The Greatest Story Ever Told

Have you ever noticed that humans have an innate need for story? That may seem kind of a strange question. You may not have thought of it before, but I sometimes wonder why I have an intense need for story. It seems like a strange kind of a need to, well, need. But I’ve noticed that I’m not the only one. Look at the abundance of movie sites and theatres. And who are the popular heroes of our day? The ones who star in our celluloid stories. (Then we end up consumed with the real-life stories of these people.) This is not a recent phenomena proving the corruption of our times. Good story-tellers have always been revered.

There is something buried in our natures that responds to a story. It’s stronger for some of us than for others, but I think it’s there for all of us. Why? Is it mere escapism? Are our lives so bad that we only feel better by hearing a story about someone else who had it worse, and then hearing how it all came right in the end? I think it’s deeper than that, even. I think this thirst for story is written into our natures because Story is the true nature of things. A romance story, even. Happy ending included.

Let’s analyze a little: What is it about a story that makes it a story? Let’s start there. First, a story must have characters. It must have personalities acting and reacting and interacting. Then, a story has movement. It has forward movement. It has a beginning. Then it has a conflict, it has a climax, it has a resolution, and it must have an ending. If a story doesn’t have a proper ending, we don’t see purpose, and purpose is the essential element in story. We feel a need to see things tie together and go as they ought. We like a little surprise, too, but a satisfactory ending is a must. Even if it’s not a happy ending, it must have an ending where we can see the point behind the story.

All those elements are what make up plot or drama.

For some reason, I got thinking about this subject while lying awake with insomnia one night. I started comparing the little bit of knowledge I have about different world religions and analyzing them in regards to this matter of story. I came to the conclusion that, of all the religions I’m at all familiar with, none of them other than Judaism or Christianity has the forward movement required to be Story (and Judaism-minus-Christianity must always be admitted to be the first installment of a “to be continued…” sequel. There is an unfinishedness to the Old Testament. It ends in breathless, cliffhanger expectation).

Hinduism has a circular movement: the hamster on the wheel of karma and reincarnation. Buddhism has a backward movement of renunciation. The ideal state in Buddhism is the extinguishing of desire rather than its fulfillment (in contrast to Christianity which teaches that desires are meant to be fulfilled and whose whole business is pointing the way to the only real source of their fulfillment). In Buddhism, the snuffing of the candle is nirvana. It’s a backward movement towards cessation. Islam is stationary on its five pillars. With fatalism, everything is set in stone. Only in the Bible do we see the forward movement of story, of plot, of drama — not a forever movement because there is a “happily ever after,” a crossing of the finish line. The goal of a story is its finish.

Amongst religions, only in Christianity do we see a protagonist and a villain, a beginning, a conflict, a climax, a resolution, and an ending — with some surprising twists along the way. And only here do we see the purpose which we all look for our whole lives.

What drives this story is its Main Character. Christianity is unique among the religions of the world, and that’s because its Founder is unique.

Sure, the whole thing about the Dying God-Man may be a great story. It may be great drama. But what’s even better is that we find our need for story being met by what looks very much like a true story. It’s my belief that only in Christianity can we find the ultimate drama wedded to ultimate truth. Only here can we have both our need for story and our need for truth met at once.

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Accepting or Rejecting Writing Criticism

Today, when I was cruising around a writers’ website where I’m a member, I came across this old article I’d posted on it.  Still applicable, so I thought I’d share it on my writing blog for all other aspiring writers out there who may happen to stumble onto it.  

We’re all writers here, right? And as writers, we probably realize that the first item on the list of qualities necessary for being a writer is a big ol’ thick hide. Yet, if you’re anything like me, you also realize that your own skin is closer to paper-thin.

Accepting any criticism is a hard thing, even when it’s warranted (maybe especially when it’s warranted). But a further problem is knowing when it’s warranted. Before taking criticism to heart, it’s important to know when it’s constructive and when it’s destructive. We all want to improve, but a criticism or suggestion that moves us in the wrong direction is less than helpful.

