Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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August 16, 2022

Tresta Payne

It’s 6 a.m. when I scrub the grill for the first time today, and my freshly washed hair already smells of sausage and bacon. I’ve been here an hour and once the coffee finishes its slow drip into the pot, we’ll be ready for customers. I will greet The Regulars, ask about their new tractor or the job interview or their garden, and try to guess what they might like this morning. 

I wish I had a sweet southern accent to go with all this hospitality, but I do not. I don’t even have a bubbly personality. I’m not naturally outgoing or effervescent, and of all the places I like to be at 6 a.m., in public is not one of them. 

I have traded slow mornings on the couch, in my pajamas, for 4 a.m. alarms and hard-pants. I’ve traded tutoring high school students through Shakespeare and the Iliad, for training employees on food safety and the proper way to make a sandwich. I cashed in on cleaning my house and instead I clean our store, and I buy groceries a thousand one-dollar bills at a time.

Last year I was making plans to write a book and re-landscape the backyard, to start running again and really finally fully get the attic cleaned out. 

This year, I’ve written an employee handbook and learned how to clean a commercial grill. 

I am not where I ever imagined I would be but I’m thinking about this plot-twist as I scrub the grill this morning, and I wonder if all our lives will just end mid-sentence, unfinished, headed somewhere but with no tidy conclusion and no actual clue when or if or why we’ll get what we planned for.

If I can be so far from where I imagined myself a year ago, is it possible that this time next year could be just as surprising? And that one day this earthbound portion of my life will end while I am mid-sentence with some other crazy plan or hope or dream? 

We are buying an old restaurant my in-laws have poured themselves into since 1982, and after 9 months spent polishing it up, it’s now the little market and deli where I spend my days. This new phase of life has me full of conflicting emotions: I am sad and deeply happy; confused and incredibly trusting; longing and completely content. There is so much goodness and peace mixed in with what I hesitantly call “suffering” in this new venture/new world/new economy—nothing is easy. But I am scrubbing the grill at 6 a.m. because I am making a Place of Peace, a Beth Shalom,  for the small world I live in. Believe it or not, I say to myself, coffee and biscuits and gravy and a few groceries are the common stuff of the Kingdom He is bringing.  

I am always convincing myself of things. 

In Genesis 28, Jacob slept on a rock in the desert and dreamed of a ladder— touching earth, reaching heaven—on which the angels of God traveled to and fro. God tells Jacob I am with you, I will keep you, I will bring you back. Jacob seems to be a conniving, lying, heel-and-blessing-grabbing brat at this point, taking his brother’s birthright by deceit, and yet God is with him, and Jacob declares that “This is none other than the house of God” (Gen. 28:17). Not that the ladder of his dream lead to God’s dwelling; not that heaven was God’s house. This place where a liar laid his head was the very place of God’s holy habitation, a place to dwell forever. 

God with us. This is what I think about at work—about God making a dwelling among the liar lying down in strange territory. I think about my own strange new world, my life interrupted, my whole existence being diverted like a stream in Jacob’s desert. I don’t know any other way to live except to make plans, but it’s like making plans is just a way to pass the time until God reveals the next centimeter in your 500 mile journey. 

Is that unfair? All I’m sure about centers around His being with me, so even when plans fail or drastically change, I am still one whom God is with. I can totally believe in a God who has bigger plans than I can see. I believe in a God who invites me to ask and believe even more than I can imagine is possible. But the way things play out still stuns me.

I am a store owner. An employer. A business-woman in over her head. And God is with me in all of it.

It’s my one full day off in the week and I have three plans: a long walk, weeding and mulching around the boxwoods at the store, and writing. I am mid-sentence with these plans when my husband looks at me sideways—Those are three big items for one small day, he says. He knows my ways and is trying to temper my enthusiasm with some reality. A million other things will cry out for my attention today and my Big Three may not fit in one Sabbath, but I am determined to try. Three things seems so small a goal, so realistic, but every one thing will bleed into several others and a day can be swept away with the unplanned and unexpected. Much like a life.

In A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle writes:

“I dont know what Im like. I get glimpses of myself in other peoples eyes. I try to be careful whom I use as a mirror: my husband; my children; my mother; the friends of my right hand. If I do something which disappoints them I can easily read it in their response. They mirror their pleasure or approval, too.” 

I don’t fully know what I am like. There are parts of me that don’t seem to go to together. I wonder if all the disparate parts will circle back to each other and maybe they are connected, after all, but I don’t know how to make sense of it. I don’t know if I am good at the things I enjoy or if I only enjoy the things I am good at, and I don’t know who I’ll be next. Can I look at God and see His pleasure or approval mirrored back?

