My last few articles for this publication have centered on helping us learn to find truth and beauty in the midst of our culture’s stories, especially our media and literature. This time I want to expand on that theme and apply now it to our own stories. Just as our society’s beliefs, questions, and values find natural expression through the stories it produces, so also on a personal level our beliefs, questions, hopes, and dreams, find expression in the stories we create. Stories are the true currency of the inner-life economy. They are what make us tick. They tell us who we are. They move us, draw us, terrify us, compel us, and drive us in most everything we do and think. Some of these stories are the interpreted narratives of our own lives. Others are stories we make up that give outlet to the essential creative nature of our very souls. This skill usually takes time and intention to develop. Yet all of us contain the creative potential to express truth and beauty in a trillion unique ways. Indeed, being creative is an essential part of sanctification, the ongoing process in the life of believers whereby God’s Spirit works to progressively transform and conform them into the very image of Christ – the Word of Creation Himself!
Yes, we were created to create. It’s part of the divine image we were created with. And even marred by sin, this divine faculty remains potent within our deepest selves, though often quite dormant.
One of the most fruitful ways to coax out this shy creature from our inner world, to stretch its muscles and get the blood flowing, is to create our own Gospel stories. Start by writing a creative retelling of the work of God in your life. The Gospel in your own words. Or perhaps do a creative retelling of the Gospel story as revealed in God’s Word. As we step out on shaky legs, as we hold our crayons with unsure hands, we must remember that the Great Creator is Himself our Loving Daddy. When we bring Him our little chicken-scratch, stick figure creation-masterpieces, He smiles with deep and genuine affection and pride. He picks us up and twirls us around in joy. “That’s my boy!” “That’s my girl!” “I love it!” He really does love it when we try to follow in His footsteps and create things that contain truth and beauty.
So why not try? This isn’t a theology class. You won’t be graded. You don’t have to even “get it right.” You just have to get started. Don’t worry about anyone else reading it. You very well may never show it to others. Derivative literature is OK. Just get started. See what comes out. As you begin to release and develop this often atrophied muscle of your soul, you’ll be amazed at how the Story of the Great Storyteller comes alive to you in sparkling, moving new ways. As we learn to retell the Gospel in our own words, our own stories, it becomes more real, tangible, memorable, viscerally connecting than we’d ever dreamed. Let your stories out!
I’ve had a sort of waking dream ever since one of our last Advent series messages called The Incarnate Light. I’ve been pondering what it really must have been like, what I really meant for Jesus to be Light of the World and for Him to step down into our darkness. It started out with a simple image, a scene (the first paragraph below). That scene stuck in my mind and wouldn’t go away. And so, by that following Friday morning, as I spent my regular two hours tawG (time alone with God) at Radina’s Bakehouse, I decided to try to do something with it. That morning I nurtured it into a filler short Gospel story as I sipped a latte and wrote in my journal. That process has been immensely rewarding and moving. I feel like I was able to meet and experience Christ in a new and profound way through this creative process in particular. In the end, this story is not for you, as much as for me and my Heavenly Daddy. But insomuch as it is helpful, I’m happy to share it with you. It’s likely a bit longer than what you might come up with as you write your own Gospel Story, but word count isn’t really a useful metric here. It’s really about letting out the story that’s inside (can you tell I love words/writing/talking?). This my most recent creative Gospel Story. I call it:
He Who Shines | Those Who Scream
I saw a man, blazing with warm, steady light. He who shines stood in the midst of utter darkness. Out of the darkness came screams. Curses. Wailings. Death. The Shining Man’s face was profoundly kind. And sad. Yet brave.
I somehow knew that He didn’t have to come here. To this place. He could have dealt with this problem from afar. From the outside. All He would have had to do was shine a little brighter. Burn a little hotter. Just for a few seconds. And everything dark would burn away forever. The screams would stop. He certainly wasn’t lacking in power. He could do it. Easily. Quickly. I longed for Him to, for the sight and sound of those dark screams unnerved me to the core.
But there was a problem with that plan. That way, everything – and everyone – dies. Forever. Not only would the darkness itself be destroyed, but also those who scream. Those who weep and whimper and rage. They were not only in the darkness. The darkness was in them. So they’d die too. No way around it.
So He Who Shines chose a different plan. One that destroyed the darkness without also wiping out all those who scream. He would have to do this from the inside. He’d have to come close. Light and Life Himself – for indeed, somehow I knew that’s who He was --- would have to go there. Step down. Become small. Weak. Dim. Vulnerable. If He didn’t want to kill everyone right off the bat. He’d have to become less. For their sakes. This was the dangerous plan. The risky, difficult, painful plan. He knew what it would mean. I’m not sure how I knew these things, but yet I did.
