind of good outcome, but how often does that work out? In our own, self-made stories, we often experience more defeat than success in piloting our lives towards any kind of good end. It can be very frustrating and disappointing to reach for a grand conclusion, and only experience a grand defeat. The problem for us is that there’s just too much out of our control. We certainly can make decisions about where we want to go in life, and we can strive to get there. But who knows if it’ll happen, or work out? More than that, who knows if any chosen direction is really all we’d hoped it to be. I had this experience just over a year ago.
I’d finished my first book, a five-hundred-and-sixty-page bomb shell about my breakdown and recovery, and was trying to get anyone to read it. Anyone? But I wasn’t making much head way. Even my friends had mostly just glanced at the cover. A few had gotten into the first section (there are four) but I think the book was just to long and daunting. So, I decided to send my book to my favorite spiritual teacher and author, Richard Rohr on the off chance that he would take notice, and help me get it out there. It was a long shot, but I just had this feeling about it. My wife and I were also a few weeks out from closing on our first house. It’d been a long journey on both ventures, but my hopes were high and everything seemed to be moving towards this grand climax. Then the bottom fell out. In a span of two days we lost the mortgage for the house, and I got a kind but defeating rejection from Rohr. The next two days were dark for me. I was sitting in the wreckage of an upward trajectory that had suddenly turned into a steep slide, trying to understand what had happened. On top of it all, I’d had some good indication that both of these directions were from God, which made their dissolution all the more discouraging. What happened? What went wrong, and what should I do now? I now have a year’s perspective on those questions, and a better understanding. We just closed on our first house two months ago, and I’m understanding the wisdom Rohr shared in his rejection, which was that I needed to “cook” a bit more before I was ready to get my message out. The house we’re in now turned out to be much better, that “cooking” has brought me to this blog, and both are right where I know I’m supposed to be. That devastating crash and burn a year ago wasn’t about the wrong goals, but the wrong trajectory. I’d just imagined, foolishly, that things were going to work out as God promised before God had promised them to. I call this filling in the gaps of the narrative. God has given me a lot of clear direction in my life, even from a young age. I’ve known for a long time I was meant to be a spiritual teacher and writer. But I’ve wresting so much with the apparent slowness of those dreams coming true. What I didn’t realize was that there’s a lot that had to happen for all that to work out. Timing is as important as direction, and God knows both better than me. I’ve always had a clear understanding of the direction, but a poor grasp of God’s timing, which has led to a lot of frustration and wrong conclusions in my life. Even where I’ve had the right plot line for my life, I’ve struggled to surrender to the process. What I thought would take five chapters has taken twenty plus. I’ve filled in the gaps of God’s timing when I really didn’t have any clear direction about that. I just found it really hard to wait, but my attempt to speed up the process only proved frustrating. After that crash and burn a year ago, I started getting this new message from God. The message was “slow down.” Over and over I kept hearing, seeing, and sensing this, but it took me a while to understand it. Finally, after a few months, I was sitting with a friend talking about my recent anti-climatic outcomes and the message took hold. He was sharing a similar experience. They’d rented a house for about two years, and had spent a frustrating six months trying to reach a purchase agreement. The landlord was wanting to sell, and they were wanting to buy, but things just kept getting waylaid. Finally, my friend gave up, got a realtor, and found and purchased another house rather quickly. We were sitting in that new house talking about all this, when he mentioned that God had also been telling him to “slow down.” Eureka!! That had been my experience, but I’d already been starting to understand what God was saying. He’d been trying to tell me to pump the breaks a bit, because I was accelerating ahead in my ideas about the time line of how all this would work out. The disappointment had come from my attempt to take the pen out of God’s hands and write some of my own chapters. I think that’s the essence of most disappointment in life, for most of us.
