How would you tell the story of your life in six words?
That’s the goal of a writing practice called the six-word essay (or memoir). When I first learned about them, I decided to try it. Here’s my six-word life: “Seeking to respond to God’s generosity.”
But as beautiful as that story is, I’m not convinced it’s the one I’m living. At least not now.
That story describes the life I want to live. It reveals what I want others to see when they look at my life or listen to my words. Earlier drafts of my story even included words like “joyfully” or “grateful.” Again, things I wish were true about my life. Even things that have been true. But sometimes I wonder: Is that my story now? Or is it some distant memory or faint hope far removed from my life today?
I found my answer in one of those wonderfully painful moments that happen between friends, those rare moments that both break and heal your heart.
It happened a few days ago when my pastoral colleague told me a different story about my life. Vastly different. And she also needed only six words.
“You need to improve your attitude.”
She told me that as we prepared to teach the confirmation class together last Sunday afternoon. And she spoke far more kindly than I deserved, given that she waited until after my sixty-fourth repetition of what I realized I had been saying for the past thirty minutes: “It’s criminal to bring all of these people inside on a day like this. No one will want to be here. This will be a disaster.”
“You need to improve your attitude,” she said, as if a comment like that wouldn’t just make things worse.
In the silence which followed, and in the days since, I have been re-writing my story.
“Attitude sucked. Prophet spoke. Attitude adjusting.”
Of course, I wish that story were different. I wish I could end with “attitude adjusted,” as if I had accomplished that hope, that my attitude adjustment was complete, as if the story I dream for my life were indeed the one I were living.
But for now, “adjusting” is the right word. Only now I’m training, or re-training, my heart to look at the right things. And I am finding help from a surprising source. I somehow stumbled upon a quote from an article by William J. Durant in a 1963 issue of TIME. He was writing about civilization, but when I read his words, it was as if he had been watching me at work in a congregation.
Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.
If the church is a stream with banks, it has too often in recent years been filled with the pain of people leaving, of saints dying, of shouting and conflict, of people doing the things that historians usually record. And that’s what I’ve been looking at, because I care deeply about the church. And those things, all of that pain and loss and departure and conflict, well, they can suck the life out of you so much that you miss the beauty all around you. Even in congregations as healthy as the one I serve, the work of grief is never-ending.
And that story was supplanting the one I want to live.
Remember that class that I believed would be a disaster? Well, it wasn’t.
The best moment came while the class worked on some art projects, giving me time to flip through the six-word essays some of our confirmands had returned that day. One in particular grabbed my heart.
How did he see himself? As one claimed and called: “I’m not going; I am sent,” he wrote. It was an echo of a phrase he had heard while serving on a mission team in Baja, Mexico. “You are not just going,” he had been told. “You are sent.”
And how does he see the church?
“Helps all, welcomes all, accepts all.”
His words revealed my mistake. While I was busy staring at the river, thinking that was the church’s “real” story, he was watching and living the story playing out on the banks. And he knows who he is, and who the church is. Even when his pastor forgot.