Derek Webb’s Sickness / My Gain

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Last week I benefited from Derek Webb’s sickness.

Derek lost his voice and had a fever and hives and seven corns on the knuckles of his toes. Everything in that last sentence but the part about the loss of his voice is conjecture on my part. Anyway, Derek wasn’t able to do a show with Don Miller at the last minute and was kind enough to suggest that I fill in for him. I had a great time. The audience was gracious even though they were expecting someone shorter and balder with a cooler voice, and after my set I was able to listen to Donald Miller speak for about an hour about Story.

That this was the subject of Don’s talk was fortuitous because on the three hour drive to Memphis for the show I had a lot of time to think about Story, partly because of a great phone conversation during the drive with a writer friend of mine, and partly because I’m in the thick of book two of the Wingfeather Saga. Story as an art form has always fascinated me, and now that I’m cutting through the brush of my second book I’m even more fascinated (and more than a little intimidated) by it.

Michael Card asked me a few weeks ago what God taught me during the writing of my book, and the first thing that popped into my mind was this: there’s no story without conflict. If I want my main characters to learn something, to change into something more and better than they were at the beginning of the story, then I’m going to have to put them through the fire. One author said that in a good story you chase your character up into a tree, then you throw rocks at him. The only way for Janner Igiby to grow, to become who I intend for him to be, is to ruin his life as he knows it. I don’t think I need to point out how much bearing this has on my life and how I view my journey as a follower of Christ. If I trust that God is good and that he is making me into something unimaginably beautiful then it changes the way I see my troubles. They’re no longer sent from Heaven to torment me, but to make me new.

I could go on, but Don Miller says it much better than I, and he also talks about several other aspects of Story and what we have to learn from it. Here’s a link to an mp3 of Don’s talk on story, delivered at Mars Hill Bible Church.

What do you think?

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


18 Comments

  1. Matt McBrien

    I think I wish I’d been there. Really wanted to go, couldn’t get the time off to drive two states away. 🙁

  2. Leigh McLeroy

    I totally agree that without conflict you don’t have much of a character, or a story. Weird timing: last weekend in Florida I spoke about this very topic! I highly recommend the book I hear Don talking about at least a little – Story, by Robert McKee. It came out over a decade ago and is still in print, never went to paper. I used two quotes from it in my talk, called “The Plot Thickens: Following your story’s twists and turns.” They were these: “Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict,” and “Conflict is to storytelling what sound is to music.” To illustrate, I used four movies (Sound of Music, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Terminal and Henry V) plus three “conflicted” stories from scripture: the annunciation (an unexpected assignemnt), the death of Lazarus (an untimely delay), and Jesus in Gethsemane (an unbearable burden). Not exactly “Your best life now,” I know. I’ve been exploring (wrestling?) this concept for a long time – including a chapter in my book, The Beautiful Ache, about “sticking with the story” even when you’d rather close the book and quit. Because sometimes you can’t – and you’re better for it. I can’t wait to read what others have to say about this…and I’m sorry to hear about Derek’s corns. And hives. And all that other stuff that only added to the conflict…and made a richer story :^)

  3. Gaël Cosendai

    Thanks Andy for this beautiful analogy. This raises back one of my haunting questions…In the goal of making a good story, I understand conflict is necessary, because “happy people have no stories”: there must be challenges if we want to experience the thrill of victory. But when it comes to real life, I must admit I don’t know how to deal with the idea of “educational troubles”, though I do learn from troubles. I can’t picture myself putting my kids into troubles because it will make them grow. It would be interesting to imagine the conversation Janner Igiby would have with his Maker if he saw him ruining his life! 🙂 I guess troubles is the very area where we are reaching the limits of our human understanding of God, and where we have to trust Him whatever we see…

  4. Chris

    (Kicking self BIG time) Mars Hill is literally 3 miles from my house and I wasn’t there!!! Uggggh…I hadn’t heard of the event at all!! (kicking self again…much harder this time)

  5. Taran

    Andrew,

    Let me say first that I appreciate the analogy of writing and the connection you make between the act of creating a character and the act of creating a soul. But your post title hints at a complication that you don’t develop. Your title raises the issue of when another suffers and I benefit from their suffering.

    I think most of us can relate to the fact that we must suffer for our own improvement. (Lewis, among others, taught us that). We must work out for stronger muscles, practice scales in order to improve our performances, etc. In “Darkness,” Janner and Leeli encounter obstacles that lead to growth. But the bigger theological challenge is when we benefit from another’s suffering. I can see how I grow stronger from overcoming sickness, but why must my daughter suffer for my improvement? Not to put too fine a point on it, but how does Derek feel that his (probably mild) throat pain benefitted you?

