What is Your Story?
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
July 29, 2018
There we were in West Virginia on the mission trip, hot and sweaty after finishing a day of hard work cutting and screwing OBX boards, traveling over a steep winding road up over the mountain in Steve Mellon’s van, thirsty for cold water, but mostly tired and resting my eyes. Steve asked me, “So, Donna, how do you want your children to remember you? What story do you want them to tell after you are gone?” Wow! That woke me up. It’s a hard question. It’s a good question. It’s a question that he as a newspaper reporter asks a lot. Because he knows that It’s stories that helps us connect as human beings. As a Pastor, I know that it’s stories that help us heal and connect us to God.
The story in the Gospel lesson for today is a bizarre one. The disciples have just barely survived a night at sea in a storm and they are anxious to get on solid ground and move on. Just as they get off the boat on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, a mad man comes out of the tombs. He has chains and shackles hanging from his limbs, he is bruised and broken, tattered and troubled. The disciples are no doubt trying to keep this man away from Jesus and stick to their schedule. But Jesus declares, “Come out of him, you unclean spirit!” The demon-possessed man cries out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus?” The mad man assumes he is in for a scolding or a shaming or a shunning (that’s all he ever gets from people). Instead, Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” In other words, “What is your story? Who are you? And how did you come to this place? Why are you alone and tortured? What is causing you pain? What gives you life? What is your story? I am listening.
He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” In other words, I am made up of many different parts--some good; some bad. Different parts of my story--some joys, some sorrows. There are many of us who have a story to tell, but no one to listen. Jesus listened that day by the Sea, he took the time and listened to this man’s story. And in so doing, Jesus released him from his burdens, set him free from his demons, helped him to heal and restored him to new life.
As Steve and I drove up and down the mountain, we talked about the power of stories--ours and others. By “story” we don’t mean “something made up to make a bad situation look good.” Rather, we’re talking about accounts that are deeply true and so engaging that listeners feel a deep connection and concern. “Stories define us. To know someone well is to know her story—the experiences that have shaped her, the trials and turning points that have tested him. When we want someone to know us, we share stories of our childhoods, our families, our school years, our first loves, our deep hurts, our healings and our hopes, what gives our lives meaning. (“What’s Your Story?” in the Harvard Business Review by Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback).
In this time of alternative facts, in this post-truth era, in this unsettling time in which we are divided between real and fake news outlets, seldom is story so needed. Telling a compelling story to coworkers, neighbors, friends, family, even strangers, takes down the wall of defenses. A story told honestly from the heart has the power to connect us as human beings across political and religious, racial and ethnic divides.
Steve and others at the Pitts Post Gazette help us to hear peoples’ stories:
Jim VanSickle of Coraopolis told his story to a grand jury. He testified how his trusted priest and high school English teacher mounted a humiliating, life-altering assault on his teenage body and innocence. For two years, survivors of sexual assault told similar stories to the grand jury, which convened in Pittsburgh and reviewed decades of sexual abuse in the diocese. (7-15-18). By telling his story, and people hearing his story, Jim spoke truth and challenged an abusive power. Now, Jim can now begin to heal. And so many others who have been hurt can be set free from their abuse. Stories have healing power to connect us as human beings across divides.
Michelle Kenney of Pittsburgh told her story to a group gathered to mourn the death of her 17-year old son Antwon Rose. She told the story of her son who was an honors student and had been accepted at Indiana University of PA; a boy who played saxophone in his high school jazz band; a boy who wrote a poem for honors English class about being black in America called “I’m not what you think.” The story of Antwon Rose is more than just another shooting; it is the story of a precious life lost; it is the story that leaves us asking ‘why?’ By telling his story, and people hearing his story, Michelle spoke truth and challenged an unjust power. Now, Michelle can begin to heal. And so many others who have been hurt can be set free from their pain. Stories have healing power to connect us as human beings across divides.
So, what is your story? What are your hurts and heartaches and hopes? What are your wounds and your worries and wonders? What are your sorrows and successes and songs?
We all have a story to tell. And we all need someone to listen to our story. Jesus loves to hear our stories. And Jesus loves to turn our stories into healing balm for us and for others. So tell your stories. Stories have healing power to connect us as human beings across divides and connect us to God.
In West Virginia, Steve and I had a site supervisor, a retired man named Chassie. He was quiet--didn’t talk much just helped us cut and hang boards and encouraged us. I asked him work-oriented questions “What do we do? How do we fix this?” By day 3, I finally got up the courage to ask the more important question: “Chassie, what is your story?” He shared a heart-wrenching story about his sister being brutally murdered a few years ago. He talked and talked and I just listened. The next day he brought me the newspapers reporting the facts of the murder and the corrupt cover-up. I asked him, “how did you get through this horrible tragedy?” He admitted that it is hard. But, he has a strong faith and is involved with his church, where he volunteers with Pastor Cab and the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Program, in helping fix up mobile homes in the community. Chassie shared his heart-break, his grief, and his hope to see his sister again in heaven. By telling his story, Chassie can begin to heal. Stories have healing power to connect us as human beings across divides.
At the end of the Gospel text, Jesus tells the man who was healed: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown.” And he went away and began to proclaim how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
So, back to Steve’s good question: How do you want your children to remember you after you are gone? How do you want them to tell your story? Last Sunday, I left church and went to the house of Sally Davis. Her husband Chuck had died that morning and her family members, including her daughter Deb Sadowski, were gathered together. I asked them to tell me about their husband, father, grandfather. They didn’t tell me the facts of how tall he was, where he worked, or how he voted. They told me his story--the story of his life, full of ups and downs, losses and laughs. The little things--like a game of tickle monster, grilling in the rain, and that in spite of his alzheimers, he always remembered his wife of 59 years--made big impressions on them. That was what they remembered most. That was how they told his story.
Stories have healing power to connect us as human beings across divides. Even the divide of heaven and earth. After they shared their stories of Chuck in the memorial service, I told the story of Jesus. The story of the resurrection from the dead. The story of Jesus’ love through which our hearts are healed and our souls are saved. The story of God’s promise: in life and in death, we belong to God. It’s a good story. It’s a great story. It’s the greatest story ever told. So, go tell it. Tell it and re-tell it. Let it change your life, and those around you, for the good.
Thanks be to God.