Trouble Drives the Narrative, re-visit

Written in May 2018, this post remains a favorite of mine. I’ve revisited it here — it’s a lesson I return to.

Every story worth reading is built around a problem –forbidden love, mistaken identity, murder, theft, robbery, and the like. I doubt many of us would even bother to read a story in which everything goes smoothly or in which the main character never faced a challenge. What would be the point?

If when Mayella Ewell accused Tom Robinson of violating her, someone had stepped up and said, “Come on now, you just want to accuse an innocent black man because it’ll make you feel better about yourself,” and Mayella had said, “Oh, you’re right. Sorry about that,” To Kill a Mockingbird wouldn’t have been a story. Sure, we all would’ve preferred Tom to have gone free — he was innocent after all, but Harper Lee builds her story around this fictional trouble to reveal a real-life trouble of the time. And that trouble drives her narrative.

In the story, Atticus Finch wrestles with racial injustice. We see him take risks to stand up to prejudice, shoot the symbolic rabid dog, and try to explain the harsh realities of life to Jem and Scout — and those are the reasons we love this story! We don’t love the ugliness of racism, the trial of an innocent man, his conviction, or his death. No, we like the character who recognizes and stands up to injustice, who doesn’t lose his head, who is able to speak truth and maintain hope. We don’t love the conflict, we love what the character does in the face of the conflict.

Without conflict a story hardly exists.

In fact, from early grades, we learn that stories have an arc — the exposition in which the writer provides context and sets the stage for the action, the rising action that introduces the conflict, the climax where the outcome of the conflict becomes evident, the falling action during which the loose ends get tied up, and the resolution that enables us to close the book and move on to the next story. The heart of every story is the conflict — the trouble drives the narrative.

The trouble, however, is not the story; the ways in which the character faces, weathers, endures, or learns from the trouble — that is the story.

Real life stories, too, consist of ups and downs, twists and turns, successes and failures, joys and disappointments. We expect these rhythms in the lives of fictional characters, but when we are living out our own life stories, we get can trapped in the mistaken belief that life is only good when it is free from trouble. When conflict is introduced — divorce, crime, illness, addiction — we can be tempted to believe that our story is over. Any writer knows that the introduction of conflict is the very beginning of the story.

The Wizard of Oz opens with a tornado that lifts Dorothy’s home off its very foundation, hurls it through the air, and lands it in a far away land with an impact that kills an evil witch. Talk about trouble! The story, however, is not about the tornado or the traumatic journey through the air or even about the witch, but it is about Dorothy’s ability to take step after step down the yellow brick road in a quest to find her way back to the people she loves.

The trouble is not the end of the story; it is the beginning.

Each of us has faced trouble. My close circle of friends could sit sipping coffee and share tales of betrayal, abuse, illness, financial ruin, scandal, and broken relationships. In fact, as we get to know one another, it is not typically our successes that we share but the troubles that have played out in our lives. Why? Because these times of trouble shape us. Just like Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson revealed his integrity and his ability to keep his cool when an angry mob confronted him in the middle of the night, our experience with trouble exposes our inner grit — that strength that lies dormant inside of us until a moment of crisis requires it to surface. Dorothy would’ve never known that she was capable of standing up to the Wicked Witch of the West if she hadn’t been hurled through the air and found herself in completely foreign territory.

Trouble reveals what we are made of.

In the smooth sailing sections of my life, I have been tempted to think that I know all there is to know. I have lived with the mistaken belief that I have it all together — that I can handle life all by myself, thank you very much. I’ve even been prone to judge those whose lives are not sailing smoothly — certain that their trouble is the result of some fault of their own.

However, when crisis arrives in my life — and it surely does — I have to admit that I don’t know everything, that I can’t work things out by myself, and that trouble comes with or without my help.

One thing remains certain: times of trouble shape me.

That’s what conflict does. It allows the character in the story to be transformed — to be dynamic — to be reshaped. Dorothy arrives back home with a new gratefulness for the people in her life. Scout, having watched Atticus navigate the trial of Tom Robinson, gains a new compassion for those who have a different experience than she does. Me? I learn humility and reliance on God.

Trouble brings me to my knees and forces me to admit that I am poor and needy. From this position on the ground, heaving with sobs, I hear a still small voice: Be still. Know that I am God. I will never leave you or forsake you. My sobbing softens. I remember that I am but dust. I am not exempt from suffering. No crisis has afflicted me that is not common to man. And certainly this trouble is not the end of my story.

I whisper a thank you as I wipe my tears and push myself up to standing. I remember the words prayed over me many years ago, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”  That is my grit. That is my inner strength that sometimes lies dormant but never fails to surface in times of trial. The strength of my character is not in my ability to have all the answers but in my realization that I have none of them. That realization keeps my pride at bay and allows me to turn for guidance and strength to the One who knew me before I was born and who has written every page of my story. He is not surprised by the trouble; He is using it to re-shape my character.

