Galatians 1:13-24, Acts 22:3-21
The Rev. Tom Herbek
October 25, 2015
In every family, in every community, there are those who tell the sacred stories – of who we are and how we got to where we are today. A part of growing up is to learn the stories of our families. When we are born, we come into the middle of a family story that has been going on for a long time.
Grandparents are great repositories of stories. My grandmother Jordan passed along to me a story that her grandmother had told her. My grandmother’s grandmother lived up in the mountains of Virginia on a farm near a little town called Newport. During the Civil War all of the men were off to war and the women were doing the farming and taking care of the children.
One day when my grandmother’s grandmother was there all alone, a Yankee cavalry detachment rode up. Seeing them coming, she got her gun. “We need your cow”, the officer said to her, with his armed men behind him on their horses. Calmly she replied to him, “I need my cow for milk for my children. You all have weapons and you can certainly kill me and take my cow. But,” she said, pointing her gun at the officer, “I’ll kill you first.”
The officer looked her in the eye, this little, tiny Southern woman. He told his men, “Leave the cow. Let’s go.”
And that is all that I know of my grandmother’s grandmother, but it is enough. This is a sacred story because from it I learned that, within my family, there have been people of great strength who were willing to take a stand. I also learned from this story that women could be just as strong as men in every way, and were not ever to be taken for granted. I learned that, even in times of great turmoil and terrible hardships, you had to continue to do your best, even against overwhelming odds.
The stories of our families and our own stories make us who we are today. Our stories show how we find meaning in life. Our stories help us to define who we are, what life is all about, and who God is.
The philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard once said: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” To truly live life forwards we must learn the stories of family and community and the stories of faith, and we must continue to learn from them, as we search them for meaning- for new meaning that we never saw before.
Everyone has a story. When we share our story with someone, it is one of our greatest gifts to them. And when we do that, if our story has struck a chord in them, then they retell our story in their own way, with the meaning that is most important to them. They may emphasize different aspects of our story than we do, remember things that we feel are unimportant, and leave out details that we feel are vital. And our story then becomes their story.
Paul’s story of his conversion, of how he came to be a part of the Jesus movement, a part of “the way” is such a story. In Galatians, written in about the year 55, 25 years after Jesus’ death, Paul tells his story. And then in Acts, written 40 years after Paul wrote Galatians, we hear Luke’s version of Paul’s story. The two stories have some similarities, but they are not the same story. In fact, there are contradictions between the two. Both stories are true, even if the facts don’t necessarily agree. The truth is not in the facts, but in what the stories mean to the tellers of the stories.
The most important stories for each of us are not the stories of what we have accomplished, but are the stories about our lives, our hopes, our dreams, the wisdom that has come to us as we go through our experiences. Rachel Remen says it in her own special way:
All real stories are true. Sometimes when a patient tells me their story, someone in their family will protest. “But it didn’t happen quite that way, it happened more like this.” Over the years I have come to know that the stories both these people tell me are equally true, equally genuine, and that neither of them may be “correct,” an exact description of the event much as a video camera might have recorded it. Stories are someone’s experience of the events of their life, they are not the events themselves. Most of us experience the same event very differently. We have seen it in our own unique way and the story we tell has more than a bit of ourselves in it. Truth is highly subjective.
The best stories have many meanings; their meaning changes as our capacity to understand and appreciate meaning grows. Revisiting such stories over the years, one wonders how one could not have seen their present meaning all along, all the time unaware of what meaning a future reading may hold. Like the stories themselves, all these meanings are true.
-Kitchen Table Wisdom
Dr. Remen is right. Every time I read the story of Paul, it changes in meaning for me. The same is true of Jacob’s struggle with the angel, Joseph and the special coat, Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, or the Prodigal Son. Until these stories become a part of our story, they don’t mean all that much. Until we begin to understand more of our own story, our wisdom is limited. One more comment by Dr. Remen:
We carry with us every story we have ever heard and every story we have ever lived, filed away at some deep place in our memory. We carry most of those stories unread, as it were, until we have grown the capacity or the readiness to read them. When that happens they may come back to us filled with a previously unsuspected meaning. It is almost as if we have been collecting pieces of a greater wisdom, sometimes over many years without knowing.
Part of our task in our church family is to tell our story, and to listen to each other’s stories – both the individual stories of our fellow travelers in the journey of faith, and the faith stories of the tradition in the Old and the New Testament.
We come into the middle of one another’s stories and we must listen hard, pay attention to the histories and dreams of those who have been around for a long time. And yet, when we do, we often find that their stories resonate with our story, and that, as we hear their stories, we may begin to understand our own story in a new and different way.
Listening to the stories of others is important, is sacred, but it is just as important to tell our own story. Sometimes we learn who we are by listening, and sometimes we learn who we are by telling our own stories. Sometimes in the telling of our stories we realize- as we tell them for the 5th or even the 50th time- something new, something different.
As we change, we may realize that the meaning of our stories changes also. And in the telling of our story to someone new, they may ask a question or make an observation that sheds a whole new light on our story. A good listener can sometimes hear our story in a new way and help us to discern meaning we had never seen before, and it can surprise us.
And the stories of others can also help us. As people tell the stories of their struggles in life, it can become not only healing for them, but it can become healing for us, as well.
These are the sacred stories of life, and it does not matter that all of the facts of these stories are not seen the same way by each person who tells them. There are four gospel stories in the New Testament, each one different. Part of this is because the meaning we take away from our story changes our perspective on it. When you look at it long enough you are able to see it entirely differently, to see things that you had not seen before.
A final comment by Rachel Remen:
After thirty-five years of being a physician and more than forty years of living with my own life-threatening illness, I too am a woman who is full of stories. Stories I have lived and stories I have been told. I have stories about being a daughter, a granddaughter, a friend. Stories about being a patient and stories about being a doctor. Stories other doctors and patients have told me. Stories about my cat. Stories about things I do not understand. Every one of these stories has helped me to live.
I believe we must each create opportunities to hear each other’s stories, to not just hear about our accomplishments, but to hear the more important stories: stories of wisdom and compassion and healing and struggles, of turmoil and peace, of conflict and unity, of hatred and love, of doubt and faith, of suffering and celebration, of all that is important in life. Whether we are new to this church family or have been here all of our lives, there are stories that we have not heard, lives we have not gotten to know, wisdom we have not learned.
So may we hear the stories -of faith, of the Bible, the stories of our fellow journeyers in this church family, and our own stories- in new ways. As a church family, let us create for each other times when we can hear each other’s stories and tell our own stories. May our stories help us to live life fully.
And let us, consciously and deliberately, create opportunities for this to occur. I call on every individual, every committee, every program of our church, to create opportunities and possibilities for this to occur, for the stories of life to be told.
May this be a time that is filled with the sharing of the stories of our lives!