Sunday, December 08, 2013

Letter from Harrisburg: Happy Endings

This column was published last Sunday, the day of my mother's passing.  You might well wonder how I feel about "happy endings" in light of this.  She lived a long, full life, she was eager to go be with Jesus, and she had a peaceful passing.  I call that a very happy ending.  The sorrow is all ours, and even that is tempered by the joy of knowing she is where she wanted to be.
Thank you for all the prayers over the past week.

Letter from Harrisburg

All stories should end with ‘happily ever after’

I think every story ought to turn out right in the end. The characters suffer, the plot twists, sharp obstacles rise in the path, but a good story works it all out beautifully by the final page. 
Some of us read “Pride and Prejudice” at least once a year, just to make sure Elizabeth still ends up with Mr. Darcy. I re-read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books when I’m sick with the flu, thrilled each time that Valancy really leaves her old life behind and acquires her blue castle for keeps.

I love to hear people’s stories, leading family members to agree that I have a sign on my forehead: “Tell me the most intimate details of your life.” It’s fascinating, the invisible threads running through the life stories of everyday people, the strokes of luck, the miraculous connections, the accumulated wisdom.

I enjoy telling stories as well, especially to children, who for some reason prefer ones they’ve already heard. Trevin the young nephew has asked me dozens of times for the Chiclet story, a cautionary tale from my childhood in which I stole one of the pieces of gum my aunt sent my sister for her birthday. I was found out because Mom saw me surreptitiously chewing, and thus I learned that the eyes of both Mom and the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good, and so I never stole again.

That’s why people like me love the Christmas story. The world is dark and God is silent, and then suddenly there are angels singing of good news and a poor young virgin giving birth and “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

Something deep inside connects to a story, to characters and the forces that affect them, to despair turning to impossible hope, to the good guy showing up at last, and to a resolution that makes us close the book and smile and fall asleep.

We look at our own lives, with all our mistakes and frustrations, and we long for resolution for this story as well, for the loose ends to be tied into a neat bow and for meaning and purpose behind the strange turns in the plot.

I always thought everyone loved stories as much as I did, since even the most oblivious people in church perked up when the pastor’s sermon switched from theory and theology to an illustration or story. At family gatherings, relatives of all ages gather around the storytellers, reliving Aunt Allene’s suspense as the old seed truck with its worn-out fan belt growls up Interstate 5 and then — disaster — the belt snaps near Cottage Grove and Allene climbs the fence and despite many perils finally makes it to Harrisburg with the load of seed.

Some time ago, when a generous benefactor offered to pay for me to take an online course in short story writing from Stanford University’s prestigious Continuing Studies department, I found that not everyone in the world likes stories as I had always defined them.

Happy to learn of dialogue, setting and structure, I signed up, bought the textbooks, and dug in. Most of the required reading was “collected short stories” by highly-recommended authors.

I soon found that I had stepped into a sophisticated literary universe where “stories” consisted of vague, dark, hopeless descriptions of people trapped in creepy situations. Nothing ever really happened, nothing changed, and while the words stopped after a while, the stories were never completed.

In the online discussions, the other students, mostly lawyers and scientists and such, discussed the stories’ complexity and depth in ponderous detail, as though they actually qualified as good stories. Even a rural Mennonite mom doesn’t like to appear naïve and unenlightened, so I used my considerable acting skills and contributed an occasional comment.

However, I soon saw the silliness of such pretensions and decided to be what and who I was, a lover of simple stories from the hearts of ordinary people. I learned what I could from the course and then happily left that alien world to itself.

Life had enough vague and dark qualities. A story, I decided, ought to provide an alternative where joy was good and love was real and every event eventually had meaning.

The Bible, while containing poetry and deep theology, is essentially a story, resonating with believers like me because we relate to its all-too-human characters and its assurance that mysterious and meaningful purposes lie behind every event of our lives. Maybe we’re naïve, but in daily challenges and hard times of grief and pain, we reach for a community of faith that assures us of redemption for the past and hope for better things ahead.

“Now remember what you were, my friends, when God called you,” writes Paul the apostle in First Corinthians. “From the human point of view few of you were wise or powerful or of high social standing. God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise.”

So Christmas comes and simple people like me repeat the improbable story of long years of waiting and then a Roman census and a child born and angels announcing peace on Earth. 

Our children act it out in too-large bathrobes under dangling makeshift stars while we weep at its beauty and laugh with its joy. The story rings true in our hearts and so we believe and find, not that seeing is believing but that believing is seeing.

Then we cry harder because our own story includes many wrong turns and dilemmas, but here is forgiveness and peace, and we know we don’t deserve the gift but there it is.  We sing “Joy to the World” because we are full of hope that everything will come out right in the end, just like it ought to.


  1. What a wonderful post. I loved this! Yes, the Bible is His-story. "Now we see through a glass darkly" it says, but someday in His presence we shall understand.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, especially in light of your mom. And I totally know what you mean about the academic world. I have a journalism degree, and I remember thinking that the a substantial portion of the required reading was terrible and did nothing to improve the universe!

  3. oh I LOVE this - especially because I have had the same reaction to modern "short stories" as you have and I agree with you. And The Blue Castle is one of my favorite re-reads ever. I just adore stories where the character is transformed through the course of the story.
    Thank you for such a beautiful post. I love how you write.

  4. Wonderful post! As is often the case, I identify closely with all you have said!

    I might add this note: parents be aware of the books that even their young children are reading - I have been amazed at the darkness and depression expressed in some children's books...

    Thank you for saying what I think, and expressing it so much better than I could!