A few weeks back I took a week of self-imposed isolation to be alone with God – nothing but my journal and my Bible (along with a few select books I’ve borrowed to help me along my way – most significantly a prayer book that has revolutionized the way I pray.) By day three, I was frustrated that I hadn’t made more breakthroughs… and then I was struck with a moment of sudden illumination: I didn’t know how to be alone. Every two or three hours I had to change my location or I’d find myself getting horribly depressed. So I’d go to a coffee shop – but the music would be terrible, so I’d put on my ipod. Then in another two hours I had to move again, whereupon there would be somebody at a nearby table having an obnoxiously loud conversation, and I’d have to crank the ipod louder. Then in another two hours I’d move again, finding myself mesmerized by the people walking around outside, the magazines on display on a nearby rack proclaiming happiness via beauty tips or exciting new sexual techniques — and I wondered why I couldn’t hear God. Well, hello: your life is loud. I’ve always got movies playing in the background as I do chores or music blasting from my car stereo as I drive, and I’m usually doing at least three things at once. So it’s no wonder that at the end of every school quarter, I’d find myself depressed: after weeks of nonstop activity without a moment’s peace, I’d stopped on a dime, so suddenly that I could hear the massive vacuum of gaping emptiness around me. And it hit me: I choose a life of constant stimulation, because I’m trying to drown out the sound of my own ontological lightness. If I stop, I’ll have to face the obvious fact that “everything is meaningless; a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14), and so I never let myself stop – it has to happen to me. This may be the first time in my life that I’ve purposely chosen to stop of my own accord, and just listen to the sound of the vacuum… and I did it because I knew that it was the only way to ground myself in anything substantial. If I want to build my house upon a rock (Matthew 7:24), I’ve got to start by finding one. So, here goes nothing.
You know Molly in “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium”? (If you don’t, you should watch it. Awesome movie.) She’s depressed because, while she believes in Mr. Magorium’s magic to run his toy store, she also believes that she herself has no magic to offer. Mr. Magorium bequeaths the store to her, though, and in order to help her, he gives her, of all things, a block of wood. “It’s just a block of wood!” she says, and he agrees, but he tells her significantly, “What do you think would happen if once, just once, somebody believed in it?” So Molly goes home and essentially prays to the block of wood, begging it, “If you’re supposed to impart some great wisdom that’s going to help me, please… do it now!” But she opens her eyes and it’s still sitting there on the table, inert as ever. “All right… I’ll do it myself,” she concludes with a sigh. But later, when her back is turned, she declares that she believes it’s a magical block of wood, she just doesn’t know how to tap its power — and suddenly, it begins to fly. Henry, who has witnessed the whole thing, says to her, “It’s you… you’re the block of wood. The one you have to believe in is you.” And suddenly, his faith in her unlocks the magic that was inside her all the time, but was incapable of escaping because she did not believe in it herself.
Or, take Peter from the movie “Hook” (unlikely sources for illumination, but go with me here). I ordered it through NetFlix awhile ago and put it on in the background while I decorated my new apartment. I walked in on a scene in which Peter is having “dinner” with the Lost Boys, but there is no food on the table. The other boys act as though they’re enjoying an incredible feast, while Peter looks around at them, bewildered. “Don’t you remember, Peter?” one of them says, “this used to be your favorite game!” Then the new leader of the band of Lost Boys begins to challenge him to an insult war, and at first Peter (who is now in his forties) acts the grown-up, but presently he begins to forget his age and releases a flurry of insults that would make any twelve-year-old proud – and flings a spoonful of air at his opponent, which, when it makes contact, becomes a colorful cream pie. “You’re doing it, Peter!” cried one of the smaller Lost Boys in wonder, “you’re using your imagination!” And suddenly Peter sees the great banquet before him that had been there all the time. I meant to re-watch that movie when I saw that scene, but I sent it back… and yet when I got home to Tucson, my mom had coincidentally rented it also. Okay, God, I conceded, apparently you want me to see this one. So I watched it all the way through, and was literally biting back tears (at “Hook”!) because the metaphor was screaming at me. Like Molly’s, Peter’s story is about how it’s possible to lack power simply due to ignorance. Even when one finally begins to believe in it, his first tries at exercising that power often fail — but faith in increasing measures, in himself and from those surrounding him, can enable the true hero inside to emerge. Don’t we love Harry Potter for the same reason – the little eleven-year-old underdog who tells Hagrid, “There must be some mistake. I can’t be a wizard! I’m — just Harry. Just Harry!” And from that humble beginning, it takes seven years at Hogwarts for him to truly grow into his calling, to be a wizard powerful enough to take on Lord Voldemort.