With writing criticism, distinguishing the good from the bad is tricky business — even trickier than with other kinds of criticism because literature belongs almost entirely in the realm of the subjective.

How many best-selling authors sold their first manuscript right out of the gate to the first publisher who saw it? For a writer, no matter how talented, it seems that rejection letters in the double digits are the norm for a first project. Rejection does not always equal lack of merit. Then again, sometimes it does. But how is the rejectee to know the difference?

Those “in the biz” are expected to recognize the kind of writing that a majority of readers will want to read. But if film critics are any indication, being “in the biz” may mean being out of touch with the man/woman on the street. (I apologize if you happen to be a film critic. No, wait! I take back the apology. If anyone should be able to take a little criticism, it had better be a critic!)

The subject of literature unavoidably opens up the “objective vs. subjective” can of worms. While there is a certain degree of objectivity involved in identifying good writing, that degree is negligible (as in, there are still a few hard and fast rules of grammar and style which any writer should feel free to break at any time as long as he knows he’s breaking the rules and does so intentionally). Writing is not a hundred metre dash. There are no stopwatches to declare unarguably that one writer is better than another. Good writing is a matter of taste, and tastes differ. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

So, the rookie writer’s dilemma: how to tell good advice from bad advice when the advice being given is all a matter of taste.

Let me share a little personal testimony with you for your reading enjoyment. Once upon a time, when I was young and reckless, I entered a story in a nationwide story contest. It was called, “The Pickett’s Family Vacation” and was about a family (yes, the Pickett family) who are (yes) going on vacation. Almost the entire story is taken up with Mr. Pickett attempting to fit one more piece of oh-so-necessary (according to Mrs. Pickett) vacation rubbish in the already-overloaded vehicle. It involves, of course, unpacking and repacking the vehicle, losing the car keys, getting a smack in the head with the car door while crawling around on the ground looking for the keys, wondering to oneself about the wisdom of having family vacations or maybe of having families, and all the usual fun and frolic that accompanies getting a family vacation underway. (At least, that’s how I remember family vacations.)

It was quite a funny story. I thought so. Subtle. Yet hilarious. And seeing I’ve since lost the story, you’ll have to take my word for it.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t funny at all. I don’t know. One man’s trash, after all. If you’d been forced to read it, maybe the best you could have managed would have been a polite chuckle. But I’m sure you would at least have grasped that the story was intended to be funny. You probably grasped the intent-to-be-funny just from my description of it. I know you are all people of discernment and discriminating tastes. (After all, you’re reading this article.)

In the story contest, I drew a judge who was plainly not a kindred spirit; a judge who, in my humble opinion, had no sense of humour. Or sense, period. Yet, I was informed, she was a best-selling author. Definitely “in the biz.”

Apparently, she didn’t like my Pickett family story. Apparently, she didn’t find it funny. Apparently, she couldn’t even manage a polite chuckle. But, here’s the kicker: apparently, she hadn’t even grasped that it was intended to be funny.

She suggested that I give the family “something to fight.” “Try burning their house down,” she offered helpfully. (Whaddyamean? I did give the family something to fight. I gave them each other. What more could they ask?)

Really? Burn down the house? Sure, I probably could have written a story where I burned the Pickett family’s house down, but then I would have called it, “The Pickett Family House Fire.” Not, “The Pickett Family Vacation.”

So, the advice I was given by the illustrious, best-selling, “in the biz” judge on how to improve my story boiled down to, “Write a different story. Write the kind of story I would have written.” Problem being, that me — li’l-ol-woman-on-the-street-me — wouldn’t have bothered to read the kind of story she would have written. I say so because I’ve never read any books by this particular best-selling author. (I can’t remember her name, to be honest.)

