Tell Me Your Story

I am a hypocrite.  Although I have stood on my soapbox pointing out injustices and crying out for equity, I am a prejudiced person.  I’m racist. I’m classist. I’m sexist.  And that’s only the beginning of it.  I’ll judge a person based on one Facebook status.  I’ll incriminate a whole group of people for their stance on whether they think athletes should stand for the National Anthem or not. I’ll sort you into a group so fast, it’ll make your head spin.

It’s embarrassing, actually.  I’ve lived my professional life encouraging students to write narratives – to tell their stories of defining life moments — their parents’ divorce, the death of a sibling, a betrayal of friendship, a proclamation of love. These stories cross all lines of race, class, gender, political affiliation, music preference, and lifestyle choice.  Our stories reveal our humanity; they bind us to one another.

In my classroom I have made space for students to laugh with one another, cry with one another, challenge one another, and embrace one another.  I, too, have laughed, cried, challenged, and embraced.  I have revealed my humanity to an audience of twenty or so students at a time.  I have met and loved kids who are rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Arabic, Christian, atheist, Jewish, Hindu, male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, extroverted, introverted, funny, serious,…

It’s not hard to love someone – anyone – once you have heard his or her story.  But you’ve got to take the risk of getting close enough to hear their story.  That’s the challenge for me, because I’m prejudiced.  Before I even hear your voice I have made all kinds of assumptions about you.  I have looked at your hair, your clothing, your skin color, and your car. I have seen who you hang out with, what you share on Facebook, and what you retweet on Twitter. I know who you are, I think to myself.  You are ‘that kind’ of person.  I sort you into a clump and make assumptions about you before I have even asked you one question.

Last week I returned to a job that I left about two and a half years ago.  Since I left, my former supervisor, who I loved, had to leave her position for health reasons.  I had had a couple interactions with the woman who took her place, but before I had even worked with her one day, I had decided that since she wasn’t my previous supervisor she would be not as amazing, not as on top of things. I pre-judged her.  The other day, for the last hour of a two-day-long training, the new supervisor partnered with me for some role-playing activities, and I got my first up-close glance at her personality and heard the first few lines of her story.  My prejudices were confirmed but they were also dashed – She isn’t, actually, exactly like my previous supervisor; rather, she has her own unique personality and gifts. (Shocking, I know.)  I wasn’t anticipating laughing out loud with my new supervisor as she pretended to be a rather precocious nine-year old to my role of reading instructor, but there we were – giggling like close friends lost in make-believe.

Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness, “People are hard to hate close up.  Move in.” From a distance, even the length of my arm, I can keep you handily sorted into a category – liberal, conservative, educated, ignorant, friend, or foe.  However, if I take the chance to ask you, “what’s your story,” everything can change.  My beliefs can be challenged, my assumptions destroyed, my heart opened.

Years ago I picked up my first Jodi Picoult book; I believe it was My Sister’s Keeper. It’s the story of a girl who was conceived by her parents in the hope that she would be a donor match for her critically ill older sibling.  Gasp!  One glance at that premise and I formed an opinion.  How could they?  What kind of parents….? However, Picoult, I soon learned, is a master at using narrative to bring her readers in close to see issues in their complexity – issues that most of us find ourselves firmly positioned on – euthanasia, gun violence, infidelity, and the like.  She weaves her narratives, often from multiple points of view, to expose these issues as more than dichotomies.  She can move me from my Gasp! How could they? to a Wow! I can’t even imagine what kind of love that is! in 400 pages or less!

Real-life stories are no different from fictional narratives – they are full of complexity and factors that don’t appear on the surface. If I judge someone based on her skin color, clothing, language choices, or friends, I am missing out!  I am missing her story – all the characters and plot twists that have led her to today.  Not only that, I am diminishing her humanity – I am relegating her to a category rather than appreciating her individuality. Most importantly, I am denying the connectedness that she and I share as members of humanity – children of the Creator.

On Sunday (Jan 7, 2018), our pastor, Gabe Kasper, spoke about the necessity for genuine relationships in the church (read or listen to the full-text here).  He said that genuine relationships are characterized by vulnerability, empathy, love, and the willing of good for the other person.  Often we don’t enter into such relationships because 1) we are afraid of getting close to people, and 2) we don’t want to take the time.  However, if we are willing to take the risk to move in just a little closer, to ask others to tell us a little piece of their story, everything — EVERYTHING – can change.  Story has the power to transform us – our understandings, our experience of life, and our relationships. Imagine the impact of a couple hundred people who have chosen to be vulnerable, empathetic, loving, and supportive of one another. Intentionally and consistently. What ripple effect might that have?

