The First Five Pages

Some years ago, when I was attempting to have a manuscript accepted for publication, someone suggested I read a book called The First Five Pages. In it, the author argues that when editors read manuscripts with an eye to publication, they typically read only the first five pages. If they are drawn in and captivated, they continue. If not, the manuscript goes on the ‘slush pile,’ and author is sent a rejection slip.

Today, I served at the funeral of a beloved parishioner, Theresia. Although I did not know her well, she was by my own limited experience and by the accounts of the many who attended the funeral, a remarkable person. Twelve years ago, she and her husband Kai took the bold and adventurous (and profoundly counter-cultural) step of joining the Orthodox Church, at a time of life when most people resign themselves to the ‘inevitable,’ and allow inertia to carry them into oblivion.

Not Kai and Theresia. In the twelve years of their life in the Orthodox Church, they captivated the hearts of their community. Long past their childbearing years, they became spiritual parents many times over. They opened their home and their hearts frequently to others, served the Church from the kitchen to the parish council to the building committee. In their autumn years, God gave them a springtime bloom that enriched and illumined the lives of everyone who knew them.

When Theresia got sick and died, it seemed premature because she had so much yet she could have done. That’s probably true. But I would suggest that our sense of an ‘incomplete life’ is simply the recognition that the ‘first five pages’ of Theresia’s life drew so many of us in, that we simply wanted it to go on and on.

Today, as we laid Theresia to rest, we also had to lay down the first five pages of her life. However, as the analogy implies, there’s more to come in Theresia’s story, as there is in the lives of all who follow Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul, speaking to the Thessalonians, testifies that “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14)

The testimony of the Apostles is that Jesus rose from the dead, and on that testimony—carried down to us in the stream of our tradition—we hang our hope that dying is ‘falling asleep,’ to be followed by ‘waking’ in the age to come.

The life we know now, of dust and shadows, may seem to have a biological beginning, middle, and end, but it is in fact just the first five pages. To borrow from the great C.S. Lewis, it is just the opening of a story that goes on forever, whose every chapter is better than the one that came before it…

Tempting as it may be to see ourselves as building a complete narrative in this age, the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to do nothing more than write the first five pages. Or rather, in Jesus Christ God calls us to offer Him—the Great Author of human life—a space on the tablet of our hearts where He can write the opening act of the story He has conceived for us from all eternity.

This calling involves sacrifice. God calls us to take whatever we have written on the basis of our own inspiration—our own ideals of what a ‘good life story’ consists of—and consign it to the flames. And then He calls us to allow Him to shape a new narrative rooted in the story of His Son. So it was with Abraham and so many of His righteous ones, and we can expect no less.

As Kai and Theresia have proven, however, it is never too late to answer this challenge. It simply takes courage and humility. It takes humility to realize that our best thinking too often leads us to a dead end narrative, worthy only of the slush pile. It takes courage to scrap all those false starts, even our remaining time seems short, and start afresh, allowing the Holy Spirit a free hand to write us a new story. Can we summon that courage and that humility? That is our challenge today.

One of my favorite authors once wrote, “It is not death, but life that is endless.” As I buried Theresia today, along with many others who loved her, I remind myself that my time in this age is not about making a good story with a great ending. It is rather about allowing a loving God to make an extraordinary beginning to a story that will just keep getting better, and never come to an end.


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