My dad loves to tell stories. Growing up I remember hearing him tell stories in the car, around the dinner table, sitting in his big arm chair, and anywhere else that a story from his life seemed appropriate. As a man with a finite number of years on this Earth he only has so many stories to tell, so after a short while I heard most of his stories.
Did this keep him from telling his stories?
I remember being frustrated by the repetition and annoyed with the same stories: the same beginning, climax, and end.
In spite of my occasional frustration I must admit that there is a great comfort in hearing the same story repeated again and again. I was comforted because I knew how the story would end. No matter how many things changed around me, I knew that my dad would always tell the story about the old farmer building miles of wooden fence along a back road or about going to New York City with his dad (my grandfather) or being on the original survey crew for Highway 98.
I can repeat his stories because I found peace and comfort in them growing up.
John Berger said, “When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story’s voice makes everything its own.”
A few Saturdays ago I participated in the funeral of a teenage girl at my Field Education parish. The young girl died tragically in a car accident, which made the funeral a time of deep grieving and sharp pain. As I stood at the graveside, holding the processional cross, I watched the girl’s mother and extended family use a shovel to cover her ashes with dirt. Her boyfriend walked forward slowly, reached down, and clutched a handful of dirt. I tried (and failed) to hold back tears as he sprinkled the dirt over her ashes with his bare hands.
The next morning I attended the Sunday services of the parish. At the main service for the day the church baptized two little baby girls. I tried (and failed again) to hold back tears as I watched the Rector carry the two girls around the church, introducing them to their new family.
In two days, in two very different settings, I saw the end and the beginning of a story.
I saw the joy that comes at the beginning of the story. Joy for the possibilities, the hopes, the dreams for what lies ahead.
I saw the sorrow that comes at the end of the story. Sorrow for the things undone, the words unsaid, the possibilities that will never be.
We gather together as Christians every week to remind ourselves of a simple fact: we know how the story ends. We have peace and comfort because we know, deep down, that this story has a happy ending.
I don’t mean to say that everything is sunshine and roses. There is a dark night for every new morning, and you can be sure that if you are not in a crisis at the present moment, one is just around the bend.
But that is what is so compelling about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. By overcoming death and the grave, Jesus has rewritten the story. The Apostle Paul talks about death entering the world with Adam and everlasting life entering the world through Jesus of Nazareth. Death no longer has the last word, for Love has trampled over death by death.
This doesn’t answer the question of theodicy and I can’t give you a quaint theological blurb for why that young girl died in a car crash or why wars happen or why evil exists.
The question of “why” becomes less important when we see that the end has already been written. The story provides a roof and four walls and what happens next exists within the established boundaries. We know the beginning and we know the end, so everything that takes place happens within the boundaries of the story written by God.
This is not to say that our actions are not important. Knowing the ending does not give us freedom to coast through life. Our actions are of the utmost importance because God has included us, all of humanity, in the plot. It is our job to work towards the Kingdom of God. To be loving when met with hate, generous when met with greed, peaceful when met with violence. We can do all of this because of the confidence we have from knowing how the story ends.
My dad loves to tell stories and I love to listen, even when I know the end, because when I am wearied by the “changes and chances” of this world, it is a great comfort to have something that remains changeless.
Like my dad sitting in his big arm chair, Jesus gathers us around his feet and tells us our story. We come together as a Christian community to hear the story, even though we know the ending, because there is great comfort in being reminded that, in the end, Love wins.
David Wilcox says it best in his song, “Show the Way”, “It is Love who makes the mortar/ And it’s love who stacked these stones/ And it’s love who made the stage here/ Although it looks like we’re alone./ In this scene set in shadows/ Like the night is here to stay/ There is evil cast around us/ But it’s love that wrote the play./ For in this darkness love can show the way.”