Victor Shepherd preached a wonderful sermon at our church in March 2018 on how to understand tragic deaths. The idea that our life story is not us is deeply reassuring at times like these.
I am 73 years old, and if I die tonight others will gather up my life in a story and tell the story. Hearers will identify me, the real “me”, with my story. But let’s be honest: they will regard “me” and my story as fit to be told; my story is positive; my story is rich (supposedly.) No one would hesitate to tell my story. But if my story were one that couldn’t be told; if my story were bleak or disgraceful or incomprehensible, others would like to think that the real “me” was somehow better, somehow grander, than my shabby story.
My wife and I were asleep on a Friday evening when the phone rang at midnight. The caller was a man I’ve looked out for for 20 years. Eric is paranoid schizophrenic. I’ve followed him around to restaurants, hospitals, jails, and numerous shabby “digs.” He wasn’t angry and he wasn’t violent: he was frightened, terribly frightened. He feared he was going to be sent back to a provincial hospital. He was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic when he was a 20-year old university student, and remained psychotic until he died last year of natural causes. He hadn’t had one torment-free day in 60 years. What’s Eric’s story? Do you want to hear all the details? Would anyone want his story (all of it) told at his funeral? Tell me: are Eric and Eric’s story identical?
The truth is, none of us is identical with our story. Our story isn’t big enough, comprehensive enough, grand enough. None of us has a story (whether tellable or untellable) that does justice to who we are truly in ourselves because of who we are truly before God. Our story is small and feeble and miserable and frustrated. Often our story, so far from reflecting who we truly are, contradicts who we truly are. Our story has to be taken up into a much bigger story.
Then what’s the bigger story, grander story, for Eric? It’s the story of a man who once lived in a cemetery. (Mark 5:1-20) He was violent, anti-social, and an inveterate “streaker.” One day Jesus came upon him and asked, “What’s your name?” “My name?”, the fellow replied, “I’ve got lots of names. I’m your local nut-case; so why not call me ‘Peanut, Pistachio and Pecan’, ‘P-cubed’ for short?” Some time later the townspeople saw the same man seated, clothed and in his right mind. By God’s grace that gospel-story has been appointed to be Eric’s story, Eric’s true story. That story is the final story into which Eric’s story is taken up and in which Eric’s story is transfigured.