Several years ago an online magazine asked that question. It was inspired by a possibly legendary challenge posed to Ernest Hemingway to write a six-word story that resulted in the classic “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
The magazine was flooded with so many responses that the site almost crashed, and the responses were eventually turned into a book. Not Quite What I Was Planning is filled with six-word memoirs by writers “famous and obscure.” The memoirs range from funny to ironic to inspiring to heartbreaking:
- “One tooth, one cavity; life’s cruel.”
- “Savior complex makes for many disappointments.”
- “Cursed with cancer. Blessed with friends.” (This one was written not by a wise, old grandmother but by a nine-year-old boy with thyroid cancer.)
- “The psychic said I’d be richer.” (Actually, this author might be richer if she stopped blowing money on psychics.)
- “Tombstone won’t say: ‘Had health insurance.’”
- “Not a good Christian, but trying.”
- “Thought I would have more impact.”
The challenge of the six-word limitation is its demand to focus on what matters most, to capture briefly something of significance. Winston Churchill once sent a dessert pudding back to the kitchen because “it lacked a theme.” I don’t want my life to be like Winston’s pudding.
It is striking to think about what the characters of Scripture might write for their six-word memoirs. I think they would revolve around the intersection of the story of that person’s life with God’s story. They would all be inspired by a divine opportunity that God had set before them and the response —the yes or no —that shaped their lives.
- Abraham: “Left Ur. Had baby. Still laughing.”
- Jonah: “‘No.’ Storm. Overboard. Whale. Regurgitated. ‘Yes.’”
- Moses: “Burning bush. Stone tablets. Charlton Heston.”
- Adam: “Eyes opened, but can’t find home.”
- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: “King was hot. Furnace was not.”
- Noah: “Hated the rain, loved the rainbow.”
- Esau: “At least the stew was good.”
- Esther: “Eye candy. Mordecai handy. Israel dandy.”
- Mary: “Manger. Pain. Joy. Cross. Pain. Joy.”
- Prodigal Son: “Bad. Sad. Dad glad. Brother mad.”
- Rich Young Ruler: “Jesus called. Left sad. Still rich.”
- Zacchaeus: “Climbed sycamore tree. Short, poorer, happier.”
- Woman caught in adultery: “Picked up man, put down stones.”
- Good Samaritan: “I came, I saw, I stopped.”
- Paul: “Damascus. Blind. Suffer. Write. Change world.”
“Not quite what I was planning” is the six-word memoir any of them could have written. In none of these cases would these characters have been able to predict where their lives would take them. They were interrupted. They were offered an opportunity or threatened by danger or both. This is how life works. We are neither the authors nor the pawns of our life stories but rather partners somehow with fate or destiny or circumstance or providence. And the writers of Scripture insist that, at least sometimes, in at least some lives —in any lives where the person is willing —that unseen Partner can be God.
Often in the Bible these opportunities seem to come in unmistakable packages. A burning bush. A wrestling angel. Handwriting on the wall. A fleece. A voice. A dream. A talking donkey like in Shrek.
But there is another picture of God-inspired opportunity sprinkled across Scripture that is easier for me to relate to. It is a picture of divine possibility that still comes to every life. It is a picture I have loved since my college professor Jerry Hawthorne introduced it to me:
To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: “These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” (Revelation 3:7-8, emphasis mine)
A door, Dr. Hawthorne said, is one of the richest images in literature. It can mean safety (“my door is chained and locked”) or hiddenness (“no one knows what goes on behind closed doors”). It can mean rejection (“she shut the door in my face”) or rest (young mothers’ favorite room is the bathroom, where they can close the door and be alone).
But in this passage a door means none of those things. Rather, it is an open door, symbolic of “boundless opportunities. Of unlimited chances to do something worthwhile; of grand openings into new and unknown adventures of significant living; of heretofore unimagined chances to do good, to make our lives count for eternity.”
An open door is the great adventure of life because it means the possibility of being useful to God. The offer of it, and our response to it, is the subject of this book.
God Can Open a Door for Anybody
John Ortberg, All the Places to Go . . . How Will You Know? God Has Placed before You an Open Door. What Will You Do? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2015).
We have just released a new Bible study on topic of God’s Will.
These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.
Lesson #1: God’s Will and My Will
Roman 11.33 – 12.2; Ephesians 1.4 – 9
Lesson #2: God’s Will and God’s Refreshing Word
Psalms 19.7 – 14
Lesson #3: God’s Will and the Holy Spirit
1 Corinthians 2
Lesson #4: God’s Will and the Church
1 Corinthians 12
Lesson #5: God’s Will and Circumstances
Romans 8.26 – 32
Lesson #6: God’s Will and the Glory of God
John 11.1 – 4, 38 – 45