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Monday, November 19, 2012

paddling in place

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"It's like this when you live a story: The first part happens fast. You throw yourself into the narrative, and you're finally out in the water; the shore is pushing off behind you and the trees are getting smaller. The distant shore doesn't seem so far, and you can feel the resolution coming, the feeling of getting out of your boat and walking the distant beach. You think the thing is going to happen fast, that you'll paddle for a bit and arrive on the other side by lunch. But the truth is, it isn't going to be over soon.

The reward you get from a story is always less than you thought it would be, and the work is harder than you imagined. The point of a story is never about the ending, remember. It's about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle. At some point the shore behind you stops getting smaller, and you paddle and wonder why the same strokes that used to move you now only rock the boat...the far shore doesn't get closer no matter how hard you paddle.

The shore you left is just as distant, and there is no going back; there is only the decision to paddle in place or stop, slide out of the hatch, and sink into the sea. Maybe there's another story at the bottom of the sea. Maybe you don't have to be in this story anymore.

It's been like this with all my crossings. I have a couple of boats, and every couple of years I take them to Orcas Island and make the crossing from Orcas to Sucia, and it's always the same about leaving the shore so fast and getting to the middle and paddling for hours...

I think this is when most people give up on their stories. They come out of college wanting to change the world, wanting to get married, wanting to have kids and change the way people buy office supplies. But they get into the middle and discover it was harder than they thought. They can't see the distant shore anymore, and they wonder if their paddling is moving them forward. None of the trees behind them are getting smaller and none of the trees ahead are getting bigger...they go looking for an easier story...

If it weren't for the other guys on the trip, I would have quit that night. We'd gotten up before sunrise, spent the day at Bob's, and were paddling now nearly twenty-four hours later. If it weren't for the other guys, I would have lay down in my hatch and slept and drifted out with the tide. But hours after I thought we'd arrive, I made out the gray wall of the cliff face on my right. We were close to it before we saw it, and it was like the walls of an ancient cathedral; our sounds were coming back at us off the rock. We had to follow the cliff to another, smaller crossing where there was a beach we'd made camp at on the way to the back of the inlet.

Then one of the guides pointed out bioluminescence was happening. He dropped his paddle into the water, and what looked like sparks splashed, and some of them floated like embers on top of the water. We all looked at our paddles and stirred them around in the water, and there in the darkness the oceans glowed. The farther we paddled into the opening, the darker the water got and the brighter the bioluminescence became. We could see each other now because there were comet trails behind our boats and there were sparks flying off our bows and onto our spray skirts, so bright you thought you needed to wipe them away for fear they would burn the fabric.

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It was four in the morning, but we were energized by the ocean. As we got closer to the other shore, there were a million fish swimming beneath our boats, each leaving a trail, and the ocean was flashing from beneath us as though fireworks were going off in the water. "I've never seen it like this," one of our guides said. He said he'd seen the ocean glow when you splashed your paddle, but he'd never seen the fish light up the water from underneath. When we were a hundred yards from shore and paddling into the lagoon, the whole ocean glowed like a swimming pool. None of us wanted to get out of our boats. I paddled around in circles in the lagoon, watching the fish streak beneath me like a meteor shower.

It's like this with every crossing, and with nearly every story too. You paddle until you no longer believe you can go any farther. And then suddenly, well after you thought it would happen, the other shore starts to grow, and it grows fast. The trees get taller and you can make out the crags in the cliffs, and then the shore reaches out to you, to welcome you home, almost pulling your boat onto the sand."

-Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

For whatever reason, God has given me a story in which my only real dream in life has been deferred for much longer than I ever would have imagined. My story currently has me paddling, waiting for the other shore to start growing, hoping against hope that once it begins, it will indeed grow fast, welcoming me home. By and large, I deeply enjoy the journey God has me on even though it's been a much longer one than I'd have ever chosen. My journey has been richly blessed, with some amazing experiences and most greatly by the companionship of so many dear friends and family. But this is one of those days where I long to see the shoreline of my dream approaching, so rapidly that I actually feel bittersweet about this part of my journey is coming to an end. Until then, I just keep paddling...

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Living a Good Story

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In two days (weather permitting) I'll be heading north to spend a long weekend in Oregon. I read several books earlier this year that were, coincidentally, all set in Portland, and I also saw a movie based on one of those books which gave me some visuals to go along with what I'd read, and after reading about the city and seeing it on the big screen, I decided that I'd like to visit it myself as soon as I could. Two friends and I made plans to visit a mutual friend in Salem this weekend before spending a couple of days in Portland. In anticipation of our trip, I began rereading one of those set-in-Portland books last weekend, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I don't think it's an accident that I'm reading it again right now. This book is all about recognizing that our lives are telling a story and learning to make choices that contribute to a story that is compelling -- living in such a way that, if put on paper, our stories would actually be worth reading.

