Writing A Better Story

I have had a few people who couldn’t be there when I spoke at Amplify Youth Ministry a few weeks ago ask me for my notes, so today, I figured I would share them with you all who wanted them. I hope you enjoy 🙂

Tonight, we are going to talk about stories. We all like stories, don’t we? From fiction novels, to romance movies, to epic tales, stories are a part of who we are. Think about it. You see someone with a cast on their leg, what is the first thing you ask? “What happened?” in other words, tell me the story. Story is the language of the heart. Stories nourish us. They shed light on our lives. If you truly want to know someone, you have to know his or her story. You never feel closer to someone than that moment when they sit down and tell you about their past, where they are now, and where they want to go.

First, I want to start by saying that your life, is a story. There is no denying that. Each story is unique. Your story is not my story. My story is not Jonathan’s story. They may appear in my story, but it is not the same story, though we are all part of a larger story (we’ll get to that later) But the question I want to look at tonight and break apart is “Am I happy with the story I am living?”

Before I go too much further, I want to throw this out there, if you want to read more about stories and your life as a story, I’d recommend 2 books, one is a small, short book by John Eldredge called “Epic”. The other is a book called “A Million Miles in A Thousand Years” by Donald Miller.

Why write a better story for your life? If you are unhappy with your life, you already have a reason. But what if you are content with your life? Do you still need to write a better story? That depends on 3 things. 1) Is your story changing? Growing? Making you a better person? 2) Are you sharing your story with other people? 3) Is your story part of a larger story, of God’s Story?

If you answered “NO” to any one of those questions, then I would challenge you to look at the story of your life, and to write a better story…

This first one, “Is your story changing?” requires to you to ask a lot of questions of yourself, and to look at your past story. You have to look at where you’ve been, where you are, where you are going, who was major in your life then, who is now, and who might be in the future. You ask these questions of “what if I had taken a different path?” or “what if I hadn’t let that person get so close to me and influence me in such a big way?”. It requires a lot of thinking, and you have to be careful when you do a lot of thinking & looking at yourself, because we are our own worst critics, and when we do a lot of thinking we need people we trust near by to keep us in check and keep us from getting too down on ourselves. (more on the other people thing later)

So we want to live this better story.

However, to know that we have to change our path is very different from successfully changing our path. So how do we do this? How do I take what I want to do and make it stick? I mean, I’ve tried so many times to change but end up in the same spot. Paul talks about this in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people recently about where they are going. There is a time for waiting for God’s direction, and there is a time for acting and trusting that God will close the door if it’s not right. In fact, I think most of the time, God is either saying “Pick one, and I’ll bless it” or “pick one and I’ll tell you if it’s wrong. But do something!” Think of it as moving a rock. A big rock. Trying to move it is difficult. It’s easier to change the direction that rock is moving in once you have that rock moving, though it might take some time, or a lot of work.

You have to seize the opportunities that will change your life!

If your story is not the best it can be, then I would ask “what is your story right now?” Is it sitting on the couch, watching TV, letting life go by you? Think about a movie. You don’t want to watch a movie about a guy who wakes up, goes to a job, comes home, watches TV, goes to bed, and repeats. It’s boring. It’s meaningless.

In storytelling/writing/film, there is a term known as the “Inciting Incident”. An Inciting Incident is a doorway that a character is forced through and through which there is no return.  It makes the character take stock of their life and make a choice. The inciting incident will push the character into the story that is greater than themselves.

Usually the main character in a story is living a fairly boring, normal, life, until their inciting incident. Then they are faced with a choice, let it move them into a better story, one that is beyond themselves, or let it pass by, clean up the mess, and go back to their boring. meaningless. life.

Think of all of your favorite stories. Lord of the Rings. Star Wars. Braveheart. Gladiator. All of these have an inciting incident.

