I wrote the following excerpts earlier this year as part of a longer blog post called “In the Middle of the Story” on my main blog. If you like these, go read the whole thing! I was thinking of it again while reading Luci Shaw’s book Breath for the Bones, subtitled Art, Imagination, and Spirit: Reflections on Creativity and Faith. After I wrote something about this book at Is My Head in the Clouds? (And Notes on Beauty), I read her chapter on Learning from Story. And I do think in story; it’s become a very important part of my life, especially in the past several years as my paradigms about life have been shifting, and my story has been morphing with it. How about you? Let me know what you think! ~~ Virginia
“In the Middle of the Story”
(Written in Spring 2011)
A pile of vintage books lay on the coffee table in front of me, free for the taking at my next door neighbor’s house. I nudged my reading glasses up on my nose, lamenting that I hadn’t grabbed my stronger pair for this impromptu task. I squinted and spotted Leo Tolstoy’s name on the spine of two fat tan ones. Anna Karenina! It had been my “someday goal” to read a Russian novel; I had been feeling terribly uneducated by my lack until then. Anna Karenina has been hailed as one of the finest, and here she had come looking for me, around the globe and down a century or so. Tolstoy, too, would be my top pick since I had already read his short Confessions and appreciated his contemplative Christian worldview. I figured I would pass along the extra copy to my daughter Mary, who is much better educated in literature than I am. A few days later, I finally settled into my comfy reading chair, and with book in hand and strong glasses on, eagerly opened the pages to settle into a masterpiece. However, confusion quickly set in. What an odd way to start a story! No lead in to introduce the characters? It was like jumping into the middle of the plot. Really, that is exactly what it is, as I discovered to my chagrin that what I thought were two copies of the same book were indeed part 1 and part 2 of an epic, and you can guess which volume I had picked up. I did read volume 1 after that, staying up late a few nights and paying for it in grogginess the next mornings. I haven’t yet had the time to resume reading in volume 2, so I am wondering what will happen to Anna and Vronsky, Kitty and Levin. I’m still “in the middle of the story” not only with the book, but with the story of my own life. I bet you are, too.
You see, we are all in the middle of a story, the Grand Adventure of life. The world did not begin when we were born; it will not end when we die. What has gone on before us profoundly affects our lives, and what we do will have its own ripple effect in turn. We influence others. We matter. Christian author Dan Allender, in his book To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future urges his readers to explore and understand their life stories so far, as a means not only for becoming spiritually and emotionally whole, but also so we can write the end of the story well. What we have come through in life already can help us determine where we should go next. It gives contour and texture to our ministries as we learn to relate to other people out of our own experiences.
Your Own Story Thus Far
Bringing it even “closer to home” how about your own personal story? How has your life been subtly or radically shaped by your family of origin, the circumstances surrounding your conception, your birth order and family size, your childhood and teenage experiences, your education (or lack of it), your jobs, your friendships and romances, your heroes and enemies, your growing awareness of God, your experiences with churches (positive or negative), your spouse and children, your travels and adventures, your successes and failures, your joys and griefs? How does this still affect you today? Is this good or bad?
Does the thought of recalling your life story bring pain to your soul? You are not alone. I think everyone winces at the remembrance of certain chapters of life, and most of us have a skeleton or two (or at least a pinky bone!) in the closet. Some of you have even endured serious trauma and haven’t yet recovered. And yet we don’t have to be stuck or defeated. We can learn to rethink and reinterpret our pasts through the lens of wiser eyes. Here is an article that has helped many people with this: Truth and Grace in the Stories of Our Lives.
And we can remember that the story isn’t over yet. There is still hope for the future, even if the present seems too difficult to even move forward. I try to remind myself of that when I am going through a particularly challenging situation. This will pass. I will grow stronger from it. I will learn something new. Even a good night’s sleep can make all the difference. So can a heartfelt apology. Do you remember the old poem, “My Life is But a Weaving,” about not understanding all of the loose ends and random patterns of our lives until we get to Heaven and see the front side of the tapestry? The best part of Heaven will be worshipping in the presence of the LORD forever. The next best, in my mind, is the opportunity to listen to the stories of believers from around the world and from centuries and millenia past and future. No barriers of time, space, or social constraints. We can finally start to figure out how He worked it all together. Who shared the good news with this person, and where did it go from there? How did this or that tragedy or misunderstanding paradoxically result in the gospel of grace being poured out on a whole people group?
