When I was a kid, I thought it was a cool trick to break a pencil and then slide the jagged ends back together. If I was careful, I could fit them together so no one could see the pencil was broken. I could then amaze other kids by pretending to break the pencil with flick of my finger.
This memory came to me recently as I was thinking of how jagged our lives are. As much as we love symmetry, closure, and a good story arc, events seldom supply them. Instead our lives often have abandoned dreams, broken relationships, false starts, mistakes, and dead ends.
There is little poetic justice in life. I have friends whose children or spouses have died. No matter what words of closure we say at funerals—death is a jagged break. Several years ago, a series of strokes left my mother unable to swallow or speak clearly. She was living on a feeding tube. One day when I was talking to her about Dad who had died twenty years earlier, I saw a tear run down her cheek. I said, “You still miss Dad, don’t you?” She could only nod as I wiped away the tear. She still ached.
After leaving behind pastoring, my dad and mom moved to Myrtle Point where Dad taught high school English and Mom taught first grade. We attended a small struggling local church. After some especially hard years, Dad filled in as pastor and for several years applied all his salary to paying off the mortgage on the church. Because of my Dad’s humility, generosity, and gifts as a preacher, I expected God to help the church grow. Instead it limped along. The summer before Dad died of cancer, he told me he only regretted one thing—that he had never been part of a revival and outpouring of the Holy Spirit that changed a church and reached into the community. He died never seeing this. Families are often full of jagged edges of brokenness. Some who dreamed of a happy Christian marriage have been left putting their lives back together after the pain and loss of divorce. Parents often write happy narratives for their children’s lives only to see misfortune, mistakes, and self-destructive choices rewrite their children’s lives as tragedies.
If we make idols of our narratives or insist on symmetry and closure, it is easy to get angry with God. Those of us who are bookish and love a good story arc are perhaps most easily offended by God’s failure to tie together the loose ends of our stories. Sometimes the jaggedness is simply all our unanswered questions. Did we truly hear God? Did our prayers go unanswered because of a lack of faith, the opposition of Satan, a misunderstanding of God’s will, or the free-will of people? Especially hard are the times when we step out in faith and obedience and nothing goes right—nothing bears visible fruit.
Can I say this? Our favorite Bible stories don’t help. Every reduction in our numbers should result in a Gideon-like victory over our enemies. Stepping out in courage should always result in Goliath falling. Humbling ourselves should always result in God exalting and vindicating us. Every journey home should end in a father’s embrace. Our prison songs should shake the walls and bring angelic liberation. But often this is not our story.
Of course, the Bible tells us this. We love the story of the angel freeing Peter from prison, but we forget that James was also arrested and executed. Hebrews 11 mentions those who by faith conquered kingdoms, shut the mouths of lions, and put armies to flight. However, there were also those who by faith endured mocking, prison, torture, and terrible deaths. Yikes!
I recently talked to a pastor who had completed his first five years of ministry. None of his goals for the church and his ministry had been met. Those he was preparing for leadership either left the church or slipped back into sin. Attendance is down. This pastor is rewriting his definition of success in terms of faithfulness and obedience rather than numbers. Rewriting is hard.
It is easy to fit together jagged ends of a broken pencil but only God and heaven can fit the jaggedness of our lives. Only the faithfulness, wisdom, and grace of God answers the brokenness of our lives. But there is coming a day when all that is partial and broken is made whole by God.
Our lives here are only the opening chapter and a little rising action in the story arc. We can’t make an idol of our narrative. We must hand the pencil to God and learn to read the story of grace He is writing into our jagged lives. He alone makes all things whole.