I was asked to share at a retreat recently and much of what I had written was not shared due to some technical issues, so this is what I had written in full, for the perusal of those who might be interested.
I made the mistake of watching one of the Hobbit movies the other day. As a Tolkien fan-boy, this is a grave offense and one that is hardly justifiable, but it did provide a catalyst for basically everything I am about to share, so I’ll call it bittersweet.
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and oozy smells, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down or eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
I don’t think anyone has ever wondered why a hobbit hole is in the ground rather than in a tree or at the bottom of a lake. I doubt that anyone has ever challenged the word of Tolkien concerning the contents of hobbit holes or why they aren’t muddy or sandy. We just take the word of the author as being what it is and continue on with the story.
I never questioned the masterfully guided hand of J.R.R. Tolkien. Before he even began writing, he had in his mind a beginning, a middle, and an end. He had an image of how wide Bilbo’s waistline would be, how many wrinkles Gandalf would have on his face, and how long Thorin’s beard would be. I have never wondered if Tolkien would mislead me or disappoint me. I never even considered it. I was given a sentence to read and I read it. I suppose I could have questioned the content of the next chapter, but the only way to find out what would come next was to move forward. No amount of hope or fear would change what was already written. I simply had to read it and then trust that the characters I had come to care for would be led well through whatever trial they happened to be facing.
And yet when I look at the story that I am a part of, I dig my heels in at every possible point and insist on changing the direction of the Author’s story. And it’s an odd thing to consider, as I sit and write this out. It must be really annoying for an Author to place a character on a page and say, “I have a beginning, middle, and end in mind and you’re gunna love it. It’ll have adventure and intrigue and failure and love; you’re gunna fall, but you’ll get back up and people will read your story and they’ll ask, ‘Who’s it by?’ and then you can tell them I wrote it.” And the author will have this giant grin on his face because he’s an awesome story teller. He’s written a billion stories so he sort of knows what he’s doing, he has been creating things since the beginning of time. He takes joy in doing it. He gets just as excited for fall colors every year as we do. Because he delights in what we delight in. Look at a child’s painting and the pride he takes when it’s put on the fridge. He gets just as stoked to watch flowers sprout from the ground, to watch frost grow on cold branches, to watch wind sift through summer fields. He watches the main character walk into the classroom and sit next to a girl who, a few chapters from now, will be walking down a different aisle towards the him. He creates conflict at home with the hope that the main character will understand that without tension, without conflict, there is no growth. And no one wants to read a story that doesn’t become something more.
And the first thing that the character does is try to jump off the page of his own story.
So know now, that I try to jump off the page all the time, and God always has another page underneath for me to land on. The story is always shifting and changing because I am never content to stay on one page. See the problem is, that I either, in my arrogance, presume to know better than Him and can write my own story, or in a state of paralyzing fear, refuse to move forward on a page that I don’t fully understand. And sometimes, to be honest, I just want to jump. And I think God delights in proving that I will always land on another page that he’s written. And all of this has become its own story.
My father left when a cop door closed between he and I. My dad re-entered my life when a coffee shop door opened eighteen years later. Between the first door and the next, there was a lot of stumbling around. I was raised in a good church but I didn’t know that. I mean, I knew a lot of things, but didn’t actually know them. I could recite scripture all day long but didn’t know the first thing about honoring my mother or respecting my sisters or resisting temptation. I could go to church camps and sing worship music and lead Bible studies but didn’t know the first thing about denying the self or walking with God at all.
I sort stories into one of two categories. Stories are either externally driven or internally driven. There are elements of both in every story. But the development of a character is fueled by external circumstances and internal influences. One typically catalyzes the other. The elements of my story that provide both unchanging presence and non-stop change are the people whose own pages shuffle into mine for sometimes just one chapter, or sometimes all of them. These people are felt rather than seen. They don’t often make headlines and yet without them, my story would be shallow and monochromatic. This means the unsavory people as well, like my father. He is just as essential a piece of my development (good or bad) as anyone else might be. This is a hard truth to accept.
I have struggled for three years now to comprehend the importance of my position in my father’s life. I know absolutely that I am my father’s son. This terrifies me. In this way, his absence from my life may be considered a blessing. His immediate physical influence was blessedly mitigated. The influence of his absence clung to me like smoke long after he left.