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33

Corn chips, anyone?

Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I ran across a meme that said,

“Is anyone else just going through life like ‘I just gotta get past this last difficult week and then it’s smooth sailing from there!’ but like…every week?”

I chuckled.

I had just been reminiscing about how when we were first married every need we had seemed to cost $5.  We needed $5 for a last minute item from the grocery store to finish dinner for guests who would arrive in half an hour, $5 for the hardware to fix the door that wouldn’t latch quite right, $5 to contribute to the group gift at work.  Each item was just $5, but when we added them all up, the total pressed us.

Later, when our children were small, it shifted to $10.  A package of diapers was about $10, so was the team t-shirt, or enough burgers and fries at McDonald’s to feed three kids and justify their time in the Playland. It seemed we never had enough $10 bills to cover all the items on our list.

Before long, the price of ‘everything’ grew to $20.  Then it was $50, then $100. Each time we had an unexpected expense, we shifted, braced, ponied up, and prayed that if we just “got past this last difficult week” then it would be “smooth sailing.”

Back then ‘crises’ looked different than they look now, too. I remember the time, for instance, when my husband and I returned from a long day at our respective teaching positions, looking forward to the chicken dinner that had been roasting in the crockpot all day, only to find that I hadn’t turned the crockpot ‘on’ and that the chicken was still raw.  I thought the world had ended.  I had wasted “all that food”; certainly I was a failure as a wife.

Or the time when I had planned the menus for a three-day visit from out-of-town guests, budgeted carefully, brought all the groceries home, prepared the first meal, and discovered one of our guests snacking on the corn chips that had been purchased for the next day’s nachos. I dragged my husband into the bedroom and said, “What are we going to do? Now I don’t have everything I need for tomorrow’s meal!”  I was seriously distressed.

Over the years we have certainly weathered much worse that prematurely noshed nacho chips.  We have managed through many ruined meals, illnesses, broken hearts, car accidents, disappointments, and surprises.  And still, I keep hoping that this will be “the last difficult week” before we hit the period of “smooth sailing”.

We have had seasons of smooth sailing. Many. However, I haven’t seemed to grasp that “smooth sailing” isn’t what is promised.  In fact, it is far more likely that we will face “troubles of many kinds”.  The troubles are the given.  The reprieves are the unexpected blessings.  So why do I set myself up to believe the opposite?

I guess I want to believe the best. I am inherently a glass-half-full girl.  Yes, our finances are going to work out.  Of course, our children are going to be healthy.  Surely, we will be successful and well-liked.  Naturally, everyone will agree with us. I choose the path of hopefulness to a fault.

The problem with believing the best will happen in every situation is that I don’t always prepare for any alternative.  I don’t guard myself for the ‘given’ of disappointment.  I don’t store up for the days of famine. I believe that everything is going to run just how I planned. I don’t buy extra ingredients just in case; I buy exactly what I need. So, I’m often found standing, mouth agape, in shock that someone is standing there eating my corn chips.

But here’s the thing — people are going to eat the corn chips.

Now, I do realize that corn chips are not a big deal.  They are hardly even a $5 item. But the $5 items teach us what to do when we are one day faced with a $100 or a $1000 item (or even several of them all in the same week).  I can get pissed that someone ate my corn chips, I can ask them to run to the store and pick up another bag,  or I can simply say, “Oh, I’m glad you felt at home enough to help yourself!”

In trying out different responses to these $5 items, I am building resiliency–muscle–that will sustain me when I am hit with a more substantial crisis — someone I love is hospitalized, or we discover we owe Uncle Sam a lot. Again. Or we lose a loved one, or get a life-altering diagnosis.

We face troubles of many kinds. All of us do. All the time. My troubles seem huge to me right now. So do yours. Our hearts are broken in a million places and we are devastated. We’ve been lied to, cheated on, forgotten, abandoned, mistreated, and deceived.

The corn chips pale in comparison, don’t they?

But the $5 problem and the corn chip crisis have a lot to teach us.  I wish when I came home to the cold chicken in the crock pot my first response would have been, “Ok, God, what’s for dinner now? And what do you want me to learn from this?” Instead, if I remember correctly, I spouted lots of self-deprecating phrases, stormed around the house, probably cried, and ultimately got a pizza. It’s ok. I had a human response. However, I think that ultimately God wants more for me than self-blame, shame, and anger. I believe that in my $5 problems and my $100,000 problems, God longs for me to look to Him.

What if, in every decision, instead of mustering my resolve and believing that I myself will be able to manage every situation, I instead turned, raising my eyes and my hands to God, and admitted that all of it is too much for me?  What if I acknowledged that my pennies and my corn chips all come from God?  How would I experience life differently?  How would I weather crisis and even trauma?

