Sunday, July 17, 2011

This Story Isn’t Over

Our first church home- Woodland Presbyterian
42nd and Spruce in West Philadelphia

 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
  his love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—
     (Psalm 107)

I spent time this weekend with friends I’ve known since I was first married. Two I met when I was twenty-one, the other a few years later. We explored leadership together in our church in West Philly, spent time in a young mom’s Bible study together, watched each other’s kids, wrestled with life in the city. Our husbands ran together three mornings a week, played golf together on Philly’s Cobbs Creek Golf Course, and have met one weekend a year for over twenty-five years now to play golf and share their lives. We’ve been to the weddings of each other’s children, and have prayed for each other through life’s changes and struggles.

It’s wonderful to spend time with people who know our story, and who know the story isn’t over. We live in a culture with a twitter-length attention span. Anything that lasts more than half an hour seems like forever. So what do we do with stories that take decades to unfold?

No wonder so many people feel like the hard patches they go through will never end. When their careers stall out, they feel like they’re over. When marriages hit hard times, as every marriage does, they feel like they’ve come to an end. Those long days taking care of small children seem eternal, and the countless difficulties children face become defining boundaries: “Life will always be like this.” “This will never change.”

Our old West Philly neighborhood- 46th and Baltimore, 1983
But things do change. Unexpected avenues open out from seeming dead ends. Children caught in destructive whirlpools can suddenly swim free. Some marriages unravel, but others, with work, prayer, hope, large doses of faith, can blossom into new life just when that seems most impossible. As Ezekiel reminds us, dry bones can stand and walk.

The young friend and her children who came to stay with us just two weeks ago have moved on to an unexpected next chapter. That story isn’t over. Neither are the stories of my friends, their children, or my own.

With another group of trusted friends, I’ve been working through Dan Allender’s book and workbook about the story God is writing in our lives. In To Be Told: God Invites You to Coauthor Your Future,  and the accompanying workbook, To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future, Allender suggests that God is writing our lives, and invites us to write with Him. He challenges his readers to look closely at the chapters that have gone before, to examine the places of pain, defeat and struggle, and to see where God may be leading, to celebrate the ways He’s been at work.

A friend who wanted to do this asked if I would help launch a small To Be Told story group. At the time I was busy, but when my schedule became clearer, I came back to the idea. How hard could it be to write chapters from our lives, share them with others, and see where God is leading?

Turns out it’s far harder than I thought. I’m great at compartments, and at stashing those dark, unfinished parts of the story in cupboards where I don’t need to see them. 

But the story isn’t over, and as I rummage through experiences I’ve thought I left behind, I see patterns repeating, places where fear and unresolved pain keep me from moving as freely as I’d like.
Here’s one of the assignments from the To Be Told workbook: “To your well of stories [a list of personal scenes to explore], add scenes where you saw redemption and where it was absent; where great suffering occurred and where nondramatic, routine suffering occurred; where there was peace and where there was resolution. In other words, add stories of shalom, shalom shattered, shalom sought, and denouement” (58).

Sound easy?

Here’s a follow-up question: “”Which stories are you avoiding?” (59)

It’s interesting: in a group of friends, there are some stories we tell, some we avoid. Some challenges we’re willing to share, some we'd rather set aside. Unexpected questions open long-forgotten doors. An honest story from one friend can prompt deeper, more honest stories from others.

According to Allender, “Stories are meant to be told. . . . Telling them is a gift you give others, By telling your stories, you offer a bit of yourself in a world of small talk, pager messages, and email. You offer others a glimpse of what it means to be human and of the struggles that are common to us all, and you invite others into community” (122).

I don’t know the end of my story, or of anyone else’s. I do know the story isn’t over, that obstacles that seem insurmountable can become occasions to grow, that experiences that seem too painful to face can be places where we meet God and see His hand most clearly. I know as well that community is essential for all of us. As we share what it means to be human, we see as well what it means to be loved.

Allender recounts the story of C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. “Orual, Queen of Glome, reads her complaint against the gods. She has been unfairly, even cruelly, treated, she says. She tells the story of her life, and after a while she realizes that she has been reading it over and over again. The silence that meets her accusations enrages and then silences her. Then she realizes that the response was there all along. “’I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer, You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?’”(136, Lewis Till We Have Faces 319)”

As I’ve begun to work through unresolved scenes of my life, I’ve come to see God at work in surprising, yet familiar ways. And as I’ve heard chapters and stories from my friends’ lives, I’ve been struck at how God uses even the most difficult things to shape us, teach us, remind us of Himself.
Makoto Fujimura,  Fire and Rose are One
Collection of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson

     What we call the beginning is often the end
     And to make an end 
          is to make a beginning.
     The end is where we start from. . . .
     A people without history
     Is not redeemed from time, 
          for history is a pattern
     Of timeless moments.
       (T. S. Eliot Little Gidding V)

    And all shall be well and
    All manner of thing shall be well.
       (T. S. Eliot Little Gidding III)

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