Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tell Me That Story

I feel bad every time I do it…but I keep doing it.  I ask a question that frequently makes the eyes of the one to whom I am speaking well up with tears.  It usually happens in a small group discussion or a one-on-one conversation.  But someone will say something that lets me know there is a larger story behind a statement that is offered almost as an aside; not central to whatever else it is they are saying.  The statements I’m talking about sound like…

-          …that’s when I started praying again…
-          …that’s when I lost all my faith in God…
-          …that’s when I stopped worrying about whether God loved me enough…
-          …that’s one of the moments I heard God’s voice say…

When I hear a statement similar to these, I find a way to ask, “Can you tell me that story?”  And, it rarely fails.  Whatever follows that question is usually far more interesting and reveals far more of that person’s faith than whatever story they were relating or concept  they were explaining prior to its asking.

But, I haven’t always asked the question.  For years, I was more interested in ideas, concepts and theories than stories.  Even when someone shared their story, I could quickly identify and analyze the layers of abstract concepts found within it.  And, like all self-aware pastors and counselors, I had a very good excuse as to why abstract theological categories drew more of my attention than the messy, fleshy, non-linear stories that describe our lives: I was trained so to do. 

It’s not just pastors and counselors, though, is it?  There’s a certain comfort zone established by discussing doctrine and categories of orthodoxy instead of entering the details of another’s life story.  The safety found within that comfort zone so easily insulates us from their story.  Without it, I might get sucked into that story as well; I might realize that story establishes a deeper relationship than I’m accustomed to having with others.  No, it’s safer to stay in the realm of the ideas about life and faith rather than stories of life and faith.  Ideas and doctrinal categories rarely make my eyes well up.

When I said earlier that I was trained to do this, you probably thought I was referring to my seminary years.  Well, in a way, yes.  But, I had a good head start handed to me in growing up in a tradition that placed little value on what some called testimonies.  So, we learned to relate to one another’s ideas rather than our stories.

But the blessing of hearing that story from another – the blessing of sharing that story with another – is simply this: a relationship that transcends our ideas.  When someone whose story I know and respect and who knows and respects mine has an idea or doctrine with which I virulently disagree, it is our mutual respect for our stories that allows the relationship to continue.   Imagine a congregation – a local church – a denomination – a Christian community whose differences in ideas about doctrine and orthodoxy are transcended by the deep, rich respect for one another’s stories.  Sure, it takes more time…and boundaries would be less crucial than commonalities.  We’d spend less time looking over other’s shoulders to see who they’re reading and whether or not their ideas suit us.  We’d spend more time looking one another in our tear-filled eyes saying, “Tell me that story…”


  1. Jon, with my work on Job, I've been thinking about exactly this divide--between actual stories and the way we categorize those stories. Job's friends could say, with total certainty and no sense of irony or blame, that God wouldn't punish a righteous person and that the just are rewarded. They were so deeply trained by and convinced of those categories that they couldn't SEE that their friend's experience said otherwise.

    And I agree with what you said. To have to grapple with someone else's actual experience calls something out of us that we aren't always willing to give. Attention, moving out of our comfort zone, greater intimacy, as you say, and having to re-examine our understanding of the way things are. It's just simpler if we stick with the pleasantries rather than face the hard stories of real life.

    Walter Brueggemann, in his book on the Psalms, talks about our discomfort with the lament psalms in these same terms. We avoid them, he says, out of a kind of "wishful optimism" that helps us avoid facing the harder stories.

    Anyway, your post struck a nerve. Thanks for your words.

  2. Stories are definitely a lot messier than theories and ideas. Life experiences show that there are rarely black and white sides but instead a whole spectrum of gray.

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