I’m not too old to learn a different way.  Honestly, I’m given opportunities every day.

If you are in the habit, as I am, of kicking butts and taking names, of putting out fires on the fly, of keeping multiple plates spinning, of trying to handle everything on your own, this type of change will be a challenge.  The impulse in every difficult situation is to be a first-responder — to stop the gushing blood, provide oxygen, perform compressions, and avert any casualties.  Fighting that impulse is hard, especially if ultimately you are truly the only one who can help.  But here’s the thing: God has every situation in the palm of His hand. He’s got it. He can handle everything for the few moments it takes you to pause, look Him in the eyes, and ask, “Is there something you’d like me to do here?”

That’s all. Just pause and ask Him.  He may say, “Stand by. Help is on the way.”  He may say, “Yes, I really need you to stabilize this situation until help arrives.”  He may say, “Stand down.”

Mm.  This soldier certainly does not like to be told to “Stand down.”

But. If I trust that God has everything in the palm of His hand and that He alone knows the best course of action, don’t I want to check with Him before I act? Before I pay the $5? or before I lose my mind about a stinking bag of corn chips?

It sounds pretty simple when I put it like that, but I’m telling you, this is the lesson of my life. It’s about time I learned it.

John 16:33

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

So many sermons

Since Sunday I have heard four sermons.  I am not sure I have ever listened to four sermons in four days — until now.

On Sunday, we joined our son at the church he and our daughter-in-law are joining.  The pastor spoke about “Tough Truths for Hard Times”.  He pointed out that hard times are normal; they are a gift; they call for hard questions; and they are an opportunity to live by faith. I wrote in the service folder, “Live by the Word of God, even when I don’t know if it’ll work out.”

At home on Monday, after hearing from our pastor that I had missed his “best sermon ever” (wink, wink), I listened to his message “Beauty for Ashes” online.  The message recalled a time when Jesus interrupted a funeral procession to bring a dead man back to life.  He said that God also interrupts us as we live our lives; He enters into our circumstances and breathes life into us.

On Tuesday, I attended a women’s luncheon with a thousand other Lutheran women and heard Dr. Dale Meyer preach about “Life’s Crosses”.  He pointed out that throughout life we have many crosses to bear — illness, financial hardship, relationship struggles, etc. — and that the key to carrying these crosses is clinging to God in faith, trusting that He will bring us safely through.

Finally, on Wednesday night, I attended Lenten service where our pastor spoke about the beauty of grace.  He recalled the parable of Jesus in which the workers, all hired at different times of the day, received the same wages. He painted a picture of God as one who desires to give His best to everyone. I wrote in my notes, “God dispenses gifts, not wages.  The only thing we can do, by His grace, is receive them.”

Four sermons in four days.  I’m sitting here this morning at my computer thinking, “Ok, connect the dots.  What is the overall message God is bringing to you?”  And you know, the sermons are indeed meaningful, but He also has been speaking to me in the spaces around these sermons.

On the drive home from church with our son, we were discussing applying for jobs (my continuing quest) and I heard myself say, “I have applied for so many jobs, I have lost count.  I don’t even get upset any more when I get an email that says they’ve “gone in another direction”.

Riding to the luncheon on Tuesday, I heard my friend, a 72-year-old widow say, “I’m God’s worker.  I get up every morning and see what work He has for me to do.”

Last night after church, a friend asked me, “So how’s the job hunt going?” I heard myself respond, “I have applied for dozens of jobs.  I know God has me where He wants me; I am just impatient.”

This morning, I was updating information on the FAFSA for our daughter.  There was a message highlighted in red that said, “Your parents’ reported income is significantly lower than last year.”  Yeah.  I know.

Times aren’t really that hard in the little house by the river: we are well-fed and clothed, we love one another.  God is providing for all of our needs. Sure finances are a bit tight.  Sure I have to move at a different pace than I ever have before. But we have been given a gift of time and space to ask some hard questions and to sit with some of the answers.

God has indeed interrupted our lives with a career change, a move, a chronic illness, and some lifestyle changes. But in that interruption, He has breathed life through new friendships and new circumstances.

We do have some crosses — some challenges– on our plates.  I am learning that these challenges, the ones for which I don’t see resolution, keep me in a posture of dependence on God.  They keep me near to Him. They have me clinging.

And we have been given so much grace.  Not only at this particular time — but even when we were soldiering through, kicking butts and taking names.

So, the message of the last four days? Life is hard.  God is good. You’ve got struggles?  Yeah, that’s life.  You’ve got God?  That’s grace.  Keep your perspective, Kristin, keep your perspective.

John 16:33

I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace.

In this world you will have trouble.  But, take heart!  I have overcome the world.