Last night, I heard former child warrior, Ishmael Beah, tell his story about being conscripted into a rebel army as a 13-year-old during the civil wars in Sierra Leone in the early 90s. He was rescued, rehabilitated, and released to live a new life, eventually coming to the United States where he attended college, wrote a book, and now advocates for other young victims of war. His life seems like a harrowing adventure with a Hollywood ending.
But its a story that took years for him to tell. He still has nightmares and suffers from insomnia nearly 15 years later. For a long time after he was safe from the terror of war, he refused to talk about it, letting others sit with their assumptions rather than setting the record straight himself. Eventually, he realized that sharing the details of his own life, no matter how difficult, might possibly keep others from ever having a similar story to tell.
Last night, before he shared his own story, however, he recounted hearing the stories of his family and community back in Sierra Leone before the war. Adults and children would sit around the fire together, the elders passing on a shared history to the next generation. Because this village had limited resources to record such histories, it was encumbent upon the younger generation to get all the facts down in their memories. This required very careful listening. Otherwise, when one of the children was called on to recite a story he had heard, if he got any of the details wrong, he also got a playful whack on the head. The stories were important, and getting the details wrong meant losing the purpose of the story. Without a purpose, the story is no longer worth telling.
Maybe because we receive so many competing messages in our lives, or maybe because we don’t sit around the fire with our elders much, we are not always such careful listeners to each others stories. Ironically, with more ways than ever to tell our stories to each other, through blogs, social networking sites, text messages, etc., we’re often too distracted to really hear. The world is going too fast to sit around and pass on shared history. But if we aren’t listening to each others stories carefully enough to get the details right, might we miss the purpose?
What IS the purpose of our stories? Why is it that we feel so compelled to share them? According to Kathleen Norris, in The Cloister Walk, telling our stories is the way we deal with crisis, listening to the stories of others is a way to minister grace, and the whole exchange is really nothing more than a way to worship the Author of the story.
Here’s how Norris describes a typical Sunday morning at her small church on the plains of South Dakota:
Our worship sometimes goes into a kind of suspended animation, as people speak in great detail about the medical condition of their friends or relatives. We wince; we squirm; we sigh; and it’s good for us. Moments like this are when the congregation is reminded of something that all pastors know; that listening is often the major part of ministry, that people in crisis need to tell their story, from beginning to end, and the best thing–often the only thing–that you can do is sit there and take it in. And we do that pretty well. I sometimes feel that those moments are the heart of our worship.
You all have been ministering to me so faithfully by listening to this story of mine; I pray that I am such a careful listener, such a caring minister. And may Jesus be honored through it all.