For me, the deal-breaker was when she advised me not to tell the reader it was a hot day but to show the reader how hot it was. “Use an expression like, ‘Skin sticking to the vinyl of the car seat.’ ” There is the objection that if she wanted my story to be written in her style and voice, she should have written it herself in the first place and saved me the trouble, but that wasn’t the clincher. This was the clincher: she spelled “vinyl,” “vynal.” I kid you not. (The judges’ comments were handwritten which explains the malfunction in her spell check.)

At that point, I’m afraid I said to myself rather haughtily, “Do I really have to take seriously the opinions of a best-selling author who spells ‘vinyl,’ ‘vynal’?” (Okay, that whole thing I said about writers being able to break any rules they wish doesn’t cover “vynal.” I have my limits!)

As you can tell, my amusement or bitterness (or bitter amusement or amused bitterness) at the story-contest incident has stayed with me through the years. But I learned a valuable lesson through it: Don’t enter story contests. In fact, don’t let anybody read what I’ve written. Not unless I’m willing to have it misunderstood. Not unless I’m willing to have people manage only the barest of polite chuckles over my subtle-yet-hilarious creations. Or to tell me that I ramble. Or to correct MY spelling and grammar errors. (And I know, I know. They’re numerous).

In fact, unless I’m willing to open myself up to criticism, I should keep my writing to myself. On the other hand, if I find that I’m not satisfied just keeping my writing to myself, I have to open myself up to criticism. Or correction. Or rejection. Or misunderstanding. It comes with the territory.

And the wise thing to do is to consider thoughtfully every piece of advice I’m handed. Whether or not I take it.

If I was to write my Pickett family vacation story all over again, I still wouldn’t burn down their house. Upon mature consideration, I rejected the honourable judge’s advice, not only because of the “vynal,” but because she’d failed to understand anything about my story. If she had said, “You’re not funny. Quit trying,” I might have listened and written a story about a family who burned down their house. But when she failed to understand that I was trying to be funny (when any reader of discernment and discriminating tastes can tell just from my description of my story that I was trying to be funny), I can acknowledge that my story was misunderstood on a very deep level by the judge and move on.

Still, though I didn’t accept her basic premise (that I should have written the kind of story she would have written), I didn’t reject everything she had to offer. She made another comment which, though it was the product of misunderstanding a detail of the story, helped me see that I hadn’t described the detail very well.

My conclusion is that all advice requires sifting. And ultimately, the individual being handed the advice is the only one who can decide what to keep and what to toss.

I may never be “in the biz,” but I still need to write. And I need to write what I need to write.

Only I can be I. And only you can be you. And only I can write what I can write. And only you can write what you can write. Yet I might be able to help you write a little better or clearer what only you can write. And you can help me write a little better or clearer what only I can write. Yet both of us need to sort through the help we can give each other to know what is me helping you write a little better what only you can write and what is me trying to help you write a little more like me (and vice versa).

I admit it. I’m no Hemingway. I never will be. But then again, neither was Wodehouse. Then again, Hemingway was no Wodehouse. And I like Wodehouse. I don’t like Hemingway.

I’m allowed to like Wodehouse and not to like Hemingway. There’s no stopwatch to inform me infallibly that Hemingway was a genius and Wodehouse was a goof. It’s a matter of taste.

I admit it. I’m no Wodehouse, either. But then again, he’s not me.

An Uber Driver Named Leo

I had a year-long temporary resident visa for Mexico when I first came.  But I’m here in Mexico for thirteen months.  So I needed to make a quick run north to Texas to exit Mexico and re-enter on a tourist visa.  Mission accomplished, but none of that is really the story I want to tell.  It’s all background.

I’d decided that while I was in Texas over the Easter weekend, in order to make me less bitter about needing to do a red-tape trip rather than a trip for fun (red-tape trips feel like such a waste!), I would hop a greyhound on Saturday to spend the day in New Mexico and check off one of the fifty states I’d never visited.  Mission also accomplished, but that’s still also just background to the story I want to tell.

