Stories: An Evangelical Shift
Stories. They’re a pretty big deal. Donald Miller has been preaching this simple truth for the past several years. Of course, he didn’t come up with it. Cultures around the world throughout history have sat around fires telling stories – ancient stories, familial stories, personal stories. In fact, a whole lot of teachings Jesus gave to his followers were told through stories.
No, Donald Miller didn’t come up with it, but he’s certainly helped many of us Evangelicals see the light in the importance of stories – good stories: the cosmic story of redemption that God is telling, and the stories of suffering, hope and redemption we find in our own lives.
The Christian Community Development Association’s (CCDA) recent annual conference capitalized on this message – there are stories to tell – individual stories that matter. Stories are central to the work of Reconciliation – the conference’s theme. Stories matter to God, and they should matter to us. Christian Community Development workers converged on the Twin Cities to talk about Reconciliation. Richard Twiss emphasized the often untold stories of his people (Native Americans). He confronted us, “You don’t care about us.”
And it’s true, in all of our work for justice, we don’t talk much about Native Americans except for the occasional example of our country’s historical sins. Few of us go to hear the stories of Native Americans and the injustices they continue to face today.
Lynne Hybels explained that it was through spending time with Palestinians and hearing their stories, that her perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began to change. Christian Palestinian Sami Awad shared how, as a young man, he hated Jews – the people who occupied his land and killed his grandfather. But it was when he went to Auschwitz and learned the story of the Jews that he began to love them.
There is a shift taking place among Evangelicals. There was a time – not so long ago – when we had it all figured out. Our theologies were tidy. Our absolute truth confirmed. Our assumptions were facts. Our beliefs were founded on the Word of God. And then. And then we went out into the world and started hearing people’s stories. Their stories challenged our assumptions. Their experiences of the world made us hesitant to use that word “absolute.” Their cultures challenged our own cultural interpretations of Scripture.
For me, like Lynne, it was through meeting a Palestinian Christian that I began to realize that maybe – just maybe – I didn’t have it all figured out (Woah, right?). And what we find, as we become friends with others and hear their stories – is that their stories begin to matter to us. We know, too, they matter to God.
My dad had his own assumptions about immigration. But when he became friends with a Ugandan woman who was at the mercy of a very broken U.S. immigration system that works against foreigners, he started to care about immigration reform.
Some spend time in slums in Kenya and find themselves committing their lives to poverty relief. Others hear the stories of girls enslaved in brothels, lie awake at night weeping, rising the next day to advocate for the oppressed.
Not only do people’s stories change our perspectives and assumptions, they change the course of our lives. They are powerful. They are beautiful. They are important. And when our stories are heard and valued, our humanity is affirmed. Our identity as God’s beloved is reinforced.
Wounds of Ignored Stories
On the flip side, when our stories are ignored we find our dignity affronted, our personhood felt unimportant. There is a wounding that occurs.
I spend a lot of time talking about the poor and the oppressed. I used to live in Nepal, serving among widows and abandoned girls. I’ve spent the past 3 years advocating for children suffering from severe hunger and malnutrition. There have been times in conversation with other Evangelicals when my expressed longing for a more just and peaceful world is met with a curt, Where is God in that? They want to know, Are you also “sharing the gospel” with them? by which they mean “converting them to Christianity,” or “promoting a personal relationship with their Savior.”
I find it frustrating.
It’s not the theology or worldview that I find frustrating. It’s my perception that in their redirection of this stirring in my soul, they ignore my story. I know I’m only 27 years old, and I certainly have a lot to learn, but I’ve also thought a lot about this stuff – about poverty and injustice, about God and God’s plan for the world, about what Jesus meant when he spoke of good news to the poor and freedom for the oppressed.
And I haven’t just sat in a classroom pondering the meaning of life – though I’ve done that too. I’ve walked through red light districts in Kolkata and Bangkok and slept with friends in slums in Kathmandu. I’ve walked past – thousands of times – children, men and women who lack sufficient homes and food and clean water; I’ve offered them too little. I have agonized. I have wept. I have tried to understand who God is and how God interacts with this world and what God has to say about the suffering and brokenness all around us.
