Recently I was one of four seniors invited to share reflections on my time as an English major at Wheaton College with the students and faculty of the English Department. I thought I would share my reflections with you.
Stories are all about time. Time is the fabric of story, and stories are the shaping of time.
They don’t work apart from time. As we learned in our middle school English classes, all stories have a beginning, middle, and end. We often think about beginnings—the “once upon a time.” We think about endings too—the “happily ever after.”
We are attuned to endings and beginnings, but what about the middle? What is it like to be in the middle of a story?
About a year and a half ago I was wrestling through a season of pain, disappointment, and confusion. I felt like God had been laying out a path before me, one step at a time, and then, all of a sudden, the path had disappeared from under my feet. I would turn around and around looking for some new path to open, but it didn’t. This wasn’t the first time I grappled with doubt and confusion. It won’t be the last time either.
One day during that semester, the thought struck me, “Is this what it feels like to be a character in one of my stories?”
Just think about that for a moment. Imagine a favorite book or a favorite character. Imagine that you are in his or her shoes at the end of a chapter. Readers love a cliffhanger. Writers love a cliffhanger because it keeps readers turning those pages. But I can’t imagine that the characters enjoy a cliffhanger. Imagine that the worst has happened. You, as the character, have no idea where this is going. For all you know, it isn’t going anywhere. For all you can see, it’s all a waste, a dead end, there’s no way to explain it. You’ve come to the end of the line. You can’t just turn the page quickly to the next chapter or, for readers like me, flip through the remaining chapters to scan for character names to make sure they survive. You have to live it out. You are stuck in the middle.
It is not difficult for us to imagine the middle, because this is what we experience every day. Life is a lot like one cliffhanger after another.
We are creatures of time. We are temporal beings. You might say we are the characters of time. We have such a limited view, really. Rarely do we get to see the big picture for ourselves. At least on this side of eternity.
But just as the author of a story, one who stands outside of the timelines of the tale, knows the purpose towards which all the time in the middle is headed, our timeless God holds the whole story—beginning, middle, and end—in his hands.
Writing and stories help us to experience, understand, and embrace our finitude, and as we understand our limitations we are pointed towards the limitless, infinite, unchanging God who creates, sustains, and loves. As we experience what it means to tell our own stories, we are oriented towards the Grand Story of which we are all apart, written and orchestrated by the Grand Storyteller.
To include my obligatory—but fitting—Tolkien quote (one that I am taking from the films for sake of time, my apologies to the purists among us), I turn to The Fellowship of the Ring. When Frodo and Gandalf are sitting in the dark of the Mines of Moria, Frodo says to Gandalf, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
What, indeed, shall we do with this time that is given us? This time at Wheaton, this time of new things and opportunity, this time of doubt, this time of rejoicing, this time of beginnings and endings, this time of the mundane and the middle-of-the-road. This time on earth, however long or short it shall be.
What story do our lives tell? The way we spend our days? The way we spend our money, our work, our relationships, our words? What story is God inviting us to enter into?
What shall we do with the time? What shall we do with the story? Will we respond with obedience? Or attempt to write it ourselves?
We must spend our lives answering these questions. But Scripture does not leave us to sort it out alone.
For one, in Hebrews 12:1-2, the author writes,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (ESV)
The King James translates verse 2 as “looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.”
And here, in a nutshell, we have the story. We are offered a vision of the narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and glory. We are placed within the story, and oriented within a heritage of the faithful who have gone before (Heb. 11). But most importantly, when we are stuck in the middle we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author. But he is no ordinary author, because he has also lived it. He has suffused the story—all of time and space—with his presence.
He—the Incarnate Word—is here in the middle. Through Him all things were created, through Him all things have being, and through Him all things shall be reconciled (Col. 1). He is the purpose. In him, what is mortal shall be swallowed up by life (2 Cor. 5).
He is the beginning, the middle, and the end, all at once.
As we conclude, I would like to share the words of a Michael Card song, called “The Final Word.”
You and me we use so very many clumsy words.
The noise of what we often say is not worth being heard.
When the Father’s wisdom wanted to communicate His love,
He spoke it in one final perfect Word.
He spoke the incarnation, and then so was born a Son.
His final word was Jesus, He needed no other one.
Spoke flesh and blood so He could bleed and make a way Divine.
And so was born a baby who would die to make it mine.
And so the Father’s fondest thought became flesh and blood.
He spoke the living luminous word, at once His will was done.
And so the transformation that in man had been unheard,
Took place in God the Father as he spoke that final Word.
And so the Light became alive and manna became Man.
Eternity stepped into time so we could understand.
Dear readers, wherever we go from here, whatever plot twists or cliffhangers come our way, when we can’t see the next step or imagine how the sun could ever shine again, when we are faced with the brokenness of this world and when we reach the end of ourselves, let us do this:
Let us run the race. Let us live in the story. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.