Story is one of the main ways we try to make sense of our lives. We tell anyone who will listen, and even those who clearly aren’t listening, who we are, where we are headed and how we hope it will all end. We feel lost when we lose sight of what we want, just as novels go sour when the author can’t articulate what her character wants. We like to look for redemption in our suffering, because we want to believe our pain has a purpose. Sometimes we tell our stories inside out because it’s the only way we know how. Sometimes we hide our stories from ourselves. We hear ourselves give the wrong punchlines. We know what really punched us was something we would never say out loud. Other times we hear ourselves elevate secondary characters to the status of main. Or we get mired in backstory.
Or we hear ourselves tell others our dreams, and then we know we’re really sunk. As Joyce Carol Oates once said to me in college (yes, yes, I get to say that), “dreams are only interesting to the person who had them.” But we find ourselves going on and on anyway: “and then the Ferrari turned into the kitchen sink and the neighbor’s tomcat got sucked down the drainpipe and turned into a hippopotamus who flew straight at the garbage man.” We see our listener’s eyes glaze over, but on we go anyway.
Is it the sound of our own voices that entrances us? Or is there perhaps a truer story pulling at our heartstrings, one we’re not quite ready to hear it yet?
Our friends usually know our real stories. To them, perched on the outside, it’s obvious. But we don’t get to have that perspective, except in rare flashes of insight that give us the disembodied feeling of being an outsider to our own lives.
Most of the time, we see the story we want to believe. Other times, we see the stories cynicism births. We assume the worst about ourselves and everybody else. Those assumptions cause us to see our lives as tragedy. We’ve become an unreliable narrator.
Sometimes we veer away from our stories because we brush up against evil so terrible we mistrust our senses. One minute we’re talking to a fellow human being, and then a flash of greed, deceit or jealousy crosses their faces. It’s as if we can see the grinning skull lurking beneath their skin. We shiver and feel as if we’ve just looked in the mirror.
How do we tell our true stories? Who are we really? Where did we begin and where will we end? And how are we to enjoy this middle part that we are in?
Here is where the elegance of Romans 10 comes to our rescue. Paul says the problem for every single human being is that we think we have to prove we’re “good”. He says this causes us to try to write the wrong stories for ourselves.
Paul says we “cling” to the idea that we follow the law. In the Bible, that kind of thinking is called “religion.” Religion kills. It kills our friendships, relationships, stories and selves. Not only that, religion is based on the lie that we can obey “all” God’s commands, all the time. And so our stories veer off course. They become fantasy.
Instead, the true story is simple: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9. That’s all. It’s not complicated. In fact, for most of us it’s the simplicity of it that offends us. We think we have to do something hard, preferably Herculean, to earn our way to love. We think we have to write our own stories our own way, with ourselves as the hero.
But if we listen to our stories, we are never really the hero of them. We always look to something else us to validate us. That’s how our stories go. We tell the story where that man loved me. Or we give the story where we landed that deal. Or we narrate the story in which that crowd cheered for us.
God stills us the way a mother calms a screaming baby, and says: hush now.
The true story for each of us is that we are already validated. We have an author who loves us and gives us meaning. He writes the poem of our lives. He made us each the lead character of our poem. He poured his love into writing us. His hands bear the marks to prove it. He shed his blood, literally, to write happy endings for each of us.
That’s the one true story. Believing it enables us to tell our real stories without embellishment. Our real stories include our failures. They include the boring parts. They have chapters where we wander off piste. We have plotlines where people we love attack us for no reason, brandishing weapons, and then embrace us the next moment. There are seemingly senseless, seemingly random events in all our lives. But we don’t need to hide them when we trust God.
Instead, we can be present in our own lives. We can experience our failures in all their pain but without shame. We find that God lifts our heads and erases our feelings of inadequacy. We can look to the Lord as the source of our peace. We can be rejected by others and crumble — but not fall. We can be lifted up again. We find healing from even the worst evil through forgiveness. We can see ugliness in others and ourselves without being destroyed. We are loved, despite it all. We see ourselves break our deepest resolutions, and we’re sorry. Obstacles in our paths flatten us, but not for long.
Perhaps we can never see the big picture, except in broad brushstrokes, but we know there is one. We experience the peace that comes from spending time with the author. We become the person the author intended us to be. We find our true name. We find our real character.
It’s as if the cross acts like one big Search and Replace. God searches for our sins and replaces them with Jesus’ perfection. He covers us with His love.
Best of all the same story is for all: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:13. It’s the most open story known to man.
And when we realize our happily ever after might just be real, we get so excited we start to tell others the same story. We get breathless as we start to see how the whole universe is held together by the breath of the one who called us into being.
posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on May 7, 2013