You Can’t Make a Story Without a Problem

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I checked the weather report before I left to drive to Calgary. Mixed cloud and sun with occasional showers. Perfect.

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I like driving the Cowboy Trail when the weather is unsettled. The road runs north on the east side of the Rocky Mountains from the Crowsnest Pass. Light constantly changes in these conditions. Vistas are never quite the same. Cloudscapes and sunbeams arrange patterns of shadow and sun on the hills, telling a different story with every shift of wind. The photographer waits, anticipating drama – a story told in darkness and light.

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As part of my continuing story, this trip involved another trek to see specialists in a larger center about my complex health challenges. It’s one of those battles raging between good days and bad days, like plot shifts set in an ever changing landscape of unexpected symptoms.

DSC_0281 (5)I thought about the elements of story (a long road with few services leaves ample time for thought.) Even my little granddaughter had it figured out by the age of four.

“Every story has to have a good guy and a problem,” she said, drawing an exceptionally long-limbed princess on the first page of a storybook we decided to create one rainy afternoon. “Sometimes it has a bad guy, but it doesn’t have to. You can make a story without a bad guy, but you can’t make a story without a problem. Now what is our problem going to be? Maybe the princess has nobody to play with?”

A fellow writer had this to say about a memoire she was asked to review: “I’m happy for the writer. She’s had such a lovely life, but I feared falling into a never-ending sleep of the mostly dead before reaching the final chapter. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened to her – no disasters, no life-or-death crisis, no betrayal, no wayward children, not even a single regret worthy of a flight to a priest in another town for a trembling ten minute confession. I’ve had a hellish life myself. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but at least it wasn’t boring. I can’t relate to this book. What should I say? Reviewer dies from toxic dose of niceness?”

Jesus understood the power of story. “It’s like this,” he said, communicating a complicated concept people could not relate to by referencing something familiar.

“It’s like a Father who had two sons, but the youngest one…”

“It’s like a rich man who went on a journey and trusted a manager to look after his business while he was gone, but…”

 

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I watched the clouds along the highway and hoped for a place to stop where the views were best. A couple of times the clouds dropped their loads and the rain was so heavy I had to pull over to the side and wait them out. My windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. I could see nothing. But stories are like that too, especially our own, especially in the middle of a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding downpour.

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It’s hard, on the underside of a deluge, to remember that God is in the story with us. In fact, he has gone to some lengths to arrange circumstances that will give us stories.

Everything we think we know about him is merely theory until we experience him in the storm. Everything is dull until we see the light flooding the plain with hope. Every seed is dormant until awakened by the rain.

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I could pray for a nice life without stress, without doubt, without the need for divine intervention.

I could, and I have, but one night, in a dream, the Lover of my soul came to my door and called my name. When I opened to it, I saw him astride a beautiful white horse. He held the reins of a saddled bay and said, ”Come on! I want to show you something.”

We’re still writing our story together. It’s been an adventure, even when the skies have been cloudy all day, because, well, when that sun breaks through, it’s glorious.

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“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.”– Jesus
(John 16:33 NIV)

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Listen Carefully: Hearing God’s Voice

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I wish you could hear the songbirds in the trees surrounding my outdoor office. I wish so much you could hear them that I endeavoured to record them.

The result was not as anticipated.

What I heard on the recording was
a train, somewhere a long way off,
traffic on the highway down in the valley,
an air conditioner fan accompanied by windchimes,
the neighbour cleaning his barbecue,
kids yelling,
a dog barking,
a water sprinkler intermittently hitting a fence,
the breeze rustling the leaves,
and tiny birds singing their tiny songs.

The extra sounds had been there all along, but when I was concentrating on the birds I was able to block the noises out. The microphone picked up everything.

As I sat at my computer, I heard another sound, a still small voice saying, “Yes. Hearing is about focus.”

Not long ago, when someone spoke about hearing God’s voice I rolled my eyes.

“Riiiight. How nice for you.”

That was before the Holy Spirit grabbed my attention and spoke to me in subtle ways I hadn’t noticed before. The reason I hadn’t noticed was because my brain is a noisy place constantly full of clutter and distraction. It’s like “the wall of sound” arrangement of music in most popular recordings of the last thirty years. Silence feels weird.