In the meantime, while we wait for Paradise Regained, where there will be no more sorrow or pain, perhaps talking over the issues with a pastor or professional counselor would be helpful to you. I know that many of you struggle with unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior which may have existed in your family for generations, whether it is fear or prejudice, anger, abuse, addiction or shame. You might feel trapped, with little or no hope of change. Don’t lose heart. In God’s story, there is always room for a radical plot twist. He is Jehovah Rapha, the God who heals inside and out. The devastation can stop here, in your generation. You don’t want to pass it down to your own precious children and grandchildren. Be bold. Ask for help. Let your heart be transformed! You do not need to be bound any more!
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.” Isaiah 61:1-4
Challenge: As you look back at the story of your own life, are there any chapters that are quite challenging for you? Is there anything you can do to reinterpret them or to resolve a conflict?
Story in Church & Ministry
This topic is a little bit close to my heart right now since we have just recently transitioned to a new church. Since last September, we’ve been attending a small Presbyterian church plant, Lake Baldwin Church, that lives and loves the paradigm of life as a story. In fact, the newcomer’s brochure that we received when we first visited starts out with these words on the front cover: “Real. Life. Story.” Inside: “A Story is Being Written It’s written on the faces of people around you. In the dimples and creases. In the tears. In the laugh lines. In the furrowed brows. Every life has a story to be told and our stories are intertwined.” Just words on a page? No, I’ve experienced it in my conversations there. In some churches, visitors are almost completely ignored, but the people I’ve met there don’t just want to know my name, they want to know who I am and what my story is. They make time for that. Tears? “There must be a story behind that!” is the warm response. I especially loved the series last fall on Jesus the Story Teller, going through a dozen or so parables in the book of Luke. I feel like I can be part of the story there. Here’s the start of mine: Weekend Gratitude: Lake Baldwin Church 5th Anniversary Celebration
It’s sort of funny that I started out my church life as a young teen in the late 1970’s as a Presbyterian. You can read more about that part of my life story here: Happy All Saints Day! I’ve been a part of nearly a dozen other churches since then, all quite different from one another. As I look back over my own church history from the past 34 years, I realize that I was at each one for a reason. I learned a lot, found opportunities to serve, made significant lifelong friendships, grew to love my sisters and brothers in Christ more. Though I am often disillusioned, I choose to put my faith in God that he will continue to lead me for the rest of my life, placing me just where he wants me for that season. It’s all part of the story. My story. The Grand Story.
Yes, I know that “story” is one of the big buzz words in the Emerging Church Movement. It’s in. It’s trendy. And yes, I strongly disagree with some of the doctrinal teachings of the Emergent end (such as Brian McLaren) of the Emerging spectrum, since it seems like they view so much of the Biblical story as fable or symbolism rather than literal fact. They discount or deny the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the fact that he died on the cross to take the punishment for our sins. Many in the Emerging Church also believe in “open theism“ which is a belief that God has voluntarily limited his own omniscience so that even he doesn’t know what will happen next — he merely responds creatively and powerfully to whatever challenge human history throws him. Hello? Last I knew, my Bible told me that our Sovereign God knows and plans the end from the beginning! So I think there are serious concerns within the Emerging Church movement. (See Why is Rob Bell So Alarming?)
On the other hand, I think that one lure of the EC movement is that they are responding to a deep lack in many of the traditional churches. Are we so caught up in theological jargon and religious rules that we have forgotten the life of Christ in the gospels? Are we so plugged in to meeting the demands of the organization and its rigid system of living that we have neglected the uniqueness, giftings, and worth of the individual believer? Can’t we have a love of the arts, a thirst for justice and missional living, a sense of story — and sound doctrine at the same time? Why either/or?
The church itself has stories to tell. Have you ever read a comprehensive book about church history? At a yard sale, I picked up a 1919 copy of A History of the Christian Church by Williston Walker. I wanted to look up what a “Latitudinarian” was, found it in the chapter on the English church, and started reading. But I was curious about what had led up to this, so I flipped backward a chapter or so. I kept having to go back and back and back to see what caused what! Church history is fascinating to me. It’s a bit disturbing to read about all of the little splinter groups and schisms over what seem like minor issues. But it’s also comforting, knowing that I am not the only person who has been in flux about church, not the only person who has left one in search of another that fits better. Even if you can’t plow through a 624 tome on church history, you can at least research the background of your own church denomination and congregation. What you find “way back when” might disturb you, but try to keep in mind that church movements change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. There are dark blots and bright spots anywhere you go because people are human, and humans aren’t God. If you can’t find a printed history related to your church affiliation, try Googling it.
