Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The trouble with telling stories

In the past year I've had several people point out that they way I think about things is both my blessing and my curse. On one hand I spend a lot of time mulling things over. I want to know how things work and how they fit into my life and how I should respond to them. Mine is not the unexamined life. I might not be living every day as I wish, but I'm certainly thinking about it. Practically this means I rarely stop wrestling with an idea once I get a hold of it. This is great when I'm thinking about last Sunday's sermon and not so great when I'm frustrated over some interaction I had on the internet. I struggle with "moving on."

One of my most persistent mental frameworks involves narrative.Whether we're talking about a character in a novel or a political idea I tend to spend a fair bit of time thinking about where it came from and how it got there and where does it think it's going. That's also describes much of how I think about my life. I want to know what story is being told and whether or not I'm running in the right directions with the plot lines I've been given. Sometimes I get frustrated or even angry that so little of my own story is under my own control. For instance, I've become convinced that stress contributes a great deal to our physical health. While not even 30 I was diagnosed with an (mild, easily treatable) autoimmune disorder. There's also a few other potentially annoying/non-lethal health issues in the offing. It's so easy to be mad that I was born into a pretty stressful family and seem to have had the cards stacked against me. But then I think, "Who am I to have the cards stacked in my favor?" And I get upset at myself for being mad and not moving on with my life and keeping these extra stressful emotions around. I'm honest enough with myself to realize that there's no real reason why I deserve to have better circumstances and to realize that for all the frustrating bits I do have quite a bit for which to be grateful. I'm not writing this to whine about my life. That wouldn't be square or accurate.

My problem is that I keep trying to understand my story in ways that aren't particularly helpful. For instance, there are those prophets in the Old Testament whom God called to burn their lives out in ministry for him. Sounds pretty awesome and noble. Except that for some of them they maybe got one convert. Whole life in ministry, and it bombed. For one in particular, (Jeremiah?) God told him upfront it was going to bomb. Of course nowadays people aren't allowed to have stories like that. They tell him to pray circles or chant Jabez or cast vision or whatever. It's can't be that God called him to be an absolute failure in front of his congregation. Not a story I like either, but it's there in the Bible and can't be ignored when you're studying for plot cues no matter what the Christian "self help" section tries to tell you. Come to think of it, there aren't many people in the Bible who had very nice or successful lives. Most of them had a mountain of trouble at some point or another. Anyway, the point is that I keep trying to read ahead. Only it's my life, and in that case reading ahead is called worrying. It's just super easy to think "well if I was writing this story this right here is where I'd put the life changing tragedy" or "just to reinforce the parallels between her life and her mother's life lets drop this event in now." You know those people who say, "If this was a musical people would be singing and dancing down the street right now?" I'm sort of like that except with me it's more like "and this would be perfect spot to put something bad/scary/challenging and therefore turn this into a bittersweet, nostalgic moment." Then I'll turn around and decide that narrative logic demands something awesome happen right now. It's just too cheesy not to work. And most of the time it doesn't.

So now I'm bumping up against an issue that could possibly be something and most likely is nothing, but I won't know until I check. Despite knowing this my brain is scrambling for reassurances. I'm peering at my story looking for clues that everything works out great and we end up with four children, a dog, and summer vacations on the coast of Georgia. I end up sitting here tensely trying to anticipate and deal with every single possible outcome when I know that God really just wants me to trust Him. That's the burden my incessant thinking puts on me. I know too much and have experienced too little of it. I know that God loves me, and I know that God loved the martyrs of Rome. So why am I worried about a little unpleasantness when I'm not facing the lions tomorrow. And yet God who loved them sent them to the lions. It's utterly terrifying. It might make more sense to adults who grew up in a more consistently loving home, but for me it means that God just throws the dice. I once had someone tell me, no matter who, that I deserved a short, miserable life. This person had also claimed at various times to love me. That's what I mean by throwing the dice. The Bible says that from the same mouth you can't get blessing and cursing. I've no intention of calling God a liar, but I do wish He could explain what I heard.

In the past I've been encouraged to try and formulate what I want - to give voice to my desires so that I can identify and deal with them. In this case, I think I just want to know that the good stuff in my life really was on purpose to bless and encourage and help me. I want to know that God, like the good father, delights in giving me good things and that He does it on purpose. I'm pretty resilient. At the end of the day I can more or less handle things in a somewhat faithful manner. I've taken enough kicks in my life that one more probably isn't going to finish me. What rattles me are the moments when I'm convinced that God loves me and desires my well being even if things are hard. Those moments are rather less often than I wish. I crave that sort of experiential certainty that God is good to me and will walk with me through everything and doesn't just send experiences my way willy-nilly like a vacationer throwing darts at an atlas. I don't think it would make me stop thinking, but it would give me more peace in contemplation.

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