I want to respond to those who confront my theology, We can talk about orthodoxy, and wrestle with hard questions about how we should live as people who believe in a loving Creator. But please – I beg you – listen to my story. Give me 3 hours over a cup of tea to tell you about the experiences that have shaped my worldview before you try to correct it.
This, really, is a small thing. While it involves what I care deeply about and have invested my life in, it is not my identity being attacked. Even so, small wounds pop up when people seem to confront, and at times reject, without hearing my story.
It’s getting clearer: stories are important. Vitally important. As we learn each others’ stories, we know each other. We can grow to love each other. And in that – we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. We also suffer with those who suffer. This story-sharing has spurred the evangelical community to care – about immigrants and people who are hungry or without homes. It has moved us to fight slavery and stand up for the oppressed. We are even learning that our liberation is bound up with theirs. This is a beautiful thing.
The Unwelcome Story
And yet. And yet there is one group whose stories we will not tell. Their stories we will not even hear. Because it’s too controversial. The issue is too divisive. For some in high places, the risk of hearing and telling the stories is too dangerous. You know what I’m talking about.
Gay. Lesbian. Bisexual. Transgender. (GLBT.)
It’s a big issue. And that is the problem. For most of us, it is simply an issue. As evangelicals we talk about this issue of “homosexuality” and we successfully keep it completely disconnected from people – real people with real stories. Real people who – more than likely – have been seriously wounded by the church; people who have agonized over their sexuality. Andrew Marin shares in his book, Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community, that he walked into Boystown, Chicago and heard the stories of people who are gay. He writes,
The majority of GLBT people whom I have met over my nine years of being immersed in their community-believers and nonbelievers, black and white, men and women-have told me the same thing: when they first realized their same-sex thoughts and attractions they started to pray that God would take those unwanted feelings away.
So, to begin, let’s get beyond issues to people – people and their stories. Gay. Lesbian. Bisexual. Transgender. People. They are people. Deeply loved by God.
And yet we continue to respond as if the most loving thing we can do is quote a few Bible verses and pray they see the light. We do our duty as a Christian to protect the institution of marriage. We take a stand on the issue, and ignore their stories.
I wonder if gay people feel a similar stir – please, I beg you, just listen to my story. Do you think I have not thought this through? Do you not think I have agonized over this? Before you quote a verse to redirect my life, listen to my story. It’s important.
I think it’s time we as an evangelical community begin to hash through this messy, painful, wound-filled elephant in the room. We must not start with doctrinal statements. We must start by hearing the stories of those who are gay.
I could end it right there. That would be safer. But I feel I must take this step.
In less than a month my state will vote on whether or not to define – in the constitution – a marriage between one man and one woman (something gay people already don’t have the right to). And for the most part, my tribe of evangelicals will go to the polls with their lime green Vote Yes t-shirts, mumble some words about abomination, and tell people who are gay – I am not interested in you. I am not interested in your story. We have it figured out, and your life does not line up. Let us help you redirect your misguided life by writing what’s best for you into our state constitution.
Minnesota’s Marriage Amendment in November is not helpful. It is a line in the sand on an issue filled with broken people on all sides. It is not a conversation, and it certainly does not respect the agonizing, wound-filled, painful and redemptive stories of our brothers and sisters who are gay.
Instead of that, I ask that we vote No.
And then with humility, we share with the gay community that “yes – this is a hard issue for us. We believe the Bible is the Word of God and holds authority in our lives. And as we’ve told you – okay, shouted at you – it says some pretty negative things about homosexuality. But it also tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. We know that we long to tell our stories and have them truly heard. To love you as ourselves, we must listen to your stories and really hear you. We choose love over this amendment. We choose to enter the messiness of relationship rather than fail to affirm your dignity and humanity.”
We are learning, thank God, how vital story is to all of life. And we’re learning to tell really great stories. We’re learning to listen too. Are we going to continue to pick this one group of people and tell them, your stories don’t count to us? We can do better. It’s time we start.