What I am saying is this: the fact that we like stories like this, the fact that they resonate (the fact that they can make me cry!) is not simply due to wishful thinking. These are parables. I’ve allowed my life to become as loud and as fast as it has become in order to suppress the ache of longing to be a part of something bigger than myself, even though I’ve been writing for years now that I’d begun to believe it’s true, that we’re all a part of something bigger… the ache had persisted in spite of that belief, because I didn’t know how to find it. But maybe that abundant life actually exists; maybe there is something higher to shoot for than the American dream, higher than “rising to one’s own level of incompetence and then remaining there,” as Murphy’s Law has it. And the secret has been right there staring me in the face in the Bible all the time: lose your life in order to find it (Matthew 10:39).
No, no, really. That’s not just a contradiction that therefore sounds deep, which is what I used to think of all contradictions. What it means, what it meant for me, was letting go. I’ve always been a sincere, well-meaning Christian who was doing the best I could with what I’d been given, but the fact was, I was trying to do the best I could with what I had been given (notice the lack of God in that sentence). I was not submitting my entire life to God. I was trying to make life work out well for myself, which amounts to a lack of trust, which amounts to a lack of faith. Most of my theology then was based on fear: fear that God wouldn’t protect me from hardship, so I had to do the best I could to fortify myself against it — because what I saw in other Christians around me was misery, difficulties, barely getting by. And yet I wondered — where is this abundant life that Jesus taught about? We have the power of God behind us! Why aren’t we out there changing the world? Where the heck is the power?
What I’m starting to see is that once I realized I couldn’t do life on my own, and I told God I’d do whatever He wanted (cringing because I thought that meant my worst fears would come upon me — and several of them did, but somehow it turned out all right, and what I ended up with was far better than I’d lost), my perspective started to shift. I realized that Christians aren’t out there living the abundant life because we’re all so scared that we’ll lose the small bit of comfort we’ve managed to carve out for ourselves — we’re already barely getting by, and God is “a hard master, reaping a harvest where He has not sown”, right? So “we were afraid and hid our talents in the sand” (Matthew 25:24-25). That was me — and great acts of faith are not made of such stuff. We’ve got to stop being obsessed with protecting ourselves, with arranging for the life we think we want, before we can really be of any use at all. And that’s the initial act of faith: stepping out and declaring that the banquet table is full when for all the world it looks empty, or that the block of wood can fly. That’s the moment when the transformation can begin to occur.
My writings from the most recent past, if you’ll notice, have been increasingly filled with angst and frustration near the point of total collapse, which I’m realizing is usually the prelude to giving up completely. Like Newton’s First Law of Motion, objects tend to remain as they are (loosely paraphrasing, of course) without the interference of an outside force, which, in the case of a human being, often looks like coming to the end of one’s rope. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). That will be my story. Up until now I’ve been a single seed, desperately trying to protect my little single self from the harsh elements – but I finally let go of the stalk, and I’ve fallen to the ground and been buried. And yet, as I’m down here in the earth, I can see the new life taking shape, breaking down old strongholds that I was never able to conquer as long as I was obsessed with protecting myself; there’s power I never had access to before, but it was there all the time.
I’ve been staring at a fabulous banquet all my life and yet been starving, because I didn’t have the eyes to see it.