Several years ago, while attending a conference, I heard the theme of “story” surface again and again. What is your story? Who knows your story? What parts of the story do you share with others, and what parts do you keep hidden?
Being one who has always loved a good story, I was quickly captivated.
We all have a story. We all have a story that we want to be heard and acknowledged, a story of ups and downs that includes extremes of raw suffering and mountaintops of overwhelming joy. “Our narrative,” said the speaker, “like our family, is always in the room with us, wherever we go, whatever we do.” It is the legend to our life’s map – it is constantly interpreting what goes on around us. “Tell me your story, and I will tell you your theology” – so strongly is our understanding of God and the world shaped by our experiences.
But there are tensions in the telling that complicate the simple beauty of sharing our story. For one, it may not always be safe to tell our story:
The first danger is that parts of your story will overshadow how people see you. If you have ever known anyone struggling with a serious illness like cancer, it can be difficult to say “I have cancer,” when the word suddenly transforms you into an object of pity, a sad case, and a prayer concern, more than a person and an equal.
Second, we can be hurt in sharing our story when others betray our confidences, or exploit our weaknesses. There is a part of us that is repulsed when we see others’ vulnerability, because it points to a feeling of helplessness that we ourselves loathe. It is not uncommon to experience a cold or cruel response from others when we try to bare our open wounds.
Third and most commonly we simply cannot get others to hear our story. We try to tell our families, we try to tell our spouses and friends, but everyone is so busy trying to tell their own story, that they are unable to hear ours. We look to them to hear us, to understand us, to acknowledge what we have been through, but they are not always able to do this. We feel let down and angry. We begin to talk over each other, we turn up the volume, we begin to interrupt and tune out others as we focus on how to make sure our story is heard – if someone would just listen!
Jesus told a lot of stories. Stories that confused people and created more questions than they answered, but he also listened. When people crossed his path they came away knowing that he knew where they had come from and what they had faced. Assured that their story had been heard and cherished, they were free to begin listening and loving in ways that wrote their narratives in completely new directions.
I am reminded again and again that there is someone who does hear my story, who longs to know more, and who cries and celebrates with me at ever plot twist. And just as I have found a God who hears, I too am called to the sacred practice of listening.
We all have a story to tell, but it does not end there. On the winding dirt road of our narrative there will be wandering, wilderness, loneliness and crucifixion, but we remain part of a larger story that always ends in resurrection and new life.
The Rev. Abbie Huff is a Presbyterian pastor serving as a missionary working with the Nyack Project in Nyack, NY.