I screwed up a lot between then and now. But God’s faithfulness and long-suffering in my life should be dropping me on my face in front of him. I grew up with a fractured and incomplete understanding of the Church. I was an immature, isolated human tasked with trying to comprehend the weight of an unknowable God. And that leaves a lot of opportunity for misunderstanding scripture, misapplication of poorly-understood theology and a lot of metaphorical resetting of bones. I understood one truth very intimately from a fairly young age. I am not good enough. You can thank my father for some of that. This truth is absolutely right. And it is absolutely incomplete.
So I became intimately and inexorably married to a works-based lifestyle. It was a transactional interaction with the people in my life. As long as I performed at a certain level people would remain in my life. As long as I worked hard enough, said yes often enough, did the right things, gave enough of my own time, listened to enough sermons, highlighted enough bible verses, I could prove that I was worth loving.
This led to absolute exhaustion and disenchantment with the church and with God. I couldn’t (and still can’t) comprehend the weight of the price that had already been paid on my behalf and I was violently insulting the decision that Christ made in going to the cross by saying, “What you did isn’t enough. But I can work harder and then I’ll decide that I am worth being loved.” This idea was crafted insidiously while I struggled with lust and the idolization of my own selfishness. I could sit at a computer, get what I needed from it and then close tabs and go back to my life. Without an understanding of repentance and belief that I could change, I simply overcompensated by weeping harder and making glass promises.
Even during this time, while I was the center of my own world, God was crafting and planning and weaving pieces of himself into my story. Hindsight is a painful blessing. One that I did not acknowledge for a long time. At the time though, I began to realize that the knowledge I had grown up in–without any action–led to hypocrisy. And rather than doing anything about this, I simply stopped wanting to attain knowledge. I couldn’t be a hypocrite if I didn’t know anything worth being hypocritical about.
At some point in time, my dad entered back into the picture. I’m not going to call it a coincidence, because it wasn’t. I’m also not going to call it enjoyable, because it wasn’t that either. I will however call it a mud-covered blessing. Because I immediately was given father-shaped fuel can to propel me towards change.
That fuel for transformation instantly became, “I don’t care who I am, as long as it isn’t my father.” Which sounds great on paper, but that’s a lot of room to become something even worse. And I didn’t like that either, but I was still working and still fighting and still trying to prove that I could be better on my own steam. At some point shortly after my father came back into my life, I hit what is popularly referred to as ‘rock bottom’. But rocks are stable and make great foundations. I had hit rock bottom before and had made a castle out of it. But this time, something was different. My bones were tired. I was weary of trying. Surrender had never been an option before because that was obviously giving up. And despite the knowledge I had about the presence of God, I did not believe that anything would be there to meet me in my surrender. I had tried too hard to craft what little I had achieved. It was a passable creation and I presented it to the world with hesitant pride, but some deep, childish part of me just wanted to be held for once, and I’d never let anyone do it. So in a moment of absolute uncaring, I gave up trying.
God met me place of my father. The fear of abandonment, the pride, the fear of being alone, the fear of not being good enough are loud at night. But I am held now. There are beautiful people fighting on my behalf and gently correcting me and providing a loose example for what it means to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. I say loose because I have not been written to follow Jesus the way Jamie does. The fear and the joy of being in a story that God has been writing me into is that he’s been writing it with me in mind since before light was created and I am challenged now to enter into it with God. I get to partner with Him. I can give suggestions and ideas of what I’d like to do and who I’d like to be with and how I’d like to go through life. And he, as an omnipotent Author, incorporates my hopes and my wants into the grand story that he’s been crafting since before time was even a thought in the mind of an eternal God.
I think age brings perspective. Every month that passes is another month in which I can look back and see the provision that God has written into my story. If, or when I write this again twenty-nine years from now, I will have a compelling story so long as I continue to recognize the underlying theme. It’s all gospel right? It’s all pointing back to what or who meets me in my place of surrender. It’s trusting in the masterful hand of an Author who has a perfect story in mind, who created galaxies millions of years ago with the same level of delight as he did the sunflower I just passed on the road this morning. I think there is great comfort in that.