The Tear in the Narrative

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Daniel Chaffin is an Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Nebraska Kearney. He is a former bishop and loves backpacking, pickleball and is an aspiring foodie.

It was the day of my dissertation defense. I dressed in my best suit and strode into the Brick University Building early in the morning. I have always been an above average student – not remarkable, but above average and I felt cautiously optimistic. I had done my homework and prepared strategically. I sent multiple drafts of the dissertation proposal to my chair and my final draft to my committee, refined and perfected my PowerPoint slides, and brought food. As it was customary for a PhD student to feed his committee, both physically and intellectually, I was not going to disappoint on either front. I brought fruit, juice, coffee; I even brought spinach quiche. While there were some technical challenges as I skyped in an offsite committee member, it was nothing I couldn’t handle.

As I started my presentation, the members of the committee began firing questions at me. Undeterred, I channeled my rigorous training as I formulated my responses and presented my case with vigor. Passionate in my delivery, I felt compelled, almost possessed with a sense of urgency to do this research. The committee appeared unmoved by my fervency and the questions came like arrows. At the end of the presentation, I left the room, a little shaken, and the committee began their deliberations. As I walked to my shared office, I wondered what the committee would decide. I acknowledged that I was a novice in preparing and presenting a dissertation proposal; however, I also knew that, in the past, if I worked hard and did what was expected, my academic life worked out.

I was invited back into the room and, with some trepidation, my advisor delivered the news. I had failed my dissertation proposal. Later I was informed that I was the first student in recent memory of the program to do so. When they stated I needed a new topic, new theory, new method, and a new proposal, I realized that the months of writing and rewriting were a total loss. There was nothing to salvage.

This could not be happening. This was not who I thought I was. This was not my plan.

As everything I knew about myself was challenged, the experience was utterly disorienting. Much of my pain came from how this experience challenged my understanding of myself as a conscientious student, valued employee, and potential professor. My emotions were intense and ranged from shame and embarrassment to fear and anxiety. I was a husband, father of five children and the primary breadwinner. The story I had laid out for my education was imploding. I had left a lucrative job to go back to graduate school and I didn’t see any way out except to try to find a way to regroup, write a new proposal and graduate as soon as possible.

The next weekend was a scout camp out. As the scoutmaster, I took the boys out on a frigid Friday evening. We started a blazing fire and I gave a short message about baptism and rebirth. I then handed each scout a stack of drafts of my old dissertation proposal. The file, over 2 inches thick, was distributed among the young men. To me, it felt essential to memorialize the loss as I tried to embrace a new future, as I wrote a new proposal. We burned every sheet, and, while the boys were genuinely unaware of what this meant and giggled and got distracted as the pages were consumed by the heat, they tried to respect my loss.

In my mind, I imagined myself as the protagonist in my story with the plotline narrative for my PhD pretty well laid out. I would do the coursework, get an advisor, write about a topic interesting to me, revise according to their suggestions, and things would go my way. I imagined my life described like the biographies I read, that the seeds of success were planted in the beginning. There would be setbacks and challenges along the way with an overarching theme of redemption. Failing my dissertation proposal was painful, but coming to grips with my PhD program not conforming to my tidy narrative was agonizing.

* * *

I think Jesus gets it. If anyone on Earth had a narrative written for his life, it was him. For centuries, the Jews repeated the refrain, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).”

As a good Jew, Jesus heard the stories. He learned of the Messianic expectations.

During his ministry, Jesus built a following, He fulfilled many of the Messianic prophecies to teach, heal and raise the dead. Surely there were conversations with his family and friends about how his miraculous birth and compassionate ministry were just a taste of the glorious power that was to come. Perhaps, in the midst of these exuberant conversations, Jesus imagined the good he could accomplish throughout his life, the impact he could have on humanity if he exercised political power? Perhaps Jesus himself hoped to literally fulfill the narrative so many envisioned.

