|photograph by www.elizabethray.com|
“Life may be lived forwards, but it can be
understood only backwards.”
Have you ever watched the director’s commentary on one of your favorite films? Heard the reason why he or she made the decisions to add, cut, or rewrite certain scenes for the movie. It’s so fascinating to me: the backstory to telling a good story. Any time I watch one, I’m stunned at the extensive labor and creative process all involved in movie-making must submit themselves to. Such rigorous work and dedication! So much goes in to making it, well, good as opposed to mediocre. And we all know you can have all the right people but unless a good story is undergurding the movie it will flop.
So imagine how much intricate and behind the scenes work goes on into making a good life: God’s desire to tell a good story through you? His involvement, edits, rewrites, and narrative thread. I’m not sure how many of us have really submitted to letting him have creative liberties with the narrative of our lives? What will it cost? What does he want to say and get across through the story? Brings to mind Biblical stories like Abraham, Joseph, and Peter or saints stories like St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and St. Francis.
I’ve spent the last decade of my life wrestling with this question: what makes a good story? Not just any story, but what makes my life a good story. A gospel story. One that tells of God’s fierce and persistent love. One that lives openly and sacrificially offering his or her life however God asks, choosing to lay their life down on the sacred altar. One that submits to Him when they don’t agree with or don’t yet understand what’s being cut or reworked to tell a better story.
My awareness into the depths of this reworking all started at 23 when the story I was living went terribly wrong. I was catapulted into a reality I didn’t feel I had the inner capacity to face, a bad dream that I couldn’t seem to wake up from. Or for our purposes here my romantic comedy--or let’s call it an epic---became an indy, postmodern “nothing-is-redemptive-life- just-sucks” kind of film.
In this tragic state, my life felt like a random storyboard of events that made little sense against the gospel I had come to understand. What I knew of Jesus and life with him didn’t seem to be able to hold the messiness of it all. Rather my “make life work,” “be strong,” and “get quick answers” gospel began to fray in the tension and weight of what I was living. It couldn’t contain the heaviness of what I was up against.
Mind you, this was all terrifyingly unpleasant. To have the very thing you thought was holding you up begin to break apart? However, what I didn’t know at the time was what, or rather who, was ready to catch me. He had a story to tell: one of hope, brokenness, forgiveness, healing, and transformation. But to me it looked like a poorly laid out, rotten tomatoes kind of film.
When the director sets up his scenes and the parts of the protagonists story he is going to tell, he thinks it through so it makes sense to the viewer by storyboarding specific scenes. However to me, it did not feel like these fragmented cards making up scenes from my life---especially the heartache I found myself in---was telling a good story. It felt like the good story was gone and now it was a story of survival.
The irony here is the timing. This all happened a year out of college, after I raised all my financial support for full time ministry and was overseas for a summer mission trip. Here I was a young college graduate who had entered ministry with Campus Crusade excited to tell people about Jesus and life with Him, when everything came into question.
Well, let me clarify, Jesus and my faith in him for salvation was never questioned rather what was were His ways of “salvation,” the depths at which he would go to save me beyond initial salvation. I didn’t like the level of suffering He would allow and knew little in the classroom of spiritual formation, how Christ forms his life in us. God is quite comfortable in the ambiguous, messy, and out of control. I am not. My theology was so shallowly formed. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say my person. For theology or intellectually thinking right does not transform our inmost being. Rather, Christ does: His life being carved out, formed, and reshaped through our lives.
So the storyboard pieces tacked up on my Director’s wall felt more like puzzle pieces? How was this going to tell a good story?
Sacred Offering: The Gift of Living in a Good Story is the working out of this process. Of course the story of my life is still being told, but I have sought to take scenes from the jumbled storyboard that God has brought into focus. Places and spaces he has reworked to rebuild intimacy, beauty, and truth, the true gospel. A gospel life that can be held up in the tension of heartache, hope deferred, and waiting. A gospel life that can mourn and rejoice, play and fight, hurt yet hold.
What’s hard as a writer is structuring the telling. Where to begin? What to leave out? What has been especially hard is my 37-year-old-self telling the story of my 22-year-old-self. Honestly I have spent years attempting to frame and tell my story in a way that would honor the “younger me’s” experience and mindset. While at the same time, bringing the “older me’s” life education and spiritual formation training into the mix. A beautiful thing happened along the way, God provided a way to do just that, which freed me up in the telling and felt true from a kingdom perspective. Here’s how it happened.
Don’t we all look back on our lives and say, “If I only knew then what I know now.” But that’s not the way life is intended to work. We come to know, it is progressive and it is how we are re-formed. The whole Christian life is the work of reforming our lives, making us like Christ and repurposing our lives for his glory and for both our now work in the kingdom and our future work in heaven. The old man is made new and the rest of our days we are coming to know what this new life, new person, new way looks like in the here and now and the kingdom tension of the not yet.
And this dear reader is where I had my mystical moment. I went back to my writings and the way I had been telling the story and was able to look in and dialogue with my old self from the “being made new’s” perspective, me now. In the same way I offer soul care to my clients, I had the words to offer soul care to myself. Better said, the woman Christ has formed and continues to re-form, could speak the life-words He had spoken to her. Needless to say, tears began falling one by one and then uncontrollably. However, this was not like the initial pain or grief I was writing about rather it was joy, awe and wonder at what my Jesus had done for me and continues to do!
This spiritual memoir, Sacred Offering: The Gift of Living in a Good Story, is told as my more mature self looks in on my younger self grappling with life: what I feel for her, what I want to say or not say, how I want to handle her. Offering her what I know now, or rather as I like saying, what I am “coming to know.” Feels truer to the process. Hindsight is a great gift in seeing truth as is the gift of remembrance.
I am also using the idea of life as a good movie, a story being told with an audience watching. The saints look in with hopeful anticipation to what’s unfolding and those around us--both christians and not--watch in curious wonder. (When we get to heaven I wonder if some of these scenes will have particular movie scores playing behind them). Therefore within my storytelling, I will incorporate movie characters and images, film making devices, and cinematic themes to move my story with both humor and depth and help you the reader better see life as story.
My prayer is twofold. First, that as I tenderly hold my heart out open to Christ it becomes a sacred offering to my Jesus to mold, shape, and rework my life in a way He calls good (and I promise you dear reader this book has been quite the trek trusting this is happening). Secondly, that you my reader will find threads of your own narrative interlaced with mine which will prepare the way for Our Lord to take your hand and gently guide you into the places He wants you to go with Him in your own story.
So here we are Jesus. We lay our lives out before you dear Lord trusting you are telling a good story.
There He beckons, “Take my hand.”
Feebly we come opening our hand--Here we are Lord, guide us into the way we should go.....