My uncle told a good story with his life, but I think there was such sadness at his funeral because his story wasn’t finished. If you aren’t telling a good story, nobody thinks you died too soon; they just think you died.
– Donald Miller
In A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller proposes what I thought was a wonderful idea. It involves sitting with God and sharing the favorite parts of the story of your life. Miller says, “You get a feeling when you look back on life that that’s all God really wants from us, to live inside a body he made and enjoy the story and bond with us through the experience.”
A pretty good idea, don’t you think? It really doesn’t matter whether you think the story of your life is a good one or a very bad one. It’s your life. It’s your story. That’s what I think will interest God. What did you do with the life you were given? How did you cope? Were you able to cope? How were you able to discover the wonder of life itself or, in fact, did you?
That’s kind of ‘out there,’ Ben, I hear you saying. No, really, I don’t think so. Here’s how I think it might go for me.
I’m picturing a nice living room. Nothing terribly fancy, just comfortable. I really don’t think God goes in for the big, the flashy, the ostentatious. No, I imagine him sitting in a big, overstuffed chair, motioning me to sit across from him in another big, overstuffed chair. After I get comfortable, he’d begin.
“So, Ben, tell me about yourself,” he’d say in his best Charlton Heston voice.
“I, uh, well, don’t you already know everything there is to know about me? What could I possibly say that could interest you?” I’d reply.
“Ben, there are nearly seven billion people on the earth at this point. Who can keep up with all that? But, trust me, I’m interested in everything you have to say.”
Wow, I’d think to myself, God really doesn’t know me especially well if he thinks he could be interested in everything I have to say. I have, after all, a lot to say – always have. I’m not particularly worried if you’re already walking out of the room. There I am, still talking.
“Where should I start?” I’d ask.
“In the beginning,” God would reply, with just the hint of a smile.
Okay, so this could be a really long story if we were starting in the beginning. I’d like, though, that God has a sense of humor. I think I’ve always known that. Forgot it for quite a long time, but knew it.
“Do you remember when I kept a sheep in the back yard two years running for 4-H?” I’d ask.
“Why, now that you mention it, I do remember that, Ben. I also remember how that area where you had the pen stayed green for years, even when the rest of the grass had died. I also seem to recall that your mother wasn’t particularly fond of having the sheep sleeping up against her screen door on the back porch. But that was a good memory, wasn’t it, Ben?”
“Well, yes,” I’d say. Oh, my, I could see where this was headed. He wanted me to remember how there’d been good times mixed in with the bad.
He’d continue, “Hey, what about that time playing king of the hill with David out at the farm? That was fun, wasn’t it? David’s mother was just so thrilled that you’d been playing outside and that you were both filthy. She thought, correctly, that you stayed indoors entirely too much.”
“Yes, I have to admit, that was fun. It didn’t feel like some big competition where it was going to be life or death depending on whether or not I won,” I’d say. Unfortunately, it also seemed to point up how different I felt from everyone else by that point in my life.
“I know, it was pretty rough on you at that point in life,” God would say and I’d realize it didn’t matter whether I was saying it out loud or merely thinking it – he was hearing me. A lot like prayer, I suppose. Rather than feeling odd, that would actually be a comforting thought. Still, saying things out loud seemed easier.
“I was just feeling abandoned by that time. I guess it had been coming for a long time. It seemed so many people around me were leaving. I just didn’t know what to do when Earl, Mike, and Chuck died in that accident when we were fifteen. All I knew was that I felt abandoned. I didn’t know why I had to stay behind.”
“Yes, that was a sad time. You realize, though, that they’re all here and doing just fine. It seems like a long time ago to you, but to them it seems only a moment since they were home with their families. You know, Ben, I hear people say things like, ‘Well, God called them home’ or ‘God needed another angel,’ that sort of thing,” he’d say. Then, a little indignantly, he’d add, “Why, I did no such thing! As you might imagine, I have more than enough angels to go around here. I have no reason to call anyone home before what appears to others to be their time. No, this is just one part of that ‘free will’ thing I left you all with.”
