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Sunday, January 3, 2016

Hearing the whole story

It's a long time since I included in my Blog any of the articles I wrote for Reality magazine (no longer in publication). They were later published in a small book called On the Journey. But today in tidying out a cupboard I came across it again and it fell open at this article. I wrote it in 1994! But it is just as true today - for me personally, and by extension,  for the mixed up world we live in. So if you've got time for a five minute read, grab a coffee and here it is:

Almost every day I have the privilege of listening to some part of the life story of one or more unique
individuals. Most often only small segments of the story are told at one time. Perhaps, if there are many conversations, the pieces start to fit together and a bigger picture begins to appear. Occasionally the whole of a life story (to date!) is told all at once. I listened to a story like that yesterday and it's got me thinking.

As the listener, I was awed by the artistry of divine design as God brought together unlikely threads to weave this person's life pattern. I could see some clear, strong, consistent bands of colour. I felt confident and excited about how the pattern would continue to be woven.

Yet the person who was in the midst of living the story felt only confusion, helplessness and despair.

This is not unusual, but what is going on here? Why do we find it so hard to believe that the story of our own lives has a pattern and a plot that is exciting, beautiful and well within the caring control of God? Why is it easier to believe this (and see it) in the lives of others?

Perhaps we lack the capacity to stand back far enough from the chapter of the story we are currently living. Perhaps from the ground level of our 'now' experiences we lose sight of the undulating peaks and valleys which make for a beautiful landscape. Perhaps in the valleys or on the flatlands we fear that even God might have lost the map!

Many Biblical characters might have felt the same way. Abraham and Sarah for example. Promises of many descendants seemed hollow mockery year after year. Who could blame them for trying to "make the promise come true" in their own way? Or think of Joseph. If anyone had a right to confusion, helplessness and despair, he did! Everything seemed to go wrong for Joseph from teenage years onwards. Family jealousy and rejection, slavery, false accusations of sexual harassment, imprisonment...surely God has lost the map this time! Even Mary, Jesus' own mother, could have been forgiven for thinking something was radically amiss when she saw this special God-given son being misunderstood, maligned, and finally lynched and murdered.

When we read these stories we do so from the perspective of the whole. We know how the parts fit together and how God is demonstrating the ability to bring it all to an exciting and often extraordinary conclusion.

While we are living our own stories we don't have that advantage ...except by faith. Part of growing that faith, it seems to me, is listening to story after story of how God does it again and again. Biblical stories, biographical stories and the in-process stories of our brothers and sisters can all contribute to our confidence.

Our faith is built too when someone listens to our story and, from their more objective position, tells us what they see. In the third year Spiritual Formation class at BCNZ we do just that. [Remember this was written when I was teaching at BCNZ] We listen with respect, ask questions to draw out more, and pray for the teller of the story. As we do so, themes emerge and insights are gained that strengthen the faith and sense of direction of the storyteller. A formal group setting is not necessary, however. We can offer one another a mutual ministry of faith building as we listen to each other's stories in many informal settings.

Bit by bit we may be able to believe that in our own lives, no matter how painful or confusing, God is writing a story. 

I learn so much from the people I listen to. I'm learning not to jump to conclusions on the basis of one or two chapters of a life story. I'm learning that the pattern of God will be there to be discovered if I'm patient enough. I'm learning to listen in faith for what might be the whole story, even if some of it is yet to be written.