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SAME LIFE, NEW STORYCHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE to CHANGE YOUR LIFE
By JAN SILVIOUS
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Jan Silvious
All right reserved.
Chapter OneREALIZE IT'S TIME TO GET A LIFE AND TELL A NEW STORY
We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. —E. M. Forster
Naomi found a life worth living after sowing years of bitterness.
THE BOOK OF RUTH
It's true: Naomi's story was a tragedy. Due to famine in her homeland of Judah, she and her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, had to move to Moab, a foreign country with false gods, and set up housekeeping among strangers.
Then Elimelech suddenly died, leaving Naomi with her two sons. Mahlon and Kilion married two women from Moab named Ruth and Orpah, and things seemed to be getting better as Naomi looked forward to being a grandmother and living out her life in peace with her family.
After they had been in Moab about ten years, Mahlon and Kilion both died too. Then Naomi, distraught from her devastating losses, was alone in a foreign land with just her daughters-in-law. Now what? How could an older woman survive in Moab with no husband and no sons to care for her? It was not Ruth and Orpah's responsibility to take care of her—they needed to return to their own families for help. What could she do?
Naomi's story had changed drastically, and she had no idea how to write the next part. Can you relate? Have you ever been there?
* * *
My grandmother lived thirty-six years. Her story was short compared to most. She married as a girl of seventeen and gave birth to ten children over the next eighteen years. After her last baby was born, she died of childbirth fever, a common affliction of her day. Her story probably would not have ended that way had she been living now, but during her time on earth, giving birth, which has always been hazardous, was often deadly. Her life ended abruptly with no time to say good-bye.
Her children were bewildered. Her husband was broken, faced with a brood of motherless children, and the love of his life—his North Star—was gone. The plot of their family's story had taken a nasty twist they had not anticipated, but life for the rest of them had to go on.
The day he buried his wife, my grandfather drew his children into a circle and told them they were all going to face changes. They would have to pull together and help each other as never before. Some of them were too young to understand what he was saying, but the older ones knew what he meant. Life as they had known it was over.
While I can only imagine how bleak their whole existence must have looked at that pivotal moment, the truth was, my grandmother's strong influence remained with them all from that tragic day forward.
I was born into this hardy family but did not know the struggles they had faced until I was an adult. As a child I knew that my mother had an incredible bond with her sisters and brothers. I never knew them to be divided by arguments or petty jealousies. Through thick and thin, sickness and accidents, foreign wars and family reunions, births and deaths, they lived together with kindness, caring, and mutual support. Their mother had written her story while she could. Through her sacrificial life, her children learned what she wanted them to know. If she had lived another thirty-six years, I cannot imagine they would have turned out any better.
I often think of my grandmother and wonder if I have lived as well as she did in her brief stay here. The fact that I am alive and have breath gives me options, though, that she did not have. Although it will be up to those who come behind us to interpret what we have written and to make judgments about the legacies we leave, the writing of it is in our hands. It is up to us to write stories worth reading and remembering.
The part that is up to us is how well we respond to the events and circumstances that happen in our lives. Some of my grandmother's children had to live in different homes for a few years. It was hard for them, but they managed to see it in a way that propelled them forward. They did not allow it to stop them or make them into victims. No matter what they went through, they lived with optimism and strength.
Writing our life stories well is huge. Choosing not to linger in a bad scenario, but choosing to move on to new pages and chapters or maybe even a whole new book, is what marks a good life—a life with a meaning and influence.
If we live with an eye on the fact that God knows when and where we live in the grand scheme of things—in fact, He placed us precisely here—it is easier to relax into our futures, the unwritten parts of our stories. We will always live the same life, but as long as we have breath, we can write a new story. As long as there is life, God's imprint is on the pages. We can know there is a bigger story going on around us, and we can reach beyond this moment to see the more. Even if, for now, things seem bleak, unfair, and ungracious, there is hope because there is always more to your story.
From Pleasantness to Bitterness
Naomi, a prominent woman in Scripture whose name means "pleasantness," is a significant character in a drama that seemed to go so very wrong. In fact, because of her sad life she eventually declared she had changed her name to Mara, which means "bitterness."