Unless you're new to my blog, you've probably picked up on the fact that this year has been pretty revolutionary for me as a follower of Jesus. The best way I can describe it is to borrow the words of the apostle Paul and say that God has been leading me through a process of "being transformed by the renewing of my mind." My brother likes to call this process "worldview transformation." Essentially this means that the way I look at all of life has changed, and as a result, so has the way I interact with the world around me. There are so many elements that have created the framework that now comprises my worldview, many of which I've written about in previous posts (in particular, much clearer understandings of God's gracethe Gospel, and the Kingdom of God; Christ's call to live a life of humility by dying to self; God's design for the Christian life to be lived in community and His heart for unity within the Church; and clearer understandings of spiritual gifts and personality types, among other things). ALL of these facets of my worldview have led to shifts in attitudes and actions, in how I live my life.

When I read A Million Miles back in the spring, I think I was vaguely aware that God was doing something new and significant in my life, but there was no way I could have known at that time what a deep impact this new work was going to have. What I'm noticing as I read the book this time around is that the way God has transformed my thinking this year has led me to live a better story, just as the book had suggested months ago. I think learning to embrace the call to die to self has been particularly important, because I can think of multiple decisions I've made -- primarily about how to spend portions of my time -- by running my options through the filter of dying to self that would have played out differently before God began this season of transformation in my life. Dying to self is what has led me to:

  • go downtown (alone!) to watch a friend's dance performance after youth group instead of going straight home and crashing for the night
  • message someone who had unfriended me on Facebook to see if there was an offense I needed to make right instead of becoming self-righteous and indignant
  • commit an entire Saturday to gather with a handful of friends to fast and pray for our church
  • attend a barbecue with a houseful of people outside of my usual social circle (quite a challenge for an introvert) in an effort to build community and promote unity in my church family
  • drive all the way across town on a Saturday evening to watch someone perform at an open mic night instead of staying planted on my futon watching old episodes of "Arrested Development"

Now PLEASE understand, I am in no way trying to give myself a pat on the back for doing any of these things. I fear some may infer, not only from this brief list of life examples but also from my frequent & enthusiastic sharing of what God is teaching me (whether that's here or on Facebook), that I'm seeking the praise of man, but that is not my goal at all. I am not so deluded as to think I've somehow arrived, and I am fully aware that I have plenty of room to continue learning and growing for the duration of my time here on earth! But at the same time, praise God, by His grace there HAS been progress in my life this year in areas I previously withheld from Him, and I've discovered that when you start surrendering to Him and begin to taste life as I believe He really intended it to be, your natural response is simply to share it because it is SO GOOD! I only share some specific examples of ways I've chosen to die to self this year because I am suddenly realizing each of those instances has contributed to a better story being told through my life than if I'd acted from a more natural [read: selfish] response, and that brings joy to my heart.

Here's the truth about telling stories with your life. It's going to sound like a great idea, and you are going to get excited about it, and then when it comes time to do the work, you're not going to want to do it...People love to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen. But joy costs pain.
-Donald Miller

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A few days ago I was wrestling with frustration over some of the meaningless stories that are being lived out in this world, but as I was pouring out my frustration to God, He began speaking to my heart and shifting my perspective to how I myself can continue to seek ways to live a better story with my own life. As I began to consider how I can improve the story my life is telling, my frustration began to fade. I can't always affect the story someone else is telling, but when I'm in a funk, there is almost always something I can do to make my own story a better one. It's rarely easy, but it's ALWAYS worth it.

I HOPE that I am increasingly living my life in a way that reflects the story of Jesus to the people around me and draws them closer to His Kingdom. I hope that the smaller stories I live within the larger story of my life, which is only a drop in the ocean of the grand story of God's work in the world, are telling a story of irrepressible hope and joy that flows from my belief that God is in the business of restoring His original good design for mankind. I believe He created us in His image to live beautifully in right relationships -- with Him and with others and with our environment -- and to be conduits of love and creativity and justice and mercy in this world. And although we are surrounded by brokenness and are broken ourselves, and although we have all rebelled against God, because of Jesus' death and resurrection, I believe redemption is possible. As we learn to die to self and embrace Christ's lordship, submitting to Him as our just and merciful King, He transforms us so that we increasingly reflect His image and His Kingdom to the world around us. And nothing reflects His Kingdom more than our reconciled relationships -- with God, fellow believers, family, those who don't share our faith, friends, enemies, possessions, creation, self, etc.

This is the story of restoration, and I hope that it is the story my life is telling, because there is no greater story to tell!