Just as my narrative came apart the day of my dissertation defense, the Messiah narrative collided with reality when Jesus took his disciples to the upper room for the Passover. Jesus confronted the reality of a traitor and then broke the bread and shared the wine with his remaining disciples and they made their way to the garden.

While we accept Jesus knew something of his divinity when he went into the Garden, we also accept something happened there that surprised him. Perhaps he knew he would suffer and die and his earnest prayer was the result of physical pain beyond what he expected. Or perhaps he entered expecting his life would match the prophesied narrative of King of Kings. Maybe Jesus hoped he would be spared like Isaac. Perhaps, in the Garden, Jesus came to grips with the awful reality that his life would not be a story of great political triumph; instead, it would end with his own ignominious death.

If Jesus’ thoughts and emotions in the Garden were similar to mine during the dissertation devastation, they would go something like this, “I have tried so hard to be good, I have genuinely sought to do right in my life. I have won the hearts of those I love and we are all expecting something much different from my life. How can anything good come from a life so opposite from what we all expect?” How can I find love, meaning and belonging when my life tears apart all of my long held expectations?

James Talmage suggests Jesus’s body was torn in the Garden. That under the weight of this emotional turmoil, he suffered a heart rupture. In addition to the unimaginable emotional burden, Talmage argues that Jesus’ body was literally torn by the experience in Gethsemane. Torn again when the spear pierced his side as an act of finality that he would not be the storied political leader in this life. The tearing of his body then may have been a symbol of the tearing of his narrative.

* * *

It seems appropriate that just prior to Jesus having to face this brutal experience he shared the sacrament with his apostles. He broke the bread and shared the wine. Even today we tear bread as a part of the sacrament ordinance rather than serving crackers or neatly cutting the bread. Just like Jesus, we allow disciples to witness the tearing of the bread. The torn bread may not just be about the life of Jesus and his own torn narrative. It may also symbolize you and I.

Paul suggested that groups of saints can rightly be described as the body of Christ. Perhaps that white Wonder bread that is placed carefully on the tray is a symbol of our collective narratives. The unscathed bread could be the sterile, whitewashed and yet fervent personal narratives we expect from our lives. We bring them to church just like the teachers bring the bread. We lay them on the altar of the sacrament table and then we watch and even sing praises to God as they are torn into small pieces and carefully passed to each member in the congregation. When it is our turn, we look at the shreds of bread, the shreds of our narratives, and we eat it. We break our stories into digestible morsels and swallow them up.

It seems appropriate that the sacrament bread is torn by teenagers. (They may be the very teenagers that are tearing up our narratives.) It might feel less ironic if the sacrament was prepared by a 75-year-old apostle, then we might believe that it really is God that is ripping up our narratives and giving us a new life. In the sacrament, we yield our narratives to God in the form of a child.

After the torn bread, what of the water and wine? If I had been Jesus in the Garden, I think I would have said something like, “Really Father? This is how it is going to end? I have won the hearts of the people, challenged the established church hierarchy, healed and fed the hungry, and I’m just going to die?” But I didn’t write the script and Jesus didn’t say that. Our record shows that he said, “Let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” The cup has a rich history in Hebrew culture and particularly with the Passover. The basic gist has to do with the cup being our fate. Jews drank at the Passover as a symbol of accepting their fate. Jesus’ body was torn as he let go of his narrative and then he drank his cup. He accepted his fate.

Almost entirely alone, Jesus agonized over the end of his narrative. While he writhed on the ground in his own blood, sweat and tears, his disciples were overwhelmed with their own exhaustion. No mortal could find it in themselves to truly witness. This may be why, each week, we seek to witness this suffering. We have let the priesthood, a symbol of God, tear up the narratives of our lives just as Jesus was torn. After we chew and swallow we wash it all down by drinking our fate. We choose to embrace the real over our narratives. We choose to accept our lives as God gives them rather than our self-concocted stories.

Then comes the miracle. There are many remarkable political rulers who remain unknown to most of the world. Had Jesus’ life fulfilled the narrative we might not be talking about him today. By surrendering to the real, to the life his Father was giving him, Jesus transcended mortality. He truly became a Savior to mankind.

