i have these candles in my room. two of them. they are small glass votives, orange cream wax. they are sitting in small pottery votives, as if more casing was needed for protection. these green votives were made in taizé, a monastery in france. they both have a small plant glazed into their base. in between these two candles is a small oil lamp. it is pottery, also from taizé--but it is from my last visit, not the first. its flame burns high and straight. the other two flicker and waver, despite their casing. i have no idea why this is.
the candles were a gift from my mom. they came in a set of six nearly three years ago. these are the last two and they are almost empty. i have set them apart to be burned for a specific focus--and now they are almost all gone.
three years and a week ago i was in taizé for the first time. eight months ago i was there again. both times it has been something of a spiritual pilgrimage for me, though the cost of each was vastly different. i'm not talking about money.
it's something about this time of year--sometime around mid-october into december that i get caught up in the memories of my experience abroad and all that came with it. and each year around this time there have been different emotions with those memories. i'm not quite sure how to name these.
sometimes candles need to run out of wax.
sometimes i can't understand how i carry so much for so long.
i've been reading a lot lately. it seems as if the extended reading funk i was in has ended. one of the books i've been reading is donald miller's new one, where he talks mostly about the story of our lives. are we living a good story? there's also a bit in there about fathers and sons. it is really speaking to me.
awhile back i was thinking about story and hollywood, and how great movies and most great stories have mostly the same arc. rising action up to the climax followed by the denouement, or wrapping up. all the stories we know work this way. or well, most of them. most the stories we hear anyway.
but then i was learning something about the bible, and how in the old testament actually a lot of stories operated under a structure called chiasm. it's called that because the greek letter "chi" is shaped like an X. you see, chiastic structure puts the meaning, or the "climax" so to speak at the center of the story. this idea really fascinated me.
because how many of us actually define our stories by how they end? ok some people will have some sort of romantic death where the end makes sense of all the rest--but while this seems to be the case in movies, it is rarely the case in our lives. no usually people's lives start to slow down as they get older and they look back on the days when things were really great. or people's lives don't always end the best, especially in the bible. think about david, or solomon, or jacob, or joseph, or lots of others. all their stories were defined by a central point or points in their lives. not the end.
the thing that's pretty amazing about this--to some extent you get to choose what that central point will be. what will you define as the core of your life's story? for too many it was the great days of sports in high school, of the freedom of college. "those were the best days of my life." we define our story by the pettiest things.
if at any point in your life you look back and shake your head at the center, you create a new one. or if you're quite old, adopt that familiar old story arc. for most of us though who are young, we can look to a center that is not too far off. we don't have to wait till the end of our lives to figure out what our story is going to be all about. we find it in the middle.
but then it isn't always so much of a conscious choice is it? some things put themselves right in the middle of our stories, even if we don't want them there.
i was reading another book not long ago by this austrian monk. it's an amazing book that i will end up quoting on here a few times i believe. but anyway this one part just made me laugh. let me quote it in full:
What does gratefulness have to do with courage? We might, at first glance fail to see a connection. But looking more closely it becomes clear that no one can say "thank you" for a gift and mean it, without trust in the giver; and to trust always takes courage. Take a simple example. A friend hands you a gift-wrapped package, and you say "thank you." You might think that you have expressed your appreciation for the gift. But wait! You haven't even looked at what's inside that package. How could you express you appreciation? What you really expressed was trust in your friend. A grateful person will say "thank you" before checking what's inside the gift-wrapping. If you wait to express your thanks until after you have examined the gift, you might be smart, but no one will call you grateful. True gratefulness is courage to give thanks for a gift before unwrapping it.
Now, it might not cost you a great amount of courage to trust your friend. True enough, that box wrapped in gold paper is just the right size to contain a medium-large time bomb. But who would even dream of that possibility? When life hands you a gift, however, it's a more serious matter. God has a way of putting time bombs into pretty packages. We know that from past experience, and now we get another one of those surprise gifts. To be there to say "thank you" and mean it does take courage. It is as if you were saying: "Watch it! This might be another one of those whoppers. It might blow me to pieces. But even if it does, I trust that this is just what I need right now." That's trust all right! And that trust in the Giver is the crucial point where faith and gratefulness meet.
God has a way of putting time bombs into pretty packages! ha! that made me laugh out loud. because i know all too well that it is true. but am i grateful? am i willing to trust in the giver? do i have the courage to be thankful again? even before i know how it will all turn out?
for whatever reason i needed all that happened three years ago, and all that has happened in the years since. and i needed it right then. i don't want to be fatalistic. and i don't mean to make it sound like it was all about me. but can i possibly see it all as a gift? and can i learn to see it not as only the huge thing that it was and how it changed so much, but at the same time how it does not define my story?
sometimes pain finds its way to the center of our stories. and sometimes it can go so deep that we think we will never see the experience anywhere outside of the middle. and then before we know it it has begun to define our lives. it has become our climax, and we cannot focus on the future or find the hope we need.
but joy costs pain. it's just that you didn't know the price was so high. and you, like the chronic gambler, will keep paying more so that you can somehow win your money back. but who can walk away from the table? who can cut their losses and let the story change? all of the sudden where you were once looking back to the heart of it all, now it has become something you once again look to in the future.
the two candles have all but burned out now. the flame in the center endures.