Chapter OneLife Is a Story
Life, you'll notice, is a story.
Life doesn't come to us like a math problem. It comes to us the way that a story does, scene by scene. You wake up. What will happen next? You don't get to know-you have to enter in, take the journey as it comes. The sun might be shining. There might be a tornado outside. Your friends might call and invite you to go sailing. You might lose your job.
Life unfolds like a drama. Doesn't it? Each day has a beginning and an end. There are all sorts of characters, all sorts of settings. A year goes by like a chapter from a novel. Sometimes it seems like a tragedy. Sometimes like a comedy. Most of it feels like a soap opera. Whatever happens, it's a story through and through.
"All of life is a story," Madeleine L'Engle reminds us.
This is helpful to know. When it comes to figuring out this life you're living, you'd do well to know the rest of the story.
You come home one night to find that your car has been totaled. Now, all you know is that you loaned it for a couple of hours to your teenage daughter, and now here it is, all smashed up. Isn't the first thing out of your mouth, "What happened?"
In other words, "Tell me the story."
Somebody has some explaining to do, and that can be done only in hearing the tale they have to tell. Careful now-you might jump to the wrong conclusion. Doesn't it make a difference to know that she wasn't speeding, that in fact the other car ran a red light? It changes the way you feel about the whole thing. Thank God, she's all right.
Truth be told, you need to know the rest of the story if you want to understand just about anything in life. Love affairs, lay-offs, the collapse of empires, your child's day at school-none of it makes sense without a story.
Our Lives Are Stories
If you want to get to know someone, you need to know their story. Their life is a story. It, too, has a past and a future. It, too, unfolds in a series of scenes over the course of time. Why is Grandfather so silent? Why does he drink too much? Well, let me tell you. There was a terrible battle in World War II, in the South Pacific, on an island called Okinawa. Tens of thousands of American men died or were wounded there; some of them were your grandfather's best friends. He was there, too, and saw things he has never been able to forget.
"But in order to make you understand," explained novelist Virginia Woolf, "to give you my life, I must tell you a story."
I expect all of us, at one time or another, in an attempt to understand our lives or discover what we ought to do, have gone to someone else with our stories. This is not merely the province of psychotherapists and priests, but of any good friend. "Tell me what happened. Tell me your story, and I'll try to help you make some sense of it."
We humans share these lingering questions: "Who am I really? Why am I here? Where will I find life? What does God want of me?" The answers to these questions seem to come only when we know the rest of the story.
As Neo said in The Matrix Reloaded, "I just wish I knew what I am supposed to do." If life is a story, what is the plot? What is your role to play? It would be good to know that, wouldn't it? What is this all about?
An Adventure Begins
Picture yourself in an ancient European city-Florence perhaps or Madrid. You find yourself at dusk, wandering through the older parts of town. Narrow streets are lined with dimly lit shops-pawnbrokers, no doubt, alongside various dealers in antiquities, booksellers, curious haunts harboring mysteries from far-off lands. Partly out of curiosity, partly out of a wish to avoid the jostling crowds, you turn into a musty parlor. As your eyes adjust to the twilight inside, you discover aisles crammed with Babylonian trinkets, Persian rugs, suits of armor, Colombian pottery. You browse indifferently among everything old and intriguing.
Then, something catches your eye. Sitting in a pile of forgotten silver urns and incense burners, it might have escaped your notice altogether. But it seemed to call to you, whisper your name. In fact, it is already in your hands. This is ridiculous, you think. You turn the lamp over and over most carefully, looking for ... you're not quite sure what. Obviously it is from the Middle East, Arabia most likely. What am I thinking? These things happen only in fairy tales.
Something you read long ago-was it in Chesterton?-crosses your mind. "An adventure is, by its nature, a thing that comes to us. It is a thing that chooses us, not a thing that we choose." He's right about that, you admit. Alice wasn't looking for Wonderland when she fell through the looking glass. Come to think of it, the four children just stumbled into Narnia through the back of the wardrobe. Anodos simply woke to find fairyland had taken over his bedroom.