I look back to just over a year ago and I had absolutely no idea, not the slightest inclination or inkling, that I would be where I am today. Two years ago, I didn’t know how much I would change. And so I wonder: how in the world do I even make plans in a world like this? I have a strong desire to insert expletives to express how completely disorienting this life is for me, but my better senses are still in order. 

Here are some other things I’m convincing myself of: 

I am a writer even when Im not writing, and years of working words into order has to somehow help in communicating with people—customers, co-workers—in real time.

I am a homeschool mom even when my last child basically teaches himself, and this really is the goal of every teacher: to lead others to their own two feet.

I am a homemaker even when my home seems undone and the only making that happens is of messes, and years of  making a home must help as I make a Beth Shalom for others.

I am a child of God and your sister in Christ, even though I’ve only been to church once this year. I can say my relationship with Christ has outgrown the walls of any building, but it is still true that I need the fellowship of the saints to keep me grounded and accountable. So I learn to be outgoing.

I am someone who can ask whatever I want or imagine from God, and someone about whom He cares enough to give me His best. God’s best—can you imagine that?

My question is how to stay whole, integrated, congruent in this life; how to see that my own identity has not actually changed?  I don’t know what I am like, but I know I am not bubbly and outgoing, not a business-person naturally, not great at leading people—and my new life requires me to have or learn or fake all these skills. 

“The revelation of God is whole 

and pulls our lives together.” 

Psalm 19:7 MSG

I feel the parts of me stacking up like well-read books, like related parts all in conversation but all separate, bound, layered. What are my giftings and talents? What are yours? And are those our only definitions of ourselves? How thick are the bindings that hold us into those definitions, and how crazy would it be to cut them all free and let them float loose-leaf until they settled into our true calling? 

Some parts of us would be lost in this metaphor. Some pages would be wounded in the unbinding, some sentences may be cut short by accident. But to be whole maybe might must involve being broken, if we take Jesus as our example. I am a grave, and Jesus keeps resurrecting what’s inside me, reassembling my parts, reordering me. I am a tomb and everyday I come to life again. I am a short story or a novel, but neither you nor I know the ending. 

The greatest part of this fallible metaphor—that we are housed in many books and called to put together a whole life from them—is that not many wise, mighty, or noble are called (1 Cor. 1:26), so I am perfectly qualified. Maybe to be called to something simply means to be with God as He is with us; to notice Him as we scrub the grill or add the numbers or make the sandwich. Of all the books available, I am free to choose—which is both frustrating and freeing, I suppose—but what is unfinished is being perfected, and what is interrupted is to be continued.

My life will surely end mid-sentence and I don’t know what kind of reading material it will make, but in the end it will all be bound up in Christ. Meanwhile, I just try to do whatever I do with Christ, dwelling in God’s house—which looks like an old restaurant and occasionally a forest trail and sometimes, a church. 

Featured image is courtesy of Tom Darin Liskey and used with his kind permission for Cultivating.


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  1. Barbara Jean Gravlee says:

    You put words together so beautifully, with such ease it seems. It makes me believe that the disparate pieces of my life really can come together and tell a story full of grace. I see grace in your story. Thank you for sharing today.

  2. Lori Harris says:

    I see you.
    I hear you.
    I feel every word.
    And I am with you, sojourning alongside you, from far away.
    Your words are a gift. Thank you.

  3. Laurie Klein says:

    Dear Tresta, your wry humor and candor and spirited prose laced with dismay as well as grace captivate this reader. Among all the hats you’ve worn, customized, over time, to your bowed head, please know the writer’s black beret still suits. Simply and superbly.

    I am so glad I read this essay, thank you.

  4. Melanie Rae says:

    Absolutely beautiful, my mind will wander back to your words for a long time to come. Thank you.

  5. Jonathan Taylor says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. It gives me both hope and longing that I can rediscover my ability to write, after leaving a patent law career for a day job that revolves around spreadsheets and an unending stream of decisions.

  6. Amy says:

    Ahh, you are so much a writer, as you wrap sandwiches and metaphors simultaneously. I enjoyed being along as you scrubbed and questioned, and I see myself in your account. I love the way you explore the unexpected and the interruptions as places of grace. Thank you.

  7. Cheryl says:

    Beautiful, and such great food for thought. Thank you for sharing. Life is certainly an adventure, especially as we follow Him!

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