There is a grand narrative at work in the universe.
There is a story being played out.
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 order to step into it.
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. This movie illustrates two important things about life. First, that there is a narrative being spoken over each of us, every day, by the author of the universe. And second, that we are also writing out our own counter story to that Divine narrative.
We were made to live within a story. We cannot help but attempt to wrap up the events of our lives into the binding of a book-like package. We want to 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 seems to fall 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, only to 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 that kind of disappointing experience just over a year ago.
I’d just finished writing and editing a five-hundred-page book about my breakdown and recovery. I had decided to send it to spiritual teacher and author Richard Rohr to see if he would help me get it out there. 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 timeframe. It's not that getting a house or writing a successful book weren't God's goals for me, it's that those first two weren't the right ones at the right time.
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 purchase that house. 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. God was trying to tell me to pump the breaks a bit, because I was accelerating ahead in my ideas about the timeline 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.
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 than you can imagine. There's a difference between your version of the story and God’s? God is meant to be the Author of your story, and you the character. I think a lot of people walk away from God because they’re own 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?
I loved that part in the movie “Bruce Almighty” when Jim Carrey’s character 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 has everyone’s good in mind, and that means our good must be good for everyone else too.
There is a grand, Divine story where everyone wins. Could any other story be called to story of God? There’s this story in the Jewish scriptures where a 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 responded, “neither.” There is no such thing as good God story where 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 the 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. Isn’t that what we’d expect any good God to do? And yet, at times, we play in a story line where we often don't want others to succeed, because we feel like it would somehow diminish our success.
So, how does a God who wants everyone to win work within individuals who want to win at the cost of others losing? Sometimes God plays our game for a while, in a way, in order to get us to a better place.
Stillness is about surrendering the process to God, in a way that takes me out of the role of attempting to author my own story.
I was 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 that idea. In light of this whole, grand narrative of disappointment, listen to what Habakkuk said. “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 that, even when God doesn’t work things out like we want, 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 himself, because it is the very presence of God that truly fulfills us, and there is always enough of God to go around.
The Apostle and New Testament writer Paul said it this way, the fruits of God living in us are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentles, faithfulness, and self-control. God himself is the source of all these things.
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. We must come to 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 higher, better, and the more 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.
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 time, some hard lessons, and lots 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 trying to move forward towards the right goal. Amen!