But another voice rises within you, urging caution. You've got places to go, for heaven's sake. Don't let yourself get carried away. The voice is full of common sense, of course. But the voice also seems old and tired. From how many adventures has it swayed you in your life? How many dreams left in the closet? "Closing time," calls the curator of the shop. He begins to blow out the lamps. Your heart is racing. Somewhere back in your mind you hear the voice urging you on to your duties. But it is too late. You've already rubbed the lamp.
(The Sacred Romance Workbook & Journal, v-vi)
A Passionate Voice Within
Some years into our spiritual journey, after the waves of anticipation that mark the beginning of any pilgrimage have begun to ebb into life's middle years of service and busyness, a voice speaks to us in the midst of all we are doing. There is something missing in all of this, it suggests. There is something more.
The voice often comes in the middle of the night or the early hours of morning, when our hearts are most unedited and vulnerable. At first, we mistake the source of this voice and assume it is just our imagination. We fluff up our pillow, roll over, and go back to sleep. Days, weeks, even months go by and the voice speaks to us again: Aren't you thirsty? Listen to your heart. There is something missing.
We listen and we are aware of ... a sigh. And under the sigh is something dangerous, something that feels adulterous and disloyal to the religion we are serving. We sense a passion deep within; it feels reckless, wild.
We tell ourselves that this small, passionate voice is an intruder who has gained entry because we have not been diligent enough in practicing our religion. Our pastor seems to agree with this assessment and exhorts us from the pulpit to be more faithful. We try to silence the voice with outward activity, redoubling our efforts at Christian service. We join a small group and read a book on establishing a more effective prayer life. We train to be part of a church evangelism team. We tell ourselves that the malaise of spirit we feel even as we step up our religious activity is a sign of spiritual immaturity, and we scold our heart for its lack of fervor.
Sometime later, the voice in our heart dares to speak to us again, more insistently this time. Listen to me-there is something missing in all this. You long to be in a love affair, an adventure. You were made for something more. You know it.
(The Sacred Romance, 1-2)
A Distant Whisper
When the young prophet Samuel heard the voice of God calling to him in the night, he had the counsel from his priestly mentor, Eli, to tell him how to respond. Even so, it took them three times to realize it was God calling. Rather than ignoring the voice, or rebuking it, Samuel finally listened.
In our modern, pragmatic world we often have no such mentor, so we do not understand it is God speaking to us in our heart. Having so long been out of touch with our deepest longing, we fail to recognize the voice and the One who is calling to us through it. Frustrated by our heart's continuing sabotage of a dutiful Christian life, some of us silence the voice by locking our heart away in the attic, feeding it only the bread and water of duty and obligation until it is almost dead, the voice now small and weak. But sometimes in the night, when our defenses are down, we still hear it call to us, oh so faintly-a distant whisper. Come morning, the new day's activities scream for our attention, the sound of the cry is gone, and we congratulate ourselves on finally overcoming the flesh.
Others of us agree to give our heart a life on the side if it will only leave us alone and not rock the boat. We try to lose ourselves in our work, or "get a hobby" (either of which soon begins to feel like an addiction); we have an affair, or develop a colorful fantasy life fed by dime-store romances or pornography. We learn to enjoy the juicy intrigues and secrets of gossip. We make sure to maintain enough distance between ourselves and others, and even between ourselves and our own heart, to keep hidden the practical agnosticism we are living now that our inner life has been divorced from our outer life. Having thus appeased our heart, we nonetheless are forced to give up our spiritual journey because our heart will no longer come with us. It is bound up in the little indulgences we feed it to keep it at bay.
(The Sacred Romance, 2-3)
We Have Lost Our Story
And here's where we run into a problem. For most of us, life feels like a movie we've arrived at forty-five minutes late.
Something important seems to be going on ... maybe. I mean, good things do happen, sometimes beautiful things. You meet someone, fall in love. You find that work that is yours alone to fulfill. But tragic things happen too. You fall out of love, or perhaps the other person falls out of love with you. Work begins to feel like a punishment. Everything starts to feel like an endless routine.
If there is meaning to this life, then why do our days seem so random? What is this drama we've been dropped into the middle of? If there is a God, what sort of story is he telling here? At some point we begin to wonder if Macbeth wasn't right after all: Is life a tale "told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"?
