foundchangeA stately Norwegian man with white hair and sparkling blue eyes stood before a bunch of beat-up, bedraggled, brave women.  He was giving us some final words before we left the place-of-no-other-choice to join a world filled with too many choices.  We were at Haselden – a treatment center hidden in the tall Minnesota pines –  for drug and alcohol addicts.  I was there almost ten years ago for a “care-giver’s retreat,” which was another way of saying that I was really struggling to find the will not to drink, but I didn’t want to look like all those other alcoholics.  Our speaker’s parting words were, “Don’t forget to polish your pearls.”  We knew what he meant.  In fact, I had a pearl he had given me in my pocket.  “Polishing pearls” was his metaphor for telling our stories of addiction — our stories of experience, strength, and hope — over and over again to remind us of what it had been like when we were in the abyss of addiction and what it is like now to join the ranks of those in recovery.  Quite honestly, I was already contemplating telling my story — the revised version that sounded good and hopeful, with any real struggles way behind me.  (In the Christian world, we don’t really have a story to tell unless the sin, struggle, woundedness and confusion are at least five years earlier.)  How could I tell? Why would I tell stories that were still in me — written and unwritten — that were still filled with fear, guilt, and shame?

The thought of telling my stories sounded about as fun as nature’s way of polishing pearls — an irritating foreign substance slips into the oyster — kind of like giving the oyster a splinter.  The oyster’s natural reaction is to cover up that irritant (the pearl) to protect itself.  Somehow in this process, the oyster covers the pearl with layers of something called nacre to create the shell that eventually forms a pearl.  As I contemplated telling my stories of failure and strength, profound weakness and anxiety, I felt covered in shame (which must be something like being covered in nacre.)  I wanted to protect myself, save my family and friends from further pain and embarrassment, and hide under a shell.  But I knew my Norwegian friend was right.  The only way to live in the light of recovery from the messes we get ourselves into is to stay out of the dark — to “polish our pearls” and tell our stories.  But what stories are really worth telling in this tell-all era with reality television that reveals jolting stories about someone’s 600 pound life, or sexual behavior that led them to the ER, or finding love in a strange game of pin the rose on the bachelor?

What stories are worth telling?  I think the answer is all real-life stories (not the scripted reality television version), because God has written Himself into all our stories.  He is the Plot, and that makes our stories worth telling.  While I sat in the airport to return home from the place-of-no-other-choice, I started to feel anxious and tempted to run from the truth to all of the other choices I knew could numb the pain and/or distract me from the vulnerability I knew would be life-saving, but I also knew it could feel like getting a splinter that gets irritated and infected and I wouldn’t look good or feel like the confident, put-together stories I most like to tell.  Sitting on the plane to head home, after being reminded to put on our own oxygen masks first, I thought about the story that God is telling in every story and that we must tell in our own stories in order to have authentic life to sustain us in this breathless world and to offer to others.

1.  We get in trouble.  We drink too much, gossip just one more time, or outright lie about our lives to make others think we’re not in trouble.

2.  God offers us rescue.

3.  We get to choose to accept His rescue or continue to try to get ourselves out of trouble with the same selves that got us into trouble in the first place.

We recognize this story in all the music that we love.  Even when Taylor Swift sings an unbelievably popular song called, “Shake It Off,” we identify with “haters gonna hate,” and “heartbreakers gonna break.”  There’s the problem, but “I got this music in my mind, saying it’s gonna be alright.”  A hint of rescue.  And Taylor’s choice is to dance to the rhythm of this music, “Baby, I’m gonna shake it off.”  

If you’re not a Taylor Swift fan, maybe that’s too shallow.  How about another popular song by Mumford & Sons?  “It’s empty in the valley of your heart. . .”  That’s the struggle that begins the song, “The Cave.”  But I will hold on hope . . . .”  Beautiful lyrics of rescue with a choice, “Now let me at the truth which will refresh my broken mind.”

And then perhaps more obvious — in my favorite hymn.  “There in the ground His body lay; Light of the world by darkness slain; Then bursting forth in glorious day, Up from the grave He rose again!  And as He stands in victory, Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me; For I am His and He is mine — bought with the precious blood of Christ.”  (In Christ Alone, by Keith Getty & Stuart Townsend.)

It dawned on me, as I flew home from Minnesota, that Jesus had a story he really didn’t want to tell.  As He knelt in the Garden of Gethsemane, with tears of blood streaming down His face, He asked his father, “Is there any way this story can be taken from me?  He knew how the story began — that he would become sin.  I can barely comprehend that when I think of all my own sin, much less the sin of an entire world teeming with murder, lust, abuse, lying, and theft.  Just watching one news cycle leaves me overwhelmed with all that is wrong in the world and in us.   Jesus knew he would become sin, and he asked His father if He could find any other story.   Jesus must have been anticipating the moment he knew was to come — when the story would be so dark His own Father would turn away, and the fatherless son, would scream, “My God, my God!  Why have you forsaken me?”  I am humbled and grateful that while anticipating this most dark moment in history, Jesus also anticipated “the joy set before Him” — our rescue!  When Jesus surrendered to His Father’s story by praying, “Not mine, but Thy will be done,” he knew in ways we cannot know on our own, that God only writes good stories.  And He rewrites them in all of our stories over and over again in hope that we will choose Him.

So, here’s my “pearl.”  When I was in the hell of addiction, I would drain my bottle before passing out in bed.  The bottle may have been 12 miniatures, or a pint, or a Big Gulp cup, but sometime in the dark night of the soul for alcoholics — when my liver would wake me up at two or three in the morning — I would desperately dig through the trash for those bottles to make sure I had drained every drop.  That describes the desperate problem for every addict — scrambling in an abyss of never enough and always too much.  How humiliating to be so dependent on a substance that I would tip the bottle and lick the sides to make sure I drank it all.  Perhaps that’s what songwriter Beth Hart means when she sings, “I drank so hard the bottle ached.”   Although I am grateful that those years are at least five years behind me, the desperate desire for More still haunts me.  Is it possible to know rescue from that?

I am learning that this rescue comes in the form of a relationship with the One who inexplicably promises that He will keep every tear drop we cry in the midst of desire, defeat, disappointment, and longing for More.  The rescue God offers is a relationship with Someone who is so desperate for me that He collects my tears like they are pearls of great price.  Can I dare to believe that God loves me so much that He is keeping every last drop of my tears until we can be together in the land of More for eternity?  When I tell the truth of my stories — the unedited desperate versions — I have no other choice but to believe His story; and when He tells his story, He always chooses me.  In one of the stories that Jesus told, he said, “God’s kingdom is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”  Maybe this parable means that we need to be willing to exchange all of our stories of self-help and self-reliance and self-destruction for one story of great cost — that we cannot rescue ourselves.  We need to be rescued.  Or perhaps this parable means that God sees through all the sin and necare covering us, and He gives all that he has — Jesus, who knew no sin, but became sin for us that we might be rescued — because our stories are pearls of great price, purchased with the blood of God’s Son.  I think it is about both, because God is the Grand Storyteller of our lives and that makes all our stories most telling.

“And God did all this so we could seek after Him, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find Him.  He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us.  He’s not remote; he’s near.”  Acts 17:27