And I saw him do it. For He had come. And there He stood, small and shining. It was NOTHING close to His full brightness, yet even so He outshone everything in view. He stood in a small clearing of light in the midst of a sea of deep enveloping dark. And the dark came. He knew it would. For the darkness has always hated the light. Sought from time immemorial to actually kill light. To stamp it out. For it fancied itself strong, stronger than the Light, yet had not ever been fully able to put out Light. Not really. So it seethed. Brooded. And yearned with all itself to overcome the Source – He Who Shines – once and for all. When the time was right. Of course it would come.
And indeed it came upon the bright Man with fury typically reserved for the most intensely raging fires. Yet no warmth or light came from this anti-fire. Cold as death, thick and strong it squeezed and pressed the Man. Struck and slashed at the Light. And the clearing grew smaller.
No man had ever resisted the dark like this Man before. None. The dark had all too easily taken those who scream. They’d had some light to be sure; but that was so easily dimmed and obscured once they were overcome. And eventually they’d taken the darkness into themselves, and willingly! The little fools. No fight left. Managed. Easily. But now this Man – the Light Life Himself – He was here. Openly challenging the grand dominion of darkness. And the dark had initially been afraid. But now it grew giddy and bold as it saw the Light shrink. And at once I realized with horror that the Life Light Himself was weak. Dim. Small. Vulnerable. He was losing ground. And the dark could see it too. Like blood in the water it went mad with delight. I could hear the dark as it thought to itself, “He is here. And He is weak! Now is the time! He’s almost out. I can finally win. Once and for all. Just a little bit more. If I draw up all my strength…”
As I looked, the Man, pressed on all sides by the darkness, glanced aside, and so did I. And in a flash I saw what He must have seen: people. Those who scream. I could see them now. The darkness was contracting as it drew all of itself up in its great attack on the Man. And now the people were exposed.
I wanted to yell at them. “Run you fools! You’re finally free! The darkness has released you. It’s distracted. RUN! Or else come and help the Bright Man.” I thought that perhaps their own lights, even dim as they were, could help bolster His efforts to fend off the dark.
But with despair and loathing, instead I saw the people stand firm. They did not run away. Nor did they rush to his aid. Instead they opened their mouths, peeled back their lips in dark snarls, and screamed. Screamed at the Man! From their mouths and eyes shot more darkness! Upon He who shines. How they hated Him. They joined in the great dark push against the Life Light. And still the clearing shrank.
Again I looked and saw the Man; His face was sad. So sad. Afraid. And yet still profoundly kind. I saw Him look at the people who screamed death upon Him, and I saw --- yes, incredible! – love. How could anyone love them!? I’d never seen anything so ugly, loathsome, dark as this fell brood. How could He make that face at them, now? Perhaps I misunderstood…
I saw a shining star – a small tear – drop to the ground. And the Man looked at me. Right at me. And -His eye twitched. It almost looked like a wink. But surely it wasn’t that? And He bowed down on one knee. The darkness kept pressing, like an immense vice, throwing all it had upon He Who Shines. And still the people screamed. And they emptied all the darkness – every last drop – that was within them upon the Man. And the Man’s head was pressed down. Pressed until eventually He was utterly out of my sight. For the darkness closed in such that all I could see was the dark, sickening, suffocating swarm. And still it pressed. Until it concentrated completely onto the Man. All of it. He became visible again as the dark collapsed itself fully onto the single point that was the Man of Light – upon He Who Shines. But behold, He seemed so no longer! Because the dark so concentrated itself upon Him that it forced itself into Him. Into His eyes. His mouth. His very pores seemed to function as breaches into which the darkness poured. Until – was it possible!? – the Man of Light, still on one knee, with all the darkness of the world inside Him, went out.
The Light Himself went out.
Life itself died.
The darkness had done it. Had finally won. And it knew it!
And all the people were – yes! – for the first time: silent! Looking. At that single point of dark. Dense as a black hole. All right there in that one place. In that Man – He Who Shone. He was dead. I knew it.
I’ve never, ever, felt anything like I did in that terrible moment. Despair and sorrow and pain can’t even begin to describe it. Nothing was left. All was lost. My heart ceased to beat. And everything stood still.
I have no idea how long it was – it could have been moments or days – but then everything happened at once. I thought I could see (it happened so fast!) the Man’s skin seemed to crack in a thousand places. Intense shafts of light shone outward through the cracks. And then, like a nuclear bomb, in an instant, the sun rose. All of it. Right there. In front of me. And the man burst into flame. Well, not really flame – because nothing was burned, nothing consumed, except the darkness. That was utterly blown away. Vaporized.