I’d bought my tickets to New Mexico in advance online, and I’d booked a seat on a 9:25 a.m. bus to give myself all day in Las Cruces.  For some reason, I was extremely dawdly that Saturday morning—more dawdly than usual (which is saying something!).  By the time I got around to booking my uber, it was after nine, and it was at least a twenty minute drive to the greyhound station.  It took a few minutes for the uber to arrive, and by then, catching my bus was no longer an option if my uber driver did the speed limit.

My uber driver’s name was Leo.  (That’s an irrelevant trivial pursuit fact for you, but it’s what I titled this post, so I may as well throw it in for no extra charge.)  Leo was amazing.  When he heard what time my bus left, he did not do the speed limit.  Maybe that’s not a good quality to look for in an uber driver, but I have to admit, I appreciated it.  He didn’t even scold me for being a dawdly idiot.  He didn’t need to.  I was doing it for both of us.  I spent most of the drive berating myself mentally in the backseat and pretty much giving my bus ticket up for lost.  Leo didn’t talk much at first.  He concentrated on weaving in and out of traffic on the freeway until we were nearing the bus station.  When he could see he was going to get me there on time, he relaxed a little and began to chat.  Where was I from, he wanted to know.  “Canada,” I told him.  I seldom get more specific.  Who on earth has ever heard of Creston, B.C. if they’re not from there?

So I told Leo, “Canada,” and left it at that.  He didn’t ask me, “What part?”  Instead, he said the most surprising thing.  “I used to spend vacations in a little town called Creston, B.C.” he said.  I unhinged my jaw like a python going in for a large snack.  I could hardly believe my ears.  Then, Leo proceeded to describe the place to me, so I knew we were thinking of the same Creston, B.C. (like, maybe there’s another one that I haven’t heard of?  Not likely!)  He definitely knew Creston well.  My Creston.  Of course I explained that Creston was the town I was from and that was the reason for the python-like expression.  I’m not sure he believed me, but that’s neither here nor there.

Leo’s dad was from Couer d’ Alene, Idaho which explained his familiarity with Creston.  (His mom was from Mexico.  And he lives in Texas.  I would have liked to get more of his story—I’m sure it was interesting—but I had a bus Leo had broken laws for me to catch.)  So I thanked Leo quickly and ran for my bus.

Turns out, when I had purchased my tickets online, I’d bought them for the Saturday a week earlier than I needed them.  I’d already missed my bus.  By a week.  But the driver let me on for no apparent reason, anyway.  And off we went.

Once seated on the bus, I was finally able to cogitate a little, and Leo and his sojourns in Creston were fresh on my mind.  Then, I started to get all philosophical about Leo and his sojourns in Creston.

I soon arrived at the conclusion that none of what had taken place all odd-morning-long was coincidence.  For one thing, I don’t believe in coincidence.  Like, at all.  I’m not even an agnostic about coincidences.  I am strictly an acoincidentist.  I actively disbelieve in them.

That is, as a life’s philosophy.  On a day-to-day basis, while I still reject the idea of coincidence, I accept the idea that I’ll likely never get to see most of the reasons behind the weird-and-seemingly-meaningless happenings that we term “coincidence.”  But I still (philosophically) hold to the idea that there are reasons.  For everything.

Obviously, my acoincidentist beliefs are not disconnected from my Christian beliefs, but quite a lot of other Christians manage to be both coincidentists and Christians, so I’m just weird that way, I guess.  But I do happen to believe that God cares about (and cares to the point of managing and arranging) even the minute details.  Of everything.  (Though I do believe in freedom of the will, but we’re not rabbit-trailing into tiptoeing through the TULIPs right now, I can promise you!)

The God of the Bible has every hair on my head numbered.  He knows how many were in that handful I pulled out of my comb this morning, and He has successfully subtracted that number from the number that used to be on my head.  The God of the Bible can be in charge of the infinitely big because He’s in charge of the infinitely small.  He’s infinite.  And infinite runs both ways.