It is hard to believe she ever imagined there could be more to her life. She lived during a barren time in the history of Israel—the time of the judges, which is described as a time when "everyone was doing what was right in his own eyes" (Judg. 17:6 NKJV), and living was hard. There was a famine in the land, which caused Naomi, her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons, Kilion and Mahlon, to pack their belongings and leave their home in Bethlehem. They went to Moab, a land where the people worshipped many false gods, but at least there was food in Moab.
We do not know if things got much better for them there, but what we do know is that, before long, Elimelech died. And while that was certainly tragic, Naomi still had her boys. The sons married Moabite women, and they all lived together in Moab for ten years. Sadly, though, both of her sons then died. Naomi was bereft. Distraught. Depressed. Her life was turned upside down, and her story took a disastrous turn. She had no husband, no sons, and only daughters-in-law in a strange land. It could not have looked much worse for an Israelite woman of Naomi's age. I can only imagine the sorrow and despair that surrounded her. What would she do? Her daughters-in-law had their own families and surely were not obligated to take care of her. They were still young enough to remarry and have children. But not Naomi.
One day, in the midst of her despair, a message came that gave Naomi a little glimmer of hope. She heard that the famine had been broken in Israel, and the Lord had at last given His people food. So the tired, grieving Israelite woman packed her meager belongings to leave Moab and return home to Bethlehem in Judah:
Naomi and her daughters-in-law left the place where they had lived and started back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, "Go back home, each of you to your own mother's house. May the Lord be as kind to you as you have been to me and my sons who are now dead. May the Lord give you another happy home and a new husband." (Ruth 1:7–9)
Naomi knew her daughters-in-law could start over again. A new beginning was possible for them, but I wonder if it ever occurred to her that she could begin again too? She probably thought she had lived her life. The family she expected to grow old with was gone. The future held no happy expectation of grandchildren or even the comfort of living among old friends. She had nothing in Moab. So she was going to do the only thing she knew to do—return home to her own people and relatives. She said farewell to the only connections she had in Moab.
"When Naomi kissed the women good-bye, they began to cry out loud. They said to her, 'No, we want to go with you to your people'" (vv. 9–10). But Naomi tried to send the girls home to their own families. She even played on their emotions by saying, "I cannot give birth to more sons to give you new husbands" (v. 11). Then she went to an extreme thought. Even if she conceived children that very night, she could not ask the girls to wait for them to grow up. She did not want them to live without husbands, so she said, "Don't do that, my daughters. My life is much too sad for you to share, because the Lord has been against me!" (v. 13).
Naomi had titled her old story "Too Sad." She had even come up with that outlandish scenario—a new husband, new children, and daughters-in-law frozen in time to wait for Naomi's future sons to grow up! She had concocted an impossible plot so she could go back to Bethlehem and give her daughters-in-law an "out." She only saw the future one possible way, and the girls were not part of it. She had one plan in mind, and they were not included. As so often happens, however, life threw her a curve. Just when she thought she had her sad existence all figured out, one of those girls did not do what Naomi expected. Ruth did not take her "out." And the plot took a left turn.
The women cried together out loud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law Naomi good-bye, but Ruth held on to her tightly. Naomi said to Ruth, "Look, your sister-in-law is going back to her own people and her own gods. Go back with her." But Ruth said, "Don't beg me to leave you or to stop following you. Where you go, I will go. Where you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. And where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. I ask the Lord to punish me terribly if I do not keep this promise: Not even death will separate us." (vv. 14–17)
Naomi was given a daughter—a daughter who vowed to stay with her until death. She had no idea about this new story line. Life had been hard, but now something wonderful had happened. What would her story be now? How would this new chapter develop?
We All Live Many Stories
Most of us live several stories in a lifetime. That is the way God works so often. What starts out looking like a scenario with limited possibilities and little future can be just one of the chapters we live. That is the beauty of knowing that God is writing the main plot of your life story even while you meander aimlessly through side dramas and subplots. He is there all the time, patiently nudging you back toward His ultimate plan for you.