  • In Lord of the Rings, Frodo was given a ring. He didn’t ask for it, He didn’t want it, but the only other option was to be the cause for the end of the world. Inciting Incident.
  • In Star Wars, the only family Luke Skywalker had ever known was killed. Inciting Incident.
  •  Braveheart & Gladiator. William Wallace lost his wife. Maximus lost his wife and kid. Inciting Incident.
  • For you ladies, think about the chick flicks. A serious relationship ends. Or a cute boy (or girl) is introduced. Inciting Incident.

They had a choice. They could allow those events to pass them by, let their rock keep rolling the way it was, or they could do something about it. And to be honest, for most of them, it was scary. Frodo didn’t want to leave home. William Wallace just wanted to raise crops and, God willing, a family. This wasn’t what they planned for their life. It was scary for them to step out, but they did.

Jesus created a lot of these. A common question He asked others He met was some variation of “what do you want?” In other words, “I’m your inciting incident. This could change your life or pass you by, what do you want to do?”

Now probably none of us will have our families murdered by evil, oppressive governments, or be given a magical ring that we have to take to an evil land or risk the destruction of the world. But maybe your inciting incident is the loss of a job, a relationship ends, the loss of a friend.

My inciting incident came back when I was in boy scouts. When I first joined the troop, I was one of about 5 scouts that joined at the same time. When we first joined, the older scouts played a joke on us that we fell for, and ever since then they made fun of us with this phrase.

Fast forward about 2 years, and we were at scout camp. One of the younger scouts who had just joined that year heard the older scouts saying the phrase, and he probably didn’t know what it meant, or the story, and just figured he heard the older scouts say it, so therefore it must be cool to say. We were walking by a cabin on the last day of the week, and he said the phrase, not even to me, he just said it… And I lost it…

This is probably the lowest point of my life… I picked him up by his throat, held him about 6 inches off the ground, slammed him up against the cabin, and said “Don’t you ever f*cking say that again!”

I dropped him, literally just let go, and walked away. You see, I had let my anger control me there. During the whole situation, there was a part of me going “dude, what are you doing? You need to stop.” But I literally didn’t have control of my body at that point. That control belonged to my anger, not me. I knew I needed to do something. I had a choice. I could use it to begin to work through my anger issue, or I could clean up this little incident and go on living my life. Inciting incident.

So the first step is to seize the opportunity to make your story better, to seize that moment of your inciting incident.

The second step to changing your path/story is don’t do it alone.

The question that I usually end up spending the most time with as I look at my story is “What if I allow so-and-so know me better? What if I let them know every little part of me? How would my life change from here on out?” I once heard it said, “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.” What kind of story will your friends shape for you? Is that the story you really want for your life?

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12: 9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: 
10 If one falls down, his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! 11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? 12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Think back again to your favorite stories. Every one of those characters had someone with them. Frodo had Sam. Luke had Obi-wan and later Han Solo. William Wallace had his childhood best friend, Maximus had friends he made as a slave as well as his old servant from back when he was a general. This comes back to the “show me your friends and I’ll show you your future” thing. Each of those characters had friends with them. Friends they could trust. They could count on.

I have a lot of favorite quotes, as you’ll come to realize as you get to know me, and another one of those is this “A true friend knows the song in your heart and will whisper it back to you when you’ve forgotten.”

One of the best examples of this comes from the movie “The Lord of the Rings”

Sam knew the song in Frodo’s heart and could whisper it back to him when he had forgotten. Frodo had lost hope. He had forgotten why they were doing this. Sam reminded him that it was because they were fighting for the good that was still left.

Even Jesus didn’t try and do it on His own. He started his ministry and the first thing He did was to invite 12 guys to join him. And when you read through the bible, there are VERY few times that Jesus doesn’t have at least one of those 12 with him. When you act on your inciting incident, you will draw people in around you. And you should.

