Stories in a Larger Narrative

At town meeting the other day, one of the town leaders bragged about how the town’s stabilization fund was growing even faster than expected – a rousing success for everyone. What she didn’t say was that the fund was growing faster because money had been taken from an already underfunded school system and public library, among other things. The town budget looked better, but the quality of education and access to necessary resources through the library were both severely restricted. The larger story beyond the municipal spreadsheet had a different tale to tell about what was good and necessary. What gains a family if its savings account is growing but everyone is hungry?

Narratives within narratives, stories within larger stories. My life’s story is part of the many narratives of my family, my town, my place in history, and my planet. I am not the author, I am not the sole focus of this story that is creation, and I’m incapable of jumping out of my story and seeing the whole book of life. There is more beyond what I see and what I understand, and forgetting or ignoring the bigger story may very well harm others.

May God grant me wisdom to do no harm, strength to repair the hurts I cause, and forgiveness for the harm my limitations bring.

Changing the Narrative

A few years back, dear friends moved hundreds of miles north. Their son was running with a rowdy crowd, heading into trouble. They traded in the seacoast and quick access to Boston for pine trees and ski trails, a large school for a small one. Changing addresses changed their lives, reshaping their family story and their son’s individual narrative. What was a leap of faith years ago is now a wise decision seen in hindsight.

Lead us not into temptation, we pray. Save us from the time of trial, we pray. In changing their narrative, I think God did.

But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. John 21:24

Chapters in Another Book

This weekend, I went to see where my older son will live come Fall semester. It’s a beautiful campus in Pennsylvania, and a place where he’ll have many adventures that I’ll never know about. A good friend of mine lives a few miles away from campus, and we stayed with her and her family Sunday night. Life obligations and hundreds of miles kept our visits rare, and most of what I know of her family comes from Christmas letters and occasional emails.

The last time I saw her children in person was a dozen years ago, her husband even longer ago than that. From toddlers to teens, career changes and new houses, there’s very little in our lives that is the same as when we lived closer together. It’s been even longer since she and I lived on the same dorm floor in seminary. Yet, she is still a dear friend and her life means so much to me. I am grateful to be a recurring character in her life adventure, and honored that she is an important one in mine.

I can’t say exactly why a particular person becomes a friend for life. It’s a grace to love and be loved, and a mystery. But I know why Diane is a friend: in her life story, I can read the love of God.

 

Crossing Paths, Chance Encounters

New Year’s Eve, 1989, I went out with good friends. We were on different paths, but so glad those paths had crossed. We decided to meet in Portsmouth for a glass of champagne every year, as many of us that could.

A few weeks later, Deb began training as a physical therapist; Bonnie continued to build her portfolio for graphic design; Jen moved to Boston and an interior design program; Lauren and I both went out of state – for her a corporate position in North Carolina, for me a seminary program in New Jersey. While each of us kept up with our friends who stayed local when we returned home, distance, schedules, and finances didn’t allow us time together.

In New Jersey, I worked at a Mexican restaurant a short walk from my dorm. Late Friday night before Christmas, Lauren walked in. She was driving back to North Carolina, her brother happened to catch a basketball game in town, and they dropped in for dinner on a whim. We got our holiday toast and a happy reunion – my first and best Christmas present that year. An hour later, we were in our cars heading in opposite directions.

Two days later, Lauren’s mother called me. Would I be interested in working as a counselor for teens in a residence program for a semester? She wanted to fill that position before she left hers as the program’s director at the end of the week. Lauren had told her about our chance encounter. We met the next day, I took the position; she left at the end of that week before I began.

I told this story to my friends over a new year’s brunch. All of us agreed that Jung was right: synchronicity is real. But I think it’s more than just expected and important encounters. Sometimes, crossing paths changes the whole journey. A decision to keep in touch, an unplanned late night encounter, a job leaving and a position filled: my life story would be very different without those crossing paths and chance encounters. Change the story, change the blessing. I’m grateful beyond words for the story I’ve lived – and for the crossed paths that brought blessing into its chapters.

Stories in the Book of Life

The Gospel of John ends with one of my favorite sentences:

But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21: 25)

How many stories are there from Bethlehem birth through Ascension? Millions upon millions, I suppose. One person meets another and their life stories unite, ever so briefly or over many decades. Jesus the man of Nazareth touched so many, Christ the Son so many more when the Spirit moves over the face of creation. There isn’t a single story in creation untouched by Christ because all came to be through him. The Book of Life contains the world: how could the world contain it?

