I came across a memoir the other day, one that has reached the bestseller list. It’s the story of a man who had a sex change and is now a woman. When she told her [conservative, Lutheran] mother about her decision, back before she had started the process, her mother said, through tears: “It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.”
Those words have haunted me the last few days. You know how sometimes you mull over something way deep in your gut (or maybe it’s your toes) for a long time and then suddenly somebody summarizes your entire thought process in one sentence and you’re left speechless. That’s it. That’s what I was reaching for. And why did it take me so long to get here?
My dad loves to say that the most interesting story in the world is how a person comes to know Jesus. I was raised on a veritable Sunday brunch of conversion stories and I loved them. I loved them all. Some were terribly exciting and many not so much, but every single one was different. Every single one.
I think I loved them so much because when I heard someone’s story they suddenly became a whole new person to me. A person with history – history that I wasn’t a part of until our paths came to intersect and I got to experience all over again that God was just that much bigger.
Everyone has a story. Correction: Everyone is a story. A story that doesn’t just contain a conversion to Christ – and maybe doesn’t contain that at all.
When I meet someone new my first instinct is, “Well, nice to meet you, person. Here is my system and here are my categories. Let’s have a brief conversation and then I will inform you where you will fit.”
As if a human being is merely a vat. A vat that contains the decisions they make, the opinions they hold and, sometimes, the events that happen to them. There you are, the sum total of your decisions and opinions. It’s much easier that way, thank you very much. I know what to think of you. I know where you fit in my own neat categories and I’m ready to move on to the next individual, filling up my trophy cabinet with “non-Christian friends,” “Catholic friends,” “hipster friends,” “Democrat friends,” “public school friends,” “poor friends” ….
There’s a problem here. And the problem is with me. It’s nice and tidy to think of you like this, but I don’t want you to think of me this way. When I tell you where I worship I want to explain why and how I got where I am. When I tell you how I vote I want to add a million caveats. When I explain my perspective on education I hasten to add that my opinions are still unformed in so many areas.
The caveats, the explanations – these have to be included because I’m not just the sum of my opinions and decisions. I am a story. Things have happened to me and I have had experiences and made mistakes that are only mine – only mine. The triumphs and the falls; the excruciating hard work to believe God is who He says He is; the brilliant resolutions; the heartbreak, the joy, the despair, the fear, the light. My heart alone holds it all.
Well, not only mine. Jesus knows it too. And there’s the rub.
How does He do it? And why? Why didn’t He create a whole bunch of people who would fit in the “Protestant” category and make them all alike? And then a number to fit in the “Libertarian” category. It would have made it all a lot easier. We could have sized each other up quite quickly, learned how to co-exist and stuck quite nicely to our own category.
I am not the sum total of my opinions or my decisions or even the events of my life. My story is completely unique. It is not your story. Your story is not mine.
But there’s a problem. Hearing your story makes me vulnerable. Telling you mine is even worse. I would rather present myself as a vat of opinions because then I get to appear like I have it all together – like I am pretty near close to having this thing called life all figured out. If I let my guard down – if I let you see that I am only a story, unfinished, partially written, a mix of muck and sweet – then I don’t get to be perfect anymore. Suddenly I’m just a person – just another story that God is writing, just another girl who desperately needs to be loved and who really doesn’t do a great job at loving.
“To lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished.” (Frederick Buechner)
I want to learn how to own my story. To see it for what it actually is: life lived, lessons learned (sometimes), people loved (sort of), experiences gained (some good, some bad), dreams (fulfilled and shattered). And, through it all, a Savior whose pursuing, determined love continues to demand that I live with Him, walk with Him and trust Him.
Next time you hear me rattle off a quick, defensive soundbite you can be sure I’m struggling much further down to figure out who I am and who God made me to be. Maybe if I can own my story then I won’t be so afraid to hear yours.
“To be a witness means to offer your own faith experience and to make your doubts and hopes, failures and successes, loneliness and woundedness, available to others as a context in which they can struggle with their own humanness and quest for meaning.” (Henri Nouwen)
I guess it’s a whole lot more complicated to see a person as a story. It means I don’t get to judge – not really – because I won’t fully understand until I hear your story. And I get this sense, all the way down in my toes (or maybe it’s my gut), that once I have heard your story I won’t want to judge anymore. Instead I’ll probably ask for a great privilege – to be a part of your story and to be your witness.