“Mom,” she asks, “What happens next in the story?”
I’m distracted, brushing my teeth, checking the clock. I realize that we only have 5 minutes before we need to leave for church. It takes more than 5 minutes to strap three kids into the car. At least, it does if one of those kids is a two-year-old who processes every instruction as an opportunity to run and hide.
“What story?” I ask.
“You know. The story at church. What happens after Christmas? What happens with Jesus?”
I rinse my mouth and give her a look of confusion. She says, “You know, the story! The angels and the stable and the star. What happens next?”
Finally, I understand her question, but I fumble for an answer. I may have an advanced degree in stories (I’m an expert! An authority!), but it only takes a child’s simple question to deflate those ego-balloons.
“Ummm … well … Jesus grows up. Then he starts teaching and performing miracles.”
Even I know my answer isn’t quite adequate, but the girl is thoroughly unconvinced. She huffs and rolls her eyes, and I know she thinks I still don’t understand.
But, I do. I do.
I know that it takes readers years to learn and even more years to appreciate that stories are not simply the sum of their plot developments. You could summarize a book by Agatha Christie and one by Virginia Woolf in the same number of sentences, but which summary would leave the most unsaid? You don’t need to have read Mrs. Dalloway to know the answer, I think.
“What happens next?” is not the only question we should ask. Why and how may be even more important.
I understand that my daughter, a new reader, is looking for excitement. We’ve had the star and the stable, the angels and the shepherds. What’s next? What’s next? Keep it coming! Keep it coming! Or, as her five-year-old brother might say, “Is there another picture in this book?”
We do get a few pictures between Christmas and Easter. Fishes and loaves. A broken jar of perfume. A man high up in a tree. Still, they aren’t quite as stunning as that stable or that cross. Neither the beginning nor the end, this is merely the hum-drum middle, right?
I’m not so sure. The middle may be less of a set-piece, less likely to be carved in wood or clay, but it’s the part that gives me the most hope for my day-to-day.
We live most of our lives in the middle. Between set-pieces. The funeral. The child’s birth. The phone call. The move. Those things happen, and they look like peaks and valleys as we glance back in time, but we mostly live in the in-between.
Jesus breaking bread. Jesus talking. Jesus healing. Jesus praying. That’s what the middle looks like. It’s beautiful and breath-taking in its own way. We only need to slow down enough to see it.
It’s like I always told my students when they first read Virginia Woolf. “Don’t rush. Take your time,” I would say. “If you hurry through only looking for what happens next you’ll turn the final page and realize that you’ve missed the story.”
I don’t want to miss the story. I want to live it.