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June 14, 2010

What Kind of Story?

shippingcontainer.jpgAs you might imagine, relocating a family halfway around the world is a bit of challenge.

Of course, there are all of the logistical issues that have to be worked through: navigating immigration, packing and unpacking a shipping container, buying new cars, finding a house and suitable schools, getting tax identification numbers, opening and closing bank accounts, settling into the rhythms of a new job career, etc. There are also the many little things that add up and remind you that you are not home: blowing up your computer because of confusion about how power converters work, wanting to watch sports and only being able to find rugby or netball, having it rain 15-20 times per day, paying $3.50 for a doughnut...

Don't get me wrong. This is not bad. Far from it, actually. It simply is. And as such, we are adjusting to it all quite well. It is amazing what you learn about yourself and each other when the trappings that make up your life are taken away. And you might also guess that the hardest adjustment is not the "things" that are absent, but the people. Living so far away from the many people we love and who love us so generously and consistently makes me ache with pain that doesn't go away. It is a sweet ache, though, and I would never want it to completely disappear.

Just this week that ache turned to joy when we hosted our friends Mike and Vicki King in our home for five days. We were tremendously blessed by our time with them. The night before they left I laughed so hard I cried, nearly wetting my pants in the process. Though we have met many wonderful people and are sowing the seeds for significant friendships, there is no relational equivalent to Miracle-Gro. Meaningful relationships are built over time. After having a wealth of such relationships, their absence is felt acutely.

Do you know what the biggest challenge in all of this has been for me, though? It took me awhile to figure it out myself. About two months ago, I noticed I was asking the same question over and over. Actually, that is not quite right. At first, it wasn't obvious to me that I was asking anything. Rather, something seemed to be going on deep inside me. Occasionally it would break the surface in the form of a feeling or even a word or two. When it did, I had the sense that something of vital importance was stirring in the depths of my heart. Its elusiveness intrigued me. Whatever this something was, it would not leave me alone. As I have continued to listen to my heart and had conversations with other people, I have slowly been able to give voice to the question I have been struggling to speak: "What story am I in?" That is the question that has emerged from my soul. Isn't that weird? "What is that about?" is probably the question you are asking.

I should probably say I am a story person. I love stories - hearing them, telling them, reading them...you get the picture. The entire first chapter of my book Intuitive Leadership is about my love of stories and my sense of their importance to our lives - especially as we seek to relate to the God revealed in the stories of our Scriptures. For the last 15 years, I have known the story of which I was a part - so much so I took its presence for granted. It was the story of Jacob's Well and my part in helping birth that church in midtown Kansas City. The story of trying to figure out how to participate in the life of God in that place with so many good people is one of the best stories I know. What a story it is and continues to be. Overwhelming, really. But when I sensed that my storyline was diverging, and in a way I couldn't have ever predicted...well, I don't know how to describe my reaction except as non-reaction, also known as denial. The truth is it took me five years to come to grips with it.

And now I live on the other side of the world, wondering what story I am in.

Recently our family began reading Don Miller's new book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. We're generally not the kind of family that reads books out loud together, by the way. This is definitely a first. Generally what happens is after a meal, I open up the book and read a chapter or two out loud. Despite some early skepticism, it has been really good for us to do this together. Why? Because in this book, Don is trying to get a sense of his own story. Reading about his search for the thread of his story has helped us to get some perspective on our own. Many of you might know Don's writing from his first book Blue Like Jazz. He is a great writer, self-effacing, funny, and incredibly gracious. He also has really important things to say. Which brings me to the quote I want to share. I won't want to spend a lot of time setting it up. If you want that, buy Don's book and read it yourself (which you should probably do anyway). I will say that as he is learning how stories work, he makes the observation that the best stories are the ones that have great conflict embedded in them. As he works at interpreting the story of his life, he observes,

"I wanted it to be an easy story. But nobody really remembers easy stories. Characters have to face their greatest fears with courage. That's what makes a story good. If you think about the stories you like most, they probably have lots of conflict. There is probably death at stake, inner death or actual death, you know. These polar charges, these happy and sad things in life, are like colors that God uses to draw the world."

He tells of his experience watching a news report where some people caught in a shooting rampage are tortured before being killed. It's horrific stuff.

"I had to turn the television off, because I could see the torture in my head the way they were describing it. I kept imagining these people, just living their daily lives, and then having them suddenly ended in unjust tragedy. When we watch the news, we grieve all of this, but when we go to the movies, we want more of it. Somehow we realize that great stories are told in conflict, but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are actually in. We think God is unjust, rather than a master storyteller."

I don't think Don is trying to do an end-around on the problem of evil and suffering, by the way. I don't think he's giving facile explanations for how God is going to make everything better in the end, either. I do think he is saying that we often spend of our lives avoiding the kinds of conflict that could make us into great characters with great stories. I think he is saying that we like conflict when we see it condensed into a two-hour narrative that resolves neatly, but struggle to believe that our conflicts could likewise birth something beautiful and compelling and good. But they can. And I am discovering that even though I don't know what story I am in, living down here at the end of the world, I know that I am in a story that is beautiful and compelling and good - not despite the many challenges I've described, but because of them.

And so are you.

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amen. so much to love about this post. i've been on a similar question-asking journey. the miller quote you shared reminded me of samwise in two towers--

"The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually - their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. ... We hear about those as just went on - and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. ... I wonder what sort of tale we've fallen into?"

can't wait to find out how all our different stories come together in the end.

Fiona Sherwin

Tim, I loved reading your thoughts. I'm so glad that our stories have come together for this time!

zeth McReynolds

I love your heart and willingness to share it. peace be with you.


Beth, I had the same thought as I read Tim's blog! I read this book last fall as I opened my eyes to see I had landed in a new story but had yet to figure out the direction it (and I) were headed. Instead of comforting myself from the pain and "what if" questions, I decided to live into this next great chapter of my life and write a movie script I'd be proud to be a part of. Again, Miller has changed my life, he's pretty good at that!


Thanks, Tim. Since you guys left, my parents moved away from Leavenworth (to Texas), and just this morning two of Toby & I's best friends departed for a new life in California. While I feel these losses deeply, I am meanwhile welcoming home friends like Glenn & Amy Hocking, returning from their time with Peace Corps in South Africa, and soon John Raux back from his year in Asia, and even a bit of JennyRebecca as she comes back to visit for a week this month. So your thoughts here are really uplifting amidst all of these comings and goings, (not to mention Toby & I's tentative plans to move to Sudan). Thanks. Miss you!

Melody Hoskins

Thank you Tim. I needed to hear that today.

Katie K

Beth & Marlies - me too. Thanks for taking the time to look up the Sam quote (or to recite it, or read it off your arm, since I assume the entire LOTR including appendices is either committed to your memory or tattooed on you.)

Tim Keel

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

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