No wonder we keep losing heart.
We find ourselves in the middle of a story that is sometimes wonderful, sometimes awful, often a confusing mixture of both, and we haven't a clue how to make sense of it all. It's like we're holding in our hands some pages torn out of a book. These pages are the days of our lives. Fragments of a story. They seem important, or at least we long to know they are, but what does it all mean? If only we could find the book that contains the rest of the story.
Chesterton had it right when he said, "With every step of our lives we enter into the middle of some story which we are certain to misunderstand."
There Is a Larger Story
Walk into any large mall, museum, amusement park, university, or hospital, and you will typically meet at once a very large map with the famous red star and the encouraging words You are here. These maps are offered to visitors as ways to orient themselves to their situation, get some perspective on things. This is the Big Picture. This is where you are in that picture. Hopefully you now know where to go. You have your bearings.
Oh, that we had something like this for our lives.
"This is the Story in which you have found yourself. Here is how it got started. Here is where it went wrong. Here is what will happen next. Now this-this is the role you've been given. If you want to fulfill your destiny, this is what you must do. These are your cues. And here is how things are going to turn out in the end."
We can discover the Story. Maybe not with perfect clarity, maybe not in the detail that you would like, but in greater clarity than most of us now have, and that would be worth the price of admission. I mean, to have some clarity would be gold right now. Wouldn't it?
The Heart Is Central
The heart is central. That I would even need to remind you of this only shows how far we have fallen from the life we were meant to live-or how powerful the spell has been. The subject of the heart is addressed in the Bible more than any other topic-more than "works" or "serve," more than "believe" or "obey," more than money and even more than worship. Maybe God knows something we've forgotten. But of course-all those other things are matters of the heart. Consider but a few passages:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deut. 6:5) [Jesus called this the greatest of all the commandments-and notice that the heart comes first.]
Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Sam. 16:7)
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:34)
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. (Prov. 3:5)
Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You. (Ps. 119:11 NASB)
These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. (Matt 15:8)
For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. (2 Chron. 16:9)
(Waking the Dead, 39-40)
A Heart Can Be Pure
According to the Scriptures, the heart can be troubled, wounded, pierced, grieved, even broken. How well we all know that. Thankfully, it can also be cheerful, glad, merry, joyful, rejoicing. The heart can be whole or divided-as in that phrase we often use, "Well, part of me wants to, but the other part of me doesn't." It can be wise or foolish. It can be steadfast, true, upright, stout, valiant. (All of these descriptions can be found by perusing the listings for the word heart in any concordance.) It can also be frightened, faint, cowardly, melt like wax. The heart can be wandering, forgetful, dull, stubborn, proud, hardened. Wicked and perverse. I think we know that as well.
Much to our surprise, according to Jesus, a heart can also be pure, as in, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" (Matt. 5:8). And even noble, as in his story about the sower: "But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop" (Luke 8:15). The Bible sees the heart as the source of all creativity, courage, and conviction. It is the source of our faith, our hope, and of course, our love. It is the "wellspring of life" within us (Prov. 4:23), the very essence of our existence, the center of our being, the fount of our life.
There is no escaping the centrality of the heart. God knows that; it's why he made it the central theme of the Bible, just as he placed the physical heart in the center of the human body. The heart is central; to find our lives, we must make it central again.
(Waking the Dead, 40-41)
A Subtle Erosion
There are few things more crucial to us than our own lives. And there are few things we are less clear about.
This journey we are taking is hardly down the yellow brick road. Then again, that's not a bad analogy at all. We may set out in the light, with hope and joy, but eventually, our path always seems to lead us through dark woods, shrouded with a low-lying mist. Where is this abundant life that Christ supposedly promised? Where is God when we need him most? What is to become of us?
The cumulative effect of days upon years that we do not really understand is a subtle erosion. We come to doubt our place, we come to question God's intentions toward us, and we lose track of the most important things in life.
We're not fully convinced that God's offer to us is life. We have forgotten that the heart is central. And we had no idea that we were born into a world at war.
(Waking the Dead, 1-2)