Now, obviously, I live my life as a practical coincidentist.  I mean, I don’t look for the deeper meaning behind everything; behind the handful of hair in my comb or the reason I just committed a typo or why I have an old coffee stain on the (clean!  Really!) shirt I’m wearing at present.  I mean, I just live my life, as regards the really small stuff, trying not to think too deeply about it for the most part.  I don’t stress about what I’ll put on when I get up in the morning (a shirt with a coffee stain today, apparently) or what I’ll eat for breakfast.  I don’t ask for divine guidance and seek to discern God’s will over that kind of minutiae.  That way lies the loony bin.  The fast track to it, in fact.

But every once in awhile, something significant enough to make me sit up and take notice grows out of something as insignificant as the coffee stain on my T-shirt or the muesli I had for breakfast.  (I eat that every morning, so that’s not even mildly out of the ordinary.  Maybe the coffee-stained T-shirt isn’t either, now that I think about it.)  Like my Saturday-morning dawdling (also entirely in-the-ordinary) enabling me to catch, just at the right moment, not the uber driver I would have caught if I’d been on time, but an uber driver named Leo who picked Creston, B.C. out of thin air as the one place he knew in Canada to talk to me about.  It was sooo weird that I thought there just may be some deeper meaning that I was actually meant to decipher in the strange happening.

The only message from God I could see in the whole event was the reminder that I don’t actually, as a life’s philosophy, believe in coincidence (even though I live, for all intents and purposes, as though I do).  I wondered if God might be trying to remind me of that fact that I forget often (for all intents and purposes).

After I arrived in “Las Cruces” (which wasn’t really, but instead was a bus stop/gas station/convenience store on the outskirts of nowhere which is where the bus to Las Cruces stops), I realized I might not want to spend the whole day I’d been planning in New Mexico.  Fortunately, I’d bought a ticket for last Saturday anyway, I wasn’t planning on testing my luck again by trying to get back to Texas on an outdated ticket, and I felt quite justified in buying a new ticket for the first bus back that I could get.  I’d successfully earned my checkmark over New Mexico on my map of the fifty states, so I was quite happy to get back to Texas as soon as possible.  It still meant, I think, five or six hours exploring the little piece of New Mexico that I had unwittingly chosen to see.  I spent about three of them walking around the countryside, soaking in the sights of farms and trees.  I’ve been very countryside-deprived where I live now, so that wasn’t a bad thing.  I spent the remainder of them sitting in the shade of the trees of a ballpark that I had to myself all day.  And thinking.  Shady trees and time alone to think–also not a bad thing.  (But I’ll come back to my day in New Mexico and that train of thought I was riding after we ride the bus back to Texas and stop there, briefly.)

So I returned to Texas a few hours ahead (though one week late) of my original schedule.  I tried to catch an uber from the bus station back to the guest house where I was staying, but the wifi at the greyhound station was too weak (and I do all that kind of thing from my iPod and require a pretty decent wifi connection for it).  It was around my suppertime.  I was getting hungry.  So I decided to take a short walk around the greyhound station neighbourhood to look for some fast food and free wifi.  I found both.  But I also found another encounter that looked as though it had God’s fingerprints all over it.  The specifics aren’t relevant to the story.  I’ll just tell you that I, again, was reminded that there are no coincidences and was happy that I’d received that message earlier in the day so that I would recognize this encounter for the non-coincidence it was when it appeared in front of me.  Again, details as insignificant as the earlier arrival time (thanks to my original idiocy in booking my first ticket), the shoddy wifi at the greyhound station, and my weakness for Taco Bell (yes, even after having lived in Mexico for a year) all culminated into an encounter that seemed significant enough to consider, well, significant.