When my inciting incident hit. I couldn’t do it alone. Oh, I tried. I tried to do it alone at first, and I did ok… for a while…

God put a great couple of friends in my life. Friends who truly cared about me, and 3 of whom were some of my best friends at the time. Their names were Sam, Taylor (we called him Tay) and Scott. But I didn’t include them into my story, I didn’t let them join me in changing my path.

Fast-forward about 2-3 years from my inciting incident.

I lost my temper again. I was in class, and I don’t even remember what happened, but I do remember it ended with me throwing my calculator against the wall and storming out of the room. I was storming down the hallway and I passed Tay at his locker. He looked at me and said “what’s wrong Joel?” and I just looked at him, flipped him off and said “F*ck you Tay”. What the heck was that all about? Here is one of my best friends, who just wanted to know what was going on with me, and I flip him off and cussed at him.

The day ended with me in the principles office, it was a Tuesday, and I remember that because Tuesday was when we had Small Group (like a bible study). And since I didn’t drive at the time, I did what I usually did on Tuesday: I started walking to the Youth Pastors house. And it was a God thing that it was a Tuesday and I was already planning on walking, because if I hadn’t, I’m not sure where I’d be today without what happened next.

So I’m walking, and then from behind me I hear “JOEL!” I turn around and who do I see? Tay running towards me with Scott and Sam. Now you have to understand that Tay drove to school, so he was leaving his car at the school to walk with me. They came up to me and proceeded to ask about that day. And I tried so hard to push them away. But they didn’t let up. You see, they knew I couldn’t do it alone. They knew I needed people with me. I needed my Samwise Gamgee.

What about you? Are you inviting other people into your story?

So we first have to recognize the inciting incident and act on it, then we have to do it with friends.

Lastly, your story needs to be part of a greater story…

Does your life ever feel meaningless? Do you feel like, that while you do awesome things, it has no purpose? No meaning?

Has your life ever felt meaningful?

Think back to the moments when it felt like it had meaning. I would bet those were the moments when you did something that was larger than yourself. It was those moments when you realized that your story was not about you, but rather it was a part of a larger story, and there is no story greater than God’s story. This is a scary thing, because a God sized adventure is one that WILL fail unless God shows up.

If you do awesome things that make your life fun, but have no purpose behind it, then you won’t (or shouldn’t) be satisfied with it.

I work at The Family Center of Gap, we work to better the community, and most of what people see us do are the fun, public events. And they are, but the real purpose behind them is that it brings families together, and they help us build relationships with people, and it’s through those relationships that God will change people, and eventually the community. But bettering the community will not happen by our work alone. God has to show up. He has to open people up to talk to us, to trust us. You would be amazed at how quickly someone who you have known for 5 minutes will walk up and unload on you when you are sitting at the front desk and we have to trust that God will give us the words to say, if He doesn’t show up in those moments, we’re screwed. Our God-sized story of changing the community will fail.

Your story is meant to be part of God’s story. You were meant to shine. You may have heard it before, but there is this great quote by Marianne Williamson (often misquoted as being by Nelson Mandela) that goes like this:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” ~ Marianne Williamson

Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. Because you know what? When you begin to live showing the power that is not inside all of us, God has to show up for that power to show. And that is scary. So we’d rather not. We’d rather live as inadequate people. But that’s not how it’s meant to be. Your story is meant to be great, to shine bright. To be something that people talk for years to come.

And so every story needs someone to chronicle it, or it will be forgotten. And when a story is forgotten, it might as well never have happened. I’m not going to talk anymore about this because there is so much I could say about milestones, and markers, and keeping track that I could do a whole series on just that, so I’ll just quote Shawn Smucker on this: ”If you’re a writer, or a photographer, or an artist, or a musician, or a teacher, or a human being: preserve the stories.”

We are living a story. Don’t let your inciting incidents pass you by. Grab a couple of friends and let those incidences take you into a wild, exciting, story that is far better than you could have ever imagined! Make your story better, make it bigger, and make it count for something. Shine like the man or woman that God is molding you to be. Write a better story for your life.

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