i have to believe that when a specific theme keeps recurring in your life, God has something to do with it. for me, this theme has been the concept of the story. not the kind with made up characters and fantasy worlds, the kind that is displayed in the life of every human being. your story. my story. our stories. the tales we tell with how we live our lives, who we choose to share them with, which paths we choose to travel down, which dreams we choose to pursue.
i can’t help but feel as though these past two weeks especially have been riddled with conversations about the story -the story of each of our individual lives. they come marked by tragedy and triumph, by brokenness and restoration. and much like a snowflake, no two stories are the same. but it is in their uniqueness that we find the the commonality. they are all linked to the ultimate story -the story of God’s redemption and grace. and for that reason, we are to never underestimate the power of any one person’s life’s tale.
personally, i love learning people’s stories. i love learning where God has taken them over the course of their life. i love hearing of how hardships have created character and how heartache has eventually been replaced by joy. i love getting to know a person not by their interests or hobbies or favorite foods but by what moments in their life have made them who they are today. i think that’s why i’ve come to love making new acquaintances so much. it’s like being handed a blank canvas. and with each passing interaction, the painting begins to come into view.
at the first BBQ i attended two weeks ago, i found myself engrossed in yet another conversation about the story. seriously, God, i’m listening this time. C and i went back and forth like a verbal tennis match. it was like he was literally pulling the thoughts from my head before i had a chance to speak. he mentioned donald miller, an author i knew well but whose books i had just never gotten around to reading. i had started his most acclaimed novel, blue like jazz a dozen times in college, but something had always come in between page one and the epilogue. inspired by our conversation, when i returned home that evening, i googled the remaining players in miller’s literary catalog. my eyes were immediately drawn to a title called a million miles in a thousand years. i had heard of this book before, but had never quite known what it was about. i downloaded a sample onto my nook. after reading just two pages, i knew i wanted more. so i downloaded the remaining portion and waited for a spare moment to discover how miller learned “to live a better story.”
aside from the initial five pages i read on the night i downloaded the sample, i read the entire book this past weekend while sunbathing. it’s an easy read. miller’s rhetoric is approachable and his syntax, simplistic. but what it lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in content. on more than one occasion, i found myself nodding along with miller’s words. more than that, there were specific revelations where it might as well have been my own life that he was recounting (miller makes amends with his estranged father and the scene had me wiping a steady stream of tears from behind my dark glasses). all in all, it’s just a good honest gut check. while i may as well have dog-eared the whole dang book, i think i can point to chapter 29 as my favorite:
“the reason God hasn’t fixed you yet”
i’m convinced the most fantastical moment in the story, the point when all the tension is finally relieved, doesn’t actually happen in real life. and i mean that seriously. i’ve thought about it fifty different ways, but i can’t figure out how a human life actually climaxes so that everything on the other side of a particular moment is made to be okay. it happens all the time in movies and books, but it won’t happen to me -and i’m sorry to say, it won’t happen to you either.
maybe the reason we like stories so much is because they deliver wish fulfillment. maybe we sit in the dark and shovel sugar into our mouths because in so many stories everything is made right, and we secretly long for that ourselves.
it was touching when steve, ben, and i realized what the climax of our movie was going to be. we’d been writing toward it for more than a year, and we were practically in tears when we finally wrote that part of the script. it was a scene in which two characters met in confrontation, and one asked the other for forgiveness. we were back at jim’s house in tennessee, sitting around his table. i was saying the words of my character needed to say, ben was adding dialogue from the other character, and steve was typing it as fast as he could. neither ben nor i were looking at each other, because if we did we’d have cried -we’d have cried over characters who didn’t exist resolving a tension that never really happened. there’s just something in the DNA of a human that responds to the idea of an event, a moment in which the upheaval we’ve all been working around is finally laid to rest.
but regardless how passionate the utopianists are, i simply don’t believe utopia is going to happen. i don’t believe we are going to be rescued. i don’t believe an act of a man will make things on earth perfect, and i don’t believe God will intervene before i die, or for that matter before you die. i believe, instead, we will go on longing for a resolution that will not come, not within life as we know it, anyway.
if you think about it, an enormous amount of damage is created by the myth of utopia. there is an intrinsic feeling in nearly every person that your life could be perfect if you only had such-and-such a car or such-and-such a spouse or such-and-such a job. we believe we will be made whole by our accomplishments, our possessions, our social status. it’s written in the fabric of our DNA that life used to be beautiful and now it isn’t, and if only this and if only that, it would be beautiful again.
i saw a story on 60 minutes a few months ago about the happiest country in the world. it was denmark. a study done by a british university ranked the happiest countries, and america was far down the list, but denmark was on top. morley safer explored why. ruling out financial status, physical health, and even social freedom, he landed on a single characteristic of the danes that allowed them such contentment. the reason danes are so happy was this: they had low expectations.
i’m not making that up. there is something in denmark’s culture that allows them to look at life realistically. they don’t expect products to fulfill them or relationships to end all their problems. in fact, in the final interview of the segment, safer was sitting across from a danish man and remarked to him that when americans find out the happiest place on earth is denmark, they are going to want to move there. without missing a beat, the danish man looked at morley and said, “well, honestly, they will probably be let down.”