Along with that, I think it is also important to be aware of how much a church organization can affect family life with teaching on gender roles, marriage, child training, attitudes toward home schooling, expectations of involvement, spiritual authority, etc. We cannot just assume that what we are taught is correct just because someone claims it is “Biblical” or “the Godly way to do it.” Be a Berean and study the Scriptures for yourself. I know that it is tempting to get disillusioned if you have been burned here, but abandoning church altogether is not a wise long-term option. You may have to change what you are looking for, and it may not look much like what you had before, but choose your church carefully. It can profoundly shape who you are.
Beyond the institutional church, think for a few moments about the role of “story” in your own personal ministry to others. Do you make time to listen to the stories of others, to hear where they are coming from, to empathize with their hurts and sorrows, to laugh at their funny tales, and enjoy them as friends? Or are they projects that you schedule in for 10 minutes as your rattle off your doctrinal spiel, attempt to “close the deal” and then either mark a notch on your spiritual belt or chalk them off as unreachable heathens? Personal outreach in the name of Jesus takes time, love and authenticity. It takes story: theirs and yours and God’s. Do you have a good grasp of the Biblical narrative from beginning to end? The gospel starts with creation! Are you prepared to share your testimony, the reality of how God reached into your life story? (Here is part of mine: ) Is what you have spiritually anything they would even want? Are you in love with the Lord ~~ ignited and passionate and enthusiastic? Does this overflow with the beautiful adornment of genuine joy and peace and compassion?
Story and Marriage & Parenting
“We start with where we are, but where do we go from here?”
Despite the rosy “normal” picture we would all like to portray about home school families in general, I realize that some of my readers are single parents, or have wayward teens, or have unsatisfying marriages, or are living on the financial edge, or have struggled with infertility, or feel like “the old woman who lived in a shoe and had so many children she didn’t know what to do.” Some of you can’t even point to one specific problem, but you have an uneasy feeling that things just aren’t going right, that somehow you missed a critical step in the manual. I have often been at that spot. I’m not “there yet” and sometimes not even sure where “there” is or even if I really want to “go there” anyway. So this section is a challenge for me to write. However, if I could offer just two words to you and to myself, they would be grace and hope, no matter where you are or what has happened in your family. Your story is not over and there are still many chapters to write.
That’s not to say that home schooling your children automatically guarantees success and happiness. It doesn’t. We make mistakes. Other people can throw a wrench in the works. Circumstances beyond our control happen. And even home schooling can contribute to problems in the family. Let’s not sugar coat this. Home schooling can add a lot of stress to a family, especially if you are listening to people who have a rigid way of thinking about education, child training, and marriage. Just because someone has been home schooling for a long time, has written books, can throw around a lot of Bible verses and dire warnings, and claims to know the right way to do xyz does not make them an authority on your family. That goes for me or for anyone else. I have a lot of opinions and convictions, but I am not your Holy Spirit.
That said, here is my counsel. 🙂 Be a Berean as you read!
- Pursue a grace-based approach to family life and education, rather than legalism or autocratic control. You can sour your own family’s story by being prickly, self-righteous, and overly concerned about outward appearances. Read: Mothering by Faith and Grace
- Let your children be unique individuals. Each one has their own story. They are not merely extensions of you or part of the family herd. Each one deserves dignity and respect because they are created in God’s image and he has called us to nurture them. Don’t try to force them in to your cookie cutter.
- Be careful with your family’s stories. Your spouse and children are vulnerable because you know them so well behind the scenes. Use discretion when talking to other people about your struggles. And be very careful what you bring up again to your spouse or child who has shared sensitive information with you. You will severely damage their trust if you use what they have entrusted to you against them in an improper manner.
- Teach your children about their right to speak up if anyone is molesting or mistreating them. They don’t need to give in to fear or accusations that they are tattling. (Listen to this powerful podcast by a home school mom about the trauma of childhood sexual abuse and the healing that came much later. Though this has not been my personal experience, this podcast really ministered to me when I listened to it again the other day.)
- If there are problems in your marriage and parenting, you must face them squarely and persevere through the difficulties. Read Child Discipline or Child Abuse? and Help for Hurting Marriages.
Like I mentioned, there are more sections to the original article that you can find here: “In the Middle of the Story.”
You might also like my poem “This is My Song and I Sing.”
What do you think about story? Leave a comment!