But my story is smaller. Smaller, but connected to so many other stories. The lives of friends and strangers are in the book of my life, and my life is in theirs. I doubt there’s a person alive today whose life isn’t connected to mine through these life stories. Yours included.

In a God created and Spirit sustained world, how could it be otherwise?

The Wanderer

(An adventure in faith by Bryan Fredrickson)

Francis sat on the roughly hewn wooden bench with his back against the cabin facing the sun that chased away the night’s chill. The cabin was a simple and peaceful place. It was a place where he came for solace. He called it his hermitage in the woods. He had everything he needed to be comfortable, but not so much as to detract from its rustic simplicity.

His breakfast consisted of a plate of hot biscuits which he had just removed from the oven and placed in front of him. Next to the biscuits were a pot of hot coffee and a plate of butter. Pine scent and birdsong suffused the air, wafting his prayers of thanksgiving toward the heavens.
His gaze fell lazily on the horizon as the biscuits melted in his mouth. Suddenly there appeared the figure of a man emerging from the forest. As he came over the hill, Francis inspected him closely. He looked to be a man of about Francis’ age and build, but he moved with a limp as if one leg was shorter than the other. He was hunched from shouldering a large pack. Francis thought there was something about the man that he recognized but he could not put his finger on it.

When the man came within ear shot, Francis beckoned him to sit and rest on the bench. The man sat down heavily, unloading his pack from his shoulder. It hit the ground stirring the dust. The man sighed and stared up at the deep blue sky as if uttering a silent prayer. His hair and beard were unkempt and his layered clothes were tattered. He smelled of earth and sweat. The sun exposed heavy wrinkles around his eyes and face. Again, Francis thought he recognized something about this man. Perhaps it was the man’s eyes, their hue or shape? He wasn’t sure. The man was silent but trained his eyes longingly on the plate of biscuits.

“Of course,” said Francis. “You must be terribly hungry.”

The man stretched out his hands to accept the buttered biscuit from Francis. They were calloused with dirt imbedded in their creases and fixed under his nails. Francis thought their shape and size bore a strong resemblance to his own. Francis fetched another mug from the house and poured the man some hot coffee.

It was evident to Francis that the man did not want to talk. So they ate in silence, communing like two old cats in the sun that had sized each other up and decided neither was a threat to the other. Time passed as the moments seemed to fold in on themselves and melt away. Finally, the man heaved himself off the bench to stand, pulling his pack over his shoulder.

“Thank you,” he uttered, breaking the silence in a voice strangely familiar to Francis.

“May I ask your name?” Francis queried.

“I am called the Wanderer,” he answered. “I look for people who need a doctor.”

With that he slowly limped away over the hill. Francis’ eyes followed him until he disappeared into the woods.

All day long Francis pondered what the man had said. Why had he come to him? Was he sick somehow, he wondered. It seemed to him that it was the man, rather than he, who was in need of succor. He remained perplexed as he crawled under his warm comforter to go to sleep. That night the Wanderer visited Francis in a dream. Looking deeply into Francis’ eyes he said, “Lo, I am with you always even to the end of the Age!”

Francis bolted upright in bed, peering into the darkness suddenly illumined by epiphany. Now he understood who the Wanderer was. He was every man, woman and child who is a victim of ill circumstance: the tired, the oppressed, the poor, the sick, the bereft, the lost, the disadvantaged, the unemployed, the orphan, the homeless, the friendless, the lonely, the judged, those who can’t catch a break in life and those whose addictions destroy the chances they are given. Francis knew what he recognized about the man. He had seen himself but without the trappings of comfort and ease. He had been given a chance to see himself born into the dark, cold lonely edges of society. The Wanderer was indeed a physician, opening the eyes of those who are blind to the suffering all around.

Francis recalled the first words the man had spoken to him. “Thank you,” he had said. It is a prayer offered when outstretched hands of one in need are met by the hands of one who gives what one is able. It is a prayer that reverberates across temporal time and place, even to the little town of Bethlehem where once the cry of a poor, cold child lying in a feeding trough echoed through the ages.

“I was blind,” Francis whispered to himself in the darkness. “But now I see!”