On June 24th, millions of British citizens woke up to the unexpected news that their country had voted to leave the European Union. Google reported that searches for "what happens if we leave the EU?" flooded in that morning. No one thought it could actually happen. People were shocked.
On November 8th, millions of Americans stayed up to watch Donald Trump take the stage and thank his supporters for a campaign victory. Nobody saw it coming. The Donald looked as surprised as anyone.
Stunned sports fans watched the Chicago Cubs win the World Series for the time in nearly a century, the Cleveland Cavs win their first NBA championship in a half-century, and the New England Patriots win their 5th Super Bowl in a first-ever overtime. Unlikely victories against all odds. Even movie fans were picking their jaws up off the floor as La La Land won, then lost the award for Best Picture at this year's Oscars.
Every one of these events had high stakes, winners and losers, fans and haters. Some of us were thrilled. Others were crushed. But everyone was caught completely off guard.
In storytelling, we have a name for this kind of disruption. It’s called an inciting incident. In other words, “What. Just. Happened?” An inciting incident is what nobody saw coming, the kind of news that disrupts normal life and immediately throws it into conflict. A phone call, an eviction notice, a spouse asking for a divorce, a devastating diagnosis. It often prompts spiritual questions. "I thought God was good. What did I do to deserve this? Now what?"
When I was in college, my boarding house caught fire one morning and I barely escaped with my life. I was grateful to survive, but the weeks and months that followed set me on a painful journey that changed my life forever. I discovered who God really was and I grew so much spiritually. But I hated it and it hurt. And it wasn’t anything I would have ever asked for at the time.
Stories are about how people walk through their "now what" situations. And one of the reasons why this resonates so powerfully is that we’ve all been there. Pain, worry, disappointment, weakness, failure - none of it’s comfortable to talk about, especially in church. But when we see pain in someone’s else’s story, we know what exactly they’re talking about.
Over time, I’ve learned how important it is to lean into these “now what” moments. Part of our task as storytellers is to embrace the ache, the discomfort of not knowing how things will work out. We have to share real questions, real doubts and uncertainty about God in these moments. We have to be brought to the end of ourselves, unable to fix anything. This is where God does His best work.
Our stories will ring true if they’re told honestly. Don’t skip ahead to the happy ending too quickly, or your audience will mistake hope for hype. Linger in the unresolved conflict, in the mess. It’s where most of us live. And it’s in our “now what” moments that we need to be reminded that God is faithful and powerful and good - because He is.