“But, it hurt so much,” I’d interrupt, feeling confident enough at this point to, well, interrupt God. “So much had already happened and then there were three funerals in one week. Surely you could have prevented that accident.”
God would shake his head a little and say, “Of course I could. But I don’t. You simply can’t have it both ways. Either it’s free will or I direct every little detail of your lives. That would be safer, wouldn’t it? That would also be unbelievably boring. And, then, what would you learn? You know how teenagers tend to rebel against pretty much everything their parents like? So, in order to be ‘different’, in order to stand out, they all end up dressing alike and merely conforming to another group. It’s safer that way as they try to find out who they are as individuals. But it only works for a little while. After that, safer isn’t better. Safer prevented you from following some of your dreams and I am sorry that happened. But now, you understand a little better. You understand you’re allowed to step out and become your own person. That just doesn’t happen when playing it safe.”
“But, it took so long,” I’d complain. Listen to me, now I’m complaining to God. It didn’t seem to faze him one bit. He’d just smile.
“What’s long to you and what’s long to me, Ben, are two different things. And, yes, I do understand that a lot of your time passed in a very dark place. I did try to steer people in your direction to help, though. In fact, many of them stayed with you for that entire journey.”
“Yes,” I’d say with a little sadness, “I realize that now. I was too angry for a long time to be able to see that. I didn’t know how to ask for your help – or for theirs. I just did the best I thought I could do.” Then, I’d stammer, “Well, most of the time – at least some of the time.”
“You did the best you thought you deserved, Ben,” God would say. “You had simply forgotten that you deserve so much more than you were willing to see. I didn’t like to see you suffer. But, I also know you can use that suffering now to help others. It’s what redemption is about. Sharing, just as we’re doing here, is what it’s about. Relationship. It’s all I ever wanted with you.”
We’d sit back and just think a little, enjoying each other’s company – looking over the incredible story that has been my life. You know, incredible as in “How did I ever survive that!”, but also incredible as in “What an amazing thing to be alive!” It took a long time but, with God’s help, I’m able to see the story in a very different light. It has truly been incredible.
So, I still have some storytelling to do. The question now is only what kind of story that will be. The story doesn’t have to be a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened. There can still be a purpose, even if it wasn’t planned that way. Who knows what my life might have been like had a few key events never happened. They did happen, though. That’s really the point, I think. It’s not what happened, it’s what I plan to make of it now.
“Relationship, Ben,” God would say as I got up to go. “I made you all to be neighbors for each other. That doesn’t always work out too well with you humans, but I think you know it deep down. Hold out a hand. Offer a little help, a little comfort to one who needs it. Your world will be a better place.”
“Thank you, God. I promise I’ll try to remember that. I just know I don’t do a very good job of it most of the time.”
“The fact that you try is what’s important to me, Ben. Remember that Thomas Merton prayer you like so well? He says, ‘I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe this: I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.’ He’s right, you know. Your desire does please me. Just match a little desire with a little action and you’ll be surprised how much you can help – how wondrous a life can be.”
I’d be a little reluctant to go. God is a wonderful conversationalist. Much more open and loving than the Bible might lead you to believe at times. But, I know I have to go. I’ve taken up enough of God’s time for the moment.
“No, Ben, you’ve not taken too much of my time. Come back any time.”
That’s when I’d remember, again, about that hearing thing with God – spoken or unspoken.
Then, with a chuckle, he would add, “I’ll keep a bush burning for you.”
Oh, that God. He’s quite a character. I would imagine, though, it takes a pretty big sense of humor to be God. Hopefully, the laughter helps keep the tears at bay as he looks at the mess we’ve all made of much of our lives and the world left in our care. But, then, the story isn’t over quite yet. It’s up to us, though, to write a better ending.