Now, I’ll take you back to New Mexico and the thinking I was doing in the shade of the trees of the ballpark.  Along the lines of “No coincidences,” the verses in Joel about God restoring the years the locusts had eaten jumped into my head for some reason.  I suppose, because when I think about my firm stand against the reality of coincidences, it sometimes takes the form of the saying, “God wastes nothing!”  Really?  Nothing?  The handful of hairs I threw in the garbage after combing them out this morning?  The coffee stain on my T-shirt (I’ve gotten a lot out mileage out of that stain, anyway!)?  My morning dawdliness?  My idiocy in booking a bus ticket for the wrong day (I’ll have you know I’ve never booked a ticket for the wrong day before, just in case you were wondering if this is also a regular thing.  I have written down the wrong time and missed a bus before… but that’s another story for another time.)?  The shoddy wifi?  My Taco-Bell weakness?  Yeah, I don’t know about the handful of hair and the coffee stain, but for a brief moment, I saw behind the curtain we call “reality” that keeps us separated from real reality to see some reasons behind all those other tiny bits and bites of my reality that came together that odd day in Texas/New Mexico into some kind of recognizable pattern.  It doesn’t often happen that I catch those glimpses.

So when the phrase, “I will restore the years that the locusts have eaten,” jumped into my head there under the shady trees of a New Mexican ballpark, let me tell you why I think it did.  Because, whatever other meaning is hidden inside that phrase, I think it certainly holds the meaning, “God wastes nothing!”  It was the meaning I saw in it, anyway.

And let me tell you why I think I needed to hear that particular message at this particular time.  Because it’s all too easy to look back over my life (especially the past six and a half years of it) and see a barren, locust-devastated wasteland.

I need to know that there is no such thing as coincidence.  I need to know that God is in control, and He is good.  And He is orchestrating everything—yes, everything—according to His own good plans.  Even for my life.  Even through all the apparent dead-ends and random bits and bites that don’t seem to lead anywhere or mean anything.

I believe it.  But I do, on a day-to-day basis, for all intents and purposes, forget that I believe it.

A Small and Piecemeal Life (and Learning to Be Okay with It)

I chuckled (humourlessly) when I saw this little drawing shared on Facebook the other day.  The chuckle was humourless because there’s nothing actually funny in the cartoon–just the straight-up, cold, hard truth.  I chuckled only from the recognition of shared experience.

When we read Proverbs 3:5-6, we may come away from the passage thinking that if we just trust and seek God, He’ll make our paths easy.  Clear.  Plain.  Smooth-sailing.  Non-confusing.  Without a single apparent dead end.  But the NKJV says it this way:  “And He shall direct your paths.”

What does that directing end up looking like?

In this race of life, I often feel as though He’s had me running around and around in circles.  For years.  Getting visibly nowhere.

And it may be the case that He’s had me running around and around in circles for years, getting visibly nowhere.  In the sports’ world, I think they call it a track.  The visible nowhere I’m getting is really an invisible somewhere.  It’s a place of training; of growth; of greater strength and endurance.

I think of Abraham wandering in circles around Canaan, just wandering and waiting for the promised son to appear.  But without that agonizing waiting time, would there have been a Mount Moriah?  Would Abraham’s faith have been strong enough to go through with the complete and total surrender of his long-expected son? (Even though God cut short the physical sacrifice of Isaac, the oh-so-necessary spiritual sacrifice was complete.)

*****************

I once thought (as most of us think) that I would “be” something when I “grew up.”  I mean, “be” one, specific something.  We’re trained from an early age to think so.  Adults (who we presumed already “were” something) would descend from their lofty heights down to kid level to ask the age-old, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”  If we didn’t know, we had to make something up on the spot.

We didn’t realize that a lot of adults have no idea what to say to kids, so they fall back on this time-worn conversation starter.  We also didn’t know that most adults still had no idea what they would “be” when they grew up and likely didn’t wear the title “grown-up” all that comfortably.  (They all looked ancient to us.)  We just assumed it was important that we “be” something someday because almost every adult we knew asked us the same question.

