There are several ways to look at the stories of the past. One can be termed historicism, that is the belief that by studying the past we not only learn “historical” truth but also metaphysical or transcendental truth. For all Christians in the end history has some sort of divine plot. God is at work in the ultimate story of the world. But I believe that outside of the historical narratives of Scripture itself, this can end up being a bit dangerous. We can end up being very sure of who is right and who is wrong without knowing all of the facts and knowing the hearts of those involved. Sometimes this is pretty obvious. It doesn’t take a lot of discernment to decide that Hitler was bad or that slavery is wrong. We can be reasonably sure that William Wilberforce was a great statesman or that Albert Einstein was a great scientist or that Mother Theresa was a saint (although you can find people who disagree with that, surprisingly enough).
Most stories don’t have an obvious connection with the central theological story of the world, that grand sweep of Creation, Fall and Redemption. More often we are satisfied with stories being told either as an attempt to accurately account the events of the past or in the case of fiction to simply give the pleasure of a good story. We can learn other things as a result of these stories and the best of them have a mythic quality that relates to us at least echoes of something that is ultimately true about life. Ancient storytellers also had a sense that they were discharging a debt to the heroic deeds of their ancestors and that they were adding to the perpetual memory of their people.
But what about our own stories? What about the events of our lives? Most of us don’t see our lives as having a powerful significance. We may see a broad connection of our lives to the great story of God’s work in the world at least in the sense that Jesus died for us and is interested in saving us. But we don’t make that connection more particularly. We don’t grab hold of the thought that our life is suffused with meaning. We live day to day as if ordinary is about as good as it gets. Now we do catch moments of gratitude. Our eyes do open a bit wider when one of our children is born or something out of the ordinary invades our existence at least momentarily. Significance pokes through here and there. But the truth is that our lives are much more significant than we think. Eternity ripples out through our every word and action. The part of us that loves a movie like “It’s a Wonderful Life” knows that. And we even mockingly reach for it through Facebook and Twitter as if the world really needed to know about our every like and dislike or random thought. We might even be tempted to use modes of communication like those to dress up our lives with a “kick-ass” facade (like the Facebook profile picture that features someone with a random celebrity that they met once upon a time, as if they were living the dream every day).
One of Frederick Buechner’s books is titled “Listening to Your Life”. It is a collection of daily meditations that speak about his attempts to learn to discern God’s voice and actions in his everyday life. This gets at what I think the most important aspect of stories are. Much of the transformation that God wants to accomplish within our lives can be seen as the experience of reading our lives rightly. This means that we need to learn to see our present circumstances, our past experiences and our future hopes for what they really are. We filter all of these things through our core beliefs and oftentimes misinterpret the reality of God’s actions and intentions toward us. We disregard the reality of the spiritual battle that is raging all around us and twist reality into the story of our lives that seems to be true. We live in these stories as if they were true and in a very real and often tragic sense they become true for us. We mistake our fallenness for God’s rejection. We interpret our loneliness as God’s abandonment. We think our smallness equals insignificance. The clever lies of our Enemy sound true and we nod our heads in agreement. We need to be awoken from the dream that we are living.
This what stories do. In the Gospels, Jesus is asked over 80 questions by his disciples, the religious leaders of his day and the common people who listened to Him speak. He only answers those questions directly a few times. Most of the time He tells a story. Why does He do this? Because it gets around our defenses. It defuses our built-in biases. It forces us to think differently. And as my friend Bob Hamp might say, to think differently is to live differently. This is what Romans 12 means when it says we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Today I had the opportunity to spend a few hours alone, with no other agenda than to listen to God. I don’t do it often enough. I tend to grab these times on the run, filling in the few cracks that exist in other obligations and desires. But today I listened to my life a bit. What a difference a little time makes. I didn’t see any visions or have an earth-shattering revelation. I just heard a few words from the voice of the Holy Spirit. And those words were more than enough to fill me with peace, gratitude and assurance. As I drove home, the sun just seemed to shine a little brighter. When I walked into my house, my wife just looked that much more beautiful. My children were that much more wonderful. Nothing had changed except for me. This is what transformation looks like. Maybe the story that I just told you can have the same effect.
Because there is nothing better than a good story.