    How does it feel when a loved one dies and someone else comes up and tells you that they admire your faithfullness in the presence of suffering? For some, it’s not worth much. (Although having said all that, I do understand that the central narrative of our faith is an innocent man suffering and dying explicitly for others.)

  6. Drew

    Thanks. Now Robert McKee’s “Story” is glaring at me from the shelf, angrily denouncing me for not having read it yet.

    Re: no story without conflict. . . .

    I spent about a decade a writing literature study guides that were marketed to Christian educators. The first time I spoke with an educator looking for conflict-free stories to give to her students, I was a shocked. How is it even possible to have a story free from conflict? The next few times I encountered a similar request, I was still mildly surprised. After that, it came as no surprise at all when some well-meaning Christian asked about books without conflict. (Thankfully, it was still a rare request.)

    I console myself by presuming that these people had little understanding of conflict. Then I recall the people who told me that all fiction was evil because it wasn’t true, and the Bible tells us to focus on what is true. (Insert long dissertation about “true fiction.”) Then I remember one person telling me how C.S. Lewis was sending children to hell because of his blasphemous Narnia books. And that makes me think that some Christians just shouldn’t be allowed near books at all.

    I can understand people wanting a life free of conflict, but (if lived right) the Christian life *is* conflict — a conflict between natures. And it’s through this conflict that we, paradoxically, grow as Christians.

    Flannery O’Connor wrote: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”

    The path of least resistance is a very dangerous one.

  7. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Loved your post, AP.

    Two statements of Joseph: Gen. 50:20, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”

    And
    Gen. 45:5, 8, “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life…So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God…”

    They did evil to him – but God intended it. Meant it. Purposed it. They chose evil; God knew they would choose it, and purposed that the evil would turn to great good.

    For every one of us – that’s the story of our lives, if we see it rightly (as God does).

    God works all things (not some things) after the counsel of His own will. He works all things (not some things) together for good that love Him.

    Our choice is to believe that, rely on it as Fact – or not.

    Norman Grubb said something like, “Life is not about what happens to you, but in how you take it.”

  8. Mike

    Well you could just re-read it “or” you could read it again. Really no reason to re-read it again.

    Where’s the edit button on this computer ; )

  9. elijah

    Chris, the talk Don Miller gave at Mars Hill was months ago, not recently with AP opening.

    That being said, Miller’s talk is fantastic. I listened to it as I drove through the pouring rain in eastern Kentucky, and I had to immediately listen to it again. I almost never do that with sermons. Miller’s central question of, “What kind of story are you telling with your life; what kind of story are you living in?” inspired me to make some daring and necessary changes in my life.

    Robert McKee’s (thick) book, Story, is also very good, and while it is focused on screenwriting, many of the principles of story telling he elaborates on apply across disciplines.

    One of McKee’s big points is that in a story there must be an ever widening gap between the protagonist’s expectations and what actually happens, forcing the character to make more and more dire decisions until he/she/it reaches a point from which there is no return. The book is a fascinating read.

  10. Rebecca LuElla Miller

    Gaël said: I can’t picture myself putting my kids into troubles because it will make them grow. And yet every parent does. At some point, instead of holding your toddler’s finger, you let go. And one day, a parent lets Junior go to camp or Sally sleep over at her friend’s house. Eventually adolescent Junior climbs behind the wheel of a car.

    Thing is, we don’t think of this as putting kids in the midst of troubles because we believe they are ready and able to handle the stumbles and bumbles and maybe even fender benders that will come their way.

    God, our omniscient Father, of course knows exactly what each of us needs and is ready for.

    Great post, Andrew.

    Becky

  11. Leigh McLeroy

    From G.K. Chesterton: “The thing that keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great, plain limitations, which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect.” (Goes nicely w/ Drew’s O’Connor quote re: electric blanket vs. the cross.)

  12. Nathan Bubna

    I haven’t listened to the linked talk yet, but i’ve heard Don talk on this a number of times, albeit not recently.

    The Story thing is great. I think it says a lot about God’s plan for this fallen world and our sanctification. I think it explains a lot about the way much of the Bible has been given to us.

    But considering this now, i can’t help but look to eternity and wonder where story fits. And i wonder whether it does at all. I know this is off-subject a bit, but i don’t see conflict (and therefore story) in the new heavens and new earth. Thankfully, i also don’t think story was ever necessary for beauty or joy, relationship or character, love or laughter. I’m not even sure it’s necessary even for all growth, just necessary for healing and cleansing. Story exists because we are broken. At its core, story seems to me about redemption, hope and faith. And not just any old redemption, but ours. And once redeemed, well… love is much bigger than we yet know.