Well, I’m now a hair’s breadth away from forty-five, and I have less idea what I’ll “be” when I “grow up” (if that ever happens) than I had when I was knee-high to one of those lofty, ancient adults.  I’m indisputably one of them now.

But the indoctrination that I must “be” something has been deeply ingrained.  I don’t think that’s entirely the fault of the lofty, ancient adults in my younger life.  I think it also comes from my over-inflated sense of self-worth.  Shouldn’t a life as important as mine undoubtedly is (to myself, I mean) have one, great, abiding calling?  Some powerfully meaningful task laid upon me that only I can accomplish?  Call it a Hercules complex.

Am I alone on this one?  Or are you with me?

Yet, when I look around, the polestar of a profession or vocation that gives our lives meaning and purpose and value doesn’t often materialize.  The kid who, when he was five, was going to be an astronaut or a fireman or a policeman is now a garbage collector or a house painter or a UPS driver.  For now.  Among other things.  Until something better comes along.

When I was five (or a little older.  I don’t know how old, but I was young), I was going to “be” a missionary.  It wasn’t my idea.  At all.  In fact, when I received my “call” at that age, I cried from the sheer terror of the thought.  But (in a story too long to tell here) I knew that I had received some kind of undeniable calling.  (Receiving a “call” at a very young age may have been a large contributing factor in my Hercules complex, I realize.)  In fact, to this day, I don’t discount that experience.  All evidence to the contrary, I still can’t quite shake my certainty of this “calling.”  I still think I have to “be” a missionary.  I just have no idea now what that “being” looks like.

I’m at the tail end of a year in Mexico where I worked with a mission organization in a missionary kid school as a school secretary.  I thought maybe it would turn into something bigger.  I thought maybe my calling would find actualization and I’d see the next step forward to my life’s “being.”  But it hasn’t turned out that way (at present, at least).  I now have much less of an idea than I once thought I did as to what the rest of my life will look like.  Right now, it looks pretty much like a clean, blank slate.  I have to admit, it’s a little unnerving.

Not really in an attempt to find a sense of direction but more because I have a lot of time on my hands and I’ve been doing way too much thinking, I sat down the other day and made a list of all my passions and pastimes.  Some that don’t seem particularly significant.  And others that have, at one time or another, for one reason or another, pulled strongly at my heartstrings.  Maybe I was looking for a common thread, but here’s what I noticed instead:  None of the things I wrote down had any apparent relation to any of the others.  I mean, if I’m just supposed to “follow my passion” to find my life’s direction or area of ministry, I would have to somehow find a group of poor and disadvantaged, maybe disabled, Jewish-Muslim tribal people in a home-for-the-elderly/orphanage in Mexico to work amongst.  Not going to happen.  These different tugs on my heartstrings tug in entirely different directions.  They can’t all be my one life’s direction.

Similarly, what do writing, language-learning, house-building, acting and word puzzles all have in common?  Not a thing except that they’re all different interests of mine.

It’s still taking me time to process, but I’m coming to accept that my life may end up looking a little piecemeal.  Maybe I’ll build a tiny house, do some more writing, act in a local drama, keep learning a little Spanish here and there, and sit down to solve a word puzzle or two when I’m bored.  And maybe I’m drawn to Israel because I’ll travel there someday.  Maybe I’ll someday have a Syrian refugee neighbour to befriend or teach English.  Maybe I’ll resume my visits to my elderly friends in a local care home when I go back to my hometown.  Maybe some other segment of the population that sits heavily on my heart occupies the place it does in that organ for the sole purpose of causing me to pray for them.

My new understanding?  What a person does for a “living” is not what a person is.  And what a person does for a “living” (to call a spade a spade, how a person earns money) may change regularly.  And for myself, how I end up having enough money to survive (I don’t need much more) may not end up bearing any relationship to what I finally end up doing with large portions of my time.  But even when I finally end up doing something, doing should never be confused with being.