It wasn’t until I started to learn how to still my heart and wait that I could detect a song I hadn’t noticed before. I am so easily distracted. I tend to pack my waking hours with the urgent, the dire, the entertaining, the outrageous, and the humorously absurd. It’s hard to say excuse me to demands of my own making, but once I heard the song, I wanted more.

I desperately want more.

Now I’ll listen carefully for your voice
and wait to hear whatever you say.
Let me hear your promise of peace—
the message every one of your godly lovers longs to hear.

(Psalm 85:8 TPT)

Written in Blood

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Some of the things I post are written in blood. My blood. They have cost me plenty and were a struggle to write, but I knew there was gold in them.

Apparently no one else, or at least very few, noticed the glitter.

I don’t check blog stats most of the time anymore. I am realizing that some concepts I struggle to articulate are mostly the result of my need to process something that matters only to me and perhaps a handful of others. They are not without value — just without hits.

Some of the things I’ve posted are more like quick sketches on the back of a junk mail envelope. Sometimes something I wrote in 15 minutes catches the attention of readers. A friend with a large following shared one of those recently. Within a few hours I received an unexpected notification from WordPress that it was receiving thousands of hits. (Thanks, PM.) I desperately wanted to go back and fix some details, the kind of awkward bits I am nose-blind to until I sniff around from the vicarious position of an expected house guest, but too late.

I wonder what it was like for serious composers who spent years struggling to write symphonies and operas and oratorios only to have their reputation hang on a simple song they wrote for a local playhouse because they needed quick rent money. Bobby McFerrin is a brilliant classical and jazz musician. What is he known for? Don’t Worry. Be Happy (which I actually enjoy listening to on gloomy rainy days like this one.)

Fans are fickle. God is committed to my good. I need a reminder not to get them confused. He showed us how to be who he created us to be when wrote his message in blood long before anyone (including me) had any idea of what he was talking about.

For an audience of one.

(But you can read this too — if you want to.)

Confident Vulnerability

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I heard a young woman say, “I guess if I’m going to be a writer, I’m going to have to develop a tougher skin.”

I used to think that way, chiding myself for being too sensitive, apologizing for getting my face in the way of someone’s hand. Then I stopped. Well, at least I decided it was time to change my mind on that subject.

“The world doesn’t need more tough-skinned people,” I told her. “Look around. There are plenty of tough-skinned writers here. You can tell by the number of people scurrying for cover when the tough ones start hammering on their keyboards.

The world needs more courageously tender people. The world needs more risk-taking, gentle, loving people whose fearlessness comes from a deep relationship with God. They know his love for them never fails. He is always for them. The result is betach – confident security. People who know they are loved unconditionally can afford to be vulnerable.”

Hmm. I think I need to put that on a sticky note above my desk.

Oranges and Lemons

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“Fasten your thoughts on every glorious work of God, praising him always.” 

(Philippians 4:8 TPT)

I sat at the table complaining, as old people do, about the upcoming generation and their ungrateful sense of entitlement when my attention fastened on a bowl of oranges and lemons on the counter.

I’m currently writing a story set in Northern Europe in the early sixteenth century. I need to know what kind of food different classes would have had set before them, so I’m checking out books, articles and videos because anachronisms in historical novels annoy me — severely. I’m motivated by a strong desire, almost obsession, to be accurate with detail.

Oranges and lemons were not on the list for most people. Neither was chicken unless you belonged to an entitled, extravagant class that would butcher an animal capable of making eggs. Capons that didn’t run fast enough might find themselves facing the axe, but only on special occasions. Only the wealthy ate meat other than the pork poorer classes raised on scraps. Sometimes they enjoyed fish they caught themselves. The spices I thoughtlessly ground on my scrambled eggs this morning were kept under lock and key in the best houses. Even the tomatoes and hashbrowns on my husband’s plate would have been unheard of in 1505. Pea soup and barley bread fueled most folk who worked for a living. Not an orange in sight.