Let’s be honest. It’s hard sometimes to see a grand narrative taking place in the world, even on the smaller pages of our little lives. People walk away from religion and God all the time for this very reason. They wake up one day to the reality that the narrative of religion just doesn’t seem to ring true. Usually this comes through some kind of suffering and disappointment. But the contemplative knows that most suffering comes, not from God’s inability to guide our lives, but from ours. What we don’t often realize is that, even with God, we’re still trying to pilot our own direction. Most religious people aren’t really following God’s grand narrative for their lives, they’re just trying to get God to underwrite their own. There’s even a lot of religion that affirms this mentality, and lot of wrong thinking that tells us, “God will give you what you want in life.” Let me break it to you gently (or not). God’s not here to do what you want, or fulfill your idea of what’s good. God wants to give you something much better, and bigger. Do you understand the difference between your version of the story and God’s? The difference is in who is the author, and who is the character. Most people walk away from the idea of God because they’re own little ego-narrative wasn’t being accomplished. But is that what we think God is supposed to do? Is the God of the universe here to carry out our plans, which often entail our success at the cost of others defeat. I loved that part in the movie “Bruce Almighty” when Jim Carrey’s character, who’s taken on the abilities of God, decides to just start answering every prayer with a “yes.” All those people who’d prayed to win the lottery did, and they were all pissed off because they all got so little. But that’s what we really want. We want God to do what we want, but we get pissed off when we realize that God doesn’t just have our good in mind, he/she has everyone’s good in mind, and that means our good must be good for everyone else too. What we prefer, and what we’re often taught by unhealthy religion is that this “good” God loves us and hates everyone not like us. It’s hard for us to imagine a Divine narrative where everyone wins, because our idea of winning often entails a lot of other people losing, and that’s never God’s goal. Most of the time we have to lose a lot before we begin to understand just how the heart of God works, and why the very goals we wanted God to accomplish for us entail everyone losing, including us. Sometimes getting what we want, when we want it, would be the worst thing in the world. How do we even know where we should be going, and why would we presume to think we can tell God, when any idea of God entails someone who knows infinitely more than we do about where everything is going, and how to get everyone to a better place without anyone needing to lose for someone else to win.
There is a grand, Divine story where everyone wins. Could any other story truly be called to story of God? The petty story of human-made religion is full of winners and losers. Even the Bible clearly reveals this broken story. There’s this cool story in the Jewish scriptures where this guy named Joshua, who is about to go into battle, sees an angel of God and asks him who’s side he’s on. “Are you for us or for our enemies,” he asked, to which the angel responds, “neither.” Really!!?? There are so many Jewish scriptures where that clearly doesn’t seem to be the case, where God appears very much for one side, and against another. But we have to understand that then, just as now, we often read the pages of God’s story from our own petty perspective, and think that God has to be against others to be for us. What a petty God, and what a relief to find out that God is not like this at all. Unfortunately, we learn that truth most through unmet expectations, because they were built around the small story of our personal success, instead of God’s grand story of cosmic success. There is no such thing as good God story where even one person loses in order for others to win. That’s what Jesus was talking about when he told the story of the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine safe sheep and searches for that one sheep that was lost and in danger. Jesus is saying that God cares just as much about the minority as the majority, the outsider as well as the group, because God is for everyone, and no story is a good story where even one person has to lose. Isn’t that what we’d expect any good God to do, except when we often craft our own, personal stories. We often don’t really care that much about who loses, as long as we win. Our whole world seems to be based on this faulty paradigm. How does a God who wants everyone to win work within this small-minded paradigm? The answer is that he/she works against it, and that can be very self-defeating for us. But the answer is that we also need to get on board with God’s grander vision for the world, if we truly want to experience the kind of personal success that feeds into a God-story where everyone wins.
How can we see the story of God unfolding in our lives when we’re reading an entirely wrong script? We can’t. We must get our eyes off of that wrong story, usually written by us within the context of a larger group and culture, and get our eyes on the biggest picture of all. Can we find a space big enough to hold the value of every person, where we can come to believe and work for the success of every person, even when that looks very different from our story? Is there a story large enough to include every individual, walking their separate paths together? Can God weave all our diverse, individual stories together in a tapestry that includes the good of all? Let’s make it more personal. Is there room at your church for gays and straights? Is there room at your table for Republicans and Democrats? Is there room in your heart for the immigrant, the outcaste, the poor, the one least like you. Jesus once said, how we treat the least is how we treat God, because God is most revealed in our hearts by how we treat those we consider the least. What that means is that if you’re a straight, white, male, Evangelical Christian, how you treat a gay, black, female Atheist reveals your love for God. I have to say, it looks like most “Christians” don’t really pass that test. But that’s okay, because most of us fail that test, no matter where we are on the social, political, religious spectrum. We just can’t seem to grab hold of a narrative where everyone wins, especially those most unlike ourselves. And as a result, we just can’t grasp the big narrative of God. The story of God is the affirming energy of love drawing all things back to itself. Any other story is just too small. Any other story just won’t work if we are truly attempting to live out of that larger story of God. Our frustration at God’s inability to bring our goals to fruition reveals this. God will never, ever fulfill our dreams at the cost of another’s. Any such dream is just too small, and presents a God who is still too small. God will not fit into that box. What we get when God does is a false god, or no god at all. We will either make God as petty as we are, or reject God altogether, when we can’t see a God big enough to love every single person on the planet, and the planet too. A God big enough to love everything will always break through the boxes of any idea of a God who doesn’t. It is the breaking of those boxes which we perceive as the defeat of our smaller narratives. It is a good thing when God doesn’t honor any narrative where we win at the cost of others. But can we suffer that humiliation properly, in a way that readjusts our negative narrative to God’s more positive story? That is the true dilemma of any spiritual journey.