For years I lived in the backstory of my early marriage. I met my husband on a blind date in college. We fell in love, married, and had a baby boy. I liked that part of the story and loved living it, but within six months of our baby's birth, my husband was taken away to fly a helicopter in the jungles of Vietnam. I hated that chapter. It was not what I wanted. We tried to make the most of it. We wrote letters to one another every day (we had no Internet then). We endured all the things every other military couple was enduring at that critical moment in history. We were making the most of a tough situation, but I was depressed and became even more so when he came home. We had missed the entire third year of our marriage, he had lost a most important year in our growing son's life, and both of us had changed significantly. Where was the rightness in all of that?
I felt as if I had awakened angry one day and could not get over it. I had many strings of conversations with myself that seemed to be circular threads that never went anywhere. I was stuck in my mind and could not see a way out of the injustice and loss. You can see I made it a far larger circumstance than it really was by using those big words—injustice and loss. Although my husband had come home, and ten months later we had another beautiful son, it made no difference to me. I thought I had my story, and I had no idea there was more. I just felt trapped in a chapter I did not love, yet I think I wanted to love it. I wanted to live it well, but I just did not know how.
I can look back now and recognize when it began to dawn on me that I was stuck. I was twenty-six years old and angry. I knew my life was not working the way I wanted. The dreams were small. We were right in the middle of life, and I was living a fearful existence. My husband had come home from the war alive, and instead of being thrilled and grateful that he had dodged the deadly bullets, I had succumbed to one big imaginary bullet that had gone right through my soul. I had become desperately afraid that now I would die.
We had two children at that time, and I was scared to death I would pass away from something dreadful and someone else would raise my boys. I saw no greater tragedy than a motherless child and daily struggled with the expectation of death. (For those of you who like to look for the backstory, maybe you can see a clue here, as I did while writing this chapter.) This fear had first surfaced when I was afraid my husband would be killed, and probably even earlier when, as an only child, I lived on hyper-alert, always concerned that something awful would happen to my mother. I always worried that, if something happened to her, I had no one to care for me. I had my dad, who was loving and kind, but the idea of being without my mother terrified me. What would happen to me? How would I survive as a motherless child?
Now I had become a mother myself, and I struggled with every perceived danger. Magazine articles on illness and television programs on poor health all held me hostage. I just knew the next paragraph or news flash would identify my cough or small skin lesion as deadly. It was clear I needed to be saved from myself and from my thinking that tended toward the tragic, the sad, and the terminal. My life was one big what-if. My story was stuck on one theme, like the needle on an old, scratched 45 rpm record, and I did not know how to get back on track. I told myself an ongoing narrative of disappointment and depression. Now, years later, I know the root of it was my fear. Despite the gift of wonderful sons, a cute little house, and devoted friends, fear of death haunted me with frightening, tragic scenes, and I believed every word of it. I can only imagine how bored my friends were with my obsession!
My thinking had become a garden full of weeds. I allowed negative thoughts to take root, grow, and multiply. I had no idea I had any responsibility for what was growing or for the misery I felt. I did not have a tragic life; I just had some years I did not like—my young Cinderella dream had been interrupted—while other people's lives had been untouched by the inconvenience of war. That was a disappointment, born of self-pity, that took root in my mind and allowed all sorts of depressing weeds to shoot up. It was not what I had planned, so I did not have a place to file my feelings about the way things had turned out.
Playing Games with God
The answer came to me one night in an encounter with God. (Remember, He also has a story, and it is entwined with ours.) Up to that point I really had not thought much about Him, but this particular night I went to a concert where singer JoAnn Shelton made a statement that changed my life. She was just making the small talk singers sometimes do between songs in a concert. She simply said, "All my life I played games with God, but then I had to get serious." Believe it or not, that was the beginning of the more to my story.
I had gone to church all my life, but it seemed to make no difference to me. In fact, I was pretty bored with the things I heard. They seemed so irrelevant. Consequently I played games with God and with myself. I guess that was why I was stunned when the singer spoke the words played games. I knew at that exact moment those words were for me. There was a God, and He knew where I was. That was the first glimmer of light in the darkness of my mind, which had been draped in fear for so long. I did not immediately do an about-face, but little by little I began to see that I was not alone, and my life was not without purpose.
Excerpted from SAME LIFE, NEW STORY by JAN SILVIOUS Copyright © 2010 by Jan Silvious. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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