  13. Peter B

    These are great thoughts… and I mean that in the true sense of the word “great”.

    Frankly, I’m a bit concerned. All this talk of conflict, having one’s life ruined to become what God wants us to be, etc. comes after our pastor’s first couple of sermons from James (still in early chapter 1). It makes me wonder if I’m being prepared to learn something, and the possibility is both frightening and intriguing.

  14. Stacy Grubb

    The Scripture that Ron referenced about all things working together for good for those who love God has long been a great source of comfort for me. Sometimes I find myself in such a mess that all I can do is focus on that Scripture and hold tight for the good part. The challenge is usually in keeping the faith that the good part is in fact coming. It’s great to know that there is a Reason behind every turn of events and that the good things that happen are no more or less random than the trials we go through.

    When I was growing up, I got myself in a lot of jams. Often, I’d go to my parents to bail me out only to be met with, “YOU got yourself into this, YOU get yourself out.” That was probably the right thing to do on their part. But it’s great to know that when I go to God, I can say, “I got myself into this and now I need You to get me out,” and He will. He always will. Not always the easy way because, as was said, just as fire purifies gold, the fires we go through in our daily lives will grow and strenthen our faith. It becomes easier to fall back on God when we can remember that one time He really turned a bad situation into a blessing. Every time we come out on the other end of the fire, our faith has been purified that much more.

    Sometimes I hear people say, “By the time it was all over, all I had to see me through was my faith and prayers,” and I think, “Well, good grief, what more could you need?” That’s like saying, “When I needed to call my friend, all I had to do it with was my telephone.” But I’m just as guilty as anyone of needing to hit rock bottom before realizing that I’m trying to solve a problem on my own. When all else fails (and all else always does), I turn to faith and prayers. I know that, until I figure it out that faith and prayers are my first and only resort, I will continue to go through fire after fire. Sometimes, I am so slow to be taught.

  15. becky

    “..and in your hands the pain and hurt look less like scars, and more like character.” Sara Groves

    Drew wrote: ”
    I can understand people wanting a life free of conflict, but (if lived right) the Christian life *is* conflict — a conflict between natures. And it’s through this conflict that we, paradoxically, grow as Christians.”

    The Bible says our enemy is a lion who is waiting for the opportunity to devour us. I can pretend the lion doesn’t exist, and teach my children that the lion doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t make it true. The only safety from the lion is to know it is there, take steps to avoid being caught by it, and learn how to fight it if it breaks through our defenses. Ignoring it or denying its existence is the most dangerous course of action.

    Regardless of what we may want the Bible makes it clear that we are in a war. We can ignore the war for a while, and I am often quite adept at this. But sooner or later the battle will come to us. Ultimately, the only reason we have any victory is because of the One who is fighting with us. And our safety is in taking refuge in Him. But He gives us small battles to fight inside the circle of his protection. God prepares us for battles by giving us weapons and armor and training in their use, giving us accounts of other battles to study and learn from, and by giving us experience in smaller, less difficult battles. Shouldn’t we be doing the same for our children?

    Obviously we want to raise children to be people who love and promote peace. We do not want to glorify violence, and we want to protect them from being exposed to more of the evil in the world than they can handle. But there IS evil in the world, and we need to prepare them to stand against it. If you cut out any story that contains violence or conflict, then how can you teach your child about Cain and Abel, Moses, Joshua, David, Daniel, Paul or Jesus? God specifically commands us to tell the next generation what he has done. We can’t tell of God’s deliverence of the Israelites from Egypt without talking about slavery, plagues, Passover and an army dying in the Red Sea. Or about salvation without talking about betrayal, fear, beating, and the most cruel death imaginable. We need to know our enemy and his tactics, and study ways that he has been defeated in the past. And maybe even engage in some mock (fictional) battle training exercises.

    I think it’s like teaching a child how to cross the street safely. We know that there will be times in their lives when streets will have to be crossed, so we prepare them for it. First, we carry them across the street. Then they are only allowed to cross when we are with them, holding their hand. Next, they can cross without holding our hand, but still only if we are with them. Then they can cross alone if we are watching them. And finally without us watching. And all this time we are teaching them to use the crosswalks, to look both ways, to know what the traffic lights mean, and to anticipate what cars might do so they can avoid walking out in front of them. Is crossing the street dangerous? Yes, but also sometimes necessary. And if we don’t prepare them for it we have failed them.

    So maybe the question when I face suffering should be, “What is my Heavenly Father preparing me for?”

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