The path of God’s grand story leads through the valley of suffering, for every person still stuck in the wrong win/lose paradigm. God has to first break that wrong paradigm in order to teach us a greater one. How we react to that breaking determines the success or failure of our spiritual growth. Until we take hold of a different trajectory, we will continue to experience the happenstance of our poorly planned and executed goals in life. All of life, for us, will truly be random chance and relative meaning. We will experience some success, and some defeat, and we will have to adjust our expectations accordingly. For most, it is more defeat than anything. The more defeat we experience, the more we just want to give up on that game altogether. That is a good thing, but only when we realize that there is a better story to step into, where our crash and burn gets translated into a rising from the ashes. When we can’t see that larger story, we just keep trying to craft some kind of existence in the wreckage of those dreams. We start out dreaming big, but quickly learn to down size to the reality of a world that doesn’t seem to have our dreams in mind. All this is simply evidence of the wrong story, of any story still in our own hands. And we quickly learn that any story we could make is going to be a crap-shoot. Some will sore in this paradigm, but most will fail and fall down. The best most of us can do, in this broken story, is sit around and glumly watch those few success with a good degree of envy. That’s what the success of television and social media is all about. It’s about our attempt to show that our lives aren’t that bad, while we secretly wish we had someone else’s life. We learn to live vicariously through the fulfillment of others dreams, when ours don’t seem to be working out. But that is not what God intended. We need to turn our eyes away from anyone else’s story, and to our own. Our own story is just for us, and it is never dependent on the success or failure of anyone else. In God’s grand narrative, everyone has a story where everyone wins. We can succeed in a space that doesn’t require others to lose, but that is a very different story than what we’ve been taught. We have to learn how to see the world in a very different way in order for all our stories to come true. That different way is the contemplative way of stillness, peace, and Shalom.
Stillness is simply about surrendering the entire process to God, in a way that takes me out of the role of author all together. Instead of pushing for an agenda in my life, of any kind, I must learn how to wait for the agenda of God, even when that takes a lot of time and disappointment. If we were honest, all of our disappointment stems from unrealistic expectations. But what if we had no expectations at all, except the expectation that God is good and working for our good, even beyond our ability to understand or see that. I was just reading one of the Jewish prophets this morning, and came across this startling quote. The prophet Habakkuk was living in a time where his entire nation was being invaded and hauled off to foreign lands. The Jews thought they were the “special” people of God, with special protection, but Habakkuk was having to deal with the disappointment of God thwarting this idea. In light of this whole, grand narrative of disappointment, listen to what Habakkuk says. “Though the cherry trees don’t blossom and the strawberries don’t ripen, though apples are worm-eaten and the wheat fields stunted, though the sheep pens are sheepless and the cattle barns empty, I’m singing joyful praise to God. I’m turning cartwheels of joy to my Savior God.” Habakkuk is saying very poetically that, even when God doesn’t work things out like we wanted, we can still be happy in God, and happy in life. This is a person who understands the nature of God’s big story, and the nature of happiness. Both depend, not on where we are going or what we are getting, but who we get to walk through life with. We will all always succeed when our definition of success is defined by our relationship with God, not our relationship with things. When we see God as just another way of getting what we want, we will be disappointed. What God wants to give us most is him/herself, because it is the very presence of God that truly fulfills us, and there is always enough of God to go around. The spiritual teacher and New Testament writer Paul said it this way, the fruits of God living in us is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentles, faithfulness, and self-control. God him/herself is the source of all these things, but we’ll never figure that out while pursuing those things through external, material acquirement. In that game, there is never enough for anyone to be happy, and I think we’re coming to a place where we understand that enough to stop, and consider an alternative story. That alternative story is a God who is the fullness of everything we’ve ever wanted, fully available to all. We understand this, in some ways. We’ve all experienced moments of peace, joy, love and contentment which had nothing to do with any external circumstance. We just felt happy, and there was nothing about our external environment which caused it. When that happens, we are experiencing the pure joy of God. That’s how we experience God, and we all have. It’s just we don’t always know how to see it. Stillness gives us the space to begin to recognize that, because it puts us in a place where we can experience this God-contentment apart from our pursuits in the external world. It’s in those moments where nothing is going right, or according to the “plan”, and yet we still feel alright and we still feel good. Isn’t that the kind of fulfillment we want, anyway. A contentment that remains and sustains regardless our circumstances, even when everything is going horribly wrong. The kind of God who would base our happiness in an external world of limitation and lack is a limited and lacking God. We truly should reject this kind of God as cruel, petty, and arbitrarily discriminant. Only a God who can actually fulfill every single person is a good God, so we must understand God’s idea of fulfillment in a different way. We must understand that fulfillment can’t possibly be based in a limited, material universe, but in an infinite, spiritual universe which also sustains and supports the material, but which is also higher, better, and the most real. In other words, we must come to understand true fulfillment in terms of our spiritual self which is eternal, and not our material self which is passing away.
