Everyone loves a good story. In fact, I would go one better, and say we need stories. It’s in our DNA. The ancient Greeks passed down myths about their various gods in an attempt to better understand their world. And while books and movies are the primary medium of modern storytelling, I am happy to report the oral tradition is alive and well in Florence, Alabama. Over the weekend, I went to a storytelling festival and heard tales that were both entertaining and meaningful.
We all have our own stories, don’t we? These are the collection of our “greatest hits” that we use to tell others who we are and what’s important to us. And then there are the stories that we only whisper to ourselves. These are the secret stories that are still unfolding; the ones that give our lives meaning and context and purpose. In these stores, we are each cast as the heroes or heroines. In virtually every good story, a hero or heroine must overcome a series of challenges in order to obtain something he or she truly desires. In like manner, we have all valiantly tried to achieve some goal set beyond us.
Seeing ourselves within a story can help sustain us during the difficult times, which will inevitably come. As dark as it gets, if we believe it’s only the second act, we still have time to rally and win the day. In fact, the bleaker the outlook, the more rewarding the story will be when we finally break through. At least, that’s the way Hollywood likes to tell it. But reality can be very different. Often times, we never break through. Instead, the process can break us. Or, even if we do manage to grab hold of the object of our desire, it doesn’t feel the way we thought it would.
So, what happens when the story breaks down? What if, despite all your efforts and prayers, you fail to achieve what you feel you were put on this earth to do? The promotion doesn’t come. Instead, you are laid off and can’t find work. What if you never get that big house on the hill, or you build your dream house, only to lose it? What if the child you pray for never comes? Or your child grows up to reject you and your values? What if you get terminally ill in the prime of your life? What if a tornado blows away everything you own?
Experiencing this kind of failure can be devastating. Our stories can quickly turn from comedies into tragedies. As Christians, this can be particularly difficult. We are told that a loving God hears our prayers, cares about our lives, and wants what is best for us. How can we reconcile those beliefs when prayers go unanswered, our lives unravel, and what we long for never comes? What do we do when we put all our faith and hope in God – and God doesn’t come through?
At this point, I think something inside of us dies. We realize that life isn’t a feel-good story with a Hollywood ending. But what happens next is even more important. After mourning the death of a dream, we must decide how we will go on. What parts of our faith will we still take with us, and what parts will we leave behind? Will we be content to live our lives without hope, simply letting the story write itself? Or will we dare to dream again? The experience can numb us and shut us off. Or, there is an opportunity to allow the experience to deepen and even enrich our lives.
Christ himself seems to go through this at the end of his life when he cries out from the cross, “Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?” Even in this moment of total abandonment, when all is lost, he continues to forgive the very people who have crucified him. He saves a soul on the next cross over. He makes sure his mom is going to be taken care of. And, finally, he still commits his spirit to his Father. Of course, the story doesn’t end on the cross. And so it goes for each one of us.