Ever found yourself carried on the capricious winds of circumstance? Ever feel as though your life is a whimsical feather blowing aloft above the treetops where you might land – who knows where?
Life is a like a box of chocolates, mind you, no telling what you might get. Maybe it’s as simple as being in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time, or meeting someone who steers you in a new but unpredictable direction.
As meaning-making people, we choose the hermeneutical key to interpret these events to suit our need for meaning.
We call these events luck (good or bad), fate, free will, God’s will or even God’s reward or God’s punishment.
Often, our lives are given direction by the mystery of what Robert Johnson calls the “slender threads” that occur. The slender threads are any unplanned gift or curse of circumstance that alters the trajectory of your life.
Slender threads are the counter-melody to your wish to intentionally direct your path through the decisions you make, or they are the steps you take meant to create and control your future.
Slender threads are those happenstances you don’t control but that control you.
Even though we think it’s our willful determination that guides our lives, life has another wisdom afoot and we are somehow inspired, guided or managed (even mismanaged) by unseen forces outside our control.
Even though we exert our free will and make plans and set goals and proceed with full confidence as though we are in control, it also seems true that there is a larger hand at work in directing us through life.
Call it fate or blind luck, call it destiny or call it the hand of God. Call it what you will, but know, slender threads are at work bringing coherence and continuity to our lives and over time they weave a remarkable tapestry.
As fate would have it, the brothers spotted a group of wandering traders headed south toward Egypt. They flagged the caravan down and cut a deal for 20 pieces of silver to sell Joseph off for the slave markets in Egypt.
It wasn’t the intended death penalty, but it was the price Joseph paid for all the little acts of favoritism they resented since Rachel had given birth to this little late-life favorite.
When Joseph was hauled out of the pit, his life was spared. And in that slight turn of the story, everything changed.
All of us are brought into the story knowing a delicious irony that the lives of Jacob and the 11 brothers had been spared as well.
The phrase, “as fate would have it,” is a robust way of observing that sometimes we twist and turn on the events that occur in our lives recognizing that sometimes they are good events and sometimes they’re tragic.
But on occasion, more often than we can know, even the tragic events have a tendency to act positively in our regard. Isn’t that how life turns for us as well?
Sometimes, we make the smallest imperceptible turn and our lives are spared. A job is offered, or a job is taken away.
We get a phone call and with it our lives are changed. Inexplicably, our lives take a turn here or a twist there, and the arc of our lives unpredictably shifts and twists in a new direction.
In her book, “God’s Medicine,” Barbara Brown Taylor tells us that providence “is not about God’s will overriding our own. It is more like a dance, a mysterious dance that takes place between God’s freedom and our freedom, between God’s will and our own.”
In this dance, it is not God’s job to keep bad things from happening. They do happen: Brothers turn against brothers. People are bought and sold. Famine devastates the land.
Are fate and whimsy merely the shallow end of the pool in the absence of seeing how God is involved in our lives?
God’s job is not to prevent bad things from happening or to make good things happen.
God’s job is to stay present in our lives, creating whole worlds out of total chaos, breathing life into piles of dust, taking the unfathomable wreckage of our lives and making something fresh and new out of them.
In the story of Joseph, we see how through what can be described as fate, fortune, luck, whimsy, mysterious dance, slender threads or providence, we are invited to make meaning of events, both tragic and deliriously happy.
As people of faith, perhaps we can have the courage to pull the curtain back from it all and recognize that “the larger hand” is God working with the stuff of our lives.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Herron’s book, “Living a Narrative Life: Essays on the Power of Story” (Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2019). It is used with permission. The book is available here.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).