We will never be fulfilled in a state of being grounded through a dying body in a dying world. The world where we can get everything we think we want, and still see it all fall apart into rust and decay, is a world where no kind of true, lasting fulfillment is even possible. God can never work out everyone’s good in that kind of limited world. That is a narrative where everyone fails eventually, even God. That story is always one of entropy and death. It is only through the death of that narrative that we are able to be reborn into the new, better, and true narrative of God. God’s story of renewal is not based in that external world. It is based in something higher. That something is the eternal, infinite flow of God. God’s energy remains constant. It never dies, it just transforms, and transform us with it. But only as we are willing to let the old narrative die, and step into the larger story of God. That is a story where everyone wins, in a universe that is much bigger than our small, material world, but which can redeem even that world too. The real question is, are we able to step into that larger universe with God? Can we step up into a narrative larger than our small, petty, win/lose paradigms where everyone loses eventually, even us, even God. Can we see a bigger picture, on a plane where everyone has access to the same, limitless energy able to fulfill us all? It all comes down to this one question. What are you looking forward to in life? What are the dreams and desires of your life about? The answer to that question will reveal a lot about where you are headed, and what story you are a character in. Is it the small story of the ego-self which can never understand its own success but in terms of someone else’s losing? Or is it the kind of fulfillment detached from the relative position of everyone else around you. God has a story written out just for you. God’s idea of success has nothing to do with how well you compare to anyone else, but how well you step into that story, the very story you were created for. You’ll know when you begin to lean in and live out this story. It’s already hidden in your heart. It’s what you already want, though it may be clouded by the ego’s desire to use it for selfish means and selfish ends. God’s story for you is about getting into the flow of love, so you can be that flow for others. That’s why selflessness is a good indicator that you are on your way, and why stillness is how you get there.
Chasing the ego-version of what you were made to do will leave you feeling restless, lost, and unfulfilled. It will seem like you’re doing the right thing, but for the wrong reasons. You will be living out of the right details, but the wrong story line. You were not made to pursue self-fulfillment, but to learn how to rest in the fulfillment God has already written out for you. That is what will bring you rest, peace, and Shalom. Take some time, take a hard look at what you are pursuing, and why. Is it all about you? Is it all about you getting what you want, getting to the top, and beating other people down on the way? Is it about your success at the cost of others? Or is it about how your life can pull others up with you as we all walk this journey towards greater peace and fulfillment in God? Every “me” story of God dovetails into the “us” story of God, like the small threads of a great, big tapestry. And the big picture of that tapestry is a world where everybody wins, which means everyone knows the value and love they were inherently born with. There are no “in” and “out” groups in this story, because everything God makes is good, down to each blade of grass and every drop of water. Everything is a part of God. In order for each of us to also play the part we were created for, we must step back into a world where every part matters, every part is sacred, and nothing is left out of the story of God’s love. You will find, the work you have to do to begin walking back into that kind of world begins where you struggle to love the most. Who do you consider the “least,” the outcast, the unlovable? When you learn how to love what you think is not worthy of love, then you know you are becoming more like God, because God loves everything. And you’ll find, when you can love those things in the world that are hard to love, you’ll also begin to love those things in you that are hard to love. Growing in love is the point and purpose. It’s what God made us for. It’s the big story of history. The sad story of history is just how much we’ve missed that, even those who have claimed to know God the most. But today is a new day. Today, God is still calling us upward in our journey to know him/her, and to grow in love. I pray we all at least desire to grow in that journey, and see the reality that we are often chasing a kind of self-fulfillment which leads in the opposite direction. Stillness is the point where we drop all our attempts to write our own story, get quiet, and begin learning to lean in and listen to the story God is already speaking over us. To do that takes some time, some hard lessons, and lost of failure. But don’t get discouraged, and don’t give up. You have to first do things poorly in order to learn how to do them well. Failure is an option, because failure means we are at least trying to move forward towards the right goal. Stay with me, and let’s keep going, as we discuss next just what it’s like to begin to hear God speak that story over us. I love you. I wish the best for you, and I’m here to help you keep learning, and growing in that love, as we all keep reaching for the source of love in God. So let’s keep going!