Are we willing to, knowing better, do better.  Are we willing to call out our prejudices and stereotypes?  Are we willing to set those aside, move in a little closer, and take the time to hear the stories of people who may not be just like us?

Consider this: Because I am a 51 year old white woman who has been a teacher and a pastor’s wife, you may draw some assumptions about me.  You might be pre-disposed to believe certain things  – that I’m Christian, heterosexual, pro-life, Republican, and financially secure. You might believe that my family is immune from tragedies such as chronic illness, sexual assault, alcoholism, eating disorders, family conflict, depression, or anxiety.  Some of your assumptions may be right; some would certainly be wrong.  How will you know which is which? You will have to lean in and listen to my story.

Some of the things you learn about me might be confusing.  They might challenge you.  You might not agree with me.  You might choose to walk beside me anyway, and in that walking, I might learn some things about you that are confusing and that challenge me.  I picture us taking lots of long walks together, learning about one another and growing together.

I am picturing that if we are willing to take the chance to move in close and learn the stories of those who we might have previously sorted into categories, our assumptions will be destroyed, and we will never be the same again.

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.


Mutual Friends

I have underestimated the power of friendship.  If I sit and think about all the people I have loved or been loved by over the years, I have to admit that I have not been a very good friend.  I mean I have had the kind of friends who drive hours just to meet me for lunch.  I have had the kind of friends who drop what they are doing to stay with my kids for the weekend.  I have had the kind of friends who, after having not heard from me for months, will pick up the phone and continue a conversation as though it was started five minutes ago.  But I’ve not always been that kind of friend.

Rather, I’m sometimes the friend who screens calls, is too busy to grab coffee, and who leaves church during the last song just so I can avoid talking after the service.  Sigh.  I can call it introversion if I want, but really, I’m just not always a great friend.

So, before I get bogged down in guilt and regret, let me share with you what I’ve learned from some of my friends in the past week.

I meet with a group of gals one morning every other week. We call ourselves The Breakfast Club. We are reading through a book together.  We gather to share insights, to pray, to eat, and to encourage one another. Last week, I was headed to this group with an overwhelming emotional burden.  I knew we were supposed to discuss chapter 4 of our book, but I didn’t even take the book with me. Instead, I hijacked the study, shared my burden, and asked the others to just sit with me in my grief.  They sandwiched me between them on the couch, heard the story, and wept with me.

Over the weekend, I gathered with 120 other pastors’ wives from across the state of Michigan. Most of us only see each other once a year, but this sisterhood is strong. We come from diverse backgrounds, we are in different stages of life, and we have a variety of experiences,  but for one weekend a year we laugh together, eat together, sing together, and study together.  In the midst that community experience, sisters share stories. They bear one another’s burdens.  They encourage one another.

Yesterday, on my fourteenth day of this autoimmune flare, feeling the need for some support from others who could relate, I posted on a Facebook group for those who suffer with psoriatic arthritis. I asked a question.  Just one question.  Within moments the responses started.  In the last twenty-four hours, twelve women have responded with information, encouragement, and shared experiences.  Several of these women have been continuing the conversation with me.  I picture us all in our beds or on our couches, feet propped, joints iced or heated, phones in hand, gathering strength from one another. I’m in Michigan, another is in New Jersey;  one is in Australia, another is in the state of Washington.  We are different ages and surely have different personalities, political bents, and religious beliefs.  We have never met or heard of each other before yesterday, but we are buoyed by one another.

When I was in college, I took a couple of semesters of sign language, and still, a hundred years later, some of the signs stick in my head.  One, in particular, is the sign for ‘friend’. Like other signs, the sign for ‘friend’ requires movement.  One index finger is hooked over the other —  a weight depending on the other finger to hold it.  The fingers then change places.  Each finger takes a turn bearing the weight of the other.  I need this visual from time to time.  Too often I am willing to be the top finger, the one that depends on the other to hold me up.  Or, I clench my fingers into a fist, determining that I will rely on no one, thank you very much.  I forget the beauty in the mutuality of friendship.

Yesterday, I opened the mail to find a thank you note from one of my breakfast club friends.  She thanked me for sharing my burden with her last week. She said, “thank you for inviting us to cry with you.”  I was overwhelmed by her thoughtfulness.  Instead of allowing me to feel like I had used the group for my benefit, she implied that my request for support had been a blessing.

That’s how friendship works, isn’t it?  We, sometimes without even knowing it, support and are supported by one another.  And, in this mutuality, we are encouraged. We are reminded that we are not alone.

It takes some risk to invite someone into your life, to allow them to see your vulnerability, your cares, your weakness.  But be encouraged; in the sharing, in the asking, you are inviting a response — a response that builds a bond of friendship.  And let’s be honest, life is much better because of our friends.

Galatians 6:2

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.