It was Light unlike anything I’d ever seen before. LIGHT itself. The Source. Like what flame feebly tries to imitate. The real thing behind the tracing. LIGHT! And the blast sphere of that impossible bright expanded. Fast!
All over the land.
All over the people.
All over me.
And I looked and saw … the people. Not only was the darkness gone from the land, but all the darkness from within the people had been drained. Not a single drop left in those who remained. I say that for I now noticed that some must have gotten vaporized in the blast for there were certainly fewer people now. I knew not why.
But as I looked, the people (I can’t describe it any better), they woke up. Their snarling lips relaxed. Their mouths closed. But not their eyes. Those who remained all stared unblinkingly straight into the Sun. That dazzling epicenter of light coming from the Man who was dead and dark but was now shining with the force of a billion stars. He shone. They stared.
And the Man got up. He stood up and looked at them, with a gaze of intense desire. For the moment, I couldn’t tell more. And then He opened His mouth. I wondered then if He was going to blast away those who had killed Him with their murderous screams. These ingrates. Traitors. Those who had drawn the darkness into their deepest selves. These who screamed, and yet remained.
But instead He sang.
I was stunned. Completely unprepared.
He sang. A song more beautiful than anything I’d ever imagined or dreamt. As if all our songs before had been as that flame trying in vain to imitate the True Light.
He sang. And my heart melted. I began to weep. Like I’d never wept before. It was the overload of my small self trying to take in more than it ever thought possible. Too much. Too strong. Too quick. It was like trying to drink the whole ocean in a single draught. I wept. I came undone.
For joy. For sadness. For shame. For longing. For beauty.
When I opened my eyes at last, through my tears I saw – for the first time realized – that I was actually standing in that field with the people. No longer the detached observer – indeed, in that moment I realized I’d never been. Somehow I knew I’d been here all along. I was one who screamed. I’d poured out all the darkness inside me too – upon Him Who Shines. Him who stood there now blazing with light and song. I wept again.
But still He sang. I don’t remember the words, nor could now reproduce the tune – that soul melting, indwelling music. But I do know this: He did not sing alone for long. As I looked I saw those around me – those who screamed – they opened their mouths, their eyes still locked on the blaze of the Life Light Himself, and they began to sing.
It finally struck me. They were finally who they were. Awoken from the nightmare that had been their lives. But that dream was fading with each passing second spent in the Light. Their strength was returning. Their voices remembering how to carry a tune, how to weave in harmonies. No more screaming. They were remembering how to be themselves: those who sing.
And still the Light grew. Emanated out from the Man. In great pulses. Waves of light and music comingled in wonder and beauty until it was as if they were but aspects of the same thing.
And I could see now what was in His eyes. That intense desire. That was love. It was still there. I’d seen rightly before. Of course it was love. Love now set ablaze by what the Man had done. Desire and love refined and alight from the fires of His sacrifice. I’d never seen such a thing. It was so impossible. Yet so wonderful. Hope beyond all hope. I couldn’t look away.
And all at once there arose within me, unbidden from my inner being, an intense desire to sing too. To join in this great song with the Man of Light, He who shines dim and small no longer. And to join with those who were finally, after so long, their true selves. Those who sing. No longer dim and obscured. Kept and devoured by dark. But now bright and alive. Beautiful and free. Bright with some inner light of their own, but brighter still as they reflected the light of the Sun, like polished mirrors. Like great prisms that took the light and cast it around, and in doing so threw it into breathtaking colors. More colors then than any rainbow that had ever existed.
And still the Light grew. And the song rose and swelled until the joy in it was so thick and strong it almost felt a physical thing. Something you could touch. Bathe in. Play with. Drink. Something that would go down deep and bring healing to my very soul. The pure, solid ecstasy of it I could barely stand.
And then the Bright Man looked straight at me. And for a moment I remembered what came before. In flashes I saw what I’d almost forgotten in all this light. I saw images of the man, of He Who Shines, stepping down, becoming dim, small. I saw Him stooped down under that great crushing dark. Of that look of sadness mixed with bravery and intense love. That moment when He knelt down and went out. Died. And then the explosion of light. The death of death. The song. The singers.
And I remembered the Great Plan. He’d done it! By God, He’d done it! He’d wiped out the darkness without utterly destroying those who screamed. He’d taken all the darkness upon Himself, into Himself. And by His death – the death of Life itself—he blazed away all that was dark and wrong and terrible in this world. And gave us back our true selves. And invited us into His song.
Oh yes, I wanted to sing. More than anything. More than I’d ever desired anything before. No previous desire had even come close to this. I wanted to sing! So I looked Him right back in the eyes. Those blazing, dazzling, loving eyes – eyes who had closed for me – and I opened my mouth.
And woke up.