i don’t mean to insinuate that there are no minor climaxes to human stories. there are. a kid can try to make the football team and in a moment of climax see his name on the coach’s list. a girl can want to get married and feel euphoric when the man of her dreams slides a ring on her finger. but these aren’t the stories i’m talking about. these are substories. when that kid makes the football team, he is going to find out that playing football is hard, and he’s going to find himself in the middle of yet another story. and the girl is going to wake up three months into her marriage and realize she is, in fact, still lonely, and so many of her issues haven’t gone away. and if both of these people aren’t careful, they’re going to get depressed because they thought the climax to their substory was actually the climax to the human story, and it wasn’t. the human story goes on.
growing up in church, we were taught that Jesus was the answer to all our problems. we were taught that there was a circle-shaped hole in our heart and that we had tried to fill it with the square pegs of sex, drugs, and rock and roll; but only the circle peg of Jesus could fill our hole. i became a christian based, in part, on this promise, but the hole never really went away. to be sure, i like Jesus, and i still follow him, but the idea that Jesus will make everything better is a lie. it’s basically biblical theology translated into the language of infomercials. the truth is, the apostles never really promise Jesus is going to make everything better here on earth. can you imagine an infomercial with paul, testifying to the amazing product of Jesus, saying that he once had power and authority, and since he tried Jesus, he’s been moved from prison to prison, beaten, and routinely bitten by snakes? i don’t think many people would be buying that product. peter couldn’t do any better. he was crucified upside down, by some reports. stephen was stoned outside the city gates. john, supposedly, was boiled in oil. it’s hard hard to imagine how a religion steeped in so much pain and sacrifice turned into a promise for earthly euphoria. i think Jesus can make things better, but i don’t think he is going to make things perfect. not here, and not now.
what i love about the true gospel of Jesus, though, is that it offers hope. paul has hope our souls will be made complete. it will happen in heaven, where there will be a wedding and a feast. i wonder if that’s why so many happy stories end in weddings and feasts. paul says Jesus is the hope that will not disappoint. i find that comforting. that helps get me through the day, to be honest. it makes me content somehow. maybe that’s what paul meant when he said he’d learned the secret of contentment.
after the girl i’d dated had been in switzerland for a while, and as i continued to see a counselor, i realized that for years i’d thought of love as something that would complete me, make all my troubles go away. i worshiped at the altar of romantic completion. and it had cost most of the girls i dated, too, because i wanted them to be something they couldn’t be. it’s too much pressure to put on a person. i think that’s why so many couples fight, because they want their partners to validate them and affirm them, and if they don’t get that, they feel as though they’re going to die. and so they lash out. but it’s a terrible thing and wake up and realize the person you just finished crucifying didn’t turn out to be Jesus.
i was interviewing my friend susan isaacs after her book angry conversations with God came out. we were in front of a live audience, and i was reading questions to her off of index cards submitted by the audience. because so much of her book talks about relational needs, relational fulfillment and unfulfillment, one of the questions asked was whether she believed there was one true love for every person.
susan essentially said no. and she said that with her husband sitting right there in the audience. she said she and her husband believed they were a cherished prize for each other, and they would probably drive any other people mad. but then she said something i thought was wise. she said she had married a guy, and he was just a guy. he wasn’t going to make all her problems go away, because he was just a guy. and that freed her to love him as a guy, not as an ultimate problem solver. and because her husband believed she was just a girl, he was free to really love her too. neither needed the other to make everything okay. they were simply content to have good company through life’s conflicts. i thought that was beautiful.
there is a lot of money and power to be had in convincing people we can create an eden here on earth. cults are formed when leaders make such absurd promises. products are sold convincing people they are missing out on the perfect life. and political groups tend to scare people convincing them we are losing eden, or inspire people by telling them we can rebuild what God has destroyed. we all get worked into a frenzy over things that will not happen until Jesus returns. the truth is, we can make things a little better or a little worse, but utopia doesn’t hang in the balance of our vote or of what products we buy.
all of this may sound depressing to you, but i don’t mean it to be. i’ve lived some good stories now, and those stories have improved my quality of my life. but i’ve also let go of the idea things will ever be made perfect, at least while i am walking around on this planet. i’ve let go of the idea that this life has a climax. i’m trying to be more danish, i guess. and the thing is, it works. when you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are. and when you stop expecting material possessions to complete you, you’d be surprised at how much pleasure you get in material possessions. and when you stop expecting God to end all of your troubles, you’d be surprised how much you like spending time with God.
do i still think there will be a day when all wrongs are made right, when our souls will find the completion they are looking for? i do. but when all things are made right, it won’t be because of some preacher or snake-oil salesman or politician or writer making promises in his book. i think, instead, this will be done by Jesus. and it will be at a wedding. and there will be a feast.
a million miles in a thousand years | pages 143-147
anyway, if nothing else, i want to remind you of the power of your own individual story. it is the story that has brought you to this exact point in your life today. and for that reason, it is always worthy of being told. embrace the road you’ve been down but look ahead with hope and promise. the wedding’s coming.