Come to think of it, my grandparents, in a prairie shack so cold that the baby’s bottle froze in his crib, never feasted on oranges in February either. Grandma certainly never clicked on a video entitled, “50 Uses for Lemons” like I did last week.

“What were you saying about entitlement?” I heard the Holy Spirit ask.

Oops.

Forgive me for ingratitude. Forgive me for my own sense of entitlement. We are, indeed rich and blessed beyond measure.

Thank you, Lord. Thank you for oranges and lemons. They are glorious.

Think about it. What foods do you now enjoy that weren’t available in your area a hundred years ago?

Why I Write

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I open the file. I re-read the last chapter I wrote. I stare at the empty white screen. I close the file.

Why am I doing this?

I can’t answer. I can’t remember. I doodle excuses.

I ask friends. Why do you write?

They give answers. The responses look familiar. I`ve probably said the same things in the past, but none of them fit the curves and angles of my own puzzle pieces now. Saying right out loud that I have lost sight of joy in the process releases a barrage of comments from the trolls in my head.

Who do you think you are?
Who would want to read your stuff anyway?
Seriously? You’re no expert. You’re not qualified.
What makes you think you will live long enough to finish this?
You are old. You are sick. Why put this pressure on yourself? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die.

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The trolls make me cry. They hurl lies wrapped in scraps of truth the way they have done for decades of my life.

I am tired and in pain, but one candle flickers in my darkness. I remember the written words of the lamenting prophet Jeremiah, with whom I have had a love/hate relationship since I first slammed his books shut –then opened them again.

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.
(Lamentations 3:19-23 NIV)

I go to bed. I dream.

Two doctors behind a counter review my complex case. They seem optimistic and excited. One asks if I have ever worked on a research project. I tell them I helped with a project that examined why a person’s voice changes when they have a cold. (I haven’t actually done this, but I used to teach singing in real life.)

I tell them our findings. Beyond problems with producing a steady sound with inflamed vocal folds that don’t vibrate properly, sinus congestion and swelling of the throat tissues reduces the capacity for resonating space.

(This was something I was careful to teach. Produce the sound in such a way that relaxed natural resonance can do the work of projection for you. That way you will not strain and cause tension or muscle fatigue to fight you. Resonance needs space surrounded by a solid surface to produce a pleasant full sound. Think of the difference between the constipated duck sound of a trumpet mouth piece alone and the resounding fanfare sound when the horn is added. Then I joked to my students that good singers have resonance where ordinary people store parts of their brains they never get around to using anyway.)

In my dream, the older doctor comes around his desk and sits beside me in a fatherly way.

“It appears that your illnesses and challenging circumstances of late have led to apathy – a-pathy, no passion. You’ve experienced a reduction in the space where passions thrive and where your “voice” is produced. The result? A lack of compassion for others,” he said, treating me like an intelligent adult. “You need healing to create larger capacity to contain God’s love so that it can resonate in you before you release the sound.”

He patted my shoulder as he rose to his feet. “In other words, you don’t need to strive. Let resonance work for you.”

He stood up and handed me a file. “We would like you join a research project. When you get home try to team up with Gideon,” he smiled. “He knows something about fear and the stress of trying to work in confined space.”

I wake and write the dream down.

 

I am stunned. He gave me the answer to the question of why writing fails to flow lately. A lack of compassion. I’ve written here about thinking, acting and feeling in alignment with God’s thoughts, actions and emotions. Jesus, who demonstrated what God the Father is actually like, wept with compassion.

The dream doctor suggested a research project? But I am tired, so very, very tired. Mundane, but necessary tasks take twice as much time as they used to. I’m not volunteering for much lately. I don’t have the energy to take up causes when I’m using up my limited supply to try to keep a check on my own symptom and side-effect tainted emotions. More than ever I am aware of the long-term damage of lies I have believed as they surface in unguarded reactions. I need to concentrate on thinking differently but my brain wants to slide into default grooves.

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“I feel weak,” I tell God. “Frazzled.”

I hear his voice urging, “Now, in this place of weakness, it’s time to learn to access the grace I promised to supply. My power is made perfect in weakness.”

