Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
Encore: A piece of music played at the end of a recital responding to the audience’s enthusiastic reaction to the performance, shown by continuous applause
Clang! The bench press rack rattled behind me. The eight televisions spread across the ceiling line flashed their different features. The exercise bikes, stair-steppers, and treadmills whirred about counting burned calories. Thankfully the space lacked the stench of locker room sweat that so often permeates a weight room. I’d arrived for forty-five minutes in between work and an “Exploring Your Story group” I co-facilitate. I beat my competitors to the elliptical machine and looked to my iPod for something to distract me from the burn of exercise. When it comes to working out, I dread the entrance and love the exit. As I circled through the listening choices, fear of the evening ahead unconsciously burdened me.
Scrolling through my listening choices, I debated between listening to a Larry Crabb audio book, a Dan Allender conference series, and Scripture. Both Larry and Dan are counselors I highly esteem, and I thought listening to them might fill me with some much needed tips prior to listening to someone’s story. The more I thought about it, the less it seemed logical. To really depend on that line of thinking might shift me into insanity. I could overstress to no end by attempting to provide myself with the right perspectives and responses. What if someone told their story with self-pity? How would Larry approach that? What if it’s clear someone has repressed anger into depression? Would Dan use this response or that one? And how do I know which chapter to listen to in Crabb? Perhaps the situation tonight will require a technique he illustrates in chapter 4. But what if I listen to that one, and I really needed something from chapter 9? If I can just memorize the right approach, I can avoid all sense of inadequacy.
Such big decisions in five seconds. By this point I had finished stretching and moved onto the elliptical to commence the dreaded twenty-five minutes of strain. Bypassing the audio books, I selected a soundtrack, Legends of the Fall. If you haven’t seen it, the movie follows the lives of three brothers in Montana in the early 1900s as they wrestle with fate and each other through war, love, and loss. The story weaves beauty and tragedy and betrayal and adventure in heartrending fashion. It is a memorable tale, if not also a desirable one. The story laces through the soundtrack with grandeur. The coalesced noise of the numerous workout machines compelled me to increase the volume. As I did, the symphony washed over me with such richness that my heart entered a bigger story.
There is a rhythm to life. Prior to the soundtrack, I was ready to manage the night with a clinical approach. Listening to techniques readied me like reading a book about white water rafting just before jumping in the Snake River. Tristan would have none of that. The night would not be about managing or controlling, but about entering into mystery and chaos while trusting that the Author still holds the pen. And that He’s written into my heart. There is a place for studying and theorizing, but to remain there leaves me a chess player rather than a bard.
Intellect, no matter how truthful, cannot fully prepare us to enter into God’s authoring in someone’s story. Only when we join the flow of a larger narrative can we keep up in the river of a life. Truth is the foundation of the rhythm, but not the current or the stream. Or perhaps I’ve boxed truth to take only the form of dogmatic doctrine and it really has more forms.
A study of doctrine will tell you that God created the world and proclaimed it “good”. The text mentions the word so many times that I lose its connotation, not to mention that we’ve diluted the word ever since. Things go south pretty quickly, if not literally, rhythmically. The fall ushers in the epitome of tragedy. And then God writes deliverance through what seems like plan B, but trusting His sovereignty, was always A. And now we wait for the final re-creation, when, to quote Lewis, “The door on which we’ve been knocking all our lives will open at last”.
Beauty. Tragedy. Fight. Restoration.
As I walked into group that night, I fought off the urge to diagnose and analyze. I stayed in the unwieldy river, though the banks looked safer and far more convenient. Rather, I yearned to foretaste the redemption and restoration God is writing now. Legends of the Fall played in the back of my mind as we began. But the more I sat and listened as a woman tearfully shared, the more her story crescendoed. A new thought arose.
Our lives are stories, severely severed from the interaction with God we once enjoyed in Eden, but stories apart of the meta-narrative nonetheless. If we have the courage to listen, really know one another and listen, perhaps each life plays a similar soundtrack. And the more we embrace our stories of dignity and shame, the louder that music will play. It will assemble as we tell our stories honestly, and the sound will elicit a groaning for the final Encore far better than Legends of the Fall.