Maybe I’ll someday find that one area of ministry that finally ends up looking something akin to some kind of life’s mission.  I just don’t know.  And I just don’t know what shape that life’s mission may take on.  I now suspect it will look quite different than I once envisioned.  I still think it will involve cross-cultural ministry of some kind.  Mexico, in general, for me feels very unfinished.  It still has a very strong tug.  I sense a “To be continued…” written over the story of my year here.  But for now?  I’ll wait to be shown.  That’s all I can do (besides building the tiny house, writing, learning Spanish, acting, doing the word puzzles…)

 

Happiness Is…

Yesterday, I brushed past a Q & A with Ravi Zacharias on my way to another YouTube destination, but one of the questions a young lady asked him has stayed with me since then.  Essentially, she wanted to know why Ravi would recommend God to a person who is happy the way she is without Him.  In other words, “What can God do for me?  What can He add to my experience?”  And if the asker believes the answer to be, “Not much!  I don’t feel any need for what He has to offer!” then… why bother?

I didn’t stay long enough to hear Ravi’s answer.  But off and on all day, I thought about what I would say to her.

I arrived at the conclusion that the only answer I would have for the young woman is that the starting point of, “What can it do for me?” is the wrong starting point.  Where a person needs to start when considering the question of “Why God?” or “Why Jesus?” (meaning, “Why should I believe what the Bible has to say about God/Jesus?”) is a place, not of, “Does it make me happy?” but, “Is it true?”

Now, my reasoning is not that an individual’s happiness or unhappiness is unimportant in the God + humanity equation.  Quite the opposite!  While the starting point, “Does it make me happy?” seems a little narcissistic–at the very least self-centred–it’s a natural starting point.  Our own pain or pleasure levels are of vital importance to ourselves.  Of course they are!  They’re meant to be!  The Bible tells us that they’re of vital importance to God, too (but also that He’s an end-game thinker).  The Bible even teaches us that God experiences pain and pleasure and that our pain and pleasure levels directly affect God’s.

Now, the place of, “What makes God happy?” is obviously not the starting point for someone who has zero relationship with Him–who doesn’t care about God and His pain and pleasure levels; who doesn’t know Him at all; possibly doesn’t even believe there is a God.  That consideration is properly the first consideration for those who do know and love Him.  It’s one consideration that drives people to a mission field or other area of service, knowing from His own words and actions God’s passionate love for people, His joy in restored relationship with them, and His heartbreak over their rejection of and separation from Him.  It is (or should be) a more important consideration than my own personal happiness quotient.  But again, not the starting point for the one who doesn’t know Him.  That, I believe, must be the question, “Is it true?”

As I chewed it over all day yesterday, it occurred to me that, even from the young lady’s own (very natural) self-focused perspective, the starter question, “What’s true?” has to come before the question, “What makes me happy?”  The question of lasting happiness hinges on truth.  If happiness is based on something that isn’t true, then it can’t last.  Sooner or later, truth prevails.  And when it does, happiness built on a sham will crumble.  I’d be curious to ask the young lady if she’s after short-term happiness or the kind that lasts, even if it requires some short-term unhappiness. Because it is true that the truth often hurts.  Temporarily.  It hurts.  It doesn’t harm.  Only untruth harms, in the end.

Although, as Christians we should know better, having been well-warned by Jesus Himself, we do still tend to approach life as the young questioner on the Ravi Zacharias video.  We tend to live in a place of, “Does it make me happy?”; not, “Is it true?”

And if following Jesus was meant to make us happy (short-term), I don’t think He would have compared obedience to Him to walking the road to a cross.  To losing a life to find one.  To hating father, mother, sister, brother, etc. in comparison to a love for Him.  We have been well-warned.  A life spent following Him will not be easy.  It’s a promise.