I pray and read about Gideon emerging from his wine-press pit of fear (story in Judges chapters 6 to 8). Three sources “just happen” to show up where I can’t miss them – in an email, on a CD on the shelf beside me, and in a friend’s Facebook post. All three talk about finding opportunities in places of confinement like Gideon’s. The key to moving into wider spaces, they say, is using the promises God has given us as weapons.

While Gideon still cowered, the angel of God told him that he was the mighty warrior who would lead his people into freedom.

Promises are found in passages of scripture that have grabbed our attention at various times in our life. Promises can be revealed in insistent phrases in songs; in co-incidences and repeated themes in books, films, sermons, podcasts, and random circumstances; in friends who are sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit; and in that still, almost silent Voice that speaks in our hearts when we are at peace enough to hear it. Promises resonate in our hearts.

Jesus had emotions – strong emotions. “The passion of Christ” refers to his motivation for going to the cross. What made him angry? What triggered his expressions of elation? What broke his heart and made him cry? I am looking again.

Why do I write? I’m starting to remember. It’s not about praise, or recognition or material gain. Not anymore. I write because God loved me enough to bare his heart of compassion and to give what was dearest to himself to demonstrate his love.

When I submit to him by allowing him to cleanse and heal my heart, when I quit insisting, like a toddler, that I can do it myself, I begin to understand his motivation. I come into alignment with his thinking, feeling, and acting. I start to be moved by the things that move him.

Why do I write?

Love. Resonating love.

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Bold

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I become bolder as I grow older — about things that matter.

“You could have a greater following if you didn’t talk about the, like, God stuff, you know,” people have told me.

I know. I know people regularly follow then unfollow me. But I also know some people read what I write because honesty and the faith journey in real time matters to them as well.

As I grow older some things become less important. I let them go. Most couple’s squabbles are not about destinations; they are about the fastest, most economical, or most enjoyable methods of getting there. Does it really matter? I’m letting go of discussions of methods and looking more toward the drive to understand where and to whom I am being drawn.

I read, with some amusement, an impassioned plea from a young woman with a keen sense of fashion right and wrong. She begged older women with less-than-pretty feet not to wear sandals that exposed thickened cracked heals or obvious veins. Our feet offended her sense of aesthetic at the sidewalk café.

She also advised against the donning of bold colours that drew attention to crepe-skinned necks or sagging upper arms or aged-spotted hands.

There was a time when I would have surrendered to her sensitivities and clad myself in sombre tones and closed-toed sensible footwear. Then there was a time when I would have worn scarlet and tangerine and royal purple accessorized by jeweled flip-flops just to annoy her. Either way it doesn’t matter anymore. Both were reactions to someone who has not yet had the time to develop deeper values.

She may care. I don’t.

Am I mellowing or just realizing that the time left to me is more precious than ever? As the attributes that once gave me identity and place in a competitive society fade I realize how flimsy that identity was. And the place moved like shifting sand.

There were times when I walked boldly across a stage with my head held up and my tummy sucked in. I mainlined applause. I felt confident. For a while. But it was always a race to keep up to changing standards I never understood. “Do this and you will be good enough for us to love,” turned out to be a lie, because as soon as I did it another requirement popped up.

When I was a teenager I joked that our family motto was, “What will people think?” The joke was on me because the question voiced itself continually throughout my life as I tried to guess what was required to be accepted by people whose values, I finally realized, I did not admire.

A kind of freedom envelopes those who find their confidence in a firmer foundation. I have messed up too many times in my life to believe that I am always right or that this is the final resting place of most of my opinions. But this I know: the One who began to transform my life is still editing the poem, the masterpiece He already sees. That’s where my confidence lies. In the Master Creator.

Like the brilliant flowers in the garden, I can wear whatever bold or subtle colour God has created — and he thinks it’s lovely. I can be quiet. I can be loud. The only rule is the rule of love – for God, for others, and for myself. And it all originates with Him.

We have full confidence in Jesus Christ. Our confidence rises as the character of God becomes greater and more trustworthy to our spiritual comprehension. The One with whom we deal is the One who embodies faithfulness and truth — the One who cannot lie.

~A. W. Tozer