Your Best Story, Now!

Here’s how I know God exists: he ruined my life. Multiple times. The guy can’t […]

Stephanie Phillips / 10.14.15

jabezHere’s how I know God exists: he ruined my life. Multiple times. The guy can’t seem to nail my happy ending!

In my late twenties, I had finally finished my doctorate, summiting my professional goals–and I was ready for my personal happy ending: perfect man, two kids, beautiful home. Instead, my third roommate in a row became engaged while I didn’t even have a date to my little sister’s wedding. I dutifully prayed with one eye glaring at God, wondering why he was ruining my painstakingly constructed life. I had a schedule to keep!

Up to that point, I had curated an image of God based on best-selling Christian tomes and self-help disguised as sermons: I prayer-of-Jabezed my way through most of my twenties, constantly on the lookout for enlarged territory and increasingly confused over how the Lord missed the memo that I was entitled to a pain-free existence. Didn’t we have a deal?!

“God is not a kindly old uncle; he is an earthquake,” goes the Jewish proverb. For most of my life, I vacillated between belief in the kindly old uncle version–the one who sits patiently in his heavenly rocking chair, waiting for me to phone in prayer requests–and a sadist who strategically places virtual banana peels in my path. You might say that my theology was a little all-over-the-place. You might say it was non-existent. Either way, you’d be closer to the truth than I was in those graceless days. By the time I got to New York, I was primed for a new Jesus bio, and I received it in the message of grace and the end of my performance-based religion. The circumstances of my life, though, didn’t take a 180-degree turn alongside my understanding of the Gospel: I dealt with some seasonal depression during my first long Northeast winter, was involved with a string of less-than-appropriate guys, and lived paycheck to paycheck with a tax return that annually kicked me while I was down. So the hard times didn’t vanish with a clearer understanding of God’s character. But I began to see that even when every day wasn’t a Friday, I was still loved. Struggle did not equal punishment. This grace retooled the way I saw the world: if God was for me, even the IRS couldn’t be against me!

And, over half a decade, life began to change: I reclaimed my faith, found my future husband, and made a home in the city. After a while I strutted confidently around town, owning Fifth Avenue–okay, lower Fifth Avenue–and by owning, I mean occasionally popping into J Crew and buying items off the sale rack. My fiance and I relocated to Cleveland–er, Atlanta, got married, and bought a house. Jabez would have been so proud. I figured that I had weathered a quarter-life crisis of faith, regained some lost footing, and was done with feeling lost and fearful. Cue the happy ending.

Then we had our first child.

I was wholly unprepared for the all-consuming guilt, love, ambivalence, and fear that accompany parenthood. It didn’t help that our son had to have two surgeries in two years related to spinal issues, or that he has been handed difficult diagnoses since, or that his one-year-old little brother is on track to beat him to talking. Any urban footing I had gained did not translate to this new terrain, where I once again felt disoriented and abandoned. 

But this time around, I knew that I wasn’t. But how to reconcile that faith to what I was experiencing? For me, that reconciliation occurred not in the form of self-help, or future-focused promises of prosperity, but in the poetic narrative of the Gospel. Grace told me that it’s possible for something to look hard but be beautiful. Love told me that my son did not happen, but was designed. Jesus showed me that life can look a lot like death. And I believe all that, I really do. I just wish I always lived like I did.

d2f1ac5265494aaf1a5cd8bbc5a775afBecause ideally, I would cling to grace every moment; let it penetrate every part of my being until I am a flawless monument to the good news that saved me. I would wash each baby bottle with a beatific smile on my face, joyfully wipe down the kitchen every night, and utter words of perfect support and praise to my husband and children. In reality, though? You’re more likely to find me gritting my teeth on the bathroom floor, wondering where my dignity went, as a defeatist inner monologue rolls across the reel in my head–thoughts equating my role as wife and mother to modern-day slavery; moments of feeling that my graduate degree renders me “better than this.” I conclude my one-woman show (tentative title: Woe Is Me: A Tale of Answered Prayers and Realized Dreams) most evenings with the curtain call: sighing so loudly at my husband that the walls shake. I mean, how hard is it to use a coaster?

This is ugly stuff. This is not a whitened grin on the cover of a bestselling book. This does not feel enlarged or pain-free or sanitary. And it certainly doesn’t feel graceful.

Lowered to the height of a child’s bare butt, I feel my efforts to preserve grace falter. I reach the end of myself. Which is, of course, where the real story begins. Even my story isn’t about me, because the light falls through the window and, completely apart from my willful pride, I am reminded that Jesus washed feet. That he was born an interruption in a trough. Is this really where God shows up–on dirty floors and in graceless moments?

Water always flows downward, ready to fill.

This is the story that holds all others, that makes all others–including mine–retellings. This is the narrative arc, divinely writ: sacrifice begets life. Struggle and joy are not mutually exclusive but deeply intertwined: in the garden. Upon the cross. At a tomb. On my bathroom floor. The apparent messes of life are the birthplaces of resurrections. My best story is a fragment ensconced in the best story: one that is happening now, and not yet, and always. And here I’ve been expecting a happy ending to look like the crossing of a finish line or the summiting of a mountain, singular and victorious. Instead, I consider–a little more today than yesterday, by the grace of God–that I’m not being debased here, but plunged ever deeper into that bottomless grace.

And so bullet points become plot points, prayers become romantic whispers, uncertainty becomes adventure–not waiting banana peels. God is an earthquake, and his favor more often looks like a hard rain than a private jet, because in this kingdom it’s not escapes but deluges that lead to new life. Former plans are deconstructed in favor of the narrative that’s meant to endure. 

Our older son is going through a period of wanting someone beside him as he falls asleep. How inconvenient this is for me at the end of a long day, when all I want is a hot bath, a thirty-minute comedy, and a chapter in my current chick-lit book. Bullet points one, two, and three. Instead, he signs “more Mommy. ” I breathe in the scent of him, the body I just washed, and I tell him the story of when he was born. Later, maybe I’ll tell myself the one about when his dad and I met, back when coasters didn’t even matter. The same old stories somehow making everything new. My best life, now–and always still coming.