Jesus showed us the way. His own life showed that Jesus’ personal righteousness could not corral his life to match the expected narrative. Similarly, my belief that my hard work would make my academic life work out was unfounded. Personal righteousness does not bless us with a cleaner life story. Just ask Abraham, Job, Lehi or Joseph. There probably isn’t a law irrevocably decreed in heaven that if you stay worthy of a temple recommend that you will live a life of simple elegance.

* * *

After the campfire, I tried to be like Jesus by accepting my fate. On Monday, I dressed in khakis and a polo and returned to my shared office at the business building. Sitting at my desk, I dug deeper into the literature and started developing a new dissertation proposal. An idea began to form which I knew would require substantial data collection, theoretical development and time, and I braced myself for the road ahead. Then a professor and coauthor on another project came and asked me about my progress. I told him what I was reading and the options as I saw them. He responded by saying, “Daniel, why do you always have to choose the most difficult possible path? Why don’t we just take this project we are currently working on and make it into your dissertation?” Initially, I baulked at such a straightforward solution. Shouldn’t a dissertation be more complicated? Am I losing my own impact on my academic life if my dissertation is so opportunistic?

After some surrendering, that is exactly what we did. In short order, I was back in front of a new and supportive committee and six months later I walked up on the stage to receive my diploma. What I needed was right in front of me. For me, salvation in my PhD program was in accepting as Wendell Berry put it, “what I need is here.” Jesus had to lay down the messiah narrative to pick up life as his Father was creating it. As it turned out, God’s messy reality is exactly what the world needed. Jesus by accepting life exactly as God gave it, blessed all mankind.

When Jesus is asked, “what hast thou done?” he replies, “to this end was I born, for this cause came I unto the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.”

Christ came to show us life.

*Photo by Phil Henry on Unsplash

 

 

Comments

  1. Your thoughts on children tearing the bread and the meaning of drinking from the cup were very meaningful to me. Thanks for a beautiful article!

  2. Nice. I hope you’ve since had the chance, or will have the chance, to rescue the good parts of that original proposal and make something of them.

  3. This is beautiful. As a PhD candidate, a husband, and father, with an approaching thesis defense, I really connected as I read this. Thank you.

    My favourite part was “We have let the priesthood, a symbol of God, tear up the narratives of our lives just as Jesus was torn. After we chew and swallow we wash it all down by drinking our fate. We choose to embrace the real over our narratives. We choose to accept our lives as God gives them rather than our self-concocted stories.”

  4. And I recognize the bite in this line: “There probably isn’t a law irrevocably decreed in heaven that if you stay worthy of a temple recommend that you will live a life of simple elegance.”

  5. Thank you for this powerful sacrament meditation. “When it is our turn, we look at the shreds of bread, the shreds of our narratives, and we eat it. We break our stories into digestible morsels and swallow them up.”

    As I looked at the shreds of bread today I was afraid to take one, afraid to think how God might shred my narrative. Then I felt the answer, “I already did.” I remembered the life of my severely disabled son, the continual shredding of the dreams about what my child might have been, and the eventual swallowing and accepting the reality of what was. Accepting the life that God gave me has not been smooth, but neither have I had to do it alone.

  6. There is something so neat about lds graduate students. In this example, the author’s whole life is turned upside down and he is certainly reeling. And what is he doing the next weekend? Sitting around a campfire trying to fulfill his calling. Beautiful.
    Thanks for sharing.

  7. This is fantastic. Thank you. “What I need is here.”

  8. Beautiful symbolism, thanks for sharing.

  9. Wait, are members allowed to serve non-members WoW-forbidden drinks? I know they (I quit the Church last year) obviously can’t drink them themselves, but is there anything in there about serving them to a non-member?

  10. Loved seeing the final version of this published. Really insightful. A beautiful way of approaching the divine. Can’t wait to read the next chapter of this :)

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