We all love a good story. Stories come naturally to humans because we think in stories, our memory is stored in narrative form, we make sense of the world by incorporating our experiences into previously experienced stories. We are hardwired to want to become part of stories that transform our lives for the better, and equally hardwired to reject stories that do not seem to fit previously experienced storylines.
Being a person means having a story. Leonard Sweet writes in From Tablet to Table, “Every person is a story wrapped in skin. Moreover, everyone lives multistoried lives; as our lives intersect, so do our stories, and new stories splinter out from each encounter.” Inside of every story-carrying person lives a search for meaning. Stories help navigate the big narrative questions of life “Who am I?”, “What is going on here?”, and “Where am I going?” Without story, we have no identity. Just think of the tragic examples of people who have lost portions or all their memories…no backstory, no identity.
Our stories are holy and worthy of being shared. We might not use overtly spiritual language when describing our traffic-laden commutes. We might not draw upon theological adjectives to describe the day we met our spouse. Yet our stories are holy because, when told honestly, our stories reflect the twists and turns and complexities of a life in pursuit of meaning.
We need well-told stories as stories help us understand and process our world. We need the stories of our neighbors, co-workers, families, friends, and church members. Coming from similar contexts, their stories may seem similar to ours. We can relate to them faster, and more easily navigate their meaning. We also need stories that come from outside our immediate context to remind us of different experiences. Stories of hope also encourage us to keep pursuing the good. We need to find ways to identify and participate in the unfolding foundational story of God at work in Jesus and the Holy Spirit everywhere in the world.
When we share our stories, and when we listen attentively and lovingly to the stories of others, we are inviting one another to become participants in our ongoing narratives. No longer are we simply judgmental voyeurs into the lives of others but instead we become active characters in an unfolding drama.
I think one of the most beautiful outcomes of pandemically-forced social isolation has been the reminder that not everyone’s story is the same. An African American story is not the same as an Anglo American story. An immigrant story is different than a generationally-local story. A female narrative differs from a male narrative. Yet they are all holy, because they are all stories of someone made in the image of God.
One of the most precious acts of grace you can bestow on another is to actively listen to and validate their story. Grace is also about reciprocity. What you have received you also share in return. Telling your story begins to close the gaps between people. The divine dance between storytelling and listening, hearing and speaking, loving and being loved is the beginning of creating a new narrative together.
On the road to Emmaus, in Luke 24, two downhearted Jesus followers are walking home after the worst Passover experience of their lives. They had heard the women proclaim the hope of an empty tomb, but they were uncertain. So, they go home discussing the weekend and their lost hope. Along the way Jesus comes alongside them and asks, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They respond by telling a story of hope and pain. And Jesus just listens to them until they have completely talked themselves out. When they can say no more, Jesus invites them into a new story, rooted in the scriptures and embodied by resurrection. Grace of reciprocity. Listening and storytelling.
Jesus spends the evening meal with them. The disciples finally recognize Jesus after he takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread at dinner. Filled with a new story to tell, they rush back to their companions in Jerusalem to listen how Jesus had appeared to Peter and to tell how Jesus was with them along the road and at the table.
My hope and prayer as we continue to do the hard work of social isolation, racial equality, economic recovery, political engagement, and religious practices is that we do so with a posture of grace filled storytelling and listening. That we do not simply dismiss the stories of others because they are not fit our stories, just as the Emmaus road disciples dismissed the women from the tomb story because it didn’t fit.
If we can genuinely tell and listen to stories, we might just discover Jesus is walking with us, just as he did with those Emmaus disciples. And if we go the extra mile and have a meal with our fellow storytellers, we just might recognize Jesus taking, blessing, breaking, and giving in our midst inviting us into something altogether new.