I am currently in a maelstrom. The details of the story can’t be told, but it involves the heartache of being caught in a family drama of dementia-driven paranoia and complex decisions attenuated by divided loyalties and fear. I am an only son, an only child. And the winds ripped me out of bed at 4 AM as if I had been sucked up into a tornado.
I couldn’t fall back to sleep and so I rose to the promise of a new morning. What I knew to the depths of my soul and toes is that I needed to pray. I brewed a pot of coffee and as it percolated I turned on my computer that is set to the home page of MSNBC. As I stood waiting for my early morning inoculation to reality, I began to read what I discovered to be another form of inoculation—the daily stories of tragedy that litter the first page of the website. Today it is the horror of a gunmen killing 84 children in Norway. And the political imbroglio of the chess match over extending the debt ceiling.
I would be horrified if what I write trivializes either story. The death of 84 innocent children by what appears to be a right-wing Christian is beyond heartbreaking. The darkness is palpable in the first inklings of what occurred on that island. In a far different way, the war over philosophy and implementation of the American dream is deeply disconcerting. As I read both articles in the time it took to pour my first cup of coffee, I found that my focus and attention was far from what awakened me. And oddly, my soul no longer felt the necessity to breathe prayer; instead, I was lost in the dark stories of others.
It could be worse
I know people (in fact I do but I am also referring to myself) who watch the news every night for little more than confirmation their lives are not as bad as they could be. I am aware these people, including me, watch for more than this motive, but why would anyone watch a nightly national or local news cast when the information can be attained on-line, often with more information and analysis?
Simply said, it is for many a ritual of rubber-necking—a staring at the accident we pass, perhaps to pray for those harmed, but also to thank God we were not caught in the web of disaster this time. It is an axiom in the news industry—if it bleeds, it leads. And with the phenomena of the 24-hour news cycle, the same news has to be played again and again, with a few salient facts or ‘firsts’ discovered due to the investigative, or intrusive storytelling of the news.
Nightly news is located in 30 minute drive-bys, but CNN and Fox news is a commitment to build a portable amphitheatre around the death of a 4-year old girl whose mother fails to tell authorities for 31 days that she had disappeared. I know the story—the story as told by the media, influenced by the career aspirations of the prosecutor and the defense attorney, the pundits, and the reporters who search for any detail that might add something new to the endless cycle of repetition. This story is a tragedy, but why did it take our national attention for over two-years? It was reported that one pundit gained 30% market share by returning to this story ad nauseam. Is that fact true? Or is it another story embedded in a story that is hidden as fact that may or may not be true, but turns the process into falling down a rabbit hole into a deranged world where truth is optional and appearance is all that matters.
It is human tragedy sold as soap. The news is seldom about the complex texture of truth; it is merely a product that some purveyor is offering to gain market share. But far more troubling than the underbelly of market capitalism, the news is a look into the human condition that distracts us from having to look at our own plight. Might it be vicarious suffering to help distract us from our own? Or perhaps, it is as much watching others suffer the darkness of the human condition to remind us that we are living far better lives.
We may have trouble with our kids and thought about sending them to Siberia, but always said with a smile and a congenial laugh. Why are we drawn to family comedies, films, and novels that portray a family far more bizarre and broken than our own? Our family loves the Chevy Chase Christmas and Summer Vacation movies. It makes our holidays and trips seem normal. And why would we be drawn to the Royal Tannenbaums? Their brokenness is darker than ours (perhaps) and yet redemption comes for them—might it still come for us?
We need stories
We need stories as much as our bodies need the sustenance of bread and wine. And we are daily inundated by stories that are not ours that are an antidote and a distraction from either our suffering or the absence of mystery and wildness.
For generations we have been intrigued by the oddity of the circus, the wild animals, the erotic and sequined riders, and the sketchy, vagabond handlers. We may even wonder if there is a vet who couldn’t finish school who is in a triangulated relationship with the owner’s wife. The Circus is a three-ringed narrative that for a few bucks one can visit to relieve the tedium of a ‘normal’ life.
I know people who read fiction for the same reason. A novel, however, takes much longer than a half-hour news broadcast to digest. A novel must be far more than a point of comparison or a passing accident; it must intrigue, unnerve us to tears and make us howl with the laughter of recognition. It must fill us with life to hold our attention over many hours. Fill us with life---why is it that so often, it is the stories of others that holds my attention, whether it is in the form of the evening news, or a good film or compelling novel?
Fill me with life Jesus. Fill me with your life, Jesus. It was that plea that broke the spell of MSNBC. The coffee had already begun to turn tepid in my cup when I heard the cry rise within me. I was lost to my story, captured by the distraction of other stories and lost to the One whose story is life.
I tore away from the news and entered my heartache through the morning prayer of John Eldredge. I have used this plea many times over the years and yet I was stopped this time by a simple phrase. He writes:
“You alone are Life, and you have become my life. I renounce all other gods, all idols, and I give you the place in my heart and in my life that you truly deserve. I confess here and now that it is all about you, God, and not about me. You are the Hero of this story, and I belong to you.”
This story? What Story? The answer is simple: all stories. But I am not part of all stories even if the news gives me the possibility of being nearly omnipresent. And if I subscribe to one of the pundits of the left or right, I can come presumptively close to being omniscient. But what I can never come close to encountering no matter how many stories I read, see, or hear---I can never be omnipotent, let alone omnipresent or omniscient. I am not God. I am barely the human I was meant to be. But far more, than which story, it is Jesus who is the hero of every story, most particularly my own.
Prayer is an invitation not merely for God to join our story, calamity or maelstrom. It is as well an orienting that positions us to see that our story as the unfolding of his drama, his life for us. I am not simply the son who must figure out what to do. He is the hero who is living and breathing in this story and inviting me to join him for the sake of righteousness. I don’t know what to do. He does. I don’t know what he wants, but I get to listen. Ponder. Ask. Submit. Learn. Suffer. Grow. Grieve and celebrate. I get to participate and watch. Unlike the stories on the news or in novels, I get to both stand back and watch the unfolding of the drama and jump in to the maelstrom and feel the dark winds whip at my face.
I know for certain by how this story is unfolding I will not be the hero, the one to rescue another. I may not be rescued as I desire, let alone help those I wish desperately to save. But no matter how it progresses as I turn the next page, I never have been nor will I ever be the true hero. Jesus is my life; he is my breath, and my salvation—then, now, and soon.
It seemed like such an enormous decision to pray rather than submit to the distractive allure of other stories. Once the extraction occurred, it seemed so obvious and good. My heart was alive and ready to make a series of phone calls that could easily take hours. But I heard Jesus ask a simple question: Do you like your computer’s start up page? I nearly fell off the couch. You mean do I want my computer to boot MSNBC every time I click on the internet? Oh, my. I mean I am open to take you seriously this morning because I am desperate, but as the course of my life? I don’t know. I should know. I know the right answer, but my distractions are what buffer me from the cold, dark stories that often blow through my life.
I changed my homepage to http://www.biblegateway.com.